I’ve never been in combat, but I served with several men who were. Viet Nam was over and the country was ready to move forward. Only some of our vets couldn’t. Even years later, many of the men I knew tried hard to drink themselves to death. Some of them succeeded. Some chose other avenues.
With the momentum of my first novel behind me, I felt a need, an obligation to those men. I wanted my books to be more than just stories. I wanted there to be a message or a thought at least the reader could take with them. And I desperately wanted to help the men who dealt with their nightmares. The men, many forgot. I became acquainted with Sam Moses.
I’ve never felt I created Sam. I met him over the years I spent with troubled men. A bit of him was in SFC Mack Bell. Some of him was in “Top” Lester. Bits and pieces of Sam are in a dozen or more men I’ve met over the years. No, I never created him, but I took the liberty to move him back to another war, another national conflict that even more than Viet Nam tore our country apart. Sam became a Union Army soldier.
I did this out of respect for the soldiers I knew. PTSD is many things. More things than what I choose to write about here. But one of the things is a political discussion. Some say it is a sham, a golden ticket to receive benefits. Others claim that if a toe is stubbed the victim is in danger of the condition. By moving Sam to the 1860’s my goal was to distance him from the dialogue.
There was one other reason I moved Sam to the 19th century. The most common way veterans treat PTSD, in my experience, is through alcohol abuse. Some choose violence but today’s norms many of those end up incarcerated.
I didn’t want Sam to be a drinker. I felt if he was a drunk, the story I was trying to tell would be lost or minimized. It would be too easy for the reader to downplay his torment by thinking, just stop drinking. I wanted his drug of choice to be anger and violence. Sam was a nasty and mean man.
In such stories, the common ending is the troubled vet meets a woman, falls in love, is rescued and lives… well you know the rest. I didn’t want that cliché to cheapen Sam’s story. He had to earn his way back from the brink. So, enter a dog who needs to be rescued and a colt who deserves a chance. I believe his interactions with those animals sets the stage for what more is to come his way. If Sam couldn’t learn to respect and love a dog, how could he take the chance with Laura?
I remember when I finished the story I was afraid I had taken it too far. Sam was too mean, too violent, too nasty. I had started to develop a small following of readers and I worried I would push them away. And then I received an email from a veteran from Texas. In it he said, “Sam is the alpha male and if he can release his anger, so can I. I’ve carried mine since 1952 when I came home from Korea.”
Imagine, a book of mine, motivating a total stranger to take a risk. I still tear up when I read that message.
Initially, I saw Sam as a single stand-alone novel, but the characters wouldn’t let the story end as I had planned.
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