On Saying Farewell to Katniss & Peeta

Today, in the United States, it is Thanksgiving Day.

One week ago, though, in IMAX theaters across the land, it was Katniss Everdeen’s Day.

Much to President Coin’s chagrin.

For those of you acquainted with Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, whether in print or on the big (and I mean, big) screen, you know exactly what I mean.

For those of you not acquainted with it, or at least with Jennifer Lawrence’s/Josh Hutcherson’s/Liam Hemsworth’s incarnation thereof:  good Lord, where have you been buying your groceries this past month?

Sure enough, I was there, Opry Mills theater, right off the Briley Parkway, Nashville, Tennessee, USA, far too close to the screen, but there you have it.. Wouldn’t have missed it. I had to see if the ending was going to disappointment me.

It didn’t.

Interestingly, though, just the week before I’d spoken with a journalist about my old posts on the books, written around the time of the first films. He was surprised that I was as gung-ho on the books’ ending as I was.

“I think a lot of people thought it was a let-down,” he told me.

I suspect he’s right.

Was I let down that Dr. Aurelius, the psychiatrist in the book, never made it to the big screen?  Sure.  I’m a shrink, after all. It was our big moment, and to end up on the cutting floor? Another day at the office, I guess.  Next patient, please.

Just the other day, David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote an op-ed piece entitled “Tales of the Super Survivors,” in which he stated (quite well, I think) the idea that one recovers from trauma only by learning to tell new stories about life, stories that must take into account the truth of the world, yet which must have the optimism to see beyond those truths.

I think he’s right, of course. I did find his tone a bit on the chipper side for my taste, admittedly. I’ve attended one too many funerals in my day, I guess.

Still, he’s right.

And Katniss and Peeta knew that as well. After all they had gone through, all they had left was home, back in what was left of District 12, in houses whose grandeur evoked the memories of all the smiles and largesse forced upon them by a government that had rather found them both dead in those beds they curled up in, nightmare-night after nightmare-night.

All they had left were the stories to be lived of Haymitch sober, of Annie and Finnick’s son, of primroses growing in gardens Prim would no longer tend, of an ugly cat, of a love, whether or not it was ever “not real,” that became so quietly real.

Does love conquer all? God, I wish it did. Too many veterans return to homes that, even though not on the edge of a genocide zone, do not have the luxury of quiet that the Everdeen-Mellarks were eventually afforded.

Narratives are easier to re-write, after all, when there’s a steady supply of food on the table and a warm-bed-for-life on the second floor.

Yet, in the end, love, connection, friendship, a willingness to let something in life matter again, someone in life: they are all that the traumatized veteran of War has. Treatments will come. Treatments will go. Sadly, in many parts, treatments never even come in the first place.

But to take the chance to love again, to love a man who once tried to strangle you, yet who endured your bite to keep you from swallowing pills of death (the one book scene I wish could have made it into that movie scene of the “execution’s” aftermath)? Katniss did.

To take the chance that the memories you worked so hard to retrieve could leave you once again, like that young lad outside the bakery on a cold night, tossing a loaf of bread to a beautiful girl rather than to a pig, without anything to show for it but a broken heart and a maybe an occasional wild turkey brought in from the woods and left at your doorstep to cook up that night if you wanted to invite, what, maybe Haymitch over for a beer–or nineteen? Peeta did.

You know, the high-drama-guy in me wanted to shed a tear or two as I watched Peeta giggle with that little blond guy in the field at movie’s ending, as Katniss recited the book’s ending to the baby in her arms, as the two of them looked at each other and knew—and yet lived and loved and smiled anyway.

Perhaps because it was only about a week after JD’s funeral, I couldn’t.

Yet I was happy for them, those two fictional characters, yet still, two veterans of horrific wars, ones televised live and overanalyzed, two young veterans, slowly growing older, with nothing more to show for it than love and a willingness to play different games.

Thank you, Ms. Collins, for your books and for your care over the films. Thank you that even when there are worse games to play, there are always better stories to tell.

For that, the fictional ones and the real ones, all of us can whisper, “Thanksgiving.”

Returning on All Souls Day: A Memorium for a Fallen Friend

It has now been ten months since I last posted, ten months of challenge and of growth, times for renewal, then and now.

For a while I have been planning my return to regular blogging, and soon (truly) I will be doing so. Yet, sadly, today I return with an entry I wish did not press itself into my heart, demanding I open up the laptop one more time to remember, to grieve, to honor.


