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 Steve Berry
The images remain vivid. The young translator from Sudan, now a U.S. citizen living in Minnesota; the one star general who taught at a small college; the corpsman who told me his mother had been a big fan of my work, but she’d died recently; the husbands and wives serving simultaneously in differing parts of the world, their children being temporarily raised by grandparents or siblings.
And the injured.
They were the most inspiring of all.
Lying in their beds, several with nearly half of their bodies gone, yet nothing voiced except optimism. I visited 30 at Walter Reed Army and Bethesda Naval Hospitals. I was told the first time you come for them. The second time you return for yourself.
And I believe it.
I saw heroes.
Men who’d proudly performed their duty, now facing an unimaginable future with unflinching courage. There was the corporal, minus his legs, who wanted to be a teacher; the medic, pierced by shrapnel, who might go on to medical school; the Marine with no lower extremities who still wants to repair cars. All of them were young, barely into their twenties, their lives altered forever.
And one other thing.
Only one gunshot wound among them.
Bombs were their enemy. IEDs. Improvised explosive devices set in the sand, lying in wait for victims to draw close. “A damn coward’s weapon,” one of them said. I asked about regrets. None had any. Their wives, brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers were the same. Only positive thoughts.
I would go back to both hospitals a second time.
War is big business. That much was clear. Never had I realized what it took to supply an army. And I was there during a draw down, when the mass of troops were headed out, not in. One general proudly noted, “What we do best is move people and machines.”
Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines. They’re all there, serving as one, and that cohesiveness was evident. It’s a team. From the top down. Speaking of that, there was a symmetry of sorts that occurred. On the last day we visited a hospital in Basarah where the doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and administrators were having a great day.
Not a single patient in any ward.
“We like it when there’s nothing for us to do,” one of them said.
I knew what she meant. Empty beds meant husbands, fathers, mothers, and wives won’t have to occupy one of those rooms at Walter Reed or Bethesda that we visited on day one.
And I was glad.
I came away from Operation Thriller with open eyes. I turned eighteen just as the Vietnam War and the draft ended, so I never served. The all-volunteer army which came after had not included me either.
But a new breed of warrior was born.
The willing participant.
Then, 9/11 changed that.
Volunteers weren’t enough. National Guards were called up by the hundreds of thousands, many sent overseas for multiple combat tours. During my 5 days in Kuwait City, Baghdad, Mosul, Balad, and Basrah, I talked with units from Alabama, Michigan, Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
It’s still hard for me to believe that I was there.
But so many men and women remain.
Their daily lives are both tough and dangerous. ‘Never let your guard down,” one of them told me. Sadly, some of those folks may not make it back, and that thought occurred to me each time I shook one of their hands.
Which sent a chill through me.
But that look in their dedicated eyes, the warm smiles, the confident swagger in their steps, the way they toted their weapons and answered questions, and, most of all, that longing for home in their voice as they rattled off the number of days left in their tour - that’s what I’ll remember.
It’s want I’m still remembering.
God bless those men and women.