Mental health problems caused by war service afflict veterans’ families and children too

By Kellie Bisset, Weekend Australian

It’s been nearly 40 years since Paul Wildes was conscripted to serve with 103 Signal Squadron at Nui Dat, Vietnam. And though a marriage, a child and a lifetime lie between his tour of duty as a young soldier and the man he is today, the nightmares still come.

Now 61, Wildes avoids crowds because he can’t mix with people. Increasing outbursts of uncontrollable anger forced him to seek treatment, and he now relies on medication to check bouts of anger.

Quiet and reserved, like most veterans he doesn’t like to talk about the war. But he’s making an exception today because there’s a nagging doubt in the back of his mind that Vietnam could be the reason he now has a son with bipolar disorder.

Wildes’s 34-year-old son, also Paul, has not worked for nearly four years. His medical cocktail of 13 tablets a day makes him tired and listless, and mildly stressful situations spiral him into anxiety.

Wildes junior is one of a disturbingly high number of Vietnam veterans’ children suffering from mental illness.

Sons and daughters of Vietnam veterans are three times more likely to commit suicide than those of similar age in the general population (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2000, Suicide in Vietnam veterans’ children: Supplementary report no.1).

They are also more likely to die of accidental death, experience depression and abuse alcohol or other drugs.

Since these alarming figures were discovered by accident during a 1998 Department of Veterans Affairs study into the health of Vietnam veterans (AIHW 1998, Morbidity of Vietnam Veterans, Vol 1), momentum has been building for a wider investigation into the mental and physical health of their children. A government-funded feasibility study recommending this should be done is about to land on the desk of new Veterans Affairs Minister Bruce Billson.

But there’s worry in the veteran community that the recent ministerial reshuffle and potential ramifications of such a large-scale health study could see the project delayed, dumped or buried.

”There is something wrong with our children,” says Wildes’s wife Maureen. ”It breaks my heart as a wife that my husband was sent to that filthy war that wrecked his life and now he has to watch his son go downhill. This study just has to go ahead. There is enough evidence to show there is a problem.”

Academics are also in favour of more research, and have joined the veteran community in its calls for action.

In 2002 a lobby group called COVVHS (Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Study) was set up to push the case for big-picture research. The group now says it’s crunch time, and will soon meet Bruce Billson to agitate for funding.

”He is going to get the message that we are not going to go away,” says founding member Sue Parker. ”If they don’t fund a proper health study, I will be very upset if every veteran in Australia does not get up in arms and march on Canberra.” Parker and her husband Geoff, who returned from Vietnam in 1969, have two children: one with a serious bowel condition and the other with a mental illness.

She says if the politicians are worried about compensation claims, they needn’t be: ”That is not where we are coming from.” Rather, she says, ”it’s about getting early medical help for those children young enough to benefit and identifying who they are so we know who to target for assistance.”

Newly-appointed veterans affairs minister Bruce Billson is no stranger to the cause. His electorate of Dunkley in Victoria has a large veteran community, and he’s well aware of the issue.

By all accounts he is well liked and respected by many veterans. But he now faces the challenge of following through on this goodwill from the position of a new minister with budget constraints.
”This is a very important matter [but] it is early days and I resist the temptation to make any grand pronouncements,” Billson says. ”Our starting position is we recognise that children of Vietnam veterans do experience higher rates of some illness and disease than the wider population. The Government has a pretty good record in responding to the concerns of Vietnam veterans and their families, and I am keen to see what the feasibility study identifies.”

Billson says he has marked the issue a priority with the Department of Veterans Affairs. If he does give the green light to funding a full-scale epidemiological study, it won’t come cheap and is likely to take three to five years.

According to Professor Hedley Peach, conducting research into veterans’ sons and daughters is vital, not only to examine in detail the reasons behind their poor health but to set up support services that work for them.

He is also eager for doctors to consider war service when treating patients, as in many cases it could help diagnosis (see box).

Peach, a member of the scientific committee advising the Government on the feasibility study and professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne, says the Government should also consider studying grandchildren of Vietnam veterans to avoid more problems spiralling down through the generations.

”If the sons and daughters have got mental health problems and have young children themselves, what effect will that have on the grandchildren? We have to break the cycle.”

He suggests stressful familial environments could be behind the children’s mental health problems, already highlighted by existing research. While many people with mental illness have a genetic predisposition to their condition, veterans were screened for mental illness before they went into the service, making stress a more likely factor in the children’s ill health.

”In studies done by clinical psychologists running PTSD clinics for Vietnam veterans, children have reported a high level of dysfunction in families,” he says. ”When we focused on Agent Orange so much in the past we missed the bigger picture. We are seeing the same sorts of problems in veterans of the Iraq and Gulf Wars, and fighters in World War II are now saying they suffered from the same problems. It is not due to any specific war, it is the generic effect of combat.”

The Australian Gulf War Veterans Health Study, conducted in 2003 by researchers at Monash University, supports this view.

The research found that Gulf War veterans had a greater risk of PTSD, other anxiety disorders, depression and substance abuse compared to a comparison group — similar problems to those found in Vietnam veterans.

This means wide ramifications for the results of a study finding conclusive links between war service and the health of veterans’ offspring. The Government could be looking at a major overhaul of the way it deals with returning soldiers.

This is why people such as Anthony Marinac have their doubts the study will get off the ground.
The son of a Vietnam veteran, Marinac has never suffered ill health but became ”pissed off” when he learned that sons and daughters of veterans were killing themselves. He has since written a book exploring their experiences. ”If you look at the history of relations between the Vietnam veterans and the Government, the Government has often taken an approach of minimising its potential liability,” he says. ”The Government can get off scot-free if they like; the question is whether this is the right thing to do. I suspect they are struggling with this. Unless they are prepared to do what the outcomes of the research suggest, it is much easier to stop people from asking the question rather than saying why you won’t provide the answer.”

Marinac says research needs to be done now, not only to put the question to rest, but because the children of veterans are ageing. Leaving it too late will lose the opportunity to gather meaningful information.

Although the study would be a costly exercise, he suggests there would be potential savings to the health system if this group at risk of mental illness was identified and treated appropriately and early.

Acting national president of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia Ron Coxon is more optimistic that the Government will come to the party, given that through the health system it is already funding the problems of many of these children.

While some of them may be using health services, most don’t avail themselves of the Vietnam veterans counselling service, expanded to include sons and daughters following the emergence of the suicide statistics.

Hedley Peach says only 2 per cent of children (there are an estimated 120,000) use the service and the Government needs to investigate why.

”If we are going to get involved in military activities as a country either in a peacekeeping role or whatever, we have got to realise that the impact of sending young people to war is not just going to be on the person who goes to war,” Peach says.

”We should be thinking of providing services for the entire family for life.”

This is something Paul Wildes would dearly love to see. ”I would like to see [my son’s] condition treated properly and acknowledged, and that he will be looked after if Maureen and I suddenly drop off the end,” he says.

Though tired of fighting, Wildes says this battle is one that needs to be fought.

His wife Maureen is even more adamant. ”I will go to my grave fighting for this. Not only for my son but for the other children.”

Vietnam Legacy

Children of Vietnam veterans are:

  • Three times more likely to commit suicide
  • 1.2 times more likely to die from illness
  • 1.8 times more likely to die by accident.

Of the Vietnam veterans themselves:

  • 30% report experiencing panic attacks
  • 31% report suffering post-traumatic stress disorder
  • 41% report anxiety disorders
  • 45% report depression
  • About 30% report a problem with alcohol
  • 30% report their partners suffer from stress, anxiety or depression.

Sources: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 1998 and 2000