Jennifer Solomon, a licensed certified social worker, presented on the Vietnam War’s effects on the mental health of the American veterans that participated in it at a Newton Free Library hosted event on Tuesday night.
In her Zoom presentation, Solomon said that veterans of the Vietnam War are growing closer to retirement age. Solomon said that soon, these veterans will begin to use health care systems typically accessed by older people, including hospices. She discussed the unique challenges that Vietnam veterans face in health care due to their experiences in war.
Good Shepherd Community Care, where Solomon works, was founded in 1978 as the first hospice in Massachusetts, according to the organization’s website.
Solomon said about 90 percent of the care veterans receive is from community clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices, with only a small portion of veteran care coming from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Vietnam War, according to Solomon, caused a unique mental challenge among veterans called moral injury, a condition that includes feelings of intense guilt and shame following war.
Solomon said that military culture, which includes values such as stoicism, discourages enlisted people from expressing their concerns or needs and emphasizes that the group’s role in a war is more important than that of the individual.
These values foster suppression of a veteran’s concerns and mental struggles, making them less likely than civilians to seek mental help or even simply talk about their experiences.
These values and other military experiences influence the way veterans view death, Solomon said. For example, veterans in hospices often suddenly tell stories and bring up unresolved issues that they avoided for decades after their service.
“You might have somebody who doesn’t speak about their military experience at all for decades, and then we reach the end-of-life stage,” she said. “And all of a sudden, [their service is] being brought up, and maybe there are some unresolved issues that are being addressed.”
Solomon said that the political environment in the U.S. during the Vietnam War also explains some of the reasons why Vietnam veterans are so susceptible to moral injury.
The 1960s were full of social unrest regarding both civil rights and the war. This environment led to civilians feeling frustration with the war, which they directed at veterans for the first time ever, according to Solomon.
“But at least you would expect to come home and be honored the way previous generations of veterans had been honored—and that didn’t happen in many cases,” she said.
As Vietnam veterans begin to enter hospices, it is important for their caretakers to keep these challenges in mind, Solomon said.
“As medical professionals, those of us that work in the medical environment, this is really important to remember,” she said. “We don’t have an automatic sense of trust often from this population, and we have to earn it.”