Jun 7 2012 4:00pm

The PTSD Breakdown Scene in Kathleen Korbel’s A Soldier’s Heart

A Soldier’s Heart by Kathleen KorbelKathleen 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

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
This sounds really really interesting, thanks, Victoria. As you said, it's rare to see a heroine with PTSD. The only one that comes to mind right away is actually from a TV show--NBC's long-canceled Mercy, which I enjoyed very much.
Victoria Janssen
2. VictoriaJanssen
@redline, this is one of my favorite category romances ever.
6. EvangelineHolland
This brings to mind my sudden revelation that Memorial Day always focuses on male veterans, almost erasing the presence of women--as though nurses, cooks, ambulance drivers, etc weren't "real" veterans because they weren't on the front line. The cover is scary (he looks like her father!), but I'm intrigued by a heroine suffering from PTSD.
Rose In RoseBear
7. Rose In RoseBear
I remember this novel ... Kathleen Korbel's novels always stuck with you!

@Evangeline ... it's because Memorial Day is for those who have perished in war, mostly men. But, yes, there have been women who died, most of them nurses until recently. Here's a list to add to our never-forgets.

I think Mary Balogh is going to touch on this in her new series ... it seems that Imogen, Lady Barclay, has seen a few too many things in war, even though she wasn't a combatant. Also, the excellent series Rescue Me by Kallypso Masters promises to tell the story of a (female) Marine veteran of Afghanistan who's coping with her issues by acting as a Domme in a BDSM club owned by her (male) former comrades-in-arms.
Victoria Janssen
8. VictoriaJanssen
@EvangelineHolland, I am pretty sure there is an in-print hardcover edition of the novel with a different, very basic cover. I've seen it available online.
Rose In RoseBear
9. LynneW
Korbel's story is on my keeper shelf. Another one I treasure is
Jayne Ann Krentz's ALL NIGHT LONG, featuring both a hero (decorated Marine who just got out of the service) and heroine (17 years ago, at 15, she was first on the scene of her parents alleged murder-suicide) with PTSD. It's a very sympathetic portrayal.
Rose In RoseBear
11. JacquiC
There is a Ruth Wind category title from somewhere in the distant past called "Reckless", which is part of a series. This particular instalment of the series has a hero who is suffering from PTSD. I remember thinking it was really well done. I generally like this author's voice. Ignore the awfulness of the covers for this series though. I think they achieve a new standard of hideousness.
Saundra Peck
12. sk1336
I am always glad to see PTSD dealt with in a responsible and relateable way, especially for women. Too many times men just see the symptoms in women as "typical girl craziness and hormones", and women shut it down in order to continue to nurture others. The damage done by this syndrome is silent until it is devastating...keep up the great work H&H, your choices are awesome and so important. Talking and sharing is very important to us all.
Victoria Janssen
13. VictoriaJanssen
@JacquiC - I loved Reckless!

And thanks, @sk1336 - I agree.
Michelle Roberts
14. mgallagherroberts
A really great book on this subject and I think fairly realistic is "Her Perfect Life" by Vicki Hinze. Not an easy read but really great.
Rose In RoseBear
15. SassyT
Susan Mallery did a book (I think it was Barefoot Season...may have gotten the title wrong) about a female army vet with PTSD (in addition to being wounded in Iraq). I thought she did a good job on it. The non-sleeping and drinking were definitely true (or drinking in order to sleep without remembering). The ending was a little too neat and clean but the PTSD side of the story I thought she did a great job on.
Victoria Janssen
16. VictoriaJanssen
@mgallagherroberts, I have not read the Hinze - thanks so much for the rec.

@SassyT, I haven't read the Mallery, either! Thanks!
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