Moving a Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America's Returning Troops by Ilona Meagher (Brooklyn, NY: Ig Publishing)
Don' t expect a pretense of " objectivity" in this review. After all, Ilona Meagher has been writing on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for a year now on ePluribus Media. Many of us have been involved with her in the work on the PTSD Timeline (a searchable database of reported Iraq and Afghanistan Vet PTSD incidents), on her articles and blog posts, and even on her book. Though I have been concerned in only the most peripheral way, I have applauded the work at every step -- and I continue to do so with the publication of this book.
Still, I can promise two things in this review: an honest evaluation and a personal viewpoint. After all, Meagher's book is an attempt to move Americans to action on veterans' rights: She is honest in her concern and this is a book on a topic that has much more relevance to our individual lives, even those of us with no immediate family members in the military, than many of us might think. What happens to the members of our military matters to our lives, no matter who we are.
Before getting to the book, though, I want to share the opening verse to one of the saddest songs I have ever heard. It' s John Prine' s 1971 " Sam Stone" :
Sam Stone came home,
To his wife and family
After serving in the conflict overseas.
And the time that he served,
Had shattered all his nerves,
And left a little shrapnel in his knee.
But the morphine eased the pain,
And the grass grew round his brain,
And gave him all the confidence he lacked,
With a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back.
Thirty-six years later -- a generation and a half later -- and things are no better.
If anything, they are worse.
And the Veterans Administration, the one organization in a position to do anything about it, is being choked to death by the twin forces of increased need and decreased effective funding. Meagher, through the stories in this book, makes that abundantly evident.
Now, the Veterans Administration has a special place in the hearts of my own family. To us, it was a cherished organization. My grandfather, who lost a leg as a National Guard officer in World War I, worked for the VA almost from the day it was established in 1926, eventually serving as its chief legal counsel in Ohio. My father graduated from high school in Brecksville, OH -- site of the VA hospital where my grandfather worked. The VA took care of my grandfather until the day he died in 1959, long after he'd been able to work. The VA did so well by him that none of us could speak of it without a hint of awe.
For they really took care of him. He had dedicated his own life to the service of veterans -- and that dedication was repaid.
Tonight, I picked up my mother at the airport. In the car, I told her about this book, and about today's VA. She was shocked. She remembers the VA as it once was, the VA that had been her father-in-law's life-- not the sorry shadow of its former self that it has become. She also knows the way our country once treated veterans -- my father went to college (and met her) on the GI Bill. They bought their first house because of loans for veterans. Like many, however, she wasn't aware that veterans are no longer treated so well.
Meagher's book sets out to change that.
As Meagher writes, PTSD is nothing new. My other grandfather, a WWI artilleryman, hated high, shrill noises the rest of his life. His only injury came from mustard gas, but the psychic scars stayed with him the rest of his life. Once, some years after returning to civilian life, my father was hit by a car while riding a bike. He did a forward summersault and landed on his feet in a crouch with his hands in front of them as though holding a rifle -- shocking the people on the sidewalk. Neither of these men had severe symptoms that could be equated to PTSD (though their reactions were typical), but war was among " the things they carried" for the rest of their lives.
All veterans carry their wars with them. They cannot help it. We who remained at home need to respect that and provide much more for them than a pat on the back and commendation for a job well done. We really need to provide more for those who have been disabled by the war, physically, mentally, or both.
And that, though she concentrates on PTSD (one of today's most crying yet unmet needs), is the point of Meagher' s book-- whatever we think of a particular war, we owe it to the veterans to insure they have the services they need, and for the rest of their lives. They can' t drop the war; we can't drop them (though we have).
Meagher's book is in three parts. The first two use personal stories to provide an understanding of PTSD for those of us who have never experienced it or war. This first part really has two purposes, to show that although PTSD is nothing new, it is a serious problem indeed. The second gets into the complexities of PTSD in contemporary American society, explaining why PTSD is different for veterans today, given the particulars of the contemporary Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. In the third part, she brings it home -- literally, discussing, among other things, the impact of quick transport, picking people up from Iraq one day and dropping them home the next -- without any time for adjustment. It's here, also, that she provides lists for the activism that she hopes her "call to arms" will make necessary in each of our hearts -- places to contact, things to do relating to easing the impact of PTSD. In many ways, these are the purpose of the book. The point is to give Americans -- all of us, but particularly the veterans facing PTSD and their families -- information on how to proceed both in dealing with the trauma and in forcing our government to deal concretely with the problem.
The style of Meagher's writing is breezy; there's no anger in the prose. Meagher lets the examples she presents speak for themselves -- and that's good. The outrage is in the violence that PTSD victims have experienced and then recreate (most often against themselves) -- and in the help that comes too little and too late, if at all.
If I have any criticism at all, it's the title of the book. Moving a Nation to Care is probably too timid. A title that really carries the anger that we should all be feeling about the treatment of our veterans, however, would never be accepted on bookstore shelves.
This isn't only a book that each of us should read: it' s a roadmap to what we all should be doing, if we have any respect for ourselves and for the people who are willing to do the dirty work that (whether we agree with the specific or not) they do at "our" request.
Buy it, read it, and get busy.
About the Authors: Aaron Barlow teaches English at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania and, on weekends, runs his store/gallery, Shakespeare's Sister, in Brooklyn, NY. The author of The DVD Revolution: Movies, Culture, and Technology (Praeger, 2005), he is a board member and citizen journalist for ePluribus Media.
Ilona Meagher is an activist and citizen journalist with ePluribus Media, as well as editor of PTSD Combat: Winning the War Within. Her collaboration with ePluribus Media has resulted in the PTSD Timeline -- a database of reported OEF/OIF PTSD incidents -- as well as the 3-part series Blaming the Veteran: The Politics of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and The Corroding Effect. A journalism student at Northern Illinois University, Ilona is currently putting the finishing touches on her upcoming book, Moving a Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America's Returning Troops.
ePluribus Contributors: aaron barlow, vivian, cho, standingup, roxy