PTSD may have stopped Salinger, but it shouldn't haunt today's vets

PTSD may have stopped Salinger, but it shouldn't haunt today's vets
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J.D. Salinger, America’s most iconic and elusive author of all time, was misunderstood. He is most famous for his one and only bestselling novel “Catcher in the Rye.” He started writing it while serving in combat during World War II, had difficulty finishing it after returning home and finally had it published in 1951. Many people who labeled him a “recluse” or “crazy” or “eccentric” never really understood or appreciated the probable war-related causation for his abnormal behavior. Many are even unaware of his service in the U.S. Army. Today, many military members returning from combat face the same types of stigma and difficulties that Salinger faced when he returned home after World War II.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the number of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) varies by service era. For Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, 11 to 20 of every 100 veterans have PTSD in a given year. For the Gulf War, about 12 of every 100 veterans have PTSD in a given year. For the Vietnam War, about 15 of every 100 veterans were diagnosed with PTSD at the time of the most recent National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study in the late 1980s. About 30 of every 100 Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetimes.

Not only is it important today to properly diagnose PTSD, but we must also make sure health care is accessible and available to every veteran affected. Sadly, after World War II, that was not the case. This is what the New York Times said about Salinger in its obituary published Jan. 28, 2010: “J.D. Salinger, who was thought at one time to be the most important American writer to emerge since World War II but who then turned his back on success and adulation, becoming the Garbo of letters, famous for not wanting to be famous, died on Wednesday at his home in Cornish, N.H., where he had lived in seclusion for more than 50 years. He was 91.”

The background of his service and resulting likely PTSD was glossed over and never put in context or perspective: “Mr. Salinger had been drafted. He served with the Counter-Intelligence Corps of the Fourth Infantry Division, whose job was to interview Nazi deserters and sympathizers, and was stationed for a while in Tiverton, Devon, the setting of ‘For Esmé — with Love and Squalor,’ probably the most deeply felt of the ‘Nine Stories.’ On June 6, 1944, he landed at Utah Beach, and he later saw action during the Battle of the Bulge. In 1945 he was hospitalized for ‘battle fatigue’ — often a euphemism for a breakdown — and after recovering he stayed on in Europe past the end of the war, chasing Nazi functionaries.”

The facts suggest that he may never have “recovered.” When he returned to the United States he was haunted by his likely war-related disability. Offered no meaningful help from the military, he suffered in silence and desperately sought remedies and outlets for his symptoms. There is no doubt that his probable PTSD had a profound impact on his writing and on the fact that he never published another novel after “Catcher in the Rye,” although he did publish two short-story books.

It was easy at that time to put a label on people and to dismiss them, instead of taking the time to know them and realize there is more to a story than what appearances suggest. I would have never have known the true Salinger but for a powerful, compelling and wonderful film soon to be released called “Rebel in the Rye,” written and directed by Danny Strong.

“Rebel in the Rye” tells the true story of an iconic American author who likely suffered from PTSD and how it affected his personal and professional life. It shows the struggle to survive and how debilitating this wartime disability can be, if not properly treated and understood. The message of “Rebel in the Rye” is one that resonates today. PTSD is a debilitating condition that saps the life and creativity of those who suffer it. In the 1940s, it was seen as a “fatigue” of war and dismissed. Today, we recognize the seriousness of it and try to provide those affected by it with respect, understanding and treatment.

I came away from the screening of “Rebel in the Rye” wondering what might have been, had Salinger received the proper treatment for his disability. To think of the loss to him personally and to the world, denied his full talents and abilities, is such a shame. Today, many veterans with PTSD are fighting to secure funding for service dogs to help aid in their management and recovery. Our lawmakers must make sure that our injured veterans are getting all the care and assistance they so justly deserve.

Bradley A. Blakeman is a political consultant who served as a member of President George W. Bush’s senior White House staff from 2001 to 2004. He is a frequent contributor to Fox News and Fox Business.