Tag Archives: afghanistan

Book Review: The Prisoner

“better safe than headless”

I’m on Alex Berenson’s email list, and when he sent a message to his readers that John Wells was “back undercover in the Muslim world” I immediately went to Amazon and pre-ordered.

I was excited, but also a little worried.

Wells is a great character. Berenson is an incredibly gifted writer. But of late, a number of usually reliable thriller authors have used the Jack Bauer “24” method of going undercover with disastrous consequences (e.g. I have serious reservations about buying any future Scot Harvath books). I felt Berenson was right on target with his idea – I can’t imagine any fan of John Wells not wanting to read about him going undercover in Afghanistan for a second time – but I feared the worst, that Wells would morph into a bad superhero caricature and Berenson would have ruined a great series.

Now that I’ve read the book, I apologize to Mr. Berenson – sorry I doubted you. This is the best post-9/11 thriller I’ve ever read. In fact, it might be the best thriller I’ve ever read, period.

It begins with a CIA mission in ISIS territory. Hence, this great line from one of the operators: “better safe than headless.” After the mission, it’s clear that someone is giving sensitive intelligence to ISIS. Shafer and Wells – with support from President Duto – launch a bold plan to uncover the mole, and what unfolds is nothing short of mesmerizing.

Berenson takes readers on a vivid, surreal journey with pacing and prose that are masterfully executed and a plot that is all too real and terrifying. Berenson has clearly been to Afghanistan and the other dangerous / exotic locales used in the book – for no one could carry a reader down this path so well unless he first traveled it himself.

The book builds to a frenetic pace, and then Berenson cranks it up even more as it turns into a race against the clock to stop ISIS from carrying out an attack that rivals 9/11.

If you enjoy thrillers, read this book. If you really enjoy thrillers that also fall into the “literary” category, then you absolutely need to be reading Alex Berenson. I used to say no one writes that category better than Daniel Silva, but I think Berenson is at the top now.

Read this book – I highly recommend it, 5/5 stars.

Use this affiliate link to read more about The Prisoner on Amazon.

From the Fields to the Garden II: “Killer”

The best new book of the holiday season for MMA and boxing fans is From the Fields to the Garden II: A second chapter in the life story of legendary cutman Jacob “Stitch” Duran.

In a few days, I’ll be posting an exclusive interview with Stitch.

Here’s an exciting excerpt from the book — with special thanks to Stitch and co-author Zac Robinson for permission to post it on my blog.


“Killer”

We made our way through Camp Morehead and chatted with almost everyone there. One young man asked me if I ever heard of Danny “Little Red” Lopez, WBC Featherweight champion. Of course I had. “He was a great Latin fighter in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” I said.

Turns out, Danny Lopez was his grandfather. I could see the pride in his eyes knowing that I remembered him. Moments like these are what made our tour special because we were able to give these American Heroes some positive memories.

Another great story while in Bagram happened at the chow hall. I was sitting next to a soldier from Poland. He said, “Stitch, you know, I studied Brazilian jujitsu and that has given me the calming effect to accept death. As I hear these bullets buzzing by me, I tell myself, if I go, I am taking you with me.”

Strong words from a soldier that was there as part of the coalition. I was mesmerized by his comment. What mental strength these soldiers have to have in order to survive in the battlefield.

Another time, Amir, Jake and I were walking around the market on base. A soldier from Croatia recognized us and wanted to take a photo. We took one, and then he turned to Jake and Amir, “No offense to you guys, but I want to take a picture with Stitch.”

I guess he recognized me wrapping the hands and working the corners of Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, the famous MMA fighter from his home country. As we had our arms around each other and ready for a photo, he glanced up at me and said, “I’m not a fighter. I’m a killer.”

I believed him. These soldiers deal with life and death on a regular basis.

By the end of the tour we were all feeling quite important as we flew from base to base in Blackhawks. Our next visit was NKC, which is the home to ISAF. ISAF is a NATO-led security mission. I felt like I was in the movie Blackhawk Down as we closed in on our destination. The compound is located in Kabul. Once again, we flew over the area and I kept my eyes open looking for any unusual movement. I did have the complete confidence in the gunners, but I couldn’t keep myself from scanning the ground.

