Vietnam War Documentary on PBS Could Trigger PTSD for Veterans, Government Says

A new PBS documentary on the Vietnam War offers a powerful, in-depth look at one of the most trying periods in U.S. history, and some at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are concerned it could stir up deeply painful emotions for veterans of the conflict.

The VA has partnered with PBS to offer counseling to vets with PTSD who might find watching the documentary too difficult. 

"It could bring up some memories [veterans] don't want to deal with. It could bring up some memories they may need to deal with," Henry Peterson, a chaplain at the VA in San Diego who counsels vets with PTSD, told NCPR

20_09_Vietnam_veterans American soldiers and Vietnamese refugees returning to the town of Hue, in Vietnam on March 1, 1968. Getty Images

New Hampshire Representative Steve Shurtleff, who served in Vietnam, is encouraging vets to take advantage of the counseling services offered by the VA. 

"Those of us who served in Vietnam, I think, tend to be closed-mouth and don't really want to talk a lot about it," Shurtleff told NHPR. "I think it's healthy that we do and talk to people that understand and can possibly give us some advice to deal with the emotions we're still feeling."

More than 200,000 Vietnam vets continue to have full war-zone-related PTSD decades after the war, according to a 2015 study spearheaded by Dr. Charles R. Marmar of the New York University Langone Medical Center.

War movies, in particular, have been known to trigger PTSD symptoms for vets, according to Tina Mayes, a VA staff psychologist. 

"I would say the majority of veterans that I work with, when their symptoms are high, they're actively avoiding any media," Mayes told NCPR.

When Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998, the VA set up a hotline for vets who found themselves reliving the horrors of World War II due to the film's graphic imagery. Hundreds of veterans ended up calling in

Some veterans say they won't watch the documentary—produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick—largely because they don't want to revisit the negativity and anti-war sentiments they were met with upon returning from Vietnam, according to Dr. Tom Bellino, who was a Navy psychologist during the war. 

"There is no doubt that all war is hell, but without the support of the people who send you into that war...it is an even greater hell," Bellino recently wrote. He hopes the new documentary helps Vietnam vets "put away some of the demons that often come at night."

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