Monday, November 11, 2013

USO TOUR




Journal – USO

Day Minus One

                I had everything pretty much so ready—packing should have been easy.

                It’s never easy and I should know that—the pets always want to help. Well, I have a huge duffel bag  and a couple of huge pairs of boots and a huge jacket. That first. Then, logistics! Must have one dress outfit for a dinner—easy. But I’m staying on after the USO portion of the trip in
England. I’m going to visit “my people” in Richmond (the Harlequin/Mira offices there) and spend some time at World Fantasy in Brighton. I’m going to need some other clothing but, hey . . . I’ve been to London several times and if I forget something, I really should be fine. Yes, easy enough to buy toothpaste, etc!

                Dennis is leaving ahead of me for business abroad. So, first up—get him out of the house. After I get the cat out of the duffel bag.

                Note to self—bring a lint remover! (Cat/husky/mutt hair remover!)

Day 1

                Car picks me up right on time for the airport – and then I’m off. I’m on the only plane without a baggage claim listed but I see Paul Wilson who has come in from New Jersey along with our driver. We head to our hotel and first thing that night, we’re out an on our way to a USO center at the base there. We “meet and greet.” It’s not about our books; it’s about the soldiers who want to talk to us about anything. Some want to become writers themselves. Some want to know about the process. Some are just happy to talk.

                There’s a joke in our family that we always get the room furthest down the hall. Mine is the very last; my co-authors on the tour tease me for being so far away. It’s okay, of course—it’s what I’m accustomed to! 

                That night we head out to our first center. We talk to those stationed in the DC area—and we listen to them. And the stories are amazing.

                And then the next day . . . .

Day 2

                Walter Reid hospital. I am immediately grateful that I can make the trek to my room. At Walter Reid, amazing things are done with prosthetics. We fan out—all of us. It’s a little scary. I’m afraid I’ll sit with a soldier who doesn’t want me to sit with him. But we’re there to say thank you and once we start (Kathy Antrim our noble lead!) we are amazed and humbled and grateful all over again. Kathy and I talk with a couple who have both served themselves. In was regular army; she signed up for the guard. Immediately after 911 occurred and the wife’s unit was deployed. They’ve both survived—their two sons and now their daughter have all joined up. Amazing service from one family. 

                I meet a boy who will not walk again – even with all the amazing physicians and surgeons at Walter Reid can do. He isn’t bitter; he’s just ready to go home.

                Another man looks great—nice strong shoulders, cheerful smile. One leg is metal. We also learn he lost pieces of most of his organs including his genitals. He is positive and passionate—and already has amazing programs going that will help other injured men and women move back into mobile lives. 

                They are from the North and the South and all over the country. They are beautiful. It strikes me that throughout history, we have sent our youth in the prime of their beauty and ability to go forth and fight and die and sometimes come back where  they may or may not be put back together.

                When we leave Walter Reid, I know that I am blessed to breathe and just to walk—and that I have met some of the greatest heroes whose names you might never know. It would disturb them were I to cry or kiss their feet so I refrain.

                I thank God that I can walk the distance to my room.  I thank Him that I can walk and
breathe and have all my limbs and I want to knock myself upside the head for anytime I’ve ever complained about a little pain.

                That night, we dress up. We’re there for the gala and we dress up and head down. While we’re amazed by the stories of the men who will receive awards, we also know they’re just the tip of the iceberg on stories regarding courage. I remember that courage isn’t NOT being afraid—courage is knowing fear and acting despite that fear. One of the recipients crawled on his belly to bring back a wounded man despite the heavy fire raging over him. Another jumped into a raging current to save a man and a child—while off duty. I’m privileged to hold the Navy award and walk it on to the stage. It’s happenstance that I drew Navy—we went by alphabetical order—but I was thinking of my dad, Navy Chief Petty Officer. I like to think he was smiling from
heaven, giving me a nice thumbs-up sign.

Day 3

                We head out to the base at Quantico. A traffic jam makes us an hour late but it’s lovely—people have waited to see us. I’m fascinated by Quantico—and to meet a real NCIS officer. I am a fan of the show—Navy, you know! We speak to others there—and I’m able to listen to service members and their families, and I get to hold a beautiful baby for a long time, and if you know me, babies . . . dogs . . . kittens. But, mostly, babies! Her dad is between deployments. 

