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Nine Days in Iraq

Iraqi Army MRAPWar, it has been said, is 99 percent boredom and 1 percent terror. During those long hours of boredom many soldiers read books—usually thrillers. I know this because a good percentage of the emails I get come from service men and women stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. They write to thank me for the escape my books have provided, however temporary.

For this reason—for the first time in its history—the USO sent a group of authors on tour to visit and entertain the troops. I was one of the five chosen to go—along with David Morrell (the creator of Rambo); Steve Berry, who writes fabulous historical thrillers; James Rollins, author of terrific science and adventure-based thrillers; and Andy Harp, a first-time novelist and former Marine colonel who helped organize the trip. We were sponsored by International Thriller Writers, a worldwide association of fiction and nonfiction authors.

We were guinea pigs. The USO wanted to know if the troops would enjoy meeting a bunch of tweedy, garrulous authors instead of, say, cheerleaders, rock stars, and famous comedians. We could not bring our books—the logistics of transporting books in a war zone precluded that. We could only bring ourselves.

The tour started at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospitals, where we visited with wounded troops and their families, listened to their extraordinary stories, and encouraged them to write down their experiences. It was a powerful and moving experience. Many of these soldiers are grievously wounded, some missing half or more of their bodies, complicated in many cases by brain injuries. I have never seen such courage. In a country where grievance seems to have become the national pastime, we heard not one single complaint, not one expression of anger, regret, or self-pity.

One soldier had posted a handwritten a note that embodied this attitude:


All who enter here

If you are coming into this room with sorrow or to feel sorry for my wounds, go elsewhere. The wounds I received, I got in a job I love, doing it for the people I love, supporting the freedom of a country I deeply love. I am incredibly tough and will make a full recovery. What is full? That is the absolute utmost physically my body has the ability to recover. Then I will push that about 20 percent further through sheer mental tenacity. This room you are about to enter is a room of fun, optimism, and intense rapid regrowth.

From DC we went on to Kuwait and from there, by military transport, to Bagdad, Mosul, Balad, and Basra. We were issued flak jackets and helmets and flew around Iraq in the belly of a C-130 Hercules, shoulder to shoulder with soldiers, supplies, heavy vehicles, and equipment. Most of the landings were “tactical”—something not unlike the Tower of Terror at Disney World—and the takeoffs were “hot” as well as being what are known as short-field, which is another thrill ride I could do without. We lived in base housing, mostly trailers or modified containers surrounded by blast walls, sandbagged, and surrounded by bunkers in case of attack. In Basra, a base particularly hard hit by rocket attacks, each of us had a “buddy bunker” next to our bed, a fortified Kevlar and cement box, to roll into should the warning system broadcast “Incoming! Incoming! Incoming!”

Instead of going on stage before thousands, we met with the troops in small groups, going to their places of work to mingle and chat and thank them for their service. We encountered soldiers from many different areas, including Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams, firefighters, unmanned aerial vehicle teams, troops and civilians in the mess halls, recreational centers, and USO centers. We met a wide range of personnel, from two- and three-star generals to mechanics in the motor pool.

We were welcomed with incredible warmth. The soldiers were excited to talk about writing, and they asked many questions about how to get published, how to find an agent and editor, and what the writing process is like. They were filled with questions. We urged them to write down their stories, not only because they are living American history, but for their own children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. I often told the story of my own grandfather, who kept a journal during World War I, and how it became the most treasured heirloom in our family.

Despite the official end to the war in Iraq, it remains a bleak, desolate, and dangerous place. The troops here are doing their jobs exceedingly well under physical and psychological pressure. Mortar and rocket attacks and small-arms fire occur with regularity and IEDs are always a danger to those traveling “outside the wire.” The top commanders in Iraq acknowledge that suicide is an increasingly serious problem and are taking major steps to counter it. It is disheartening for the soldiers who must go off base on missions helping the Iraqis to have children throwing rocks at their vehicles.

I asked one soldier, now on his fourth tour of duty, if he had any idea of what would happen after the withdrawal was complete in 2011. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “We’re doing all we can, but there’s only one thing I know for sure: nobody can tell the future in this place.”

Douglas Preston is the coauthor (with Lincoln Child) of the bestselling novels Relic, Mount Dragon, Reliquary, Riptide, Thunderhead, The Ice Limit, The Cabinet of Curiosities, Still Life with Crows, Brimstone, Dance of Death, The Book of the Dead, The Wheel of Darkness, Cemetery Dance, and Fever Dream. Preston’s bestselling nonfiction book, The Monster of Florence, is being made into a major motion picture. His new series with Lincoln Child launches in February 2011 with the book Gideon’s Sword. His interests include horses, scuba diving, skiing, and exploring the Maine coast in an old lobster boat. Learn more at