Newswise — University of Maryland lecturer Dr. Glenn Schiraldi is an expert in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.) But for his new book, WWII Survivors " Lessons in Resilience, he decided to look not at people who suffer from PTSD, but at a group of World War II combat veterans whose lives have been characterized by their resilience in the face of trauma and loss. From 2001-2005, Schiraldi traveled the U.S. to interview 41 men and women about their lives. "This book is, in a sense, stories of those who figured out ways to keep it together," Schiraldi says.
Schiraldi's interviewees included people who had been a Navajo Code Talker, a Tuskegee Airman, Marines in the Pacific, GIs in Europe, Sailors, Airmen, prisoners of war, survivors of the Bataan Death March and the Burma-Thailand Death Railway --virtually all aspects of the war. "They each described aspects of resilience in a particularly unique and powerful way," Schiraldi says.
Glenn Schiraldi has served on the stress management faculties at the Pentagon and the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. He is teaching a post-9/11 resilience course for the University of Maryland Honors Program.
Media may use all or part of the following interview with Glenn Schiraldi or contact Ellen Ternes, University of Maryland, 301-405-4627, [email protected] to arrange an interview or to find out if any local people are included in the book.
What gave you the idea for the book? SCHIRALDI: My public health career has focused on helping people to cope with stress. Prior to the publication of this book, I'd spent five years writing The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook, which describes the nature and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can afflict survivors of combat, terrorism, rape, any kind of abuse, natural disasters, and the like. Once you get a handle on treating a psychological disorder, you then naturally begin to think about preventing it. So the next logical step was to explore resilience--the strengths of mind and character which help people facing overwhelming stress to function well and preserve their sanity. Particularly after 9/11 and the war in Iraq, with the resulting up ticks in PTSD, anxiety, and depression, it seemed imperative to better understand what resilience is and how it develops. I began to consider a group of people who might share the secrets of surviving extreme adversity.
Why did you choose WWII survivors?SCHIRALDI: Wartime stress is a metaphor for all other forms of stress. I'd also always been fascinated by the Greatest Generation, my parents' generation. They had been steeled by the Depression and hard work, and then, of course, so many of them answered freedom's call in WWII in truly remarkable ways. The fact that I'm a graduate of West Point probably also gave me a special feeling for these people and their sacrifices. When I interviewed them, they were eighty years old on average, so they also shared profound insights on surviving challenges across the lifespan. I think that their experiences and insights have much to teach all survivors--from combat to everyday stress and strain. Not only did this remarkable group of forty-one survivors have much to say about not stumbling psychologically, but they also shared much about being strong and productive before, during, and after crises.
What were your criteria in selecting people to interview? SCHIRALDI: I interviewed people who were survivors of combat, who returned from the war well-adjusted, and who were well-married, an enduring marriage being another indicator of good adjustment. I asked them each to tell their stories about their pre-war years and then their war years. Then I asked them about what helped them to cope--how they got through the war psychologically intact. I specifically asked what was in their hearts and minds on topics ranging from staying calm under pressure, to emotional intelligence, forgiving, humor, optimism, spirituality, meaning and purpose, love, creativity, character, and how to view suffering and loss.
How did you find the people you interviewed?SCHIRALDI: I simply asked people if they knew individuals who met my critieria. I started with veterans I'd known for years, such as Captain Joseph Taussig, a Naval Academy graduate who lost his leg at Pearl Harbor on the USS Nevada, the only battleship to move under its own power during that battle. Sometimes the WWII survivors referred me to comrades in arms with whom they'd served and knew well. In some cases, I learned about remarkable individuals through their books or television documentaries. For example, Irene Gut Opdyke, a Polish partisan, was an extraordinary woman. Her book (In My Hands) describes how she hid twelve Jews in the basement of a villa where she kept house for a German major. The Fighter Pilot's Story started out as a video which Quentin Aanenson made to explain the strains of war to his family. It has since become a PBS documentary. How did you manage to interview all of the people in person?SCHIRALDI: Over a five-year period, from 2000 to 2005, I traveled the country, sometimes flying but usually driving, visiting the survivors. I almost always met with them in their homes, because I wanted to get a sense of who they are. I often met their families, and in making follow-up calls and visits, came to feel that they and their families had become like an extended family. The individuals ranged from poor coal miners and farmers to privileged urbanites. The visits covered Maine to California, and included a Navajo Code Talker, a Tuskegee Airman, Marines in the Pacific, GIs in Europe, Sailors, Airmen, prisoners of war, survivors of the Bataan Death March and the Burma-Thailand Death Railway (of Bridge Over the River Kwai fame)--virtually all aspects of the war. I loved it when they pulled out old photos and relived their memories. Many of the photos are in the book.
