The VVA Veteran — March/April 2011
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Not Dead Yet
Patrick S. Brady

Mortality Rates Among Vietnam Veterans

Recently, the Internet has beena wash with dire predictions of the imminent demise of all Vietnam veterans. Both alarmed and suspicious, Vietnam veteran Pat Brady did some investigating.Here’s what he found.

“If you’re alive and reading this, how does it feel to be among the last one-third of all the U. S. Vets who served in Vietnam?” Like a ritual salute, this question has passed from one veteran website to another in the past 18 months, accompanied by a drumbeat of numbers: 711,000Vietnam veterans died between 1995 and 2000, or 142,000 deaths every year, 390 every day; no more than 850,000 Vietnam veterans remain out of 2.7 million, meaning at least 1.8 million have fallen to the swift scythe of the Grim Reaper; and “only the few” will still be around by 2015. “We died in ’Nam,” reckoned one veteran, “just haven’t fallen over yet.”

This actuarial cadence-count went viral on “Before They Go,” a nine-minute video posted on YouTube by Veterans Appreciation Alliance, a group seeking sponsors and contributions for its Grateful Red, White & Blue Appreciation Tour. One website hailed the video as a “warning that our Vietnam vets are dying off rapidly, and we need to give them a proper ‘Welcome Home’ before they are gone.” Many veterans proved quite ready to believe that their comrades were falling fast to Agent Orange, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide.

But others were skeptical. Passing through the blogosphere, the supposed daily death toll of 390 Vietnam veterans sprouted a spurious pedigree, with several websites attributing it to the Naval Health Research Center. This was news to the Center, whose Public Affairs Office called on the makers of “Before They Go” to remove the bogus attribution. The nine minute video disappeared from You Tube by mid-April 2010, replaced by a four-minute version cleansed of the offending mortality figures.

Yet the mournful numbers still pop up all over the Internet. Are they true? Where did they come from? First, we must face the limits of our knowledge: No one knows for sure how many in-country Vietnam veterans are alive. So anyone who tells you he is sure is making it up.

The number living must be measured against a baseline of those who were there in the first place. But no one is sure of that number either, despite a surfeit of surveys and estimates. The Department of Defense kept a consolidated file of those who died in the Vietnam War but not of those who fought it. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and almanacs of thewar are conspicuously silent about how many actually saw duty in Vietnam.

To make up for the lack of an in-country master list, estimates and surveys have started with figures for those who served worldwide during the Vietnam era, and for those who served in the Vietnam theater, a term that includes Vietnam, its coastal waters, Laos, Cambodia, and sometimes Thailand.

Defining the era presents problems of its own, with Section 101(29) of the U.S. Code for Veterans offering two definitions of the Vietnam era: 1) February 28, 1961, to May 7, 1975, for veterans who served in Vietnam; and 2) August 5, 1964, to May 7, 1975, for those who served elsewhere. These are the same parameters used to determine eligibility for membership in VVA.Adding to the confusion, some estimates treat the Vietnam era as ending not in 1975, but in 1973, the year of the Paris Peace Accords. So different estimates of those who served and those who survive produce different results, varying according to the location of service (Vietnam itself or the Vietnam theater) and time covered (usually starting in 1961, 1964, or even 1965, and ending in 1973 or 1975).

A survey of surveys appeared in the first volume (1994) of the Institute of Medicine’s semiannual studies, Veterans and Agent Orange. Estimates of in-country Vietnam service, the Institute found, ranged from 2. 6 to 3.8 million, with most falling between 2.6 and 2. 9. Estimates for the Vietnam theater ranged from 2.7 to 4.3 million, with 3.4 million the most widely cited figure.

These numbers must be seen against the larger total of those who served worldwide during the Vietnam era, 8.75 million from 1964-73, and 9.2 million from 1964-75. Depending on the estimate, one out of three Vietnam-era veterans served in the Vietnam theater, and four out of five Vietnam theater veterans served in Vietnam itself.

With these estimates in mind, we can start closing in on what can be said about the number of living in country Vietnam veterans. Better figures are available for era veterans than for in-country veterans. The 2000 Census long form, for example, asked about period of service but not place. Estimates for living in-country veterans can be extrapolated from figures for living era veterans.

Setting a benchmark for the year 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated there were 8,380,356 living Vietnam-era (here defined as 1964-75) veterans, about 90 percent of the original 9.2 million, with the death toll near 800,000. The Centers for Disease Control reached a like finding in a Post-Service Mortality Study of 18,313Vietnam-era veterans, half of whom served in country. By the end of 2000, the CDC found, about 91 percent of era veterans were living, aged 46 to 67 in the sample, with a mean of 53; death rates for veterans were lower than for all men in the U.S. through 1998; and in-country veterans suffered 7 percent higher mortality than other veterans. That difference, the CDC said, was “not statistically significant,” was confined to the first five years after discharge from active duty, and was limited to “external causes”—mostly traffic accidents, suicides, homicides, and unintentional poisonings, many of them drug-related.

