Friday, August 23, 2013

Front Toward Heroes

“When you say something, make sure you have said it.” E.B. White
A quote almost every author has seen. To me, that means every word you write has to have meaning, or it’s wasted.  Wasting words is wasting a chance to make an impact. Why write if you can’t make some kind of an impact?

I want to talk about my novel, Finding Mercy today, about the brutal and graphic scenes that have received both criticism and praise.

Why did I write them?

Good question.
How many of you have a family member who has been in combat? Everyone has heard someone mention that father, grandfather, sister, brother, someone who doesn’t talk about what happened while they were in battle.
PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We all know what it is, but we might not understand exactly how it affects someone and why. Often those who suffer from this condition can’t talk about it. I have seen this in members of my family, my grandfather, my son. I have seen my son climb off a bus after months of heavy combat, go straight to a grocery store and buy several baskets of food. I have seen him up, night after night, cooking more food than any of us physically could eat, desperately grasping for anything to take his mind off what happened “over there.” I have seen the “thousand yard stare”, where you know they are somewhere else, trapped in a living nightmare.

I have talked to a service member who served in EOD, disarming ordnance, who kept a diary. They would hand that notebook over to be read when anyone asked what was going on in their head. They did this because they couldn’t talk about what they saw. They didn’t want to try to recall the events. When they woke up in a sweat, screaming, they’d grab the notebook and write it down, force it to the page and in a way, from their mind. Through that notebook, I discovered that they not only disarmed bombs, they investigated after one went off, after lives were taken in a most gruesome manner, and they were often the first on the scene to witness the carnage, seeing things no person would ever want to. Or could ever forget.
I have heard week after week, of the suicides of young service members unable to come to terms with what they saw and did. So when I wrote about a hero suffering from PTSD, I wanted to try to bring out a fraction of what caused his pain, and in doing so, bring awareness to readers of a growing epidemic in our service men and women. It is not a condition just defined by four letters, it is one of the worst wounds a service member can suffer and many need help they are not getting. This happens because they either don’t know how to seek someone out that can help them, or because they can’t. It’s important we recognize the signs and symptoms, so we can do what they can’t do themselves.
Help them.

In Finding Mercy, the scene where Sgt. Justin Redway calls for an airstrike on his unit, is purely a work of fiction. The act of valor however, is not. During my time in the service, I met a man who was thrust into this situation, who had to make a split second decision between life and death—expecting that he would not survive, but did. To read about some of these remarkable “real life heroes” please visit this link. Home of the Heroes. You can read each of their stories, from why it was harder to wear the medal than earn it, or why one hero stuffed his in an old shoebox. You can even read stories of true valor about what you do when you run out of bullets and have to defend your ground at all costs.
So why the scene? Why the graphic, heart-wrenching view of a combat medic who makes a split-second decision, believing he will die, only to survive and be forced to live with what he did?

Because I needed my readers to understand what was going on in Justin’s head. Why he ran halfway across the country to hide in the middle of nowhere. Why, when he clawed his way out of the darkness, he reacted to someone prying into his past the way he did. I wanted a story of courage and human grit. I wanted a story that showed not all wounds that need to heal, are visible, but you can learn to live with them. All is not lost. There is hope.

I wanted to tell the story of the silent heroes.
Excerpt from Finding Mercy:

          He’d stumbled around until he’d found the radio operator. The kid was dead. He looked over to see a captain, most likely the commander for the Ranger detachment, his leg gone, lying on his belly ten feet from the radio, struggling to breathe. The smear of blood across the dusty ground showed he’d crawled at least twenty feet on his belly, trying to reach the radio. Justin’s gaze followed the trail. The captain’s leg lay under an overturned vehicle, beside a bloody Ka-Bar. Like a coyote caught in a trap, he’d used the teeth of that ugly combat knife and sawed off his leg to get free. It had to have taken him most of the night to finish his surgery.

          Justin rushed to the injured officer’s side. He hooked him under the arms and propped him against a tire. He scanned the man’s body, noticing a belt above the hemorrhaging stump, where the man had tried to make a tourniquet. Justin untied the strip of fabric holding it, and twisted the bar under the woven band, tightening it, before he tied the strip back in place. Once satisfied the bleeding had stopped, he went to work on the man’s chest wound. A deflated lung, but if they could load him on a chopper soon, he’d stand a chance.

