Schiraldi interviewed Tom Fields,
second from left, who saw combat in
the Pacific. He was an All-American
runner at the University of Maryland
before joining the Marines.
Survivors - Lessons in Resilience
Newswise — University of Maryland lecturer Dr.
Glenn Schiraldi is an
expert in post traumatic
stress syndrome (PTSD.) But for his new book,
WWII Survivors – Lessons in Resilience, he
decided to look not at people who suffer from
PTSD, but at a group of World War II combat
veterans whose lives have been characterized by
their resilience in the face of trauma and loss.
From 2001-2005, Schiraldi traveled the U.S. to
interview 41 men and women about their lives.
“This book is, in a sense, stories of those who
figured out ways to keep it together,” Schiraldi
Schiraldi’s interviewees included people who had
been a Navajo Code Talker, a Tuskegee Airman,
Marines in the Pacific, GIs in Europe, Sailors,
Airmen, prisoners of war, survivors of the
Bataan Death March and the Burma-Thailand Death
Railway --virtually all aspects of the war.
“They each described aspects of resilience in a
particularly unique and powerful way,” Schiraldi
Glenn Schiraldi has served on the stress
management faculties at the Pentagon and the
International Critical Incident Stress
Foundation. He is teaching a post-9/11
resilience course for the University of Maryland
What gave you the idea for the book?
SCHIRALDI: My public health career has focused
on helping people to cope with stress. Prior to
the publication of this book, I'd spent five
years writing The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Sourcebook, which describes the nature and
treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD can afflict survivors of combat, terrorism,
rape, any kind of abuse, natural disasters, and
the like. Once you get a handle on treating a
psychological disorder, you then naturally begin
to think about preventing it. So the next
logical step was to explore resilience--the
strengths of mind and character which help
people facing overwhelming stress to function
well and preserve their sanity. Particularly
after 9/11 and the war in Iraq, with the
resulting up ticks in PTSD, anxiety, and
depression, it seemed imperative to better
understand what resilience is and how it
develops. I began to consider a group of people
who might share the secrets of surviving extreme
Why did you choose WWII survivors?
SCHIRALDI: Wartime stress is a metaphor for all
other forms of stress. I'd also always been
fascinated by the Greatest Generation, my
parents' generation. They had been steeled by
the Depression and hard work, and then, of
course, so many of them answered freedom's call
in WWII in truly remarkable ways. The fact that
I'm a graduate of West Point probably also gave
me a special feeling for these people and their
sacrifices. When I interviewed them, they were
eighty years old on average, so they also shared
profound insights on surviving challenges across
the lifespan. I think that their experiences and
insights have much to teach all survivors--from
combat to everyday stress and strain. Not only
did this remarkable group of forty-one survivors
have much to say about not stumbling
psychologically, but they also shared much about
being strong and productive before, during, and
What were your criteria in selecting people to
SCHIRALDI: I interviewed people who were
survivors of combat, who returned from the war
well-adjusted, and who were well-married, an
enduring marriage being another indicator of
good adjustment. I asked them each to tell their
stories about their pre-war years and then their
war years. Then I asked them about what helped
them to cope--how they got through the war
psychologically intact. I specifically asked
what was in their hearts and minds on topics
ranging from staying calm under pressure, to
emotional intelligence, forgiving, humor,
optimism, spirituality, meaning and purpose,
love, creativity, character, and how to view
suffering and loss.
How did you find the people you interviewed?
SCHIRALDI: I simply asked people if they knew
individuals who met my critieria. I started with
veterans I'd known for years, such as Captain
Joseph Taussig, a Naval Academy graduate who
lost his leg at Pearl Harbor on the USS Nevada,
the only battleship to move under its own power
during that battle. Sometimes the WWII survivors
referred me to comrades in arms with whom they'd
served and knew well. In some cases, I learned
about remarkable individuals through their books
or television documentaries. For example, Irene
Gut Opdyke, a Polish partisan, was an
extraordinary woman. Her book (In My Hands)
describes how she hid twelve Jews in the
basement of a villa where she kept house for a
German major. The Fighter Pilot's Story started
out as a video which Quentin Aanenson made to
explain the strains of war to his family. It has
since become a PBS documentary.
How did you manage to interview all of the
people in person?
SCHIRALDI: Over a five-year period, from 2000 to
2005, I traveled the country, sometimes flying
but usually driving, visiting the survivors. I
almost always met with them in their homes,
because I wanted to get a sense of who they are.
