There are several tropes related to combat and the effects thereof on the human psyche. In America in particular, each generation's tropes are defined by the wars they fought in. From shellshock to PTSD, there are any number of ways to portray a character who's having a rough time with their war experience. Most of them, from the perspective of those who have been there, are wrong. Or, if not wrong, ill-informed or poorly portrayed. Take PTSD, for instance. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the boogeyman of the GWOT generation. It's become a byword for writers who want to explain why a particular character is, for lack of the better word, an nerf herder. Send them off to war, lose a few of their buddies and BOOM! Instant drama. Carte blanche to be everything from a villain to a troubled, angsty protagonist. It's cheap, it's easy, and audiences eat it up. Nevermind that the handful of veterans who made it to the end of The Hurt Locker without shutting off their TVs in disgust tend to hate it with unbridled passion, Oscar baiters gonna Oscar bait.

Star Wars, being far more space opera with fantasy aspirations than hard science fiction, tends to treat the subject as a nonissue. Thrilling heroics don't leave much time for navel gazing. There's no need for your characters to worry about things like combat stress when they're not so much characters as archetypes with backstory. If any of our heroes suffer ongoing mental issues as a result of their time on the frontlines of a galactic war, well, that's stuff for authors to handle between the movies. Lightsabers go voom, blasters go pew, bad guys go boom fall down. Make a billion dollars then move onto the next blockbuster.

That works just as well in a collaborative, persistent written environment such as Chaos. Plenty of characters live and, occasionally die, by the Rule of Cool. Nothing wrong with that at all. Rule of Cool is what attracts people to write Star Wars stuff in the first place. You can do whatever you want, more or less, and handwave it off with space magic. The Force, technobabble, it doesn't really matter. It's sufficiently advanced enough from our perspective that it's mostly just space magic, and that's fine. Be the best Jedi or Sith or bounty hunter or politician you can be, and have a blast while doing it. Psychological angst is optional.

But, on the off chance that you want to take that option, here are a few tips for avoiding the worst of the stereotypes that arise from combat stress and related mental illnesses. With it comes the disclaimer that I am in no way, shape, or form, a mental health expert, and if you're experiencing any issues related to trauma, do not hesitate to seek help. Seeking help doesn't make you weak, and trust me, it makes life a whole lot easier.

