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Vietnam veterans' recovery comes full circle

April 19, 2013
by David J. Powell, PhD
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Here’s an idea: Offer the gift of recovery to others where the concept of recovery is foreign. What if we offered healthy images to show that recovery from addiction is possible and that treatment works? What if people in recovery were willing to share their experience, strength and hope for recovery in places where recovery does not seem possible?

Such was the goal of the Gift of Recovery tour to Vietnam in January 2013. A small group of U.S. veterans of the American War (as it is termed in Vietnam), with long, stable histories of recovery and decades of professional experience in the addiction field, traveled to Vietnam to share their stories. The goals were as follows:

1.      For faculty to present to health care professionals, medical personnel and patients in treatment on core issues in addiction, such as the neurobiology of addiction, counseling skills, 12-Step principles, family counseling approaches, etc.

2.      For faculty to demonstrate the value of recovery support programs and a range of services.

3.      For faculty to train medical personnel in the Vietnamese military on appropriate methods for the prevention, intervention and treatment of substance abuse in the military.

The concept of the Gift of Recovery for Vietnam was born three years ago. I wondered what would happen if a group of American veterans from the Vietnam War were to travel to Vietnam to share their experiences. Often, doctors in other countries do not think it is possible that well-dressed, distinguished professionals are people in recovery. They say, “You can’t be an addict. You are a professional.”

In 2000, I brought four doctors from hospitals in China to attend the 65th Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) conference in Minneapolis. Several of the Chinese doctors remarked, upon seeing women and teenagers attending AA meetings, “Why are they here? Women and youth cannot be alcoholics.” The concept of recovery is essential for people from other countries, especially doctors, to see firsthand.

Moving presentations

In January 2013, the Gift of Recovery visit occurred in Vietnam. A group of four Americans, three of whom had been in Vietnam 40 years ago as U.S. military personnel, traveled to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Hai Phong to tell their stories of recovery. As addiction professionals, they also gave presentations at medical schools on the neurobiology of addictions, taught counseling skills at methadone maintenance clinics, met with patients and their families, and conducted 12-Step meetings with patients.  Patients and doctors sat stunned to hear these individuals’ recovery stories, often with tears of joy in their eyes.

At one AA meeting, as a U.S. Marine told of his drug addiction after his participation in the war, tears streamed down the face of a Vietnamese man with a year of sobriety. (A knowing smile was on the faces of others, with a sense that the American veterans knew what their Vietnamese friends have been through). This man nodded and smiled every time the veteran told of his dependence on drugs and the thousand times he promised himself and his family he’d stop using. The participants saw that people can recover from addiction.

As one of our veterans spoke of his 30-plus years in recovery, a methadone maintenance patient with just three months in recovery said, “I could never have 30 years clean and sober.” Our veteran responded, “You don’t need to think about that. Just how will you stay sober today? One day at a time.”

Concepts that we hold dear about recovery are foreign to so many around the world. They need to be shown that people can get well. They need to hear stories of experience, strength and hope.

What we experienced

For the Gift of Recovery team, the experience of being back in Vietnam under totally different circumstances was life-changing. There was an emotion of gratitude as well as making amends for prior actions. There was a constant attitude of gratitude that pervaded the experience.

The team also experienced sadness for the past. One member of the team, at a lecture at a medical university, asked the forgiveness of the audience, although it was likely that no one in the audience was alive 40 years ago when the team member was last in Vietnam. Some members of the team broke down weeping, with a profound sense of release and acceptance. The Band of Brothers on the team joined together to share a positive message of hope with those who once might have been adversaries.

Big Books, not bombs

Retired Navy Capt. Thomas Glancy, a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, recently suggested to me that instead of flying bombing missions over Vietnam, maybe we should have dropped copies of the Sears catalog into villages. Then, we could have given the people a week to read the catalog and ogle the clothing and goods they could buy. Two weeks later, we could have flown other missions dropping credit cards with available purchasing power.

In the long run, it would have been much cheaper, and think of all the friends we would have had—although residents of Saigon wearing winter parkas might have looked a bit strange. Instead of spending the past 40 years uncovering unexploded ordnance near the former DMZ, we’d be finding rusting refrigerators.

This humorous idea started me thinking: What if we dropped thousands of Big Books translated into the local language on Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or any other country with which we are warring? We not only would save on warfare but also would help people deal with addiction issues. The U.S. military industrial complex might not be as happy if we dropped Big Books and not bombs, but the book manufacturers would be delighted.