In that moment, the character of Denny Rios was born.
I took a closer look at the man’s face and saw something there – a reflection of what he had witnessed, perhaps, a kind of heat that made him look scalded. He moved like a soldier. He had come in to do a job and he was going to get it done.
In the novel, Denny has just come back from his tour and is in the throes of PTSD, but doesn’t know it. He can’t define it, doesn’t have a name for what’s going on with him. He was part of the invasion in 2003 – it’s now 2005, and he still can’t figure himself out. He feels stuck in an ambiguous place – the dangerous landscape of his mind. He felt bad about his situation and sometimes, in a weird way, he almost missed the war, even though not a day went by that he didn’t hate it with every cell of his body. Still, you could get used to hating something. He missed his M16. His weapon was like an old girlfriend who’d walked out on him and there was just this empty space now. Being without it gave him an ache in his belly. Sometimes he couldn’t eat. Sometimes he would wake up with a start with his heart going about a million miles a minute and all he could do was cry. He was not the sort of person who cried easily, but now he cried all the time.
In order to attempt to fully understand what PTSD does to a person, I began researching the topic by reading an incredible book called War and the Soul: Healing our Nation’s Veterans from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, by Edward Tick, PhD. Through a resource for veterans called A Soldier’s Heart, in Troy, NY, I met a marine named Sean who agreed to meet with me to talk about his experience in Iraq, and to discuss his perspective on PTSD and what he thought the United States Government was doing about it. We met at a Starbucks a few times. As we spoke, I felt increasingly protective of his privacy. I sensed what to ask, and what not to ask, and it quickly became clear to me that there was just as much information in what he didn't tell me, as what he did. I also interviewed a doctor and a nurse at our local veteran’s hospital to get their take on PTSD and how to treat it.
Although PTSD feels like a modern diagnosis, the truth is that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has been around since wars have been fought – people just called it something else. But PTSD isn’t only a result of war –it manifests itself in many corners of society, among those of us – and there are many – who have been victims of violence, betrayal, degradation, emotional abuse. This is something I wanted to explore in the novel, not only in relation to Denny, but in relation to several of the characters who emerge throughout the story, each with their own set of battle scars.
In my novel, I wanted to consider the war in Iraq in the same headspace as a Hollywood production – that the invasion had been scripted and produced by a strategic few – the difference is, of course, that war is real. The other night I watched a marvelous documentary on HBO about PTSD and it occurred to me that war and its effects has had an historic impact on the ways in which we behave as men and women – even during times of peace. During times of war, men in particular have been encouraged to be strong – to put a barrier up – to not reveal the emotional damages they’ve suffered in combat at the risk of seeming weak (women, too, have practiced their own forms of ruinous etiquette). Better to suffer in silence, no matter the ultimate costs. I think this idea crosses over into ordinary domestic life and has, to a large degree, informed our roles as men and women and continues to do so. In my novel, I was interested in exploring the Hollywood archetype of the American Hero and tying it into my exploration of the “theater of war.” It is that very archetype that denies the existence of PTSD – and that is a tragic denial.
Culturally, we are, to some degree, accustomed to witnessing violence. On any ordinary day we might witness violence on television. Women are raped; men are beaten. We know how to handle it. We can glimpse some violent scenario on the nightly news while we prepare our dinner, while our children are doing homework at the kitchen table. On weekends, some of our sons and daughters are playing XBOX. My son owns Call of Duty: Black Ops, and is proud of his performance and enjoys the competition with his friends. They are twelve and the games are rated M for mature. I know I shouldn’t let him play them, but these games are the new peer pressure. I know he should be in his room, reading, or making up games in the back yard. But that’s not what he wants to do. He wants to be in front of the television, manipulating a gadget that makes things blow up. It is my failure that I allow it.
We watch violence on a two-dimensional plane; it’s abstract. We can’t feel what the violence feels like – and we don’t bother to imagine it – that would be intense. The violence is a strategic part of a dramatic scenario. We think we know what goes on, but we don’t. Not really. When our youngest adults go to the desert to fight, maybe they think they know too. But once they’re there, the reality sets in. And there’s no getting out. There’s no escape.
PTSD is real. It’s painful. It’s a kind of internal agony. To pretend that exposure to the kinds of trauma our servicemen and women continue to endure on a minute to minute basis isn’t affecting them is unrealistic and naïve – and ultimately very dangerous.
So too, when people are victims of any form of abuse, they suffer from PTSD. We are human beings. We feel deeply – and we should feel deeply. I think feeling deeply is a sign of one’s humanity. Some of us have more difficulty processing what we know – what we have seen.
When I was a kid there was a popular saying going around: War is not healthy for children or other living things. I was in Junior High at the time. In those days, I wore a silver bracelet around my wrist with the name of a soldier who had fought in Vietnam and was missing in action. His name was Gary Shank and I will never forget him. The idea of him – wherever he is – haunts me still.
We are only human. It’s an expression people like to say – it conjures in one’s mind a kind of dignity and humility that seems to define us on some profound level. We need to remember that we are sensitive, intelligent beings who require nurturing and respect. Why are these fine qualities so often, so casually, ignored? I sure wish they weren’t. If I know anything as a novelist it’s this: a character’s destiny depends largely on his perspective. Too bad we all can’t see war in the same ugly light. Maybe then we’d come to the conclusion that there’s a reason that adage has lasted so long. War is not healthy for children or other living things. It’s lasted – because it’s the truth.