From War to Pen, Learning to Live with PTSD
An Essay by Thomas S Flowers
There’s this quote from Michael Herr in his book, Dispatches, that struck a chord with me some years after getting out of the Army. I was taking night classes for my BA in History and one of said classes was on the Vietnam War in Film. Herr says:
“I keep thinking about all the kids who got wiped out by seventeen years of war movies before coming to Vietnam to get wiped out for good. You don’t know what a media freak is until you’ve seen the way a few of those grunts would run around during a fight when they knew that there was a television crew nearby; they were actually making war movies in their heads, doing little guts-and-glory Leatherneck tap dances under fire, getting their pimples shot off for the networks. They were insane, but the war hadn’t done that to them. Most combat troops stopped thinking of the war as an adventure after their first few firefights, but there were always the ones who couldn’t let that go, these few who were up there doing numbers for the cameras… We’d all seen too many movies, stayed too long in Television City, years of media glut had made certain connections difficult” (Dispatches, 1977).
Herr was a war correspondent for Esquire magazine who sadly passed away in 2016. What he saw during those gut-and-glory days he eventually wrote about in 1977, nearly ten years following the events that took place in the book. It’s an interesting notion, that some things take time to process. If you haven’t had the chance to read his work, you need to. It’s very thought provoking. He’s also the mastermind behind most of the narration of Apocalypse Now and the script for Full Metal Jacket—not exactly what you’d call pro-war movies. The reason why I quoted the above statement of Herr’s is because I feel it sums up my own feelings regarding my experiences in the Iraq War, OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom), and learning to live with those memories today and learning how to express them.
Allow me to explain.
There seems to be a surge of “war stories” finding their way into the media nowadays. I’m in no way saying this is a bad thing; I wish there were more veteran writers. However, I’m somewhat suspicious when I see books marketed as “another action-packed heroic tale of contemporary military service.” Such as from a Navy Seal’s perspective or some high ranked officer sharing their “retelling” of command with low fidelity storytelling. I’m not trying to be quip here, nor am I trying to call out any one individual or author. What I am trying to call out is similar to what Herr stated in the quote shared above. There seems to be this carnivorous appetite for war stories, but not war as it really is, rather war from a heroic narrative, or worse, war stories where soldiers are nothing more than pawns in a Mad Hatter’s political chess game. I feel these kinds of stories are for people who do not have a genuine interest in the reality of war from the perspective of, say, Joe Shmoe from Little Rock, Arkansas. These kinds of stories are for people who want to be entertained, not enlightened to the cruel banality of combat and every broken soul that comes when one person begets violence upon another living person.
Those war movies, the ones where soldiers live high adventure lives…they didn’t tell or show you the other stuff. The feeling that comes when someone is trying to take your life. And the feeling of taking a life. Aiming your rifle into a car, looking into the eyes of a father or brother, someone’s son and the terrified expression of the woman sitting next to them, or the kids in the backseat, but you squeeze the trigger anyways because they could very well be driving a car bomb into your convoy, trying to kill you and your brothers and sisters.
I signed up for the U.S. Army in September 2001 and was honorably discharged in February 2008. Roughly seven years of service, including three tours in Iraq, 2003-2004, 2004-2005, and finally 2006-2007. The last tour was probably the hardest, not only was my deployment extended for the great 2007 Iraq War troop surge (Operation Arrowhead, I think), but my squad were involved in more combat engagements than in any of my previous two tours. On top of that, I had someone other than my parents waiting for me at home. My wife and I had just met a few months before I deployed. She stayed with me the entire deployment. We wrote dozens of letters to each other, we chatted on the phone and on the internet, when circumstances made it possible. She supported me with more than just care packages, giving me focus and reminding me that I was more than just a soldier. I had someone waiting for me. Someone I needed to live for. It’s a sad fact of war, that its easiest when you feel like your life is disposable. The moment it’s not, well…things become complicated. Being away from her was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Let me say, I don’t mean to sound callous towards my parents, I love my parents very much, but with my wife it was different. For the first time, I couldn’t imagine myself dying and not being afraid. Not just for the circumstance (bodily suffering) but for the recompense of leaving her behind (emotional suffering). I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to be robbed of this imagined life we could’ve had together. I didn’t want to lose that. And I didn’t want her to suffer for my loss.
I struggled with these emotions every day and I buried them. I buried them because you can’t dwell on that shit when you’re in the shit. You have to focus on the day to day, on the mission. Never considering the consequences of what happens to all that emotion – rage, anger, despair, terror, fear – when the mission is over and your back home living that dream.
