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PTSD Before It Had a Name: Vietnam Vets Sue U.S. Military

A class-action lawsuit by Vietnam vets asks the Pentagon to reverse less-than-honorable discharges, due to PTSD symptoms suffered after combat.

Five Vietnam veterans who claim they became afflicted with combat-related anxiety –- decades before PTSD became a common term –- assert in a new, class-action lawsuit that the Pentagon should upgrade the less-than-honorable discharges they and “tens of thousands” of other troops received during that era.

Since 1980, the U.S. military has steadily gained a better grasp of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But the Defense Department has refused to apply that same medical standard when reviewing the cases of Vietnam veterans who show PTSD symptoms caused by their military service, the lawsuit filed Monday in Connecticut alleges.

“I know there are a lot of us,” said plaintiff James Cottam, 63. He served in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, later experiencing night sweats, nightmares and anger issues. When he left the U.S. Army in 1974, he received an undesirable discharge, causing him to lose his rank of sergeant.

His doctor eventually diagnosed Cottam with PTSD, he said.

"Give me back what I worked for,” Cottam said in a phone interview. He now lives in Southern California.

“I wandered about for years after the war, not knowing what was going on," Cottam said. "Real good jobs, but I would walk off and away from them."

“But there was nothing wrong with me, according to the VA back in the '70s," he said.

A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on the litigation, as did a VA spokeswoman.

The lawsuit, which includes a three retired Marines and a second Army veteran, seeks the milltary's record corrections boards to “implement consistent, medically appropriate standards” under which discharge upgrades can be considered for PTSD-afflicted Vietnam veterans, said Thomas Brown, a law-student intern with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School. The suit was filed by the clinic.