An Open Letter to Health Care Providers from Vietnam Veterans

We recognize the hardships and challenges our healthcare providers are facing in the midst of the Covid-19 health crisis. We applaud the brave, lifesaving work being done on the front lines. In the midst of this pandemic, the likes of which our generation has never before seen, we are reminded of our service during the Vietnam War.

Although our environment and circumstances are not precisely the same as those facing you, there is, we believe, a correlation to the experiences, conditions, and fallout from our wartime experiences with death and human struggle. We served on the front lines of a protracted mass casualty event, and we learned to pace ourselves, as you must for the marathon you now are in.

What we know, firsthand, is this: as our national mitigation efforts continue, and when the curve of infection wanes, your curve will begin. You will, no doubt, suffer some kind of fallout—from having faced the deaths of colleagues and strangers alike; from the social isolation and the lack of contact with family; or from the anxiety arising from fear of personal harm. You may find yourself questioning triage decisions made in the face of mounting casualties, and you will face your fury at the lack of needed equipment and personal safety items.

There may be times when you feel numb to the daily chaos confronting you—that robotic feeling that takes over as you go from person to person may leave you feeling separated emotionally from the grief before you. These mental devices are often the result of the psychological need to protect ourselves from the pain in front of us. All this helps us focus our ability to cope and work effectively during the intensity of such a crisis.

On the other side of our combat experiences, we discovered the importance of taking a deep dive into our feelings. We examined our worth, and we struggled to identify how our experiences had shaped us. We learned the importance of shedding any superhero mindset that we may have adopted to fortify ourselves for the most intense experience of our young selves.

We spent too many years living with our own denial and anger, until eventually, we were able to understand the impact our service in a combat zone had on us and on our families. We had to wait years before we allowed our positive feelings and emotions be turned back on.

One of the legacies of the Vietnam War is that society now accepts Post-Traumatic Stress as a natural reaction to unnatural events. By finally accepting support, we were able to get a handle on forgiveness, and we learned to forgive ourselves for not doing everything to save those in our care.

We write this not to simply offer you empathy. Rather, to share our experience and how we dealt–mostly belatedly, because we didn’t know any better–with the fallout from the injury, death, guilt, grief, anger, and fear with which we were confronted during our tour of duty.

Our message to you is that you do not need to wait. We have learned that it is important to talk about what one is going through emotionally and psychologically while still going through it. We have learned to seek out and find those who understood us and could listen to our venting without thinking there was something to fix.

This pandemic will eventually recede, and when you are ready, we are here to support you in your journey forward. We have a commonality of experience, of traumatic experience; hence, we have common ground to offer our help to you as all of us come to terms with an altered national reality.

Stay strong.

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