Warrior Wire: The PTSD Myth

PTSD Myth

 

When I pitched this story, the point was to talk about how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was being over-reported and how there were all these myths about veterans that were causing them trouble back in civilian society. The title ended up focusing on the PTSD part of the story, but it’s about so much more. It’s about how veterans are judged on when and where they served, and how those who served pre-9/11 or who never went to Iraq or Afghanistan are seen as less-than, or as having not really served at all. And it’s about how female vets sometimes aren’t believed to be veterans because they’re women (a point that was driven home recently by this story). And it’s about hero worship and how even that has its downsides.

One of the first questions I asked each vet I interviewed was, “What are some stereotypes people have about veterans?” and the number of examples they came up with was astounding. Matt Selvage, whom I had interviewed years earlier for another story, came up with a list so long that it took up two full pages in my notebook. They told me about positive stereotypes that can be harmful, about negative stereotypes, about misconceptions and preconceptions. They also told me about the conversations they have amongst themselves regarding these issues. And they told me about PTSD—and part of that conversation was about whether it should be the more-familiar PTSD or the newer PTS (as some believe it is inaccurate to call it a disorder, which implies that there’s something wrong with the sufferer).

And while I really, really wanted the article to not be about mental health and post-traumatic stress, I’m glad that’s what it ended up being about. I got to talk to Will Simmons, an IAVA Leadership Fellow, about his experience with PTSD and how he came to accept his problem and work through it. It was an enlightening discussion, one that really changed the way I looked at mental health care. I thought about that conversation recently, when another veteran I’d interviewed (one who did not appear in the article) asked me to write a buddy letter for them to submit with their VA claim for PTSD. I remembered what Will had said about how long it took him to accept his problem and admit to others that he was suffering from PTSD, and I thought about all the other stories I’d heard from other subjects I’ve interviewed over the years about their experiences with seeking mental health care—including while writing stories about things as simple as veteran writing groups and art projects. All those voices were in my head as I wrote my letter, and I know it helped me see the situation differently than I would have had I not had the opportunity to talk to all those men and women who’d shared their stories with me.

That’s always what I’ve sought to do in Penthouse‘s Warrior Wire: to help at least one person learn something or see things from a new perspective. And what I write about may not always seem educational. Sometimes I write about guys going rock-climbing, or about cool events, or about music, but there’s always some substance. And as I explained to someone not too long ago, I like having my stories sandwiched between a bunch of naked ladies. I like thinking that someone could be turning the pages, looking for another sexy photo of the Pet of the Month, and, whoops!, they land on an article about veterans’ issues and maybe, just maybe, give me a few minutes of their time.

So, to make a long story not too much longer … If you want to read “The PTSD Myth” from the September 2014 issue of Penthouse, click here.

Warrior Wire: Fightin’ Words

FightinWords
If you read my last post, you may have noticed a sidebar in my article “The Write Stuff.” In it, I gave a short rundown of five of my favorite veteran-written books. I chose five because that’s what I knew could fit in the space I was given, but there are so many more good books, and I want to share those with you, too. So here’s a little bit about how I chose the books that made the cut, as well as some further recommended reading:

During the earlier years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I didn’t read books or watch movies about the wars. I devoured the news like a junkie, and my college roommates suffered through lots of CNN and stacks upon stacks of newspapers. My cousin, a Marine, did three tours to Iraq, so I was always a little worried about him and didn’t want books or movies to make me even more tense. I’d always been a big news junkie, though, so that I could handle.

My cousin had just finished his last tour when I got my first Warrior Wire assignment, and my editor has asked me to interview Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. I knew of him, and I knew he’d written a book, so I read his book before our interview. It was easier now that my cousin was home. I loved Paul’s book, so I sought out more.

In true Jen fashion, I bought dozens of books, more than I could read in any reasonable amount of time, and have continued to do so. If someone I interview recommends a book, I pick it up. If I read a good review of a book, it’s in. If a book lands on my desk at Penthouse for review or I stumble upon one during my annual trip to Book Expo America, it becomes part of my required reading, too. So in the past few years, I’ve acquired quite a collection. I’ve read about a third of my collection now, maybe a little more. (I read other things, too, and I can only spend so many hours with my nose in a book.)

There are so many great books out there these days. Especially about our most recent wars. There are books about policy and practice, there are memoirs, there are accounts from journalists and photographers. I’ve found books that I love and books that I only kind of like, and books that even people who have no interest in the news or the wars can read and understand (and I’m not above forcing people to read books for their own damn good). There are also more books than ever out there about and by veterans.

My all-time favorite, and the first war book I ever read, is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, about the Vietnam War.

Here’s a list of my favorite Iraq/Afghanistan books by vets:

Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier’s Perspective
(Paul Rieckhoff)
My dad said the a lot of the scenes were reminiscent of his time in Vietnam and he could really relate to it. My first and favorite Iraq war memoir.

My Share of the Task: A Memoir
(Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Ret.)
Heavy on the policy and so full of jargon that you might have some trouble if you’re not fluent in military lingo. That said, it’s also got some great humorous moments, and was a far more enjoyable read than I’d ever anticipated.

Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War
(editors Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher)
The first fiction I read about the recent wars. Absolutely superb read. It introduced me to some great writers I may not have discovered otherwise and really made me think.

