Friday, March 30, 2007

Mini-Review – “Namesake” – The Film and the Novel

When I first read Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, “Namesake,” I was deeply moved. She tells a thought-provoking and evocative tale of an ex-patriot Bengali Indian family living in America. She skillfully explores the identify crisis that such a situation spawns in the Ganguli family’s firstborn son, Gogol. I do not want to reveal much about the plot, other than to say the film version of this well-told tale will certainly spark a wave of people buying Nikolai Gogol’s story, “The Overcoat.”

The book has been carefully, lovingly and effectively translated to the screen. Visual motifs buttress the points that were made in the novel’s narrative. When you see this film, watch for the frequent appearance of bridges to signal the need of one or more characters in the story to span the chasm that perpetually yawns widely between the Bengali culture and the sub-cultures of suburban America. The film is currently playing in most first-run movie complexes. A trip to the cinema will be a bargain in this instance, transporting you – for the price of a single movie ticket – to several worlds. Relish the journey and the characters you will meet along the way. They will grow on you.



The Seven Deadly Sins of Interviewing

One of the on-line Job Boards that I think does a very good job is The Ladders ( The specializes in senior level positions – in a variety of industries and functional roles – that have a compensation range in excess of $100K.

Today’s e-mail from them contains a very concise and helpful list of the most common mistakes that candidates make in the interview process. It is cleverly presented – using the traditional “Seven Deadly Sins” format:

These words of advice, while presented in the form of a humorous conceit, are worth paying attention to.


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A Review of “In An Instant” – Lee and Bob Woodruff Tell The Story of Their Odyssey

I review a lot of books in The White Rhino Report. I recognize that the readership of this Blog is an astonishingly diverse collection of individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, professions, educational concentrations, geographic locations, political perspectives and worldviews. As a result, I seldom make blanket recommendations. On this occasion, I choose to make an exception. This book, “In An Instant,” is a must read! Order it on or run out to the nearest library or bookstore.

The friend who first made me aware of this moving memoir is a hardened military veteran –a West Point graduate with a law degree. He would hardly be labeled a sentimentalist, and yet here was his description of reading what Lee and Bob Woodruff have chosen to share of their “Family’s Journey of Love and Healing”:

“I finished the Woodruff's book. I wept through most of it, having been one of the masses kept in the dark except for Lee's occasional generic ‘Bob is doing OK’ emails. It certainly filled in the details on the timelines.”

I had a similar response in reading the Woodruff’s saga. At several points along the way, I had to stop reading and wipe my eyes so that I could once again focus on the words on the page.

Tom Brokaw calls "In an Instant": "a loving, terrifying, and ultimately inspirational tale of the perils of war, the demands of network journalism, and the strengths of a great marriage. We're all the richer for their courage, their commitment to each other, and their willingness to share the many lessons of their ordeal." Diane Sawyer describes the book as "a passionate love story filled with hope for everyone who has ever wondered how you make it through another day."

Many of you are aware of the basic facts. Just days after being named co-anchor for ABC World News Tonight, replacing the late Peter Jennings, Bob Woodruff was imbedded as a journalist with U.S. and Iraqi security forces near Taji, Iraq. The tank he was riding in was attacked when a roadside bomb was detonated, and he suffered TBI –traumatic brain injury, one of the most common injuries suffered by our troops when IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices) are detonated in their vicinity. He lay in a coma for several weeks, and has undergone many months of extensive rehabilitation.

Much of Bob Woodruff’s treatment and rehabilitation took place in a shroud of privacy – a remarkable achievement for so public a figure. Lee and Bob Woodruff have chosen to lift the veil and share intimate details of what it was like for them and for their family to wade through the deep waters of his initial injury and subsequent struggle to live and then to achieve some sense of a return to “normalcy.” This tale is a modern “Odyssey.” A “warrior of the airwaves” leaves home to report on a war, is grievously wounded on the battlefield, and struggles to make it back home to his family - alive and able to resume his role as husband and father. Lee Woodruff is a latter day Penelope, fighting to keep her home, her hopes and her family together while keeping vigil over her comatose husband.

It is clear that Lee and Bob have chosen to share their story – to “imbed themselves,” if you will – into the consciousness of those who are willing to read their story, in order to shine the light of public awareness on the plight of the many veterans who have also suffered from TBI:

“Because of our journey over the past year with traumatic brain injury (TBI), we felt compelled to make something positive out of something so negative. Goodness and healing needed to emerge from such a devastating event.

Our immediate and extended family became committed to helping the members of the military who have suffered brain injuries from the widespread use of improvised explosive devices, many of whom are not receiving appropriate cognitive rehabilitation for whatever reason. An overwhelmed Veterans Administration hospital system, lacking funding, and a dearth of professionals trained in TBI in areas outside of larger cities have all meant that the very people who need them most are unable to access services at a critical juncture in their healing.