  1. Trauma is subjective, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not universal. Not everyone who joins the military will get PTSD. Not everyone who experiences combat, even heavy combat, will get it. On the flip side, PTSD doesn't just affect combat veterans. Survivors of sexual assault, abusive relationships, random acts of violence, car crashes, and all manner of other things, can end up with PTSD. If PTSD isn't universal, it's also not up for anyone else to say what is and isn't traumatic. Getting PTSD doesn't make you weak. Not getting it doesn't make you strong. I've known people who were deeply disturbed by the idea that their actions, indirectly, contributed to the death of others. I've known guys who dropped bodies like nobody's business who never lost a wink of sleep over it. I've also seen guys who had no problem dropping bodies go to pieces because a friend got hurt. Trauma is subjective.
  2. Everyone experiences trauma differently, but most learn to cope. The idea of the loner who just couldn't adjust to society after coming back from the war is a seductive one for writers. Most of us have seen Rambo. First Blood Pt 1 was a compelling metaphor for the struggles of Vietnam vets who felt abandoned by their country after going off to fight and die for it, but realistically speaking? Guys like Rambo who can't hack it and just want to be left alone are a minority. And even then, they didn't come back like that. They tend to end up that way because of inadequate support. Untreated mental illness is a rampant problem among the veteran community and survivors of trauma in general because there's just not enough resources to deal with it. Even so, worst case scenarios that end in reckless behavior, homelessness, and suicide are relatively uncommon. Depression and anxiety are the most common expressions. Some amount of dependence on substances, namely nicotine, alcohol, and pot, are all fairly common, but again, not universal. On the flip side, you've also got folks who take their experiences and use that as fuel for success. Bottom line is, most of the folks who have to deal with trauma end up alright in the end. Some better than others, to be sure, but the ones who completely self destruct are the exception rather than the rule.
  3. Combat stress is its own thing. It's rare, in this day and age, for soldiers to experience months and years at a time in active combat. Now that we better understand what that does to people, we tend to try not to keep folks on the sharp end for too long. Nonetheless, combat stress still exists, and surprisingly, it's not all that hard to get right. Unlike PTSD, which can be maddeningly vague from a writer's perspective, combat stress manifests in fairly predictable ways. Irritability is chief among them. The longer you spend in a combat zone, the shorter your temper tends to get. You might arrive at your base in good spirits, surrounded by friends, but you'll probably leave hating everyone's guts. Minor annoyances become major issues. Major issues become grounds for looking for a quiet patch of land to bury a body. In a situation where aggression becomes a valuable commodity, everyone tends to get more and more aggressive. Again, this isn't universal; there's always that one douchebag who just doesn't seem to be bothered by anything, but you'll be fairly well convinced that they're a psycho after a few weeks. A group of dudes in a situation like that becomes a pressure cooker, and if they don't find some way to blow off steam, they'll explode on each other. Fortunately, in an area where combat stress is prevalent, there's, you know, combat. You can vent pretty effectively on the enemy. The group's humor also tends to mutate into the pitch black/gallows variety. It gets harder and harder to sleep, because deep sleep can get you killed, and alertness is at a premium. This increases reliance on caffeine and nicotine, which in turn just makes everyone more jittery and irritable. It's a vicious cycle. Fatalistic viewpoints are also exaggerated. After a certain point, you don't care about incoming if it's not right on top of you. If you die, you die, but you're not gonna waste your precious free time running for your life when you can get caught up on the next season of whatever bootlegged shows you brought with you. With that comes an increased willingness to take risks that would be unacceptable to anyone else, anywhere else. If it's your time to die, it's your time to die. If it happens while you're trying to take a dump, well, you might as well take your gear off so you can be comfortable when it happens.
  4. What most people think of as PTSD are really the aftereffects of combat stress and acclimatization. When you return from the world from a combat tour, you're jittery. Crowds make you uncomfortable, and if you're anxious if you don't have a weapon. Hyperalert and hyperaggressive, you tend to react poorly to sudden loud noises and if someone tries to get in your face, you're apt to pound theirs flat. That, probably, is not PTSD. It's adaptation. It's habit. Coming from a combat environment where you had to constantly be alert, where the slightest hint of violence is met with overwhelming force, you're suddenly thrown into a world at peace and then left to figure out how to readjust to it. Humans are remarkably good at adapting to our environment. We're remarkably bad at discarding useful habits and attitudes just because they stop being useful. You see the same sort of thing with guys who get out of prison after a lengthy sentence. Suddenly, they have to figure out how to live in a world that's alien to the one they've learned to survive, and there's not much in the way of help when it comes to figuring it out. Hell, just about everyone has to deal with that when moving to a more area, but the more extreme the environment you just left, the harder it is to deprogram.
  5. Do your research. If all that sounds really vague and poorly defined, that's because PTSD is poorly defined, especially in pop culture. I've just barely scratched the surface, and if I didn't have a raging headache, I could write a dozen more points and not get all that much deeper. Like I said before: if you want to write a badass space wizard without having to worry about all this mess, go for it. Star Wars is about being awesome, and RP is about having fun. Be as awesome and have as much fun as you want. But, if you're going to dive into this side of things, do yourself, and anyone you write with, a favor. Eschew the stereotypes, do a little digging, and present the issues that arise from PTSD and combat stress in a way that suits your writing and your character. If nothing else, binge some good shows and movies. No, not The Hurt Locker. Start off with Generation Kill and OP Restrepo. Band of Brothers and The Pacific also do a pretty decent job of portraying combat stress. The worst that can happen is you see some really good shows and get a new perspective on things.