Today (or tomorrow, depending on when you read this) the US observes Memorial Day, a day to remember those who gave their lives in the service of their country. And that’s as it should be. We owe a debt of gratitude to them and to their families that cannot be repaid.
The casualties of war though are not just physical. The experience of war leaves deep and lasting, sometimes permanent, psychological scars. Sometimes those scars are accompanied by more physical scars; sometimes they aren’t. Either way, though, those soldiers who do make it home alive don’t always leave the war behind. Certainly that’s true in real life, and we see it in crime fiction too.
In Chris Wormersley’s Bereft, Quinn Walker returns to his home in Flint, New South Wales after serving in the Somme during WWI. He’s been physically and emotionally scarred by the Great War. But instead of the rest and peace he needs, he finds that Flint is caught up in the terrible influenza pandemic that followed the Great War. What’s more, many people, including Walker’s own father, believe that he is responsible for the death of his sister, which occurred ten years earlier. Walker knows that he’s not welcome in the family home, so he hides out in an abandoned shack. That’s how he meets ten-year-old Sadie Fox, who’s hiding there herself. With her help, Walker gets past his war scars enough to find the courage to let his mother know he’s alive and to piece together what really happened to his sister.
Jacqueline Winspear and the mother/son writing team of ‘Charles Todd’ both explore the issue of PTSD in their novels. Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs was a nurse during WWI, and as the 1920’s begin, she has to cope with the physical and mental scars the war left. She also has to learn to deal with other people’s scars. In fact, the theme of returning soldiers trying to fit back into society is quite strong in that series. Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge series features a police detective who took time away from his job to fight during WWI. He’s returned a different person though, and deals with several psychological issues. One of the themes addressed in this series is what people call ‘survivor’s guilt,’ as well as the issue of coping with the fact that one’s had to kill.
Geoffrey McGeachin explores what we now call PTSD in his Charlie Berlin series, beginning with The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947. Berlin served in Europe, and although he’s come home from the war physically intact, he has several psychic and emotional scars. McGeachin shows how Berlin has to cope with flashbacks and nightmares, as well as with the grim reality that many of his comrades didn’t make it home at all. As time goes on, Berlin does what many former soldiers have done. He gets on with his life as best he can, he tries to start living again and he does what he needs to do. But that doesn’t mean PTSD isn’t part of his life.
It’s also a part of life for James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux. Robicheaux is a veteran of the Vietnam War. In several of the novels that feature him, he deals with flashbacks and nightmares from that time. And he has a sort of bond with others who also face the same demons. He doesn’t always cope successfully with the psychological challenges he faces, and his life as a cop doesn’t make it any easier. But he does his best to make a life for himself and his family.
Michael Palmer’s The Last Surgeon features Dr. Nick Gerrity, who suffers from PTSD after an act of terrorism during his service in Afghanistan. When he returns to the US, he does his best to start life again. He works with the Helping Hands Mobile Medical Unit to assist wounded veterans and to provide medical service to Washington’s street people. Then a nurse, Belle Coates, is murdered by someone who tries to make the death look like suicide. Belle’s sister Jillian doesn’t believe that though, and works to find out who killed Belle and why. Very few people believe her until her own home is firebombed. The trail leads to a connection between Belle and Nick Gerrity, and he and Jillian work to learn the truth about Belle’s death.
And then there’s Robert Crais’ Suspect, a standalone that features LAPD police officer Scott James. James has PTSD as a result of an attack that left him wounded and his police partner Stephanie Anders dead. Once James heals physically, he’s moved to the LAPD’s K-9 unit. There he is paired with Maggie, a German Shepherd with her own case of PTSD after the loss of her handler during service with a US Marine Corps unit. James is determined to find out who killed Anders, and he and Maggie begin the investigation. But this is a much more complicated and dangerous case than it seems, and James and Maggie will have to depend on each other and trust each other if they’re going to solve it.
As you can see just from these examples, PTSD is a very real part of life for those who’ve seen military service, and I’ve only offered a few instances here. There are many more. It just goes to show that not all casualties of war are those who die in battle. But I hope these examples also show that those who come back from war with PTSD are humans, capable of growth, of healing and of a meaningful life.
Part of our debt of gratitude to those who gave their lives in military service includes, I think, our debt to those who came back and who need our support. They don’t want our pity. They want and richly deserve the psychological and other support they need as they work to put their lives back together. There are lots of ways in which we can help provide that support too. Volunteering, donations and so on are just a few examples. I’ll bet you can think of more. Whatever you come up with, it’s the least we can do for people who’ve laid their lives on the line for us.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charlie Daniels’ Still in Saigon.