Q&A: Jack Estes talks about his novel A Soldier's Son

Jack, what inspired you to write A Soldier’s Son?
I had written a well-received book titled A Field of Innocence. It was a memoir of my time as a marine in Vietnam during the height of the war, 1968/69, when over 28,000 Americans were killed. After Warner Books published the mass paperback edition I kept writing and publishing essays primarily about war and the impact it has on veterans and their loved ones. In 2006, I retired from my career in commercial real estate and had more time to write. I took classes on screenwriting. I wrote a screenplay called A Soldier’s Son, which won a few contests and some money but the script never sold. I liked the story so much, I began writing it as a novel. It was cathartic for me. I was able to look at my pain and memories with better clarity and understanding, which helps me deal with my PTSD symptoms. 

What message do you hope readers will be left with?
A Soldier’s Son is a tumultuous love story, between a father suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and his son. I hope to create an understanding of what PTSD is and the negative impact war has on soldiers, their families and communities. War will change soldiers in dark and dangerous ways. This struggle is often a lifelong battle that may never end. War, too, is generational. I want A Soldier’s Son to convey an antiwar message, not just from the brutal scenes of battle but in revealing the interior thoughts and changes that happen to soldiers and their families. I want readers to see how a family experiences their father’s pain.   

Your novel shows how many veterans of all wars, including Vietnam and Iraq, suffer from PTSD.  What can be done to help the men and women who returned home damaged after serving their country?
First of all we need to love them and show appreciation for their sacrifices. We need to approach those in uniform and say thank them for their service. We need to advocate for increased awareness of veterans issues in all of media. We need to provide job training, free education, free medical care at any hospital and a lifelong pension for combat veterans. We need to bring more veterans into high schools and colleges to share their experiences. We need to be more patriotic with displays of our heroic military like in WWII. Veteran’s stories of courage should be promoted as a high ideal and available on a larger scale, through libraries and as curriculum in schools. 

You initially created The Fallen Warriors Foundation to help yourself heal from serving in the Vietnam War. What exactly has the foundation been doing for the past 20+ years?
In 1993, my wife and I and our two young children, traveled to Vietnam carrying medical and educational supplies and toys. My wife felt I could replace memories of carrying a machine gun with those of carrying toys and books. I also reconnected with a Vietnamese man who saved my life. From that trip my wife Colleen and I created the Fallen Warriors Foundation. I led several more annual missions of mercy, to the villages I had once served in. One year I lead a group of Drs. and nurses to work in remote villages and run down hospitals, serving the poorest of the poor. On another trip I led a group of disabled veterans back. We held 15 years of annual silent retreats led by a former soldier who is a Zen Buddhist Monk. We held PTSD circles for couples in our home. We lectured at prisons, colleges, high schools and community events. In 2013 FWF produced a documentary on PTSD and coproduced a documentary on how PTSD is dealt with in combat. We are planning a retreat in 2016.

A Soldier’s Son shows how every generation needs to make its own choices, but it seems all too often that the next generation repeats or reacts to what our parents did.  Why does that keep happening?
Because we live in a dangerous world where real threats to our country exist. Our current conflicts deal with Islamic terrorism, spawned from elements of a religion that wants to take over the world. Their twisted ideology is unaccepting of any other beliefs. All wars also have a political bent and corruption, followed by a conflicted society, where some believe war is wrong and some believe it’s right. We also fight to democratize countries, to protect allies and gain power. Individually we fight because our fathers and grandfathers fought and in the case of Vietnam, many fought because they were forced to because of the draft. WWII had real enemies like Japan and Germany, which were a direct threat to freedom. 911 spawned another generation of real enemies, Islamic terrorists.   

How much of you is in this book? 
Many authors draw from their own personal stories that weave their way into a novel. In A Soldier’s Son I have lived portions of my life like the main character Mike. Like Mike, I too fought in the jungles and rice fields of Vietnam and saw young marines die and I have killed the enemy. That impacted my spirit and psyche in much the same way it has on Mike. I too have a family who lives with the pain associated with war. Mike deals with his pain in some of the ways I did, and has some of the dark thoughts I had. And I am a writer, like Mike is. I also stopped punching people out when I started punching the keyboard. And I have a son old enough to go to war. Those are some of the things Mike and I have in common.

Your book is not just about war, but the unbreakable yet conflicted bond fathers have with their sons.  What advice do you have for fathers and their children to not only co-exist but thrive in their relationship with each other?
I love my son. When he was a young boy, I felt he was like the innocence I lost in Vietnam. I have shielded him from the idea that war is heroic, even though, at times it is. I tell him I love him every day I see him or hear his voice. I have memorized how his body has changed, when I have hugged him over the years. He’s a man now, of course and I appreciate his talents and creativity and dreams. And I have made mistakes. But we stay committed to each other because we talk. And listen. That’s my advice.