Our scheduled landing was in the center of a soccer field, and there was a game going on as the choppers approached. The athletes ran to a safe place before the two Blackhawks landed and blew dust everywhere.

When we approached the field, armed guards rushed to their positions and ushered us into a safe place where we would meet and greet with soldiers who came to support us.

I’d wrapped so many hands by now, but I saved enough tape and gauze to wrap the hands of a couple soldiers who had covered our backs throughout the tour. It was my way of showing them my respect and appreciation for taking care of us.

One was Major Hood, a man who took pride in his uniform and was the one who made things happen for us. He always kept a stern face, so I made it my goal to make him smile. I gave him the knockout wrap, and we posed for a picture with both of us smiling.

Working with so many fighters in the past, I have learned how to read their eyes. Eyes say everything! Sergeant Perkins was one of these fighters. He’d been with us during the whole tour. He had seen me wrap dozens of soldiers’ hands. He walked up to me with his M-16 hanging over his shoulder. “Can I ask you a question,” he sheepishly asked.

I knew what he wanted and beat him to the punch. I stopped him in the middle of his question. “I would be honored to wrap your hands.”

I did wrap his hands, and this became one of those special memories from my trip. These two soldiers gave us everything they had and that was a small way for me to thank them.

We finished the stay at ISAF when the staff ran flags up the pole. Each flag was used during a combat mission. Together, we folded them in military style and then they were gifted to us as a token of their appreciation.

It was such an honor to receive the flags.

The Blackhawks had arrived earlier than scheduled to pick us up and take us back to Bagram. The fear of being parked too long in the middle of the soccer field was a major concern because of incoming mortars. We had to cut our tour short and rush to the two Blackhawks.

As we ran towards the choppers, it was dark and all the lights were off. Despite being there for over a week, from time to time I still slipped into civilian mode. We strapped in, and during the lift off I decided I wanted to take a photo of the gunner manning his 50-caliber machine gun. I realized that our tour was basically over, and I think a part of me wanted to hold onto it. I gave it no thought and made a huge mistake by taking the photo. Both gunners had their night vision goggles on. The flash screwed up their night vision. Though I could not see his eyes, his body language said it all.

The lights were off because of the fear of having incoming directed at the two choppers. At that moment I recognized what a dumb thing I just did. I’d screwed up their vision for a few moments, and even worse, I could have given our position away. With my headphones on and listening to Santana, I just sat there like a little kid, punished for screwing up. Thankfully, we were able to fly out of there without incident.

“Explosion”

Another incredible part of our trip was when we got to meet USMC four-star General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Dunford who at the time was Commandant of the Marine Corps International Security Force. As of writing, he is Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff. You don’t get much higher than that.

He was at Camp Phoenix for a ceremony where the base was changing hands from one General to another. Security was extremely high because of all the dignitaries present. I could see guards on rooftops and around the perimeter of the event.

After the ceremony, we were invited to meet the General. At the party, there was a long line of officers waiting to meet him. We picked a place to wait, loaded our plates with food, and chatted with some of the guests.

Soon we were escorted to the front of the line where we met and talked to General Dunford. Our presence there meant so much to the troops’ morale that the General thanked us personally for taking the time to visit. We finished by taking pictures with him and many others.

During our three-day stay at Camp Phoenix, we had a chance to relax a bit, see the base, and spend time with the troops. Goze also managed to get enough of a strong signal to host MMAJunkie live. I’m sure it’s the only MMA show to ever be live from Camp Phoenix.

On our last day in Bagram, we had some free time. While Jake was shopping at the market by the entrance to the base, there was a huge car explosion. Jake ran back to meet with us near the bunkers, and said he felt the blast and the tin roofs of the market were shaking and rattling.

Sergeant Perkins and his team immediately assembled. They were the first responders and quickly reported to the scene. It turned out that the explosion had killed something like ten people. It doesn’t make sense to me. One moment people are walking around shopping, and the next they are killed in an explosion. It just isn’t fair.

