Tag Archives: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

#amwriting: drawing on personal experience

Map of Mal Evol, color full size, no roadsWith Valley of Sorrows on the editor’s desk, I can finish revising my other book based in the world of Neveyah. This is a stand-alone novel, The Wayward Son, which will be published late in 2016 after Valley of Sorrows comes out. It tells the story of John Farmer, Edwin’s father, and takes place concurrently with Forbidden Road. This book was far easier to write than many others, as it explores combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition I am all too familiar with, as a bystander.

John’s story opens with an incident that changes his life. Twenty-five years later, John must return to Aeoven and face the past, and somehow learn to live with himself.

We writers all use our knowledge of the world around us to draw on when we are creating a scene or a character, even if we are not aware of having done so. I have deliberately drawn on observations made during my childhood and young adult years to create John’s gut-reactions and to show how his life was colored by his experiences.

My father was a veteran of WWII, and a man who’d intended to make the military his career. The loss of his left leg changed his career path. He became a draftsman and made a very good living. Other than being inconvenienced by having only one leg, everything went on normally.

On the surface, anyway.

US Army Signal Corps photo of SCR-299 radio set in operation 1942, US Army Signal Corps

US Army Signal Corps photo of SCR-299 radio set in operation 1942, US Army Signal Corps

The injury that had cost my father his leg was not combat-related, although it occurred while he was on active duty.  But  the most devasting things that impacted him had happened long before he met his fate in El Paso, TX in 1946.

Dad joined the army in 1938. He rose to staff sergeant in charge of a radio unit. During his time in the military, he had marched across Europe carrying his SCR-300, a portable radio transceiver used by US Signal Corps in World War II. One thing he was always willing to discuss was how his backpack-mounted unit was a large two-way radio, and it was called a “walkie-talkie.”

Later in the war, he was in charge of something called an SCR299. This was a large mobile radio station.  The Signal Corp and men like my father provided long-range communications between permanent bases and the battlefront.

Dad was always just behind the actual battlefront, always passing through the aftermath. He never discussed it, but the enemy knew how important these communications outfits were, so they must have been important targets. I do know he’d lost several close companions, men who were there one minute and gone in a pile of wreckage the next.

Drafting Table, courtesy Wikimedia Commons {PD GNU Free}

Drafting Table, courtesy Wikimedia Commons {PD GNU Free}

My dad and my uncles never really got over the war, and they all suffered from survivor’s guilt to a certain degree. They came home and settled back into society, and began building the American Dream. When he was sober, all Dad ever really said about the war was that the good guys had won. When he’d been drinking, he might say more, but not much.

Dad was an avid gardener, a musician, a brewer, and a winemaker. He was passionate about his interests, a renaissance man who insisted we read (and discuss) all manner of books from the classics to comic books, be athletic, and learn to play a musical instrument.

But Dad was also a volatile man who drank too much every weekend and partied as hard as he worked. We all knew how to mix drinks and serve canapés by the time we left home, as we were Dad’s bartenders whenever there was a party. That may be why I have always been more of a non-drinker.

90px-US_Army_WWII_SSGT.svgAs my dad grew older his lifestyle began to catch up with him. He grew erratic and his once hilariously cynical wit became less funny and more bitter. Good Dad lost the battle to Bad Dad. We never knew just what would trigger a tirade, and we developed coping mechanisms.

When I look back, I can see that some of his most outrageous tantrums were actually panic attacks. When he was in the grip of one of those, all bets were off–your best choice was to just walk away and let him rave until he was done. His health suffered–he developed type-II diabetes and never got it under control. He was forced to retire early from his job at the age of 59 because of his health, but he had two good pensions, one from the military, and one from the State of Washington.

San-felipe-baja-california-2000 via WikipediaAfter he retired,  he and mom, along with Aunt Lillian and Uncle Wes, who’d been in Germany and North Africa during WWII, began wintering in San Felipe, Baja, Mexico for most of the year.  Dad was happier there. He loved the sun and people of Mexico. Even so he lost many lifelong friends who loved him but couldn’t stand him when he was drinking. He had destroyed his marriage–Mom hung on out of old-school Lutheran stubbornness.

Dad died at the age of sixty-six from complications of penicillin-resistant osteomyelitis (the cause of the loss of his leg 34 years prior), diabetes, and alcoholism. In his last years, he wanted to be happy, but he couldn’t, and his confusion and instability was a black pall that darkened every day for those of us around him.

