I remember 9/11 and where I was on that day, clearly. It was eight something in the morning. I was sitting on the sofa in our living room in my hometown in Georgia when everything unfolded. Like most Americans on that day, I was in utter shock at what I was witnessing. At first, like many people, I thought it was an accident. But, when it was announced that it was a terrorist attack after the second plane hit the towers, I was outraged. That patriotic button turned on, and I was eager to do what I could. When the third plane hit the Pentagon, it confirmed that our country and way of life were under attack.
The first thing I did that day was give blood. But that just wasn't enough in my mind. A little over a week later, on September 25th, I had finalized my paperwork to join the Army. It just felt like the right thing to do. I left for basic training a few months later, not knowing where I'd end up.
My first deployment to Iraq was in January 2003. We were sent to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, as part of the force that would be the first into Iraq. We sat there for over two months, waiting for word on when to head north. That March, the 19th, the bombs and missiles started falling on Baghdad. Shock and awe, President Bush called it. The next day, we were in line in a convoy of over one hundred vehicles crossing the border into southern Iraq.
I remember the sights, the smell of sand and burning oil, shot-out vehicles by the road, not able to shower for weeks, and the bad sandstorm we got caught in not far from a truck full of militants trying to use it to their advantage. This was my experience the first time being overseas. Did I agree with the Iraq war? Well, at the time, I was young and green. But, now, I don't believe we should've been there. There was no evidence that Saddam was linked to al-Qaeda. AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) didn't show up until after we did. Soldiers don't get to make that call, though. We went where they told us to go. We always do. The politicians have the burden of foreign policy decisions. And, they have to live with them.
I was deployed two more times to Iraq, one being a fourteen-month deployment to Baghdad from 2007 to 2009 before I was medically retired for an injury a few years later. And, I will tell you the biggest lesson I learned. Meeting people from all over the world, from Iraq to the workers from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, countries like those, opens the eyes to how other people live. I learned more about Muslims (Sunni and Shia) and culture than I ever did in school. One key takeaway that I want to point out is that yes, there are Islamic extremists, as there are from other religions or countries. But, the majority of those people want the same thing we want; to raise their children in safety, send them to school, and take care of their families.
The world and those back home see organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda, who loathe western values and want to destroy western culture. Caught in the middle are the ones who just want to live in peace. So, when you see negative coverage of people like ISIS and al-Qaeda and other groups blowing things up and killing people, don't lump the others in with them. Believe it or not, the bad guys are in the minority. Meeting good people in a war zone is truly a humbling experience. After all, soldiers aren't just there to kill the enemy.
As a military thriller author, these experiences definitely help me in shaping a believable world and creating relatable and realistic characters.