We were relieved to see the team come back safe. We asked Sergeant Perkins what happened. He simply replied with, “The Special Forces have neutralized the situation.”

I don’t know what that exactly meant, but knowing the capability of the Special Forces I understood that it didn’t look good for the bad guys.

We had met some wonderful people on our tour, and our sendoff was an unexpected surprise. A group of supporters that we had hung out with had set up a festive area leading up to the flight line with lights and music. They had learned that I was a big Santana fan, so they had his music playing in the background. We hugged everyone that came to say good-bye and thanked them for having such a wonderful time.

With flak vest and helmets on, we boarded the C-17 with hundreds of soldiers who had finished their tours in Afghanistan, and headed back to Manas. We were proud to be flying home with these heroes and looking forward to our two beers and watching the Cain Velasquez/Junior Dos Santos fight with them.

We all assembled at the main Rec Center/bar to see the fights. It was a festive night as the soldiers enjoyed their two beers.

UFC 166 was held at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas, and transmitted to all the Armed Forces worldwide. What a night of fights. The one that stole the show was Gilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez. I’d worked with both fighters, so I knew it was going to be a barnburner, and it was. Gilbert won the decision in an all-out battle. After that, Daniel Cormier took a decision over Roy Nelson setting up the main event.

That fight left no question that Cain Velasquez was indeed a true Mexican warrior. He stopped Dos Santos in a grueling fight that had Cain connecting on 274 total strikes to Junior’s 62. The punishment that Dos Santos took was hard to watch as his face turned into a swollen mess.

It was a huge win for Cain, as it was almost two years earlier when dos Santos had taken the belt from him at Fox’s debut event in Anaheim.

It was a high-energy night that we finished by taking pictures with the soldiers. It was a nice way to end our trip.

After eleven days on tour, we would be returning home with a new respect for the men and women in uniform. They sacrifice their lives so that we can live in a free nation.

Months later, our newfound friend and now brother, Jim “Silverback” Mahurin, attended our annual MMAJunkie gathering in Las Vegas. With approval from Lieutenant Colonel Moses, he surprised George, Goze, and I with a (CIB) Combat Infantryman’s Badge that is worn by soldiers who have seen combat. In front of all the MMAJunkie family, we proudly received our pins. Along with my Autism pin, I proudly wear my CIB pin on my cornerman jacket in honor of the men and women we met and all the men and women who fight for our country.

***

Use this Amazon affiliate link to pre-order From the Fields to the Garden II for Kindle.

Travel: Uzbek-Afghan Border Region

I took this photo in the Uzbek-Afghan border region. It’s a porous border in a dangerous area, with illegal crossings on a daily basis—people fleeing war, people searching for drugs, people searching for weapons—and neither government has the will nor the means to deal with the problem.

Unfortunately, people live in this area. They have dilapidated homes and menial jobs and kids that go to dangerous schools.

This particular photo is taken inside a complex of homes. At night people urinate, defecate, and sleep in this narrow hallway. They are exposed to the elements, and the kids who live inside the rooms are afraid to go outside. There’s no nighttime traffic, but you often will hear gunfire.

I see these things in my work and travel, but then I come back to the United States and it can be so hard to process everything: the whiny, selfish kids in Wal-Mart; the parents that hassle teachers at school for dumb reasons; the teachers who deserve to be hassled for serious reasons.

The absurd. The asinine.

There’s so much of it. You reach a point you feel like a sponge that’s been submerged in a lake. There’s simply no room left to feel much of anything.

If you dwell on it too much it can be unhealthy.

But you can’t ignore it and also be moral.

What then?

I took this photo and taped it above my computer. For all its beauty, we live in a dangerous world filled with great heartache—and this picture is my reminder to be grateful that my corner of the world has been blessed far beyond anything we ever deserved.

The Rainy Season: “give me money and I will teach your student”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

Ask Uncle Google for “Korean Peninsula at night” and you get eerie satellite images that show South Korea all lit up while North Korea sits in the dark, literally. Jakarta has that same feel. Central Jakarta is lit up and vibrant, but the third ring is dark and even the air feels thick, heavy and desperate.

