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 alike 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."
Shay doesn't like the clinical term "post traumatic stress disorder." He thinks there's a stigma to it. So he speaks instead of "psychological injury" — to make it equal to any physical injury caused by a bullet or a bomb.
"There is a cultural river that says, 'Oh, war will only make you better, if you got the right stuff.' Well, that may be true of some people, but it's certainly not true of many who are badly hurt by it," says Shay.
That kind of realism appeals to those who've been in combat, like author Tim O'Brien. He's written about Vietnam in books like The Things They Carried.
"It didn't take long to read it. I gobbled it up," O'Brien says about Shay's first book, Achilles in Vietnam. "He may not have been in Vietnam, but it felt as if he had been. By his knowledge of the Odyssey and the Iliad he brings to bear this keen sense of what's fake and what's not — and what endures as pain and what's superfluous."
It's only in the last several months that Shay has started counseling combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike Vietnam veterans, they've returned to an America that's more supportive of soldiers.
Still, Shay says what strikes him is how familiar their struggles seem: When these Iraq vets speak, he hears echoes of the same loss and anger that have wounded generations of soldiers, all the way back to ancient Greece.