2013 USO Tour

Harlan Coben, Phillip Margolin, F. Paul Wilson, Kathleen Antrim, and Heather Graham, recently returned from the “Operation Thriller IV” USO tour where they shared time and special moments with our troops and their families. The group kicked off the tour with a three-day, morale boosting visit to Washington, D.C. where they met with wounded warriors at Walter Reed Bethesda National Military Medical Center and later aided with the presentation of this year’s Service Member of the Year Awards at the 2013 USO Gala. From there, the authors traveled to Kuwait, Germany, and the UK, bringing a touch of home to our nation’s heroes.

We hope you enjoy reading about some of the authors’ experiences.

F. Paul Wilson

Humbled. That’s the word. I go to bed tonight a humbled man.

We spent the afternoon at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. I knew it as the Walter Reed Army Medical Center back in my college days at Georgetown. Since then it has merged with the old Bethesda Naval Hospital and now serves the Air Force as well.

We set up in the cafeteria of Building 62 where the wounded warriors transition from hospital life to real life. This reminded me very much of the Center for the Intrepid at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio that I visited a number of years ago with a clutch of my fellow Macmillan authors to sign and give away copies of our books to the rehabbing soldiers down there.

“Freedom isn’t free.” Like me, you’ve probably heard that phrase often enough to dismiss it as a hoary cliché. Let me tell you, it stops being a cliché when you visit a place like Building 62. These young men and women are survivors, though all have had friends who paid the ultimate price. But many of these survivors have paid within a hair’s breadth of that ultimate.

You stand there, all four of your limbs intact, and converse with them as they calmly tell you how they lost one, two, occasionally more, of their own. Because we never hear their names, their injuries become statistics in the public consciousness. But when you do learn their names, and you hear their voices and their stories, see their mechanical limbs, their fire-scarred skin, they’re no longer a number. They’re people—terribly young people—who were sent to war and came back broken.

The USO is on hand to help them heal.

You look around and see this table for one with an empty chair and a single white plate. It’s called a POW/MIA remembrance table, always kept set in the event of the return of a missing comrade. And when you hear that one table is set this way in every base cafeteria all over the world, your throat tightens.

We were all pretty quiet on the van ride back to our Washington hotel.

“USO”… another cliché is to hear those letters and think of the famous Camp Shows. Those morale-boosting events are an important part of the USO, past and present (although nowadays they send a heavy metal band instead of Bob Hope). That’s the public face of USO. What you don’t see are the volunteers who donate their time and often their treasure to lifting the spirits of service men and women all over the world, letting them know they’re not forgotten, and that the folks back home care about them and appreciate what they do.

I didn’t appreciate the extent of the volunteer efforts until tonight at the USO Gala, an annual event to honor the Soldier of the Year from each of the different services. One of the speakers rattled off a few statistics about all the services USO provides, but the one that bowled me over: 27,000 volunteers donated 1.35 million hours of their time to the USO last year.

And I couldn’t help comparing myself to all those thousands of faceless volunteers. What do I do for the folks who put life and limb—quite literally—on the line out there? I spend my days hunched over a keyboard inventing places and scenarios, wandering through worlds that exist only in my head and reporting back on them. Yeah, I know… I hear from soldiers and sailors all the time, telling me how my stories helped pass the time at sea or between deployments. But I’m well paid for what I do. It can’t hold a candle to getting out there and volunteering your time and effort for 1.35 million hours a year.

As I said, I go to bed a humbled man tonight. But one who is happier than ever that he volunteered for Operation Thriller. It’s a measly nine days, but it’s a start.

Heather Graham and Kathleen Antrim

We’ve been on the road with the International Thriller Writers “Operation Thriller IV” USO Tour-2013. My author friend, Kathleen Antrim, and I worked our way across a cafeteria, moving from table to table, meeting the wounded warriors at Walter Reed Medical Center.

It’s my first USO tour and Kathleen’s second tour.

“This tour is different,” Kathleen told me. “The last tour we didn’t get to visit any hospitals.”

No two tours are the same. And I saw the difference in my friend’s eyes, a mixture of conflicted emotions we both share. We discuss how indebted to, and proud we are of, these incredible warriors.

“It’s very humbling,” Kathleen said. “One story is more shockingly impressive than the next. Such bravery, commitment, and dedication.”

We met a couple while making the rounds in the cafeteria. They both are serving in the Army, as are both their two sons and their daughter—an entire family of active duty service members. Their youngest, a daughter, is serving in Afghanistan. They told us how her older brothers cried when she got her orders. They won’t be able to protect her in Afghanistan, and these soldiers know what their sister will be facing.

