As a veteran and author, I’ve read simplified advice warning that just changing a character’s gender doesn’t accurately portray soldiers who are not traditionally male. One reflex is to add too many feminine characteristics and subtract too many masculine ones.
Many events and experiences cause soldiers to lose traits attributed to femininity and acquire those attributed to masculinity. The degree of change varies from soldier to soldier.
Military jobs require quick action and suppression of other actions that might interfere with completing tasks. Regardless of gender, soldiers perform the same jobs and have the same responsibilities as any other soldier.
Part of the role of basic training is to forge a personality capable of working when other people are trying to kill you. When writing soldiers consider the following traits that seem common in the population. Does your character have them? To what degree?
- Competitiveness – competition is used as early as basic training to foster teamwork. A soldier’s team is the best team. Nothing anyone does can convince them otherwise, even outscoring them. Something about their team makes it always the best.
- Self-awareness – they are aware of their strengths and weaknesses. When not deployed, soldiers practice and test their skills in preparation for the next deployment. They know the areas they excel in and the areas where they need improvement.
- Problem-solving – making snap decisions in the field leads to the ability to evaluate and act on limited information.
- Persistent – skills and training are repeated over and over until a soldier gets it right. They complete a task until it is done, even if it needs to be repeated. Failure is often not an option.
- Dedicated – they are loyal to and responsible for every member of their team, even the ones they don’t get along with.
- Lively – lessons about the shortness of life come at a young age. They live life to the fullest and have a quick, genuine laugh.
- Stoic – stoicism comes in two forms: emotional, and physical. Giving into emotional weakness could impair a soldier’s ability to function under pressure. Soldiers prepare for the fact that they may have to fight injured. Some soldiers won’t even go to the doctor unless ordered.
- Hyper-awareness – being deployed in a foreign country creates a distrust of surroundings and other people.
- Accountable – everything soldiers are given is signed for, even their food. Losing or damaging the equipment without reason is punishable. The loss or damage of any equipment needs to be explained upon returning from deployment for most equipment. Weaponry loss or damage requires almost immediate explanation.
- Practical – soldiers rely on economy of action. Superfluous acts waste time and can cause failure. Attire and appearance are appropriate for the circumstance. Imagine wearing makeup when your bath comes from a canteen. Short breaks, treating tasks as urgent, and marching gives us an aggressive stride. Even off duty, we often avoid restrictive clothing.
- Appreciative – working in a job where your personal time is of the essence creates recognition of the value of other people’s time. Don’t be surprised when soldiers or veterans thank you multiple times for the same favor.
Unless a task requires a soldier to be undercover, they will be in uniform while on duty. Examples of being on duty include; being deployed to an operation, being on base for training and base support activities, evacuating people and formal military events like passing chain of command.
Training for and being deployed to the first Gulf War changed me dramatically as a person. Boot camp stripped away behaviors and replaced them with ones suitable for survival. The continual training covered those raw layers and cemented the new behaviors. Deployment reinforced the importance of security, brevity, and awareness. One of the other soldiers in my final unit told me, “You’re like a guy, but with boobs.” He genuinely meant it as a compliment.
Our drill sergeants in basic training urged us to embarrass the male training companies by being better than them. The drill sergeant taught us derogatory cadences to sing when the units passed and insisted that we had to sing louder than them.
The drill sergeants ridiculed anyone who cried or wanted to go on sick call (see a doctor). As training went on, less of both happened. I became the first example of my boot camp class by asking to go on sick call the first full day. I twisted my ankle a little after waking. The twist wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t allowed to go to the doctor until I was limping and had a sprain bad enough to require a cast for a month.
The physical training stressed the importance of strength. Most of the soldiers in my unit lifted weights. Before entering the service, competition didn’t interest me at all. I let everyone else win because I didn’t care. In the service, I used competition to hone skills. I found someone who lifted slightly more than me, worked to surpass them. When I lifted more than the original person, I found someone else to compete with at lifting weights.
Frequent trips to ranges desensitized us to weapon fire. As a squad leader, my M16 had a grenade launcher on it. I loved the sound of firing grenades. Thhuuuump! From the time I went on lock down for deployment, to the time I returned, my M16 was with me at all times. I even slept with it at my side. Anyone who lost their weapon faced punishment. A private in my unit who melted his M16 was demoted.
Many temporary shelters cropped up for people fleeing Hurricane Katrina. The soldiers on my base maintained and supplied a temporary shelter for civilians evacuating ahead of the hurricane Katrina. When on premise, the expectation of all soldiers, even officers, was to be in uniform and behave with the knowledge they represented their service and their unit.
My unit spent a few weeks on the road advancing from Saudi Arabia through Iraq. Our vehicles doubled as our homes and workplaces. I think I was on the road from mid-January to the end of February, but I lost track of time. By the end of the advance, we smelled very pungent. Makeup felt like grime after returning.
I felt unsafe the entire time I was in the Middle East. Even ally countries had people who didn’t want us there and despised us. No matter the country, enlisted personnel took turns on round the clock guard duty watching for suicide bombers. After the deadline, we fell asleep and woke to the sound of mortar fire. For a couple of weeks, we lived in our chem suits in case of biological or chemical attacks. I never regained trust of open spaces or strangers.
When writing soldiers and veterans, make layered characters. Incorporate traits ingrained into their personality from their service. Many of those traits are the same regardless of gender. This post is not meant to be used as a primary source of truth. The contents are too generic. Use the post as a tool to help you get closer to writing realistic soldiers and veterans.
Related: Writing Military with Women