The war in Vietnam also brought deployed military psychiatrists a disturbing ethical dilemma rarely encountered in civilian settings. Although it had been previously recognized that the military psychiatrist was often under strain when required to help normal men adapt to an abnormal situation—that an exquisite dilemma could arise associated with the physician/psychiatrist “expecting” soldiers to return to combat following treatment—the experience in Vietnam was evidently even worse.
As military service became increasingly despised by the young troops because of the war’s intense unpopularity at home, and despair and its behavioral expressions skyrocketed, the deployed psychiatrists had only a limited capacity for making things bearable for them. And yet the soldiers believed that it was the duty of the mental health contingent to relieve them of their untenable situation.
Furthermore, colleagues at home added to the strain as an increasing number of Americans denounced the conflict in Southeast Asia. Public criticism of military psychiatry and its doctrine came from psychiatrists and other physicians who had served in Vietnam as well as from those who had not. In March 1971, 67% of American Psychiatric Association members who responded to a poll indicated that they wanted the US government to terminate all military activity in Vietnam. This was followed by a Board of Trustees resolution condemning the war and their elimination of the military psychiatry section at the annual convention.
The Action Paper passed by the APA Board of Trustees that resulted in the November 1st event at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial culminates in the following proclamation
Despite the enormous personal and professional challenges and risks these psychiatrists faced, the extant record amply demonstrates their sustained devotion to providing the best care for the troops that they could, their willingness to overcome hardship pursuant of that end, and their record of capable and commendable service. The arrival of the war’s 50th anniversary offers a unique opportunity to honor those who selflessly performed to the best of their ability what they believed was their duty to their country.
As a career Army Medical Corps officer who served a year in Vietnam as psychiatrist and director (commanding officer) of one of two fully-staffed Army psychiatric treatment units in South Vietnam, the APA’s commemorative event signifies to me—and I would venture, to my fellow psychiatrist veterans as well—a greatly appreciated if belated “welcome home.” It serves to repair our status and the record of military psychiatry in Vietnam after our having been rebuked by colleagues during and after the war for cooperating with the US military.
This article was originally published on 11/5/18 and has since been updated.
1. US Department of Defense. The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration. http://www.vietnamwar50th.com/about/commemoration_objectives/. Accessed October 24, 2018.
2. Camp NM. US Army Psychiatry in the Vietnam War: New Challenges in Extended Counterinsurgency Warfare. Ft. Sam Houston Texas: Department of the Army, Office of the Surgeon General, Borden Institute; 2015. www.bit.ly/vietnampsych. Accessed October 25, 2018. (Copies can be purchased from the Government Printing Office bookstore at https://bookstore.gpo.gov/.) ❒