“Military Veterans in Crime Fiction” (by Stacy Woodson)

Stacy Woodson’s professional fiction debut, the story “Duty, Honor, Hammett,” appears in EQMM’s current issue, November/December 2018—which just went on sale yesterday! Further stories will appear in EQMM (sometime in 2019), in the Malice Domestic anthology Mystery Most Edible (also in 2019), and in Chesapeake Crimes: Invitation to Murder (2020). In 2017, she won the Daphne du Maurier Award for best romantic suspense, in the single-title, unpublished category, and she was a finalist for the 2016 Killer Nashville Claymore Award for unpublished novel. The author is a U.S. Army veteran and she tells EQMM that memories of her time in the military are a source of inspiration for her stories. She takes up that topic in this post. When she’s not writing fiction, Stacy contributes to DIY MFA and reviews for Publishers Weekly.—Janet Hutchings

I served in Army Special Operations units, deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and survived the Pentagon (which is a combat tour of another kind). It’s been years since I hung up my uniform and transitioned to the private sector, but it’s still the military voices I hear when I write. I’m sure my background is part of the reason. Most of my life I’ve been surrounded by the military—as a soldier, in my job as a civilian, as a military spouse. These experiences have shaped my worldview, and this is my comfort zone. But there is also a part of me that believes there exists a depth and a richness to post-9/11 veteran characters that hasn’t been fully explored in crime fiction.

Female Characters

The post 9/11 generation has a perspective on war that’s different from others. Our country has been fighting for almost two decades, and there are more female combat veterans than in any other conflict. Women have deployed with Special Forces units, flown combat missions, patrolled the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan. And for the first time since World War II, two women are Silver Star Medal recipients—the third highest combat decoration for valor.

Arduous military schools, once exclusive to men, are now open to women. Ranger School, a combat leadership course on small-unit tactics—notorious for their high attrition rate—recently had its first group of female graduates.

Both Army Special Forces and Navy Sea, Air, and Land teams (SEALs) have opened billets to women. And combat branches, once closed to women, are open to all qualified service members.

Now, more than ever, there is space in crime fiction for female characters with warrior skill sets traditionally seen in male characters.

But what’s even more interesting to explore is how experiences like these shape a female character’s point of view—how they see their environment, relate to their family and friends, process love and loss. And how they bring their unique skill set and perspective to postmilitary occupations in law enforcement, in the private sector, or as criminals.

Criminals

Transition to the civilian world affects veterans differently. Many are able to assimilate, find civilian jobs, and move forward with their lives in a productive and meaningful way. For others, it’s more difficult. Substance abuse, unemployment, and mental-health issues often lead to petty crimes and other criminal activities. Unfortunately, domestic violence can also be a byproduct of war. And still others choose to use skills they attained in the military for criminal endeavors. Sadly for our veterans, the news is filled with examples. But for crime-fiction writers these examples also provide some interesting character studies.

Like the four Army Rangers who robbed a Bank of America in Tacoma, Washington. One intended to use money from the bank robberies to start an outlaw motorcycle gang and take over control of drug trafficking in his area.

Or the three former U.S. Army soldiers who were convicted in a contract killing ordered by an international crime boss.

And then there was the disgruntled soldier separated from his family who wanted to leave the Army and tried to fake his own death by slashing the throat of a man who looked like him and setting his house on fire.

What drives veterans to make these decisions? Is it disillusionment, despair, greed? Any and all of these reasons may apply. I’m sure there are others, too. Crime fiction offers a platform to explore these choices and mindsets through flawed and complex characters.

Victims

Veterans are prey for criminals as well, their benefits often a favorite target.

Veterans, especially the disabled, rely on their benefits as a large portion of their income, and con artists target veterans for bank-account information. The criminal pretends to represent a veteran’s organization and claims the victim’s benefit deposit must be “re-verified” following suspicious activity. The veteran provides the information. The criminal steals the veteran’s identity, changes the direct deposit information, and redirects money.

Data breaches of organizations that hold veteran information are prevalent as well. Recently, the Pentagon had a breach that compromised travel records of civilian and military staff—this included personal information and credit-card data. Data like this is often sold on the black market and used by criminals to make transactions and create fake identities.

On a larger scale, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the human resource arm of the federal government, was hacked—a breach that had massive counterintelligence consequences. Security-clearance files for current, former, and prospective federal employees—many military veterans—were compromised. Information included interviews with a subject’s neighbors, employers, educators, references, and spouses. Record checks with local law enforcement and vulnerability assessments for foreign influence and exploitation were also included.

Crime fiction gives us a platform to explore these issues and vulnerabilities.

More than darkness

More exists in veterans’ lives than the dark trappings of war. There are lighter moments, too. When I’m asked about my military service, the deployments, the military training aren’t what immediately come to mind. It’s the lifelong friendships I’ve forged along the way, and the wacky moments we’ve experienced together.

Like the night a fellow Army officer and I returned from her baby shower and realized we both could field strip an M16 rifle, but assembling a bassinet wasn’t in our wheelhouse.

Or the practical jokes, like one that was played on a soldier in my unit. He was notorious for falling asleep in his car before formation. One morning, his platoon members saran-wrapped the car doors shut, trapping him inside.

And the Halloween deployment to Egypt when one of my soldiers wrapped himself in toilet paper and worked his shift dressed as a mummy.

Stories like these go beyond the trigger-pulling, door-kicking military characters that we often see. They offer insightful (and sometimes humorous) resting moments in crime-fiction stories that may otherwise be dark.

The post 9/11 generation of veterans is diverse—some may argue the most diverse in history. People with different backgrounds, nationalities, education levels, and skill sets have served our country. Their experiences and worldview are unique and pave the way for some interesting fictional characters. I look forward to seeing more post 9/11 veterans in crime-fiction stories.

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One Response to “Military Veterans in Crime Fiction” (by Stacy Woodson)

  1. Enjoyed your point of view on this issue, Stacy. I once had a female captain as my S-2 boss, which in my day (the early eighties) was still unusual. And yes, most of my memories, like yours, are fond ones of my fellow soldiers. Congrats on your story!

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