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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Combat PTSD Author, Vets' Counselor Jonathan Shay Awarded 'Genius Grant'

Wonderful news from the Boston Globe:

Today, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation will announce that [Jonathan] Shay, 65, has been selected as a 2007 MacArthur fellow "for his work in using literary parallels from Homer's 'Iliad' and 'Odyssey' to treat combat trauma suffered by Vietnam veterans."

"His work is important for delivering healthcare to all those who put their lives on the line in the service of our country," said Mark D. Fitzsimmons, associate director of the MacArthur Fellows Program. "It's fair to describe it as pertinent."

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for more...

In the interest of education, article quoted from extensively.


Shay grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, attended Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania, and ran a laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital, studying the biochemistry of brain cells and why they die so fast after a stroke.

Then, at the age of 40, Shay had a stroke. He went into a coma for several days and emerged temporarily paralyzed on the left side of his body. It took him a year to recover fully. While he was convalescing, Shay "decided to plug up the holes in my education" and read the English translations of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey."

In 1987 Shay went to work for the Department of Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Boston, hoping to open a lab and restart his research career. In return, Shay, a psychiatrist, agreed to work as a counselor "at a very grimy, dilapidated day hospital on the top floor of a garage building on the edge of Chinatown here in Boston."

Almost immediately, psychiatry became the main focus of his work, and he soon found that the veterans he treated trusted him and responded to his counseling in ways he had not expected.

"The veterans simply kidnapped me," he said. "They saw something in me that I didn't see in myself, and they utterly redirected my life."

As he listened to the veterans during his sessions, he realized that the psychological trauma that haunted the veterans of the Vietnam War had also tormented the heroes of the Greek epics.

Springing from that realization are two unique volumes:

Soon, Shay began to work on his first book, "Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character." In the book, he interspersed the story of Achilles with examples of his patients' losses and contentious relationships with their commanders in Vietnam to illustrate some of the causes of the troops' psychological wounds.

In "Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming," published in 2002, Shay draws parallels between the perilous, 10-year journey home of Odysseus from the Trojan War and the psychological odyssey of veterans returning to civilian life.

Like the hero of the "Odyssey," whom Shay depicts as conniving and explosively violent as he travels the world battling monsters, veterans of contemporary wars are often danger-seekers.

As I did my research for "Moving a Nation to Care," I was moved by both of Shay's books (especially found "Achilles" to be influential, along with one of his lectures, "Ethics, Leadership, Policy -- Not Separate Spheres.") I'm not alone in saying that his works are essential reading for anyone attempting to better understand combat PTSD.

Shay's books are "a wonderful resource for both clinicians and vets and their loved ones," said Keith Armstrong, a San Francisco psychiatrist and one of the authors of "Courage After Fire," a guide book on coping with trauma for troops who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and for their families.

Shay wants to study how to improve the way the military treats the troops and their needs at a center he hopes to open at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

Much deserved congratulations, Dr. Shay!

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