Indira warned, “This place is not safe.”

I thought, in general or only—

“For everyone. Muslims also,” she said, apparently reading my mind.

“Any radicalized madrasahs?”

“A few.”

“Wallach’s driver should be picking him up right now. It’s not too late. Make a phone call. Get him dropped off.”

“Oh come on Mr. Strange, how do you know I am not doing that to you?”

I glimpsed the Monas in the distance. It was built to memorialize a hard-fought war for independence, but here on a decaying street littered with rubbish it seemed impossibly far away. On this street the people were still at war.

The motorbike hit a pothole and we nearly found out who was right. God or Allah.

“Sorry,” Indira said. “Up ahead. You see green wall?”

“Yes.”

“We stop here.”

It was a T-intersection. Turn right, left, or crash into a green cinder block wall that was maybe ten meters across and two meters high. A roll of razor wire was strung along the top. Alleys ran at obtuse angles from either side of the wall. Indira jumped the curb and drove into the alley on our right. The wall continued on our left, running deeper. On the right side of the alley was a decrepit graffiti-rich building. Up ahead a steel barricade on wheels was ensconced into the wall. A gate, I guess. Indira killed the engine and called out in Bahasa. I heard movement on the other side of the wall, and then someone wrestled free a chain and very quickly the gate rolled open.

“Hurry,” Indira said. “Go inside.”

A young girl had opened the gate. I climbed off the motorbike and brushed past her. Indira pushed the motorbike inside and then the girl rolled the gate shut just as quickly as she had opened it.

It took a moment to process everything.

In truth, I hadn’t expected much … but some sort of building, surely. Instead I found something akin to a campsite. Or flea market stalls. In the center of the compound was a rectangular pavilion-type structure. It had a few columns made from cinder blocks. The four corners were supported with wooden posts. The roof was aluminum. It was built low and flat. The pavilion was partitioned horizontally and vertically with plastic sheeting to create stalls that might have been four meters deep and five meters across. Inside the stalls were people.

Families.

They used car batteries for electricity and fire pits for cooking. They sat on benches made from cinder blocks and two-by-fours. Clothes were strung on lines. Trash was strewn about. No sign of plumbing.

The young girl stared at me.

I thought she might be eleven or twelve years old. She wore shorts, tee shirt and sandals. Her hair was long and simple. I gave half-a-smile and said, “Hello.”

The girl took a step back. Afraid, I thought.

Indira said, “Her name is Rose. She never see foreigner before.”

This time I smiled with effort. “Hello, Rose.”

Rose bowed slightly and then ran off.

Indira said, “Follow her.”

The pavilion ran north to south and was partitioned lengthwise straight down the middle, with four stalls facing outward to the east, butted against four stalls facing outward to the west. A well-worn path made an oval track around the whole structure.

Rose went right, and we followed.

At the top of the oval a mother was outside bathing with her kids. They used ladles and urns and were unashamed to be naked. But I felt ashamed. On the west side of the pavilion was a small courtyard area. Maybe courtyard is the wrong word though. A fire burned in a steel drum. A few men sat around it, smoking cigarettes. A few tarps were secured to wooden posts and people slept beneath them. A step down from the stalls, as if such a thing was even possible. In the same area a handful of kids chased after a soccer ball. They saw me and were startled. Maybe they’d never seen a foreigner either.

Rose darted into one of the stalls.

It had a tarp draped from the roof for privacy. I could hear excited voices, but all I could see were furtive shadows against the tarp. A small group of men and children gathered around us. The men were just curious, I hoped.

“Is there a plan?” I asked, because I had no clue what was going on.

“We already talk plan. I give you to radicals,” Indira said, straight-faced. Then she smiled and added, “Trust me. You will see the plan. Okay?”

The tarp opened like a tent and a woman emerged from the stall. Unlike the men that had gathered around us, this woman had put considerable effort into her appearance. As if she’d been expecting company. She wore a modest dress and a hijab. Petite, attractive, maybe early forties. She smiled demurely and it felt familiar somehow. She folded her hands together and bowed, and then she embraced Indira. But Indira was much, much taller, and the woman had to stand on her toes.

