It always seemed a little strange to me that my level-headed and intelligent husband would develop dementia at such a young age. I always wondered how much his dementia had to do with his tour in Vietnam.
Years after the fact, it is now presumed that anyone who served in Vietnam was exposed to Agent Orange. There was a time when you had to prove exposure and that was not an easy task. Jim said that while they were in the jungle, they were sprayed with Agent Orange right along with the foliage. After the presumption of exposure, certain diseases among Vietnam veterans were considered to be service connected. Dementia was specifically excluded.
Jim had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) before it was ever talked about. His Vietnam service left him wounded emotionally. Vietnam lived in his nightmares, in his breakdowns, depression, and through flashbacks. Vietnam was a parasite that clung to him and never lost its grip as it tried to suck sunshine from his soul and replace it with dark shadows.
Studies have linked PTSD with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Prolonged or acute stress damages the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory. Veterans with PTSD have a 77% greater chance of developing dementia than veterans without PTSD.
The VA acknowledges a third of Vietnam veterans struggled with PTSD, and some of those lasted a lifetime. They don’t talk so much about how many lifetimes were cut short by alcoholism, suicide, or dementia.
The Internet has conflicting reports about Vietnam veteran mortality. They range from reports that Vietnam veterans are dying at an alarming rate to other reports that their death rate is only slightly higher than the rest of the population. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. It seems that of the Vietnam veterans I know, an alarming number of them died young. I know that Jim died much too young.
Jim was haunted by Vietnam. He struggled daily to relegate his tour of duty to the past. It was a personal victory of heart over mind when he enjoyed his family and his music. Playing his guitar was his therapy.
Did Vietnam cause Jim’s dementia? I think it did. Is there proof? There never was enough to convince the VA. We couldn’t even prove PTSD because by the time we knew it was considered a reason for disability, Jim had dementia and could not tell his story. It didn’t matter than I had lived with him all those years and supported him through his mental collapses. It didn’t matter that as his current memories faded, the older memories haunted him even more.
The turbulent Vietnam war years did nothing to help returning veterans get their lives back. They were stigmatized and categorized in a way our military had never been before that war. The only thing that brings me comfort is that Jim did finally come to grips with Vietnam on a certain level. He wore a hat that said “Proud to be a Vietnam Veteran.”
On Memorial Day, I placed flowers in front of the columbarium. Jim would have loved the rows of flags placed in front of the wall. He loved his country, and I’m glad that he finally found pride in serving the USA.