My time as an Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellow has proven fruitful for my research on war-related trauma and American medical personnel who served in the Vietnam War, writes Nicole Cassie. Accessing British Library psychology records has supported my theory that the trauma of medical personnel in Vietnam does not easily fit into existing categories of trauma.
Firstly, I’d like to express my gratitude to the British Association of American Studies and the Eccles Centre, for supporting my research at the British Library, which has proven to be very fruitful. I also appreciated the opportunity to speak as part of the Eccles Centre’s Summer Scholars series, especially considering this was the first chance I’ve had to speak to a more general audience about my research. I had some really interesting feedback, not least from a woman whose father had served as a commanding officer in an Army Medical Hospital during the Korean War.
I am currently a second year PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, and my research focuses on American medical personnel who served in the Vietnam War. Now that I’m approaching the daunting third year of my PhD, the aim of this research trip was to read secondary literature and a number of psychological studies to support the theories I have developed so far about the manifestation of war-related trauma in medical staff. These theories are based upon my analysis of oral history interviews conducted after 2001, which I transcribed at the Library of Congress last summer. The research will inform the most important chapter of my thesis with the working title ‘About Trauma.’ It essentially places the post-war readjustment issues faced by medical veterans into the context of the socio-cultural and medical history of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
My research began with a series of texts from the Routledge Psychological Stress Series, including the work of American military veterans and psychiatrists Raymond Scurfield and Katherine Platoni, and renowned Vietnam veteran turned traumatology pioneer, Charles R Figley. One of the central research questions in my thesis is how and why have some medical veterans identified as traumatised, while others have remained resilient? I do not necessarily believe that these are rigidly defined conceptual frameworks, but rather that some medical veterans have been able to cope and recover from the horrors of war more effectively than others.
In Healing War Trauma: A Handbook of Creative Approaches Scurfield and Platoni examine the limitations of the approach and treatments for PTSD and related disorders currently offered by the Veterans Administration (VA). Their critique helps to support my theories about why medical veterans, especially women who served as nurses, have found the VA difficult to approach and/or have not achieved a positive outcome from treatment geared towards soldiers. The book features a number of articles which review the successes and limitations of more creative and individualized treatments and self-help techniques, such advocacy as healing, understanding the content of traumatic dreams, and tackling guilt and feelings of excessive responsibility. These articles provided me with some quantitative evidence to support my qualitative analysis, which criticises the treatment of all veterans as a homogenous group.
Next, I wanted to further develop my psychological understanding of the concept known as ‘compassion fatigue,’ which is also referred to a Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder (or STSD), in caregivers. Not to give too much away, but I do not think that medical Vietnam veterans’ trauma fits into this category as neatly as civilian medical and caregiving staff do. Figley has written about his own experiences and subsequent research into the traumatic effects of caring for the traumatized and suffering, particularly in an autobiographical essay featured in Trauma and its Wake. Secondly, I read Patrick J. Morrissette’s book The Pain of Helping, which further explores STSD as a construct and how it affects different populations.
Finally, I consulted psychological studies that delve into the relationship between the personal and situational variables, which affect the type of posttraumatic symptoms a person suffers. I argue throughout my thesis that whilst medical service could be just as traumatic as combat service in Vietnam, their work and responsibilities were distinct. Therefore the emotional repercussions of witnessing and participating in death and mutilation as a medic are surely experienced differently. For instance, I have found that some medics felt an acute sense of betrayal and guilt, but not for the same reasons as soldiers. These psychological studies have filled in some of the holes in my theories regarding emotions and traumatic stress with medical evidence and symptomology.
Going forward, I am now prepared to go back and write the next chapter of my thesis and I have also formed a research plan for this coming semester. I was able to consult the Veterans Administration’s Selected Bibliographic Guide on Post-Traumatic Stress IV and the Eccles Centre’s bibliographic guide on The United States and the Vietnam War during my time at the British Library. After consulting a number of the texts from my list I narrowed down the selection I will request via Inter-Library Loan this semester. Overall, I had a productive trip and it was well worth making the journey from Glasgow to enjoy my first visit to the library and some of London’s glorious summer sun!
Nicole Cassie is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow.