Vietnam, 1971. That year, two congressmen returned with shocking news from an official trip to the war-torn country. In their report titled “The World Heroin Problem,” Representatives Morgan Murphy from Illinois and Robert Steele of Connecticut estimated that between twenty-five thousand to thirty-seven thousand soldiers were addicted to heroin—some 10 to 15 percent of deployed servicemen. Fearing a wave of drug-dependent soldiers returning to US shores, Murphy and Steel remarked, “The Vietnam War is truly coming home to haunt us.”
In response to rising public fears, President Nixon created the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention and appointed Dr. Jerome Jaffe to head the division. One of Jaffe’s first actions was to commission a study to track veterans as they returned stateside. Jaffe called on Dr. Lee Robins, a well-regarded psychiatric researcher, to collect data on every enlisted man leaving Vietnam. The news was even worse than expected. Robins found that “around 20 percent of the soldiers self-identified as addicts.”
However, something unexpected occurred when these soldiers returned home. The vast majority of soldiers lost their addictions when they left the war. “The legend has always been that if you get hooked on heroin you never get off. The exception is supposed to be a miracle or mistake. The Vietnam veterans have proven otherwise,” Jaffe was quoted. During their first year home, only 5 percent of vets were addicted to any sort of narcotic.26
The data was hard to believe. Whereas treatment programs in the United States reported heroin relapse rates at over 80 percent, Robins’ study turned the numbers upside down.
Instead of relapsing, nearly all the soldiers stayed clean. Jaffe says of Robins, “Everyone thought [that] there was somehow she was lying, or [that] she did something wrong, or [that] she was politically influenced. . . . She spent months, if not years, trying to defend the integrity of the study.” Forty years later, Robins’ research is no longer controversial or disputed.
When the soldiers were taken out of the stressful environment of war, the vast majority stopped using. But how can that be? The veterans wouldn’t have had much trouble finding heroin (the product). It’s also unlikely they had all undergone a sudden change in the way they handled their pain (the person). What then explained the massive discrepancy in relapse rates between the returning soldiers and civilians addicted to heroin?
The answer lies in the problems the veterans left behind in Vietnam. For young soldiers looking for a way out, heroin provided an escape from the nightmare of war. Who could blame them? Drafted into a war you didn’t want to fight, killing at the request of often incompetent officers, the war left many young men with few options to ease their minds. But when their environment changed, so did their addictions.
Meanwhile, civilian addicts, then and now, can’t be helicoptered out of their problems. The pain of childhood trauma, poverty, racism, homelessness, or other serious hardships can’t be left behind. Whether soldier or civilian, circumstances can inflict people with problems, and therefore pain, that they can’t always handle on their own.