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Vietnam War Study Raises Concerns About Veterans' Mental Health


A new study of veterans from the Vietnam War has troubling implications for troops who have fought much more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. The study suggests that while it's been 40 years since the Vietnam War ended, hundreds of thousands of those vets still struggle every day with mental health problems linked to their war experiences. Here's NPR's Daniel Zwerdling.

DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: Researchers have been studying Vietnam veterans longer than they've studied anybody else who's fought in wars. Congress has ordered these studies to find out how war affects soldiers over their whole lives. Charles Marmar led the latest look at almost 2000 vets. He's chairman of the psychiatry department at the NYU medical school. He says, first, let's focus on the encouraging findings. Seventy to 75 percent of the Vietnam vets they studied have never suffered mental illness linked to the war. They did not get PTSD or depression. They did not become alcoholics or drug addicts.

CHARLES MARMAR: It doesn't mean they haven't been affected by their experiences for sure. To go to war is a profound experience. It changes you forever in many ways. But they didn't break down with psychiatric illness.

ZWERDLING: This study is officially called the National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study. And now, here's the sobering finding. Roughly 11 percent of the vets they studied are in serious trouble. They still suffer from PTSD or from a disorder like it, and that's around 10 times the rate among veterans who did not serve in Vietnam. The Vietnam vets still get flashbacks. They're irritable, depressed. They can't sleep well.

MARMAR: A number of them are quite alienated from family and friends and have trouble either in the workplace or in their family environments, those kinds of troubles.

ZWERDLING: Marmar says when you extrapolate those findings, it suggests that more than a quarter-of-a-million Vietnam vets still struggle every day. And Judith Broder says those findings should make you worry about what's going to happen with the troops who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Broder's also a psychiatrist. She founded The Soldiers Project in California. They've given mental health counseling to hundreds of young troops and family members. She says every vet in trouble affects at least 10 relatives and friends.

JUDITH BRODER: Like throwing a pebble in the water, the cycles keep expanding.

ZWERDLING: And if the results of the Vietnam veterans study bears out for the current crop of vets, this is going to be a problem for families and communities in the year 2050.

BRODER: Yes, yes. I mean, it's horrifying, actually.

ZWERDLING: The Vietnam veterans study was published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Zwerdling is a correspondent in NPR's Investigations Unit.