Eighteen months after Rev. Clare Ferguson left for Iraq with the National Guard, Chief Russ Van Alstyne of the Miller’s Kill, NY police department waits at the armory for her return. Russ has thought of Clare constantly while she was gone and he wants to make arrangements for their wedding now that she is coming back. That he hasn’t asked her yet doesn’t change his belief that he and Clare are meant to spend the rest of their lives together.
Russ is a veteran of Vietnam and he remembers his first days home after being discharged. He knows Clare will have to make some adjustments to civilian life again, but he doesn’t doubt for a moment that their relationship will be able to overcome their long separation. He is correct in his belief that their commitment to each other has survived Clare’s experiences but somewhat overly optimistic about how easy it is going to be for Major Ferguson to slide smoothly back into Reverend Ferguson. Clare has seen combat as a helicopter pilot. She has been part of the killing machine that is an army in combat. Her job was to save the lives of the soldiers and the civilians who needed to be taken for medical care but she is one with the rest of the troops and, as such, she has killed.
Without Russ’ knowledge, Clare joins a support group with other soldiers from the Miller’s Kill support battalion. Will Ellis, nineteen, came home without his legs. Eric McCrea, one of Russ’ best officers, is trying to deal with PTSD. Trip Stillman, the local orthopedic surgeon, has a traumatic head injury that is causing short-term memory loss, a situation he refuses to acknowledge and which he keeps secret from his family. Tally McNabb, a bookkeeper who had little exposure to combat, seems the best able to adjust. Clare is hounded by demons and nightmares that she hides from Russ and works to hide from herself.
Then another soldier arrives in Miller’s Kill looking for Tally McNabb. Quentan Nichols had a relationship with Tally in Iraq but Tally has a husband and Russ is concerned about problems between the men over Tally. Then Tally dies from a bullet to the head. Russ and the coroner agree that Tally committed suicide but Clare insists that Tally was not suicidal. Clare has been with Tally at the support group and Clare knows Tally was murdered but by whom? The motive is obvious when it is discovered that Tally as bookkeeper had engineered a one million dollar embezzlement from the army in Iraq. Clare, against Russ’ instructions and better judgment, embarks on her one investigation to find the killer.
When an army officer trained to root out financial crimes arrives in Miller’s Kill, more questions are raised about Tally, her employment, and a tragic accident that may not have been an accident after all.
ONE WAS A SOLDIER is an exceptional writing feat. Without one word relating to politics or social divisions, Julia Spencer-Fleming has written what is an anti-war statement, a statement against all wars. No one comes back from a combat assignment without some part of themselves broken. Good people who have tried to live their lives doing good for others find themselves in a place, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, for which they cannot prepare. No matter how much they try, they bring some of the war home with them. In some cases, it is internalized and they manage to hide it from family and friends. In other cases, there is a rage that is masked in public but is destructive of family relationships. The author gives the reader the broken pieces of the characters she has created so lovingly. And then, she lets the reader know that although they have changed, they are surrounded by a community who will reach out and help them put themselves back together. This is fiction; we can hope that such support is a reality for those soldiers who are fighting a war that the public doesn’t want in a place none of us really understands.
ONE WAS A SOLDIER is about all the soldiers of every war who have borne the burden of protecting a nation. In this book, the boy who came home without his legs may be the quickest to heal.
Because this is a story that is primarily that of the Rev. Clare Ferguson, Episcopal priest, a woman of abiding faith, this is also a story where hope is never lost and joy is all around. It is the best book in a series that has always been one of the very best.