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The Definition of Insanity; From Vietnam to Iraq
Published on Tuesday, December 14, 2004 by
The Definition of Insanity
by Brandi Neal

In the late 60's my father was drafted into the war in Vietnam. As a child I used to sit in his lap and run my fingers over the wound in his neck. ďIs this your bullet hole, Daddy?Ē I would ask. He would nod but never said much about the war.

Unlike many Vietnam vets, my Dad didnít cruise the homeless shelters or wind up drinking on the curb from a paper bag. After he was shot in the neck on the battlefield, he was honorably discharged. He claims he didnít even feel it when it happened. He says ĎIn battle, youíre fighting for your life, so you just keep going.í

Upon his return he was shunned by his girlfriend and labeled a traitor by most of his friends. He tried to readjust to familiar surroundings and attempted to live what could be perceived as a normal life. He wasnít on the streets, but he could be most often found at the local bar after work and with a cocktail in hand at home. He wasnít homeless or unemployed, but he jumped from job to job and wife to wife, never able to fill the void, find stability or erase the memories.

Some 20 years after I ran my fingers over his neck as a little girl, I managed to ask him again about the war. 'What do you want to know?' he said. 'I mean, we were killing people, Iíll tell you about it sometime, but not now,' he said while tipping his drink to his lips. I havenít brought it up again. Though he never talks about it during the day, I know it haunts him at night. Unable to sleep because of the vivid nightmares, sometimes heíll share some war horror stories in the middle of the night in bed with his wife. In his early 50ís he was finally diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, over 30 years after returning from the war, and now receives benefits and medication from the Veterans Administration. And now that he isnít working, heís got nothing but time to sit and think about the memories, which are as alive today as they were back then.

A friend of mine relayed a story about her young brother in Colorado who recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. He was a troubled youth that joined the army expecting to turn his life around. After he enlisted, he met his wife and they conceived a child. When the war broke out, James was deployed immediately, leaving his wife and unborn daughter in Colorado. He returned to the United States having missed his daughter blossom into a 6-month old girl, and having survived some of the worst combat of the war.

For a while, James seemed to be readjusting well, until one day while in the shower when Jamesí wife banged her elbow which caused a loud clack. James was convinced he was under attack and rushed to take cover, collapsing to the ground and covering his head in fear.

These men are just a few of the Ďleftoversí of war, the walking wounded, and there are thousands more. They fought in a war where there was no clear and obvious enemy, a battlefield where they were unsure of what they were shooting at. Theyíre the veterans who are largely forgotten because they can function fine physically, but when the lights go out they are sent back to the front lines. These vets receive little or no help from the government, and are not considered a top priority because they appear functional and rarely seek help on their own.

Vet Centers offer counseling, but vets seriously disturbed by their experience do not often know how to seek it out. Instead, they take to self medicating and sleeping where they can find shelter. Already Iraqi Vets are pouring into homeless shelters, a frightening parallel to the days after Vietnam. The government tells us that more vets are surviving their wounds due to advances in medical technology, but what kind assistance do they receive? What percentage will walk out of the hospital and lead a productive life?

Most returning vets will suffer from some form of 'routine' battle fatigue, but some will suffer a much more serious condition called Severe War Zone Stress. Some symptoms include jitteriness, hyper vigilance, sleep disruption, and appetite suppression. The line between a soldier readjusting from battle fatigue and one suffering from Severe War Zone Stress or PTSD is fuzzy at best and many are left untreated. A study conducted by the Walter Reed Army Institute found that 1 in 6 returning soldiers suffered from depression, anxiety or PTSD. Of that number less than half sought treatment.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over in the same way and expecting different results. The parallel between Iraqi vets and those of Vietnam is staggering. A study conducted in July reveals that mental illness suffered by soldiers serving in Iraq has reached Vietnam levels and 1 in 4 Marines surveyed reported killing Iraqi civilians while half reported handling human remains.

We obviously havenít learned from the mistakes of the recent past and history is sadly repeating itself. An unjust war, no clear enemy, millions of tax dollars going to a war we donít understand. In Vietnam we were told that it was our duty to stop the spread of communism. Bush says we attacked Iraq to stop the spread of terrorism, but we are again fighting civilians with no clear goal. 1,058 soldiers have died since Bush declared 'Mission Accomplished', according to figures posted on A large percentage of wounded soldiers are diagnosed with mental disorders, while others still are failing to report to duty and fleeing to Canada--sound familiar to anyone?

Brandi Neal is an assistant editor at She can be reached at


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