Guilford author Barry Schaller writes about about veterans and PTSD

Barry D. Schaller of Guilford is the author of VETERANS ON TRIAL: THE COMING COURT BATTLES OVER PTSD, published by Potomac Books, in June.

Schaller is a clinical visiting lecturer at the Yale Law School, where he received his law degree, after graduating from Yale College. He also teaches undergraduates and graduate students as an adjunct faculty member at Trinity College and at Wesleyan University, in the Graduate Liberal Studies Program. He received a book award for excellence from Quinnipiac University School of Law for his first book, A Vision of American Law. He holds an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Quinnipiac School of Law. He is a Charter Life Fellow of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, and a member of the American Law Institute. He has served on all of Connecticut’s statewide courts. Since retiring from the Connecticut Supreme Court, he actively continues his judicial service. He lives in Guilford, Connecticut.

He will be reading at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 2 at the Guilford Free Library.

Tell us about your new book.

Veterans on Trial deals with the problem of post traumatic stress disorder from the ground up, starting with the issues and obstacles that returning veterans and their families face. When they leave the battlefield to become civilians again, many military personnel are not prepared or are unable to cope successfully with the challenges. Their compounded anxieties often result in serious trouble – marriage breakup, unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse, suicide and even criminal actions. The book explains how PTSD as a mental disorder developed, what causes it, how it will affect the courts in the next decade, and how it can be prevented or alleviated.

Where did the germ of the story come from? How did you first know you were going to write this story?

After my last book, about bioethics and law, I was planning a book on neuroscience – looking into the human brain — and what it would mean for life in our society. An unexpected opportunity came along at that point when I was asked to be the “legal” member of a multi-disciplinary working group on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at the Yale Bioethics Center. By the time that project came to a close some two years later, I had become so interested in PTSD arising in the military that I got in touch with the editor with whom I had worked on my bioethics book. The publisher accepted my book proposal. The steady stream of first-hand reports from Iraq and Afghanistan about mental health injuries in soldiers and veterans had gotten my attention. There was a great deal of PTSD being reported. It was clear that we were in for a siege that would go on long after all our troops were home. I wanted to write about what combat PTSD is, how its symptoms were dealt with in previous wars, what its destructive effects are, and why everyone – civilian and military leaders, courts, and citizens – should be aware of it and work to minimize it in the future.

Is the subject matter of the book related somehow to your regular job? Or is it something quite outside your field that called to you?

There is a connection between my writing and teaching and my career experience. The connection is not simply deciding cases that involve a subject that I’ve written about or taught. Judges have to decide a wide variety of issues arising from all kinds of situations, affecting all kinds of people. It’s very important that judges get to know about all kinds of human relationships and events, especially those outside their personal experience. They need to understand life in our society in the broadest sense. In individual cases, they can’t decide based on their own personal experience but it is important that they understand life in our society. Every individual’s experience is necessarily very limited, no matter what it is. If we broaden our knowledge, work at understanding other people — especially those different from us — we should be able to gain a broad perspective and workable understanding of people and events.

What do you most want to get across to readers that they might not have known about before you wrote this book?

There are several messages. PTSD is a psychiatric “construct” or creation that has important social and legal implications. Although the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) diagnostic criteria govern treatment and insurance coverage, the DSM is really just a general guide to PTSD. There is no uniform set of PTSD symptoms or conditions that occur in all cases. PTSD has many different causes and many different manifestations. It can cause behavior ranging from extreme anxiety or dysfunction in relationships to violence and even suicide, which is on the increase in the military. PTSD is often associated with depression and substance abuse. It can arise in civilian and military settings. Within the military context, it is clear that all wars have produced psychiatric injuries but only recently have its full implications been acknowledged. The present PTSD formulation didn’t arise until after the Vietnam War. Mental health consequences still are not taken into account when political decisions are made to go to war. Another message concerns special courts for veterans. Many cities and states around the country have set up special criminal courts for veterans with mental health problems. There is no doubt that veterans need help from the government but courts should not bear the primary responsibility. Courts are bound to make opportunities available to non-veterans as well in order to guarantee equal protection of the laws.

Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?

