Original Research

Aging and Trauma: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Among Korean War Veterans

Having experienced posttraumatic stress disorder 30 years prior to its recognition as a formal disorder, Korean War veterans are now an aging population that requires unique clinical management.

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The Korean War lasted from June 25, 1950 through July 27, 1953. Although many veterans of the Korean War experienced traumas during extremely stressful combat conditions. However, they would not have been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at the time because the latter did not exist as a formal diagnosis until the publication of the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) in 1980.1 Prior to 1980, psychiatric syndromes resulting from war and combat exposure where known by numerous other terms including shell shock, chronic traumatic war neurosis, and combat fatigue/combat exhaustion.2,3 Military psychiatrists attended to combat fatigue during the course of the Korean War, but as was true of World War I and II, the focus was on returning soldiers to duty. Combat fatigue was generally viewed as a transient condition.4-8

Although now octo- and nonagenarians, in 2019 there are 1.2 million living Korean War veterans in the US, representing 6.7% of all current veterans.9 Understanding their war experiences and the nature of their current and past presentation of PTSD is relevant not only in formal mental health settings, but in primary care settings, including home-based primary care, as well as community living centers, skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities. Older adults with PTSD often present with somatic concerns rather than spontaneously reporting mental health symptoms.10 Beyond the short-term clinical management of Korean War veterans with PTSD, consideration of their experiences also has long-term relevance for the appropriate treatment of other veteran cohorts as they age in coming decades.

The purpose of this article is to provide a clinically focused overview of PTSD in Korean War veterans, to help promote understanding of this often-forgotten group of veterans, and to foster optimized personalized care. This overview will include a description of the Korean War veteran population and the Korean War itself, the manifestations and identification of PTSD among Korean War veterans, and treatment approaches using evidence-based psychotherapies and pharmacotherapies. Finally, we provide recommendations for future research to address present empirical gaps in the understanding and treatment of Korean War veterans with PTSD.

Causes and Course of the Korean War

When working with Korean War veterans it is important to consider the special nature of that specific conflict. Space considerations limit our ability to do justice to the complex history and numerous battles of the Korean War, but information in the following summary was gleaned from several excellent histories.11-13

The Korean War has been referred to as The Forgotten War, a concern expressed even during the latter parts of the war.14,15 But the war and its veterans warrant remembering. The root and proximal causes of the Korean War are complex and not fully agreed upon by the main participants.16-19 In part this may reflect the fact that there was no clear victor in the Korean War, so that the different protagonists have developed their own versions of the history of the conflict. Also, US involvement and the public reaction to the war must be viewed within the larger historical context of that time. This context included the recent end of 4 years of US involvement in World War II (1941-1945) and the subsequent rapid rise of Cold War tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. The latter also included a worldwide fear of nuclear war and the US fear of the global spread of communism. These fears were fueled by the Soviet-led Berlin Blockade from June 1948 through May 1949, the Soviet Union’s successful atomic bomb test in August 1949, the founding of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, and the February 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance.13

In the closing days of World War II, the US and Soviet Union agreed to a temporary division of Korea along the 38th parallel to facilitate timely and efficient surrender of Japanese troops. But as Cold War tensions rose, the temporary division became permanent, and Soviet- and US-backed governments of the north and south, respectively, were officially established on the Korean peninsula in 1948. Although by 1949 the Soviets and US had withdrawn most troops from the peninsula, tensions between the north and south continued to mount and hostilities increased. To this day the exact causes of the eruption of war remain disputed, although it is clear that ideological as well as economic factors played a role, and both leaders of North and South Korea were pledging to reunite the peninsula under their respective leadership.16-19 The tension culminated on June 25, 1950, when North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. On June 27, 1950, President Truman ordered US naval and air forces to support South Korea and then ordered the involvement of ground troops on June 30.16,17,19

Although several other member countries of the United Nations (UN) provided troops, 90% of the troops were from the US. About 5.7 million US military personnel served during the war, including about 1.8 million in Korea itself. The US forces experienced approximately 34,000 battle-related deaths, 103,000 were wounded, and 7,000 were prisoners of war (POWs).11,20-22 The nature and events of the Korean War made it particularly stressful and traumatizing for the soldiers, sailors, and marines involved throughout its entire course. These included near defeat in the early months, a widely alternating war front along the north/south axis during the first year, and subsequently, not only intense constant battles on the fronts, but also a demanding and exhausting guerrilla war in the south, which lasted throughout the remainder of the conflict.11,15 The US troops during the initial months of the war have been described as outnumbered and underprepared, as many in the initial phase were reassigned from peace-time occupation duty in Japan.7

The first year of war was characterized by a repeated north-to-south/south-to-north shifts in control of territory. During the first 3 months, the North Korean forces overwhelmed the South and captured control of all but 2 South Korean cities in the far southeastern region (Pusan, now Busan; and Daegu), and US and UN forces were forced to retreat to the perimeter around Pusan. The intense Battle of Pusan Perimeter lasted from August 4, 1950 to September 18, 1950, and resulted in massive causalities as well as a flood of civilian refugees.

The course of the war began to change in early September 1950 with the landing of amphibious US/UN forces at Inchon, behind North Korean lines, which cut off southern supply routes for the North Korean troops.11 US/UN forces soon crossed to the north of the 38th parallel and captured the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, on October 19, 1950. They continued to push north and approached the Yalu River border with China by late November 1950, but then the Chinese introduced their own troops forcing a southward retreat of US/UN troops during which there were again numerous US/UN casualties. Chinese troops retook Seoul in late December 1950/early January 1951. However, the US/UN forces soon recaptured Seoul and advanced back to the 38th parallel. This back-and-forth across the 38th parallel continued until July 1951 when the front line of battle stabilized there. Although the line stabilized, intense battles and casualties continued for 2 more years. During this period US/UN troops also had to deal with guerrilla warfare behind the front lines due to the actions of communist partisans and isolated North Korean troops. This situation continued until the armistice was signed July 27, 1953.


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