What do you want people to remember about the Vietnam War?
I would like those who protested the war, to remember how divided and vocal they were, in their shameful objections and rejection of our soldiers. I want them to understand that soldiers who fought in Vietnam, fought with great courage and determination in a very difficult environment. And when they came home they brought with them the nightmares and horrific moments of the war. I want people to remember that Vietnam veterans were the first soldier’s in our history to be vilified and denigrated for fighting for our country. And that only deepened the nightmares and oppression. Vietnam veterans suffered through this pain and in doing so, paved the way for future soldiers to be honored and healed.    

Is the War on Terror – in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria similar to Vietnam? 
Of course. All wars share the same kind of courage, sacrifices, terror, and brutality. All wars have senseless dying and men praying to God not to die. And every war has heroes and cowards and great love and connection with fellow soldiers. Soldiers always come from all walks of life, from the poorly educated to Ivy League graduates. Although now educational standards have been raised for our all volunteer army. All wars trade in deceit and lies and political ambition. There is great waste of men and equipment and morale character. And there is emotional pain for soldiers and their loved ones that may never heal.     

A Soldier’s Son presents the impact of war on families.  Do the people at home fully heal from what they go through?
No they do not. Does anyone ever fully heal when they are grievously traumatized. Or when their loved one is damaged. Pain has no sense of time. We have seen that in the veterans family retreats Fallen Warriors Foundation has held. Family members must learn to adapt to their veterans intense anxiety, emotional outbursts, mood swings and anniversary dates, like when they were wounded or a friend was killed. I think the pain can ease and they can learn how to cope, if their veteran seeks healing. But horrific memories and the emotions connected with them never really end. 

Your book is an award-winning screenplay of the same name.  Why did you write a novel as a follow-up to your debut book, a memoir, A Field of Innocence?
I have written for years about war. Mostly about Vietnam, the events and the impact it has on veterans and their families. I created this screenplay as an extension of my interest concerning those same issues. When the play did not sell, I decided to write the novel, A Soldier’s Son.  As a veteran who is very lucky to have survived, I have always thought my purpose in life was to help veterans. My writing is one way of doing so. At the same time, writing helps me explore my issues and grow in my understanding of what pain is - The pain I suffered and created.  

Do you regret volunteering for war at the age of 18?  What advice would you give someone’s son if he was of fighting age?
I do not regret enlisting. However, I had no real concept of war. I didn’t know where Vietnam was, let alone what we were fighting for. Back then I was flunking out of college, my girlfriend was pregnant and with no money or job, I joined the marines. I thought that the military would pay for the hospital bills for our baby. I felt joining would give me time to grow up and figure out my life. I didn’t think of dying. My biggest fear was getting shot in the face. If a young person feels they would like to serve their country, then do so. They should first look carefully at each branch of the military and decide which one offers them the best training and education for their future goals. Not every soldier carries a rifle.

You eventually went back to Vietnam in the 1990s.  What were you hoping to find?
I wanted to find healing from my emotional pain. My wife and I and our young children traveled there in 1993. My wife encouraged me to go, thinking I could go back into my  pain and move through it. I also wanted to return to the village I had lived in, and find a Vietnamese soldier that had helped save my life. It felt like going back in time. Not much had changed. It was still a third world country, full of poor, desperate people. The bomb pitted mountains and napalmed countryside had been greened over. The village I lived in had not changed. I met the man who saved me and learned the fate of other villagers I knew, which helped me.

You’ve been advocating for veterans ever since you were a national college speech champion. Why isn’t enough being done to get veterans the help they need?
Sadly for veterans when they come home the war is not over it, in many cases it has only just begun. Our country wants to help, but veteran’s issues are less important than when war was raging and on TV every night. We know less about when a veteran’s facility is failing, than we know more about the amount of dead and wounded. Our homeless veteran population and unemployment situation is hidden and forgotten. All of this adds to a lack of care for veterans. In addition, with a volunteer army, people are removed from caring because it doesn’t impact them.      

Your book seems to have an anti-war message, yet you show the glory of heroic fighters as well.  How do we move towards a world without war?
I don’t think we will ever have a world without war. Now that we are fighting a twisted religious ideology, peace is becoming more allusive. If we as a country are not militarily stronger and more diligent we could end up victims of a catastrophic nuclear attack. Radical Islam is the biggest threat to peace. Perhaps if we provided more help with the world’s poverty and starvation we could build more and stronger allies. If we could share our medical and educational advances and help build industries in other countries, that would lift more people out of poverty, make them aware of a broader world and lead to a more peaceful world.