                Leaving Quantico, I realize just how many families are touched every day—and wonder every day if a loved one is alive and well.

                I’m grateful, too, for my companions. No one could travel with better friends than Kathy Antrim, F. Paul Wilson, Phil Margolin, and Harlan Coben. They are all amazing.
That night, we leave for Kuwait.

Day 4

                Kuwait.

                We now have Jeremy, a seasoned USO guide, to take us where we need to go. A woman in a burka inspects our documents and checks our visas. When I exit the airport—I see a McDonald’s. It’s a bit strange to see Micky D with Arabic letters.

                When I’d first been asked on the trip, I’d imagined a tent in the dessert. Our hotel is Italian and very nice. 

                We meet our security detail—men with us, men in a car in front of us, men in a car behind us. Most Kuwaiti people are just going about their daily lives; they are friends in a sea of discontent. But the country is a little dot in a vast dessert where many fanatics hate western philosophy and therefore, everyone there is eternally vigilant. We travel through areas of vast riches—and then we travel through miles and miles of desert. These are men and women prepared to go “down range” or into action at any time. They come through when they have just finished deployments “down range.”

                And here, we get to discover just how much the USO is appreciated and we realize just
how much they do. It’s not just actors, movie stars, authors, artists or what have you—the center here has gaming for them, books, computers—all kinds of things to do.

                I get the opportunity to speak with a young man who is with a girl who is just 18. They are friends—he from Louisiana, she from Ohio. He’s turned 21; he has a brother serving who is just 23. He told me about signing up; he and his brother had done so the same day. They hadn’t had the nerve to tell their mom. Then they were going to tell her and convince her they both had desk jobs. They didn’t like; they both signed up to be scouts. I asked him what she said when they finally told her the truth. “She cried,” he told me. I could only imagine. I know, however, as well, that she is very proud.

                One young soldier came up to me and asked if I’d do him a favor. He had just called home to his girlfriend; she was a reader of my books. I went with him and was able to speak with her on the phone. She is writing herself—I’m going to do my best to help her in any way that I can. I gave her my information and I saw his face and started shaking. I owe him so much. He was grateful to me.  There is nothing I can ever to do to compare with what these men and women do.

                The base commanders give us a fascinating talk. I have a better understanding—not of
politics. I’ll never understand politics! But of what is going on and what our men and women do and what they’re expected to do.

                At the library, I have to admit to being super excited that they had about twenty-five books in a special audio section of little tiny boxes that are complete—the earphones, the speakers, the book—all are there in a little box! One of mine was represented. I was grateful to whatever powers there were that made that possible.

                There are two bases in Kuwait. When I leave them, I thank God that my parents made me a first generation American. They loved the USA. I know that I’ll embarrass myself kissing the ground when I come home. 

Day 5

   
             An over-nighter brings us to Ramstadt, Germany. We stay at an Air Force hotel where many of our men and women—coming and going and being reassigned—are staying, too. This is nice—so many chances to say thank you! We have  time to stay at the USO center there and meet so many people. It’s wonderful. Then, we move on into the hospital. We’re wordsmiths—and yet it’s almost impossible to describe the feelings that come to you there. One soldier down the hall—is a Croatian but joined our army. A bullet nicked his neck; he is here because it’s the best possible place for him. Right now, he is paralyzed. A family member is there to take him home when the time comes.

                One of the most gratifying moments for all of us comes then—a soldier has been waiting, notebook in hand—to talk to us all. He is working on a fantasy novel and has maps drawn of his world. The story is really excellent and we’re all ready to help him.

                One soldier was in for a minor operation and he was charming. He was wearing his USO quilt. I learned again just how much the USO does and I’m grateful to be allowed to be a part of it for my few days.

                One soldier has a brain injury and is learning to speak again. There’s magic in the air; not one of us had a problem understanding him. 

                That night, we head out to the base library. There are actually thousands of Americans living here; it is, in fact, the largest conglomeration of Americans living outside the United States anywhere.  Servicemen and women and their families arrive; there’s a group there of writers. It’s wonderful to talk to all of them and we hope, each and every one of us, that we’ve helped and that we’ll have more programs in the future to help even more.

