Kathleen Korbel’s A Soldier’s Heart:
Over 20 years earlier, in a war-torn foreign land, an unnamed nurse had struggled valiantly to pull Tony Riordan away from the brink of death. She’d given him a most precious gift—the will to live. And now Tony could see the confusion in Claire Henderson’s eyes, could see her struggle with the same nightmare images that had haunted him for years.
Claire Henderson had saved his life, and it was time to return the favor. As a marine sergeant and an army nurse, they’d shared the same overwhelming emotions and uncontrollable rage. But he had learned to handle the horror, while her soldier’s heart was breaking beneath her woman’s soul.
Though romance heroes suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are common in the genre, in both contemporary and historical settings, it’s rare to find a heroine with the same issue. Kathleen Korbel’s A Soldier’s Heart features Claire Henderson, who served in Vietnam as a nurse. She suffered serious trauma there but, as women continue to do even today, suppressed or ignored her own symptoms for years in favor of caring for others. She’s a practical, forthright, strong character who has trouble accepting that she might in turn need help.
The hero of the novel, Tony Riordan, found it easier to have his PTSD addressed and treated because he had been a soldier, and soldiers were easily visible as sufferers from PTSD. He’s not your typical romance novel hero. He was a sergeant in the army, not a dashing officer or Special Ops operative. He’s not movie-star handsome. What he does have, which Claire needs, is shared experience and a firm belief that Claire’s wartime experiences are equivalent to his own.
When Claire finally admits her problem to Tony, and breaks down, it’s heartwrenching. She’s been so strong, but now she has someone to lean on, if only she can let herself. Even as she confesses her pain to him, she tries to blame herself for her emotions.
“A rocket hit our ward,” she said. “Humbug threw himself on me to protect me. He was killed. I held him in my arms, but he was already dead.”
“What about Jimmy?”
She shrugged. “He died, too. He was going to die anyway. I should have known better, just like everybody said.”
Tony wrapped his arms around her so she didn’t have to feel the wind, so the gulls didn’t sound so lost. She still wept. “Just like Humbug said.”
“How old was Jimmy, Claire?”
“Eighteen. Jimmy was eighteen. He died on his birthday.”
…Tony held her, but he couldn’t help her. He murmured to her, but she stood deaf, her body shaking with the memory of the one boy who had been too much. An eighteen-year-old who had died on his birthday, and Claire left behind to hold her friend in her arms…Tony… just held Claire in his arms and let his heart break. He’d seen what she’d brought with her from that old steamer trunk. …Her medals. Her service ribbons. …
Tony understood. The day he’d come home from Vietnam, he’d closed up his ribbons and medals in a box and left them in the bottom drawer of his mother’s breakfront. He hadn’t worn them on his service uniform for the rest of his tour or brought them out on Veterans Day. He hadn’t even had the courage to look at them for another fifteen years.
“Now you know,” she said, her voice flat and empty. “You know why I didn’t want to see you, why I’ve avoided The Wall like the plague. Why I’d rather just get on with my life and leave the rest where it belongs. Not a very worthy story, but all I have.”
We the readers know that Claire and her experiences are just as worthy as Tony’s experiences, but the painful part is how realistic it is that she can’t accept her own worth. She’s spent too long suffering alone to see clearly. It takes Tony, someone who’s had similar traumas, to be able to hear both what she’s saying and what she isn’t saying; it takes someone like Tony to make her listen to him and accept his point of view.
The best part of this story is that it doesn’t follow the path you might expect. A lesser novel might solve Claire’s problems in a blink, or simplify Tony’s motives and feelings, or Claire’s. I love how complex their relationship becomes. With every twist and turn, I become more invested in them as both individuals and as a couple, because they aren’t perfect, but they keep trying, again and again.
She all but shoved him away. “You got me confused with a voice you heard a long time ago.”
“No, I didn’t.” He reached out to her, caught hold before she could get away. “I found someone I hadn’t expected at all.”
Unexexpected love. Delicious.
Have you read this book? Which are your favorite PTSD-damaged character books?
Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her World War One-set Spice Brief, May 2012, is titled “Under Her Uniform” and is a tie-in to her novel The Moonlight Mistress. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.