Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Traumas and Temptations of a Military Life: Jessica Scott's ALL FOR YOU

Romance novels are rife with military heroes, particularly those belonging to elite special operations forces. As military romance writer Kaylea Cross notes about the appeal of the subgenre, "writing about men and women who stand up for what they believe in, serve their country with honor and who are willing to do whatever it takes to protect the lives of their teammates and loved ones—come on, what's not to love about that?" Fighting men are sexy, military romances assert; fighting men who rise to the top of the military are sexy super-sized.

Most military romances I've encountered are of two types. The first type typically features an elite military group protecting the country (or the world) from a major threat while one of their members simultaneously protects a threatened loved one. The second focuses less on the heroics, and more about their aftermath; in these books, military men (or, less often, women) who have been injured or traumatized in some way by their war experiences learn to adjust to civilian life while they also fall in love. It's far more rare, I think, to tell a story like the one career army officer and romance writer Jessica Scott creates in her latest romance: a story that depicts active-duty soldiers dealing with trauma while still a part of the military.

In her "Dear Reader" note at the end of All For You, Scott is careful to explain that "this book is not meant as an indictment of our men and women in uniform or the military that we serve or the thousands of leaders who do the right thing every day and try to take care of their soldiers" (Kindle Loc 3777). A necessary caveat, given the often dysfunctional organization in which Scott places her two troubled protagonists, Sergeant Reza Icaconelli and Captain Emily Lindberg. Bad enough that half Iranian, half Italian Reza "look[s] like every stereotype of jihadi"; bad enough that Reza's commander cares more about stats and paperwork than about his soldiers. What's worse are army shrinks who've never been in combat put in charge of making decisions about which soldiers qualify for psychological help, and which are simply drug addicts or malingerers. Especially when the docs cite privacy regulations as an excuse for not telling Reza what's really up with his men. It's enough to drive a man to drink—especially one who's spent most of his adult life half-toasted, except when he's actively deployed. Keeping his promise to himself not to drink anymore seems a hell of a lot harder than storming a house filled with Iraqi insurgents...

Reza's especially irked by one particular soldier, Wisniak, a new recruit who keeps running off to the Rest and Resiliency Center even though he's never seen a single day of combat. To Reza's way of thinking, the Center is supposed to be "a place that helped combat veterans heal from the mental wounds of war," not "the new generation's stress card, a place to go when their sergeant was making them work too hard" (113). A place for men like Neal Sloban, who lost his bright laughing eyes and steady trigger finger after his third deployment, all "buried from too many head injuries and no time off from the war,"  (404). That the psych docs shelter Wisniak but seem ready to kick Sloban out of the army infuriates Reza; without his usual pressure-release-value (alcohol), Reza's far too ready to let his temper fly.

And let it fly he does, straight at Captain Emily Lindberg. Emily's life has been as different from Reza's as is fine wine from cheap beer. Growing up as the daughter of privileged white doctors, Emily hardly imagined making a career for herself in the army. Until she toured a VA hospital, that is, and saw the sadness and red tape standing in the way of military men and women desperately in need of mental health care. And after an engagement gone bad, that's just where Emily finds herself, rebelling against her privileged background and the wishes of her parents to serve her country and its fighting women and men. Making a difference is what Emily wants to do, but dealing with the army bureaucracy, and, even worse, with the "rampant hostility and incessant chest beating" of many of the arrogant army commanders makes her faith in the system weaker by the day. Just how much of a difference can she make when all she seems to be doing is putting out one fire after another?

From their first meeting, Reza and Emily regard each other as the enemy. Captain Lindberg is keeping Reza from helping his men; Sergeant Iaconelli is just another example of the arrogant asshat military man, unconcerned about his men. But as they are forced into each other's company, each gradually begins to realize that there's more to the other than first appearances suggested. And when the trauma of war makes an unexpected visit stateside, Reza and Emily find themselves taking much-needed comfort in one another.

Active-duty suicide rates at Fort Hood are the highest in the army, Emily notes early in the novel. Though Scott never articulates this directly, her depiction of life at Texas's Fort Hood (where she herself twice served as a company commander) makes it clear that the military's construction of ideal masculinity—stoic, aggressive, and above all willing to repress all emotional hurt—lies at the heart of many a soldier's unwillingness to admit weakness, or to ask for help when emotional trauma threatens to overwhelm him. Soldiers will find a way to deal with their emotional distress, Scott's story asserts, but the majority of their coping mechanisms—alcohol, sex, drugs, self-injury—will only lead to greater harm.

At one point in the novel, Reza describes combat as "the most potent of drugs," "a heady marriage of fear and adrenaline and death" which "rewired the brain like nothing else. And his blood was now hardwired to need the fix" (616). Part of why romance readers enjoy military romance is to vicariously experience this heady drug without ever risking becoming addicted.  Scott's romance is a heartfelt call for romance readers who idealize the military's members to recognize that the fix exacts a high cost from many real-life military men and women. Allowing such warriors a time-out, a space in which they can admit their weaknesses and ask for help, doesn't seem too much to ask in return.

Forever, 2014


  1. Nice to see some reality making its way into military romance. These novels are more fantastical than the vampire stuff sometimes.

    1. Yes, I agree. Fantasy is great, but ONLY fantasy hides the true difficulties and the true heroism of those in the military.