If the movie is half as good as the book, there will be some more awards in the cast’s future. You have no doubt heard about the film “Unbroken,” and for good reason: It’s one hell of a story. Attempting to review a book this good is quite difficult. As a war novel, it strikes on so many levels, and really offers something for everyone. It’s hard cover size is intimidating, but the pages seem to turn themselves, and given the right setting, you can rifle through this in a matter of days.
In brief, the book is about Louie Zamperini, a gentleman who lived a life worth ten volumes. His accomplishments include: multiple national and international running awards, record-breaking at one time; being a decorated World War II B-24 bombardier; survivor of 47 days at sea and over two years of extreme brutality at the hands of his Japanese captors; and resurrected family man, whose triumph over alcohol and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a bold and admirable accomplishment. You’re wrong if you think I’ve ruined some surprise or given away the best revelations in the book. It’s the story and the details that make this book a joy to read.
The book is phenomenally written and flows with utter grace. Each segment transitions nicely, and the chronology is very logical. Its perfect organization adds to its charm. Two qualities stand out as defining: factual descriptions with extensive attention to details and essential, brutal honesty. The Notes section demonstrates a well-documented and thoroughly investigated piece. There was little “dressing up” or glorification of Zamperini’s journey.
One aspect often missed in war chronicles is the homefront; rarely do you read about the daily life of families and loved ones of the protagonist. Here, you get it. The flow from Louie’s experiences to that of his family’s is satisfying, because they add an entire new element to the story and his war experience. Remember, there was no Facebook, email, or even in some cases, snail mail at that time, especially from combat theaters, or even worse, POW camps. It could take months for a simple postcard or letter to be received.
An area of particular interest for PAs to capture is his post-war activities and struggles. Zamparini returned to a well-deserved heroes’ welcome. The stardom and fanfare did little to erase the haunting memories. His attempts to muffle them with alcohol led to a dismal downward spiral that nearly cost him everything he had been fighting for. His story is unique, but classic, for a young man’s (or woman’s) return home after war. He had PTSD and showed many of the typical signs and symptoms we now associate with it. His vivid flashbacks, nightmares and use of alcohol to temporize his pain, anxiety and depression were an overt display of his mental and emotional struggle to leave the POW camps behind and escape the torment of his most brutal and disturbed abuser there.
His repeated failure to find help was almost as classic as his behavior. He saw several physicians and counselors at various healthcare facilities, including the VA (Veterans Affairs), and met the stigma we continue to struggle with today: “You’re home. Get over it!” On one occasion, his counselor answered a phone call in the middle of one of Zamperini’s sentences (poor form by anyone’s standards, past or present). Ultimately, he found redemption for his follies in the words of Billy Graham, and a return to his faith. He forgave his abusers, in person while on a trip to Japan, and spent his life dedicated to the enrichment and improvement of young people’s lives. He shared his message far and wide that, through service to others, each person can find inner peace and happiness.
A point I would like to stress is that it doesn’t take an epic or powerful journey like Zamperini’s to cause PTSD.In the military, PTSD is often associated with active combat, death of battle buddies and chaotic situations. The complement in the civilian world includes people in motor vehicle accidents and victims of sexual assault, physical abuse and other violent crimes. Knowing how to broach the topic and begin the process of healing is an important quality for a PA in any specialty, not just mental health. A PA who establishes good rapport and builds a trusting relationship with his or her patients might just be the one who a patient opens up to, no matter the setting.
For PA students, recognizing your role in a broad sense, as a healthcare provider, is essential. I recommend you avoid the mentality that “we don’t take care of that here” or “that’s not something we deal with.” You should direct patients to the right people, whether it’s a somatic, psychological or emotional issue.
In closing, this is one of the finest books to arrive in recent years. It’s a major motion picture because it is a story that captures a piece of Americana, and provides motivation and lessons that anyone can learn from. For the PA professional, you can see a complete capsule of how someone transforms from a civilian to military member, and a unique situation from which PTSD can develop.
The lesson learned is that triumph over PTSD comes in many forms, but living each day and making amends for what has happened in the past are often the quickest ways to recovery.
John W. (JJ) Jenkins, PA-C, is a PA in general and vascular surgery at BayCare Clinic in Green Bay, Wis. He is a recent graduate of Carroll University’s PA program and a former Army medic.
Read more from John JJ Jenkins on PTSD and the role PAs can play.