Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Odysseus in America by Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D.

Odysseus in America

Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming
by Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D.

Hardback: 329 pages
Publisher: Scribner
First Released: 2002

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Source: Bought from Half.com

Back Cover Description:
In his acclaimed book Achilles in Vietnam, Dr. Jonathan Shay used the Iliad as a prism through which to examine how ancient and modern wars have battered the psychology of the men who fight. Now he turns his attention to the Odyssey, Homer's classic story of a soldier's homecoming, to illuminate the real problems faced by combat veterans reentering civilian society. Drawing on his years of experience working with Vietnam veterans, Shay illustrates how the Odyssey can be read as a metaphor for the pitfalls that trap many veterans on the road back to civilian life. He also explains how veterans recover, and advocates changes to American military practice that will protect future servicemen and servicewomen while increasing their fighting power.

The Odyssey, Shay argues, offers explicit portrayals of behavior common among returning soldiers in our own culture -- danger-seeking, womanizing, explosive violence, drug abuse, visitation by the dead, obsession, vagrancy, and homelessness. Supporting his reading with examples from his fifteen-year practice treating Vietnam combat veterans, Shay shows how Odysseus's mistrustfulness, his lies, and his constant need to conceal his thoughts and emotions foreshadow the experiences of many of today's veterans. Throughout, Homer strengthens our understanding of what a combat veteran must overcome to return to and flourish in civilian life, just as the heartbreaking stories of the veterans Shay treats give us a new understanding of one of the world's greatest classics.

With a foreword by Vietnam veteran U.S. Senators John McCain and Max Cleland, representing bipartisan support for what Dr. Shay is trying to accomplish, Odysseus in America is an impassioned and cogent plea to renovate American military institutions -- and a brilliant rereading of Homer's epic.

This book discusses how soldiers, both in ancient Greece and in Vietnam, coped with what they'd seen and done during the war once they came home. Ingrained behaviors that once kept them alive now had no place, and civilians (even family) often denied them the emotional safety needed to express their pain and trauma so that they could come to a place of healing.

The first part of the book breaks down the various adventures in Odysseus and shows how each demonstrates an experience or coping behavior of military personal who have returned from war. (A summary version of the epic poem is provided in the appendix for those who haven't read it lately.) The author then gives examples of similar problems and coping behaviors that he's seen in his work with Vietnam veterans with severe PTSD.

The second part of the book briefly discusses several methods the author has successfully used to help restore veterans with severe PTSD to healthy, useful lives.

The last part of the book shows how the current military practices (in organization and incentives) could be changed to help prevent PTSD while also making our forces more effective as fighting units. Frankly, I was appalled to discover that some effective, life-saving military organizational practices were discarded for very petty reasons. I hope things have changed in this regard since 2002.

The author has a very different worldview than I do. He believes that war and subsequent coping behavior come from how we evolved. He also seems to believe that all religions are equally able to help veterans cope with their feelings of guilt. Because of our different worldviews, I was not entirely convinced by several of his conclusions throughout the book.

Overall, this book was interesting and easy to read. The veteran's story's were often heart-rending. This book was a valuable source of information about the struggles of Vietnam veterans, some ways these struggles can be won, and some ways PTSD can be prevented in future generations of military personal. I'd recommend this book to anyone who has served in the military during a war (though there may be better books out there for those who are actually struggling with severe PTSD) or to anyone who wants a better understanding of what Vietnam veterans went through upon their return from war.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt: Chapter One
Homer's Odyssey is the epic homecoming of a Greek fighter from the Trojan War. Odysseus' trick of the hollow horse got the Greeks inside the walls of Troy, a feat that ten-to-one superiority in troop strength had never achieved. He was the very last fighter to make it home from Troy and endured the most grueling travel, costing him a full decade on the way. Odysseus' return ended in a bloody, triumphant shoot-'em-up. It is now more than thirty years since the majority of American veterans of the Vietnam War have returned home--physically. Psychologically and socially, however, "many of us aren't home yet," in the words of one combat medic.

My portrait of the psychologically injured combat veteran is colored by respect and love. However, I shall conceal none of the ugly and hateful ways that war veterans have sometimes acted toward others and themselves during their attempts to come home and be at home. To the ancient Greeks, Odysseus' name meant "man of hate" or "he who sows trouble." Indeed, some veterans have sown trouble in their families. No one should ever hear from his mother, "You're not my son!" or "Better you died over there than come home like this." Yet veterans with severe psychological injuries have sometimes heard these terrible words.

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