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Stars, Bars and Stripes: A History of Incarcerated Veterans Since Vietnam
By Jason A. Higgins
In the aftermath of the American War in Vietnam, veterans were more likely to be imprisoned than non-veterans. As a historian, it is my job to ask why; as an oral historian, I look to veterans for the answers. As Vietnam Veterans Against the War knows all too well, many veterans returned to the "world" still carrying the weight of unreconciled memories of participating in an unpopular war. Without support networks, survivors of trauma experienced readjustment challenges that left many at risk of imprisonment. The Incarcerated Veterans Project seeks to bring justice to hundreds of thousands of US military veterans in prison or on parole, and I'm asking readers of The Veteran to help reach those goals.
My name is Jason Higgins. I am a Ph.D. student in American History at UMass Amherst, researching the connections between military-related trauma and imprisonment. As an oral historian, I have interviewed over fifty veterans of war over the past six years.
I am currently conducting an Incarcerated Veterans Oral History Project to give voice to the most invisible population of veterans in the country. This project documents the experiences of incarcerated veterans from the Vietnam War to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. If possible, I record audio and video but can also interview via telephone or correspond with letters. I uphold the best practices of the Oral History Association, including informed consent. I plan to archive these oral histories in the W.E.B. DuBois Library and the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, including the experiences of incarcerated veterans in the history of the United States. I have recently begun interviewing veterans, but I still need to locate and contact more veterans imprisoned after war, especially Vietnam.
This project investigates the relationship between trauma and the difficulties of postwar readjustment. To connect mass incarceration to the Vietnam War, my research examines the ways in which trauma, disability, institutional racism, discharge status, and the disparities in the criminal justice system contributed to the imprisonment rates of hundreds of thousands of veterans.
Historians have customarily overlooked the postwar lives of veterans, and none have adequately sought to preserve the experiences of imprisoned veterans. The Department of Justice reported that 73,000 veterans were incarcerated in 1978: this figure accounts for one-fourth of the total prison population.
Many traumatized veterans reintegrated from Vietnam without access to mental health services or community support. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-III) officially recognized PTSD in 1980, but the court systems have only recently begun to acknowledge the effects of PTSD in criminal cases involving war veterans.
Since the War on Drugs, the total number of American citizens in prison increased from 300,000 to 1.5 million. Thanks to grassroots organizations and activist veterans, the growth rate of incarcerated veteran populations did not rise as exponentially as numbers for the rest of the country, but since 1978, the total number still doubled.
As one of the enduring lessons of the American War in Vietnam, many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came home to a more welcoming public reception, but "Support the Troops" rarely translates into action. Any substantial help typically comes from other veterans, their organizations or lobbying groups. Because of efforts by these groups, survivors of military trauma today have more rehabilitation systems in place to help them transition to peace.
Veterans who self-medicate with alcohol and drugs have Veterans Treatment Court, which helps them break the cycle of trauma and incarceration. However, most Veterans Treatment Courts disqualify the most serious offenders and felons, those in most desperate need of help. According to the Department of Justice report in 2012, sixty-four percent of veterans in prison were charged with violent assault. None of these veterans is eligible for the rehabilitation court programs.
Veterans with less-than-honorable discharges are also denied VA benefits, health care, disability benefits, home loans, job-training, and education programs. With cruel irony, military service members are routinely discharged with less-than-honorable status from incidents related to their PTSD and then denied mental health care treatment because of their discharge.
As a result of the recent increase in veteran suicides, the VA changed its policy to allow emergent care for suicidal veterans. For many, though, these changes are too little, too late.
Vietnam veterans had all the problems that combat trauma survivors have today, with none of the resources. Many have been in and out of prison since coming home, and theirs are the voices we need to hear. Vietnam veterans in prison, unfortunately, are the least accessible and the most vulnerable, as the generation gets older. Many are now institutionalized, left in their prison cells and worlds of isolation, out of sight and out of mind of the American public.
But, I intend to make sure they are not forgotten to history. My oral history project seeks to humanize incarcerated veterans, to bring them out of the shadows of the criminal justice system and preserve their testimonies for future generations.
I am asking members of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War to share my project and bring awareness to the systemic crises facing military service men and women. I hope this newspaper will help me extend an invitation to veterans willing to talk about their experiences in the military and the criminal justice system. Thank you.
Write to me at:
Jason A. Higgins
Department of History
161 Presidents Drive
Amherst, MA 01003-9312
Some short clips of recent interviews can be found on my social media page; please like and share: https://m.facebook.com/incarceratedveteranshistory/
Jason A. Higgins, a Ph.D. student in American History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, focuses on the American War in Vietnam. He earned a Master's in English from Oklahoma State University and wrote his thesis on Lew Puller's Fortunate Son and narratives of trauma, disability, and veteran suicide.