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Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming

4.19  ·  Rating details ·  360 ratings  ·  39 reviews
In this ambitious follow-up to Achilles in Vietnam, Dr. Jonathan Shay uses the Odyssey, the story of a soldier's homecoming, to illuminate the pitfalls that trap many veterans on the road back to civilian life.

Seamlessly combining important psychological work and brilliant literary interpretation with an impassioned plea to renovate American military institutions, Shay dee
Paperback, 352 pages
Published November 25th 2003 by Scribner (first published 2002)
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David Sarkies
Jun 30, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: sociology
Trial of the Returning Soldier

Back in the days when I was working in personal injury I was fascinated with the idea of how the Greek writers knew so much about the psychological impact of war and how troops dealt with the horrors not just on the battlefield but with how they were able to reintegrate into society. However, since that time my interests have shifted elsewhere and this book ended up sitting on my shelf unread. Having glanced over it a number of times while choosing the next book to
David Lentz
Jul 02, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This well written work of non-fiction is about the homecoming of warriors like Odysseus after the Trojan War and the brutal impact that war has upon their being when they return home. The writer is a VA staff psychiatrist at an outpatient clinic in Boston and he knows his Homer. Shay saw that the trials and tribulations of Odysseus on his 20 year return to Ithaca had distinctive parallels to the experiences of veterans from the Vietnam War based upon his first-hand outpatient experience. Each of ...more
Mar 17, 2009 rated it really liked it
This book discusses how soldiers, both in ancient Greece and in Vietnam, coped with what they'd seen and done during the war once they came home. Ingrained behaviors that once kept them alive now had no place, and civilians (even family) often denied them the emotional safety needed to express their pain and trauma so that they could come to a place of healing.

