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Letters to a Soldier
By Julia Spencer-Fleming
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2011 Julia Spencer-Fleming
All rights reserved.
"Where do you get your ideas?" When they find out you're an author, everyone asks that. They want to know how you came up with the twists and turns in the mystery and the potholes in the road to romance. No one asks, "Where do you get your characters?"
But that's where I start. Before the car chase, before the passionate kiss, before the terrible play of crime and punishment, I have my characters. An impetuous, open woman trying to reconcile her experiences in Iraq with her calling as an Episcopal priest. A cynical police chief who guards his small town like a knight in battered armor. The cops who work for him; one heart-breakingly young, another battling the rage he brought home from his stint as an MP. A middle-aged doctor hiding the truth about his injuries from himself, as well as his family. And a teen-aged jock who has to find some way to live in a broken body.
I sit with my characters. I take their biographies and follow them as they go through their days in the small Adirondack town they call home. I have to know them better than I know myself, because to be true to them, to make them live, I can't look away from their flaws and contradictions.
My goal for One Was A Soldier was to tell a big story, a tale that would make readers think and laugh and get angry and cry. The letters you hold in your hand [nb: or "have before you" if in digital form] are where I started. Letters from a wife and a father, letters between lovers and friends. I let my characters tell me who they really are, so I can tell you. I hope I succeed.
Yours, Julia Spencer-FlemingCHAPTER 2
LETTERS TO A SOLDIER
Parris Island, SC
I'm sorry about the big blow-up before you left. I want you to understand — your mom isn't mad at you, she's scared. We've all seen the news reports — well, so have you. I know you feel like a grown man, and you are, but it's hard for us not to see you as our little boy, still.
Despite what you think, we're not disappointed in you because you didn't want to go to college. You have never disappointed us, ever. If the Marines are your choice — well, we'll be the proud parents of a Marine. Your mom dug through the trash and retrieved that window sticker and she has it slapped on the back of her car right this moment. We continue to have the same expectations for you that we always have — that you'll use the best of your ability in whatever you do. So you'd better come out at the top of your class when you finish basic.
I put your guitars in my workshop — I thought the attic might be too hot for them — and I told Colin he's not touching them unless he has written permission from you.
We'll see you at graduation. Your mom and I will both be there, cheering you on.
Thanks for letting me know you're in-country. Sounds like the Herkybird flight from Germany was just as much fun as I remember — ten hours of no heat, steel seats and nothing but the smell of someone else getting airsick. Nice to know some things don't change in this man's Army.
I know you think letters are old-fashioned, but take my word on this, when you're laying on your bunk feeling a million miles from home, you're going to want to be able to unfold a piece of paper that's been touched by someone you love and hold on to it. Like crappy air transport, that's something that doesn't change.
I drove past your church today on patrol and found myself parking and walking in. I wandered around touching things until your janitor sexton showed up. He probably thought I was having a religious experience. It's not like I've been there with you tons of times — I'm pretty sure we've spent more time together at the Kreemy Kakes diner than at St. Alban's. But I could feel you there, like the stone walls had soaked up a part of you.
God, that's sappy.
I miss you so damn much. I don't know how I'm going to make it another nine months.
I'll cut this short so I can get it in the mail. I'm driving Mom over to Janet and Mike's for another cheer-Russ- up dinner. So when you get this and you think of me, think of me with cow shit on my boots.
Subject: Catching up
Hey, Eric! How's it going in the desert? Harlene put the pics you sent in the break room — man, I don't know how you move with al that gear weighing you down. Anyway, the chief passed around your email so I thought I'd catch you up on what you're missing in Millers Kill. (Hint — not much.) Paul tagged a speeder last weekend that turned out to be a state assemblyman on vacation, so he let him go, and when MacAuley found out he about burst a vein. It's been wicked hot, and the new summer uniforms haven't arrived, so we're all sweating it out. The chief's been kind of down, I think, without Rev. F to keep him company. Harlene keeps trying to stuff him with donuts and junk, I guess on the theory that sugar high is a substitute for happiness.
The big news is that I'm going to Albany on TDY. Finally!!! The chief and MacAuley were happy with the work I've been doing for the Cap. Area drug enforc. Group and they offered to loan me out to the Albany PD for 6 mos. Not just training and junk, either, but real narcotics and interdiction stuff. If it works out I may go to Syracuse for another TDY to get some SWAT and urban enforcement experience. Plus, 'Cuse bball. The only downside is that I'll have to let my apartment go and stash my stuff.
I know you did a lot of Hadley Knox's training. You'll be glad to hear she's working out fine. She's got great potential as a cop. She's just great. Doing good.
