The principal difference between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives.
- Mark Twain

The Three Walls Behind the Wall
The Myth of Vietnam Veteran Suicide

by Michael Kelley
© Copyright 1997
All rights reserved.

The origins of a myth are often rooted in fact and tangible experience. Over time, embellishment and exaggeration give life and color to a fact's humble beginnings, and before you know it, Big Foot is roaming the woods of the Northwest, the neighbors are being harvested by bug-eyed, gray-skinned aliens who havenít the sense to wear warm clothing and Elvis is frequenting Wyoming coffee shops.
Over the last three decades, a host of unscrupulous minstrels have danced heavily upon the reputation of the veterans of the American War in Vietnam, sowing rumor into fact on the fertile fields of an all too willing, gullible and complicit American press.

Saddest of all perhaps is the fact the many Vietnam veterans themselves have been duped into embracing the same folklore as if it were Gospel, tricked into believing the worst in themselves against all instinct and evidence to the contrary. Beginning in 1980, Vietnam veterans first fell victim to a particularly pernicious fable, one that has grown to startling proportions.

A typical example can be found in an article entitled Healing My Own Wounds, an article published in a 1996 issue of The California Zephyr. Among its otherwise thoughtful observations is a statement emblematic of a general misrepresentation now the cause of severe heartburn among many of us whom it colors. Without attribution of any sort, the author emphasizes our war's tragic legacy by informing us that "Since the end of the Vietnam War, approximately 150,000 veterans have taken their own lives."1

Although it has been widely reported since 1980 that over 50,000 Vietnam veterans have died by their own hand, the 150,000 figure is a substantial, though logical, extrapolation of those early estimates.

Certainly an apparent suicide rate among the survivors of a war three times higher than the war's death rate would constitute a health crisis of staggering proportions. But while it is likely the author was simply passing on a restatement of popular speculation about that war's long-term effects, that otherwise unsupported assertion serves to perpetuate perhaps the most tenacious and destructive myth to emerge from the Vietnam experience.

The simple truth is that no factual basis for either estimate (or anything in between) has ever been printed. None whatsoever.

But if the rumored figures have no factual basis, then just where did they come from in the first place and, more importantly, is there any substance to those origins? Fortunately, the primary research in that regard was published in a 1990 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry:

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