I wasn’t a very good soldier. In fact, people often react with bemused surprise when they find out I served five years as a paramedic in the Army National Guard. “You?” they say. “You took orders from others?”
Not very well, I admit…but this was 20 years ago – I was young!
I might have made a good officer, though. I was already bossy (as three of my younger siblings can attest to) and a bit of a control freak.
But I like to think I was a good medic. Where I responded to Army ‘regiment’ with near-distain, what I was trained for had the opposite effect: I loved it. I loved splinting a broken leg. Inserting an IV. Dressing a sucking chest wound.
Of course I approached my training with a ‘proper’ level of seriousness…but it was a sort of conceptual play. I joined to help pay my way through college (my real aspiration); never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be activated.
Desert Storm changed that. One day I came home to a blink on my answering machine (remember those?) and a message from my Sergeant: “call me immediately.” My friend said I lost all color in my face; my legs went shaky and I had to sit down. Turns out that the Military Police unit that shared our armory had been activated and the purpose for the call was to reschedule our monthly training.
For the first time, it occurred to me that I might have to defend our country somewhere half-way around the world. That was not in my plans!
I had a lot of military friends. My BFF was Air Force ROTC, and she introduced me to my college flame, who was also an Air Force cadet. Today an ex-Air Force physician is one of my SMEs (Subject Matter Experts). Good friends from church lost their son in Iraq. And I have many motorcycling acquaintances who are involved with the Patriot Guard.
There was (is?) also a side to the military lifestyle that challenged every moral I was brought up with: the casual sex, the easy changing of partners, the marital cheating, even borderline harrassment. When you’re immersed in an environment, you start to think it’s perfectly acceptable. Now I find that fascinating as fodder for characters.
The Army that I trained in is undoubtedly a different Army now – it has to be. Instead of broken legs, medics deal with IEDs and missing body parts. It’s not just bullets that kill. Traumatic head injury – common now – was barely covered in my training. And PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) wasn’t even mentioned.
So how has my experience in the military affected my writing? I think everything I write is affected by what I’ve experienced. I tend to view experiences through a lens that others may not have (‘how can I use this?’) Yes, there’s a healthy dose of imagination and plenty of creative license, but a seed has to be sown somewhere, and for me the dual experience of military training and medical training turned out to be a rich garden.
What fascinates me now about today’s military is the juxtaposition between service to country and service to family. This inherent conflict is something I’m only beginning to explore, I suspect!