USO photo by Mike Theiler
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.
On Tour with the USO
The USO had never before in its history sent authors on tour. We were guinea pigs of a sort. I had my doubts it would work. Would the troops in Iraq enjoy meeting a tweedy, linguacious group of authors instead of, say, the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, Jessica Simpson, or Kid Rock? And we couldn’t bring our books—the military had more important things to schlep around a war zone than crates of paperbacks.
Instead of going on stage before thousands, the USO wisely planned our tour to be different, friendlier, more personal. We mingled with the troops in small groups, at their places of work and recreation—the motor pool, fire stations, drone flight lines, bomb disposal units, mess halls and USO centers—to chat, thank them for their service, and answer their questions.
We were welcomed with tremendous warmth. I was surprised at how many had a strong interest in writing. The troops were full of questions on how to get published, how to find an agent and editor, and what the writing process was like. We urged them to write down their own stories, if not for publication, as least for their families, children, and grandchildren. “You are living history,” we said, “Write it down!” I spoke of my own grandfather who, at the age of 18, went off to drive an ambulance in France during World War I and kept a journal of his experiences. That journal is the most treasured heirloom in my family.
We thriller writers create fictional heroes. On this tour we met the real heroes. It was a humbling experience. Among the many powerful stories we heard, there is one I will never forget. A wounded medic described being blown up by an IED in Afghanistan. They were receiving live fire from a house and went to surround it, taking cover behind a berm. But it was a trap. Insurgents had placed IEDs behind the berm, one of which went off, blowing the medic through the air and into a small irrigation canal. He came to on his back, submerged, looking up through the rippling greenish water. He described to us a prolonged moment of infinite peace, serenity, and stillness—a moment of religious intensity—before he realized that he had just been blown up and was now drowning. He was a devout Catholic, and in that moment he felt he had somehow come in contact with the presence of God. And that gave him the will to survive.
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