In Shake the Devil Off, Ethan Brown tells the parallel tragedies of Iraqi War vet Zackery Bowen and post-Katrina New Orleans.
As both a non-native of New Orleans and a civilian, did you encounter resistance in your research into Zackery Bowen's life and military career?
Iraq War veterans and New Orleanians are the toughest of tough crowds. Both are very proud—of their service to our country and their city, respectively—and have experienced profound trauma. Both are also very eager to spot mistakes in reporting about their lives and all too happy to let you know when they catch such mistakes. I spent a lot of time imagining what would be said to me if I didn't get two of the biggest stories for America in the 21st century right, and that fear will probably never subside, though the manuscript was vetted by Iraq vets and New Orleanians, whom I can't thank enough for their input.
How did you remain empathetic without condoning Bowen's murder of his girlfriend, Addie Hall?
I was certain that I'd find ex-girlfriends Bowen had beaten or a military record filled with disciplinary problems. I didn't find either, but the lack of a clear precedent for Hall's murder doesn't make Bowen “likable,” it just makes him more human and makes the story more troubling. Readers might not like Bowen; my goal is to have them understand him.
What should happen so that more vets don't suffer as Bowen did on his return home?
The new GI Bill—signed into law by former President Bush in June 2008—is a good start. We also need a VA that's actively engaging the PTSD epidemic among returning soldiers and not just handing out antidepressants. Meaningful employment is key for veterans in managing their transition back to civilian life, so we should also create incentives for employers to hire vets. We also have to think about how we can integrate the wars we're fighting—and the veterans of those wars—into our public life. Currently, our wars aren't just off the radar, they're essentially invisible.
How has New Orleans changed since you relocated there?
New Orleans is a disaster, and it's also without a doubt the greatest city I've ever lived in. The bad: horrific crime; an ineffective police department in the murder capital of the U.S.; a city government that hands out multimillion-dollar sanitation contracts but can't manage to open swimming pools for kids in the summer. The good: the genius of Mardi Gras—which is wrongly viewed by outsiders as girls gone wild on the bayou when it's actually a mind-blowing combination of street theater and rave; the best, warmest and least pretentious people I've ever met.