I wanted to write a series of books about soldiers with PTSD and I wanted to get it right. I didn’t want my characters to be some lone gunmen, but to rather show them in a PTSD-positive light. But where would I start? How far could I go? How far should I go? After all, writing about PTSD is a trigger all unto itself. What is the line that separates entertainment and harm?
The first science fiction book I ever read that dealt with PTSD was Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road. Go back and re-read the first chapter. It’s about a disgruntled soldier, freshly back from a war in Southeast Asia, unable to come to terms. This was 1963 and Heinlein was already ahead of the game writing about Vietnam. He was also writing about PTSD. Back then, according to DSM I it was referred to as Stress Response Syndrome. It’s also been known as Shell Shock, Combat Exhaustion, Hysteria, and any number of terms doctors and laymen were able to come up with to describe the effects on men, women and children witnessing and experiencing events outside the their paradigm.
While Heinlein introduced it, he just grazed the surface of PTSD in Glory Road before thrusting his protagonist into a swashbuckling space adventure. But John Steakly, in his seminal mechanized infantry book Armor, plowed right through it. Not only is everyone scarred, but each of them reacts differently to their syndrome, demonstrating his knowledge of how a same event can scar people individually.
Joe Haldeman, himself a veteran of Vietnam, was able to capture PTSD themes in The Forever War and the follow on book, Forever Peace. In his novels, the PTSD occurs generally after the fighting, when the soldiers return home to find nothing they loved has survived, a feeling many returning Vietnam vets experienced.
Lucius Shepard also contributed to the PTSD liturgy in his novel Life During Wartime, his characters dealing (or not dealing) with the mental scarification of witnessing too much, too often.
But nothing I saw really took the reader into the bleak and sometimes terrifying minds of the soldiers who suffer from it. The details were lacking. The emotions weren’t fully formed. Nothing I’d read introduced the raw hollow nothingness that gapes in their chests, just waiting to be filled with a feeling of anything, even if it’s their own deaths. I knew I wanted to write about this in the darkest matter possible, but was the world ready for it? Was I capable of doing it? Would a publisher actually publish what it felt like to have PTSD?
In Cape Rust’s review of Grunt Life in Pop Cults titled Leaders, Followers and Heroes: Grunt Life he said “At no point were the people in the book who suffered from PTSD pitied; rather, Ochse tried to examine how those people affected dealt with and reacted to PTSD. There were several occasions where the people running Ombra offered some very compelling coping advice. I felt like all of this came from Ochse’s heart rather than him trying to be a gin-joint head shrinker.” I definitely felt a rush of relief when I read that. Although I seem to have pulled it off, writing PTSD so accurately made for a bleak novel, so to make that work, I was balanced the bleakness of everyone’s outlook with a coterie of convincing and likable characters.
When I approached writing Grunt Traitor I had a much larger problem. You see, PTSD is not reserved for military men and women. First responders are prone to it, seeing and experiencing the vilest of humanity and the most terrible of injuries. Witnesses and other civilians are also victims of PTSD. According to an article at IO9, “Boston University’s David H. Barlow theorized that when people who have psychological and physiological vulnerability get exposed to a stressful event, they develop the belief that these stressful events are unpredictable and uncontrollable — and they will become fearful about the repetition of this stress. This leads to a cycle of ‘chronic overarousal’ and ‘anxious apprehension.’ These, in turn, lead to people being excessively vigilant, with shortened attention spans, and the way people process information gets distorted.”
After a tour in Afghanistan in 2013, I found myself excessively vigilant. Where once I loved riding motorcycles, I couldn’t possible get on one and ride after I returned. The term we use is hypervigilant and I was constantly looking for where the threat would be, not something safe motorcycle drivers should do.
But that was me.
With thirty years of military service and counting, I see people with PTSD all the time. I can’t tell what happened or what they are thinking, but I’ve learned to recognize their coping mechanisms, whether it be staring at the ground or off in space, or failing to respond to a question, or the myriad of other symptoms, to include uncontrollable behavior. I used this reality in my fiction because I want the reader to know the price we pay.
Let’s look at Book Two of the Grunt Sci-Fi series—Grunt Traitor. Book one establishes that Earth is being invaded by aliens. Although Earth’s forces achieve certain victories, the Earth has still been invaded. Now it’s not just the military and first responders who are experiencing PTSD. It’s everyone who survived.
The entire planet has PTSD.
PTSD on a global scale.
PTSD as the new norm.
Where before I was concerned, with the success of the first book I no longer doubted myself. Life at the end of the world is not a fun place. Bad stuff happens all the time. People are at their worst. Survival is the watchword of the day. I also knew that I had an Ace in my pocket. This is a military sci-fi novel, stressing the military. If there’s one thing that I could count on, it’s my soldier characters’ sense of shared misery that’s been part of military service since the dawn of time. And the way they get through this end of the world shared misery is gallows humor—think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a post-apocalypse. As long as my characters didn’t take themselves too seriously, and as long as they didn’t stare too long into the abyss, they’d be likable even if they were so messed up in the head that they couldn’t see straight.
That’s how most everyone I know gets through PTSD.
That’s how I get through it.