On Friday, 30 October, 2015,  mere days ago, my Facebook friends received the following post:

Yesterday, I lost a soldier and a friend, SFC Jonathan Downing (Ret). His son, Dylan, requested that those who knew him place this photo in profile. I am honored to do so.

JD so often got a twinkle in his eye when he would show off to me his command of Afghani Persian. And how many times did I hear him say to me, “Good to hear your voice, Doc.”

So, my friend, my voice speaks to you one last time.

Today, with a more clouded eye, yet with an eye that will soon twinkle again at your memory, I bid you farewell in another warrior language, one that the Romans carried with them from the edges of North Africa to the edges of Scotland, the language of your SF motto, yet…

…also the language once of a Church that, for over a thousand years, kept within it the hope of a faith that might otherwise have passed away, a language of less-than-perfect, yet faithful men who—perhaps much like young soldiers today, equally less-than-perfect, yet equally faithful—sought to preserve what they knew, for all our sakes, had to be preserved.

Cruciatus consumptus est,
Mi amice iuvenis.
Miles, frater armis, filius, maritus, pater,
Fidelis in vita et in morte:
In aeternatem
Requiesce in pace,
O Vir Bone!

The torment is over,
My young friend. 
Soldier, brother-in-arms, son, husband, father,
Faithful in life and in death,
Into eternity
Rest in peace,
O Good Man.


JD and I never spoke much together about this blog, given that my time these past many months had been consumed in other matters. Yet he always did say that I had a way with words—as did he.

So if my voice has spoken its last, let this blog entry be our final words together, his to me and mine to him.


You wouldn’t recognize me if I didn’t go “professor” on you one more time, my friend. Yet today, 2 November, is the day that the Church has, through the centuries, remembered those who have gone before us, All Souls Day. I had had no plans of honoring this day with words to you, that is true. But that day came, and this day is here.

I also hope you didn’t mind my getting all Latin-y on you, within a Facebook post at that.  “Kinda overkill, Doc,” that’s what you would have told me. I know.

For you never were one to mince words with me, were you. While you ever valued the service that you gave, you were never one to stomach much of the over-valued ‘thank you’s” some of us stateside were too willing to give you. As a Special Forces soldier, you knew War up close and personal. I saw it in your eyes, eyes that would twinkle, yes, yet often, at least when we were together, could not afford to do so. There were too many stories for those eyes to tell, given how words, as they so often did, failed in all ways to do so.  

I do hope that I heard those stories as well as I could. I promise you: I will do my best never to romanticize them. You took them too seriously for that.

And yes, my friend, I know that there was one conclusion upon which you and I could never fully agree. O Vir Bone! I just wrote. How much more you would have wisecracked about the English word “bone” than you would have accepted the Latin word for “good” spoken to a man who, I always asserted to you, deserved its attribution as much as any man I have known. 

Spoken to you.

Yes, those eyes tried to convince me otherwise so many times, convince me that a man who had to act in War in ways that you had to act to protect innocent civilians and well-loved brothers-in-arms should never, would never be worthy of the word “redemption.” 

Your eyes always shouted, even when they whispered, whether in joy or in pain.

But, my young friend, ” mi amice iuvenis,” I am glad to report that if my own whispering shouts, my words that tried to speak the truth to those eyes, if they did not get the last laugh, they at least got the last smile today, this day of remembrance.

You see, JD, many cultures tell stories of redemption, in whatever language. But on this day celebrated by a Church, in its various forms, whose faith you and I shared, I remind you of a story passed on to us in the Gospel According to St. Luke, 23:42, the story of a man who quite clearly, by anyone’s measure, was not ‘”worthy” of redemption by anyone, let alone by Him who, whether facetiously or not, was labeled “King of the Jews” in three languages, right above His head.

Scholars will debate the truth of the story ad aeternum—or better, as you would have said, until the cows come home. No matter. The “Thief on the Cross,” the only name we have allowed him, took a chance at that moment that has stood for the chance that all of us have taken ever since. In making his request that Jesus “remember” him, he spoke of a hope that all of us, no matter what Wars or wars we have fought, hold deeply inside us.

JD, some will say that in my writing to you today I am merely writing to myself, one more wishful exercise that is the product of grief. Perhaps they are correct.

But perhaps they’re not.

And precisely because the older I get and the more I suspect they’re not, I smile.

For now you know.

