Guest Blogger Andrew Peterson “Writers in the Eye of a Storm”
This article was published in the March 2012 Issue of Suspense Magazine:
Writers in the eye of a storm
by Andrew Peterson
The crew chief checks my four-part harness and issues a crisp thumbs-up. He hustles into the front compartment, plants himself behind a .30-caliber machine gun, and checks its action. On the opposite side of the cabin, the second crew chief is doing the same thing. They’re now door gunners and their collective job is to suppress enemy ground fire. A few seconds later, the engine noise intensifies. The eight-ton machine shutters for an instant before literally jumping into the air. Forty yards distant, a second helicopter also lifts off—they always travel in pairs.
Ninety minutes away, our destination is Forward Operating Base Mehtarlam near the Pakistani border. My fellow passengers are Clive Cussler, Sandra Brown, Kathy Reichs, and Mark Bowden. There’s a certain amount of irony in the moment as I make eye contact with Mark and smile. We’re both thinking the same thing: Are we really doing this?
Exhilaration blocks reality. We’re in an active war zone. We’re wearing forty pounds of body armor. And we’re flying across several hundred miles of rugged terrain laced with Taliban who’d love to shoot us down. Any questions?
Our ride is an Army UH-60 Black Hawk and it’s carrying the author of “Black Hawk Down.” For Mark, this has to be especially thrilling. He spent five years researching and writing the book. Although he was present for most of the filming, he never had an opportunity to take a ride. If he’s nervous or concerned, it doesn’t show. In fact, he’s grinning bigger than I thought possible!
Fourteen hours earlier, we were leaving Kyrgyzstan in a C-130J Super Hercules, along with a platoon of Marines. We landed at Bagram Air Field just after 1 a.m. As we unbuckled our harnesses, we felt stiff and sore, especially our backsides. We’d just spent four hours strapped into canvas jump seats, jammed knee-to-knee with Marines, their rifles, and their backpacks. There wasn’t any spare real estate. Zero. Getting up for a casual stroll down the aisle simply wasn’t possible. Although I tried, I couldn’t sleep during the flight. Dozing off on a C-130J Hercules wasn’t easy to do.
We staggered down the plane’s ramp and waited for the loadmaster to free our bags from a huge aluminum pallet. Our Army liaisons were waiting on the tarmac and introduced themselves over the drone of the idling engines. We all turned as a fighter roared down the runway. Twin cones of blue-white fire erupted from its black form as the pilot lit the afterburners. It was beyond loud. Thirty seconds later, a second fighter followed its friend into the night. I looked at Kathy and smiled. No words were necessary.
We climbed aboard a white van for the drive over to our lodging. Bagram is a huge base, but thankfully our journey wasn’t more than five minutes. We ended up in a B-hut (short for barracks hut.) It’s a plywood structure about the size of a one-car garage with eight double-deck bunks. There were six of us sharing the accommodations. Myself, Clive Cussler, Mark Bowden, Jeremy Wilcox (our USO tour producer,) Mike Theiler (our official photographer,) and Lieutenant Colonel Budjenska (who volunteered to accompany us once he learned Clive was on the tour.) Needless to say, LTC Budjenska is a huge Cussler fan.
B-huts don’t have plumbing, so using the latrine involved a hundred-yard walk. One saving grace: we weren’t disconnected—our B-hut had an internet-ready, DOD computer terminal so we could check e-mail. Regulations put Sandra and Kathy in a separate room. We’re all friends, but rules are rules! We set our alarms for 5:30 a.m. and went lights-out around 2 a.m.
I only got three hours of sleep and was beginning to feel the effects of sleep deprivation. Over the last three days, I’d slept for less than eight hours. There’s a tenet of military life: Sleep when you can. I never really understood that until then. After a shower and a latrine call, we all met in front of our B-hut at 6:30 and boarded the van for the drive to the dining facility (DFAC.) Upon entering, we’re required to wash our hands and sign the register. I was surprised at the wide selection of food available. The DFAC was huge, probably an acre in total square feet—big enough to serve as many as six hundred people at the same time. It was a self-serve buffet setup where everyone used cardboard trays as plates. The silverware was plastic and disposable. In the background, a college football game entertained the troops on a huge projection TV. Service members, civilian contractors, and local Afghans were constantly coming and going. It’s a 24/7 facility. Everything was free, no money was needed. Walking out without paying seemed a bit strange, but I eventually got used to it.
I have to say that all of us were singularly impressed with the professional and polite nature of our service members. By this point, we’d already met and interacted with hundreds of troops and we never saw a single unkempt uniform or so much as a thread out of place. These soldiers were consummate professionals and it’s quite obvious they took pride in their work. It was inspiring to see service members who were so dedicated and committed to doing the best job they can. During breakfast, I shared a table with some Air Force mechanics who worked on C-17 Globe Masters. It was clear they liked their jobs and liked talking about their work. They missed their families, but said the internet made it easier to stay in touch.
