Why I Wrote About PTSD and Alcoholism

            When World War II ended in 1945, I was only four years old, but I well remember soldiers returning to their families in my hometown of Amarillo, Texas. Most of the fathers of my friends had served. (Fortunately, my own father wasn’t drafted, because of his profession as an electrical engineer who was needed to maintain the generators in Amarillo’s power plant.) But the one returning veteran I remember vividly to this day was the oldest son of the elderly lady who was my babysitter

            It must have been 1950 or 1951, when I was nine or ten. My mother dropped me off at my babysitter’s house. I hurried inside and stopped short when saw a man I’d never seen before, who was sitting by himself on the living room sofa. His appearance should have scared me, but instead it fascinated me.

            I remember walking over in front of him, standing with my hands on my hips, and asking bluntly, “Mister, what’s wrong with your face? Why is it so messed up?”

            “I was a pilot in the Flying Tigers. … I crashed a lot,” the man replied matter-of-factly—not smiling nor showing any emotion.

            This was to be my first experience with PTSD and alcoholism. I barraged him with questions about what is was like to be in the Flying Tigers, which for boys my age was the most famous and idolized unit of American flyers in the war. He pointed to his scars and his misshapen nose as he answered, also describing the faces of the Japanese pilots. “We could look each into each other’s eyes, we came so close,” he told me.

            I didn’t notice the extreme redness and sickliness of his face, which later I learned was one of the effects of long-term alcoholism. I only saw a hero and imagined him to be a giant of a man. Actually, he was small in stature, which I later learned was an advantage for fighter pilots in the planes he was flying.

            Later that day, when my mother came for me, on the way home I excitedly told her about the “real Flying Tiger” who had told me all about shooting down Jap planes over the Himalayan Mountains next to China. When we got home, my mother sat me down and explained that he had come home to die.

            She had known “Joe” from the time he was growing up in the neighborhood alongside her brothers. “He went to high school with them and was on the football team with them,” she told me. After graduating from high school—even before Pearl Harbor— he had gone California and joined the Marines. He ended up a pilot in General Chenault’s Flying Tigers, who flew against the Japanese in China. Then he was in the American Army Air Force for the rest of the war in the Pacific. Miraculously, he survived, but he came back physically and mentally a broken man, and he took to alcohol to escape his wounds and his memories.

            “A few weeks ago, ‘Joe’ called his mother from Albuquerque and asked if he could come home to die,” my mother explained. “He’s drinking himself to death.”

            “Why doesn’t he just stop?” I asked my mother in tears.

            “He just can’t. Some people can’t … And he doesn’t want to stop. He saw too many bad things in the war. … He wants to die.”

            After that, whenever I want to my babysitter’s house, I sat and visited with my dying hero, who never seemed to move from the same place on the sofa. Then one day—after several months—he was gone.

            “They buried him quietly. His mother didn’t want a lot of people coming to her house or at the church or at the cemetery,” Mom explained. “Why not?” I asked. “Joe asked her to please do it that way,” my mother answered. “He thought he’d already hurt her enough.”

            Ever since then, over the years—now almost seventy years later—I’ve asked myself again and again, “What could have made ‘Joe’ stop drinking and want to live?” He was only in his early thirties when he died. I admired him then as a child, and I came to admire him even more when I grew up, having read what he was doing in China, against the Japanese air force in support of the Nationalist Chinese army.

            Over the years, I’ve met many veterans like “Joe,” who if not “messed up” in the face, were suffering in their minds and souls, and who were drinking heavily to “make it go away.”  But I always think back to the first such veteran, that Flying Tiger pilot who was my babysitter’s oldest son and who grew up with my uncles in my old neighborhood. And I’ve continued to ask myself, “What could have made him stop drinking and want to live?

            When I started writing my novels, naturally I thought of “Joe,” and I determined to help him find “a way.” My novel, Nadya: The Restoration of a Flying Tiger, has now rescued him from himself. I’ve helped him find a reason to live, in the form of an angel sent by God to save him. … Nadya—his unique guardian angel—has saved “Joe” and has restored him to life.

            The novel is not a war story. It’s a love story and an adult romance. Nadya is a human being who doesn’t even know that she is also an angel. By falling in love with a suicidal veteran, she slowly brings him back home and restores his will to live. She keeps “Joe” from dying. So that now when I remember him, I remember going to his funeral, after “Joe” died an old man, surrounded by his wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

            That’s why I wrote this Flying Tiger story.