Grief Topic

Grief Issues of War Veterans

Returning Veterans have identified many issues that can be listed as grief related. Previously, twenty year olds were conscripted into the Army and spent approximately 12 months in training with some subsequently sent to Vietnam – to be part of a “war” which was not recognised as such by many people in Australia. Some had chosen the Armed Forces as their career whilst for some it started out as an adventure. Others felt pressured into enlisting as the only alternative to gaol. However, many returning veterans experienced multiple losses, including the loss of their goals – career goals, relationships, friends (who would move on during their absence), family relationships, place in society, innocence, ability to enjoy life, and health. More recently, those who served overseas in peace-keeping or contemporary zones of conflict have experienced similar grief and loss on return to Australia.

War itself – the country, the people involved, the attitudes and the experiences had differing effects on most of the now veterans. During active service, values, beliefs and attitudes were being challenged, and in order to survive, many found it necessary to numb feelings and “get on with the job”. Mates were killed or maimed but there was no time to grieve. The effect of this numbing is what is seen in many veterans today.

Homecoming for many was also traumatic. It meant leaving their mates, some of whom died after they left the conflict zone, leaving them with a myriad of feelings and sadness; guilt, grief and no way of saying goodbye. Arriving back in Australia, home was not welcoming but often unable to understand the veteran's experiences, and sometimes hostile. After Vietnam, public opinion was anti soldier, it was not acceptable to wear the uniform and be identified as a soldier with ’short back and sides’. The veteran was not welcome in some hotels and more frequently in clubs (even RSL clubs). In home towns everything seemed to have changed and people had got on with their lives. Many veterans were expected to get on with their life: “don’t talk about the war” was frequently the message, and so their experience, feelings and grief were not allowed.

Returning veterans are often subject to the stereotyping of some veterans as angry, violent, not fitting into society, etc. Again the veteran was not understood and in some cases forced to hide his veteran identity. In other words many continued to feel punished and alienated by their own people. The betrayal, rejection, sadness, anger, and grief goes on for many in a frequently lonely environment. Many married and had children but again could not get close, putting up barriers. When this is explored it is often found to be a protection mechanism so that they cannot be hurt again.

As Vietnam veterans now reach the age of 50 they report on attending their mates’ funerals and ask the question “how many of us will be around in five years time?”. This is also prompted by results of a health study on Vietnam Veterans which reports on the many health problems Vietnam Veterans experience which are linked with their war service.

Strategies which are helpful to veterans differ between individuals. Some find that talking about what happened helps to deal with the feelings which have been suppressed in some cases for 30 years. Identifying what it is underlying their anger and expressing the grief is valuable to others. Being accepted and understood is valuable to many. Finding out that they are not alone and different to others who have had similar experiences is reassuring. Having a range of activities where they don’t have to explain themselves is helpful to many and often enables them to move out into community activities. Counselling and group programs are available through the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service, psychiatrists and psychologists provide treatment as does the Repatriation General Hospital, and Welfare Officers are accessible through the Ex-Service Organisations.

Page last updated 17th April, 2008