The book arose quite naturally from my prior work with the subject of PTSD. I’ve always had a strong sense of urgency about my work. Once I’m engaged in it, I can’t stop until it’s finished. That may be a blessing or a curse. On the practical side, I get an early start every day. By the time 9am comes around, I’ve probably put in 4-5 hours of research or writing. My three books all deal with the role of law in our society, each relating to a different aspect of American life – cultural issues, bioethics, war and mental health. I didn’t plan a “trilogy” of books on the role of American law in our society. Each one came about for different reasons. But I believe that the books as a whole present my view about what our society is and how I envision it should be. I believe it is part of the judicial function to educate and inform the public about the role of law in our society. Although judges are restricted by the Code of Judicial Ethics, there is ample room for expressing views and engaging in educational activities.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book?

When I have a serious idea for a book, I begin a personal brainstorming process. I write down my thoughts whenever they occur to me and then, from time to time, I organize the notes. Basically, I let my mind run free, realizing all the while that much of what I put down will have to be refined later on. Writing for me is integrally related to thinking. I begin researching the ideas. Once the topic is reasonably well formulated, I want to find out what has already been written and said about it. While I draw on that information, my goal is to go beyond it and get deeper insights, farther-reaching thoughts, solutions that have not been formulated yet. My goal is to do fresh thinking and advance the thinking about a particular subject. And so the process of researching, thinking, and writing goes on together for weeks and months. Once I have a sense of the entire work, I prepare a book proposal. That process usually helps to shape it further into a coherent and worthwhile project. The research, thinking, and writing do not end there, of course, and further change and reshaping takes place. Writing a book is a dynamic process and change is inevitable. Given the nature of my method, many drafts are inevitable. I write and rewrite until I have the finished product.

Was the research fairly easy to come by, or did you have trouble finding the sources you needed?

The problem was not too few, but rather too many sources and too much information. I read a vast amount of material and had many conversations with a great many people, including veterans. I had to keep my focus on what I could contribute that was new, insightful, innovative, and above all the plain truth. In this particular field, the networking with others was phenomenal. I found many people who were willing to talk to me, to share their information and ideas, and to help find resource materials.

What has been the most satisfying thing about compiling this information and getting the book written?

Interviewing veterans of the Vietnam, First Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan wars was the most interesting part of my research. Beyond that, studying how mental health problems arose during previous American wars and how they were dealt with turned out to be fascinating. Trying to imagine what future wars involving ground troops (and mental health problems) might look like is intriguing – but elusive. The nature of war changes in unpredictable ways.

When did you first know you were a writer?

Writing has been very important to me throughout my life. During high school, I wrote for the school newspaper. In college, where I was an English literature major, I was a member of the Yale Literary magazine board. That gave me the opportunity, not only to write, but to meet writers like Robert Penn Warren and scholars of American literature like Cleanth Brooks. In the late 1980s, I started teaching a law and literature course, among others, for state court judges on behalf of a national judicial education organization. This involved teaching about the role of judges by using stories, novels and plays. Before deciding to go to law school, I had planned to do graduate study in literature and go on to teach. About 20 years ago, I wrote a law review article about Faulkner’s use of law in his novels and stories. That got my writing career going again and led to my first book, A Vision of American Law: Judging Law, Literature, and the Stories We Tell, which was about how cultural ideas central to American life have played out in American literature and law.That, in turn, led to my book about the relationship between bioethics, law and our culture, Understanding Bioethics and Law: The Promises and Perils of the Brave New World of Biotechnology.

What has happened since this book has been published? What kinds of reactions have you gotten?

The response has been overwhelming. I’ve gotten a great deal of positive feedback, not only from people who have experienced war and the mental health problems of war, but from experts in all the fields that I draw upon – the military, government, mental health, and law. Another result is that, as with my first two books, people are asking me questions that reach beyond the confines of the book. I find myself grappling with issues that I discussed at some length but also some that I merely touched on. In addition, I am asked to talk about issues that have arisen in the months since I submitted the manuscript for publication. I find all this fascinating and challenging.

What’s next for you? Will there be a follow-up?

Several projects appeal to me for the future. I haven’t written yet about what judges experience in the course of decision making. I’ve had experiences – and observed others – that I’ve never read about anywhere. I want to share those experiences, most likely through fiction. Judges usually feel appropriately reluctant to reveal the emotions that occur in the process of making decisions. Judging impartially requires suppression of emotions, beliefs, personal experiences in deciding cases but those are essential parts of all human beings. Writing about neuroscience developments and its potential impact also interests me. I’ve done some teaching about discoveries that will have a big impact on the way we live in American society. I’d like to explore some of these subjects. And I have much more to say about war, mental health and law.

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