One of the Greatest Generation writes affectingly of a long life spent wrestling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Prisoners of war, Bussel notes, suffer disproportionately from heart attacks in old age, as well as various autoimmune illnesses—all maladies attributable in some measure to stress and anger. Shot down over Germany in 1944, Bussel, then 19, was shipped off to a POW camp on the shore of the Baltic Sea and was subjected to the usual indignities. His Nazi captors never discovered that he was Jewish, though, and he had something of a protector in a fatherly German guard who “made some everlasting changes in the way I look at the world.” The early pages of this memoir echo the work of Neil Simon, if with a slightly more exacting view of military medical inspections. Bussel writes with good humor about life in boot camp and specialist training, of minor insurrections and tensions among the enlisted and of his coming of age courtesy of a Florida ballerina turned stripper. (He ruefully reflects that he had forgotten to take along the lucky bra she had given him on the day his bomber was brought down.) Bussel told his family that he would return if the military sent them a notice that he was missing in action, and he lived up to his word. Yet he returned changed—and to a nation that was ever so slightly afraid of him. (He was turned down for a job for which he was perfectly suited because, the interviewer said, “my boss reads that you were a POW, he’s going to think I hired a loony.”) Bussel writes clearly and authentically about the various manifestations of what used to be called shell shock: anger, irritability, confusion, claustrophobia and years of attempts at self-medication before finding support and sobriety.
An honest account of matters once considered embarrassing—and much more common than civilians might realize, as a new generation of veterans is discovering.