When I got out of the Army in 2008, I didn’t have a plan. I was burnt out with deployments—having already served three tours in Iraq and ready to start a new life with my soon to be wife, Kaia. I wanted that. I wanted my American Dream. But I struggled. And for a long time, I didn’t know how to deal with it. I sought help from the VA and was turned away, told I had nothing to worry about, just a bad case of “separation anxiety.” I never went back. I figured I was alone in this fight. No one cared. Just my wife and family. So, I kept myself busy, kept my thoughts focused on tasks and projects. Night school kept me busy for a few years, but once I graduated, I needed to occupy that time with something. Sitting around with nothing but my thoughts…no, I couldn’t do that. It would kill me. So—I wrote. It came naturally. I had penned a few short stories back in the day, even did poetry here and there on deployment, but nothing I was willing to share with anyone, under any circumstance. Well…except for maybe in death, because if I was dead then I guess I couldn’t really do much about someone reading my stuff.
In 2008, after being pushed by family to do the college thing, I finally agreed. I’m glad I did. College helped with more than just furthering my career. Slowly, through the course from 2008-2014, I began to open up and write about my experiences in Iraq. I didn’t really want to at first, again, back to the “glamorization of war”. I feared any attempt to recount my experience would be a cheapening of it, a cheapening of other veteran’s experiences by attempting to sell my own. I didn’t want to do that, but I felt drawn to write something.
My first attempt was during a creative writing class into my second semester at San Jacinto Community College. The assignment was to write a short narrative story, so I wrote, “There will be Ghosts.” From there I dove head first into fiction writing. I began a little science-fiction piece which never came to fruition, and probably never will. I consider these first works to be a learning curve, not something I’d want to see published. A dabbling, if you will, in the creative cosmos, finding my voice and all that fun stuff. When I transferred to the University of Houston-Clear Lake to finish my degree, I had to put my fictional writing on the back burner and focus almost exclusively on my history studies. While this may seem like a setback, I do not see it that way. In fact, I believe these years of hard-nosed historical study gave me an element lacking in my previous fictional-writing attempts. Dedicating myself to my studies gave me a depth I wouldn’t have been able to include in my work otherwise. My studies focused on 20th century Germany, namely the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany. I also took Vietnam War history classes, Texas history, and a class on the Civil Rights Movement, each class taught from the ground-up. This is a somewhat relative new way of teaching history. Traditionally, history is taught from the top, that is, from famous generals and presidents or other such impressive folk. From the bottom-up, history is taught from the Joe Shmoe perspective, the everyday lives of everyday people. It was fantastic. A new way of looking at our world and the people that fill it by giving them relevance. And in turn, made me believe that perhaps my story had relevance. In 2014, I graduated from the University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelor of Arts in History…now what?
Suddenly I found this huge pocket of empty space. My mandatory studies were over. I had nothing to keep my mind focused. And as I said before, unable to focus on something forced me to dwell on shit that shouldn’t be dwelt on. I decided to get back to fictional writing as a means to keep my mind busy, keep me sane, and present a challenge. I wrote two short stories soon after graduating. “Hobo: a horror short story,” and “Are you hungry, dear?” Both are of the horror genre. And before you ask, “why horror,” let me be brief and just say that I’ve always been a fan of horror and dark fiction, ever since my big sister let me watch “Night of the Living Dead” one Friday night. And even before then, I read Goosebumps and then grew into Stephen King. It made sense for me to gravitate to the genre that I felt most comfortable. And besides, horror gives us the most honest and straightforward medium for social commentary. Sometimes we need that ugly non-decorum.
While these shorts were fun, they also gave me some traction toward my first full-length novel, Reinheit.
Reinheit was published originally under Booktrope’s horror imprint Forsaken, and now currently resides with Shadow Work Publishing. The story was, to be frank, the most serious thing I’ve ever written at that point in my writing career, other than my wedding vows of course. But let me be clear, this was not my “Iraq War” piece, though, as a writer you have to draw emotion from somewhere, and it would seem a lot of my emotion still streams from my experiences in Iraq. I think some of that bled into Reinheit. As for the story, I tapped into my history education and focused on Nazi Germany. I didn’t want this to be just a historical fiction piece, I wanted to say something about some of the issues going on in 2014, in the media, and on social websites such as Facebook. The total disregard of looking at people as simply that, people. Reinheit drew from real history, but the story was really about the here and now. A school teacher dealing with an abusive husband, an SS officer pushing himself to carry out his ghastly orders, a thug of a husband who views the world from a very narrow hall, an old man looking for redemption, and of course, a curious armchair with a very dark purpose.