After breakfast, our group drove over to the Armed Forces Network (AFN) building to do live radio interviews. We met the AFN staff and I introduced our group to Melissa, an Air Force DJ who manned the morning shift. Each us had a three-minute interview between songs. Melissa told us the troops tended to favor hip-hop music. The studio wasn’t large, maybe ten-by-fifteen feet, but we all fit inside. In the neighboring studio, we recorded “shout-outs,” fifteen-second clips about anything we wanted to say to the troops. Our prerecorded messages will be broadcast across the AFN once a day for the next week or so. All of us used our shout-out time to thank the troops for their service and to wish them a safe return home.
On the way back to the B-hut, we stopped at a small bazaar near the base’s PX. A PX is an all-purpose grocery and supply store, similar to a convenience store in the states. Clive and I were treated to coffee at a Green Bean coffee house by LTC Budjenska, who insisted on paying! He wouldn’t take no for an answer. As we walked through the area, I was surprised by the presence of local Afghan venders selling their wares. We learned from our Army escorts that nearly 5,000 people enter and leave the base on a daily basis.
With few exceptions, all service members are required to carry their weapons everywhere they go. Officers have sidearms while enlisteds tend to carry M4s and M16s. Near the PX, I introduced our group to a sergeant who was carrying a squad automatic weapon (SAW) and asked if we could take our picture with him. He heartily agreed and told us about his job and how the various functions of his rifle worked. It’s a heavy weapon, I guessed around twenty pounds. Since we were wearing 5.11 Tactical clothing with large USO patches on our shirts, we were instantly recognized as a USO tour group.
The troops were always friendly and glad to see us. At organized events, many of them brought books for us to sign. All of us found it rewarding to personalize the books and say thank you to them. It’s difficult to quantify the experience in words, but the word fulfillment comes to mind. We felt a deep sense of satisfaction being able to meet these brave individuals in person and convey how much we appreciated their sacrifices.
We made a quick stop at our B-hut before heading out to the flight line where the Black Hawks were waiting to take us to Mehtarlam. Once we lifted off and left the airspace of Bagram, we were able to see the Afghan landscape. It looked like a place time forgot. A vast beige-colored desert extended to the base of a weathered and scoured mountain range. Snow capped peaks contrasted the earthen tones. It was beautiful, but it also felt menacing.
When we first climbed aboard, one of the crew chiefs offered me a headset so I could listen in on the communication with cockpit. Thirty minutes into our flight we were maneuvering through a tight canyon where the cliff faces were no more than a hundred feet away. The pilot asked if we’d like to see what the Black Hawk can do. “Absolutely,” I said into the boom mike. I knew what the pilot intended to do, so I reached across the cabin and tugged down on Kathy Reichs’ shoulder straps to point where she couldn’t move. She didn’t know what was coming, she wasn’t plugged in. I motioned for Clive and Sandra to the do the same thing. Mark had a headset, so he was already tightening his harness.
A few seconds later, we picked up speed and the pilot began a series of steep turns, climbs, and descents. Our stomachs were in our throats as the helicopter screamed through a tight chasm of rock faces and vertical walls. We pulled at least four Gs as the helicopter banked through an extended sixty-degree turn. Out the window to my right, the stream at the bottom of the canyon became a blurred white ribbon. I tightened my stomach muscles to keep my vision from winking out. My two-hundred-pound body now weighed eight hundred pounds. The ship leveled before starting a high-G climb up the side of the mountain. We skimmed a small peak and began a near-weightless descent down the other side. Kathy looked like she was ready to blow a fuse, but her smile was priceless—exhilaration mixed with surprise. This was better than any roller coaster we’ve ever ridden. Our zigzagging continued for another half-minute. At this point, we’ve yielded all hope of maintaining sanity and control. We were simply along for the ride and it was a wild one!
We shot out of the canyon and found ourselves above another desert landscape. I’m pretty sure I saw a small mountaintop outpost back in the canyon, so I ask the pilot. Yes, he confirmed, there are many of them dotting the area. Manned by the Afghan National Army, (ANA) they’re strategically located to help keep the area secure.
For the rest of the flight we stayed at 1,500 feet above the ground, outside the effective range of small-arms fire, and continued heading east toward FOB Mehterlam. Once over our destination, the helicopters rapidly descended and landed on a one-acre area of gravel. Along with our Army escorts from Bagram, we climbed out. Above our heads, the main rotors sliced through the air in loud whoops. Even idling, the sound was impressive. Half a minute later, the helicopters lifted off and left the area. An eerie silence ensued. There was a certain comfort in having the helicopters standing by.
I looked around and sized up our new environment. Surrounding the base were Hesco walls. Hesco barrier walls are constructed of prefab heavy-mesh units with a canvas liner. About the size of large produce crates—around four feet square and six feet high—they’re filled with dirt and rocks and stacked two high. They designed to protect the base from small arms fire and vehicle intrusions. The tops are lined with antipersonnel razor wire. There are literally miles of Hesco barriers surrounding the facility. As we walked to the headquarters building, we passed some small booths where local venders were selling all kinds of crafts and trinkets. There was a casual feel to Mehtarlam, but I reminded myself we were in an active war zone and that things could change in a hurry.
