I wasn’t a very good soldier. In fact, people often react with bemused surprise when they find out. “You?” they say. “You took orders from others?”
Not very well, I admit…but 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 Expert). 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 harassment. 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 ‘blown-off’ legs (or other body parts). It’s not just bullets that kill; it’s shrapnel. Traumatic head injury—common now—was barely covered in my training.
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 my experiences through a lens that others don’t 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 it is often the dual experience of military training and medical training.
I made the heroine of Last Chance Rescue (Jessie) an Iraq war veteran and gave her some of the qualities I saw in my fellow soldiers/medics (and perhaps myself). I did that because I enjoy writing medical drama, and because it gave her depth and plenty of ways for me to develop her character—and to have an impact on those closest to her (e.g., Brad).
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 exploring in a short story (“The Heroes Left Behind”) and also in my current novel-in-progress (you can read more about that at http://www.lastchancerescuebook.com/writing.htm).
The helicopter shuddered and swayed as it lifted off the helipad. Instinctively Brad Sievers gripped the edge of the bench, willing his stomach to calm down.
The chopper was so full he could hardly move, and he felt overly warm and claustrophobic. Though he wore a headset, he could hear the Colorado air pulsing through the giant blades above.
Minutes ago he'd been terribly insistent about tagging along on this search-and-rescue mission; now he wasn't sure it was a good idea. What the hell am I doing? he thought. I'm in advertising, for Chrissakes!
"Okay, listen up," the team leader said.
The movement of the chopper was so foreign to Brad that he had difficulty paying attention. The team leader talked about the missing snowmobilers -- what they looked like, where they were last seen and probable scenarios. He threw out a lot of numbers -- coordinates, Brad realized later -- and assigned teams to what he kept calling quadrants. "And Jessie will take our ride-along in CHIPS," he finished.
Brad had known Jessie Van Dyke since kindergarten -- in fact, it was entirely possible he'd chased her around the playground in "kiss and tell" -- but they'd been only casual acquaintances through high school. He hadn't seen her in ten years -- until he showed up at their high school reunion in Minnesota just weeks ago, hoping to impress his old crush, Aimee Kinderbach -- who blew him off in the end.
He must have had a blank look on his face because Jessie said, "CHIPS is our medevac chopper. It's equipped with heat-seeking equipment, electronic mapping, medical equipment -- the whole nine yards. It's parked at our rendezvous helipad." She tugged on Brad's harness, adjusting the fit like another woman would adjust a tie.
They disembarked on a plateau that was in the middle of nowhere according to Jessie. Brad wouldn't have known it; the plateau was lit up like the Fourth of July, a line of snowmobiles idling to one side. A blast of cold air hit him, making him thankful for the jacket.
Jessie tapped his arm. "This way." She led him around the helicopter they'd just landed in. Behind it was the smaller helicopter, CHIPS. It, too, had its propellers going.
Jessie swung open the back door and plugged in her headset.
"Hey guys," she said. "We've got company tonight."
She indicated that Brad should take the rear-facing seat, and showed him where to plug in his headset. She introduced him to "Pilot Sam" and "Navigator Rick."
"Brad's been hanging out with us and couldn't resist sticking around for the real thing." Jessie settled herself into the seat across from Brad.
A pair of lit-up computer screens in front of Rick caught Brad's attention. "How does that work?"
As if in response to his inquiry, a voice came over the radio. "Checking all systems ... all teams power up."
Lights began blinking on the computer screen. "Every team has a transmitter as well as GPS on their radio," Rick explained. "We can track them from above and the mission coordinator can track them from the base site."
Brad found himself riveted to the lights on the screen as the teams responded one by one: "Ready on Alpha." "Ready on Bravo." "Ready on Charlie ..."
It took him several minutes to realize what the words meant. "Team names?"
Jessie nodded. "Based on the military alphabet. That was the team leader, Dan, calling for the ready-check."
Finally Rick spoke into his mouthpiece. "We have audio and visual on all teams. We are ready to rock and roll."
"Ditto on the ground," another voice said. "Move out!"
The helicopter began to rise as snowmobiles passed it on the right. Out the rear window panel, Brad watched as the launch pad and snowmobile lights disappeared from view. "How do you know where to look?" he asked.
"Sometimes we don't," Rick said. "But in this case, we have fairly reliable information about where they are."
"If we didn't, we may have been put on standby until the ground teams found them -- or first light," Jessie said.
"Or if the weather was really crappy," Rick added.
"Here. Make yourself useful." Jessie was holding something that looked like a cross between binoculars and 3-D glasses. "They're night-vision goggles."
Brad wasn't sure what he was looking for but it felt better to be contributing, so he strapped the goggles on and peered out the window at the ground below. His thoughts drifted to the woman across from him…
Their chance encounter at the reunion had stuck with him after he returned to his new job in Dallas. He tried to forget the way she touched his lapel when she said, "I never would have guessed you for advertising; I didn't think that would give you fulfillment." And the way her eyes searched his when she teased him about being shallow.
And then he lost his job.
And the self-doubt -- was he the reason they'd lost the account? -- started eating at him. He'd been drinking himself to devastation every night, but it hadn't made him feel any better. If anything, that brief conversation with Jessie came to mind more often. So, on a half-drunken whim, he'd driven from Dallas to her home state of Colorado, intending to put her "shallow" comment to rest.
But the conversation didn't go the way he'd envisioned it ...
"Team Foxtrot has a visual." The voice cut into Brad's thoughts, jarring him back to the present. He wasn't sure how long they'd been flying.
"Cannot confirm it's our target," the voice continued. "We'll check it out."
"Are we close enough?" Sam said.
Rick was studying a map on one of the computer screens. "That's southwest of us about 20 miles," he said. "If it's not legit, we can circle back easily and still cover prime terrain."
It was Sam's turn to radio. "CHIPS to back up Foxtrot." He swung the chopper around.
"Affirmative, Chips II."
"Who's on Foxtrot?" Rick asked.
"That would be Micah and Ryan," Jessie said. Brad had just had a long conversation about stock car racing with Ryan, a young Vietnamese-American who was full of jokes.
Fifteen minutes later Rick said, "We're coming up on Foxtrot."
"They look stationary," Jessie said. "I have a visual on their objective ... looks like a wreck, all right."