We established the Bob Woodruff Family Fund for Traumatic Brain Injury, administered by the Brain Injury Association of America, a twenty-five-year-old national organization dedicated to research, information, advocacy, and support for this silent and misunderstood affliction. Brain injury affects an average of 1.4 million Americans a year.” (Page 283)

In the first few weeks after he suffered his injuries, Bob’s family – and his team of medical professionals – had no way of knowing if he would survive. And if he did survive, they would not know how much brain function he would have left until he woke up and began responding to the world around him. For weeks, he lay in a coma, fighting off infection and the effects of the multiple traumas that his body and mind had suffered. The first glimpse of hope that Lee shares is particularly poignant. It begins with a description of their daughter, Cathryn – Cackie – visiting her Daddy in the hospital while he was still comatose:

“’Daddy, let’s do a kissing contest,’ Cath said now into Bob’s ear. Her expression brightened as she looked at him. She was on familiar territory and was relaxing, getting used to her father’s new face. It had been one of their bedtime rituals on the phone, when Bob was out of town. Both parties would kiss into the receiver as long as they could, and the first one to give up was the loser.

Cathryn lifted up her head to Bob’s cheek and began to kiss it. I noticed with gratitude that one of the nurses had recently shaved him, leaving his face smooth and white on the right side. Looking at the two of them so close, I felt the reverberation of our daughter’s heart. I saw strength and sorrow and so much uncertainty. As her mother, I wanted to have all the answers for as long as time would permit. I wanted to be able to hang the moon in that way that parents do before kids realize their fallibility. But right now there was nothing I could tell my daughter about her father with any certainty at all. I felt not omnipotent but impotent, vulnerable and small.

But then, as I looked at Bob, I saw the most incredible thing. It was a sight that provided a jolt of hope to last for the next few weeks. A small tear was running down from the corner of his eye, his good eye, on the side where Cathryn was kissing him.

‘He’s crying!’ I yelled to no one in particular. ‘He hears Cathryn’s voice and he’s crying.’ The nurse came around, roused by my calls. It was, to this point, my only living proof that Bob was there, inside that Frankenstein head and swollen body. The nurse would back me up later, when I told the doctors. Cathryn and I had seen it. And it was enough for the two of us.” (Pages 121-122)

Lee goes on to describe a conversation she had with one of Bob’s doctors about the prospect of Bob having to deal with PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder – as part of a rehabilitation regimen once his acute medical crises had been overcome. Their discussion has broad implications for the many women and men returning home to us from the battlefield:

“’Bob has seen a lot of human misery with what he does,’ I explained [to Dr. M.]. ‘He has always been able to come home and shake it off. He saw mass graves in Kosovo, death in Afghanistan and Iraq, and unfathomable sorrow in Indonesia after the tsunami. Doesn’t his ability to have processed this in a healthy way mean he may escape post-traumatic stress disorder?’

‘I wish I could tell you it worked that way,’ said Dr. M. ‘Actually, research shows that the more trauma a person has been through, the more they have seen, the worse the PTSD is. The cumulative effect appears to make the person more susceptible.’

All that collective human misery coalesced into one brain, I thought with a chill. There was the child’s leg Bob found near a mass grave in Kosovo; the blood of Jesus Suarez del Solar, the marine in Bob’s embed division who had stepped on an unexploded U.S. bomb during the 2003 invasion. There was a whole city’s worth of devastation in New Orleans, and there were bodies on the beaches in Banda Aceh two weeks after the tsunami, so bloated they were pitchforked into a truck bed. Bob had a mighty good library of human misery inside is head, I thought. And now, I had learned, all that footage would be his worst enemy.” (Page 166)

One of the most important and sweeping contributions that Lee and Bob Woodruff make through sharing their story is to make readers aware of the scope of issues that face the thousands of veterans returning from the war with TBI. The following catalog of symptoms, complications and treatment requirements is instructive, sobering and overwhelming:

“’Okay, Dr. M,’ I said, pulling the tissue box closer to me, ‘I need to hear it. Tell me all the things we could be dealing with here. I think it’s time for me to know.’

Dr. M began to run through the litany of possibilities. Essentially, the main categories in the brain for cognitive damage were behavioral, social, spatial, speech and language, and executive function, the more logical part of the brain that controls how we order our lives and organize our activities. With a blast injury, it was hard to assess what was or wasn’t damaged because an explosion caused the brain to slosh around against the skull. This sheared off millions of neurons and caused damage that wouldn’t be revealed until Bob woke up. Even then it could take time. Sometimes the differences were subtle – slightly impaired judgment or cognitive ability, perhaps – and sometimes they were more grave, like major personality differences. One of the greatest frustrations with a head injury is that while the person may seem just fine to others, things are profoundly changed inside. These patients – with significant but outwardly subtle damage – were called ‘the walking wounded.’ Back home in America they would be a haunting legacy of the war in Iraq.” (Pages 212-213)

It is precisely because of their all-too-keen awareness of this haunting legacy that Bob and Lee Woodruff have chosen to share their story – in the form of this book, a national tour of media outlets and book signing events, and through the formation of the Bob Woodruff Family Fund for Traumatic Brain Injury.

For the sentient and sensitive person, the reading of this book must evoke a response – a response at the level of emotion and at the level of action. It is not enough for us to read and to feel empathy - for the Woodruffs and for the countless others who are not in a position to tell their own stories of TBI. That empathy needs to lead us to tangible action of some kind. I urge you to click on the link below and explore the fund’s Website. I encourage you to make a financial contribution. I urge you to consider doing some research and volunteering to visit someone with TBI being treated in a rehab facility near you.

