International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Origins and Development of the ISTSS -- Part II

Posted 1 October 1998 in StressPoints by Sandra L. Bloom, MD

This is the second in a series of articles that look at the origins and development of the ISTSS. It includes edited excerpts from Our Hearts and Our Hopes Are Turned to Peace: Origins of the ISTSS, to be published by Plenum in the new volume, International Handbook of Human Response to Trauma, edited by Sandy McFarlane, Arieh Shalev, and Rachel Yehuda.

In the late 1960s, Sarah Haley worked as a social worker at the Boston Veterans Administration Hospital. At the VA hospital, young men returning from the Vietnam War presented severe psychiatric symptoms. These men were routinely diagnosed as character disordered or paranoid schizophrenics, but Haley did not entirely concur. Unlike most of her colleagues at the time, Haley recognized that many of her patients who had seen combat in Vietnam were being misdiagnosed because mental health professionals had failed to recognize the symptoms related to war. But she knew them.

Haley had grown up with a father who was a World War II veteran, a special agent for the OSS, and an alcoholic. She had heard stories of trauma and wartime atrocities from the time she was a little girl and had personally experienced the long-term impact of war on her father's behavior and his treatment of her.

When she met a Vietnam veteran who claimed to have been involved in the massacre of a village called My Lai, she did not conclude that he was delusional -- she believed him. It was through Haley that Robert Lifton met and interviewed that soldier (Scott, 1993).

Lifton, an ardent anti-war activist, had served in Korea as a military psychiatrist; by the time he met the soldier from My Lai, he had already studied and written about the survivors of Hiroshima (Lifton, 1967). Lifton and Haley met through mutual contacts at the New York and Boston chapters of the activist veterans' group, Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In January 1970, Lifton testified to a Senate subcommittee about the brutalization of soldiers in Vietnam, a brutalization that he believed made massacres like My Lai inevitable (Lifton, 1973). In April 1970, the United States invaded Cambodia, and students across the country rose up in protest.

Within days, the Ohio National Guard had fired into a crowd at Kent State, killing four students and wounding nine others -- an act that provoked an outpouring of rage and despair throughout the country. The nation was divided, campuses were in upheaval, authority was being challenged everywhere, and, yet the war continued. Many returning veterans suffered the brunt of this enormous social conflict. On one hand, some anti-war activists and pacifists labeled the veterans baby killers. On the other hand, the military establishment refused to see the damage that had been done -- and continued to be done -- to those men.

John Kerry (now Senator John Kerry) was a founder of the VVAW and holder of three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star Medal, and a Silver Star Medal for his service in the war. He reported that a Minnesota American Legion post excluded Vietnam veterans because they lost the war (Shatan, 1987).

The military even victimized some veterans as they left the war by giving bad discharge numbers. According to a discreet coding system, numbers were entered on discharge papers that identified veterans who had been considered troublemakers while in the service; the codes were distributed to employers and personnel officers. In the media, especially television, the stigmatization was furthered by the portrayal of Vietnam veterans as dangerous and psychotic freaks, murderers, and rapists (Leventman, 1978).

In response to this discrimination, the veterans and their supporters organized a counterVA composed of therapeutic communes, storefront clinics, veteran centers, and bars. The counterVA organized social and political protests and conducted street theater with mock pacification operations in New Jersey. In December 1970, another veterans' group, the Citizens' Commission for Inquiry into U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam, held the first war crime hearings in Washington, D.C., at the Dupont Circle Hotel. Shatan and Lifton testified at the hearings as did congressmen Conyers and Dellums, who made sure that a report was entered in the Congressional Quarterly in 1971 (Shatan, 1998).

In January 1971, the VVAW organized war crime hearings in Detroit called the Winter Soldier Investigation. Robert Lifton, along with 115 veterans, presented testimony about atrocities committed during the Vietnam War. In most of the major activist actions that the veterans took, mental health professionals went too, moving beyond therapy and detachment to advocacy.

As Shatan noted years later, "We went, with the veterans, wherever we could be heard: to conventions, war crimes hearings, churches, Congress, the media, and abroad. We, too, suffered insomnia and had combat nightmares." (Shatan, 1987).

In 1970, the National Council of Churches established an office under the Rev. Richard Kilmer, an ordained Presbyterian minister, to help those hurt by the Vietnam War. At first, the NCC focused efforts on draft resisters and anti-war protesters. However, in 1973, at the urging of Shatan and Lifton, the NCC began laying plans for the First National Conference on the Emotional Needs of Vietnam-Era Veterans. The Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church put up $80,000 for expenses and agreed to host the meeting at its seminary in St. Louis -- appropriately situated in the middle of the country.

According to Shatan, about 130 people attended the conference, which was arguably the first multidisciplinary gathering to focus on what became known as posttraumatic stress. The group was composed of "60 veterans, 30 shrinks, 30 chaplains, and 10 central office people [VA] who came on at the last minute." (Scott, 1993).

At the conference, Lifton and Shatan spent time with reporters talking about the problems of Vietnam veterans. The conference lasted three days, April 26­28, 1973, and out of the conference the National Vietnam Veterans Resource Project was created with a governing council of 16 people co-directed by Chaim Shatan and veteran activist Jack Smith, with representatives from all three groups -- veterans, chaplains and mental health professionals.

The project was to have several functions: to search and gather data about the effects of combat stress, and help coordinate a self-help movement of veterans groups (Shatan, 1987; 1997a).

References

Leventman, S. (1978). Epilogue: Social and historical perspectives on the Vietnam veteran. C. R. Figley (Ed.), Stress disorders among Vietnam veterans: Theory, research and treatment, Brunner/Mazel pp. 291-295.

Lifton, R. J. (1967). Death in life: Survivors of Hiroshima. New York: Basic Books.

Lifton, R. J. (1973). Home from the war. New York: Basic Books

Scott, W. (1993). The politic of readjustment: Vietnam veterans since the war. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

Shatan, C. (1987). Johnny, we hardly know you: The grief of soldiers and the Vietnam veterans' self-help movement. Presented at the Third Annual Meeting of the Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, Baltimore, MD., October 23.

Shatan, C. (1997a). Personal interview with the author, October 28.

Shatan, C. (1998). Personal interview with the author, February 24.