A soldier returns home from battle but has brought the war with him. He stares off into the distance, unable to take joy in his family or friends, still hyperalert to threats he no longer faces. Unable to heal his invisible wound, he takes his own life.
This isn’t a tragic news story about a veteran coming back from Afghanistan with a case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s a summary of the Greek play "Ajax," which is more than 2,000 years old.
The Greeks didn’t call it PTSD. But they understood that war brought trauma (from the Greek word meaning “wound”), which left some warriors with a thousand-yard stare long after they returned home. Advocates and the military itself have found that ancient myths and stories like “Ajax” can help veterans and active-duty soldiers cope with the overwhelming psychological stress that the country’s longest war has put on its relatively small volunteer force.
The VA estimates that about 1,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are diagnosed each week with PTSD, and another 800 with depression. Many more of the 2.5 million men and women who have been deployed in the war thus far likely suffer from these psychological conditions but remain undiagnosed, a burden that will persist far beyond the planned troop drawdown from Afghanistan at the end of this year.
People have been struggling for thousands of years with the question of how war changes people and what their loved ones can do about it. Some of the answers to this huge social problem can be found in the past, says Michael Meade, who runs myth-filled retreats for veterans called “Voices of Veterans.” (The retreats are part of his larger Seattle-based nonprofit, Mosaic Voices.)
Meade calls himself a “mythologist,” and he uses ancient stories from Ireland, Greece, India and other cultures to prod veterans into unloading their experiences and making sense of them over four-day retreats on the West Coast. Veterans in Meade’s program also sing ancient warrior chants together, take part in a “forgiveness” ceremony, and write and recite poetry. He believes that many ancient cultures did a better job of formally welcoming returning warriors home and helping to collectively shoulder some of their burdens.
“Everyone wants to tell their story,” Meade said. “Even the most wounded people, given the chance, want to tell the story of that wound. A wound is like a mouth.”
Meade, who has no military background himself, sees his task as guiding veterans out of the “underworld” — where they may have left comrades or parts of their personalities — and back into the land of the living.
One such veteran was Todd Fahn, 31, who attended Meade’s retreat in 2012. Fahn deployed to Afghanistan in 2005 and then to Iraq, where he was shot two times and blown up in vehicles three times. The last blast damaged the nerves in his intestine when he was thrown inside his uparmored Humvee. Fahn, a staff sergeant in the Army, was finally sent home after he was unable to have a bowel movement for three months, a dangerous condition that could have led to sepsis and death.
Home after nine years of training and warfare, Fahn went through more than two dozen jobs in his first year back. He was diagnosed with PTSD by the VA and started going to therapy. On the one hand, he hated that he always felt anxious and alert from his brushes with death. But on the other hand, he found civilian life crushingly mundane and wondered if he’d ever find the same adrenaline rush combat provided.
“You come home, and life is just so slow and so boring,” Fahn said. “And you just don’t know what to do with yourself.”
He considered taking his own life.
Then he heard about Meade’s retreats from an Army friend. He attended one in Oregon in 2012 and was moved by an ancient Indian story Meade told about a boy who is bitten by a snake. His parents are told by a medicine man that the only way to save the child is to tell the truth that they are hiding. The mother said she had never loved her husband, and he replied that he had been unfaithful to her. The medicine man admitted he had no healing powers. The boy made a miraculous recovery.
After Fahn and his comrades told their truths at the retreat, they gathered in a Portland church and told their stories and read their poems to anyone in the community who wanted to attend. They were given a standing ovation.
Meade believes this public celebration helps move veterans away from the “limbo between war and regular life.”
Another group is bringing mythology to soldiers while they are still serving. The Pentagon has poured millions of dollars into funding a theater company that performs Greek tragedies, including "Ajax," to military audiences. So far, Theater of War has performed 250 times to 50,000 service members, veterans and their families.
Bryan Doerries, a director who founded Theater of War five years ago, said he was blown away by the response to the group’s first performance in a hotel ballroom in San Diego in 2008. The military audience and their spouses watched actors read through portions of “Ajax” and also “Philoctetes,” a play about a war hero abandoned on an island by his own men when he begins acting strangely. Afterward, a woman stood up and said, “I’m the wife of a Navy SEAL and the proud mother of a Marine, and my husband went away four years to war and each time he came back he was dragging invisible bodies back,” according to Doerries. “To quote from the play, ‘our home is a slaughterhouse.’”
Ajax, one of the Greek army’s most celebrated heroes, returns from war filled with rage and slaughters farm animals that he thinks are the Athenian officers who betrayed him. The play also explores the effect of battle stress on families. Ajax’s wife laments that, “Our fierce hero sits shell-shocked in his tent, glazed over, gazing into oblivion. He has the thousand-yard stare.”
Many people in the audience are surprised that these classic battle stress symptoms are thousands of years old. “By using an ancient text, we’re trying to create a safe distance,” Doerries said. According to John Klocek, a psychology professor at Baylor University who treated PTSD at the VA for years, letting veterans know that PTSD is an ancient condition might also help remove the stigma around it.
But today’s warriors also face a different, more undefined kind of battle than Greek heroes did, which has created a different kind of PTSD. “There’s no front line,” Klocek said. “You never know when something is going to explode at you, when someone is going to shoot at you, when someone is going to show up in a suicide vest.”
“They are on edge in a way that is tremendous for months and months on end,” Klocek added of today’s men and women in uniform.
But the parallels are still useful. Now Doerries’ group is using another round of Pentagon funding to create a graphic novel based on Homer’s “Odyssey.” The book is called “The Odyssey of Sgt. Jack Brennan” and is set on the last night of a Marine’s deployment. Theater of War is also perfecting software that will allow people to create their own graphic novels to explore their combat experiences.
The author of “Ajax,” Sophocles, was himself a warrior — an elected general who led men against Syracuse. Some scholars believe all of Western literature developed from the need to tell the stories of returning soldiers.
“These myths were designed by and for veterans,” Doerries said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Sophocles used the phrase "thousand yard stare" to describe Ajax. Doerries' translation of Ajax uses the 20th century phrase, but it's not a literal translation.