The first part of the book breaks down the various adventures in Odysseus and shows how each demonstrates an experience or coping behavio
Oct 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
The companion volumes Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America are profound discussions of what war does to men and women who become grunts in the field and then are expected to return to civilian life and come to terms with various levels of PTSD in a world that knows nothing about their experiences. The author is a clinical psychiatrist who works with Vietnam vets who have PTSD in Boston. The books are vivid, gripping, and heartbreaking. Using the Iliad and the Odyssey as metaphors for the ...more
Jun 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: scholarly-works
Just completed my re-read of this work (with a forward by Senators Max Cleland and John McCain) on the difficulties experienced by some traumatized combat veterans in re-integrating with civilian society after coming home from war, with reference to the episodes of the Odyssey as allegories for some of the challenges experienced, and Odysseus' own problematic homecoming as emblematic of that. Like the previous book, Achilles in Vietnam, the purpose is to look for ways to avoid causing trauma an ...more
Lindsay C-T
Dec 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
I wasn't prepared for how extremely interesting and impactful this book would be; I figured it would just provide excerpts for my Odyssey Unit. However, the subject of trauma is, sadly, all too familiar to many of my students and although this book focuses on Vietnam veterans, it remains as relevant as ever in today's tumultuous climate. I could honestly teach an entire class about trauma in literature, with this as a foundational text.
Michaela Crutcher-Lord
Nov 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Excellent analogies to connect modern day combat veterans to the Greek tales, Shay does a fantastic job with comparisons, metaphors and explanations on particularly the atmosphere for Vietnam veterans. Instead of concentrating on one side, Shay exposes the war and its effects as a whole and connects the culture to Homer’s fictional work, which seems more like a truth.
Rifat Islam
Feb 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Combines medicine, psychology, and classical literature. Easy to read, conversational... you probably don't even need to read Odysseus to read this book, but it is encouraged so you have a background when he's referring to events in the Greek epic.
Michael Severt
Dec 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
If you are a Veteran of either Iraq or Afghanistan, this you should read!
Robert Devine
Jan 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
Well-written non-fiction, which creates a parallel between Odysseus' journey back to Ithaca with combat veterans' return home; an important work in field of combat trauma and PTSD
Jun 02, 2014 rated it really liked it
Companion volume to Shay's 1993 Achilles in Vietnam, these two books should best be published in a single edition, as they deal with the same themes. Shay's brilliant thesis is that the Iliad and the Odyssey represent the universal experiences of soldiers throughout the centuries. His careful and extremely insightful interpretations of the Homeric epics serve to describe a new theory of psychological trauma, its causes, treatment and prevention. The idea alone is genius, but Shay's lucid and ele ...more
Steve Woods
This together with its companion volume "Achilles in Vietnam" have taught me more about combat related ptsd and its consequences than anything else I have read. Theye are seminal works. A bit quirky given the constant references to the Illiad and the Odyssey and that may make them a little less accessible to some people but in essence those references just show that there is nothing new under the sun and what veterans suffer today they suffered thousands of years ago in the same way. I am a comb ...more
Apr 23, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
Shay's decades of work with Vietnam veterans, as described and explained in this book, helped formalize the syndrome of behavior that came to be known as post traumatic stress disorder. It afflicts soldiers living in mortal danger for long periods of time, leaving them afterwards in a near-permanent state of hyper-vigilance. They have suffered what Shay characterizes as a moral injury, which like other disabling war injuries prevents them from returning fully to civilian life. He calls it a mora ...more
Ana-Maria Bujor
This was a book that really made me think and that should be read (in my view) by anyone dealing with war veterans, be they family, friends or psychologists.
First of all, it challenged me when it comes to literature. I've never been a fan of Homer's epics in their translated form and just saw them as simple mythological tales. The author however shows very convincingly that the Odyssey could actually be a powerful metaphor of the veteran coming home and even of the symptoms of PTSD.
Second, the
Mary Gail O'Dea
Feb 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shay uses the myth of Odysseus as a metaphor for a combat soldier's journey home. it took Odysseus ten years to get home, time marked symbolically by violence, sexual acting out, substance abuse...not si different than many vets, especially Vietnam vets with whom Shay has worked for many years. there are very moving passages about trips with vets to the Wall. Shay has been in the trenches for a long time and clearly loves his vets. As we wind down Afghanistan and deal with our sons and daughters ...more
Jul 19, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My father is a veteran of World War II, not Vietnam, but my friends' fathers are Vietnam vets and I encounter more than my share of such vets when I accompany my dad to the VA Hospital.

This was the first book that gave expression to my belief that, in some way I couldn't quite put my finger on, our soldiers were being shortchanged. It's not just Vietnam, it's all of them. This book helped me set an additional goal to my commitment to pacifism. While I prefer that no one fights a war, if you MUS
Dec 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
I have read the Odyssey and the Iliad many times as Greek and Roman Mythology are one of my favorite hobbies (NERD ALERT). To be honest, my favorite thing about the Odyssey was the presence of a truly “Good Woman” (one of very few in classic literature) in Penelope. I have always liked the Iliad more, but I was intrigued by the title and the premise that the issues that plagued Odysseus on his return could be compared to the issues that Vietnam Veterans faced upon their return.

Dr. Shay does not
Apr 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2014
The best book about war and homecoming I've ever read. Shay was highly academic, giving soldiers and their experiences the caliber of intellectual thought they deserved, but also accessible and real, validating the full range of emotions felt. I was surprised at how many of the emotions he mentioned I've felt, as a wife of a chaplain and not a soldier myself (though you could argue that I am, in a different sense). Also, explaining war and homecoming through the lens of Odysseus was pure genius. ...more
Jan 03, 2015 rated it liked it
The follow-up to Shay's excellent Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. AiV discussed the effects of combat trauma, post-traumatic stress and moral injury in the context of the Iliad; OiA is concerned with how those phenomena affect the post-war experience of veterans returning home, as illustrated by an interpretation of the Odyssey. Good, but I didn't get the same sort of struck-by-lightning feeling as I did from AiV - possibly because the application of the Odysseus ...more
Sep 04, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: for-work
For anyone wanting to know more about trauma, and combat trauma in particular, Odysseus in America is essential reading. Jonathan Shay draws analogies between the myth of Odysseus and the experiences of combat veterans. I have read the Odyssey twice but without the interpretation offered by Jonathan Shay. Shay also provides a number of recommendations to reduce the occurrences of combat trauma and to help those who have it to heal. I am interested in learning more how behavioral health professio ...more
Apr 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This book was great. I've given away copies and read it twice myself. As a combat vet I felt like Dr. Shay exposed me to aspects of myself, previously unconsidered, that helped me to face daily life with a more reflective foundation.

