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Jewish Journal

Listening to veterans

by Naomi Pfefferman

April 10, 2013 | 6:30 am

Dr. Paula J. Caplan

Dr. Paula J. Caplan

Harvard psychologist Dr. Paula J. Caplan recalled how her Jewish father, a captain of one of the first black tank units to serve in combat in World War II, often described his recollections of the war: He spoke not only of the heroism of his men, but also of the smell of burning flesh as he passed by enemy tanks and of seeing bodies frozen on fences or blown apart by shells. “When he talked about terrible things, he teared up and was clearly in pain, but he never talked about being in jeopardy or being frightened in any way,” said Caplan, who lives in Boston and Palm Desert, in an interview from her California home.

She gained some insight into his behavior back in 1995, while watching a videotaped interview her father made about his experiences; she was stunned, in particular, by his memories of serving as a forward observer, a kind of scout who sneaks as close as possible to enemy lines in order to determine its exact location. 

“At that point in the tape, I broke down, weeping, and had to turn off the video,” said Caplan, who is the author of several plays focusing on psychological issues, including “Shades,” spotlighting veterans’ experiences, which opens April 13 at the downtown Los Angeles Theatre Center. “I just couldn’t bear the image of my father being so vulnerable that he could have been killed. And I realized that my father had intuited this all of these years; he knew we couldn’t bear to think of him in such danger, and that’s why he never talked about those feelings.

Caplan, author of the book “When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans,” began thinking about vets who talk about their emotions and those who don’t. “I wondered about how some people come out of the war totally wrecked and others are seemingly unscathed, and how people cope with having been traumatized, whether it was something you directly experienced or that a loved one experienced,” she said.

What emerged was her 2000 play, “Shades,” which revolves around four diverse veterans of World War II and the Vietnam War: The eldest is Jerry, who like Caplan’s late father, served as captain of an all-black unit that was awarded for meritorious service; he declines to discuss his emotions, but even so he has led a satisfying life, having regarded each day since the war as a gift. 

Then there is Jerry’s son, Don, a former Vietnam War chopper pilot who is suffering from a mysterious lung disease; a family friend, June, an African-American who has been a quadriplegic since her shrapnel injuries just before the fall of Saigon; and Jerry’s daughter, Val, who is reeling from the death of her husband, a Japanese-American who was born in an internment camp, enlisted in Vietnam to prove his patriotism but after the war was so haunted by flashbacks and survivor’s guilt that, as Val puts it, “Sam came back alive, but [his] soul came back in a bag.”

Caplan, who is as much of an activist as she is a psychologist, has counseled almost 1,000 veterans since the onset of the Iraq War in March 2003; after conducting a Harvard study on the healing effects of civilians listening to veteran’s stories, she launched a national project, “Welcome Johnny and Jane Home,” which urges civilians to simply listen to combat veterans’ stories, one-on-one, without judgment or asking questions, for as long as the vet wishes to speak. 

Information regarding the project will be handed out at performances of “Shades.” “Veterans often don’t want to tell their loved ones about their experiences because they don’t want to upset them, and you don’t want to be forever in their eyes the person who went through hell,” she said. “So if other people in the community don’t give them a chance to talk, then they’re alone.”

So far, she said, citizens have not stepped up to the plate: “Of course many soldiers come back devastated, because that’s what war does, but we tend to tell them, ‘You’ve got a mental illness, go see your therapist, close the door behind you and take your drugs.’ And the result has been that the suicide rates have gone up.” According to a new study from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the suicide rate among the approximately 23 million veterans in the United States is at an all-time high with 22 deaths a day. 

Caplan traces her activism on behalf of veterans and other disenfranchised groups to her childhood among just 40 Jewish families in Springfield, Mo., where her parents “instilled in me that to be Jewish was to fight for the underdog,” she said, adding that she became a psychologist “in order to help reduce human suffering.”

She first became an activist in psychological circles in 1985, when she heard that the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) committee to revise its diagnostic manual was planning to include two new labels she feared would be harmful to women: masochistic personality disorder and pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder. Along with other feminist psychologists, her concern about the masochistic diagnosis was that battered women and others suffering with understandable life problems would be labeled mentally ill, threatening their health insurance coverage, job promotions and even custody battles. She promptly launched a national petition campaign to protest the diagnoses. 

After Caplan served on (and resigned from) two APA committees to revise the diagnostic manual from 1988 to 1990, she wrote her 1995 book, “They Say You’re Crazy: How the World’s Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who’s Normal,” proffering her view that “many so-called mental illnesses are actually problems in living, such as grieving or loneliness, or having been a victim of violence or oppression.”

When the Iraq War began a decade ago, Caplan worried that veterans suffering from the aftershocks would be labeled mentally ill (primarily in the category of post-traumatic stress disorder), rather than simply suffering from “a deeply human response to war — and that marginalizes them even more than their war experiences have.”

In her “Welcome Johnny and Jane” project, she has listeners confirm this distinctly human reaction: “I urge civilians to say, ‘I am sure if I had experienced what you described, that, like you, I would be having flashbacks or insomnia, and I hope you know that that is not a mental illness, you’re not crazy,’ ” she said. “I have seen strong veterans weep in response.”

For tickets and information, call (866) 811-4111.  For information about the veterans listening project, visit whenjohnnyandjanecomemarching.weebly.com.

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