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Review of Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming by Dr. Jonathan Shay

By Remy Benoit

As a matter of courtesy, I sent this review to Dr. Shay before posting it here. I am posting his response here at his request

Dear Remy Benoit,

I'm honored by your high regard for my books, but the credit belongs to the veterans whose voices appear in the books and to the poet Homer, whoever he was.

I can't in clear conscience edit a review so full of praise for myself.

Healing power is not in Shay, but in community.

If you want to post your review in your website, go ahead, but I'd be most comfortable if you were to also post this message with it.

Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D.

Review of Dr. Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming

by Remy Benoit.

I truly believe this is the most important work I have ever seen on this subject; that it will bring us to a place where we can help our Veterans; where we can open healing lines of communication.

I truly believe this book is a place where combat Veterans can begin to slowly rebuild a sense of trust with Dr. Shay’s help; and hopefully, once we understand its message, with our help too.

Over the years, over the decades, I have often heard the statements, the questions:
We didn't do right by them;
We didn't treat them well;
We treated them very badly when they came home;
What do we do, What can we say, to make it right, to make it up to them?

Over those same decades, I have also heard them called losers, and things much worse. Unfortunately, they have heard those same things.

Humans are very complex with emotions that intermingle, pull in different directions, breed pride, guilt, angst, love, hate, and a whole lot of mixtures of them. When major events occur that are of a complex nature in and of themselves, the emotions run strong; the sense of what is right, what is wrong, can become confused, and yet rigidly adhered to. All too often, the wrong people are blamed for the wrong things because time and study are not taken to dig down to the truths.

And yet, with all that, those we send to serve are of our national, and personal, blood and it does not matter what we think of the situation to which we send them. What matters is them. When we do not serve them, when we are not there for them; when directions from the top are confused, and daily ops seem to make no sense, when blood is spilt, the groundwork for catastrophe is laid down.

And yet, again, yet again, some things that went sour, some things can at least be set somewhat straight if we commit to doing that.

The them of whom I speak above are our Veterans of Vietnam; those who lost their youth, their dreams, often their direction, and their innocence in the green. I speak of those who have carried that pain of our generation so many years now that they are getting Senior Citizen discounts. That is a long, too long, time. But there is something that we can do to begin the healing of a still open and festering wound. Moreover, there is something that we can do for each and every Veteran we have made. We can LEARN what they need us to know.

As I have said at least a hundred times here, you can begin with a simple, "Welcome Home, and thank you for your service."

I cannot guarantee the response you will get because there is a deep question of trust; trust betrayed, trust and lives lost and destroyed. They will know, instinctively, if you are being sincere.

What we cannot do is throw our hands into the air and say we give up; what can I as an individual do to heal such vast pain? We owe them more, much more than that.

We cannot say "just get over it," because they can't just do that.

What we all can do, Veterans and civilians alike, is start here with the great gift of understanding, compassion, and insight into the heart and soul of the pain given to us all by a Boston VA psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Shay in Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming.

We can begin by acceptance of this one line of his about halfway through the book:

Acts of war generate a profound gulf between the combatant and the community left behind.

It is a good starting place.

We can begin by learning, just beginning to learn as we never totally will understand unless we have been there, and this book is a wonderful place to begin to learn, what it means to lose pieces of your heart and soul in combat; what it means to lose trust.

We can learn how combat changes those who engage in it.

We can learn about how different Veterans of different wars were received home by the general population and the media, and what that reception, lack of it, positive or negative aura of it, meant to them, and to the rest of their lives.

We can learn, we have a responsibility to learn, a basis for communication with Veterans as we make more and more each day, and so far have not on the whole been there for them. We have to face our own reluctance to face the incongruity of our actions. We protected their tiny heads, used car seats, cabinet locks, demanded to know where they were, protected them. Then, when we sent them to face the verities of war that no one truly can be trained to face, we too often left them on their own to struggle with that, struggle through that, any way they could.

And then, sometimes to we say;

“You are not the son, daughter, who grew up in this house.”

You are not the wife, husband, I knew.”

Why would we expect them to be, except for the fact that we do not know what they know; we have not been where they have been.

We have the responsibility as civilians to learn what modern day warfare really is; what it truly does to those we send to service it. We have the need to get beyond the morbid curiosity of intrusive questions when we really, truly don't want to know what they know because we do know how very thin the veneer of civilization really is, and we are afraid to challenge that, to know what they really know.

We need to get beyond that fear.

We need to accept that there before the grace of the exemption, or professional military, went I.

We need to get beyond the "guilt" of not going.

We need to get beyond the right and wrong of the particular war .

We need to understand our Veterans so that we as their countrymen and women can help not only the Vietnam generation, but the previous ones just beginning to open up about their experiences. We need to understand to help this new generation of Veterans slowly coming home now to, and with, all kinds of problems.

Dr. Shay explains that to us in ways that you will remember from the voices of the Veterans.

If you are a Veteran, you will come to find clarification of the roots of the vast, overwhelming, enraging, alienating from the group, not being able to feel, emotions you have carried with you from your youth.

We can all learn from Odysseus in America. and from that learning begin to give the Vietnam Veterans, their war, as well as all the others, the legacy, as well as the future, they deserve.

We need to understand their questions of the Whys of their experience; to share the pain of those lost who were closer to them than anyone else probably will ever be, to Honor those lost no matter what that takes, no matter the cost that asks.

We need to understand that these are the questions and acts of brave and honest men and women caught up in terrible circumstances that remain active parts of their lives no matter how long ago they were experienced. We need to understand that, even when it expresses itself in rage, as Dr. Shay explains to us.

We need to bridge the gap caused by civilian fear of Veterans, and Veteran disdain for civilians that comes from the vast difference of experiences between them. Dr. Shay offers us common ground.

We can begin to bridge that gap with Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming.

We need, all of us, to apply what we can learn from him not only to previous generations, but to today's Veterans coming home now.

Education, learning, means to bring out, to expand, to make use of. We can learn, we can do honor to all those who have fallen, to all those injured, in service to all of us and welcome them home meaningfully, help to heal them, help them with coming home. It takes all of us to do that, just like it took all of us to send them.

Dr. Shay has offered us a great gift. He has offered us understanding of, compassion for, and clarification of what they know that we need to understand.

Accept it.

He has offered even more, what we call lagniappe here, something extra. Dr. Shay concludes his work, this second of two volumes ( Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. is Volume I )with a frank and incisive discussion of the policies of replacement/rotation/ COHORT and their respective histories and effectiveness. He categorically examines the need to establish a sense of trust among the members of the military, between those members and the civilians who dictate policy. Dr. Shay speaks of the obvious need for ethics in policy making, in determining the future of those we send to serve.

This is a book for everyone – military, civilian, male, female, politicians. It is a book about responsibility, honor, duty, understanding, compassion, and decisive action regarding both the disposition of forces and their care from their first encounter with military life. It is a challenge to face truths that are not pleasant; to not “turn off” because it is a hard, and often pain filled place to be. It is a place they need us to be. It is about trust. It is about love.

Read Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming.
and begin the healing - NOW.

No, it can't wait just one more day, or one more week, or month, or decade.

Read it NOW and let the bridge to communication and healing be built, starting with you.

Thank you, Dr. Shay.

And most of all, to all of you who have served, Welcome Home, and Thank you so very much for your service.


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This item is part of historian, author, editor, and educator Remy Benoit's ongoing weblog for Veterans, writers, students, and others who believe in learning from and making history; including thousands of articles and posts and the free writing seminar, Using History for Healing and Writing.

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