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OHSU Psychiatrist Offers A Gift of Barbed Wire, a Gripping, Insightful View of War's Aftermath

02/19/03   Portland, Ore.

Timely new volume blends wartime experience with clinical expertise, giving readers an unprecedented perspective

As the nation grapples with the role of its collective conscience in war and international conflict, a new book, A Gift of Barbed Wire, by Robert McKelvey, M.D., offers a realistic, gripping view of what America's legacy in war has been and may soon become again. McKelvey, professor of psychiatry and head of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine and Doernbecher Children's Hospital, uses clinical insight as well as personal experience in Vietnam as an extraordinary lens through which to view the lives of survivors. In this way, McKelvey gives us, indeed, a gift.

McKelvey had long forgotten his experiences and memories as a civil affairs officer in the Vietnam War until the salient movies and books of the 1980s sparked his interest. He returned to Vietnam in 1990 and there met our allies -- former South Vietnamese military men and their families. More than a million of these men were incarcerated after the war, "re-educated" and forced to endure tragic hardships that McKelvey comes to call "a testimony to endurance and courage."

After as many as two decades of incarceration, these men returned home unable to find work, exquisitely educated and intelligent, and yet barely able to provide for themselves or their families. Yet rather than become bitter and broken, many of these survivors immigrated as "boat people," and struggled to regain dignity and livelihoods in America and elsewhere. McKelvey found a group of resilient and highly functioning individuals and families. The poignant lives and inspiring lessons of individuals like these create the gripping pages of A Gift of Barbed Wire -- and inspire McKelvey's daily work at OHSU. Here, he brings a deeper and more personal understanding to the lives and traumas of so many of the refugee and immigrant children he helps.

A doctor, teacher, pilot, spy and engineer are among the subjects of McKelvey's book, as are many of their wives and children. From starvation rations and tortured confessions in re-education camps, to brutal hardships suffered by wives and families left behind, McKelvey offers a look at war that serves us well as we examine our role on the world stage. His is a view of the cost of war -- in lives and livelihoods, lost childhoods, hopes and dreams -- and the magnificent legacy of surviving, and thriving, through it all.

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