Suddenly, everything clicked.

“Indira?”

Indira turned to me with a grim smile.

“Maya’s sister is named Rose.”

Indira nodded. “We go inside now.”

I used the word stall, but in fact this was Maya’s home. Maybe two hundred square feet, with a tin roof overhead and a tattered rug to cover the dirt floor below. “Is Maya here?” I asked.

Indira shook her head. “She stay my home.”

Tian and Faye were Maya’s parents. I shook hands with Tian. He was wiry, with coarse hands and dark skin from long days laboring outside. Rose was Maya’s only sibling. A family friend was here as well. Her name was Istira. Fortyish, I thought. Modestly dressed with a white hijab … but she was also pensive, and stressed. The adults sat on the rug and Rose served us tea.

“Terima kasih,” I said, to a chorus of oohs and aahs, as if an American learning exactly one expression of gratitude in a foreign culture was an impressive feat. Rose didn’t offer to serve any food. I was grateful for that as well. I didn’t want to take from people who had so little.

A radio blared from an adjacent stall. K-Pop. Weird, that I could understand the chorus. Kajima, kajima. Don’t go, don’t go. Weirder, that it was playing on a radio station in Jakarta. A lifetime ago I’d gone to see a Korean pop concert. I hadn’t understood a thing, and not just lyric-wise. The gyrating, rave-ish nature of it all had been lost to me. But now I longed to be in that time and place again, when the rapidly growing fascination with upbeat nonsensical millennials had been the greatest threat to American culture.

On the floor, I sat facing in, not out—and I felt anxious, exposed. A thin tarp was all that separated me from the curious onlookers who still hovered three steps away, but there was nothing I could do about it.

We sipped tea and made light conversation with Indira translating. It was interrupted when someone in the stall opposite Maya’s took a hellacious piss. He made tall arcs that hissed back and forth, beating hot contrails into the plastic that split the pavilion lengthwise. It left a pool of urine that seeped into Maya’s home.

Nothing I could do about that, either.

Istira held out a framed picture.

Indira said, “She would like you to look. Then she will tell you a story. I will translate for you after she finish.”

I nodded at Istira. “Sure.” I took the photo and listened as Istira told her story in Bahasa. I’d seen a thousand same-but-different photos. You have too. Your own, or your kids. Probably both. I found Maya pretty quick. That shy smile hadn’t changed. She was in the front row, because the back row is always for the tall kids. The photo was dated September 2003. Maya would have been thirteen back then. The teacher had been a very young woman. Mid-twenties, I thought. Like Chyka. I counted forty-three students, and I knew one of them had belonged to Istira. Some things are easily understood no matter the language.

Grief, for example.

Istira trembled as she spoke. I listened carefully. The words were lost to me, but I understood the pain. Istira took the frame again, and then showed me her daughter. Second row, third from the left. A tiny smirk, a bit confident, like she knew something no one else did. A beautiful girl, really. Istira finally grew quiet, and then Indira began to translate.

Istira’s daughter was Danisa and she had been missing since November 2003. But the story of how she went missing begins in 1997, with the crippling financial crisis that hit Asia—the same crisis that had led U.S. based flag carriers to discontinue flights to Seoul and made my first overseas assignment a no-joke GSL. Indonesia, Korea and Thailand had been the hardest hit countries. The Indonesian currency was in free fall as world markets dumped rupiah for U.S. dollars.

Until the crisis, one dollar bought 2,600 rupiah. In only a few weeks that same dollar bought 14,000 rupiah. Or said differently, 2,600 rupiah had been the equivalent of one American dollar—but now it was worth nineteen cents.

In real terms, everyone in Indonesia was getting poorer. And the crisis was exacerbated by the fact Indonesian companies with foreign debt had to repay loans using American dollars. Imagine if all your debt increased five-fold overnight. Essentially that’s what happened to Indonesian companies, but it was the people already living in poverty that suffered the most. In an effort to stabilize the rupiah, won and baht, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) issued $35 billion in “financial support … for adjustment and reform programs in Indonesia, Korea, and Thailand.” Another $85 billion was pledged from “multilateral and bilateral sources.” All total, nearly $40 billion went to Indonesia—but in less than a year the rupiah lost sixty-five percent of its value.