Were there any surprises?SCHIRALDI: Perhaps that people can endure incredible suffering, yet still remain soft and whole inside--hopeful, loving, and happy. While we hear about the real and tragic casualties of war, we perhaps hear less about those who withstand so much, and yet return to live productive lives. This book is, in a sense, stories of those who figured out ways to keep it together. I've often thought that this was a very warm and likeable group of individuals. Sometimes trauma makes people hard and bitter inside. But that wasn't the case with these people.
What can veterans from more recent wars such as Viet Nam and Iraq learn from these WWII vets?SCHIRALDI: I believe the strengths of resilience are timeless and universal, and that we can all still learn much from these survivors. People often ask me if I would find similar strengths in the veterans of more recent wars, and I reply, "You would in the resilient ones." It was Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor, who wrote that people can withstand almost any suffering if they have a reason to, something to give their lives meaning and purpose.
What were some of the traits these people shared?SCHIRALDI: These survivors were very clear on their lives' purposes, why they were fighting, and what kinds of lives they wished to return to. They were also very clear on matters of character. They'd decided in advance what they would and wouldn't do, and thus carried fewer regrets back home with them. Whether it was standing up to immoral orders or being faithful to loved ones, this was a remarkably moral group of individuals. For the most part, they came from close-knit families, with adults who taught them values, responsibility, respect for others and property, and the value of hard work. What are the one or two most important life lessons you learned from these veterans as far as overcoming difficulty in life? SCHIRALDI: Perhaps that we can't separate psychological strengths from physical, spiritual, and philosophical strengths. The philosophical and spiritual strengths, especially, grounded these survivors inside and provided comfort amidst their chaos. Also, resilience usually doesn't just appear in times of crisis, but is developed over the lifetime. It can be learned.
From a professional point of view what did you learn that can you apply in helping people recover from PTSD?SCHIRALDI: This book really says more about developing strengths long before we need them. However, a part of resilience is also rebounding from psychological pain. This was what these survivors did so effectively. We might remember that even exceptionally resilient individuals struggled with fear and sadness from the loss of comrades who had become like family. Yet they pressed ahead, despite their pain. This is a fine treatment model: We acknowledge our pain kindly and without judging it, then we press forward despite the suffering. If we have to function (as in emergencies), then we do so to the best of our abilities. When things settle down, then we grieve so that we don't carry these sufferings inside forever.
What are some of your best memories of your experience writing the book?SCHIRALDI: That I was privileged to get to know these individuals in ways that most people don't; that I learned things that they had sometimes not even told their families about the realities of war and developing a winner's heart. I feel like I am a better man for getting to know these people in such an intimate way. For example, Mrs. Opdyke was quite frail when I interviewed her. She had gone into the ghettos to teach young people not to hate because hatred brings war, persecution and unhappiness. She'd tell those young people that she was there because she loved them, much like Mother Teresa. They would often follow her down the street and ask for another hug. As I was leaving her home, this little woman, still beautiful, pulled my shoulders down and gave me a kiss on the cheek, and said, "You are like a son, I love you." I understood immediately why those children connected with her; it was a moment I will always cherish. When I thanked one man who had been wounded in Europe for his service, he said, "God bless you, old soldier." You don't forget memories like that. When I call these people, I consider them friends, and when I hear of one's passing, it is like losing family. I was inspired not only by what they did, but more by the people they were and are.
What else would you like to comment on? SCHIRALDI: Traveling the backroads to locate these survivors reminded me of our country's great beauty, both from a physical perspective and also in terms of the hearts of the American people. I get a lump in my throat when I think of this generation. I want to say thank you, not only for what they did to preserve our freedoms, but for what they stood for and exemplified.