If in-country Vietnam veterans accounted for about a third of all Vietnam-era veterans, and if they were Dying only slightly faster than the others, then the 800,000 era veterans who died from the 1960s through 2000 should have included fewer than 300,000 in-country veterans. That fact rules out the supposed passing of 711,000 of them between 1995 and 2000 alone, a figure that forms one verse of the Internet litany.

Reaching a comparable estimate for the Vietnam theater, the VA Office of Environmental Epidemiology keeps an incomplete list of 3,056,000 Vietnam theater veterans, and counts 349,000 theater veteran deaths through 2001, a count the Office considers 95 percent complete. If four out of five theater veterans served in country and if they were dying only slightly faster than other veterans, then the 349,000 theater deaths should have included 280,000 to 300,000 in country veteran deaths through 2001, an estimate in line with the CDC and Census figures through 2000.

The VA’s Veteran Population Model for 2007 estimates that 8,448,000 Vietnam-era (1964-75) veterans were living in 2000, and 7,526,000 living on September 30, 2010. While 47,000 leaving the military joined the ranks of Vietnam-era veterans during the decade, 969,000 deaths thinned those ranks.Again, if a third of era veterans were in-country veterans who were dying only slightly faster than other veterans through 2000, they should account for 325,000 to 350,000 of the 969,000 Vietnam-era deaths from 2000 to 2010, unless their mortality rate skyrocketed far above the rate for other veterans after 2000.

There is no evidence that it did, and some that it did not. A Current Population Survey by the Census Bureau for August 2009 estimated 7,183,000 living Vietnam-era veterans, including 3,566,000 living Vietnam theater veterans. Compared to other estimates, the era figure seems low, while the theater figure seems high, but the high number may cover a longer period—1961 to 1975—and may reflect inflated self-reporting of Vietnam service. But even allowing for such complications, the survey weighs against any soaring death rate for in-country Vietnam veterans. If three million or more theater veterans are alive, and four out of five of them are in-country veterans, then 2.4 million or more in-country Vietnam veterans should still live, triple the 800,000 rumored on the Internet.

Origins Of A Myth

So, thank God, most in-country veterans are not dead yet. But who started the story that they were? Doomsday dirges do not need footnotes, but mortality statistics do, and the sources cited for these Internet numbers are few and mystifying.One of them, “the Public Information Office,” likely leads to the American War Library.As one blogger warned: “The false number of 850,000 originates from the phony website of the American War Museum, which disseminates much false information for reasons only its manager (it is a one-man operation) might know.”

The blogger misidentified the site. Otis Willie and Roger Simpson of the Public Information Office of the American War Library (not Museum) disseminated the number in a June 7, 2009, posting on alt.genealogy: “The official estimate of Vietnam War ‘survivors’ as of 25May2009 is 831,000.The number of Americans who served in Vietnam between 1945 and 1975 is 3.2 mil. To 2. 7 mil. 2.7 mil. Is the number counted by DoD in 1984 when producing ‘The Vietnam War Service Index.’” Whilemost cyberspace chats have rounded off the number of living Vietnam veterans to 800,000 or 850,000, the American War Library’s more precise number is echoed in a posting by “Stillhere” on Veterans Benefits Network that regrets “there are only 831,000 of our brothers/ sisters still alive.”

Calling itself “The World’s Largest On-Line Military, Veteran and Military Family Registry,” the American War Library asks: “If you are a Vietnam vet, have you verified that your name is listed in the Department of Defense’s Official Vietnam Veteran War Service Index?”This “official” index, the same one cited in the Library’s posting about 831,000 survivors, is often cited on the Internet as “officially provided by the War Library.”As far as I can tell, this Index is nowhere to be found.

The American War Library seems to be a home business run by Phillip R. Coleman in Gardena, California.Various web postings have warned that “Roger Simpson” and “OtisWillie” are two of dozens of names used by Coleman; that the Library solicits personal information from veterans but does not provide free information about veterans; and that the Library and its many related websites post myriad military stories to attract attention and gain legitimacy. For examples of the warnings, Google “AmericanWar Library–exposed” or “American War Library scam,” or forums/showthread.php?t=96622

Statistics are hard enough without phony numbers thrown in. But in the available statistics, we find no evidence that the number of living in-country Vietnam veterans is only 800,000, and strong evidence that it is much higher.Again, bymy own amateur extrapolations, fewer than 300,000 in-country veterans likely died before 2000, and a slightly larger number since, adding up to 600,000 or more dead, leaving two million or more alive. So if you’re a Vietnam veteran reading this, how does it feel to stand with the three out of four who are still here and mean to stay for a while?

For information used in this article, I thank Mike Wells of the VA Office of Policy and Planning, National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, and James Messinger, the treasurer of the National VietnamWar Museum.