The Indonesian Bank governor lost his job, and President Suharto was forced from office. Suharto’s home had been one of the first stops on tonight’s itinerary. Apparently it hadn’t been random.

Emergency stores of food—including rice—were delivered to Jakarta and distributed throughout the country. But with IMF and foreign aid came mandated reforms and oversight administered by western officials from predominately “Christian” nations. For a Muslim populace already in political and societal upheaval, to label such oversight as “unpopular” is a vast understatement. A multitude of crises—inflation, failing banks, food shortages, catastrophic unemployment—made Jakarta a breeding ground for extremism and ripe for recruiting young jihadists.

Terrorist bombs hit Central Jakarta three times in 1998 and early 1999. A shopping center and the Istiqlal Mosque were among the targets. Then in August 2000, a terrorist bomb killed two people outside the official residence of the Philippines ambassador. Only six weeks later, fifteen people were killed when the Jakarta Stock Exchange was hit by a car bomb. Most of the dead were Indonesian chauffeurs waiting to drive their bosses home for the night.

Then came al-Qaeda.

That same year a coordinated attack against churches in Jakarta, Bandung and other cities left eighteen people dead on Christmas Eve.

In October 2002, Jemaah Islamiyah—a radical group affiliated with al-Qaeda—killed more than two hundred tourists in Bali, including seven Americans.

The JW Marriott was hit for the first time in 2003.

The list goes on and on. Self-detonating radicals. Car bombs. IEDs. Bombs at concerts, hotels, nightclubs, markets, shopping centers.

“The big one was of course your country,” Indira said. “I will not lie to you. I told you a man come to the mosque to celebrate what happen. It is true, my father ran him away. My father forbid the man to return. But it is also true the man was not alone. I am very sorry to say it, but I will not lie. Many people were happy to see your country suffer. I tell you what I think. I am strong Muslim. But the men who do this Nine-Eleven are in hell. They will never see paradise. And the men who take our innocent children in the name of jihad? There is a special hell just for them. I hope they will burn in it forever.”

“Is that what happened to Danisa?”

Indira nodded angrily. “Yes. She was taken. Danisa was Maya’s best friend since early years in private school. It was not the best school, but it also was not the worst. Then the money crisis and IMF make everything change and people could no longer afford private schools. Danisa and Maya had to go to public school. It had only one teacher for every seventy students. Can you believe it? Sadly it is true. How will they teach? How will the student learn? You know what the teacher tell the parents? ‘I cannot teach everyone. Would you like your student to learn something? Then give me money and I will teach your student.’ She do this because the teacher salary is nothing. The teacher is also poor. But the parents cannot pay. If the parents had money they would not send student to this school in first place. Many students just quit school because there is no reason to go. But Danisa and Maya go school every day.”

“Until they were thirteen.”

Indira nodded. “Then the imam come.”

“Imam? From where?”

“Hell,” Indira hissed.

The Memory of Hope: “the first wave of heroes”

An excerpt from The Memory of Hope, by Tucker Elliot.

The first wave was brave men and women in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. Office workers who refused to leave colleagues behind as they evacuated the burning towers. Police officers and firemen who must have known that rushing into those buildings and climbing those stairs meant a certain death—and yet they never hesitated. The people on the streets of Lower Manhattan, in the debris, rendering aid to strangers—this after having seen two planes crash, and not knowing if other planes were on the way. A mayor who went to ground zero with a bullhorn, in harm’s way but leading in a crisis. The news personnel that documented the tragedy but did so with humanity.

The first wave continued—flight attendants and passengers who fought back, and soldiers and civilians who braved the burning wreckage of the Pentagon to reach the injured and dying.

