The psychological effect Operation Desert Storm will have on returning military personnel may mirror the post traumatic stress syndrome many Vietnam War veterans have experienced.
But glaring differences between the two wars leave a lot of unknowns, said psychologist Phillip Christensen, chief of outpatient mental health services at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Salt Lake.Many Vietnam veterans were involuntarily drafted into service and suffered the social disgrace of fighting in an unpopular, protracted war that ultimately ended without victory. On the other hand, personnel in Operation Desert Storm volunteered for military service and fought a quick and furious battle that saw few casualties and ended in victory.
Add to that the significantly smaller number of people directly involved in Desert Storm compared to the years of fighting in Vietnam and the effects may not be as visible once the soldiers return home.
"That's not to say there will not be psychiatric casualties," Christensen said, "But it's real difficult to predict."
The Defense Department temporarily "drafted" the VA Hospital - instructing the staff to be ready to treat casualties fresh from the battle field. But now that threat appears to be past, the hospital is returning its emphasis to services for veterans. Christensen said he has two areas of special emphasis: identifying military personnel who will be returning to Utah from Desert Storm; and making sure Vietnam veterans don't feel like they will be pushed aside now that there will be veterans of a newer war who need attention.
Christensen said it is important to identify the returning personnel and let them know what services are available because the effects of psychological disturbances and disorders can often take months and even years to manifest themselves.
Not all reserve component troops will achieve full veterans benefits by the time they leave military service, so identifying duty-related psychological problems quickly is important to ensure treatment will be provided by the military.
A "conspiracy of silence" existed during the Vietnam era because of the stigma pinned on those associated with the conflict. "We're trying to hopefully derail that and create an atmosphere where these people will be more willing to come and ask for help," Christensen said.
A number of Vietnam veterans suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome experienced a relapse because of Operation Desert Shield, he said. Blanket coverage of the conflict made it overwhelming to veterans suffering stress. "These people have been reinfected with the whole process." Blanket media coverage of the war made it impossible to get away from.
And those already under treatment are being reassured that they won't be pushed aside. "They're glad this is taking a different turn, but there are a number of (Vietnam veterans) who are very concerned that because this group of veterans is coming home under the hero's umbrella that they are going to be once again cheated," Christensen said.
Other Vietnam veterans have shown great support. "A lot of these Vietnam-era veterans have expressed a great desire to become involved in helping the Desert Storm people who are coming back," Christensen said.
Many of them are at the Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Counseling Center, which has opened its doors to Desert Storm veterans and their families.
Desert Storm Readjustment
The Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Counseling Center has opened its doors to Desert Storm veterans and their families.
"Anytime you are involved in conflict - in war - there's a stress and trauma that comes from that, and there are people who will suffer from this war," said center director Richard Simons.
Simons said the issues facing Desert Storm veterans may be different from those who fought in Vietnam. For example, in some cases, it was the husband who stayed home, while the wife was uprooted.
"We hope the intensity of their stress is not the same as those who fought in Vietnam," Simons said. "But there are a lot of readjustment issues - picking up their jobs, and with their families, going back to school and doing the things they need to do."
Counselors at the Vietnam center will be available to help Desert Storm soldiers and their families readjust to life after war.