Review: ‘Hope in the Shadows of War’ by Thomas Paul Reilly

When injured Vietnam War veteran Timothy O’Rourke returns home in 1973, an open wound accompanies him. Today, we might call it PTSD or survivor’s guilt. When his helicopter was shot down and then attacked by the Viet Cong on the ground, he was able to save one of the men with him–but not both. The prospective roles of fate, destiny, fairness, and second-guessing oneself plague him as surely as a virus

Vietnam War veteran Thomas Paul Reilly saw the war for himself and subsequently applied that knowledge and his degrees in psychology as an author (Value-Added Selling) and public speaker focusing on the importance of hope, attitude, and value. He effectively uses this background to create a realistic, yet troubled protagonist in this novel which will be released on Veterans Day.

In the chronicles of war and returning veterans, Timothy’s issues aren’t unique, but in an era where veterans’ issues were not well understood, he believes he is alone in trying to heal his psychological wounds. He’s attending college, works multiple jobs, drives a falling-apart old car, has a steady girlfriend named Cheryl, and remains one step ahead of bankruptcy. Friends and family either can’t or won’t help him when he’s confronted with unexpected expenses such as replacing the ancient furnace in his mother’s house where he is staying. Cheryl has money to lend, but he refuses to accept it.

Co-workers at a Christmas tree lot where he’s working to earn extra money tell him that college and dreams aren’t for “guys like us” and that he needs to quit college and get a real job. In almost every area of his life, he is without hope. Among other things, he’s driving away Cheryl, who unconditionally loves him, by constantly telling her he’s not good enough for her.

Reilly has created a character who epitomizes veterans who have reason to believe fate and their country are conspiring against them. Broke and in ill health (emotional or physical), they end up living on the streets as one of society’s festering wounds that seems impossible to heal. A co-worker, Hoffen, at the Christmas tree lot casually talks to Tim about hope, perseverance, and attitude. The man speaks like a sage down from the mountaintop, but will his advice be enough to convince Tim that the open wound he brought home from Vietnam will never heal until he lets it heal?

If Tim were in therapy, his analyst might ask him if he wants the wound to heal. His memory of the helicopter crash–which is well written and rings true–replays over and over as though he either wanted to be rescued from the wounds it caused or return to the scene and die along with the buddy he couldn’t save. Tim is a character who is easy to admire for his dilligent attempt to save his dream against great odds. He is less easy to like because his overly hopeless attitude, as demonstrated in his thoughts and his conversations with Cheryl and others, comes close to whining, justified though it may be.

The book would be stronger if the plot focussed on the major highs and lows of the story and left out the step-by-step “transcripts” of minor–or recurring–thoughts and actions. The inspiring ending would be stronger if readers felt that, other than his stubbornness, Tim had played a more active role in making it happen.

Reading Hope in the Shadows of War should be a cathartic experience for struggling veterans and those who want to understand veterans’ issues and motivations. This is the story’s strength. So is the message of hope from Hoffen and others. Readers will probably take that message with them after they finish the novel.

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

 

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Hero’s Journey: Books for the trip

“Ancient Greek heroes were men of pain who were both needed by their people and dangerous to them.” – Jonathan Shay in “Odysseus in America.”

“A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.” –Gen. George C. Patton

We reward our heroes with medals and praise whether they march away to war or run into burning buildings to bring people out to safety.

In either case, praise, like glory, is fleeting, and the transcendent renewal expected through trial by fire (or under fire) in the mythic sense of the hero’s journey may be a dream unrealized. The hero’s character, as Jonathan Shay, author of Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America believes, may be wrecked by the trauma of the experience.

A psychiatrist working with Vietnam War veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Shay focuses his books on what soldiers need to know before they go to war and on what all of us need to know when they return in psychologically damaged condition.

New York Times reviewer Chris Hedges, in his review of a translation of Homer’s Odyssey, wrote “It is his hero’s heart that he must learn to curb before he can return to the domestic life he left 20 years earlier. The very qualities that served him in battle defeat him in peace. These dual codes have existed since human societies were formed; and every recruit headed into war would be well advised to read the ‘Iliad,’ just as every soldier returning home would be served by reading the ‘Odyssey.'” The same can be said of Shay’s “Achilles in Vietnam” and “Odysseus in America.”

Those who march away are praised for marching away and for going beyond the call of duty to perform those duties thrust upon them. When they return, we ask what it was like, but our eyes glaze over when they try to tell us. Is the problem to large to fix? Shay doesn’t think so.

Betrayal of What’s Right

As Shay points out, soldiers often face what happened to Achilles in the “Iliad” when they go into combat. They face a betrayal, via commanders or the system, of what they believe is right and proper. Likewise, when they leave the battlefield, they often face what Odysseus faced in the “Odyssey.” They face the lack an adequate way of dealing with what they experienced while re-integrating into the mainstream world.

Whether it’s the trauma of war or the trauma of other horrific, and often traumatic, events where heroes serve of humanity’s behalf, Shay’s books are wonderful resources for the journey. Shay brings an optimism to his work that might help those who were there and those who were not there come to terms with each other and what happened before the medals were awarded and the fleeting praise was bestowed.

The books are also excellent reference materials for writers, psychiatrists and philosophers who study the classic hero’s journey.

Malcolm R. Campbell