The action I have chosen to take is to donate a portion of revenues earned by White Rhino Partners to the Woodruff’s Fund.

Odysseus has returned home from the battlefield and is recovering from his wounds. Let us attend his tale and respond accordingly.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A White Rhino Report Reader Shares Memories of Tim O’Brien

Last week I review Tim O’Brien’s remarkable book, “The Things They Carried.”

I was pleased to hear from my friend, Dale Slongwhite, who is herself a published author and encourager of other writers. She leads writing workshops in a variety of locations across the country. Dale shared these memories of her first encounter with Tim O’Brien:

Tim O'Brien and "The Things They Carried." What a memory for me! In 1988 I wrote a novel and circulated it for a year with many rejections. In 1989 I decided there was something about writing I didn't know and I was going to find it out. I went to the library (before Internet days) and wrote down the name of every college within a one hour radius of my house. I then went home and called them all with the same question, "Do you have writing classes?" It turns out the University of Lowell was offering a lot of writing classes that summer all around the same time. Then in between classes they would have guest authors for readings and anyone could attend. Tim O'Brien was the first one. I invited my whole family who thoroughly enjoyed it. That was my first book signed by the author. . .which started a whole collection. I remember being so amazed by him. . .so unassuming. . .


Thanks, Dale.

For more information about Dale’s Write Lines writing workshops, you can reach her at:


Word Pictures from Iraq – A Glimpse at a Husband and Wife Serving Together

I recently received this fascinating e-mail from Iraq. It gives the unusual perspective of a husband and wife serving in Iraq in separate units. It also gives a flavor of the tremendous contrast between the routine of quotidian life and the sudden interruption by the horrors of mass casualty.

I thank Fauz and Josh Blakely for their permission to share these thoughts from Fauz’s brother, Saleh, who is serving with his wife, Kathy.

I’m back from a little trip I took to Balad also known as Anaconda, a money run. It’s a nice place run by the Air Force, they say it’s in Iraq, but everybody there seems to be having a good time, dances, all night poker tournaments, pool tables, darts, movie theaters.

In contrast: Last Saturday, we had an email to send to everyone to donate blood for a mass casualty. I hesitated to donate blood because needles aren’t really my thing. So I let it go, meanwhile it was approaching dinner time and my people wanted to go nourish themselves, so what I normally do is call Kathy and have her meet us at the office so we can walk to chow together. Her work said she was at the trauma center, assisting.

She actually had been in the vicinity of the trauma center when the request for blood came. So she was dragged into the mass casualty response without knowing what to expect. I’m sure she can elaborate on what she saw and did more than I can. Anyway I was frustrated that I couldn’t find her so, I walked over to the trauma center not knowing the magnitude of this situation. I saw body bags so I assumed there were a lot of dead folks about, but actually it was a way to keep the patient warm and clean while they are prepped for air transport. I had a chance to speak with some of the patients most of them kids and a dad with a baby in his arms, Kathy tended to some unfortunate children with shrapnel wounds and abrasions, concussions and lacerations. It was tragic and heartbreaking, young and old affected by car bomb set for mass destruction. In total 76 killed and 100 wounded. Needless to say it was a memorable experience; I wish I could have done more.

All is well, it seems like the Groundhog Day syndrome is taking affect (everyday is the same). I’m happy to see Kathy on a daily basis, and I miss you too and I really haven’t started counting the days because I don’t know when the end is yet. Say hello to anybody I missed, give all the beasts multiple kisses for Kathy and me. Keep the emails coming, because phones here aren’t reliable.

Capt Dagher

This is a small slice of life from the men and women serving our nation in Iraq. As always, I ask you to keep them and the families in your prayers.

God bless.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Additional Talent Alert - Medical Device Sales

Medical Device Start-up - Boston area

Sales representatives with operating room experience. Several territories open across the U.S.

As always, for details, have interested and qualified parties contact me at:



Bike4vets – The Fallen Heroes’ Ride Across America

One of the most storied rivalries in all of sports is the family feud that has existed for years between West Point and Annapolis. Each December, no matter what the win-loss record is for each team, the Army-Navy football game is a nationally televised spectacle fought with emotions at a fever pitch - on the field and in the stands. The first game between these two service academies was played in 1890! Yet for all the friendly posturing between the two schools and their justifiably proud alumni, beneath the surface there exists a deep mutual respect. That mutual admiration was in evidence this week when two Annapolis graduates wrote to make me aware of an inspiring cross-country journey being undertaken by a West Point graduate to raise awareness of the plight of wounded veterans.

In the past few weeks, you have read several articles in the White Rhino Report about this issue, and I will continue to highlight aspects of the problem as long as there are veterans in need of help in securing adequate treatment for the wounds they have suffered in serving our nation.

My thanks to Jack Colletti, United States Naval Academy Class of 1991 and John Byington, Class of 1990 for making me aware of this effort that is worthy of our attention and support.

I share with you John Byington’s e-mail to his network that went out earlier today.