The first wave was the men and women who went to Wall Street to reopen the Stock Exchange. It was the teachers who welcomed students back to school when smoke from Ground Zero could still be seen from classroom windows. It was the people who stood in line to give blood. It was the medical personnel—doctors, nurses, paramedics, mental health professionals—who were the first responders on that Tuesday in September, and it was the ones who in the days that followed worked tirelessly around the clock in hospitals, parking lots, on the streets.

It was the single mom store clerk in Times Square who might have been afraid but she went back to work anyway. The transit workers who got a city moving again. The rescue and construction crews that breathed contaminated air and would forever suffer physically and emotionally from digging through the wreckage, looking for survivors, recovering remains of the people we lost, cleaning up the debris, and rebuilding.

It was the airline industry and its employees that held their own grievous loss in check so that they might fly again—not just for commerce and free markets, but so a way of life could get back on its feet and give the finger to a group of radical terrorists.

It was the guardsmen and women called to duty from states all across our great country—the weekend warriors had a mission unprecedented in our nation’s history, and they committed to doing their part, and doing it well.

It was normal, everyday Americans, from all walks of life, doing what they could, where they were, no matter how big or small.

It was our military. Courageous men and women who would fight and die for an idea—that life, liberty and the ability to passionately chase our dreams still matter.

They were the first wave of heroes.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks were a national tragedy for America, but for the men, women and children who lost family and friends on that day it was incredibly personal. We really had no choice, though. We had to stand back up. We would grieve, but we’d do so on our feet and moving forward.

The Day Before 9/11

In Korea, a soldier’s daughter is jetlagged and lost in her new school. In Germany, a military family welcomes the birth of a second child. In the aftermath of 9/11, both families—dads, moms, and kids—will fight the war on terror.

A harrowing true story that spans America’s first decade post-9/11, The Day Before 9/11 portrays in riveting detail the sacrifices made by military families serving overseas and the enduring pain that accompanies the tragic loss of life.

Use this Amazon affiliate link to read more.

The Rainy Season: “a ticket to Afghanistan”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

In the days after 9/11 the home economics teacher at my military school in Korea had students baking cookies for snipers. That probably sounds strange. It felt surreal. Our small army post had brought in snipers from Seoul and placed them on the roofs of our housing units and school buildings. Just one of the many things I hadn’t prepared for in college. We also had military police riding school buses and patrolling our hallways. They carried M-16s loaded with live rounds. The MPs got a lot of cookies, too. Most of the classroom windows had to be covered with dark-colored bulletin board paper. Our military post was surrounded by a vertical city of three-and-a-half million people. We didn’t want student silhouettes lighting up the scopes for any Johnny Jihad snipers that might have found a perch high above our perimeter wall. Students weren’t allowed outside for recess either. Instead of the playground our students used the library and cafeteria—though not for reading and eating. Sometimes we’d march students up and down the stairwells just to burn off excess energy. Or to give mental health breaks to workers in the library and cafeteria. We also had to cancel after school sports and extra-curricular events.

My principal obviously wasn’t going to China.

Not anytime soon.

We had constant briefings from the military command. We were told to blend in and be vigilant, but no one told us how to do those things. Somewhere in Washington D.C. a PowerPoint was being tweaked. But we hadn’t seen it yet. Meanwhile, the media said “live your lives or the terrorists win” and most of us were on board with that. But we were also on board with the snipers hanging with us for a while. If that was a contradiction then so be it.

The military went to war for our country.

So did military spouses. So did military brats.

My principal had been with the Department of Defense for three decades. His name was Ray and he was a tall, imposing figure. His tendency to be abrupt was often mistaken for impatience. In fact he just didn’t like wasting time. There really is a difference. He was honest, quick and decisive when settling routine matters but he was deliberate and uncannily intuitive when counseling teachers or students. Ray had been an airman before he was an educator, and now he was leading military students and teachers in a crisis unlike any that our school system had ever faced.

“We have to be normal for our kids,” Ray said. “Nothing else will be. Not for a long time. They need homework, quizzes, essays and tests. They need structure and assurances. It’s not going to be easy. I don’t care. We’re going to do it anyway. We’re going to help each other. And we’re going to be successful.”

