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Philly Area Combat Vets Have Lost a Great Ally and Mentor
By Bill Perry
We have lost Dr. Jon Bjornson, 85, of Philadelphia, a Vietnam War veteran and psychiatrist who devoted his life to counseling and healing war veterans and promoting peace. Dr. Bjornson served as a US Army flight surgeon and psychiatrist in Vietnam for a year before he was honorably discharged in 1965 with the rank of major.
Jon Bjornson and Bill Perry.
Doc Bjornson was one, of only two psychiatrists in all of Vietnam, in 1964-1965.
By the mid-1960's, the US had hundreds of thousands of WW II and Korean War Veterans who were considered psychological "damaged goods", way beyond repair. They were tragic reminders of war profiteers' callousness, and they were either hidden away, if they had family, or turned out, into the streets.
The VA treated them for anxiety and depression, and then turned them loose. There was no long term therapy or treatment.
Most of these Vets often self medicated, and many died from exposure, acute alcoholism, TB, and other easily prevented maladies, but few people gave a damn. Dr Jon always cared.
Doc Jon Bjornson was so profoundly affected by his experiences that he shaped the rest of his life around counseling GIs, speaking out against the war, and raising awareness of what became known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He sat on two national panels to determine the cause and treatment of the disorder, and quietly built his reputation with his ingenious methods that included community based Peer Counseling (Vet to Vet, CBT with PE), and, encouraging Vets to grasp the tools that eased their pain.
Dr Jon "saved" scores of us, as we returned home, from Vietnam, and, over the past half century, he continued to cast his net, wider and deeper. There was virtually no funding, in the 60's and 70's, but Doc became a national authority on this new, yet age old, school of care and treatment. Money was not important to Doc.
In 1971, Doc had a hand in both the Vietnam Veterans Against the War Winter Soldier Investigation, and a war crimes hearing called "We Accuse", both of which helped pique interest in Combat Trauma. Doc felt that most shrinks were only interested in fattening their Curriculum Vitae, as they wrote and studied ways to return combat Vets to their units, as viable cogs in the War Machine. This was virtually the only route where government funding was available. Dr Jon didn't play that.
Doc Jon Bjornson, to help us heal, used 360 degree global assessment of what our wars are REALLY about. Lessening guilt was one of his priorities. He was a national authority on PTSD. Doc wanted non-Vietnam veterans to understand that stress disorder patients are still fighting the war within themselves, years after it has ended. "Just learning how to talk about their experiences can be a breakthrough." They numb themselves to deal with the horrors of combat. When the numbness wears off, they may experience flashbacks and nightmares, and may be unable to show warmth or tenderness, or respond to it. Doc developed a multitude of ways to deal with these common symptoms.
When Dr. Jon Bjornson got out of the Army in 1965, he immediately started to lobby other psychiatrists and mental health professionals to recognize that an illness existed amongst most people who experienced dramatic trauma. In turn they lobbied veteran organizations and together they lobbied congress. He also formed the Philadelphia chapter of VVAW, and financed the Delaware Valley Veterans of America, and other anti-war groups, right up until now.
As the members of these groups became politically active, they also lobbied congress.
Finally in March of 1980, 15 years after he began the campaign, the American Psychiatric Association at their annual convention recognized Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS). Due to Dr Jon's proselytizing, and their groups' organizational work, there were finally enough members of congress ready to instruct the VA to recognize and treat it. The VA did so the following month.
The official 1980 findings were listed in the bible of Psychiatric Studies, known as the DSM III—Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (now, updated into the DSM V)
God only knows the secrets Dr. Jon Bjornson has heard from countless veterans throughout his life. This had to have been a very heavy emotional burden to carry. He knew the truth like very few did. He had heard things about the realities of war in private counseling sessions that would have sent patriotism to its death. Americans would have had panic attacks if they had been observers in Dr. Bjornson's private or small group sessions.
Talk about top secret—the absolute truth has the power to dismantle long held core beliefs that societies hang on to for dear life to protect their identity. " Thank you for your service," would have been one myth that would have died a sudden death. "God and Country," would have been another one that would have taken its last breath." Home of the brave and land of the free," would have been another slogan that would have been put to death. The word, Democracy, would have been executed. True emotional freedom has a very powerful and painful price tag.
I and many VVAW brothers, veteran brothers, and tens of thousands of people throughout the world have benefited from Jon's loving efforts to identify, expose, and treat PTSS/PTSD.
Dr Jon ALWAYS had time for us.
"The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away."—Pablo Picasso
Bill Perry is a member of Delaware Valley Veterans For America Disabled American Veteran, VVAW, VFP, VFW, and VVA.
Dr. Jon Bjornson Walkin' to New Orleans, 2006.