Family and friends,

I think we all realize that this world war we’re fighting will not be over soon. Ted Koppel had a special last week called “Our Children’s Children’s War,” which is among the clearer signs that at least some in the media “get it.” One part of this story that is rarely told (and recently made headlines with disclosures out of Walter Reed hospital) is that too many of those hurt while fighting for their country are not treated as well as they should be after they shift to the outpatient world stateside. Due to advances in body armor, many survive horrific wounds only to suffer debilitating brain injuries that will require special care the VA isn’t designed to support. Some will face daunting financial challenges due to their limited earning potential and tremendous needs.

To raise awareness of this increasing problem and raise funds for established veterans’ organizations, a local veteran is set to launch a bicycle journey across America. He’s a West Pointer and former tanker, but don’t hold that against him. I’ve met Ed Acevedo twice at the local service academy business lunch meetings here in Jacksonville, and I’d like you to do what you can to help his quest.

His route will take him thru Saint Augustine, FL; Gainesville, FL; Tallahassee, FL; Pensacola, FL; Mobile, AL; New Orleans, LA; Baton Rouge, LA; Houston, TX; Austin, TX; San Antonio, TX; El Paso, TX; Las Cruces, NM; Silver City, NM; Tempe, AZ; Phoenix, AZ; San Diego, CA.

Ed especially needs some help in the Pensacola, FL and the San Diego, CA areas. As a former Army guy, his networks aren’t as deep there, so I’m hoping the Navy-Marine Corps team can help him out – but I’m blasting this to many more because you never know who your friends know. If you can help him get in touch with the right people to make things happen, you would be helping more than one person. He’d simply like some media support to bring attention to the cause, not for himself. If people want to ride alongside, that’s great too. I think it would be great if war fighters in the San Diego area could provide a proper reception.

If you can help – either with a place to stay, local media contacts, a donation or a word of encouragement – please contact Ed via his Web site at



I appreciate you doing what you can to help him improve the lives of at least some of those who’ve shed their blood on our behalf. I’m sending this to those I know who I suspect either know people along the route, may have a special heart for the cause, or those who can help bring attention to this growing issue.

Thanks for your consideration.

Thanks to John and to Jack for making me aware of this undertaking. I encourage you to open the link and think about how you can help in this effort, especially those of you who live along the route that that Ed will be taking across the southern United States. As always, I encourage you to forward this article to those in your spheres of influence who will be interested in learning about this event.



Monday, March 19, 2007

Talent Alert

From time to time, I make readers of The White Rhino Report aware of some of the kinds of talent I am looking for on behalf of client companies. If you are aware of individuals who would be interested in learning more details about any of the following positions, please have them contact me at:

Apparel/Footwear Company in the Boston area –

Global Category Director – Performance Apparel

Head of the Apparel Design Team for Europe/UK (based in UK)

Consulting firm – Boston and D.C.

Holders of current Top Secret/SCI clearances with expertise in BioDefense, Supply Chain or Professional Services (positions based in D.C.)

Investment Banking Firm – D.C.

Analysts and associates with Wall Street experience (positions based in D.C.)

Financial Planning firm – Boston

Mid-career and entry level entrepreneurs interested in being trained in Financial Planning, to eventually develop their own practice

Food and Beverage company – NY/NJ area

Experienced sales and sales management professionals.

Senior managers with operational experience with bottling and distribution operations

IT Support – Boston area

Entry level IT support person with recent college degree in CS, IS, IT.

Search Engine Optimization Consulting firm – Boston area

Account executive with knowledge of Search Engine optimization space



Review of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien

“The Things They Carried” is another one of those books I had been looking forward to reading for quite some time; I finally carved out the time to give it the attention it deserves. My reading of this Tim O’Brien masterpiece coincided with my reading of the book I reviewed last week: “Achilles in Vietnam.” Together, these two works provide timely and insightful glimpses into the lives of those who fought in Vietnam – and by extension, those who have recently fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

O’Brien, himself a Vietnam veteran, has crafted a book that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize – and deservedly so. He fictionalized his personal experiences in Vietnam just enough to generalize the truths he learned as he was surrounded by colleagues who died, or who struggled to stay alive against long odds in the most hostile of environments in Southeast Asia.

I found this book to be personally helpful and healing. I am a member of the Vietnam War generation who did not serve in the military, but I had many contemporaries who volunteered or were drafted and went off to war. Some never returned, and most of those who did return were reluctant to talk about what they saw and experienced over there. As a result, my sense of what happened over there has always felt like an undeveloped photo. O’Brien’s thoughtful book provided the toner to bring the picture into focus in my mind. I grew up and went though school with John H., who lived a few blocks away. I remember him as a red-headed, freckled-faced Energizer Bunny on the basketball court of our junior high school team. He was a point guard long before I ever heard that term being used, weaving in and out of the larger bodies on the court, passing and scoring at will. He went off to Vietnam and died over there. I never learned the circumstances of his death. So, as I read this book, I pictured John H. as one of the protagonists. It helped to bring some closure and healing to a chronic open would.