It was tense, and stressful—but we did our best. Not just for our students and the soldiers stationed in Korea with us, but for our country and military at large, our families and friends back in the states, and with heavy hearts we did our jobs in honor of our colleagues in New York and D.C. and western Pennsylvania who persevered daily in classrooms with circumstances far worse than ours. We did our best to move forward and be normal so our way of life could get back on its feet and give the finger to a group of radical terrorists. As athletic director, I thought moving forward and being normal meant our athletic teams should be competing. But it was a decision for the military command and for sure no one was going to ask for my opinion.

I began every day by asking Ray, “Any news on sports?”

He would answer, “Nothing.”

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. That’s how it felt.

Then one Monday morning I asked, “Anything?”

Ray looked up from his desk and said a single word. “Shanghai.”

“What about Shanghai?”

“I don’t want to go.”

“Okay.”

Ray said, “I’m sending you instead.”

“To Shanghai?”

“You’re in here every day begging for something to do.”

“With sports.”

“I spoke with the superintendent. Sports and extra-curricular activities are going to resume next week.”

“Finally—”

He waved his hand to cut me off. “First you have to go to Seoul for updated force protection training. Then you have to brief our coaches and athletes on new procedures. Then sports can start up again.”

“Great—”

He waved again. “They’re faxing travel orders for you to fly to Seoul.”

“Okay—”

“After Seoul you’re going to Shanghai.”

“But—”

“I don’t want to go,” he said again. “I could feed you a line and say it’s an honor the superintendent chose to send you in my place. I won’t. He didn’t. I told him you would go because I thought it would force him to cancel Shanghai. But he agreed, so now you’re stuck. The good news is you’ll be back in time to get sports going again.”

“What am I going to do in Shanghai?”

He shrugged. “Buy some whiskey in duty-free.”

“I don’t drink.”

“It’s not for you.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“Buy a suit. Wear it. Leave your hat at home. Smile. Nod. Give him whiskey and bow a lot.”

“Him” was the Chinese principal. He’d given Ray some expensive alcohol back in May. Ray gave me a few other particulars and I spent the rest of Monday teaching and adjusting lessons plans for my substitute. I arrived in Seoul on Tuesday evening and got a room at the Dragon Hill Lodge on Yongsan Army Garrison. The security briefing took place Wednesday morning at the DoDDS-Korea District Office, which was on the same post and within easy walking distance from the Dragon Hill.

Every DoDDS athletic director on the peninsula was in attendance.

The district safety and security officer gave the briefing. The SSO was a guy named Harkins. He was early forties with a high-ranking civilian position and a generous salary. Harkins was tall and wide, but fit. He had a high-and-tight military cut and no doubt his personal one-step plan for increased safety and security was to spend more time in the gym. I’d been in a few briefings with Harkins. He’d always been an outgoing, no-nonsense guy. But this morning his eyes were puffy and tired and his affect resembled a defeated warrior.

I gave a concerned look to a few colleagues and got a few shrugs in reply. The bottom line is we were all tired and stressed. None of us had a clue what would transpire over the next few months. Why should the SSO be any different?

Harkins said, “I have a PowerPoint. I’m not going to use it.”

Which would have been welcome news in different circumstances.

“I was a soldier. I fought in Desert Storm. We lost good soldiers, marines, airmen. But this war is different.” Harkins was really struggling. He paused a beat, and when he continued it was with an emotional plea. “Let’s not lose any of our kids. We can’t lose any of our kids.”

I understood why Harkins hadn’t used the PowerPoint.

This wasn’t “updated force protection training.” The only thing that had changed post-9/11 was Harkins had been much more insistent this time. Like cleaning up after lunch. Ultimatums on top of earlier ultimatums. Apparently our new plan was, “From now on you need to listen when we talk about safety and security because this time we really mean it.”

I shouldn’t be cynical.

It was a difficult time for everyone. Maybe it was even more difficult for Harkins. He was a tough, ex-soldier whose country was going to war—only he’d been tasked to fight with something other than bullets. Ground Zero was still burning. What Harkins really wanted was a ticket to Afghanistan.

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