Memorandum: Accelerated Mortality Rates of Vietnam Veterans

July 1, 1999


During the early 1980s, while first living in Franklin County, Massachusetts, I became active with other Vietnam veterans in response to the myriad physical, psychological, and social problems we seemed to be experiencing. I was active in a local Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) chapter, and subsequently became director of the state-funded Western Massachusetts Agent Orange Information Project, and later, executive director of a veterans outreach center.

Through numerous conversations and formal interviews with hundreds of veterans I began to establish an empirical substantiation of the syndrome of problems that certainly is one of the tragic legacies of the Vietnam War (i.e., the war against the Vietnamese which the Vietnamese call "the American War"). Grasping the depth of the prevailing sense of shame, malaise, and deteriorating physical and mental health, I began to understand more deeply both the burden and incredible potential wisdom of the war, not just for veterans, but for the entire American society. Both the syndrome known as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), often delayed for a decade or more enabling the psyche time to integrate the horrible realities that the Vietnam experience possesses for many, and exposure to the most intensive application of chemical warfare in history by the Pentagon (in cahoots with seven chemical companies, including Monsanto and Dow), directly contributed to a myriad of symptoms, physical, emotional, and psychic. A pattern of extraordinary sickness and depression for this age group of young males (age 30-45 in 1984-85) is believed unprecedented in the United States.

Nineteen million gallons of Agents Orange, Blue, White, and Purple were sprayed over an area the size of Rhode Island and Massachusetts combined (over 6 million acres), applied up to 14 times the recommended domestic agricultural application rate. Subsequently, these chemicals have been banned in the U.S. due to their intense toxicity, being considered, perhaps, the most potent cancer-causing substance ever studied by the Environmental Protection Agency. It should be noted that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, based on studies conducted by the National Academy of Sciences ‘ Institute of Medicine, now presumes the following conditions as service-connected for Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange or other herbicides:


  • Chloracne
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Soft tissue sarcoma
  • Hodgkin’s disease
  • Porphyria cutanea tarda
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Respiratory cancers (including cancers of the lung, larynx, trachea and bronchus)
  • Prostate cancer
  • Peripheral neuropathy (acute or subacute)
  • Spina bifida in children of Vietnam veterans

Mortality Rates for Vietnam Veterans

There have been a number of representations and claims over the years that more Vietnam veterans have died from suicide since returning from the war than the 58,000-plus who died in the war. There is no certain way for determining precise data on veterans’ suicides. My involvement with many physically and mentally troubled veterans, and search of "scientific" data about the subject of mortality rates of Vietnam veterans, produced the following information by mid-1986.


When first conversing with local veterans in rural Franklin County, Massachusetts in mid-1983, they informed me that there had been four suicides of local Vietnam veterans between 1981 and June 1983.

Phil Girard, in 1982 the Senior Vice President, Agent Orange Victims International, reported at a public meeting at Greenfield, Massachusetts Community College (April 17) that their organizational research indicated that "from the end of the war to 1981 there have been 109,000 veterans who have died."

An unpublished manuscript, Vietnam Veterans, by Tom Williams, University of Denver School of Professional Psychology, April 1979, concluded that "More Vietnam veterans have died since the war by their own hand than were actually killed in Vietnam."

Testimony presented to the Massachusetts Commission on the Concerns of Vietnam veterans in Greenfield, Massachusetts on May 4, 1982, declared that "Vietnam veterans have nationally averaged 28 suicides a day since 1975, amounting to over 70,000."

"Suicide rates 33% higher than the national average rate" were reported in The Forgotten Warrior Project by John P. Wilson, Cleveland State University, 1978. This definitive study was originally titled, Identity, Ideology and Crisis: The Vietnam Veteran in Transition.

A classified VA memo dated 6/30/82 identified a total of approximately 300,000 deaths occurring among Vietnam-era veterans from 1965-1981 calculated by adding together deaths in-service with an actuarial estimate of the number of Vietnam-era veterans who have died since returning to civilian life, a much higher figure than estimated by the VA in previous reports. Research conducted by the U.S. Center for Disease Control in the early 1980s had found a number of illnesses and suicides contributing to elevated death rates for Vietnam veterans than for non-veterans in the same age group.

An alarming disparity in official VA figures reporting a dramatic decrease in the estimated number of Vietnam Era Veterans in Civilian Life from September 30, 1981 to March 31, 1983, reveals a loss of 793,000 Vietnam-era veterans in that 18-month period. The disparity was never explained. I suggest four possible explanations: (1) changed, inconsistent, and/or mistaken reporting and estimation procedures; (2) a large emigration of Vietnam-era veterans out of the U.S.; (3) a high mortality rate for Vietnam-era veterans; or (4) a combination of any and/or all of the above explanations.

On Monday, January 28, 1985, the Massachusetts Agent Orange Program of the State Office of Commissioner of Veterans’ Services released results of its study, Mortality Among Vietnam Veterans in Massachusetts, 1972-1983. The one-year study revealed that deaths due to suicides and motor vehicle accidents, along with kidney cancer, were "significantly elevated" among Vietnam veterans compared to non-veteran Massachusetts males for the study period 1972-1983.

A comprehensive research study by the University of California at San Francisco published in the March 6, 1986 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, titled "Delayed Effects of the Military Draft on Mortality," disclosed that Vietnam veterans were 86% more likely than non-veterans to die of suicide in the years after the war, and 53% more likely to die in traffic accidents. The researchers claim that this study of California and Pennsylvania men is the first to show a cause-and-effect relationship between military service during the Vietnam War and an unusual risk of suicide.

From Summer 1983 through Summer 1985 there were seven known additional suicides of Vietnam veterans in the Franklin-Hampshire County area of Massachusetts. Because one’s veteran status is often not known at time of death, whether by suicide or other cause, and because suicides are often masked under causes listed as single-car accidents, drug or alcohol overdose, etc., actual deaths by suicide remain unknown. Other veterans whom I knew in the 1982-1985 time period died of alcohol and drug abuse.

A November 1, 1984 U.S. House Report 98-1167, Diversion of Funds from Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Counseling Program, by the Committee on Government Operations, concluded that "the suicide rate among Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD is high . . . not because of massive underlying neuroses, but as a result of the harsh treatment they received in Vietnam, and experiences upon returning to the U.S." Dr. Arnold, Chief of Psychiatry at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona at the time, and an acknowledged expert on PTSD, explained to the Committee that the VA’s most rece
nt statistics indicate that while Vietnam veterans make up only about 14% of the veterans they treat, Vietnam veterans constitute 30% of the suicides of all veterans treated by the VA, over-contributing substantially to the total number of suicides of patients who are treated by the VA.


There is no certain way of knowing how many Vietnam veterans have died through suicide, motor vehicle "accidents," or illnesses. The available evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, however, suggests elevated mortality rates from suicides, motor vehicle accidents, and certain cancers for Vietnam veterans. In some cases the data suggests mortality rates are "significantly elevated."


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    Memorandum: Accelerated Mortality Rates of Vietnam Veterans | S. Brian Willson

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