November 23, 2010

Operation Thriller: There and Back Again

Posted: 04:44 PM ET

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.

by James Rollins

When I got the call asking if I’d be willing to participate in a tour of authors to the Persian Gulf, I immediately said yes.  Who wouldn’t want to give something back to the troops, even in this small way?  But after hanging up the phone, I was immediately plagued with questions.  Would anyone be interested in a group of thriller writers?  What exactly would be involved in the tour? I initially didn’t have much concern for safety issues.  I knew the USO paraded countless groups through various regions of conflict without mishap.

But then niggling worries began to arise, specifically following a checkpoint list we all received:

(1) Bring sunscreen

(2) Pack a camp towel

(3) Check with your doctor about vaccines and malaria preventatives

All well and good—until that list ended with a final ominous item:  Make sure your will is in order. Upon reading that, the concern among my family members (who were already uneasy) ratcheted up, but I reassured them that this was simply a precaution, nothing more.  But inwardly it raised a doubt:  what the heck am I getting myself into?

On our first stop on the tour—in Washington, D.C.—I got some inkling of an answer to my question.  Before shipping overseas, we toured and visited wounded warriors at the Bethesda Naval Hospital and at Walter Reed.  Every patient seemed delighted to have visitors, to share their stories, to be acknowledged in even this small way.  And in the end, they certainly gave back more to us than we gave to them. I never met a more positive and optimistic group of men and women (and I would discover that same positivity across all the bases we visited and all the men and women we talked to).

Still, another realization struck home from those hospital visits, from seeing firsthand the extent of the injuries, from lost limbs to traumatic brain injuries:  our service members are still in harm’s way out there.  While the media focuses on economic distress, on joblessness, on Tea Party antics, men and women are still putting their lives at risk every day, living in regions of true and persistent danger.  We seem to have forgotten them, to shuffle away our concerns following the draw down of troops in Iraq.  But they’re still being injured, still dying, still struggling to outwit the ever-changing landscape of insurgent attacks.

Once we reached the Persian Gulf, this danger was reinforced.  We heard mortar blasts and small arms fire in Baghdad.  At each outlying base, we were instructed on what to do if the sirens burst forth with “incoming, incoming, incoming.”  In Basra, there were “buddy bunkers” beside our sleeping cots, so in case of attack, we could easily roll to the relative safety of a concrete shell.  In Balad (a place nicknamed Mortaritaville), we learned of a rocket attack on the day prior to our arrival.  In Mosul, we saw a bus unloading stretchers into an idling aircraft.

That’s the ongoing and stark reality of Iraq.  It’s what I took most from this tour.  I will never again dismiss or forget the lives at risk out there.  Each night, my prayers go out to those dedicated, determined, and impossibly optimistic soldiers.  Since I got back, I hear one question over and over again:  would you do it again?  The answer is simple:  Oh, yeah, in a heartbeat.

Filed under: LKL Web Exclusive

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