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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Alcoholism - an article by Helen Snider

Vietnam Veterans, Alcoholism, and a New Perspective

Every Vietnam veteran is a hero but it would seem that not everyone remembers that: In fact, the issues faced by Vietnam veterans have been sorely overlooked by the central Government since the end of the conflict and this continues to this day. Approximately nine million American men entered military service during the lengthy process of the Vietnam war (which has the dubious honor of being America’s longest war) and yet public spending on veterans has been consistently low and consistently inconsistent (with the average vet in Boston receiving $25,000 per annum in benefits, whilst the average vet in Cape Cod receives just $5,500 per annum in benefits, for example). This poor treatment has served to exacerbate feelings of being disconnected from society for some veterans, leading to post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, drug misuse, and other mental health disorders cause by trauma.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Alcoholism

60 to 80 per cent of Vietnam veterans seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder
 (PTSD) are also presenting with some form of alcohol abuse. The Veterans Administration who primarily deal with the care of veterans from Vietnam conservatively estimate that between 500,000 and 700,000 of Vietnam veterans are still experiencing severe mental and social problems related to their experiences whilst they were in Vietnam. Significant numbers of this vast number of men are also alcoholics. In layman’s terms, these men are choosing to use alcohol to numb the pain and attempt to erase the memories of what they experienced when they were on active duty in Vietnam.  It is interesting that most veterans choose alcohol rather than illicit drugs, no doubt because of the socially acceptable nature of choosing to drink a beer or head to a bar: staying within the confines of the law and under the radar of what is societally normal is important here. It is clear, then, that alcoholism is a problem and has been a problem for many Vietnam Vets.

Treatment Options

Treatment plans for alcoholic veterans, particularly those veterans who are also presenting with some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, has always been vigorous and intensive. Often involving intensive therapy with a trained psychologist, the two conditions are treated simultaneously. Group counselling is recommended as the most successful form of treatment, which is generally offered in VA centers alongside other veterans, as many emotionally battered Veterans, particularly those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, struggle to trust or connect to others but find it easier to open up to and forge relationships with those that have experienced the same war time situations of themselves. The goal of those counselling sessions and treatment plans is to cure both the PTSD and the alcoholism with complete abstinence and sobriety.

Yet a new perspective posed by new research from the FDA could change that, although no one knows yet what impact this might have on veterans. Sobriety has always been the main goal of all alcoholic rehabilitation programs: this includes both expensive residential rehabilitation centers and the free AA support groups that are held in every town up and down the country. Now though the FDA have turned this on its head by suggesting that complete sobriety now doesn’t have to be the sole goal of treatment for alcoholism. In February they drafted an article that proposed that sobriety and complete abstinence was no longer essential for an alcoholic to no longer be considered ‘sober’: instead reduced drinking and consistent ‘non heavy drinking’ days would have the same effect. This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that alcoholics are, by the very nature of their condition, unable to have just a drink or two and that they will always be vulnerable to the impact of ingesting alcohol regularly.                     

How this new report will affect the treatment plans of vulnerable Vietnam veterans is yet to be seen: the concept of allowing an alcoholic to still drink regularly seems counterproductive to the hard work of the therapy and counselling they have already undertaken. And these brave veterans who have already given so much for their country certainly don’t deserve to be used as guinea pigs to test this new theory from the FDA.


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