Air force crew member pens award winning novel whilst deployed in terrifying war zones19th Dec 18 | Real Life
Dave Jennings found writing therapeutic, and now believes it could help tackle post traumatic stress disorder.
A pilot turned author, who won an award for his first novel – landing a publisher by Skype from a toilet in an African war zone – found writing in trouble spots therapeutic, claiming it could help people to tackle post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.)
Following his parents 65-year-old Jean and Ken Jennings, 64, into the air force in 2004, Dave Jennings, 37, spent two of his 14 years as an airman writing his book, Gift of The Shaper, in his spare time, while stationed in hostile environments.
Finding reading and writing the fantasy novel a welcome escape from flying surveillance missions over war zones, Dave, who hails from the American Midwest, said: “I decided to create my own fantasy novel, after losing three close friends in three separate crashes.”
He continued: “I’d been doing a lot of reading – ploughing through books like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and a lot of Stephen King.
“And I found writing a fantasy novel took me away from the grim reality I faced, surrounded by death most days at work. I could keep my mind focused on something else.
“I lost three close friends in three separate crashes, and couldn’t help but feel pretty low about it all. That was when I started writing.”
At the start of his career, Dave, who is single, spent four years as a Korean linguist, before qualifying for airborne operations.
As part of his training, he was sent on a two week survival course in Washington State, where he and a couple of other trainees were sent into the mountains to learn how to live in the event of a crash.
During this time, Dave found inspiration for parts of his future book, explaining: “While in the woods we had to eat, so we caught a rabbit which I was asked to skin.”
He continued: “It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but I had to learn how to.
“Later on, once I started writing, I could remember every detail of that experience – so I made the main character, Thornton, in my novel, do exactly the same thing.
“I wrote word for word what it felt and looked like. A lot of what I wrote was based on real experiences. It gave me a way to get everything off my chest. ”
Focusing the plot of his fantasy novel on the conflict between two opposing worlds, Dave based material on real life experiences serving in dangerous places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa.
He said: “When I was flying in Iraq, I was quite low to the ground, and always felt a sense of danger.
“Sometimes I would forget I was a huge target right in the eye of the enemy, I could be taken down at any time.”
He added: “After Iraq, I volunteered for more deployments. I did 11 in total, serving 1200 days – adding up to over three years.”
During his second trip to Africa in 2013, while playing the computer game Candy Crush in a remote area, Dave started to feel like he was losing his mind.
It was then that he realised he had to find a true distraction, to stop him from dwelling on the friends he had lost and horrors he had seen.
He said: “I was only two months into a four month deployment, but I was already going crazy.
“A mixture of constant fear, but also boredom, rattled my brain and suddenly a light bulb went off.
“I pulled out my iPad and started typing away, creating a fantasy world to entertain myself and before I knew it, I’d written four chapters in one sitting.”
Dave realised the fiction resembled his own life – as he told the story about a young blacksmith, during a huge war, trying to figure out where he was going.
And penning his novel in the middle of real-life war zones, Dave said he never suffered from writer’s block.
He said: “The de-stressing element of doing it helped drive me to write more and more, I’d pull out my iPad whenever I felt uneasy, as the fantasy was a huge escape.”
He continued: “Whenever I came home between deployments and felt safe again, the motivation to write would wane. Even when I did write, the content wasn’t the same quality as when I was in the field. ”
Dave said colleagues also found creative pursuits a helpful way to relax.
He continued: “Any creative expression can help people with jobs like mine, a friend of mine from the air force was suffering terribly from PTSD, so I told her what I did to distract my mind – she found her own version and began painting – I can already see it changed her life.”
As his novel started taking shape, Dave sent a few chapters home to a friend in the publishing industry, asking her to take a look.
Expecting nothing more than to read a simple ‘well done’ in his inbox, he was astonished to learn that is pal had enjoyed it so much, she encouraged him to find a publisher immediately.
He said: “It really caught my attention that she loved it so much, and it made me think, ‘Maybe I should make something out of this’.
He continued: “I continued writing and finished the novel by February 2016 in Afghanistan and started editing it while I was in Africa.
“I was still in Africa when I started looking into finding a publisher.
“I sent my completed manuscript to 100 publishers – and found Indigo River.”
But, with no plush office to call from in deepest, darkest Africa, he negotiated terms with his publisher in the US by setting up his tiny phone screen in a toilet and Skyping them.
Wearing his worn and torn uniform, after months of travelling, Dave says the publishers were shocked to see where and who their new author was.
He said: “They were so confused as to why I was in Africa and what I was wearing. I was in a sweaty little room while they were in an upmarket office block – but they saw past how messy I looked and gave me a chance.”
Despite him not having an agent, Dave and the publishers drew up a contract, which he received as he stepped off the plane for another deployment in Africa.
Paying for extra mobile data to make sure he got the email, he said: “I saw the message saying they had accepted me with the contract attached.
“I screamed and showed my phone to all the guys around me, waving it everywhere, but since we aren’t allowed alcohol, we celebrated with beef jerky and Redbull – a pretty wild night for us out there.”
His book, Gift of The Shaper, was eventually published in February 2018 and won the Beverly Hills Book Award for the fantasy category, as well as being nominated for the American Book Fest Best Book Award 2018.
After such prestigious recognition of his talent, Dave felt that it was time to leave the air force behind, following a long and gruelling service, to pursue a writing career full-time.
He said: “The writing pulled me out of a dark place that a lot of service men and women end up in. They see some horrendous things – a lot of which they have to keep classified – but it still weighs on your shoulders. I want everyone in a similar position to me to know they can find a hobby that lets them express themselves in a safe way, to avoid their mental health falling apart.”
© Press Association 2018