Phillip (Phil) Laughlin is the love interest in my novel, Sweetwater. I have a special place in my heart for those serving in the military. My father was a Master gunnery Sargent in the Marines, my father-in-law repaired planes in the Air Force, and my husband served in both the Army and the Army National Guard. I was raised with a sense of pride for an institution, while not perfect, allows young men like my father and my husband to bring themselves out of the poverty they were raised in and make a better life for themselves. But this comes at a price. And sometimes it’s a high one. I’m not even talking about death. I’m talking about the thousands of our soldiers who come home from their service with not only physical wounds, and mental ones as well. Phillip was partially created to showcase how sorry a state our Veterans Administration system is in. It’s better than nothing, which is like saying putting a bandaid over a bullet wound is an effective way to treat it, but there is so much that could be done to improve the lives of our veterans and their families. Phillip represents the struggles our military men and woman face each day to adjust to coming back to normal life, healing their wounds, and getting the help they need so desperately. He was also partially created to celebrate the good people in this world who step-parent and do a bang up job. They just don’t get enough of the praise they’re due.
Here are some basic Phillip Laughlin stats:
Age: At the beginning of the story, 33
Parents: Mr. and Mrs. Laughlin (their names weren’t terribly important)
Special People: Marg and Hank Teague, Scott Teague (deceased)
Love Interest: Anna Gilbert
Place of Residence: Sweetwater, CA (teeny fictional town just outside Yosemite National Forest)
Occupation: Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Retired Army Special Forces, rank: Lieutenant, specialty: engineering
Special: Served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, received the Purple Heart for wounds suffered in Afghanistan
We first meet Phillip when he comes to Anna’s rescue working as a security guard at a local big box store near Sweetwater. It’s a job that gives him something to do now that he’s retired from the military. His sense of purpose was lost when he left the service, and for an outgoing and kind-hearted person like Phillip, this lack of purpose was slowly driving him crazy. Then he meets an angel. She’s beautiful, quick-witted and nurturing. He’s instantly smitten and while he’s fully aware of her disability, it doesn’t seem to bother him. What does bother him is the slightly confusing signals he gets from Anna – she’s obviously attracted to him but she keeps herself at a slight distance. Until she kisses him and then all bets are off as far as Phillip is concerned. He wants to be with her. But she ditches him for three years (rude!) and he is absolutely devastated. When they meet again, it’s like time didn’t mean anything, and if anything, he’s falling for her harder than before as he gets to know her. Phillip is almost perfect. Except he’s not and it’s something that a lot of military men share – the inability to ask for help.
Here are some basic Phillip Laughlin stats:
- a bit impulsive
- sulky when hurt
- wants to be needed
One of the more interesting themes in the book is the topic of sex, romantic attraction and disability. As a woman with a disability and married to my husband for 18 years, it’s subject that’s very relevant for me. Too many times, I feel like stories that have disabled people in them side-step the issue of sex and sexuality. And more often than not, it’s about a disabled man’s sexuality towards an able-bodied woman. I can only think of two movies where the disabled person was a woman who’d found herself a loving able-bodied man – The Other Side of the Mountain and Ice Castles. I think the biggest reason for the side-step is that the idea of disabled people having sex, having sexual feelings, or wanting to be in a romantic relationship with someone makes people uncomfortable. They can’t imagine themselves wanting someone with a disability so they can’t imagine how anyone else could either. Phillip’s reaction to Anna and her disability was a page ripped straight out of my own life story. My husband’s reaction to my informing him of my disability (we’d been chatting online – story for another time) was, “So?” An auspicious beginning to be sure and later proved how inconsequential my disability was to him as we became a sexually active couple. Like anything in life, it takes all kinds. One of the biggest hurdles disabled people face is the idea that we are somehow broken or infantile, or worse yet, that we are asking our partner to take on the sole responsibility to care for us. It’s not unlike a potential partner asking someone to help care for their child from another relationship or learn to deal with a family from a different culture. You go into the relationship with eyes wide open, which Phillip does beautifully and respectfully, much like the man I married.