Take care and keep your head down (the dep says that but I'm nore sure if that makes any sense. It's not like your in a WWII movie getting shelled.) The MKPD isn't the same without you.
From: "Flora Stillman"
To: "Stillman, George (MD)"
Subject: re: re: photos
Thank you, thank you, thank you for sending the pics, and thank the corpsman who took them for me. I'm prepared to believe that it was just a minor injury, but I still think you should transfer yourself to the hospital ship and get a CAT scan. A blow to the head that knocks you unconscious and requires 10 stitches to close should NOT be ignored.
I know, I know you're flat out at the CSH and that they need you, but you are NOT irreplaceable to anyone except me. And for Gods sakes, stop going off base. I'm as humanitarian as the next woman, but giving Iraqis vaccinations and penicillin is NOT worth your life. It's obvious half the population hates the West and wants us gone — do NOT give them a target walking around clueless in some muddy village like the fellow in the Indiana Jones movies.
I'm attaching pics of Sian's last meet — Colgate is moving up in the listings and she'll be going to the NE regionals next week. Iola has been talking about qualifying for the Empire Games, but she'll have to kick up her time on the 800 if she wants to make it. Catrin called from NY with the usual request for $$$ — this time to buy into a cooperative gallery show. I made her PROMISE to write you, so let me know if she doesn't come through.
Everything here is doing fine. It took me a long time to get you shaped up into the perfect husband and I'm not willing to go through the process again, so I expect you home SAFE and SOUND.
Love, love, love, F
Subject: After the call
It was so good to hear to hear your voice. You can't imagine — no, you probably can. You're right, I got kind of spoiled during out time at Ft. Drum, when I had access to the internet and phones whenever I was off-duty. I had no idea it was going to be three weeks before I could get a seat in front of a computer this time. Sitting here in the comm trailer, I'm beginning to suspect the reason it's always so crowded is that it's air-conditioned. I long for air-conditioning as the hart panteth for cool water. (scripture, look it up.)
Sorry if I sounded stupid over the phone. I can't talk much about where I'm flying and I can't seem to think of anything to say except how much I miss you, want you, love you, etc., etc. I suppose I could try what the jr WO on my crew does. He claims he has phone sex with his girlfriend whenever he can get the connection. He was going into GREAT detail in the hangar during checklist the other day (which is how I know he doesn't have a problem with the semi-public nature of the deed) when Zeller (I told you about her) let drop that I was a priest in my civilian life. The poor man almost swallowed his tongue.
I don't think his solution suits me, but I do wish I could crawl through the wires and kiss you — one hundred kisses for every time I wanted to kiss you but had to hold myself back.
Please, please please don't fret about me. I'm good at what I do and my crew (even the exhibitionist WO) is top-notch. All I've got to do is fly my ship, say my prayers, and count down the days until I come home to you. Until then, I remain,
Your, ClareCHAPTER 3
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 5
Sarah Dowling's first thought, peering through the wire-reinforced glass of the community center's door, was that they were an odd group. Usually returned vets had a lot to talk about with one another, even if they were embarrassed to be seen in counseling. She would have thought that in a tiny town like Millers Kill — she couldn't help it, she still saw the place as a cross between a Thomas Kinkade painting and Bedford Falls — they'd be even easier together, but none of these soldiers were speaking to each other.
The two men unracking metal chairs could have been father and son; both middling height, in khakis and button-downs, both with regulation crew cuts — the fifty-something graying, the thirty-something dark brown. The younger man kept glancing sideways at the older as if looking for clues on how to behave. He didn't pay attention to the young woman opening the chairs in a ragged circle, watching him. She was maybe midtwenties but dressed like a teen, with a little muffin top squeezed between low-rider jeans and a mini-tee. Sarah would have to include her no-romantic-relationships spiel in tonight's session.
The other woman in the group was a decade or more older than the little cutie, wearing unrelieved black that almost hid her taut physique. As Sarah watched, she stirred spoon after spoon of sugar into coffee poured from the community hall's industrial-sized coffeemaker. The last participant — Sarah frowned. A young man, maybe still a teenager. His hair had grown out, indicating he'd been out of the service for several months, at least. Well, she could have guessed that even if he had still been wearing it shaved to the skin. They didn't let double amputees out of Walter Reed until at least four months after admission. His presence here worried her. If he was having post-amputation issues, he ought to be seeing a psychologist at the VA Hospital, not hanging around an LCT's group.
