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Deadly aftermath for Vietnam veterans.

Deadly aftermath for Vietnam veterans

Vietnam combat veterans had a muchhigher death rate in the first five years out of the service than veterans who had served elsewhere in the same period, according to a study by scientists at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. Violent deaths, including automobile accidents, suicides, homicides and drug overdoses, accounted for most of the difference.

This pattern is similar to that found inWorld War II and Korean War combat veterans, say the investigators in the Feb. 13 JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION. Unlike veterans of the two prior wars, however, Vietnam combat survivors had a persistent elevation of drug-related deaths that continued through the end of the study in December 1983.

The researchers conclude that "thepostservice excess of traumatic deaths among Vietnam veterans is probably due to unusual stresses endured while stationed in a hostile fire zone.' But the data do not clarify whether specific factors, such as exposure to the her-bicide Agent Orange, contracting infectious diseases in Vietnam, lack of support on returning home or suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, led to the increase in violent deaths.

The study compared postservicemortality rates of 9,324 Vietnam veterans with those of 8,989 veterans who served at the same time in Korea, West Germany and the United States. The Vietnam veterans had enlisted in infantry, armor, artillery or combat engineering units.

The researchers found a 45 percenthigher death rate among Vietnam veterans in the five years after discharge. In addition, the Vietnam group had 72 percent more suicides, 93 percent more automobile fatalities, and 69 percent more posioning deaths, mostly from drug overdoses. By 1983, deaths among Vietnam veterans remained 17 percent higher than deaths among the other veterans.

For the entire study period, Vietnamveterans had a markedly lower number of deaths due to heart or blood vessel diseases. The reason for this surprising finding, say the researchers, is unclear. Another recent study found a similarly elevated death rate from external causes among Australian Vietnam veterans in comparison who non-Vietnam veterans, but mortality from cardiovascular diseases was also much greater among the Vietnam group.

While the CDC study points to importantmortality trends for Vietnam combat veterans, the reasons for the trends remain unclear, says psychologist Terence Keane of the Boston Veterans Administration Medical Center. "[The CDC researchers] would loke to conclude that excess stress experienced during combat leads to excess mortality after the war, but they can't really do that,' he asserts. "Did a peculiar virus in Vietnam or exposure to Agent Orange lead to behavior problems later on? Your guess is as good as mine.'

Another possible factor in the elevateddeath rates, notes Keane, is post-traumatic stress disorder, a severe stress response that afflicts a substantial number of Vietnam veterans with heavy combat duty or participation in abusive violence (SN: 4/28/84, p.261). Only a prospective study could uncover links between this disorder and eventual death rates.

The Veterans Administration is conductinga nationwide study of Vietnam veterans' postwar adjustment, says Keane, including a close look at post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. The project, which involves interviews and psychological testing of about 3,000 veterans, will be completed in October.
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Title Annotation:higher death rate in first five years out of service
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Feb 21, 1987
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