Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Somebody, Please Tell Me Who I Am

10 to 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans return from deployment with Traumatic brain injury, or TBI. That means thousands of young people. We all read or watched the true stories about TBI, the personal accounts in the news. We have heard described the memory, mood and concentration disturbances that are mild or severe, temporary or permanent.

After reading Somebody, Please Tell Me Who I Am, by acclaimed children's authors Harry Mazer and Peter Lerangis, I understood TBI, how it effects soldiers and their loved ones, more deeply on an emotional level. It changed me. It was more evocative than many "true" stories.

I would guess that teen readers would "get" TBI after reading this novel. Also, my impression from raising my two sons, now in their early twenties, is that few teens read or watch the news. They find it doesn't relate to them personally.

I hope school librarians recommend this short and beautifully written novel. As many kids in their late teens join the military, they should be aware of this common and devastating injury. Consent to military life should be informed.

Ben Bright, an idealistic and talented high school senior. When we meet him, he is the romantic lead in West Side Story in the senior play, he is in love with his girlfriend Ariela, and his parents want him to go to college. He, however, feels a duty to go to Iraq.

Ben explains why to Ariela:

Ninety-fine percent of our friends are going off to college, and then what? Finance? law? Banking? That's not a waste? People like us should volunteer--kids with privilege and skills and talent. So-called. I want to reach the end of my life and say, 'I did something important. I saved lives.' My grandfather was a prisoner of war, and he is he strongest, kindest, most accomplished man I know.

Soldiers are heroes. I am riveted by war stories, such as The Things They Carried by author Tim O'Brien about Vietnam. I can't resist old war movies about D-Day. That Ariela points out that Ben's grandfather might have still become accomplished if he didn't go to war, doesn't sway Ben.

My point isn't that it's wrong to join the military. It is a fine career choice for many, and I am, as are the vast majority of Americans, grateful for the soldiers who serve.

But for young men and women who sign up, it should be an informed decision, even if facts wither in the face of idealism. Protagonist Ben knows he could die, but does he know that soldiers are surviving devastating injuries in the new millennium, and are living long lives as severely disabled veterans? Should young men be aware of the cruel sequelae of war, short of death?

This novel attempts to do that.

In Iraq, Ben finds himself in the vicinity of a roadside bomb and the authors describe how explosions disrupt brain tissue:

        Brains fold inward on themselves and then billow outward, soft as trapped jellyfish. The precise electrochemical connections--short-circuit--connections that control thought, smell, taste, touch, sight, sound movement, memory. Connections that define what it means to be human.
       In a millisecond, that definition changes.
       And, . . . so does the life of Benjamin Bright.

Ben suffers severe TBI and after a year of rehab is sent home. He doesn't remember his parents, his best friend or the girl he is engaged to. Her life is disturbed by uncertainty, worry, sadness, and guilt about her anger. His parents split up from the stress. His autistic brother is the only one remembered by Ben. He will recover more brain function, but will never be who he was. Is this overly-dramatic? I wish it were.

Interestingly, as a writer, I enjoyed how the point of view changed, giving close ups of the thoughts and feelings of other characters besides Ben, such as Ariela.

Ironically, we have war to thank for the amazing medical advances in prosthetics and rehab. Necessity is the mother of invention. It's expensive to go to war and it is expensive to pick up the pieces afterward. Industry is fueled by war. In this regard, this novel brought to mind Hunger Games, where high-tech medicine serves only to make future war possible.

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