VIETNAM VET: “Once you’re in a combat zone, you’re never the same”

For Veterans Coming Home Isn’t Always Easy

by Erika Beras April 16, 2012

An entire generation of veterans suffered greatly in the aftermath of the bloody fighting in Vietnam, many succumbing to suicide because their reports of psychiatric wounds were denied and went untreated for more than a decade. The challenges faced by today's veterans are no different than those during the Vietnam war. (Larry Burrows, LIFE)

It was recorded in ancient Greek and Roman literature. In the 1600’s a Swiss physician coined the term “nostalgia” to refer to soldier’s conditions. Soldiers returning home from the Civil War were said to be afflicted with “soldier’s heart” and “exhausted heart.” After World War I doctors started using the words “shell shock.” By World War II, they were using the terms “battle fatigue,” “combat fatigue” and “gross stress reaction.”

In 1946 a U.S. Army-funded documentary, Let There Be Light, followed 75 soldiers with “psycho-neurosis” who were being treated at a psychiatric hospital. After seeing it, the military banned the film and it was declassified. In the 1950’s, when the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the encyclopedia of psychiatric terms used by professionals, was published, the condition “gross stress reaction” was used to describe the condition combat soldiers returned home with.

And that’s where things were in the mid 1960’s when Dennis Hughes got his draft notice. He was a recent Schenley High School graduate.

“I was a young kid, 18, about to turn 19, so I wasn’t ready for that,” he said.

He spent more than a year in Vietnam.

“They tried to overrun the base camps. That was one of the worst sights I encountered, and sure, I was scared to death, because they were overrunning those camps … and I can see it as though it was yesterday,” he said.

Less than a week after coming home, he was working and trying to live as normal a life as he could. He says it was what he was told was the right thing to do, but he struggled.

“Once you’re in a combat zone, you’re never the same. They do various things — a lot of them mask what they have seen, whether it’s alcohol or drugs, because at that time, people didn’t want to hear nothing about … so when you went to Vietnam, that was the attitude people got. They were calling us ‘baby killers’ and all that kind of stuff, and here we are thinking we did the right thing and we’ve got to come home and be confronted with these situations,” he said.

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