SLO County novelist one of five authors entertaining troops

photos by Mike theiler
SLO County writer Andrew Peterson sits in an Apache helicopter with fellow writer Kathy Reichs while learning about combat operations at a forward operating base in Afghanistan last month.
photos by Mike theiler SLO County writer Andrew Peterson sits in an Apache helicopter with fellow writer Kathy Reichs while learning about combat operations at a forward operating base in Afghanistan last month.

After boarding a turboprop military transport plane, novelist Andrew Peterson knew immediately that the 3 1⁄2-hour flight into a war zone wasn’t going to be anything like his previous — first-class — flight across the Atlantic.

But it would offer an accurate glimpse into an American soldier’s life in Afghanistan.

“It was rough,” said Peterson, who lives near Paso Robles. “We were in jump seats, knee to knee with the Marines. We had gotten over our airstrip where we were going to land, and all of a sudden, the lights went out. It was completely black. Then the plane starts this rapid descent down to the airfield because they want to stay high as long as possible to avoid small-arms fire.”

Peterson recently visited U.S. troops in Afghanistan during a USO-sponsored tour with four other thriller writers. While the authors were accustomed to writing adventurous scenes, a ride in a C-130J Hercules aircraft last month was the real deal.

“It’s loud, so you’ve got to wear ear protection,” said Peterson, who also noted the plane’s less-than-glamorous restroom situation. “I had to literally crawl over the tops of these sleeping Marines to get to the rear of the airplane. And there’s this shower curtain-type thing, which was not deployed — it was tucked away.”

Peterson coordinated the visit, called Operation Thriller II. The trip included high-profile writers Clive Cussler, who has written more than 50 books, including the popular Dirk Pitt series; Mark Bowden, whose book “Black Hawk Down” became a popular action movie directed by Ridley Scott; Kathy Reichs, the forensic anthropologist whose books inspired the TV show “Bones”; and Sandra Brown, a thriller and romance novelist who has 80 million copies of her books in print.Less a household name, Peterson has written two novels, both featuring Marine sniper Nathan McBride — “Forced to Kill” and “First to Kill,” the latter of which was recently optioned for a motion picture.

“I’m sort of the rookie of the group,” said Peterson, a trained architect, who made a living as a real estate developer and self-storage entrepreneur before turning to writing full time. “I only have two books out; my fellow authors are really well known.”

The USO is a private, nonprofit organization that has strived to boost the morale of U.S. troops since 1941. One of the most visible things the USO has done has entailed bringing in celebrity guests — entertainers like Bob Hope, Rita Hayworth, Joan Jett and Stephen Colbert — to visit troops overseas. (The organization sent close to 30 tours overseas this year alone.)

A couple of years ago, a retired colonel suggested the USO invite thriller writers, and Peterson, who is involved with the International Thriller Writers group, was chosen to act as a liaison between the writers and the USO.

The seven-day trip, Peterson said, was jam-packed.

“A typical day might involve getting up around 5 a.m. and going to bed around 11 or 12 at night.”

While photos and blog entries during the trip had to be approved by the Department of Defense, the authors did write journals about their trip. Peterson shared some of his entries with The Tribune.

After the flight overseas:

I probably got 30 minutes of sleep. Sitting next to Mark (Bowden), I learned he’s an interesting and well-traveled man. He’s been a newspaper reporter for 40 years, written articles on many different subjects and events, and has experienced what can only be described as an incredibly diverse world.

While Peterson had previously met Cussler and Brown at writing conferences, he hadn’t met Bowden or Reichs. Yet the busy schedules wouldn’t allow the writers much time to talk. Peterson did share cigars and a debate about the war with Cussler, but he spent more time talking to military folks.

“Most of our time — I would say 95 percent of it — was spent interacting with troops,” he said.Of the authors, he noted, Cussler was the most popular — “People came up right and left with Clive Cussler books” — though many soldiers had read or seen “Black Hawk Down,” Bowden’s 1999 nonfiction account of the intense firefight through Mogadishu. (One pilot even had Bowden sign his Black Hawk helicopter.)

In Kyrgyzstan, a country north of Afghanistan, the authors briefly stayed at a transit center, where they met some troops preparing to go home and others preparing to go “downrange.”

We staged in the lockdown areas where several platoons of Marines were waiting to board a transport to take them “downrange,” meaning into the war zone. A huge projection TV was showing a live college football game for everyone. The room was twice the size of a gymnasium. Nearly all the Marines were using cellphones and handheld video games to kill the time. They were an impressive sight with all their combat gear. At the departing terminal, we were given helmets and flack jackets for the trip downrange.

“Once you get downrange, you have to wear heavy body armor and a helmet inside the aircraft,” Peterson explained. “In case somebody shoots at us.”

Once in Afghanistan, the authors had a chance to ride in a Black Hawk helicopter — something especially interesting to Peterson, a helicopter pilot himself.

“They let me sit in the pilot seat, but they didn’t let me fly,” Peterson said. “I did bet the pilot a case of beer that I could fly his machine, and he said, ‘Well, I have no doubt that you can, but I really can’t let you — there’s a few buttons up here we don’t want you to press.’ ”

While the trip wasn’t intended to benefit the writers, Peterson said being there did help him understand some things better.

“I could definitely write a scene about a Black Hawk transport right now — what it looks like on the interior, how the seat belts work, all that kind of stuff,” he said.More impressive was the actual flight itself.

The flight was beyond words. I was fortunate enough to have a headset so I could communicate with the pilots. At one point during the flight, the pilot asked if we’d like to “see what the Black Hawk can do.” I needed no other prodding and said yes! I gestured to my fellow authors to tighten their flight harnesses, they didn’t know what was coming! We immediately began a series of high-G turns, climbs and descents through canyons and over small peaks.

During their visit, the authors held a Q&A with some troops, and they sat in for radio interviews on the Armed Forces Network. But mostly, Peterson said, they simply visited.

“Most of our interactions with troops were personal,” he said. “We didn’t sit at a big table in a big room full of guys.”

While the authors asked the troops what their jobs were, they avoided talk of dangerous situations.

“We were kind of respectful because oftentimes battle stories don’t have happy endings,” Peterson said. “Some of their friends may or may not have survived, so we tried to keep it on the light-hearted side.”

After seven days, they left Afghanistan and — after 32 hours of flying — Peterson was back home, with a newfound respect for those who serve.

“In a different life, I would have joined,” he said. “It just never worked out. I suppose I’m probably too old to become a reservist right now. But I suppose if the nation really needed me, I’d go. If they’d take me — I’m 53 years old!”

It’s fair to say that all of us were singularly impressed with the professional and courteous nature of our service members. I never saw an unkempt uniform or piece of personal equipment out of place, and everyone demonstrated a positive attitude toward accomplishing their jobs.

Find out more

To read more about the USO and how to donate, visit www.uso.org.

To read about Andrew Peterson and his books, visit www.andrewpeterson.com.