O’Brien seamlessly blends fiction with autobiography, and he uses as the structure of the novel the things that soldiers and Marines carried with them in Vietnam. He begins with a list of the literal and concrete “things” that they carried on their persons:

“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha . . . The things they carried were largely determined by necessities. Among the near necessities and near-necessities were P-338 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellant, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canisters of water.” (Pages 1-2)

O’Brien deftly evolves his narrative account to blend concrete objects with less tangible burdens that the men carried:

“Some things they carried in common. Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery. The shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself – Vietnam, the place, the soil – a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. The carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, the carried it, the humidity, the monsoon, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.” (Pages 14-15)

This is gritty, pithy, evocative and beautiful writing. The author, continuing to unburden himself of a load he has been carrying around in his own soul for close to 30 years, takes his recounting of “the things they carried” to the next logical level; he offers descriptions of the things - the invisible things - carried in their hearts and minds and the dark recesses of their spirits:

“For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity . . . They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intanglibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. The carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. .. By and large, they carried these things inside, maintaining the masks of composure.” (Pages 19-22)

The rest of the book represents development of these themes that O’Brien has laid out in the first movement of his symphonic poem – an elegy for the enlisted men who died and an ode to the officers who remained faithful to their calling. He offers specific images and vignettes - some heart-breaking in their poignancy – of life in the mud and trenches and rice paddies of Vietnam.

This book is a love letter to those who died, a note of encouragement to those who lived and who still carry the weight of memory, and a signal flare to those of us who never experienced the horrors of war in Vietnam. That flare illuminates the darkness that enveloped that war and those who fought it when they returned home to a nation that wanted quickly to forget and turn out the light on that war and those who were returning, carrying with them the orange-red dust of death.

Tim O’Brien is an insightful and gifted writer. He carries with grace and dignity the knowledge he brought back from Vietnam, and he shares it generously with those who are willing to add the burden of that uncomfortable knowledge to their own personal psychic baggage. I plan to seek out and read his other works. He has a lot to say. He says it well, and it is worth listening to.


Thursday, March 15, 2007

Review of “Achilles in Vietnam” by Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D.

One of the books I had been planning to read for several months is Dr. Jonathan Shay’s groundbreaking work: “Achilles in Vietnam – Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.” I am glad that I finally found the time to acquaint myself with its message. The book is remarkable for several reasons. On its surface, it is one of the most comprehensive examinations of the phenomenon of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among Vietnam veterans. Beneath the surface level, it is a brilliant exposition of the experience of Vietnam veterans in comparison with - and in contrast to - the warriors whose battlefield experiences in Troy are described in Homer’s Iliad. To look at the tragedy of what our Vietnam veterans have experienced in returning home from that war through the lens of Homer’s epic adds a poignancy and depth that is utterly without peer in my knowledge of PTSD literature.

My reading of this book is both timely and relevant, in light of the ongoing investigation of current conditions and practices of treating veterans returning from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also timely in that the televised coverage of the conflict in Mesopotamia has ripped open scabs and exposed unhealed emotional and psychological wounds in a large number of Baby Booker generation Vietnam veterans. They are returnign to VA hospitals and clinics in droves.

“Such unhealed PTSD can devastate life and incapacitate its victims from participation in the domestic, economic and political life of the nation. The painful paradox is that fighting for one’s country can render one unfit to be its citizen.” (Page xx)

Dr. Shay does a masterful job of using his own deep clinical experience of treating veterans at the VA Outpatient Clinic in Boston to lay out a clear and disturbing picture of how the way in which the Vietnam War was waged led to a staggeringly high percentage of returning veterans who are plagued with PTSD. I have enormous respect for the work he has done, for work as an author in sharing his understanding with the wider community. One caveat I must mention is that Dr. Shay clearly has a strong animus against traditional monotheistic religion in general - and the Judeo-Christian tradition in particular. He lays at the feet of organized religion much of the blame for the dire straits that our Vietnam veterans still find themselves. I do not necessarily agree with the conclusions that his philosophical position has led him to make, but with that exception, he lays out lucid and cogent explanations, diagnoses and prescriptions for addressing the troubling issue of persistent PTSD among Vietnam veterans.

An overarching principle that permeates the book is Shay’s belief that healing from PTSD can only begin to happen when veterans are empowered to tell the narrative of what they saw and experienced in Vietnam, and that narrative must be communalized among other veterans and then more widely among family, friends and the broader community. For most Vietnam veterans, the conditions have not always existed to foster and to enable such difficult and painful communication. A veteran shares his frustrations in trying to tell others about his Vietnam experiences:

“I had just come back [from Vietnam] and my first wife’s parents gave a dinner for me and my parents and her brothers and their wives. And after dinner we were all sitting in the living room and her father said: ‘So, tell us what it was like.’ And I started to tell them, and I told them. And do you know within five minutes the room was empty. They were all gone, except my wife. After that I didn’t tell anybody I had been in Vietnam.” (Page xxii)

Dr. Shay ends his introduction with a clarion call to his readers to take an active role in the healing that is long overdue and the prevention of future hurt:

“To all readers I say: Learn the psychological damage that war does. There is no contradiction between hating war and honoring the soldier. Learn how war damages the mind and spirit, and work to change those things in military institutions and culture that needlessly create or worsen these injuries. We don’t have to go on repeating the same mistakes. Just as the flak jacket has prevented many physical injuries, we can prevent many psychological injuries.” (Page xxiii)

A motif that runs throughout this book is the strong belief that everything about the way in which the Vietnam War was fought – by the enemy and by American leaders and policy-makers – violated fundamental assumption of what is right and wrong in the world. This violation of basic assumptions is seen, by Shay and others, as the root cause for many of the psychological problems that attend those who returned from Vietnam as different men than the innocents who had first landed in Southeast Asia.

