Friday, November 11, 2016

Writing a Vet - How My Character Led Me to Take on the Plight of Our Returning Veterans

Here's a little insight about being a writer: Sometimes a character can surprise its author.  She can turn out to be someone more powerful than the author imagined, drive the story in new directions, grab hold of the writer's imagination and not let go until she's completely fleshed out and satisfied.
photo by Scukrov via
This is what happened with my character Devon Keane, Aerin's mom in my young adult novel Swim Season. Veteran’s Day is a great day to tell you about Devon, an Army Reserve nurse, who demanded I tell her story because it’s the story of many women who serve in our military.

The story: Devon was on duty in the ER at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City the day terrorists struck down the Twin Towers. This hospital, just outside Ground Zero, was the first stop for victims and recovery workers in need of medical care. Deeply affected by the events of that day, Devon volunteered to work double shifts during the rescue and recovery effort. When the US went to war with Afghanistan, she enlisted in the Army Reserve, against her husband's wishes,  to provide care to the troops. 

On her second tour of duty, she participated in a mercy mission to help locals in a nearby village and was caught up in a suicide bombing. Shrapnel ripped through her right hip, requiring surgery resulting in complications, infection, chronic pain issues, an addiction to narcotic painkillers, and post-traumatic stress disorder.  She returned to her family as so many other veterans do: broken in body and spirit. Her drug addiction eventually led her to steal narcotics from her employer. She was caught, took a plea deal, and is serving a six-month sentence with rehabilitation during her daughter's last high school swim season.

I didn’t know Devon too well at the start of the story.  She’s absent other than being referred to in conversations and letters and doesn’t come on to the stage until page 170. The funny thing is that as I approached the scene where Devon enters the story as a full character, I found myself excited to finally meet her. She intrigued me, and I lingered over the writing of it.  I grew attached to her, and when I finished the chapter I was unable to go on with the story for a few weeks because I didn’t want to leave her behind. She only makes two more appearances in the book, but is present in other ways, including letters and email, and her love for Aerin pervades the entire novel.

I have no military experience and don’t know any female vets or soldiers personally, so I did my research for this character through literature.  I spent the summer of 2014 reading a number of different memoirs to learn about women’s experience in war, the work of military nurses, and coming home.  Some of the best I read were Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams, Soldier Girls - The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War by Helen Thorpe, and Ruff’s War, by Cdr. Cheryl Lynn Ruff, USN and Cdr. K. Sue Roper, USN (Ret.) All of these provided great insight and answered a lot of questions.  Studying these soldiers’ stories gave me a great appreciation for their service and sacrifice.
Characters can lead us into new worlds, teach us new things, and take us places we didn’t plan to go.  I would not have researched these military women were it not for writing the story of Devon Keane.  This research has enabled me to be a better nurse to the veterans I serve in my role as a campus nurse at a community college.
I’ve decided to write a sequel to Swim Season, and this will be about Devon and her recovery and re-entrance into society after she's released from her incarceration. As I go on to write this story, I will continue to read the literature and reach out to veterans for personal interviews to deepen my insight.

As our veterans return from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and from other hot spots around the globe, it’s important we recognize their dedication.  Parades and platitudes are great, but our vets deserve a health system that meets all their needs – physical and mental – without delays and with the best medical care possible.  Politics should not be a part of this equation.  Our soldiers deserve the best.  After all, that’s what they give us.
Learn more about Swim Season.

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