She checked her watch, then gathered up her stack of handouts. Time to get the road on the show. She opened the office door and strode into the meeting room, the soles of her shoes squeaking on the polished wooden floor. Beyond the closed door, she could hear the faint thump and holler of the basketball game going on in the gym. On the far wall, construction-paper letters spelling out hello september were taped over bright cutouts of apples and school buses. A preschool met here mornings. She thought of the stiflingly tasteful tenth-story office she had left behind in Silver Spring. Free at last, free at last.
"Hello, everyone." She gestured toward the chairs. "Why don't we get started? If we have any latecomers, they can join us in progress." She smiled and took her own advice, selecting the twelve o'clock position in the circle. The woman in black pulled two chairs out of the way to make room for the teen in the wheelchair. The rest of the gang of five followed suit, scraping and clunking the cheap chairs until they were all roughly equidistant from one another, and twice as far from her.
"I'm Sarah Dowling," she began. "I'm a licensed clinical therapist. For those of you who aren't familiar with the term, that means I've been trained in psychology and in facilitating therapy, but I am not allowed to diagnose or to prescribe medications." She stood up and handed the first stack of papers to the graying man seated to her left. "Take one and pass it along." She resumed her seat. "I've just recently relocated here from the Washington, D.C., area, so this is my first group in New York State. However, I've been doing veterans' counseling and running the on-base family mental health program for the past four years at Fort Meade."
The older man nodded in approval. Officer, she thought.
"Just to make sure we're all on the same page, this is not a Veterans Affairs program, although it does receive funding from VA, as well as from New York State and the National Institute of Mental Health." She leaned forward. "Participating in our group will not affect your VA benefits or treatment, nor will it be in any official record." For those in the group who would be continuing on in the service, that was often critical. Seeking out therapy was still viewed in many quarters of the military as suspect. Talking about feelings was not a high priority for the average CO.
"I apologize for scheduling the first session on Labor Day, but the community center gave me this time slot, and I didn't want to lose it." She smiled at them. "I was afraid I'd be the only person here, so believe me when I say I'm glad to meet you all. Why don't we start by introducing ourselves, and saying a little something about our service." She looked encouragingly at the older man.
He looked around the circle, knitted up his brows as if he didn't understand the reasoning behind her request, then shrugged. "Sure. If you think it's helpful." He straightened in his seat. "I'm George Stillman. The Third. I'm a doctor and a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. I was with a forward surgical team outside Mosul."
"When did you get back, George?"
He smiled a little. "Please. Call me Trip. I hear George and I look around for my father."
"Oh. I got back from my second tour of duty about two months ago."
The kid in the wheelchair looked at him oddly. "Three months ago. You were here in June."
The doctor stared at the kid for a moment, then wrinkled his face into an apologetic smile. "Sorry. We had a death in the family this summer, and I swear it's thrown my whole sense of time out of kilter." He tapped his palm. "I'd better start carrying my PalmPilot around again. My wife calls it my portable brain."
Sarah smiled reassuringly at him before gesturing to the young man. "Would you introduce yourself?"
"Yes, ma'am." Marine, she thought, just as he said, "I'm Lance Corporal Willem Ellis, of the 5th Marine Division." He looked down at the prosthetics strapped to his knees. "Formerly of the 5th Marine Division." He glanced back up at her, then dropped his gaze. "I was only in-country a little over two months when this happened, so I can't say I saw much traumatizing action."
"How 'bout when your mother found out you'd enlisted?" Sarah was surprised by the black-clad woman's accent, a southern Virginia drawl that sounded more out of place up here in the North Country than her own clipped urban consonants.
Willem Ellis laughed at the woman's remark. "Yeah, I guess that counts as combat. Or at least battle royal."
"And you are ...?"
The woman slouched in her seat. "Clare Fergusson." There was a pause. Sarah made a go-on gesture. Clare Fergusson sighed. "Major in the Guard, 142nd Aviation Support. Stationed in Ramadi, Tikrit, and Kirkuk." She took a long drink from her coffee cup. Nothing more seemed forthcoming.
"Aviation support?" Sarah said.
"She flies helicopters," the brown-haired man said. Before Sarah could ask, he went on, "I'm Eric McCrea. I'm a sergeant. Also in the Guard."
"Did you serve with Major Fergusson?"
"No." His gaze slid away from her and came to rest on the doctor. His lip curled up in what might have been a sneer. "I'm an MP."
"What were you assigned to?" the young woman demanded. "Were you on base patrol? At the Green Zone?"
His lips thinned. "I was on prisoner detail. Camp Bucca."
Excerpted from Letters to a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming. Copyright © 2011 Julia Spencer-Fleming. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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