“The moral dependence of the modern soldier on the military organization for everything he needs to survive is as great as that of a small child on his or her parents. One Vietnam combat veteran said: ‘The U.S. Army [in Vietnam] was like a mother who sold out her kids to be raped by [their] father to protect her own interests.’ (Page 5)

“When a leader destroys the legitimacy of the army’s moral order by betraying ‘what’s right,’ he inflicts manifold injuries on his men. The Iliad is a story of these immediate and devastating consequences. Vietnam has forced us to see that these consequences go beyond the war’s ‘loss upon bitter loss . . . leaving so many dead men’ to taint the lives of those who survive it.” (Page 6)

“Veterans can usually recover from horror, fear and grief once they return to civilian life, as long as ‘what’s right’ has not also been violated.” (Page 20)

In the chapter entitled “Grief at the Death of a Special Comrade,” Dr. Shay lays out his premise about the need for communalization of grief:

”Any blow in life will have longer-lasting and more serious consequences if there is no opportunity to communalize it. This means some mix of formal social ceremony and informal telling of the story with feeling to socially connected others who do not let the survivor go through it alone. The virtual suppression of social griefwork in Vietnam contrasts vividly with the powerful expressions of communal mourning recorded in Homeric epic. I believe that numerous military, cultural, institutional, and historical factors conspired to thwart the griefwork of Vietnam combat veterans, and I believe that this matters. The emerge of rage out of intense grief may be a human universal; long-term obstruction of grief and failure to communalize grief can imprison a person in endless swinging between rage and emotional deadness as a permanent way of being in the world.“ (Pages 39-40)

The author shares several vivid descriptions of those combat veterans who have devolved to a berserk state. He also points out, in contradistinction to the “berserkers,” the value of those who experience the horrors of war and yet somehow resist the pressure to become subhuman in their response:

“Gentle people who somehow survive the brutality of war are highly prized in a combat unit. They have the aura of priests, even though many of them were highly efficient killers.” (Page 44)

This arresting description of “gentle warriors” makes me think of many friends I know – Renaissance Men who are also patriotic soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines – who have returned from their deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. To be sure, they have returned changed – in terms of their frame of reference and the vast library of memories and experiences they amassed in war. But they have remained essentially unchanged in terms of basic character and temperament. As Shay has indicated in this book, they tend to be individuals who have strong networks of support that they have used as platforms for telling the narrative of their combat experiences. Many began that narrative process even before returning home – through e-mails, Blogs and published articles and books.

In the chapter, “What Homer Left Out,” Dr. Shay offers a very helpful and concise summary of the four kinds of traumatic war experiences that lead to PTSD:

“These four clusters are exposure to combat, exposure to abusive violence, deprivation, and loss of meaning and control. The four clusters are all aspects of war trauma, and PTSD symptoms are the lasting results for the veteran after the war.” (Page 123)

This is a book that will add value and insight to any individual who is committed to helping veterans – from the Vietnam era and the most recent wars in the Gulf – to find healing and wholeness after experiencing the devastations of war. Those of us, as civilians, who feel we are unqualified to participate in the communal healing that is sorely needed, will find comfort and challenges in the truths that Dr. Shay presents in this seminal work. If we, as a society, fail to respond – pro-actively and with compassion – to the chronic challenge of PTSD and those who suffer from it – it will remain our “Achilles’ heel.”


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Review: “The Blog of War” by Matthew Currier Burden

Several of my friends who have served recently in the military recommended that I read “The Blog of War: Front-line Dispatches from Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The author, a former paratrooper, Special Operations officer and DIA intelligence officer, has edited and woven together Blog postings from Iraq and Afghanistan. The result is a sobering and powerful book that allows the noncombatant a brief series of glimpses into the lives of those about to be deployed, those left behind, those in battle, those wounded, those returning home and those who gave their last full measure of devotion.

The book took on an even more compelling cast for me when I discovered that I know one of the Bloggers quoted in the book: Chaplain Brad Lewis, a Captain in the U.S. Army. I met Chaplain Lewis last summer when he officiated at the wedding of my friend, John Serafini. Based on my personal observations of Chaplain Lewis and the respect and affection accorded him by the soldiers he has ministered to, it is clear that he was a good choice to represent the chaplaincy in this book. His thoughts about Spiritual Warfare appear on pages 80-82 of "The Blog of War."

In light of the current controversy over the quality of medical care available to our troops – on the battlefield and at home – the chapter entitled “The Healers” becomes especially poignant. Consider this excerpt that succinctly demonstrates humanity winning out over bureaucracy in a critical moment. The context is that a critically ill soldier from a Chinook crew that had come under attack is just coming out of surgery, and his friends want to be sure he is OK. An Army nurse in charge of the Combat Hospital Blogs here recollections of the events:

“The gunner had just come out of surgery and the nurse doing his recovery did not want any visitors as the ICU was crowded, busy, and the gunner was not awake anyway. We had 5 other wounded in the ICU from that crash. All were about to get loaded up on the flight to Baghdad in less than an hour. I came out to tell the rest of the crews that they couldn’t visit. The CSH Chief Ward master was there and he gently pulled me aside to suggest I allow these guys in to see the gunner anyway, one at a time. Seems he saw the guys’ faces when I said the patient couldn’t have visitors. They needed to see that their crewman was alive and ‘all right.’ I forgot, in the midst of this busy night, of the loss that these soldiers were facing – they lost 2 men out of a 5-man crew, and had just spent many hours looking for the missing 5th. I returned to the ICU and told the recovering nurse that we were going to let these guys in - one at a time.

