Post Traumatic Stress & ‘Combat Stress’

Draca’s main character Jack is a war-damaged Royal Marine who’s struggling to live with post traumatic stress. As the ‘hook line’ goes, is he haunted by his past, or just haunted? General Sir Nick Parker, who commanded British forces in Afghanistan, has described Draca as “a terrific and compelling story which highlights mental and physical challenges that many who have served will recognise.”

Author royalties from Draca will be shared equally with Combat Stress, the veterans’ charity. They do outstanding work providing specialist care for heroes like Jack whose wounds are more than physical.

Inevitably readers, reviewers, and interviewers are joining the dots and asking questions. They link my Armed Forces background to a protagonist with PTSD. Some questions I’m happy to answer in an open forum, like ‘you’re ex-services; did you ever see action?’

That one’s easy. No. I served for nearly 11 years, but never in combat.

The follow-on questions can be tricky, like ‘so how could you craft a character like Jack?’ Or even ‘what gives you the right to imagine a wounded veteran’s anguish?’

Hmm. Such questions are coming regularly enough for me to know I must either block them, or lie, or reveal something of my past that has always been private, so I’m going to divert questions to this page.

I do not and could not claim parity with those who have put their life on the line for their country. But while still under training I knew a time when people died, slowly and nastily, trapped in the mangled wreckage of a bad car crash. I was one of them. Almost. So nearly that my last memory from within that wreck is of a rescuer standing by my body and saying ‘this one’s dead too’. The details of that long night don’t belong in the public domain. They belong, if anywhere, in a dark room, with whisky, and either a trained counsellor or a very, very good friend.

Some years afterwards the press began to report on individual veterans who struggled to live with the aftermath of conflict, from the Falklands to Iraq and Afghanistan. For some, the problems persisted for decades. There was no heroism in what happened to me but I found I had an unwelcome insight. After the challenges of physical recuperation (it had taken me two years to be once again ‘fit for active service’) there was a more internal struggle. I read about veterans’ flashbacks and triggers, and about their inability to settle, and I understood uncomfortably well. In time, that knowledge helped me to shape the character of Jack Ahlquist, Draca’s protagonist. Jack’s a flawed hero who sees the world across a barrier of memories too graphic to share. That unsought empathy motivates me, as an ex-serviceman, to help veterans who’ve been damaged in far more heroic circumstances than mine.

Writers draw on their imagination, on research, and on their own personal experiences to craft stories and characters. I’ll readily admit that Jack’s bravery in combat is all imagination. Beyond that, if you can’t see which bit of a book is real, or researched, or imagined, then I’ve done my job as an author.

The press tend to sensationalise stories to boost their readership. So here, on a space where I own the message, let me put down a disclaimer. I repeat; I have never fought in action, and will never encourage or authorise a story line that even hints that I have combat-acquired post-traumatic stress. To do so would steal the glory of those who have truly served.

End of story.

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Find out more about Combat Stress, and their fine work with veterans