Monday, November 11, 2013

What Writers Can Learn From Warriors

By Jennifer Lovett Herbranson

I’m taking a step back from writing about marketing your fiction, to writing on Veteran’s Day and heroes. Heroes are what make stories great and what keep readers coming back. In a culture of twerking and thugs, we could use more heroes, and in the military we’ve found them.

Thomas Ricks, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, recently wrote, “Our relatively small and highly adept military has made it all too easy for our nation to go to war — and to ignore the consequences. One percent of the nation has carried almost all the burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the rest of us essentially went shopping. Like it or not, the (Vietnam) draft sure did encourage people to pay attention to the war and decide whether they were willing to support it.”

Veteran’s Day offers us a chance to think about war. Our military is so highly adept because of the formidable character of its service members. And war is the one situation, unlike all others, where the audacity of the human condition is on full display.

The Medal of Honor was awarded to 467 men for actions during World War II, 137 for the War in Korea, and 249 for Vietnam. Only 13 have been awarded for the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Six of those 13 are still living. Each of the warriors below looked death in the face and spit on it. I think we, as Americans and as writers, can learn something powerful from each of these real-life heroes.

U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta – resides in Colorado
The first living Medal of Honor recipient from the War in Afghanistan

From the 173rd Airborne Brigade, this Soldier sprinted through open terrain several times, under heavy enemy fire to recover wounded, simultaneously throwing grenades at the enemy for cover.

At one point, he raced across the field and lay prone to recon over a hill for more comrades. What he saw was the worst he could imagine: two Taliban soldiers dragging a wounded American away from the firefight. His reaction? He engaged and killed one and wounded the other, then sprinted over the hill and dragged the American to safety.

U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Leroy Petry
No right hand but he is still serving

From the 75th Ranger Regiment, this Ranger was on patrol to clear a civilian compound in search of a high-valued target. His patrol was ambushed with enemy fire. A bullet ripped through both of his legs, and still, he pulled two wounded Rangers behind a chicken coop.

When a grenade fell right in front of them, he picked it up to chuck it back at the enemy. It detonated, amputated his hand and raked him with shrapnel. Did he quit? No. He tied on a tourniquet, kept firing on the enemy, called in for fire support and saved the other two Rangers. After his medal ceremony, he reenlisted for eight more years of service.

Two others were awarded at Combat Outpost Keating, in the Battle of Kamdesh.

Near dawn, 300 Taliban fighters screamed down the hills from all sides and attacked this tiny outpost on the Pakistani border. Afghan coalition soldiers fled, leaving 50 Americans and Latvians to defend the post alone. At the end of the twelve-hour fight, nearly a third of the American force was either dead or wounded, and the base was nearly completely destroyed.

U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha
Rallied troops & fought the entire 12-hour firefight

A 4th Infantry Division Soldier, Romesha awoke to an enemy overrun of his outpost, and he ran through a bombardment of machine gun fire, rockets and mortars to rally a counter attack, then ran back again to gather reinforcements. He sprinted back yet again, with nearly every building around him on fire, to organize and gather weapons and ammunition.

While seeking cover behind a generator, a rocket-propelled grenade hit it and exploded, wounding him in the neck, face and shoulders. In spite of his injuries, he again ran through a barrage of fire to recover fallen comrades and call in air support that resulted in the death of 30 Taliban fighters. 

U.S. Army Specialist Ty Carter 
The first time two medals awarded for same battle since Vietnam

Also from the 4th Infantry Division, Carter was wounded in the first 30 minutes of the battle but ran across 100 meters of open ground overrun with enemy machine gun fire and grenades to resupply his fellow warriors -- five times. Through a hail of bullets, he carried one wounded comrade back to cover, provided first aid and returned fire as the battle raged.

Once he linked up with Romesha, Carter acted as a sniper for teams covering the bodies of fallen comrades. At one point, he braved enemy fire to cut down a tree next to an aid station to provide additional cover for the wounded. He was wearing only a t-shirt, shorts and a flak vest, and he is also still on active duty.

Two more were awarded following a pre-dawn meeting with Ganjgal Village Elders.

A small patrol of Americans and Afghan terps (translators) maneuvered to meet with elders at a pre-arranged time and place. Upon entering the village, all lights of the village homes and businesses flickered off. Then, Taliban fighters unleashed hell from every direction, trapping the patrol.

U.S. Marine Sergeant Dakota Meyer
The first living Marine to receive the medal since Vietnam

After being denied permission four times to enter the fray and help, Meyer'd had enough. He ignored orders and jumped into the turret of a hummer while his buddy, Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, drove them into a firestorm. Houses exploded. Trees fell. Bombs, rockets, grenades pummeled the patrol, the village, and the road.

They drove using the side of the hummer as cover from machine gun fire and rescued coalition soldiers. Not one time, not two or three times, not even four times, but five times, they drove back into that barrage of hell and Meyer jumped out to grab and load comrades into the truck. The fifth time, now wounded himself, Meyer jumped in the back of yet another hummer and brought out members of his own fire team.

U.S. Army Captain William Swenson
The first Army officer to receive the medal since Vietnam

From the 10th Mountain Division, Swenson was part of the patrol to meet village tribal elders. His response to Taliban calls for surrender? He threw them a grenade. For the next seven hours, he took charge of the counteroffensive, coordinated evacuations, recovered wounded and provided first aid, and made repeated calls for air support, most of which were denied. On the last run back into the village, he rode in Meyer’s hummer, and amid an onslaught of heavy gunfire and mortars, the two of them recovered the bodies of the last four Americans.

After the firefight, he publicly berated Army leadership for not providing requested fire support and second-guessing commanders in the field. (His decoration was “lost” for well over three years, and he left active duty in 2011.) He is now considered the most decorated living officer in the U.S. Army.

Today, on this Veteran’s Day, fathers are still in Afghanistan living in mud huts with M-4s as sleeping companions. Mothers dodge mortars and eat breakfast with M9s strapped to their sides. Brothers and sons ride in Humvees on IED-riddled roads. Daughters and sisters don heavy flak vests and weapons to meet Afghan women and children in booby-trapped homes. We’ve lost 6,717 of them in 12 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, and countless more have been wounded.

While most of us will never be put in the positions these men faced, I believe their courage, persistence, and audacity provide us the very best of heroes. 


About the Author: With a combined 12 years of active and Reserve time as a US Air Force Public Affairs Officer, Jennifer Lovett has marketed books, shows, concerts and more. She is currently an Air Force Reserve Public Affairs Officer at Patrick AFB in Florida and in her full-time life, pursuing a career as a fiction writer.