Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming

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9780743211574: Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming

In this ambitious follow-up to Achilles in Vietnam, Dr. Jonathan Shay uses the Odyssey, the story of a soldier's homecoming, to illuminate the pitfalls that trap many veterans on the road back to civilian life.

Seamlessly combining important psychological work and brilliant literary interpretation with an impassioned plea to renovate American military institutions, Shay deepens our understanding of both the combat veteran's experience and one of the world's greatest classics.

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About the Author:

Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D., is a staff psychiatrist in the Department of Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Boston. His patients are Vietnam combat veterans with severe, chronic posttraumatic stress disorder. Visiting scholar-at-large at the U.S. Naval War College in 2001, Dr. Shay speaks frequently at the invitation of U.S. military services, universities, and colleges. He lives in the Boston area.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


"Must you have battle in your heart forever?

The bloody toil of combat? Old contender..."

-- Odyssey 12:132f, Fitzgerald

"I wish I had been untrained afterward...reintegrated and included. My regret is wasting the whole of my productive adult life as a lone wolf."

-- Jim Shelby, Vietnam veteran

"Doc, you're f -- -- ing crazy."

-- One of my patients, a former Army Airborne sergeant, veteran of four Vietnam combat tours, upon hearing that I was going to lecture on prevention of psychological injury at the United States Military Academy at West Point

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.

Odysseus, like Achilles, is remembered as a hero of Greek myth. Today we see our heroes as unmixed blessings, almost as though pure beneficence is part of the definition. When we call those firemen and police who rushed to the New York World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, heroes, we have reason to see them as intending only good and to an amazing degree accomplishing it, at the sacrifice of their lives. However, the ancient Greek idea of the hero was deeply mixed. As I just noted, Odysseus' name means "man of hate." Achilles' name means "he whose host of fighting men have grief" -- referring to his own Greek troops as well as to the enemy! Ancient Greek heroes were men of pain who were both needed by their people and dangerous to them. Achilles' withdrawal resulted in numberless Greek deaths; Odysseus' long return home to Ithaca caused more than seven hundred Ithacan deaths on the way or when he got there. Achilles harmed the Greek army during the war; Odysseus harmed his people after the war. They were both heroes in the ancient Greek sense.

Almost everyone has somehow heard of Odysseus -- sometimes he's called by his Latin name, Ulysses -- but not everyone has read the Odyssey or remembers the details. I have tried to write this book in a way that will allow those who have never read Homer's Odyssey to follow it and not feel lost. A brief pocket guide to the epic in the style of a movie synopsis is offered in Appendix One. It's a complex story, easily muddled in memory. So I urge readers who are not currently familiar with the Odyssey to give the synopsis a quick reading before they start. While I hope that this book will ignite a desire to read or reread the Odyssey, no one should think it's required beforehand.

Part One of this book invites the reader to hear the Odyssey as exactly what it says it is: the story of a soldier's wanderings and troubles as he tries to make it home. The first dozen or so chapters "decode" Odysseus' adventures in wonderland -- the most famous part of the epic -- as an allegory for real problems of combat veterans returning to civilian society. These are adventures that Odysseus himself tells as a story-within-a-story, to people who resemble wealthy, complacent civilians. Reading the Odyssey as allegory is not new, but I suspect and hope that this allegorical reading will carry a different emotional weight than those rendered in the past.

In Part One, Odysseus appears, so to speak, on a split screen. On one screen, Odysseus as a veteran, trying to come home. On the other screen, Odysseus as a military leader who shaped the experience of others -- often in disastrous ways.

All of my current patients, except a single Gulf War vet, are Vietnam combat veterans, men in their early to mid-fifties. When I first started working with veterans, they were perhaps the same age as Odysseus, returning home to Ithaca from ten years fighting in the Trojan War and ten years trying -- and not trying -- to get home to his wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus.

Television, not to mention schoolbooks and feature films such as Ulysses, have made Odysseus' encounter with the Cyclops, the Sirens, and episodes such as the contest of the bow familiar to even the smallest children. What adventures! How poignant the story of the old soldier struggling to get home to his family! How many trials and obstacles thrown in his way! Homer's epic is the earliest known and most famous account of a combat veteran trying to get home after the war, and of what he does after he gets there.

In the last chapter of Part One, the narrative shifts from the world of fabulous monsters, witches, and ghosts to Ithaca, the real world of Odysseus' farms, home, and hometown. When Odysseus arrives home at last, he is disoriented and does not recognize Ithaca. The fact that he doesn't recognize his own homeland is itself a metaphor that many veterans can understand. The first person Odysseus meets is an unknown youth who is the goddess Athena in disguise. The two exchange courtesies and Odysseus tells her a dazzling pack of lies. Dropping her disguise, the goddess teases him:

A man would have to be cunning and thievish to surpass you

in all your tricks -- even if he were a god.

Wretch, with the mind of a chameleon, master of tricks,

not even in your own land will you leave off your deceptive

and thievish tales -- which you love from the bottom of your heart.

(13:291ff, orig., Jenny Strauss Clay, trans.)

Odysseus thought he had duped a civilian, but he was speaking to his own guardian angel who knew his trials and his tricks better than anyone. Finally at home in Ithaca, he finds himself in danger from the young bucks trying to win his wife's favor -- the suitors. He moves in disguise and concealment, surrounded by a bodyguard of lies. He is reunited with his wife, son, and father, but much of the time he is icy or cruel. And then he runs off again!

Looking beneath the surface to what Odysseus, the master of disguise, has hidden in the stories he tells the civilians, we see not only the "what" of real experiences, but the "why" of a veteran's need to disguise his experiences at all. What is "home" anyway?

Part Two explores recovery from psychological injuries. The basic message is that whether recovery occurs spontaneously or in a defined treatment setting, recovery happens only in community. We are habituated to the assumption that injuries or illnesses can only be treated one on one in a professional's office. I shall explain below that two people (no matter how well trained, well meaning, and caring one of them is) are not a community. I believe this one-on-one assumption is responsible for how frequently we have failed in the treatment of severe psychological injury, especially when it has damaged character.

The American Psychiatric Association has saddled us with the jargon "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder" (PTSD) -- which sounds like an ailment -- even though it is evident from the definition that what we are dealing with is an injury: "The person experienced, witnessed or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others." We do not refer to a veteran who has had an arm blown off by a grenade as suffering from "Missing Arm Disorder." But I am not going to fight it. "PTSD" it is, even though I much prefer "psychological injury." Combat PTSD is a war injury. Veterans with combat PTSD are war wounded, carrying the burdens of sacrifice for the rest of us as surely as the amputees, the burned, the blind, and the paralyzed carry them.

Part Two explains the distinction between simple PTSD -- the persistence into civilian life of adaptations necessary to survive battle -- and complex PTSD, which is simple PTSD plus the destruction of the capacity for social trust. Then we shall come at recovery from two directions. The first, coming from the direction of organized health care, comprises the treatment concepts and practices of our small outpatient program in the Boston VA for Vietnam combat veterans with complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The second approach spans the poorly understood "spontaneous," or "natural," processes of recovery that happen in the native soil of a veteran's own community. Picture these two recovery models converging, like the two polished granite surfaces of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. -- the Wall -- and meeting at a sharp vertical line. Veterans in our VA program and members of the treatment team travel to the Wall together annually. This trip joins the universally human potential for spontaneous recovery with our intentional VA treatment program for complex combat PTSD.

The Wall itself is but one example of healing through community -- self-organized Internet e-mail groups are another. In Part Two, with their permission, we shall listen in on one self-organized e-group as its members attempt to come to terms with the suicide of Lewis B. Puller, ...

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