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The Date of Expected Return from Overseas DEROS Page!

How the Vietnam Experience Differed from Previous Wars and Subsequently Predisposed the Combatant to the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Delayed and/or Chronic Type

Based on current information, when you rotate entire units, with fast transportation, Combat stress and PTSD can be increased! Add to this situations repeated tours with only short time at home adds to combat stress build-up and a rapid transition to PTSD.

Side note, the Department of Defence has now started longer tour for units that have been on combat tours at least twice. Think what that is going to do to combat stress and Post-traumatic Stress???

When direct American troop involvement in Vietnam became a reality, military planners looked to previous war experiences to help alleviate the problem of psychological disorder in combat. By then it was an understood fact that those combatants with the most combat exposure suffered the highest incidence of breakdown. In Korea this knowledge resulted in use, to some extent, of a "point system." After accumulating so many points, an individual was rotated home, regardless of the progress of the war. This was further refined in Vietnam, the outcome being the DEROS (date of expected return from oversees) system. Every individual serving in Vietnam, except general officers, knew before leaving the United States when he or she was scheduled to return. The tour lasted 12 months for everyone except the Marines who, known for their one-upmanship, did a 13-month tour. DEROS promised the combatant a way out of the war other than a physical or psychological casualty (Kormos, 1978).

The advantages were clear: there would not be an endless period of protracted combat with the prospect of becoming a psychological casualty as the only hope for return to the United States without wounds. Rather, if a combatant could just hold together for the 12 or 13 months, he would be rotated to the United States; and, once home, he would leave the war far behind.

The disadvantages to DEROS were not as clear, and some time elapsed before they were noticed. DEROS was a very personal thing; each individual was rotated on his own with his own specific date. This meant that tours in Vietnam were solitary, individual episodes. It was rare, after the first few years of the war, that whole units were sent to the war zone simultaneously. Bourne said it best: "The war becomes a highly individualized and encapsulated event for each man. His war begins the day he arrives in the country, and ends the day he leaves". Bourne further states, "He feels no continuity with those who precede or follow him: He even feels apart from those who are with him but rotating on a different schedule".

Because of this very individual aspect of the war, unit morale, unit cohesion and unit identification suffered tremendously. Many studies from past wars point to the concept of how unit integrity acts as a buffer for the individual against the overwhelming stresses of combat. Many of the veterans of World War II spent weeks or months with their units returning on ships from all over the world. During the long trip home, these men had the closeness and emotional support of one another to rework the especially traumatic episodes they had experienced together. The epitaph for the Vietnam veteran, however, was a solitary plane ride home with complete strangers and a head full of grief, conflict, confusion and joy.

For every Vietnam combatant, the DEROS date became a fantasy that on a specific day all problems would cease as he flew swiftly back to the United States. The combatants believed that neither they as individuals nor the United States as a society had changed in their absence. Hundreds of thousands of men lived this fantasy from day to day. The universal popularity of short-timer calendars is evidence of this. A short-timer was a GI who was finishing his tour overseas. The calendars intricately marked off the days remaining of his overseas tour in all manner of designs with 365 spaces to fill in to complete the final design and mark that final day. The GIs overtly displayed these calendars to one another. Those with the shortest time left in the country were praised by others and would lead their peers on a fantasy excursion of how wonderful and carefree life would be as soon as they returned home. For many, this became an almost daily ritual. For those who may have been struggling with a psychological breakdown due to the stresses of combat, the DEROS fantasy served as a major prophylactic to actual overt symptoms of acute combat reaction. For these veterans, it was a hard-fought struggle to hold on until their time came due.

The vast majority of veterans did hold on as evidenced by the low neuropsychiatric casualty rates during the war. Rates of acute combat reaction or acute post-traumatic stress disorder were significantly lowered relative to the two previous wars. As a result, many combatants, who in previous wars might have become psychological statistics, held on somewhat tenuously until the end of their tours in Vietnam.

The struggle for most was an uphill battle. Those motivators that kept the combatant fighting--unit esprit de corps, small group solidarity and an ideological belief that this was the good fight--were not present in Vietnam. Unit esprit was effectively slashed by the DEROS system. Complete strangers, often GIs who were strangers even to a specific unit's specialty, were transferred into units whenever individual rotations were completed. Veterans who had finally reached a level of proficiency had also reached their DEROS date and were rotated. Green troops or "fucking new guys" with almost no experience in combat were thrown into their places. These FNGs were essentially avoided by the unit, at least until after a few months of experience; "short timers" did not want to get themselves killed by relying on inexperienced replacements. Needless to say, the unit culture or esprit was often lost in the lack of communication with the endless leavings and arrivals.

