Coronavirus isolation stresses Vietnam War veterans in Sonoma County
Richard Jones, a gravel-voiced Vietnam War veteran from Santa Rosa, is worried about the price his cohort of aging men and women may be paying nearly 50 years since the last U.S. forces left the Southeast Asian battlefields that claimed 58,220 American lives.
In the campaign against the coronavirus - which has now killed more than 97,000 Americans - social distancing and self-isolation are critical strategies. But they are demoralizing to Vietnam veterans, who refer to one another as brothers and sisters and thrive on lending a hand to those in need.
“We can’t hold meetings. We can’t get together,” said Jones, 75, who co-founded a local nonprofit, Sonoma County Vet Connect, a dozen years ago. The group’s Tuesday meetings at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building, held to connect veterans with a host of services, are on hold, along with all other gatherings.
“We don’t know when we’ll be able to do it again,” Jones said. “It’s been really tough.”
Jones, who was aboard a Navy landing craft in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 when a controversial incident ignited the Vietnam War, senses depression mounting among his fellow veterans and is worried it could result in suicides, especially for those who cannot shake post-traumatic stress disorder.
“That’s what I’m worried about,” he said.
Suicide stalks female and male veterans, exceeding 6,000 a year from 2008 to 2017 - 1.5 times the rate of suicides for nonveteran adults. Nearly 79,000 veterans died by suicide between 2005 and 2017, compared with about 7,000 troops killed during two decades of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Suicide prevention is a national priority and the VA (Veterans Administration) is dedicated to this mission,” said a report last year from the Department of Veterans Affairs, noting that a cabinet-level task force had been formed to develop a plan.
Loneliness looms as a risk factor because it is tied to the highest levels of depression and suicidal thoughts among former service members, according to a study by Dr. Alan Teo, a psychiatrist at the VA Portland Health Care System.
“I am worried that there will be serious mental health consequences from COVID-19 that we have not paid enough attention to,” Teo said in an email. “That could include more suicides in veterans, not necessarily this month but in the coming months or even years.”
Teo believes the dangers of loneliness also accrue over time, and the mindset is “especially dangerous when it is sustained and persistent.”
The condition afflicts people living alone and with others, he said.
“Loneliness is the feeling of being alone, but not at all necessarily being physically alone,” Teo said.
Dr. Somnath Saha, a Portland VA physician, said: “Humans are social beings and connection to others is part of what buoys us in a stressful world.”
Jones, who said he was exposed to Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant sprayed over Vietnam for 10 years, checks in with a therapist about once a year for PTSD.
“It won’t go away,” he said.
Kate O’Hare-Palmer of Petaluma, who served as an Army emergency room nurse in Vietnam, said the coronavirus onslaught “comes across as a war zone to us (veterans). It’s overwhelming. There’s no end.”
It took her 25 years to accept the fact she had PTSD, sublimating the pain through steady work. “When you’re busy you don’t think and you don’t feel,” she said.
Many veterans are, by nature, driven to help others, an impulse that was crushed by stay-at-home orders imposed by the county more than two months ago, said O’Hare-Palmer, 73, who chairs the Vietnam Veterans of America’s Women Veterans Committee. The rules against social gatherings spelled a temporary end to the coffee cart she and others operated for five years outside the Santa Rosa VA Outpatient Clinic on Brickway Boulevard, serving doughnuts, fruit and coffee to veterans who had come from as far away as Eureka to catch a bus to the San Francisco VA Medical Center.
“It turned into a very social thing,” O’Hare-Palmer said.
Vietnam veterans may be seen as rugged and potentially gruff, but O’Hare-Palmer said the vast majority - about eight out of 10 - are “everyday people” going about their lives with jobs and families. With a median age of 68, most are now retired, but they are marked men and women in several ways.
Of the 2.7 million American troops who served in Vietnam, about 774,000 are living today.
The VA’s National Center for PTSD says about 15% of Vietnam veterans were diagnosed with the condition in a late 1980s study, possibly due to horrible and life-threatening experiences in combat. In 2015, a study found about 11% - some 271,000 veterans - still had the “psychological nightmare” of PTSD, many with conditions that were “only getting worse with time,” according to Smithsonian magazine.