Dale Maharidge's New Audible Original Shows How The Effects Of War Trauma Linger Long After The Fighting Stops
In this intimate interview, Pulitzer Prize-winner Dale Maharidge shares how he made peace with his past through the journey to find his father’s fallen Army friend on Okinawa.By Kyle SouzaMay 22, 2019 4:18 PM
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History has an uncanny way of providing answers to the current tough questions humankind faces. In a decade-long journey to bring back one of our own from Okinawa, Dale Maharidge does just that. In his first Audible Original, The Dead Drink First, he reflects on his childhood as the son of a World War II veteran--a veteran whose brain injury acquired in the Pacific theater is just now starting to truly be understood. Maharidge reframes the way we look at "the Greatest Generation", and his words serve as a cautionary tale for those returning from their tours of duty today.
Listen in as Maharidge sits down with editor Kyle Souza in our Newark studios to talk about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), what it was like to discuss his father's past with his family for the first time, and the ethical and emotional considerations of reporting on trauma.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Kyle Souza: We are here in the studio at Audible with Dale Maharidge. He is the author of Bringing Mulligan Home and aprofessor of journalism at Columbia University in New York City. And you've been in the journalism business for 40 years--40 plus years, right?
Dale Maharidge: It's kind of scary to think how long. Yes, that's accurate.
KS: Yes, great. Well, obviously, you've done some really great work. And you are also the author and voice behind The Dead Drink First, which is a story about your quest to find a friend of your father from Okinawa during World War II, who had died and kind of almost disappeared. And some of what you found out about your father and your family and war and the experience of veterans along the way. I know that this is pretty closely related to Bringing Mulligan Home, which I just mentioned. But it leans a little bit more on the personal side. Can you give us a quick synopsis of how these two things are different and why is this a story you wanted to kind of re-tell in a way?
DM: Right. Well, the Audible Original is like a cousin to the book. It's not the book. If you read the book, you're not going to experience The Dead Drink First. The Dead Drink First is extremely personal. It's really the emotional side of the story in that a lot of the guys, when you hear their voices and you see them in print ... I've done 10 books. And I think I'm a pretty good writer. I'm an okay writer. But I...
KS: I think that the Pulitzer Prize committee probably agrees, "Yeah, I think he's a pretty good writer."
DM: [Laughter] But the printed word doesn't convey the emotion you hear in the voices. It doesn't convey a lot of the stuff that's not in the book, which is important for the Original. And that is, the personal impact story. You can only again, in print, tell that so much. When you hear it, it's different. And a lot of the material is not in the book at all. It's a different creature. So again, they're cousins. They're not brothers and sisters. They're related, but they're different.
KS: And for listeners out there, you don't need to know about Bringing Mulligan Home in order to enjoy this project, correct?
DM: Absolutely not. As a matter of fact, you could experience either one and be fine. They're [my] children. I love them both.
KS: Certainly. And you got behind the mic and narrated this story, which you didn't do with Bringing Mulligan Home. Did you feel it was so personal that only you could be the voice of it? How was the experience of actually being in the studio recording compared to writing the book?
DM: Oh, comparatively, reading Bringing Mulligan Home and voicing The Dead Drink First, I would not have wanted to have read the original book. Because it was more disembodied. The way I write the word, this is very much my story, my experience from earliest memory. It wasn't journalism; it was life. But also, it was life and journalism. So, it's 62 years of living behind my voice in this. So yes, I couldn't imagine someone else doing it. Not that I have this big ego that I wouldn't have wanted somebody else to do it, but I just felt it was natural for me to do it.
KS: And I think, not to spoil it too much here, but you actually find [Herman Walter] Mulligan in this story, which is not the case in the book. Once you finally went through that experience and had that full perspective of the story, what was it like talking to your family about all that for the first time? You found out a lot about your father through searching for Mulligan and ultimately finding him.
DM: Yes. My brother, in particular, and I...we had never really ever talked about our father. And after we found [Mulligan], and for the Audible Original, we talked for the first time. He was 56 and I was 61 at the time. And he told me things I didn't know happened. I didn't know his perspective on our father. Our father had a lot of rage, and most of the time he was a great guy, but then he would explode. And I learned through the research that this is a sign of traumatic brain injury. Our father was a damaged man. My brother has a lot less forgiveness for him, I believe, than I do. At the same time, he came to the memorial service because it was a form of ending for him. And as he said, at the end, "A part of our father came back with Mr. Mulligan." Mulligan is buried 100 meters, 300 feet, from my father at Arlington National Cemetery. And that's kind of what it is. Something came home with Mulligan that brought our father home. So, we had a bonding over it, I think, being able to talk about it for the first time in The Dead Drink First.
KS: You mentioned the traumatic brain injury and CTE, which is obviously something that's a hearty conversation in the United States right now, but as it relates to sports. And I think people would be surprised to learn how much of this is an endemic of war and kind of the circumstances there. You quote Dr. Smith from the University of Pennsylvania saying, basically, there are axons in our brain that connect cells to one another, and they have these electrical charges. Explosions and other things that happen as a result of war kind of shut them off periodically. That causes damage to the electrical grid in our brains. How was that experience of learning about the physical side of the effects of war, and how that related to some of the rage that you were talking about with your father and how that played out in your family life?