I suspect that a good old Southern  guy such as yourself might not have heard much about the Taizé Community in France, where an international community comes together to sing quiet songs of sadness and of hope. I can’t hold that against you, guy. I’m the professor, after all, not you.

So as my parting words I leave a song, one that has always touched me, one that I hope will touch all those who loved you. And I smile. For if you would have heard it in life, I suspect you would have doubted that the plea to “remember you” would ever have been heard by Him Whom the Church remembers most this day.

But now, of course, you know.

He did.

Goodbye, my young friend. Rest in peace.


2015: Renewing and Rebooting

As New Year’s Day 2015 comes to its close, I’m simply glad I kept my promise to myself: I’m writing a blog post.

While 2014 was anything but the best year for the blog, it was, I’m happy to report, a good year for me to learn, to experience, and to grow, both personally and professionally. And even though it was not a great year for material for a blog of reflective essays (more on that in a later post), it was a tremendous year to meet men and women who have served in combat and who are trying to make their lives back stateside become as meaningful as possible.

I sure did experiment with genres last year, though, didn’t I? That brief foray into “flash nonfiction” (surprise surprise: hard for me consistently to be succinct). Initial thoughts (and even a few podcasts) on how Star Trek can teach us about the brain and trauma. Even a few of my more traditional memoir-essays. Who knew what was going to pop up on the screen next?

The great thing about growth is that it’s both about keeping the best of the past and about working toward the better of the future. Over the coming weeks, you’ll see what I mean. Paving the Road Back is not going away. It will be joined soon, though, by Paving the Road Back 2.0.  In this case, 2.0 isn’t better. It’ll just be 2.0.

Stay tuned: reflections will be coming, as will a whole new way of serving those whom I’ve had the honor to serve.

And maybe even a few visits back to the Enterprise–and perhaps Starfleet Academy?

Thanks for all the interest and support so far, and Happy New Year!

Back in Town

Hey, folks!

Yes, I’m alive. Yes, I’m still working with very courageous men and women who are working to move their lives forward.

I haven’t been posting recently for a variety of reasons (none, I’m thankful to report, bad or illness-fiilled). I’m looking forward to getting back into the blog over the coming weeks, the hectic nature of the Holidays notwithstanding!

For right now, it’s just : stay tuned. It’s a good time for a reboot. Thankfully, though: I still have the honor of working with men and women who have served to the best of their abilities and who are still working not only to “pave the road back” home, but also to move into more and more meaning-filled futures.

I have a great job.

Talk to you all soon!

As Times Goes By

As I walked through the outpatient waiting area, I passed one of the young guys in the civilian program, I thought, communing with his smart phone. Upon reaching the nurses’ station, though, I realized my error, walked back, and for a few moments stared at the soldier unobserved, at his stocking cap with the chic, mirrored sunglasses perched thereon, sunset orange, at his technicolor tennis shoes facing no visual competition from the all-gray track suit that most likely cost a fraction of the shoes’ price, from Target, likely.

Texting completed, he looked up and smiled. “Hey!”

“Good holidays?” I asked.

Shifting to a frown that spoke volumes, “We need to talk,” he said.

Marital tensions, again. Similar ones had brought him to me only weeks ago with a near-suicide story worthy of the name. Today, though, he was only angry, willing to keep trying, but only for so much longer.

In the ensuing weeks, you see, he’d begun to forgive himself for imagined errors and real deaths. No longer was he feeling unworthy of happiness because he’d happened to have decent-enough numbers in War’s lottery.

“I’m not a bad man,” he said to me. “I deserve better.”

Music to my ears, my young friend, to my ears.

Dark Shadows

‘Twas The New York Post, (ah, venerable news source), that published the review of Demon Camp, the story of a combat veteran who sought to rid himself of War’s demons—the “Destroyer,” shadow of Death—via a husband-wife exorcism team in eastern Georgia. The book’s author postulates that whatever good the soldier experienced must have resulted from a mental “virtual exposure therapy” that still allows him to fight his demons and “always win.”


I write with no interest in exorcisms. In an age of statistics, pills, and cognitive techniques, though, I sometimes wonder how many of my colleagues believe that their words, printed or spoken, adequately contain the horror of even the metaphorically demonic, confident that by exclaiming “Prefrontal Cortex!” in lieu of “Be Healed!” they have given superior succor to a war-tortured soul.

