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What Salinger tells us about caring for veterans

By Nicolaus Mills, Special to CNN
  • Nicolaus Mills: J.D. Salinger known for "Catcher in the Rye" but had things to say about war
  • He says Salinger fought in WWII, returned with post-traumatic stress disorder
  • His story "For Esme -- With Love and Squalor" explored how injured vet helped by young girl
  • Mills: Salinger reminds us of the nation's obligations to veterans today

Editor's note: Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower."

(CNN) -- A year after his death at 91, J.D. Salinger is known, above all else, as the author of "The Catcher in the Rye." Since its publication in 1951, identifying with Holden Caulfield has become an American rite of passage.

But a new biography, "J.D. Salinger: A Life," by Kenneth Slawenski, reminds us that there is another Salinger, one especially relevant to our own times.

This other Salinger is the World War II veteran. He served in the 4th Division's 12th Infantry Regiment as it fought its way from D-Day through the Battle of the Bulge, suffering horrendous casualties. Of the 3,080 troops who landed with Salinger's regiment at Utah Beach on June 6, 1944, only 1,130 were alive three weeks later.

For Salinger, post-traumatic stress disorder, known then as "battle fatigue," was no abstraction. He was hospitalized in 1945 in Nuremberg, Germany, for a nervous breakdown.

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In his 1950 short story, "For Esme -- With Love and Squalor," Salinger gives an account of PTSD that speaks directly to us today. It echoes the condition of thousands of the 1.6 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for whom the estimated PTSD rate is nearly 20%.

"For Esme -- With Love and Squalor" begins with a narrator, known only as Sergeant X, thinking back to April 1944, when he was stationed in Devon, England, and went to hear the choir practice of a group of local children. (Salinger is known to have gone to the Methodist Church in Tiverton while stationed in England.) In the church, Sergeant X is struck by the voice of Esme, a 13-year-old girl.

After choir practice, when he is dining alone in a nearby tearoom, she comes over to his table, because, as she tells him, "I thought you looked extremely lonely."

Sergeant X and Esme, who are soon joined by her 5-year-old brother, Charles, carry on a conversation that is alternately serious and lighthearted. Esme, it turns out, is the one whom Sergeant X should be comforting. Both her parents are dead. Her father was killed fighting with the British Army in North Africa. We are never told how her mother died.

Esme lives with her aunt, and although well-off and titled, she is struggling to make the most of her new life as an orphan. She has defied her governess to come sit with Sergeant X, and when she finds out that he is a writer, she asks him to make up a story just for her. She adds that she is extremely interested in squalor.

In return for his story, Esme promises to send Sergeant X him a letter. He gives her his name, rank, serial number and Army Post Office number, and when they part, Esme solemnly tells him that she hopes he will return from the war with all his "faculties intact."

The scene abruptly shifts to 1945, several weeks after V-E Day, and the squalid part of the story begins.

Sergeant X is in Bavaria, where he has experienced a nervous breakdown. He cannot control his facial movements. He is haunted by a note he found in the book of a low-level German official: "Dear God, life is hell."

Sergeant X is at a point of no return, and as he sits in his room, he absentmindedly begins opening a package on his desk. It is from Esme. She has sent her father's watch as a "lucky talisman."

The watch's crystal has been broken in transit. But to Sergeant X, this hardly matters. Esme has given him the most tangible link she has to her dead father. Suddenly, Sergeant X's depression no longer seems as unbearable.

In words that refer back to Esme's parting remarks at the tearoom, he observes, "You take a really sleepy man, Esme, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac---with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact."

Here the story ends. Like Ernest Hemingway, whom Salinger met in Paris during World War II and much admired, Salinger did not write explicit messages or morals about mental illness into his war fiction. But still, a message can be gleaned.

In portraying Sergeant X's breakdown as a condition the sergeant cannot overcome alone, Salinger reminds us of the obligations we have as a nation to the veterans returning from today's wars. Men and women with PTSD, like Sergeant X, need help to get well on their own. Very few can count on the miraculous appearance of an Esme in their lives.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nicolaus Mills.