At the HQ building, introductions were made with some command officers and enlisted. We exchanged gifts before heading to the dining facility (DFAC) for an informal meet-and-greet. Because the USO limited us to two bags each for the tour, we were only able to bring a dozen books into Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan to give away as gifts. Luggage space was limited. Each of us brought hardcover books for the gift exchanges with the various commanders and their staff. In a longstanding tradition, the base commander shook our hands with a unit coin in his or her palm—that’s how it was given to us. About the size of a silver dollar, the coins are minted with the unit’s nickname and logo.
It’s important to note we weren’t there to promote ourselves or our books. We didn’t hand out business cards. This was a goodwill tour. We were there to thank and acknowledge our troops for their incredible sacrifices to America. As chairman, it was my job to make the introductions, but I purposely made them brief and always steered the discussions toward the troops, asking them what their military occupation specialties were. They enjoyed talking about their jobs and were grateful for the opportunity to share their experiences with us. It’s ironic that we traveled halfway around the world to say thank you to them, but everywhere we went, the troops constantly thanked us for visiting them.
After several more meet-and-greets, we made our way back out to the flight line and waited for the helicopters to return. It wasn’t long before they sweep in from the west. We donned our ear protection and individual body armor and watched the Black Hawks approach. I remember thinking, I’m really glad these machines are flown by the good guys! The door gunners looked intimidating.
Once the pilots learned the author of “Black Hawk Down” was aboard their ship, they asked Mark to sign the helicopter! Which he did, on the inside door panel. We all got a big kick from that. Mark Bowden actually autographed a Black Hawk helicopter!
Our next flight took us to FOB Gamberi, just outside Jalalabad, where we met with Army service members of Oklahoma’s 45th Infantry Brigade, the Thunderbirds. We shared some refreshments in a briefing room used by the command staff before taking a driving tour of the base. We saw the new Afghan National Army (ANA) garrison. FOB Gamberi is manned by both coalition forces and the ANA. We traveled in armored SUVs for the ride around the facilities. The doors and windows made it seem as if we were in a presidential limo.
We did a final meet-and-greet with an Army engineering company that goes out and disarms improvised explosive devices (IEDs.) We took a look at a huge mine-resistant-ambush-protected (MRAP) class of vehicle that is used outside the wire. The hardware and equipment inside the vehicle were state-of-the-art, super high-tech. We were singularly impressed with Oklahoma’s 45th Infantry Brigade.
We said our good-byes to the Thunderbirds and drove out to the flight line for our return trip. After arriving back at Bagram, our Army escorts gave us a perimeter tour. We saw some old Russian mine fields that haven’t been cleared yet, so they’re delineated with warning signs and fences. There are also ancient ruins here and there, mud and rock walls, could be hundreds of years old, thousands maybe.
We took a break in the action and headed back to our B-hut. By this time—early evening—we’d been on the move for more than fourteen hours and we needed some down time. Clive and I decided to skip dinner tonight and smoke cigars in front of our B-hut—right next to the No Smoking sign! Hey, arrest us, okay? Besides, LTC Budjenska joined us and said he’d pull rank on anyone who challenged us. Apparently rank does have its privileges!
By the time our group returned from dinner, it was after 10 p.m. Jeremy suggested we should crash early because tomorrow would be another long day at FOB Salerno. We needed no other prodding. Half an hour later, we were all asleep.
This Suspense Magazine article can’t begin to do justice to the amazing experience we shared—it would take 20,000 words. I’ve only described a single day. Clive, Sandra, Mark, Kathy, and I went on a once-in-a-lifetime event that was both rewarding and enriching. Being able to say thank you—in person—to America’s deployed service members in Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan will remain valued memories for the rest of our lives.
All of us enjoyed hearing about the various jobs and military occupation specialties our troops do on a daily basis. Again, their professionalism is second to none.
A USO tour embodies the essence of goodwill—an exchange of kindness and support. We saw it in their eyes, when they said thank you to us, it made them feel better.
The USO’s mission statement is the following: To lift the spirits of America’s troops and their families. I can say with 100% certainty: mission accomplished!
A huge thank-you is owed to Andy Harp, not only for his service in the Marines, but for making the USO Operation Thriller tours possible in the first place. In 2010 and for the first time in its seventy-year history, the USO sent an exclusive group of authors on an overseas tour: David Morrell, Douglas Preston, James Rollins, Steve Berry, and Andy Harp. Because Operation Thriller I was so successful, it paved the way for Operation Thriller II. Andy Harp’s tireless effort and dedication to ITW and the USO is greatly appreciated.
Andrew Peterson is the author of “First to Kill” and “Forced to Kill,” featuring Nathan McBride, a trained Marine scout sniper and CIA operations officer. Both books are available in either audio or e-book format. For information about the author and the Nathan McBride series, please visit www.andrewpeterson.com, or connect with him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AndrewPetersonBooks or Twitter at https://twitter.com/#!/APetersonNovels.