No two combat veterans are alike. However, there are some characteristics that set them apart from the general public and even from the people those veterans were before their wartime experiences. To create and write believable combat veteran characters, it is important to understand a few traits that may exist to one degree or another.
Bien Hoa, Vietnam-Personnel destined to return to the U.S.--NARA
First, I understand that there are five branches of military service in the United States: Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard. I do not wish to offend anyone who has served in any of the branches. I understand that marines, sailors, airmen and members of the Coast Guard may not consider themselves soldiers. However, for the sake of my blog series, I will use the generic term of soldier even when what I say also applies to members of all service branches.
We have heard a great deal about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. I will cover that in a future post. For today’s topic, what is important to understand is that not all combat veterans suffer from PTSD. But, even for those combat veterans who don’t, having been in a war zone almost always changes them.
|From Steve Matthews Facebook page|
As a rule, a combat veterans do not turn off their warrior mentality just because they have left a war zone. With few exceptions, war experiences change how soldiers view the world and the people around them. Most soldiers find that once they find themselves in combat situations, they have to make these changes in order to survive. The heat of a fire fight is not the time to carefully consider options, think things through and develop a detailed plan before taking action. Too often in the thick of battle, survival depends on an instant response. Those who are unable to adapt to a warfare mentality are often killed or wounded early on.
Behaviors learned in a war zone, particularly those that
increase a soldier’s chances of staying alive, return with the soldier. Combat
veterans cannot easily turn off those instinctual reactions and the survival
thinking they develop just because their airplane lands or ship docks safely
back home. Those behaviors become ingrained and may remain with them the rest
of their lives. Charles Hoge said it all in the title of his book about the
challenges facing returning combat veterans:
Once a Warrior - Always a Warrior.
|US Army 51790- Broncos return home to Hawaii|
To prepare for writing about a combat veteran returning home from war, keep the following in mind:
1. To one degree or another, combat veterans bring their warrior mentality home with them. It was what kept them alive while in the war zone. They cannot turn it on and off like a light switch. For many, it becomes ingrained.
2. Research and know your war. Learn about the national attitude regarding combat veterans in your time period. How well combat veterans adapted when they came home often depended on the level of support and appreciation they received. For example, at the end of the American Civil War, people were tired of the war and wanted to put everything to do with war behind them. Many fled west to escape it. Veterans from World War II were perceived as “the greatest generation” and received ongoing support and appreciation. Veterans of the Vietnam War were often looked down upon and persecuted.
Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans have come home to joyful reunions full of praise and respect--much it televised in a positive, supportive light. However, one of the challenges Iraq and Afghanistan veterans often experience is reconciling the indifference of most of the American people outside of their military units and immediate family with the focused intensity of the war zone they left behind. For society as a whole, life continues here at home in the United States as if there is no war, no danger, no enemy bent on destroying our country.
4. Research and know the traits combat veterans often may exhibit. Not everyone is alike, nor will they develop the same characteristics. But learn from those who have studied the issues combat veterans face.
My novel, Family Secrets, scheduled for publication on October 28th by Fire Star Press, is not a war novel. It is about three generations of a family, their challenges and their secrets. Grandpa Mike is a Vietnam War veteran (1967-68) who for forty years refused to talk about the war. Seeking to better understand her estranged husband serving in Afghanistan, his granddaughter, Jennie Howell, coaxes him into sharing his experiences. The following is an excerpt of some of what Mike says about what it was like for him after he returned home from Vietnam:
Once I arrived home, I knew I could never operate equipment again without thinking of Nam. I decided to work at the Post Office. As another federal agency, I could apply my years in the Army towards my retirement and pay level.
Even there, it was best not to say too much about being in the war. Too many non-veteran employees stereotyped all Vietnam vets as crazy. Sure, some of us had our problems. Some idiot at work would drop a plastic letter tray behind me and the sharp report sounded like gunfire. I would immediately drop to the floor or assume a fighting stance, ready to attack the enemy that was threatening me. Those who had never been in combat either thought it was funny or muttered in disgust. It was all I could do to keep from punching someone’s lights out when that happened. Didn’t those idiots understand kill or be killed?
The guys who had served in Nam understood. We survived over there by reacting swiftly to defend ourselves and our buddies from any perceived threat.
We vets tended to take our morning break at the same time. We all sat together in the swing room so we could support each other. It didn’t matter that we weren’t all from the same service or that we never knew each other in Nam. We were there. We knew you can’t turn off being combat-ready just because you made it back home. Even the old guys from the other wars understood that.