DM: When I was growing up, we didn't know about traumatic brain injury. People called it shell shock. And the attitude was, "Oh, you just get over it." And so there was no knowledge. And doing the research for all of this work, I discovered traumatic brain injury. Now the country knows about it through football--CTE, as you mentioned. We're aware of it now as a country. But we don't think about it retroactively [related] to these guys. My generation, our fathers. I like to say that we're all sons and daughters of the same father, the people I interviewed. The kids of these guys. And it does change your brain, and my father's rages probably weren't really his fault. It was a physical breaking of his brain, according to Dr. Smith. It made me understand my father and forgive him and find love for him. And I think the message for today is, this is not just a World War II story. This is a story for today's veterans, children of the veterans today whose mothers--because there are women getting traumatic brain injury now as well as men--who come home and they have these same issues. It speaks to all generations, I feel.
KS: My grandfather and my grandmother are both buried at Arlington as well. I latched on to the story initially because of that. But it is such an important story outside of that [personal connection]. For those who don't have maybe a father or a mother or a grandfather or grandmother who served, what can they glean from this story?
DM: Well, it's America's story. For whatever reasons, we've been pretty much at war most of my life and before. War is part of our culture, like it or not, and we have veterans among us. And it's important for somebody who doesn't maybe even know a veteran to at least appreciate what they've done, to understand what they're going through. So, to me, it's ingrained in our culture because war is part of what we are. Again, like it or not. If we understand these men and now women today and what they're going through, I think it's a vital role for a society to partake in. And also, to give these people the help they need.
KS: Absolutely. To pivot a little bit...What did it feel like when you finally found Mulligan? I mean, you were investigating this and trying to find him for years. What was it like when you finally reached that point? Because you had some help this time around, too, right? Compared to with the book.
DM: I had four of five people carry me across the finish line. When I finished the book, I hadn't found him. I'd failed in my quest. And these strangers helped me find him. That alone was mind-blowing. But the day of the news when Mrs. Patterson, Jean Patterson, called me, the widow of the cousin of Mulligan, to say he's been found, I was elated. I was beside myself. You can hear it in The Dead Drink First. I recorded it. I clicked on, I was over the moon. But in a lot of ways, it was a bittersweet discovery. The day of the funeral, I felt empty, personally. Because I felt I had brought my father's demons home before. But when I saw Robert Patterson, the grand-nephew of Mulligan, hug his mother, weeping, as they played Taps at Arlington, that was worth it. Oh, man. I still get a chill when I think about that scene.
KS: It's touching. Yeah, absolutely. There's one thing I wanted to ask you--again, to pivot a little bit, but you speak to this, I think, in chapter three. You started to worry that you were triggering trauma of some of the people you were talking to. As a journalist with such a stellar reputation, how did you deal with the ethical considerations surrounding looking into where Mulligan was and what came along with it?
DM: Those were woven into every moment of this project. There was a moment when I was interviewing Fenton Grahnert, who's in The Dead Drink First, and he started crying. He was in his 80s, and I felt horrible. And I took his son aside and I said, "Am I screwing it up here? Should I stop?" And he says, "No, Dale." It's like my third visit to Fenton at that point. His son said, "Your coming here is helping him. He's talking about it for the first time, but he's actually doing better. No, you're doing the right thing." So, I measured it each step of the way. I didn't want to hurt anybody.
KS: Of course, of course. That's got to be tough.
DM: Oh. Actually, yeah. Joe Rosplock. I just talked to Joe Rosplock last weekend. Joe carried Mulligan's body [on Okinawa]. Near as I can tell. He was the only dead person, and Joe carried the only dead person. But Joe was out of his mind from blast concussion. But Joe, again, he says, "I want to thank you for helping me understand what I went through." It was the first time he'd talked about it. Then I would say, as I always do, "Joe, no, you help me. I understand my father now, what he went through. You don't understand." So, we'd argue who helped each other more. We laugh about it. Because we really [connected], I think it was very mutual in the end.
KS: Absolutely. You talk about that in the book, about how some of these veterans were so happy to have finally had the chance to really talk about it, which is something. And I think, going back to CTE, which we're starting to understand now, and PTSD, that truly just talking about it is helpful. It kind of reshapes the way that we experience it.
DM: Well, Tom Price was in the Audible Original. His wife, Vivian, told me that he started talking--he was one of the early guys--he started talking about it about 10 years before I met him. And she said it changed him. He was probably the most at peace of all the men from the company I found, because he'd been dealing with the issues. After 9/11, his grandson wanted to join the military. And he took him aside and said, "You don't want to go." So, he'd thought about it in a way where that love spread to his grandson. He said, "There's a place for war, but you don't want to go to this one." So yeah, talking about it and understanding it is very important.
KS: Very important. And speaking of understanding, I think one thing that we would like to leave people on is, what is the most important thing that you learned from this story? And what is the one overarching thing that you would say: "Hey, this is why this story is important. This is why you should listen to it. And this is what I took away from it the most"?
DM: Well, my father always said, "There are no heroes. You just survive." Over and over. I would tell him, "What you did was so big." He's like, "Eh. You just survive." I think the message of The Dead Drink First, again, it's a message for today. It's for today's veterans. It's to understand our country. World War II is still part of our history. The post-war order is up for grabs right now. What these men fought and died for. And so, it's a story for today. But again, mostly for today's veterans and their kids. I want to help the children of parents who are suffering from traumatic brain injury understand. Maybe if I'd have known what these kids could know today, it would've helped me as a child.
KS: Well, we appreciate you coming in to talk with us. And I mean, I fell in love with the story. I think it's wonderful, and we're going to be telling everybody to listen to it.