One Was a Soldier

In the book One Was a Soldier, by Julia Spencer-Fleming, Reverend Clare Ferguson declares to her unborn child “I’m a pretty crappy mother all the way around, and you haven’t even been born yet.” 

The setting for this remark is a small town in upstate New York called Miller’s Kill. A kill in Dutch is a body of water, so this is not a bloody reference, although in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mystery series from Minotaur Books set in this town and starring Episcopal priest and former helicopter pilot in Iraq and her husband Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne, they become involved in several murders connected to bodies of water.

Back stateside from a National Guard deployment, Clare relives the death and destruction caused by the missiles she dropped from her helicopter. In her nightmares she is tormented by the counterpoint of scriptures she regularly reads to her congregation as part of the liturgy – “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” While in-country she had taken uppers, downers, and pain pills, and had become addicted to them.

Upon her return she had continued with them, as well as drinking heavily, so that she could continue to function as a priest and partner to Russ in investigating murders connected to her parishioners. She has withheld her psychological state from Russ, because, as she said to herself, “If I tell him, I’ll have to stop.”

Her unintentional pregnancy is made known to her after she takes a confidential blood test for drug use. Deciding to proceed with her pregnancy, she immediately stops the pills and alcohol, and must wait to see how her unborn child will be affected.

Part of the plot is that Clare becomes part of a VA counseling group comprised of Tally McNab who feels guilty because of an in-country affair, Will Ellis, who lost both legs 2 months into his tour, Eric McRea, who was a Military Policeman who was persuaded to perpetrate bad things against prisoners and now feels terrible, and Dr. Trip Stillman, who sustained a TBI while deployed in a forward surgical team.

The group experiences one suicide (Tally) and one attempted suicide (Will). Dr. Stillman says, “I’ve been in carry-on mode since I diagnosed my TBI, trying to keep a stiff upper lip.” Tally saw herself as a damaged soldier as well as suffering guilt from her involvement in a crime. 

Will’s mother tells Clare, after her son’s suicide attempt, “I don’t think it’s his mind. I think his soul has been wounded, and souls are your profession.” Russ himself has suffered moral injury and tells Clare that together they can get through anything. He reminds her that “we don’t get what we deserve, we get what we’re given, and second and third chances.” 

Traditionally seeking help and talking about one’s feelings has not been a high priority for veterans. Thankfully the “good little soldier” attitude and hiding depression have changed somewhat since this book was published in 2011. Many voices are researching moral injury, PTSD, and Traumatic Brain Injury. Reading this book and the others in the series has broadened my understanding of the harms our soldiers have suffered and also the hope which is growing for treatment and a return to well-being for them, their families, and the community.

Susan Sganga is the Media Specialist for Moral Injury Support Network for Servicewomen, Inc. and is a public health specialist located in North Carolina. She can be reached at 704-254-1548 or su.sganga691@wingate.edu.

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