In Brief

What moved Harold Dawley to tell the story of Vietnam vets, “Lost Homecoming”

During his career as a psychologist at the New Orleans VA Medical Center, Harold Dawley, PhD, had an experience with a Vietnam veteran that led to his writing, co-directing, and producing the documentary “The Lost Homecoming — When Our Vietnam Veterans Came Home.”

The documentary recently aired on the New Orleans PBS station WYES and we asked him to tell us what moved him to produce it. “This veteran described the negative way he was treated when he came home from Vietnam,” explained Dawley, an emotionally moving story that he had heard repeatedly from other Vietnam veterans. Over the years, Dawley kept thinking about these stories, he explained, and eventually decided to do a documentary on the negative way many Vietnam veterans were treated when they came home. He intuitively felt a relationship existed between the negative homecoming Vietnam veterans received and their post-war adjustment.

One such story was that of a black man — we’ll call him John. John was in his late 30s when Dawley met him. He was the only person from his small rural town to go to Vietnam. When he returned home after his basic training his name and photo were in the town newspaper and everyone thanked him for serving, said Dawley. “During his year in Vietnam he experienced frequent combat. He had played basketball in high school and became a close friend with a white boy from a small town in Alabama who also had played basketball. One day during an enemy attack on their position, his close friend was next to him and was shot and killed. John was horrified at the sight of his dead friend and became so enraged he jumped up and started firing at the attacking enemy killing many of them. When his rifle jammed he picked up his friend's rifle and continued firing until the attack stopped. John dropped his rifle and remained standing staring at his dead friend as tears streamed down his face. He didn't realize he had been shot several times until medics began treating his wounds.”

John was awarded medals for his bravery and promoted to Sergeant but never got over the loss of his close friend, said Dawley. “He eventually turned to alcohol then drugs to ease the pain and fear of experiencing frequent combat. He found comfort in thinking about his coming home as a decorated hero. After completing his tour in Vietnam he flew home with his mind on how he would be treated arriving in his hometown.” He told Dawley how close people were in a small town even though some were black and some were white. “When the plane landed he had his uniform pressed and his shoes shined. He ignored the anti-war protesters he encountered at the airport as he envisioned the triumphant return to his small town. He described his excitement growing as he pressed his face against the window recognizing familiar places as the bus neared his hometown. "I even thought perhaps the mayor would be among the people greeting me," he said. 

“Finally the bus pulled into an old gas station that was the town's bus stop and as John stepped off he looked around to see who would be greeting him,” said Dawley. “A swirl of dust surrounded him as the bus pulled away and when it cleared he saw the old white man who owned the station staring intently at him. No one else was present. Finally recognizing him the old man said, ‘Well boy, I see you made it back.’”

John felt a sense of bitter hurt and disappointment that grew as he walked into town and people averted their eyes and ignored him, said Dawley. “Like the majority of Vietnam veterans, he was met with indifference from a public that had turned against the war...they saw as immoral and unjust. Even though he knew people recognized him, no one acknowledged his homecoming. It was a painful experience that eventually led him back to drugs as his PTSD emerged.”

In Dawley's documentary experts in the field of trauma and PTSD describe new research showing a significant correlation between a negative homecoming and severity of PTSD symptoms among a substantial minority of Vietnam veterans. The documentary can be viewed at The Lost Homecoming.

Harold Dawley, PhD, spent much of his VA career doing clinical research on the control, discouragement and cessation of smoking in a hospital setting publishing it in over 50 articles. His research pointed out the importance of smoking control and discouragement in helping people stop smoking. As editor of the Louisiana Psychological Association newsletter, he published some of his research along with the editorial “The Great American Tobacco Ripoff and What's Psychology Doing About It?” He vigorously opposed the sale of cigarettes in the VA hospital canteen service pointing out how the VA was one of the world's largest outlets for the volume discount tax free sale of cigarettes at the same time tobacco smoking was the single greatest cause of premature and preventable death among VA patients.

Harold Dawley, PhD, received the LPA “Outstanding Psychologist” award (now called the Distinguished Psychologist) in 1978 at the combined Louisiana and Mississippi Psychological Association convention in New Orleans. Dawley went on to be the editor of the newsletter of the APA Division of Psychologists in Public Service where he continued his opposition to the ongoing to the sale of tobacco cigarettes in the VA hospital system.

Dawley was elected president of Div. 18 of APA and in his presidential address repeated the message, “The Great American Tobacco Rip-off and What's Psychology Doing About It.” He received several awards from Div. 18 was elected a fellow in APA, and was elected president of the National Association of VA Psychologists. His smoking research was subsequently cited in a surgeon general's report on smoking and health and he was invited to present his research at the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

Dawley served three years in the Marine Corps immediately after high school. During his VA career he held clinical faculty appointments at Tulane and LSU Schools of Medicine and an adjunct faculty appointment at Tulane's School of Public Health. He was licensed in Louisiana with a specialty in clinical psychology but has not practiced for years before giving up his license. He is currently a businessman in Pass Christian and is the commandment of the Marine Corps League in his hometown. He and his wife, Linda, have been married for 47 years and have two sons and five grandchildren. Dawley plans to continue doing documentaries. He still feels the VA needs to do more to help veterans stop smoking.