10 Things Writers Should Know About Writing Military Characters

Hey Ya’ll,

Before I begin to blather my 3rd grade dribble across the wonderfully pure pages of Annie’s site; I would like to thank her for her generosity in allowing me access to the airwaves. I would like to also thank all of you for caring enough about your writing to give this list a glance. I hope you find it useful, if you would like to ask more detailed questions, please contact me at robakers19@gmail.com

1.) In today’s age, no one was drafted.

The draft was abolished in the early 1970s so anyone who had been drafted has already retired. But that isn’t true of other nations or worlds (especially if you’re writing fantasy), so it is perfectly acceptable to have a character who was drafted or one who volunteered.

 

2.) Rank is based on experience and merit.

The rank structure is broken into two categories. Actually, it can be three but we should keep it simple for now. The junior ranks are the Enlisted ranks. The Officer ranks are the leadership structure of the military. Note that I am not listing the names for these ranks because it varies between the individual services. Generally speaking, the higher one progresses up the rank ladder, the less time they spend in the field and the more time they spend in an office making command decisions.

If your character is someone who needs to be in the action; make them a squad leader of 8-12 men with a mid-level Enlisted rank. If they are in command 30 men, make them platoon leader as a junior officer. If they are in command 200 men make them company commander as a mid-level Officer. If they are in command of the battalion of 1000 men or in command of an entire ship, they need to be a high-ranking officer but below the level of a General. In the modern military, Generals do not lead from the front and Privates do not make strategic decisions like authorizing the release of nuclear weapons.

 

3.) Nearly 99.9% of the Officer ranks have a college degree, but a vast majority of the Enlisted members also have a college degree.

The difference is that a college degree is a requirement to become an Officer while most Enlisted folks get their degrees after they join. There is a thing called a battlefield promotion. It isn’t a common practice in today’s military, but in World War II, it was not uncommon for exceptional Enlisted members to be promoted on the front lines to an Officer position. A common drinking toast of the junior officers of the British Navy is called the Ensign’s toast. They hold their drink up and offer a salute before they drink “To Death, War, and Famine.” At that time, the only way that they could progress up the ranks of command was for someone higher ranking to die.

 

4.) Not everyone has been shot at.

In fact, the actual number of people who have heard a bullet wiz by their head is relatively low. The vast majority of those who serve in the military have not been in combat. That doesn’t mean that their service is any less meaningful, just that they don’t have that experience even if they served in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is okay to have a character who served in Afghanistan for an entire year and never was in danger. Or you could have a character who was injured during their first encounter in combat. In Vietnam, the average life expectancy of a 1st Lieutenant in combat was nineteen seconds. If they survived that first day, then the odds were that they would survive the entire war.

plane-taking-off

Kuwait, winter 2004 with a C-130 taking off in background.

 

5.) Not everyone who has served will have PTSD, but PTSD is very real and it takes on many different forms.

The forms of PTSD are different and vary widely depending on the individual. Even two people who served side by side for the entire war can have different reactions to their shared experiences. I would not say that I have PTSD, but like clockwork, I become irritable with a vague sense of nerves every March. And it magically goes away in May. Usually my wife notices it first and will remind me of the date, and from that point on, I am able to control the feelings. But they are there, and they are very real. I know people who saw real combat and have no issues and others who have deeper issues. PTSD is a mental health issue, and if you choose to give your character this issue, it is okay if the cause is not something tragic. Ask any mother if they jump when they hear a baby cry. Ask them if they feel a need to aid that child. Ask them if they feel an internal sense of dread when they hear that cry. That is a common form of PTSD.

military-temp

Outside the tent in Qatar, June 2003. The temperature was almost 140 degrees.

 

6.) A military member is a regular person.

