By Joanne Wynne
Republic of South Vietnam. It's pitch black, except for the artillery fireworks lighting up the sky. The tormented and agonal screams of men, women and children pierced the night above the din of gunfire.
But the lone, high pitched buzzing of the mosquito that circled his pounding head, was more audible. His thoughts were of his wife and child. His heart ached to think that in the morning, his only daughter might be fatherless. The mosquito droned on incessantly. Every muscle n his body racked with pain from anticipation.
Crouched in a fox hole of red dirt, his mind raced on. M16 in one hand, radio in the other, he hoped the Air support wouldn't be long. And when air support arrived, they would lay down what "Charlie" despised the most, "Rolling Thunder", known as Napalm. He was too young. He was only nineteen and he didn't want to die there.
That damned mosquito!
This flashback is from a real soldier who served in Vietnam. It is from a trusted source, namely my father (Wynne and Fewson 1996). This is a steadfast unwanted memory that will never fade. He relives this memory every single night of his life. He is one man of 42,000 Australian troops who served and this is one diminutive consequence of a war called 'Nam'.
In 1962, Australians first went to Vietnam. 505 Australian men died over there, (Vietnam Remembered 1990). Many more have died as a result since. Here in Australia, in 1996, the battle storms on. Post Traumatic Stress Disease, (PTSD) its debilitating symptoms and the effects of Agent Orange, are consequences of Vietnam that our veterans (vets) are still trying to cope with.
PTSD is an indiscriminate disease and vets are not the only casualties of its onslaught. To conceive how PTSD exhausts our returned soldiers, we need to comprehend the kaleidoscope of horrors and villainous circumstances they bore witness to back in the jungle battlefields. Ghastly and unspeakable atrocities occurred daily. The following is a summary of accounts from actual soldiers, who fought in Vietnam.
Many saw their mates blown to bits. Many saw the resume of the hidden punji sticks who's poisonous and penetrating apex's brutally impaled their comrades.
Many picked the pieces of blood and tissue, that once was a buddy, off their greens.
And when they came home from a war that wasn't even theirs, they were spat on by fellow countrymen, were denied admission to the RSL clubs by other servicemen on their heroes' return from overseas, shunned and left to navigate their own roads.
They were too young to vote, too young to drink alcohol, too young to get married without parental permission, but not too young to die in a dense greenery, thousands of miles from home (Wynne and Fewson 1996).
Veterans explain, that these are contributing factors to the question, why they suffer inner turmoil from PTSD? PTSD can manifest itself in numerous forms. In The Royal Commission Report XV-23 the symptoms of Post Trauma Syndrome are defined as follows. Flashbacks to terrifying events; Nightmares;Irritability; Rage Reaction; Dizzy Spells; Anxiety; Insomnia; Depression; Guilt Feelings; Headaches; Low Back Pain; Ulcer; Migraine; Irritable Bowel Syndrome; Irritable Colon; Hypertension; Paranoia; Suspicion; Crowd Phobia; Alcoholism (Vietnam Remembered 1990).
Gold Coast psychiatrist, and expert in PTSD, Dr Graeme Jensen (The Mind Victims 1994), knows only too well how these men suffer. Dr Jensen has personally treated more than 1000 men who served in the tropical land of the south-east Asian war zone. He estimates that 16 per cent of the 25,000 Australian combat soldiers in Vietnam are chronic sufferers of PTSD of what he describes as 'a very real, very disturbing long-term condition.' Even though these soldiers have returned home, decades later everyday occurrences can reignite their anguish.
The resonance of a car backfiring, an innocent trigger word or the voice of a helicopter can dispatch a Vietnam veteran, catapulting back through the throes of time and back into Charlie's country. Images of mutilated bodies, the smell and touch of death and the cold sweats of fear are reanimated. The acoustic screaming of doomed mates, ambley perishing in fear and the undeviating chatter of gunships and medivac choppers echo through his consciousness (Wynne and Fewson 1996). Veterans ask these questions, will these indelible cogitations ever retreat?
Can the perpetuity of time, bridge the ravine gouged in to a mans soul? Dr Jensen answers that several PTSD victims can live a relatively normal life with professional support.