He pairs his experience with treating veterans to the experience of Odysseus' own homecoming and finds remarkable parallels that, if nothing else, hammer home the universality of war and the experiences of the war-torn on coming home.

Now I'm going to have to read it
Jeff Randall
Feb 07, 2011 rated it really liked it
Jonathan Shay has done invaluable work toward understanding PTSD, grief and our treatment of veterans already with his superb "Achilles in Vietnam" and now follows it up with "Odsseus in America." Part history, psycho-education, and literary analysis the two books compare the experiences of Vietnam Veterans with the story lines of "the Iliad" and "the Odyssey." It is incredible the similarities with these ancient epics to the experiences soldiers and their families deal with today.
Emily Murphy
Dec 19, 2016 rated it really liked it
Note: All of these ratings are on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best. I finished this a while ago and have since returned it to the library, so I don't have any comments on the ratings because I have forgotten why I gave the scores I gave:

Writing Quality: 5
Setting: 6
Characters: 9
Plot: 7
Enjoyment: 6
Structure: 8
Emotional Story: 8
Hook: 7

All of this averages out to a 7/10, which is a 3.5/5, hence the 4-star rating.
Mar 08, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: bpl-s-overdrive
I was surprised there was a "sequel" to Achilles in Vietnam that I hadn't heard of, but I definitely understand why this one comes up less among classicists. This would have been better served as a book that focused entirely on his viewpoints about how to better equip our soldiers -- it formed the bulk of the book anyway, and his connections to the ancient text felt a little forced to meet those points.
Dec 17, 2011 rated it really liked it
After working for a few months in the VA hospital in Manhattan, this book not only fit well with some of my experiences with veterans, but also expanded my understanding. Using Homer's "Odyssey" as a literary tool, it is an accessible and memorable guide for comprehending the challenges of returning home from combat zones.
Jul 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating examination of the PTSD that affected the efforts of Homer's Odysseus to return home from the 10-year-long Trojan War, seen through the eyes of veterans of modern American conflicts (Vietnam, Gulf War I). Shay's account focuses on the contributions that feelings of abandonment and betrayal by trusted superiors and comrades make to the generation of PTSD in any specific person.
Dec 11, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Adolescents and adults
A continuation and expansion of Achilles in Vietnam, this time focused on the problems traumatized veterans often face when they try to return to their pre-war lives - insightful, compassionate, and forceful. ...more
Oct 01, 2008 rated it liked it
This book was quite academic (to use a phrase from Aaron) meaning that was difficult to keep my interest. It is valuable, however, in that it discusses the plight of many war veterans who return home and find it difficult to find their place in society. It discussed many of the emotional problems they deal with and for that reason it is a good book to read.
Apr 17, 2012 rated it it was ok
Very interesting juxtaposition of Homer's Odyssey and the real life trials of combat veterans.
The book was not overly clinical but was really more of a compare and contrast. What I missed, was having a "ok, now here is what we can do about it" section. I think the non-clinical reader would find the comparisions entertaining.
Jul 28, 2011 rated it it was amazing
A real page turner. Recommended reading for any veteran trying to understand himself/herself after returning home. I would love to see Dr. Shay come out with a book about the current generation of vets.
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“Homer suggest that if you forget your pain, you forget your homeland-you 'lose your hope of home.'"-pg.39” 0 likes
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