They can have any belief system that you chose to give them. They can be an atheist or extremely religious. They can be conservative or liberal. They can be heterosexual or homosexual. They can be tall or short. Fat or slim. For the most part, they will be in a descent physical condition as most handicaps or severe childhood diseases will eliminate them from service. But I know military members who recovered from cancer or had a traumatic battlefield injury. The thing to know is that they had to demonstrate an ability to perform all the tasks required for their job before they can return to service. Strokes, heart attacks, and diabetes are generally disqualifying events.

Your character can have any believe system that you choose. But the farther from the norm that you make them, then the more they will have to deal with their fellow teammates. I am sure there is an individual who is an ultra-liberal, homosexual, Christian, Navy SEAL. But that person would not only be rare, but they would get a lot of grief from their teammates. They would constantly be mocked, teased, and mentally abused. However, the only thing that his teammates would really care about is if the SEAL in question can do their job without hesitation. Because as much as you think it matters, all they really care about is if they can be trusted in the middle of a fight.

 

7.) Asking a young soldier to charge a hill requires a mentally that doesn’t exist in the civilian world.

The young soldiers have to be accepting of the fact that their life is meaningless when compared with the fate of the entire Army. They are taught in boot camp about the heroics of those who died in the past. These heroes have buildings named after them. They have camps named after them and entire bases named after them. They live on in history because they made the ultimate sacrifice. The men and women in boot camp are taught that to have eternal honor they must make eternal actions. The beginning of that process is to strip away the individual and promote the collective. That is why everyone in the military wears the same type of clothing, marches the same, salutes the same, and has all the other outward appearances of similarity.

 

8.) Every one in the military is different from their peers in some way.

There is a pack mentality among with the military, and that pack will attack any perceived weakness. In the civilian world, we would call it bullying. In the military, it would be called training. Everyone gets picked on because it is a rite of passage, and it is a test to see how they react to stress. If a person cannot take a cutting insult, then how will they react when their life is in danger?

 

9.) Most everyone has a nickname or a call sign.

This can take many forms, and it is not gender neutral either. I know of a lady who had a bad hair day and earned the name “Wolfie.” Sometimes, the name is given quickly based on their last name. Someone with the name of Bob Smith might be called “B.S.” or “Smithy.” Or their name might come from something they did. I have a friend called “Sleepy” because when he drinks alcohol, he tends to fall asleep.

 

10.) The men and women of the military don’t fight for big goals like freedom, democracy, or justice.

They might go to battle for something heroic and noble like one of these causes. But when the bullets start flying, they fight for only one thing: each other. That is the only reason that matters because their survival is dependent on the people in the fight. This is the only reason why one person would lay their life down for someone else. When I was in Iraq, I was in charge of a crew comprised of a wild-eyed southern boy, an African-American homosexual, a super smart atheist, a stanch Southern Baptist, and a self-proclaimed thief.

The six of us were together for 24/7 for six months straight. We slept eighteen inches apart, we showered together, we ate together, we laughed together, and we cried together. Never have I been closer to a group of people before or since. That was because we allowed each other to be individuals with respect. There was no topic that was off limits for discussion, but there was an understanding that we might not agree. But we depended on everyone else to do their job as professionals. We were a machine that accomplished every mission, and we returned with honor. But the truth is that we did everything to the best of our ability because we didn’t want to let down the other five men.

 

There you go. The top ten things that you need to know to write a convincing military character. Please, email me when you have questions.

 

Until next time, keep on rockin.

Rob

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About Robert Akers

Robert Akers holds a Bachelor Degree in Psychology from Arkansas State University and a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Memphis. He began flying airplanes in 1991 before joining the West Virginia Air National Guard in 1995. He traveled to five continents and was deployed to Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan as an Instructor Pilot. He left the military in 2008 at the rank of Major with four Air Medals, Five Aerial Achievement Medals, two Meritorious Service Medals, and two Humanitarian Medals among others. He is currently a 757 pilot with a major airline. He makes his home in West Virginia with his wife, two children, two cats, and one dog.

 

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