There were other unique aspects of group dynamics in Vietnam. Seasoned troops would stick together, often forming very close small groups for short periods, a normal combat experience noted in previous wars. Some groups formed along racial lines due to lake of unit cohesion within combat outfits. As a seasoned veteran got down to his last two months in Vietnam, he was struck by a strange malady known as the "short timer's syndrome." He would be withdrawn from the field, and if logistically possible, would be settled into a comparatively safe setting for the rest of his tour. His buddies would be left behind in the field without his skills, and he would be left with mixed feelings of joy and guilt. Interestingly, it was rare that a veteran ever wrote to his buddies still in Vietnam once he returned home. It has been an even rarer experience for two or more to get together following the war. This is a strong contrast to the endless reunions of World War II veterans. Feelings of guilt about leaving one's buddies to whatever unknown fate in Vietnam apparently proved so strong that many veterans were often too frightened to attempt to find out what happened to those left behind.

Another factor unique to the Vietnam War was that the ideological basis for the war was very difficult to grasp. In World War II, the United States was very clearly threatened by a uniformed and easily recognizable foe. In Vietnam, it was quite the opposite. It appeared that the whole country was hostile to American forces. The enemy was rarely uniformed, and American troops were often forced to kill women and children combatants. There were no real lines of demarcation, and just about any area was subject to attack. Most American forces had been trained to fight in conventional warfare, in which other human beings are confronted and a block of land is either acquired or lost in the fray. However, in Vietnam, surprise firing devices such as booby traps accounted for a large number of casualties with the human foe rarely sighted. A block of land might be secured but not held. A unit would pull out to another conflict in the vicinity; and, if it wished to return to the same block of land, it would once again have to fight to take that land. It was an endless war with rarely seen foes and no ground gains, just a constant flow of troops in and out of the country. The only observable outcome was an interminable production of maimed, crippled bodies and countless corpses. Some were so disfigured it was hard to tell if they were Vietnamese or American, but they were all dead. The rage that such conditions generated was widespread among American troops. It manifested itself in violence and mistrust toward the Vietnamese, toward the authorities, and toward the society that sent these men to Vietnam and then would not support them. Rather than a war with a just ideological basis, Vietnam became a private war of survival for every American individual involved.

What was especially problematic was that this was America's first teenage war. The age of the average combatant was close to 20. According to Wilson, this period for most adolescents involves a psychological moratorium, during which the individual takes some time to establish a more stable and enduring personality structure and sense of self. Unfortunately for the adolescents who fought the war, the role of combatant versus survivor, as well as the many ambiguous and conflicting values associated with these roles, led to a clear disruption of this moratorium for the young veterans.

Many men, who had either used drugs to deal with the overwhelming stresses of combat or developed other behavioral symptoms of similar stress-related etiology, were not recognized as struggling with acute combat reaction or post-traumatic stress disorder, acute subtype. Rather, their immediate behavior had proven to be problematic to the military, and they were offered an immediate resolution in the form of administrative discharges, often with diagnoses of character disorders.

The administrative discharge proved to be another method to temporarily repress any further overt symptoms. It provided yet another means of ending the stress without becoming an actual physical or psychological casualty. It, therefore, served to lower the actual incidence of psychological breakdown, as did the DEROS. Eventually, this widely used practice came to be questioned, and it was recognized that it had been used as a convenient way to eliminate many individuals who had major psychological problems dating from their combat service.

When the veteran finally returned home, his fantasy about his DEROS date was replaced by a rather harsh reality. As previously stated, World War II vets took weeks, sometimes months, to return home with their buddies. Vietnam vets returned home alone. Many made the transition from ride paddy to Southern California in less than 36 hours. The civilian population of the World War II era had been treated to movies about the struggles of readjustment for veterans (i.e., The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit, The Best Years of Our Lives, Pride of The Marines) to prepare them to help the veteran. The civilian population of the Vietnam era was treated to the horrors of the war on the six o'clock news. They were tired and numb to the whole experience. Some were even fighting mad, and many veterans were witness to this fact. Some World War II veterans came home to victory parades. Vietnam veterans returned in defeat and witnessed antiwar marches and protests. For World War II veterans, resort hotels were taken over and made into redistribution stations to which veterans could bring their wives and devote two weeks to the initial homecoming. For Vietnam veterans, there were screaming antiwar crowds and locked military bases where they processed back into civilian life in two or three days.

Those veterans who were struggling to make it back home finally did. However they had drastically changed, and their world would never seem the same. Their fantasies were just that: fantasy. What they had experienced in Vietnam and on their return to their homes in the United States would leave an indelible mark that many may never erase.

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