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Psychiatrist Who Counsels Vets Wins Genius Grant
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Psychiatrist Who Counsels Vets Wins Genius Grant

Health Care

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

A psychiatrist who uses the tales of Achilles and Odysseus in his work with combat veterans. He's among this year's MacArthur fellows. Dr. Jonathan Shay at the Department of Veterans Affairs is one of 24 recipients of the foundation's genius grants, awards of a half-million dollars.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro has this profile.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Dr. Jonathan Shay still can't believe it. He's amazed that he's a MacArthur winner. He's still surprised that a bunch of cynical Vietnam vets in group therapy started listening to him 20 years ago. And today, he's sought out by generals.

JONATHAN SHAY: There's no question that the idea of a bearded psychiatrist from Massachusetts standing up in front of Navy admirals and Marine generals...

SHAPIRO: He doesn't have to finish the thought. He's a shrink, a liberal with Ivy League credentials who quotes philosophers and Greek poets. And yet Jonathan Shay is an influential voice inside the Pentagon. Generals listen 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. That wasn't the practice in Vietnam. But it is again today, thanks in part to Shay.

SHAY: What I recommend has been recommended by military leaders going back decades. I said, hey, this is crazy to be scrambling units like decks of cards. We've got to keep people together. It's not rocket science.

SHAPIRO: A lot of Shay's insight comes from "The Iliad" and the "The Odyssey." He first read the books while recovering from a stroke. He was just 40. As he slowly got better, he took what he figured would be a temporary gig, counseling Vietnam veterans at the Boston V.A. He told them stories of Achilles and Odysseus. And those Vietnam veterans clung to the tales of betrayal by leaders, of guilt and loss among soldiers.

SHAY: One of the things they appreciate is the sense that they are part of a long historical context, that they are not personally deficient for having become injured in war.

SHAPIRO: 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." O'Brien talks about reading Shay's first book, "Achilles in Vietnam."

TIM O: It didn't take long to read it. I gobbled it up. He may not have been in Vietnam, but it felt as if he had been by his knowledge of the "The Odyssey" and the "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.

SHAPIRO: Part of what causes pain is the language of therapy. Shay doesn't like the clinical term, posttraumatic 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.

SHAY: There is a cultural river that says, oh, war will only make you better if you've got the right stuff. Well, that may be true of some people, but it certainly is not true of many who were badly hurt by it.

SHAPIRO: It's only in the last several months that Shay has started counseling combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike Vietnam veterans, they 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.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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