          “You’re going to be okay, sir,” Justin said, not entirely convinced he would be. It was a wonder he was even alive. How he’d even survived the pain of what he’d done was amazing. His pulse was weak and he’d lost a lot of blood, but he’d seen men recover from worse, and he’d be the last one to steal this man’s hope.

The officer shook his head and tried to say something, only managing to cough.

          “Don’t try to talk.”

          “Do it,” he said in a gravelly voice, more a death rattle than clear words. Until he’d spoken, Justin hadn’t realized he could. A good sign. He still had fight in him.

          “Easy, sir. Going to get you all patched up as good as new.” Justin pressed the plastic package that had held the dressing against the hole in an attempt to seal it.

          “Call for an airstrike.” The captain wore the thousand-yard stare of a man with one foot in heaven and one on earth. Justin had seen it over and over since the attack, but it was what he saw in his eyes that chilled him far more than anything else he’d witnessed on the battlefield.

          Justin studied the man, assessing for any sign of shock, any reason to believe he didn’t have a clue as to what he’d asked. There were few times a serviceman could disobey an order, one being that the officer wasn’t in his right mind.

          The silver-haired officer waited, his mouth set in a grim line, his face white, eyes clear, and the blank stare gone. All his focus now was directed at Justin. “You heard me, Sergeant. Pick up that radio and do as ordered.”

Justin blinked. God help them all. He hadn’t imagined it. “If I take the pressure off this wound, you’ll die, sir.”

          “Call in the goddamned airstrike. I want that five-ton a smoking hole in the ground. Yesterday.” He tossed a sticky GPS next to him, one Justin hadn’t realized he’d had clutched in his fist. The wounded officer turned toward where the cargo sat, guarded like Fort Knox, coughed, and lifted his chin. “When that sun comes up, we’re done.”

          Was this a situation that called for suicide? Apparently the Ranger thought so.

          “They can’t get reinforcements into the valley. You got to do it.”

          They were all collateral damage, expendable. Whatever was in that convoy, the captain didn’t want the enemy to have it. It had more importance than he’d surmised earlier. A Ranger escort, a company of elite infantry sent in to extract, and more Taliban than Justin had ever seen in one place. Important enough that the Ranger commander had ordered his own death, and the deaths of everyone in the area, to ensure it was destroyed. No man would saw his own leg off and crawl twenty feet if he thought there was another way.

          A sinking feeling of doom settled over Justin. No, there’d be no reinforcements. No way could they get here before the fighting started again. It was oh-four-forty, twenty minutes until sunrise, barely enough time for air support to arrive, let alone prepare for the next assault.

          The captain pulled his sidearm. He pointed it at Justin’s head and stared. No, he hadn’t been able to reach the radio with his injury, but that didn’t mean he intended to stop trying. He’d found his means to an end and knew it.

          “I gave you an order—did you understand it?” The weapon slipped from his grip and hit the ground. He didn’t try to reach it again, but just held Justin’s gaze waiting for him to make a choice.

          Justin let go of the dressing, picked up the blood-covered GPS, and crawled over to the radio, staying low to avoid enemy fire. He gave the commander one last look and called in the coordinates. “This is Sergeant Redway with the Two-Fourteen, Bravo Company….” The rest went by as a blur. As soon as he heard “roger,” Justin released the radio. From that point forward, everything seemed hazy. He rolled to sit beside the dead radio operator, leaned against the roof of a M-ATV tactical vehicle, and swallowed hard.

He kicked the GPS away and turned toward the officer, who sucked in a wheezy breath.           “You’re a hero, son. You know it had to be done.”

          Yeah, it did. Justin’s guts knotted. It had been the right thing to do, but it didn’t make killing himself or his friends any easier. They couldn’t go anywhere, only sit here and wait for it to happen. The others—they didn’t even know what was coming.

He clamped his teeth together, doing his best not to call him something that could get him shot. Not that it mattered. They’d all be dead soon enough. They really didn’t have a choice. The cargo must not fall into enemy hands, but did the commander really think he wanted a medal for what he’d done? Posthumously?

          “It would be real bad for everyone if they captured what’s in that truck.”

          “Just what is in that truck?” The cargo again. Everything pointed back to the cargo. What was so fucking important it outweighed the preservation of human life?

          The captain shook his head. “This is a small sacrifice, and I’d willingly pay it ten times over. You would too—if you….” He closed his eyes and his chest stopped moving.


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