Hear Jonathan Shay talk about a scene in the Odyssey and how it relates to soldiers back from Iraq today.
Psychiatrist Who Counsels Vets Wins Genius Grant
by Joseph Shapiro
Morning Edition, September 25, 2007 · Among this year's MacArthur fellowships — sometimes called the "genius grant" — is a half-million dollar award to a psychiatrist who helps heal combat veterans with post traumatic stress disorder by talking about the mythological Greek warriors Achilles and Odysseus.
Soldiers, and generals, too, listen to Dr. Jonathan Shay, of the Department of Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Boston. They listen especially when he talks about why it's crucial to soldiers' mental health to keep them together in the same unit over time, so they truly come to know and rely upon each other. This wasn't the practice in Vietnam. But it is again, today, thanks in part to Shay.
A lot of Shay's insight about how to prevent the mental health problems of war comes from reading the Iliad and the Odyssey. He first picked up the books while recovering from a stroke some 25 years ago. He was just 40.
As he slowly recovered, he took what he figured would be a temporary gig counseling Vietnam veterans at the Boston VA. He told them stories of Achilles and Odysseus — and those tales of betrayal by leaders and of guilt and loss among soldiers resonated with the Vietnam veterans.
"One of the things they appreciate," Shay says, "is the sense that they're part of a long historical context — that they are not personally deficient for having become injured in war."
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I read a lot of books about Vietnam and PTSD in a lot of years. This was the first one I read that made me want to contact the author. I was crying when I emailed Jonathan because this book was the first one that looked at PTSD as something personal. I didn't know very much about emailing or the web back then. I had the email blocking people not in my address book, without knowing it. Jonathan tried to email me back, but when he found it wouldn't go, he didn't give up. He searched until he found me. I was shocked. I didn't imagine him wanting to even email me back at all. I just wanted to let him know how much his book touched me.
Over the years, we emailed back and forth. He read my book when I was still working on it and helped me to keep pushing to have it published. It didn't work out and I went the self-publishing route but I will never forget his kindness. If anyone should be awarded for the work they do on PTSD and for our veterans, it's Jonathan Shay. He writes books so that everyone can understand and writes them from his heart.
If you want to read some of the best writing on PTSD and combat, go to the book store and find his name. He has several great ones but Achilles in Vietnam will always be my favorite.