Every one of the men and women we met all have a story to tell, some are willing to share their experience, others are not. Walter Reed Medical Center is where our men and women come when they’re severely wounded—and often, minus limbs, or in need of desperate organ repair. We heard statistics on the dead and missing—we don’t often hear about how many are so grievously wounded that they have to learn how to live all over again. But it isn’t the injuries that pulled our attention … it was the indomitable spirit of these warriors. Many of whom can’t wait to get back to their units and active duty.

From Washington we went to Kuwait. We had a fantastic security team and—with them and surrounded by our military—we have seldom felt more secure. But, we’ve also never wanted more to thank God (and our parents!) that we are Americans. Our rights have been secured by and protected by a military that continues to give of themselves selflessly. We can speak our minds, and, as women, we never need fear for our lives, property, or basic freedoms that we often take for granted.

Kuwait is a friendly country. But it sits as a tiny piece of a massive landscape in which there are many extremists who do wish us harm. Our base in Kuwait is filled with people who might be called to action at any moment. When we mentioned this fact to these soldiers, they often brushed it off, and told us that it was “just” their job. An understatement to say the least, but they were most sincere.

I spoke with a young man who told me he was a twin. In our conversation he told me that he and his brother had both enlisted on the same day but they’d been afraid to tell their mother. Finally, they did. They had considered lying to her and telling her they’d both have desk jobs. But that wasn’t the truth—they were both going to be army scouts. I asked him what happened when he finally told his mother. “She cried,” he admitted. “But, she understood.”

From Kuwait, we headed to Ramstein—a huge base. The area hosts the largest community of Americans outside our own country. There we were privileged to visit with more wounded soldiers. One wants to be a writer—and he has a wonderful story to tell. All of them were ready to heal—and get back into the fray.

One who will not fight again was a coalition soldier. A bullet severed his spinal column. He will never walk again and most probably will not be able to use his arms again, either.

As we write this, we’re at RAF Mildenhall in Great Britain. We’ve met all kinds of men and women—those who fly missions, those who work on planes, and those who plan strategy and command. They all know they may go “down range” or to the fighting zones in the Middle East and elsewhere at any time.

This morning, we had a discussion on the right words to attribute to all those who serve—because, of course, we see courage in the healing process but it goes far beyond that.

Every man and woman who enlists or is commissioned agrees to go where needed—and to give up his or her life if needed. They know that they may be assigned somewhere in the states or perhaps Germany or England—or they may be assigned to a brutal war zone. They may survive unscathed, they may be wounded—or they may be killed.

So courage comes the minute these people sign up. Reliance, independence, and strength are added to that courage when they face the healing from shattered and destroyed limbs and organs. We saw men who were jogging on artificial limbs—and soldiers striving to speak again after bullets have scraped by their heads and necks. We met a man whose body was so destroyed one would think that not even the best sci-fi writer could conceivably put him back together—and yet he spends his days working to help and enable wounded comrades.

It begins with courage. And from there, so many of these men and women are not just courageous, but amazing in their strength, faith, and remarkable ability to move forward and embrace life. They will not be defined by an injury—they will make their own way, and make their own life.

We have been honored and privileged to meet our men and women in uniform, those who have paid an incredible price and those who stand ready to fight and meet what fate may deal out at any time. As the tour ends, we can only feel that we should be on our knees to thank them. We cannot thank them enough; Kathleen and I are very grateful to be Americans. We know that we owe our freedom and lives to all those who have fought for America, now and throughout our history. May God go with every one of them.

Phillip Margolin

My USO Thriller Writer’s tour flashed by in a blur as we jumped from time zone to time zone, but some memories stand out. On our second day in Washington, D.C. we were guests of honor at the USO gala where the outstanding service man or woman from each branch of the military was given an award. Thrillers are filled with action scenes but I was awe struck by the real life actions that earned these heroes their awards.

At Walter Reed Hospital in D.C., the Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany, and Warrior Centers we saw another kind of courage as we met service men and women dealing with injuries, some of which were horrific, with class.

In Kuwait, I was surprised to learn that not only was the base commander at Camp Arifjan involved in military missions and liaising with Kuwaiti officials but a good part of his day was taken up with problems like trash collection and traffic offenders with which the mayor of a small town has to deal.

Traveling to Camp Buehring, another Kuwati base, gave us our first camel sightings and a real appreciation for what a desert is—sand, sand and more sand stretching out as far as the eye can see. I also talked with mechanics who told me about the havoc that this fine sand inflicts on helicopter engines.

But my best memory is from the medical center in Germany where we visited a room where three seriously wounded soldiers were recovering. We had been told that one soldier in particular was anxious to talk to the visiting writers because he wanted to be a writer. This soldier’s face lit up when I introduced myself. He told me that he had already posted several chapters of a novel on his Facebook page and his excitement grew as we talked about the craft of writing fiction. His great smile and enthusiasm made the whole trip worthwhile.