I am never so humbled as when I lose sight of the cost in human lives and human emotions. To me it was another mini-mascal (mass casualty), trying to ensure these guys get the best care by stretching resources, staff and equipment. To them, it was a man of their crew, whom they lived with and worked with for the last 6 months, and were responsible for. I overlooked that. I am sorry. I wish I could apologize. I see so many come through here. Most leave here alive and recovering. And a very few leave through mortuary affairs. I can still name every one who left here that way on my shift. I met every one of them. When I can no longer remember their names, or care to, that is the time I need to get the hell out of this country.” (Pages 73-74)

In the chapter entitled, “Leaders, Warriors, and Diplomats,” Captain Danjel Bout, a California National Guard battalion staff officer assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division commanded an air assault infantry company in Iraq. He writes a moving piece about American soldiers struggling to save the life of a little Iraqi girl, who became “collateral damage” during an insurgent attack on Election Day. Capt. Bout ends his account with these reflections on the saving of that young life:

“Ten years from now, our unit will have long since passed out of the local memory, the desert swallowing any physical trace of our year in the Land of Two Rivers. But there will be one living, beating heart that will bear testament to our company’s mission and the good we tried to do. And right now that somehow seems enough.” (Page 104)

Later in the same chapter, Corporal Michael Bautista, a cavalry scout with the Idaho National Guard, writes about his thoughts after being treated by one Iraqi family as a neighbor instead of an occupying soldier:

“I shall never forget the 10 minutes I spent with this family. No conversations of substance transpired, no earth-shattering foreign policy formed. Simply hospitality and gratitude; just smiles, body language and handshakes. For a while, there was no fighting, no explosions, no terrorist possibly lurking around the corner. Even though I was in full combat gear, sharp steel sheathed, ammunition and explosives strapped to my chest, rifle slung at my front, for a moment, I was just a guy enjoying a hot beverage and some candy with the neighbors.” (Page 125)

First Sergeant James Thomson served in an aviation unit in Afghanistan. His account of finding a way to motivate a discouraged soldier is an inspiring tale of true leadership in the face of overwhelming odds. A seasoned platoon sergeant was asking permission to transfer to another unit a non-productive soldier who was in “meltdown” mode. 1st Sgt. Thomson asked to see the soldier before rendering his decision. She appeared and he asked:

“What’s going on, Willis?”

“Nothing, First Sergeant,” came the expected reply.

“Oh, so you normally sit up here all night crying?” I asked

She looked at me. It was obvious she had been crying for a while and was very upset.

“Look, Willis, if you’re upset about something, and it’s obvious that you are, I can’t fix it unless you tell me what ‘it’ is,” I explained to her.

Taking a deep breath, she went on to tell me that she feels very unwelcome and useless to the unit because she’s stashed away every night listening to the radios and waiting for the phone that never rings to ring. It became pretty clear to me that she needed to feel more productive. I explained to her that I could find her a reassignment if she wanted, but that wasn’t what I wanted and that I didn’t think it would help as her MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) just isn’t critical in this environment.

“I could, however, move you out of the CP (Command Post) working alongside other Soldiers within the unit that produces more visible results,” I offered. . . “Willis, you want out of this lonely, boring, radio-watch job or not?” I asked the tough kid form LA.

“Yes, First sergeant, that would be much better,” she answered.

I asked her to give me two days to work out a replacement for her in the CP, and to give me 100% during those two days, and I’d get her out of there. She agreed. . . SPC Willis is now working with a smile on her face and dirt on her hands and only complains about being tired at the end of the day. I think she might even reenlist. (Pages 127-128)

One of the most riveting parts of the book is found in the chapter entitled: “Heroes of the Homefront.” Retired Army Lt. Col. Tim Fitzgerald shares his fears for the safety of his wife, Captain Patti Fitzgerald, while she serves with the 1st Armored Division in Iraq. I offer this extended excerpt because the emotions described parallel those I feel when I hear of a death in Iraq and Afghanistan and I fear for those I know who are serving there.


I don’t know what else to call the . . . the analogy is apt in my mind.

They are the intellectual construct by which I deal with the barrage of bad news from Baghdad. They work for me . . . I’m not sure how others do it . . . and I’ll be honest: in the end, my fences are very, very selfish.

The fences come into play when I hear or read a news report that says ‘Another soldier killed today.’

I listen carefully. If the report says the tragedy took place somewhere other than Baghdad I am relieved . . . all my fences are intact. But if the report is from Baghdad . . . the bad news just breached the first of my fences.

And so I search some more . . . I search the Internet. I look for any clue. Sometimes the report will indicate the Soldier belonged to the 4th Infantry Division or the 82nd Airborne Division. If so . . . my second fence remains solid.

. . .

These are my fences . . . I don’t have to ensure they are rational.

. . .

