A recent spate of suicides in Canadian vets from the Afghanistan campaign has drawn attention to the role and challenge of PTSD in vets. Canadian Senator Romeo Dallaire, former head of UN troops during the Rwandan genocide, and the subject of the film/book “Shake Hands With the Devil”, crashed his car the other day, after having his own PTSD aggravated by news of these suicides, and spending several days without sleep as a result.
It is within this context that I have to doff my cap to cartoonist Gary Trudeau, whose Doonsbury cartoon has graced (though some might say sullied) newspaper pages for decades. Though perhaps best known for its earlier depiction of counter-culture figures, and its attacks on political leaders and big business (some less thinly-veiled than others), Trudeau has been somewhat solitary among daily strips in its depiction of returning vets.
Three ongoing characters stand out.
- B.D., former all-star quarterback, who has come back from the 2nd Gulf War legless, and not only struggled with PTSD himself, but had to adjust to a family environment where he lacks any of the authority and esteem he once valued, and that had come so easily to him,
- Ray, his army buddy who has an impossibly hard time adjusting to civilian life, is largely unemployable, and despite multiple concussions, and the advice not to, signs up again because army life on the front is the only one that makes any sense to him,
- Leo (“Toggle”), the son-in-law of main character Mike Doonsbury, who comes from a rather dysfunctional single-parent family (though that would seem to be inflating the number of parents, from what I can tell), and has returned from Afghanistan with a closed head injury. Best known for making iPod mixes for his tank-driving buddies back in Afghanistan, he ends up working in a recording studio, and still can’t believe he’s married to Mike’s brilliant, attractive, and highly employable, MIT graduate daughter, and is now the father of twins. Leo is possibly the ONLY aphasic ever portrayed in any cartoon strip anywhere, in any language or time in the history of journalism.
I don’t know that I have ever seen such a broad and rich depiction of veterans in any popular culture medium. It is honest in its depiction of the psychological, social, and physical challenges met by returning vets, and the difficulties of re-integration. It is unflinching in its depiction of the frequent lapses in support provided by veteran administrations everywhere. It is moving in the manner that it captures the undying cameraderie of those vets who share a common bond.
And yet, it manages to be both funny and hopeful, and values the friendship and kindness that people show to each other, whether fellow vets or friends and family. I don’t know that pondering the big turnarounds in Leo’s life would have maybe given the soldiers who recently took their own lives a vision of something better down the road. He is, after all, only a cartoon character. I do know that such a vision needs to be laid out, and I’m glad Trudeau has had the sense of civic duty to know that it needs to be there, as a public service. Ultimate sacrifices by an enemy hand are one thing. Sacrifices by your own hand, quite another.
So here’s to Gary. Ya done good, buddy.
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