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Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming Paperback – November 25, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

It's not exactly a secret that those returning from war often have difficulties adjusting to the peaceful life at home. Nor is it a secret that hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans have had emotionally rocky homecomings. The main reasons Vietnam veterans have suffered disproportionately have been identified in many books. Shay (Achilles in Vietnam), a Tufts Medical School faculty member, serves as a Veterans Administration psychiatrist administering to emotionally troubled Vietnam veterans and offers his second study engaging the Homeric epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, in order to describe and explain veterans' plight. Shay presents an amalgam of scholarly Homeric interpretation and case studies of maladjusted Vietnam veterans, arguing that leaders-from top policy makers to drill instructors-hold the key to preventing many psychological problems in the military. He advocates fostering a climate of community at the unit level by training and supporting competent, open-minded, ethical military leaders who have the full support of their superiors. While it's an intriguing argument, the case studies do not contribute to existing literature, and the tone of the book-which contains countless italicized words and phrases-comes off too often as hectoring or stridently didactic. Readers with a working knowledge of The Odyssey and a familiarity with the effects of PTSD among Americans who served in the Vietnam War may get the most out of this book, which could affect policy if it finds its way to upper echelons of command.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Shay, a psychiatrist in the Department of Veteran Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Boston, has worked with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Vietnam veterans for many years. In his first book, Achilles in Vietnam, Shay explored the stresses and psychological injuries caused by armed combat, using the insight of Homer's Iliad. That book was warmly received in both the medical and the military professions. In the first third of the new book, Shay uses Odysseus's epic journey to explore the stresses faced by veterans who return home, still scarred by their intense experiences. In Shay's interpretation, Odysseus experienced nearly all of the symptoms he has observed in returned veterans of modern wars fearfulness, inability to trust or be close to anyone, emotional outbursts, violence, criminal activity, sexual adventurism, and so forth. Clearly, Homer understood and appreciated what war really meant to the participants. The second section deals with healing techniques. The third contains Shay's suggested measures for prevention of such long-lasting injuries. Whether or not one agrees with Shay's prescriptive measures, this is a mandatory purchase for any library serving the military or their families, or where medical professionals deal with any kind of stress-related disorder. It is also a fresh take on a literary classic. Highly recommended. Edwin B. Burgess, U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Lib., Fort Leavenworth, KS
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (November 25, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 074321157X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743211574
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #114,473 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

72 of 75 people found the following review helpful By Dennis E. Spector on November 26, 2002
Format: Hardcover
READ THIS BOOK, because no movie or book has ever captured as vividly and realistically the combat veterans painful re-entry into normal civilian life as Jonathan Shay's "Odysseus in America".
READ THIS BOOK and learn that Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey" are true stories of combat veterans. This will surprise and delight anyone who enjoys the classics or war stories.
READ THIS BOOK and understand what the American combat veteran experiences on his return home. Anyone involved in the helping professions will enjoy and benefit. Anybody who has a combat veteran in their family will learn and be better for it.
READ THIS BOOK and you will understand the great sin that we all commit against our veterans; especially Vietnam vets. Every woman who has a son will want to read this.
READ THIS BOOK and you will finally understand Homer.
Dr. Jonathan Shay has shown that it is as true today as it was thousands of years ago that warfare makes men different. He is a psychiatrist who works with veterans in the Boston VA. In his first book "Achilles in Vietnam" he explained the cycle of trauma and pain that is inflicted by combat. This sequence is --betrayal of what's right by commanders (a common Vietnam story), a soldier's rage at this injustice, their withdrawal into a circle of the closest comrades, then the loss of these comrades with accompanying deep guilt and the growing feeling of being already dead, and then the ice cold berserker state and loss of fear in combat. Then veteran is whisked from the killing ground and immediately plunked down in America. He comes home the way he was in Vietnam.
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 28, 2002
Format: Hardcover
The one problem I had with "Achilles in Vietnam" was that it did not seem to offer much in the way of solutions. "Odysseus in America" provides the answers to the ugly problems outlined in the first book. I'm not sure exactly what Dr. Shay intended but these books are relevant for far more than combat PTSD. They are very helpful for an overall understanding of "moral injury" and "psychological injury", to use terms he seems to have invented.
I think all therapists should read these books. They are very useful to understanding child abuse also. If you are working on your problems from child abuse or other psychologically traumatic incidents, they are very good.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Ronald Scheer on November 3, 2006
Format: Paperback
Shay's decades of work with Vietnam veterans, as described and explained in this book, helped formalize the syndrome of behavior that came to be known as post traumatic stress disorder. It afflicts soldiers living in mortal danger for long periods of time, leaving them afterwards in a near-permanent state of hyper-vigilance. They have suffered what Shay characterizes as a moral injury, which like other disabling war injuries prevents them from returning fully to civilian life. He calls it a moral injury because what has been injured is the ability to trust - even those closest and dearest - and living in the civilian world is impossible without it.

The ancients, Shay argues, understood the psychological dangers of combat for those who fight, survive, and return home. The combination of both cunning (necessary for survival) and the predictable errors in judgment among those who both give and take orders are reflected in the character of Odysseus, who returns with his men from the Trojan War in Homer's "The Odyssey." There is, Shay asserts, good reason why his name means literally, "he who makes trouble for others." The loss of all of his men and then the bloodbath that follows his arrival in Ithaca, as he eliminates Penelope's suitors, illustrate how violence and death follow him long after the war is over.

The fault lies not in individual men, Shay argues, but in a kind of military command that treats them as replaceable parts of a large fighting machine, instead of as groups of soldiers who train and fight together and then are demobilized together. The communal aspect of this supportive group process helps men and women make the return safely and helps them overcome the aftermath of war's traumatizing impact.
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28 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Nick Chalko on January 21, 2006
Format: Hardcover
This book was chosen as required reading for Combat Logistics Regiment-25 Officers returning from Iraq. The following is my personal comments and do not necesarliy reflect the view of CLR-25, the United States Marine Corps or the United States Government.

Dr. Shay M.D uses the story of Odysseus 10 year trip home from the Trojan War as an allegory for Vietnam Veterans return home. It is interesting reading with lots of good "war stories" to keep the pace lively. However the book can be quite academic at times. The allegory is very plain. Odysseus is a soldier having trouble getting home and adjusting. Some Vietnam Veterans had trouble adjusting.

Dr Shay defines Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as persistence of valid adaptations to danger into a time of safety afterward. In other words the Veteran with PTSD that freak's out in crowds is doing so because "crowds draw mortar fire". He lists some of the skills that combat veterans learn are:
* Control of fear
* Cunning, the arts of deception, the arts of the "mind f--k."
* Control of violence against members of their own group.
* The capacity to respond skillfully and instantly with violent, lethal force.
* Vigilance, perpetual mobilization for danger.
* Regarding fixed rules as possible threats to their own and their comrade's survival.
* Regarding fixed "rules of war" as possible advantages to be gained over the enemy.
* Suppression of compassion, horror, guilt, tenderness, grief, disgust.
* The capacity to lie fluently and convincingly.
* Physical strength, quickness, endurance, stealth.
* Skill at locating and grabbing needed supplies whether officially provided or not.
* Skill in the use of a variety of lethal weapons.
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