"If you were doing okay after what you had to see and do, you wouldn't be normal," Capt. Lena Gold told her fiance. "Normal people don't kill without regret. Normal people don't bury friends and never think of them again." Lena and her husband-to-be, Dan Sheehan, were both U.S. Marines. They both piloted helicopters.
War changed Dan. He came home from Iraq and fell into using alcohol to hide from his thoughts.
In a memoir called After Action, Dan writes about the night Lena finally called him on his drinking and how "a bolt of fear shot through my hazy brain" when she said, "I love you Dan, but maybe we should put the wedding on hold until you sort this stuff out."
Dan's book is the story of how he ultimately did sort things out—by rejecting the idea that bravery meant pretending everything was normal after he'd killed enemies and buried friends. Bravery meant the opposite: no more pretending, no more hiding from memories. Dan wrote 10 drafts of After Action as he grappled with the war and its aftermath. When he finally got the words down right, he knew he'd made something that could help his fellow veterans.
Dan sent After Action to literary agents, hoping someone would believe in the book and help get it published. Most of the agents didn't answer his queries. "The agents that did respond usually said something along the lines of 'Thanks for your service, but I don't think I can sell this,'" Dan remembers.
There's a larger picture than simply the bottom line. My measurement of success from the beginning has been to make a difference in the lives of veterans and military families.
One small publisher showed interest. But when Dan looked at the tone of their existing titles, he feared they "would focus on the fighting/action parts of my book and neglect the healing parts."
Determined to put out a book that did justice to his squadron's combat experience and his own struggle to heal, Dan turned to independent publishing. He chose Amazon's CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). Dan says these self-service platforms are perfect for books "that don't have mass-market appeal but matter a lot to a specific audience. There's a larger picture than simply the bottom line. My measurement of success from the beginning has been to make a difference in the lives of veterans and military families."
And that's exactly what After Action is doing.
In a five-star review, an Amazon customer named Jeanne McLennan wrote about the book's "huge impact on our family. Our son-in-law was a Marine Cobra pilot who was killed two years ago. In the coming together of all of his 'brothers' with his wife and family during the days and weeks after his death, we could feel their love, strength, dedication, and vulnerability. Dan Sheehan's writing has opened up the deeper conversations among us of what the personal impact of their work has (been) on each of them and their families."
After Action has earned an average of 4.9 stars from Amazon customers, a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and a gold medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Dan has appeared on radio and TV and spoken to veterans' groups around the U.S.
A veteran who became a police officer in civilian life and was one of the first responders at a school shooting emailed Dan that "being a former Marine and one of the only prior military on scene, I felt it was my duty to act unaffected. When the truth is, being a father, the images haunt me. Reading your book kinda opened the door for me, and let me know that it's ok to have 'feelings' and to be affected by this event... Just wanted to thank you... Reading your journey helped tremendously."
As Dan writes in After Action, "The journey begins when the veteran admits to him- or herself that they are carrying some sort of burden. These burdens have been crushing souls for centuries - they are as old as war itself. There is no shame in acknowledging them, no weakness in feeling their weight."
For Dan, it all goes back to that night Lena insisted he start dealing with his problems. Lena and Dan are married with two kids now. Dan's last words in After Action are about Lena: "Her support and love made the positive ending for this book possible. It is through her that I have the opportunity to experience the best that life has to offer."