This series of LKL blog exclusives was written by five authors on their experiences from the recent USO tour ‘Operation Thriller’ in the Gulf to entertain our troops.
By Andy Harp
The USO “Operation Thriller” tour started with a conversation but ended up changing several lives.
Young Army Ranger James Webb enlisted in the military as soon after September 11th as he was able. James served two combat tours in the mountains of Afghanistan. I met James after a horrific motorcycle-truck wreck cost him the use of his leg and his Army career. Actually, James would say that it cost him his Ranger career. As a former Marine I understood, at least to some degree, how devastating this had been for him.
I had just returned from New York and the International Thriller Writers’ annual Thrillerfest conference. There, I had befriended such fellow novelists as Douglas Preston and Steve Berry. Before saying goodbye to James Webb, on impulse I asked him a question:
“What would soldiers think of a USO tour with novelists – you know, like the creator of John Rambo?”
“Are you serious?”
“I think so.” I couldn’t be sure whether David Morrell would commit to a tour, but I was curious to know if the rank-and-file interest for such a tour existed.
James Webb’s response was unequivocal. “Hell, yes,” he said. “We need a hero like everyone else.”
Selling the concept to the other authors was easy. Fellow ITW members Preston, Berry, Morrell, and James Rollins got on board immediately. The USO showed the same level of enthusiasm. Operation Thriller was on. It would be the first novelist tour in the 69-year history of the USO.
Of course for the USO this meant sending yet another team of civilians into a combat environment. I was the only writer in the group who had served, and I knew it would not be easy. Difficult logistics aside, the endeavor would involve months of never being able to say where or when we’d be going; not mentioning a specific location, country, or other details of our tour. As the USO said, one leak and the tour would be canceled. Security required absolutely no leaks.
A USO Tour essentially asks someone who has never worn a uniform, because of his or her talent or fame, to enter a place where mortar rounds drop randomly and IEDs and suicide attacks are a part of life. It means going to a land where some would take great pride in hurting you. This part of it was decidedly not fiction.
Our first stop made it clear why what was being asked of us was not insignificant. After meeting the young men in Bethesda and Walter Reed hospitals, one understands how little a sacrifice it is to go on tour into an insecure environment. No matter how wracked their bodies may be, those hospital wards taught us that the Taliban cannot damage the spirit of a soldier, sailor or Marine. Even their mothers stand strong at the foot of their beds, worried but proud. Very proud.
The other mothers and fathers can’t see their sons and daughters working twenty-hour days in places like Basrah and Balad as we did. They can’t see a line of MRAP’s preparing to go out on a patrol from Mosul armed and ready. They can’t go to Baghdad and see men and women in uniform loading a C-130 cargo ship for the fourteenth time in a day. They can’t feel the heat, breathe the dust, or feel the fatigue. They aren’t able to see the level of professionalism their child displays when explaining how to disarm a mine or triage the wounded at a MASH hospital (it has a new name now). But it is exactly the same spirit you see in Bethesda and Walter Reed.
I watched my four tour mates witness this for themselves. And it transformed them. As the days got longer, as the fatigue of a long trip set in, as they slept in a different bed night after night, I expected us to tire and waver. But the opposite happened. Berry and Rollins, Preston and Morrell took the time to meet these men and women, often staying late, and always making a point of talking with every service person that attended the Tour. It was more than an experience; it became a responsibility, and one that we all embraced. No one in uniform would be let down. Period.
And it all started with a conversation.