WWII US Soldiers Marching, image courtesy www.berkeley.edu

WWII US Soldiers Marching, image courtesy http://www.berkeley.edu

As a child I saw how my uncles were also affected by war–Uncle Don came home from the Battle of the Bulge with a metal plate in his head, Uncle Dean spent the war on a destroyer in the Pacific theater. Uncle Billy died in Korea, and Uncle Bobby came home from Korea a changed, angry man. They all experienced the trauma and flashbacks differently, but the lives of everyone who loved them was affected in negative ways.

There was no help for them. They were told to suck it up and be men about it, no matter what it was. To a certain extent, the US government is still dropping the ball when it comes to caring for our combat veterans, whose many documented mental illnesses stem directly from their war experiences.

Using this unfortunate personal knowledge of how witnessing events in war can affect a soldier for decades after the war has ended, I created John’s story. His story and those of his companions were written in my head long before I ever began writing Tower of Bones. I wrote John’s story for my father, my uncles, my older brother and for all the young soldiers, men and women who’ve seen combat and who must somehow reintegrate into society.


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Fantasy and the cold hard truth

Saint_Alban_(cropped)In a good novel, there is a moment where the interactions between certain characters can become highly charged, fraught with anger and other intense emotions. That is the case with what I am writing now:  three of my characters spent a long time fighting alongside each other, brothers and sisters in arms, completely dependent on each other.

They have a long history. Several terrible incidents occurred during the war they once fought that they don’t understand, and which created a rift between them. Some of their close companions were killed under bad circumstances (are there ever any good ones?) and each of my characters suffers a little survivor’s guilt.

After the war, they went their separate ways and for the last 25 years, have rarely seen each other or spoken. They all bear a burden of responsibility for things they can’t change, and their lives are affected by this, although they don’t know why. For each of them, their anger and remorse are expressed in different ways.

Two of them can’t be in the same room for long without trying to kill each other.

One character in particular suffers disturbing recurring flashbacks, avoidance or numbing of memories of the event, and what we call ‘fight or flight syndrome,’ the uncontrollable urge to either fight or flee. These characters all three demonstrate varying degrees of avoidance,  withdrawal, aggressive defense, or in one case, complete frozen immobility. Certain memories trigger these behaviors, and now all three are being forced to face their demons.

My challenge is to bring these people back together with sensitivity and realism, in order to advance my story, and use only 1/3 of the allotted word-count for this book.

Does this sound like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? You’re right. For more information on PTSD, see an article  on the website, Military Pathways, and this news article aired by CBS on their show, 60Minutes.

Because it’s a new term, I can’t refer to this ‘injury of the spirit’ as PTSD in my manuscript. But I can give it another name and air both the symptoms and the sometimes life-long problems untreated PTSD causes.

GeorgeSPatton - WikipediaMy father, and my uncles all suffered from this long after World War II ended. In many ways it has shaped our post WWII society. Our fathers were told to just shut up and  get on with their lives–something that is not always an easy thing. Alcoholism and domestic abuse lay just under the surface of many families in our community, hidden but there.

Prior to World War I, the U.S. Army considered the symptoms of battle fatigue to be cowardice or attempts to avoid combat duty. While the causes, symptoms, and effects of the condition were familiar to physicians, it was generally less understood in military circles. General George Patton garnered substantial controversy after he slapped two United States Army soldiers under his command during the Sicily Campaign of World War II.

It was common for soldiers who reported these symptoms to receive harsh treatment. At the time of the slapping incidents, the two soldiers Patton assaulted were suffering from “battle fatigue,” otherwise known as “shell shock” or “battle stress.” Today, this condition is characterized as a form of PTSD, which can result from prolonged severe exposure to death and destruction, among many other traumatic events.


Even though I write fantasy, the reactions of my characters to certain situations has to be realistic, and that is where a good grasp of what really happens to our vets comes in handy. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is real and affects our returning veterans. More must be done to help ease our military wounded back into society, but generally speaking we pay more lip-service to that problem than we do tax dollars.

We write about incredible personal challenges, because they make great stories. But what about the people who live through those moments? How do they quietly go back to the farm once the war is over, and pretend it never happened? This is what I am writing about now, and it has been an emotional journey for me as as an author and a human being. Everyday, our paths are crossed by men and women living with PTSD caused by a variety of terrible circumstances,  They are just ordinary people trying to keep their lives together, not understanding why they sometimes do the things they do, and wondering why things just keep going to hell all around them.



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