"On going professional treatment, counselling, the limited use of non-addictive anti-depressant drugs and sympathetic hearings by Veterans' Affairs assessment teams all help the patient come to terms with his illness," says Dr Jensen (The Mind Victims 1994). What this statement conveys to those afflicted, is that PTSD will never desist, but there is deliverance from its hell available to enable our vets to procure the confidence and the self-esteem required to again integrate into the workforce and society. Therapy will succour our vets in the rebuilding of their family lives and tranquillise them into a more fruitful and satisfying lifestyle. Despite encouraging research results, by Australia and the USA, their investigation also vindicates that there is no salvation envisaged for PTSD disciples. There also seems to be no redemption or solutions to the other perpetrator from Nam, alias Agent Orange.
Agent Orange is a defoliant. Sounds more like a colourful spy. U.S. forces saturated the foliage of Vietnam with copious amounts of this toxin. The consternation of the jungle, defoliation of battle zones, and protection against malaria, induced our allies into employing this potent chemical's labour.
The utilisation of Agent Orange and its legacies on our vets, has been the motif of political recrimination in this country. The Vietnam Veterans Association has been combating the Royal Commission, who concluded in a report of The Evatt Royal Commsion (Royal Commission on the use an Effects of Chemical Agents on Australian Personnel in Vietnam, 1984), (Vietnam Remembered 1990) that Agent Orange was not guilty of creating birth defects in veterans offspring, high rates of cancers in vets, nor was it liable for the low age mortality rates. This verdict enraged The Vietnam Veterans Association whose theme has remained constant: that Vietnam was a special war, and that its veterans require special help (Vietnam Remembered 1990).
Special help was not furnished to our vets by our government. Although surveys such as the Mortality Report 1984, The Case Control Study of Congenital Anomalies and Vietnam Service 1983 and Pesticides and The Health of Australian Vietnam Veterans 1982, Vietnam Remembered 1990) were conducted, both sides contended that the other has the onus of proof. These inquiries revealed that overall veterans had slightly more elevated death rate than non-veterans, but increased alcohol-related sickness was repro hed. It was also divulged that between 3% and 10% of veterans offspring suffered malformations, but this could not be attributed to Agent Orange. The Australian government also confessed that the widely used anti-malarial drug known as Dapsone possibly had carcinogenic repercussions, but still did not lay blame with Agent Orange, (Vietnam Remembered 1990).
The chemical companies consulted by the Australian Senate Standing Committee on Science and the Environment had no evidence of Agent Orange's effects on humans. No trials were executed on humans for palpable reasons. The government were disinclined to be coerced into shelling out millions of dollars in compensation, after a precedence had been established in America, instigated by a television program entitled Agent Orange - Vietnam Deadly Fog, produced in Chicago 1978. This documentary incited a class action that terminated into an out of court settlement penalising the USA government 180 million dollars (Vietnam Remembered 1990). This precedence and the lack of hard evidence by chemical companies were contributing factors in declaring Agent Orange not guilty of the crimes of which it stood accused.
In a fightback, the Veteran's magazine, Debrief, published in 1982 a list of possible allergic symptoms that Agent Orange had on different systems of the body including; Nervous System; Muscular; Gastro-Urinary; Gastrointestinal; Cardiovascular; Respir ory; Eyes; Ear, Nose and Throat and Skin (Vietnam Remembered 1990). This list was a collative response from Vietnam Veterans. Although victory was achieved with PTSD against our government, our vets were vanquished in the Agent Orange hostility. In the opinion of our vets, a deaf ear is turned by them towards the court standing's. The veterans believe that Agent Orange is responsible for most of the allergic symptoms they suffer. Let us also remember that it is not only the vets that suffer. The brave men have families.
The consequences of the Vietnam War was not confined to our vets. The outcome it has had on families, due to PTSD involving substance abuse and domestic violence; And when a child is born to them malformed, this keepsake is attributed to Agent Orange, this suffering, our vets say, can not be measured by any government study. These are real people, who go on living everyday with these bequests. Our government deployed these soldiers to war, and in recompense, our Veterans now want recognition from the government, conceding their vexatious symptoms. Admittance they may never aquire but according to our vets' hearts and minds, they know the answers.
And so the veterans reality proceeds every day. They are alleviated by the conception of there never being another Vietnam, but they are plagued by the reflection that there was. What will become of them? For several vets, help from Veterans Affair in the tangible form of small pensions and counselling from professionals like Dr Jensen may get them through. What if it doesn't? Will their nightmares ever stop? Will my Uncle Jeff, be able to sleep through a night, without the utter of the house creaking waking him, believing it to be Charlie's footsteps? Will my own father, ever shed his memories and mood swings. These vets and their families are real everyday people and I know these repercussions to be factual because I have witnessed it first hand. Everyday they are a constant reminder to all Australians, of the consequences of the war called Nam.