While penning Reinheit, I was able to further develop my “writers voice.” When you read a lot – which is a must if you want to write – you kind of take on the voice of the authors you are reading. You need to write to chisel away all those voices and hopefully find your own in the process. I think this is intended to be an ongoing thing. The more you chisel, the more defined your voice becomes, until maybe reaching some point when your aged and withered and giving lectures to a new generation of writers. Reinheit helped define my own voice and gave me the necessary encouragement to tap into my fears—my PTSD—my suffering and vulnerability. The ugliness I have inside. And expose it for readers to read in the form of storytelling. And so, I’m still writing. Still struggling to capture those buried emotions. I’ve found it therapeutic writing about all this, the people I’ve seen get hurt and the people I’ve hurt. Yes, in fictional stories, but for those who know—those who’ve been there – the fiction is all too real. My latest book, Palace of Ghosts, is my recent conjuring of the memories that have been buried too long. Here I am, ten years since the war and still struggling. But the struggles are being managed better, and I know I have a voice. The pen is my medicine.
Again, I cannot write heroic, though I know a lot of whom I consider to be heroic. I don’t want to pass the war off as some grand adventure. I want to rip the decorum off war, the shininess of it. I want to bring audiences into the proverbial trenches of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I want to bring an air of hard-nosed poetry as Philip Larkin had done for his own generation with his masterpiece, “MCMXIV.” And above all this, I want to be direct and honest, no matter how difficult or depressing that may be. Even for myself, rehashing brutal memories. Pages on real, raw, and utterly difficult subjects. While hopefully still entertaining to read, because of the relationships between characters and the situations they find themselves, but not solely to entertain, but to discuss the reality of war and living with the memory of war. I want to talk about PTSD, anger, war-guilt, and suicide because these are discussions that need to happen by getting away from the myth of supermen and the disconnect of high-adventure combat by focusing on the naked ugliness of it and how we can live with those memories through expression and the sad gut punching fact that many veterans cannot live with the memories of war.
While there will always be “those” books that do not give much substance to the echoes of war, I’ve been seeing more and more veteran writers coming forward from the trenches, unabashed by unrepentant honesty. BRAVO! There was a Vanity Fair article called, “The Words of War” that included a few of these up and coming writers of poetry, novels, and screenplays. I felt encouraged reading it. Hell, I still do. Seeing fellow veterans picking up the pen and expressing themselves. I’m proud to be part of this “Lost Generation,” for as Elliot Ackerman – one of the veteran writers mentioned in the article – puts it, “it might have been better to be part of the ‘Lost Generation’ than the lost part of a generation.”
About Thomas S. Flowers
Thomas S. Flowers is an Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom Army veteran who loves scary movies, BBQ, and coffee. Ever since reading Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot he has inspired to write deeply disturbing things that relate to war and horror, from the paranormal to his gory zombie infested PLANET of the DEAD series, to even his recent dabbling of vampiric flirtation in The Last Hellfighter readers can expect to find complex characters, rich historical settings, and mind-altering horror. Thomas is also the senior editor at Machine Mean, a horror movie and book review site that hosts contributors in the horror and science fiction genre.
PLANET of the DEAD and The Last Hellfighter are best-sellers on Amazon’s Top 100 lists for Apocalyptic Fiction and African American Horror.
Palace of Ghosts by Thomas S. Flowers
Publisher: Shadow Work Publishing
Triggers: War, PTSD
Four veterans of the Iraq War seeking a cure for Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder arrive at a notoriously haunted house in the bogs of Galveston Island called Amon Palace.
Samantha Green, a friendless former Army K-9 handler looking for a way to put her loss behind her.
Brad Myers, a lighthearted former Military Police Officer severally wounded in war wanting nothing more than a good night’s sleep.
Andy Lovejoy, an overweight light spoken drone operator who once watched the war from above now questions who he has become.
Marcus Pangborn, a headstrong Marine who desperately wants a dead friend’s forgiveness.
The group joins Doctor Frederick Peters, an experimental psychologist looking to prove his exposure theory hypothesis, and his two assistants, Tiffany Burgess and Dexter Reid.
At first, their stay seems to conjure nothing more than spooky encounters with inexplicable phenomena. But Amon Palace is gathering its powers—and soon it will reveal that these veterans are not who they seem.
PURCHASE PALACE OF GHOSTS: Amazon