Novel Analysis of Combat Trauma Offers Advice for Healing & Prevention

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Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D. Scribner. 331 pages; appendixes; notes; index; $25.

As our country inexorably moves toward war with Iraq, maintains peacekeeping forces from the Sinai Desert to Bosnia to the Korean peninsula and is fully engaged in a war against international terrorism and drugs, we should pause and consider the ways war and prolonged deployments affect the psychological well- being of those we ask to bear the burdens of national defense. The recent spate of homecoming suicide-murders at Fort Bragg begs for recovery procedures and policies to protect servicemembers from the problems faced by veterans reentering their civilian society. Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming provides a far-reaching analysis of veterans' psychological trauma and offers practical advice to caregivers and leaders to help solve the problems those who defend our country will inevitably face.

Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D., started work as a general psychiatrist at the Day Treatment Center of the VA Clinic in Boston in November 1987. From his work with a specialized program for Vietnam combat veterans, "whom nobody else in the VA wanted anything to do with," Dr. Shay published Achilles in Vietnam, which compared the experiences of the Vietnam veterans in his care with the psychological truths of combat found in Homer's epic, the Iliad. In Odysseus in America, DT. Shay takes the obvious next step and reads Homer's Odyssey as a "detailed allegory of many real veterans' homecoming." Shay is a caregiver, psychologist and physician, and his prescription for America is to take seriously the healing power of community, more specifically, what he calls "our capacity for social trust," in the face of the psychological and moral damage done when men and women experience combat.

Dr. Shay divides Odysseus in America into three parts: unhealed wounds, restoration and prevention. Part One portrays Odysseus, the military leader and returning veteran, as everyman. Shay is at his best when he ties the obstacles to Odysseus' homecoming to those experienced by Vietnam veterans he has treated. Like Tim O'Brien in The Things They Carried, Shay points out that veterans carry the weight of friends' deaths and expands this critical theme through his analysis of Homer's contribution to our understanding of survivor guilt. He juxtaposes Odysseus' encounter with the ghost of Ajax with the narrative of loss by a Vietnam veteran he has known for 14 years to provide his reader insight into how combat veterans often see themselves as toxic. Shay's concurrent analysis of epic literature, historical perspective and psychological case study provides a poignant and comprehensive understanding of the complex issues of self-esteem and identity crisis suffered by combat veterans who feel guilt for having survived when others did not.

At times Shay gets carried away with the connections he makes between the Odyssey and the world of the returning Vietnam veteran. Government bureaucracies become Cyclops, one-eyed creatures that lack depth perception and human compassion. The veterans Shay works with feel trapped; the very agencies set up to help them threaten to devour their humanity. In developing this insight, Shay admits to "milking the one-eyed monster for one more metaphor," a literary license some may question, but overall his sometimes far-reaching analogies and analysis provide more light than shadow on the difficulties of veteran homecomings.

Part One of Odysseus in America provides a comprehensive and compassionate catalogue of the psychic trials returning veterans faced in their homecomings from Vietnam and throughout the ages, a catalogue which sets the foundation for Shay's remedies for restoration and prevention.

In his introduction to Robert Fagles' definitive translation of the Odyssey, Bernard Knox, a veteran of both the Spanish Civil War and World War II combat behind the lines in Italy and France, tells us that Odysseus returns "to find at home a situation more dangerous than anything he faced on the plains of Troy. …