An Angel From Hell: Real Life on the Front Lines
(Ryan A. Conklin)
If you watched MTV’s Real World: Brooklyn a few years ago, you may remember Conklin as one of the housemates that season. His book, like his role on the show, is goofy and a little immature, but it has its deeper moments. It’s a good book, but I chose it for my article in large part because it’s a book that a lot of younger readers will find accessible because of their familiarity with Conklin from his television appearances.

The Yellow Birds
(Kevin Powers)
War fiction by a war vet. This was probably my favorite book that I read in 2013, about war or otherwise. Whether you’re interested in war/veterans or not, any fan of good writing must read this.

Fobbit
(David Abrams)
This is the Catch-22 of the 21st century. It’s a hilarious take on life on base in a war zone. I laughed out loud frequently, which definitely made my fellow subway riders curious about the book.

Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond Between a Marine and His Military Working Dog
(Mike Dowling)
First of all, it’s about a dog. What’s not to love? But really, it was a great, quick read. And, yes, the man-and-his-dog story is heartwarming as hell. It’s one of the more sentimental war memoirs, but also one of the easiest to get into. You can’t not like this book.

My War: Killing Time in Iraq
(Colby Buzzell)
Buzzell has written several articles for Penthouse‘s Warrior Wire column, so of course his book made my list. But it’s also a good book. It’s a little non-linear, being based on the blog he kept during the war, but his voice is familiar and likable. He references a lot of punk music and frequently points out how he doesn’t necessarily fit the soldier mold (whatever that may be these days), and reading his book felt like binge-reading emails home from my cousin, so it won me over.

Honorable mentions:

Thank You for Your Service
(David Finkel)
Not by a veteran, but an embedded reporter. It’s an honest look at what happens when soldiers come home with PTSD and TBI. It will totally break your heart a half-dozen times, but you’ll be all the better for it.

War
(Sebastian Junger)
Even people who have no interest in war will be able to get lost in this book by one of my favorite writers. He skips all the acronyms and over-thought explanations of why and how and simply tells a good story.

Generation Kill
(Evan Wright)
If you hate books, you can watch the HBO miniseries
of the same name. It’s as close to the book as anything I’ve seen, and doesn’t require you to read the book before you watch it. But if you pick the book, you won’t be sorry. Wright has no shame in pointing out all the times he was scared, or discussing the nitty-gritty details of war, like where you go to the bathroom when you’re camped out in the middle of nowhere in the desert.

If there are any books you think I should read, please leave me a comment, tweet me, or email me.

Warrior Wire: War Songs


Sometimes I write things that have nothing to do with porn or sex. Recently I wrote an article about Tricare and the Veterans Affairs health care system. That won’t be out for a while, but it reminded me of this article that ran in the March 2009 issue of Penthouse. It was supposed to be a short blurb, at most, but it grew into a two-page article that I think tells a pretty cool story about the everyday lives of our soldiers. It was such a great topic to immerse myself in for a few weeks, and it’s a piece I’m extremely proud to have in my clip book.

While researching and interviewing, I got to talk to a lot of really great people. Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America was a wonderful resource and such an enjoyable interview. It’s always nice to interview people who are not only brilliant, but who you want to talk to after the interview is over. Paul is definitely both, and I’m thrilled every time we get to chat. (I’ve also read his book, Chasing Ghosts, more than a few times. It’s an amazing story and so well written. Everyone should check it out.)

Another guy I interviewed for the story was David Ratcliff, a soldier I found on MySpace. I messaged him through the site and got a phone call the next day. He didn’t believe I really worked at Penthouse, and he couldn’t understand why I would want to get in touch with him. Once I sent him my credentials, though, he was a really fun guy to talk to. He was smart and had good taste in music (key for the piece, obviously), and he gave me more than a few good quotes.

All the soldiers were great, and I can’t say enough about them. There were some I didn’t get to use in the article, and some who I didn’t expect to use but who ended up surprising me. One of the surprises was Joe DeRidder, who happens to be my cousin. Joe’s a really smart guy, and I love hanging out with him and talking to him when he’s home. But he’s not the most verbose person. I didn’t think he’d give me much material to work with. He surprised me, though, and had a lot to say. (My dad, who swears he’s “never heard the kid say more than three words at a time” thought maybe there was another Joe DeRidder. He was impressed.) The article made for a fun show-and-tell at our next family get-together.

One of the coolest things, though, was interviewing the musicians who were involved. Bryan from the Bouncing Souls was awesome, and the band’s publicist/manager was really cool. We didn’t get to do the interview in person, because the band was on tour, but Bryan’s emails were great, and he cracked me up when we discussed doing the interview via BlackBerry.

Serj Tankian was another great interview. His manager called me within five minutes of my sending an email requesting an interview, and said she’d already spoken to him and he was very interested in talking to me. I was blown away, and we set up a phoner for later that day. I don’t think I’ve ever set up an interview so quickly, even with my friends! I didn’t get to use his quotes in the story (they just didn’t fit with the tone of the article), but we chatted for 45 minutes, and he was super cool. He told me a great Sarah Palin joke, and then made my day (probably my entire year) by telling me that the story I was writing mattered, and he thought that I was a smart, savvy journalist, which, in his book, made me the cool one. I saved the recording and listen to it every now and then when I want to feel like a rock star.

I’ve been fortunate in that I only have to write the stories I want to write, and I work with people who are as excited about the topics I cover as I am. It means my clip book is full of great stories that double as really great memories.