Day 6 and 7

                We arrive late, check into the base, grab some dinner, and sleep.

                Jolly Old England and Mildenhall

                While the world grows smaller and smaller in many ways, we’re still across a giant pond and many of our men and women begin a trip out to battle zones through Ramstadt and the RAF base here. The stories we hear again are amazing. 

                At the library, we meet a Colonel who is a huge fan of Harlan; we also hear her story. Her
husband is there; he was military for many years, too. She’s a flyer—they met when he was guarding her plane. He served a long time but now he’s out—she’s still flying. They are charming and so happy together. He jokes that when it came down to it, she was the one who needed to stay in. She outranked him; now he teases that she still seems to outrank him at home. They both appear to be confident and sure of themselves and not in the least concerned with who outranks who.

                At lunch we scatter and meet more soldiers, those coming and those going, and those who remain where they are repairing planes, working on computers, and doing whatever else needs to be done. 

                Our last official function ends that night—we head to a local pub for our goodbye meal with Jeremy, Fred, our amazing photographer, and one another. Harlan had arranged for a car to take him into London so Paul and I, due at World Fantasy Con in Brighton next day, hitch a ride with Harlan into London; the next morning, Kathy, Phil, Fred, and Jeremy head home.

                Jeremy and Fred were wonderful. I miss them already. I hope I’ll see them again.

                I know that Paul, Kathy, Phil, Harlan, and I will always be friends. We’ve formed a little family that comes from the experiences we shared. Unlike any other.

                I know that I am forever changed. I’ve seen true heroes and one thing remains; when they’re complimented, they shrug. “I’m just doing my job.”

                I take it personally. That job is being the front line that protects me. While we squabble at home, the thing is this—we’re allowed to squabble. We’re allowed to complain. We speak our minds. I have the right to strive to attain goals. I am an equal citizen. 

                All these gifts are mine because of the men and women who fight to protect me and my rights.

                I hope I did something for someone. 

                I know that they did an amazing thing for me—they changed my life. I am eternally grateful.     

12 comments:

Kathleen Pickering said...

Wow, Heather! I cannot imagine the emotions fueling that trip! Thank you so much for giving us a bird's eye view of what's really happening with our soldiers abroad. Thank you, too, for making the trip and representing America to our soldiers. Can't think of better emissaries than you, Paul and Harlan. Welcome home!!

Alyssa Maxwell said...

So simply and eloquently told - and so powerful. Thank you, Heather, for sharing your experience...and theirs.

Ojeda.Herrera said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ojeda.Herrera said...


I made the mistake of reading this at work and now everyone is asking why I'm crying. Thanks for going! And thanks for sharing? And like a soldier, I know you will just shrug and say "it's just your job." xoxo
Edi Ojeda

Danita Minnis said...

Heather, thanks for taking us on this journey. It really puts things in perspective. We Americans are so very lucky.

Mary Ricksen said...

That's what I love about you Heather. You are always giving back and that is worth more than gold...

Bonnie Vanak said...

Thanks for doing this for those who really need it, Heather! You are always giving of yourself.

Traci said...

You are such a beautiful soul, Heather. I'm glad you went - you're the perfect ambassador. I couldn't agree with you more. Thanks to those who allow us to be free!!!

Evan Pickering said...

Great post Heather. The part in the hospital with the men who lost limbs in service gives me a lot appreciation for how good I have it. It must've felt great to do something for that guy and his girlfriend who's a fan of yours.

Mona Risk said...

Thank you for a beautiful report. First I smiled while reading about your packing and your cat helping. And then I cried. Yes they are amazing heroes. We can't imagine how amazing until we read your report.

Lemon Stand said...

Although I've loved your books for years, this is the first time I have visited your blog after seeing a picture of you with the USO.

I just want to say Thank You and not for your books as wonderful as they are.

Just Thank You for caring and sharing. It makes a difference even if you never see it.

Deborah Sharp said...

Was just poking around here on your blog to find out more about your work as an author ... I was surprised and moved to find news about your USO trip, and the heroes you met. Amazing! Nice to know you are trying to repay them in a small (but meaningful) way for all they've given.