I often met their families, and in making
follow-up calls and visits, came to feel that
they and their families had become like an
extended family. The individuals ranged from
poor coal miners and farmers to privileged
urbanites. The visits covered Maine to
California, and included a Navajo Code Talker, a
Tuskegee Airman, Marines in the Pacific, GIs in
Europe, Sailors, Airmen, prisoners of war,
survivors of the Bataan Death March and the
Burma-Thailand Death Railway (of Bridge Over the
River Kwai fame)--virtually all aspects of the
war. I loved it when they pulled out old photos
and relived their memories. Many of the photos
are in the book.
Were there any surprises?
SCHIRALDI: Perhaps that people can endure
incredible suffering, yet still remain soft and
whole inside--hopeful, loving, and happy. While
we hear about the real and tragic casualties of
war, we perhaps hear less about those who
withstand so much, and yet return to live
productive lives. This book is, in a sense,
stories of those who figured out ways to keep it
together. I've often thought that this was a
very warm and likeable group of individuals.
Sometimes trauma makes people hard and bitter
inside. But that wasn't the case with these
What can veterans from more recent wars such as
Viet Nam and Iraq learn from these WWII vets?
SCHIRALDI: I believe the strengths of resilience
are timeless and universal, and that we can all
still learn much from these survivors. People
often ask me if I would find similar strengths
in the veterans of more recent wars, and I
reply, "You would in the resilient ones." It was
Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor, who wrote
that people can withstand almost any suffering
if they have a reason to, something to give
their lives meaning and purpose.
What were some of the traits these people
SCHIRALDI: These survivors were very clear on
their lives' purposes, why they were fighting,
and what kinds of lives they wished to return
to. They were also very clear on matters of
character. They'd decided in advance what they
would and wouldn't do, and thus carried fewer
regrets back home with them. Whether it was
standing up to immoral orders or being faithful
to loved ones, this was a remarkably moral group
of individuals. For the most part, they came
from close-knit families, with adults who taught
them values, responsibility, respect for others
and property, and the value of hard work.
What are the one or two most important life
lessons you learned from these veterans as far
as overcoming difficulty in life?
SCHIRALDI: Perhaps that we can't separate
psychological strengths from physical,
spiritual, and philosophical strengths. The
philosophical and spiritual strengths,
especially, grounded these survivors inside and
provided comfort amidst their chaos. Also,
resilience usually doesn't just appear in times
of crisis, but is developed over the lifetime.
It can be learned.
From a professional point of view what did you
learn that can you apply in helping people
recover from PTSD?
SCHIRALDI: This book really says more about
developing strengths long before we need them.
However, a part of resilience is also rebounding
from psychological pain. This was what these
survivors did so effectively. We might remember
that even exceptionally resilient individuals
struggled with fear and sadness from the loss of
comrades who had become like family. Yet they
pressed ahead, despite their pain. This is a
fine treatment model: We acknowledge our pain
kindly and without judging it, then we press
forward despite the suffering. If we have to
function (as in emergencies), then we do so to
the best of our abilities. When things settle
down, then we grieve so that we don't carry
these sufferings inside forever.
What are some of your best memories of your
experience writing the book?
SCHIRALDI: That I was privileged to get to know
these individuals in ways that most people
don't; that I learned things that they had
sometimes not even told their families about the
realities of war and developing a winner's
heart. I feel like I am a better man for getting
to know these people in such an intimate way.
For example, Mrs. Opdyke was quite frail when I
interviewed her. She had gone into the ghettos
to teach young people not to hate because hatred
brings war, persecution and unhappiness. She'd
tell those young people that she was there
because she loved them, much like Mother Teresa.
They would often follow her down the street and
ask for another hug. As I was leaving her home,
this little woman, still beautiful, pulled my
shoulders down and gave me a kiss on the cheek,
and said, "You are like a son, I love you." I
understood immediately why those children
connected with her; it was a moment I will
always cherish. When I thanked one man who had
been wounded in Europe for his service, he said,
"God bless you, old soldier." You don't forget
memories like that. When I call these people, I
consider them friends, and when I hear of one's
passing, it is like losing family. I was
inspired not only by what they did, but more by
the people they were and are.
What else would you like to comment on?
SCHIRALDI: Traveling the backroads to locate
these survivors reminded me of our country's
great beauty, both from a physical perspective
and also in terms of the hearts of the American
people. I get a lump in my throat when I think
of this generation. I want to say thank you, not
only for what they did to preserve our freedoms,
but for what they stood for and exemplified.