How many, I can only wonder, have abandoned words long enough to allow their own prefrontal cortices to absorb the limbic horrors of the veterans before them, enough so that the dark shadows of soldiers’ nights invade them just enough to feel in their depths, even momentarily, one whispered word: “Die!”

Talk about cognitive restructuring.

The Vet Whisperers

Hippotherapy, it’s called: horses that calmly offer the wounded a chance to re-find connection, a mutual gaze, to venture a stroke of a hand across a neck, proposing the possibility of trust once again. In Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, Straw, a mare once gravely injured herself, offers herself up as equa semper fidelis et parata, always faithful and prepared to engage combat veterans in a silent conversation about what it means to heal, to move forward again.

In War, the soldier at another soldier’s side is not merely a back-up, but rather an extension of one’s very being, a part of one’s self who just happens to be a few steps ahead, behind, a chunk of one’s soul who might, moments from now, be propelled into oblivion, leaving in the wake a crater in land and heart that dares anyone to try to fill it.

When one has a gaping hole in one’s essence, one often does not find comfort in language spoken by any human, no matter how loved she or he may be. Yet a gentle nudge along the edges of the wound by a horse, a dog, can possibly begin its closure, one tail wag, one snort at a time, an unspoken whisper to remind man now, not beast, that peace, even if it never seemed possible again, still perhaps can be.


After thirty years as a psychiatrist, I have come to a certain detente with my field. Experts smarter-than-I gladly inform me, in press or in person, of what constitutes adequate “evidence” for the identification of maladies, the efficacy of treatments, the title of “best practices.”

Oh, so lucky am I.

I always look forward to the day when a combat veteran first encounters “Brainspotting,” a trauma recovery technique so unworthy of notice by the scientifically rigorous. How can a patient’s gaze at a pointer, stalled at a particular point in the visual field, lead to anything but a feel-good parlor trick, after all?

“What was that Houdini s*** she just did with me?” my patient asks, a mere hour after his session with my colleague. “How can just looking at a particular spot cause my mind, finally, to stop racing down godforsaken alleys?”

Just yesterday he sobbed before me, despairing that Life could get better. Now he flashes a smile that seems both to fear and to dare Fate’s vengeance for his hopeful hubris.

“So many meds, so much therapy, all these years—and after two hours, I feel a calm I’ve not felt in years. Seriously?”

Nothing up my sleeve, I only reply, also smiling, “Seriously.”

Grand Opening

I still recall Dr. Hook’s The Cover of the “Rolling Stone,” my generation’s lament over what it takes to get noticed around these parts. What lyrics might have been spawned had BuzzFeed, The Daily Kos, and YouTube then been available?

Sean Azzariti, cannabis activist, twice-deployed Marine with PTSD, got his notice as he made his purchase of Colorado’s finest Bubba Kush yesterday, before God and all news outlets, as the cries of hurrah and humbug began wafting their way around the globe.

If only I could decide which way to waft.

Intoxicants are dangerous. There are successful PTSD treatments.

Yet the existence of treatments does not entail their availability. Sadly, even the available is sometimes the incompetent.

“Bird’s ready to land, green light’s on,” the soldier tells me. “You see it in each other’s eyes, no need to talk, the fear, Death. I still see them, those eyes.”

No hymn to weed here. But I see those eyes, too, of the so-called living.

So many eyes. So much to be done.

Amicus Optimus

“Diamonds Will Safeguard the Next Generation of US Soldiers,” Mashable announced on my Facebook page, assuring me, as only the “top resource” of “digital culture” can, that (at least for now) we may have the “upper hand” in the battle over our soldiers’ bodies. The subtitle said it all: “Looks like diamonds aren’t only a girl’s best friend anymore.”

I hope so.

“He was my best friend,” the soldier told me today through his tears, he who had nearly sacrificed his own life to save his buddy’s, only to find himself too late, yet right on time for the grenade that should have killed him as well.

But didn’t.

“I hear their cries, Doc,” he whispered to me, “his, the other guys’. I should have gone down with them. It’s not right, Doc, not right.”

Will War no longer penetrate soldiers now, sixty years after Marilyn cooed her way through that bevy of tuxedo-clad charmers, or will otherwise gentle men (and women) prefer not blondes, but rather one more chance, please, God, to get to him, to her in time?

I keep scrolling down my Facebook page and can only pray that Hope is more than a gem in the Smithsonian or a barrier for bullets, that hope will whisper a soldier comfort tonight in the voice of his best friend.


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