Mental health is another huge theme in Sweetwater. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) plays a big part in both Anna and Phillip’s story arc. It’s an injury of the mind that can alter the integral nature of a person’s personality. It is debilitating for the sufferer, which directly affects their friends and family. Let me re-iterate – PTSD is not a character flaw in it of itself. But untreated, it can wreak havoc. One of the biggest problems Phillip has is being able to admit that he really does need help. He’s a military man. He’s Special Forces. He’s supposed to be tough and persevere. He’s not supposed to be hurting inside. This attitude is further bolstered when he chooses to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at the VA. So he’s not just military but he’s the one helping the ones that need help – so he’s not supposed to need help, right? Just like any physical wound, left untreated the wound will fester. Anna may have figured out far sooner what was going on with him except she insisted they not live together until they got married. So he was able to hide a lot of the symptoms of his PTSD from her for a long time. Too long really. PTSD is like living under combat-level stress twenty-four hours a day. You’re constantly on your guard, you feel you can’t relax, you have nightmares which interfere with your sleep draining away your stamina, panic or anxiety attacks that show up at the most inconvenient and embarrassing times, and the people you love most end up being the focus of a lot of the symptoms that you might not otherwise display – anger, suspiciousness, inconsolable emotions like fear, depression or crying. It’s a roller coaster. Phillip considered taking his life at the end of the novel to get off the ride, if it weren’t for Anna’s quiet and strong support.
I have been accused of making Phillip too perfect. That might have been true if I had stopped writing the story after they got back together after the three years. It was a conscious choice on my part. I wanted to contrast what mental illness can do to a fantastic human being like Phillip over time so that you really get the sense of this type of personality shift. In fact, it was a hard line I had to ride with giving Phillip’s PTSD enough of the flavor that sufferers experience without crossing over that line to physically and mentally abusive. All too often untreated PTSD wanders into that horrible territory and it is a reality for a lot of families.
Family is also very important to Phillip. He suffered a lot of loss in his life – both his parents before he even graduated from high school and then his best friend to the war overseas. The only people that needed him were the Teagues. He longed to be a part of his own family unit again. He found some of that with Anna and the kids. But I think, too, he hoped for more than that. The climax of the book has Anna revealing her pregnancy to Phillip. This was the panacea he needed. It was the blessing he craved to help him from rejecting Anna’s pleas outright, and the catalyst for getting the help he needed. He is among the men that still exist in this world that long to be a father. They either want to be the father they never had or they want to be the father they looked up to. In Phillip’s case, he wanted to be as good a father to his child as his father was to him.
He also loves being a ‘father’ to Brody and Zoe, and he takes the responsibility for them just as seriously as he will his own child. To him, Brody and Zoe were pleasant bonuses as Anna and Phillip got closer. He’s like so many good men I know that step-parent. Men who step up to the plate to help raise children not of their blood. The love they give is no different than if those children were their own from birth. We have so many stories of the horrible things that step-parents can be, that I wanted Phillip there to show that it doesn’t always turn out that way and a step-parent can be as beloved as a biological parent.
Yup, I’m unashamed to admit that I had a little crush on Phillip. Firstly, Phillip’s physical model, Clive Standen, is a snack. But secondly, Phillip has a lot of the traits I admire in a man, which is always dangerous for a writer to give their characters. There’s too much temptation to have these little crushes that can affect how hard or soft they can be on their favorite characters. But as his personality developed, it was hard not to be caught up in his enthusiasm for life with Anna and her kids. It’s also hard to resist such a die-hard romantic.
Please if you find that you are struggling, reach out of help. Help is available!
If you are in crisis or are actively suicidal in the United States, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at:
If you are a veteran of the United States military and in crisis or actively suicidal, please call:
800-273-TALK (8255), option 1
You are appreciated for the service you provided this country.
Next month, I’ll be spotlighting one of Sweetwater’s fan favorites – Ophelia Mackey. Fun-loving and free-spirited, a lot of people were drawn to her spunkiness and her devotion to her family. But now she’s got her own book, Book 2 in the Sweetwater Saga, and we’ll be exploring those tantalizing hints that were dropped in Sweetwater about her love life and career. Make sure to wander on over to Wattpad and keep up to date. ‘Ophelia’ releases on Saturdays!