I wonder sometimes about those who don’t need fences . . . because they have no personal stake in this war. And I wonder how that feels. I can’t remember how that feels.

. . .

And so I build my fences. I build as many as I can . . . as strong as I can. I bolster them with prayers and scripture and bravado and probability and sometimes too many glasses of wine.

I vent my anger to strangers on the Internet and my hopes to that tiny inner circle of the trust friends.

I build my fences and polish them with optimism. I hiss loudly at trespassers who would cheapen the value of my investment.

‘Stay away from my stake! Don’t stain it with your fingerprints. . I don’t know what it cost me yet!’

My fences keep me sane.” (Pages 187-189)

There are moving passages about survivors’ guilt, the family version of survivor’s guilt, the challenges in coming back home. For those who want to understand what our troops and their families are experiencing through prolonged and multiple deployments, this book shines a painful and helpful light on these struggles.

The chapter entitled “The Fallen” is particularly moving. Annapolis graduate, Naval Reserve Lt. Scott Koenig pays tribute to his fallen classmate, a Renaissance Man by the name of Kylan Jones–Huffman. The loss of this brilliant officer is emblematic to me of the extraordinary men and women whose lives have been sacrificed in fighting the War against Terror.

“Kylan’s major field of study was history, and he was quite a gifted student. He enrolled in the honors program, and had earned several credits towards his Master’s Degree in History by the time we graduated. After graduation, I went off to Newport, Rhode Island, for Surface Warfare Officers School, and Kylan went to the University of Maryland to finish up his Master’s . . . A couple of week’s ago, the selection message for Lt. Commander came out, and I spotted Kylan’s name on it. ‘I wonder what he’s up to these days,’ I thought.

Turns out that Kylan had been busy these many years. Always gifted at languages, he had learned to speak German, French, Arabic, and Farsi, the predominant language of Iran. This aptitude for languages had earned him a job with Naval Intelligence. . . On August 21, two days before I boarded my flight home from Kuwait, Lt. Kylan Jones-Huffman was shot and killed wile riding in an SUV near the town of Al Hillah. His unit was stationed in Bahrain, and he was only supposed to visit Iraq for one week.” (Pages 215-216)

I close with one final excerpt from a portion of the book that moved me deeply. Major Brian shares a very poignant and personal narrative of his duty of escorting the remains of Special Operations soldiers and Navy SEALS to Germany on their way home to the United States:

“When the door finally opened and I made my way to the front of the aircraft, I noticed something different about the last casket I would pass. There was something on the flag. Thinking that something had fallen form a rucksack on the way out the door, I reached to remove it before I saw that it was a dogtag with an inscription. I touched it briefly, then continued out the door, and standing on the ramp with the cool, early morning German rain streaming down my face I considered the inscription I just read:

‘And I heard the voice of the Lord saying “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said “Here am I! Send me!” Isaiah 6:8 (Page221)

Reading these words prompts me to shed tears for those who have fallen and for those they have left beyond, and causes me to pause and pray for our sons and daughters who still fight – they who have volunteered and have said: “Send me!”


Monday, March 05, 2007

Unleashing A Firestorm - Veteran's Healthcare in the News

I wish I could take credit for the recent flurry of activity and attention focused on the scandal of veteran’s healthcare that I wrote about last week in The White Rhino Report. Since that article was published, the Secretary of the Army has been summarily dismissed by the new Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. Gates is reportedly furious over the Army’s slow and inadequate response to many reports of super-standard conditions at Walter Reed and elsewhere in the medical system. Walter Reed Hospital administrator, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, was fired, and replaced with another general. But then Gates found that the temporary replacement—Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley has previously been at the helm of the troubled hospital, and it was this faux pas that led to the dismissal of Secretary of the Army, Francis J. Harvey.

I heard on the news this morning that Massachusetts Congressman Joseph Tierney is convening hearings on site at Walter Reed to get to the bottom of what needs to be done to fix this sick patient that is our nation’s healthcare system for veterans.

In my posting last week, I recommended that we write to our Congressmen. I have done so. See below for my e-mail message to Joe Tierney.

Congressman Tierney,

I want to commend you and encourage you in your efforts to shine the light of Congressional inquiry on the nagging problem of Veterans' health care.

I am an executive recruiter with a specialization in placing former military officers. I also have a brother who is a retired US Navy Senior Chief, so I have a vested interest in seeing these problems resolved.

Thank you for your efforts on behalf of our veterans who have served with honor.

Dr. Al Chase

I discovered a very convenient way to e-mail the Congressman that represents your district. The link below will lead you to the Website, Write Your Representative. It will ask you for your Zip code, and will connect you with the Website for your individual Congressman. Letters and e-mails from constituents from their own district receive the highest priority response by the congressmen and their staff.

ABC newsman, Bob Woodruff and his wife are touring the country touting their new book, In An Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing. This timely book is also spotlighting the inadequacies of our system of treating wounded soldiers and Marines. I will talk more about the Woodruffs in a subsequent posting in this space.

There seems to be a perfect storm building to finally force our representative to deal with the deep challenges needed to reform our military and veterans’ healthcare system. We must keep up the pressure. I urge you to add your voice by writing to your Congressman and by making this issue a topic around the water cooler at your office and your dining table at home.

Let the healing begin.

Al Chase