Thursday, November 8, 2012


Just Remember to Breathe 
If you don't think writing can be therapeutic, if you don't believe putting pen to paper - or fingers to keyboard - can be truly healing, ask a veteran. There's a long and storied tradition of warriors employing the ancient craft of writing to deal with their experiences on the battlefield. 

In the last century, novelists, poets, screenwriters and songwriters as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Leon Uris, Steve Mason, Ron Kovic, Brian Wizard, Oliver Stone, Richard Stekol, Robert Mason, Jason Moon, Senator Jim Webb, Tim O'Brien, Benjamin Busch, and Kevin Powers have written sad, funny, gripping and sometimes haunting accounts of war based directly, or indirectly, on their own experiences.

And the works of these former warriors has not only helped them cope, it has informed, inspired and assisted millions of readers.

Vonnegut, for example, who served as an infantry battalion scout in World War II and was captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge and witnessed as a POW the bombing of Dresden, wrote several stunning novels about war, including Mother Night (1962), Cat’s Cradle (1963), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), and his most acclaimed work, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

Hemingway wrote often about war, of course, perhaps most memorably in his semi-autobiogrqaphical tome A Farewell to Arms, a bleak but brilliant first-person account of an American serving as an ambulance driver during World War I who falls in love with a British nurse. Hemingway himself was wounded by Austrian mortar fire during that so-called Great War.

Among the scribes bringing this time-tested literary tradition to a new generation is Gulf War veteran Charles Sheehan-Miles, whose new book, Just Remember to Breathe, is an intense, deeply touching, wonderfully written account of how one physically and emotionally scarred man makes the difficult transition from combat to civilian life.

Miles' uncompromising, heartbreaking but ultimately life-affirming book tells the story of Dylan Paris, who's just returned from Afghanistan and is dealing with the experience of being severely injured, having killed, of having seen his best friend killed in combat, and with survivor guilt and severe trauma. 

In an interview, Miles, who served in the Army's 24th Infantry Division as an Abrams tank crewman, told me that he's spent most of the last two decades dealing with his own experiences of having killed in war. "That drove a lot of what I dealt with in this book," he says. "This is the heart of what I've been writing about since I was 21 and newly returned from Iraq."

Just Remember to Breathe, which at its heart is a stirring romance, is told from from the point of view of both the man (Paris), and the woman, Alex Thompson. The book's emotive prose is reminiscent of everyone from J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye) to Nicholas Sparks (The Lucky One, The Notebook). 

Just Remember to Breathe also reminds me of one of my favorite movies, The Best Years of Our Lives, the Academy Award-winning 1946 classic about the lives of several veterans coming home after fighting in World War II. Like that timeless film, Miles' book, which will make the toughest of men weep, is more than a book about war. It is a universal story of hope, redemption and survival that both men and women will enjoy and understand. 

When I asked Miles why he thinks so many veterans have written about war after coming home, he said, "Have you ever read much about witnessing in a religious context? In many ways, I think veterans who turn their war experiences into art and especially writing are doing exactly that. It's not that much different than when a recovering alcoholic in AA tells his or her story. Storytelling has deep-rooted societal and cultural functions for all of us, it's part of the healing process."

When you study some of the veterans who've peeled back their experiences and written about them, Miles suggests, it's not necessarily the specifics of the story that matter so much as the emotion and the shared experience that is essential to healing. "War inevitably means killing, mayhem, destruction, and in some ways I believe chronic and severe post-traumatic stress (PTSD) comes from internalizing the poison of those experiences," he says. "Storytelling helps us get those experiences out, share them with others, and ultimately heal."

Miles says it took lots of storytelling for him to heal. It's his second novel dealing with PTSD, and he spent years speaking around the country about the experience of killing and trying to recover from it. "The main difference between this novel and my first? In this one, there was hope," he says. "Twenty years ago I didn't see any hope at all."

Miles says the two main characters have a backstory that mirrors some of his experiences prior to joining the Army. 

"I fell in love with a girl on a foreign exchange program, and after returning home to the United States, that relationship basically fell apart from the long distance," he recalls. "But what I remember, and what I explored in writing this book, was how holding on to that relationship, in spite of all of reality's efforts to get me to let it go, helped me get through some of the worst turmoil immediately following the war, when I was going through all the remorse and rage over killing other people. "

Miles says that what he wanted to communicate more than anything else in this book is that "no matter how bad it gets in war, and it gets really bad, there is hope. There's always hope for healing, for finding a better life. And for me, at least, the first step to getting there was to start talking and writing about it."

And readers are responding. Just Remember to Breathe is in the top few hundred titles on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, even though it's self-published and has zero marketing budget. Here are just some reader comments from Goodreads. 

C.M. Truxler of The Literary Review calls it "an enthralling love story that delves into the extremely relevant issues of PTSD, childhood abuse, and class-induced stereotypes. It is a poignant and sometimes emotionally overwhelming experience of both life and love."

Add me to the list of admirers. This is an outstanding book by a gifted novelist and courageous warrior who's battled his demons and found that light at the end of tunnel. Charles Sheehan-Miles should be a household name. I hope and predict he will be someday soon.

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