On November 1, five of America’s top thriller authors completed the USO’s Operation Thriller IV. The authors sent out on the fourth Operation Thriller tour included Kathleen Antrim, Harlan Coben, Heather Graham, Phillip Margolin, and F. Paul Wilson. Both Phillip Margolin and F. Paul Wilson discussed their impressions of the tour in separate interviews for this article.
Operation Thriller was billed as “indulging the troops’ thirst for suspense at Halloween.” While indulging that appetite for suspense, the tour raised troop spirits as well as the awareness of the authors about what the troops go through. Both Margolin and Wilson described it as an “eye opener.”
“Operation Thriller was a whirlwind trip and I’m still not over the jet lag,” said Margolin. “I flew from Portland [OR] to DC and immediately after getting off the plane went to Ft. Belvoir [VA] for a meet-and-greet at the USO Warrior and Family Center. I met soldiers rehabilitating from serious injuries. That’s also where the five of us on tour met up. We then went to Walter Reed, which was eye opening because we saw people who were seriously injured. Mostly we got up and talked to people who had horrific injuries. Then, we went to a USO gala. It was amazing to meet these guys who do stuff you see in the movies. But, these guys risk their lives and save people for real. We went to Quantico Marine Corps Base and from there it was on to Kuwait.”
When interviewed, Wilson noted that even though he knew what to expect at the hospitals, it was still an emotion-packed experience. “The stateside visit to Walter Reed was very moving,” he said. “Once before, I had been to the Center for the Intrepid at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio where I saw burn victims. My publisher had supplied books to soldiers. I had seen amputees and injuries before, but it’s always an eye opener. We met those guys at Building 62 at Walter Reed, where they are being transitioned back into the real world.”
Wilson described what happened when the team of authors arrived in Kuwait. “When we got to Kuwait City, we were met by a security team and they put us on a bus and had an advance car and a chase car with four very competent-looking young men. They told us it was a relatively stable city, but there was always the possibility of trouble. They thought we could be considered high-value targets due to our publicity value.”
The Kuwait security team had important instructions for the five writers, which Margolin described. “We were told to not wear anything with insignias indicating that we were Americans or to indicate we were connected with the tour or military. We asked what the threat level was. They said it was low.”
While in Kuwait, the five writers visited two bases. Margolin said, “The commandant of each base greeted us and explained their mission. They also explained that they’re like the mayor of a small town and have to arrange for sewers working and have a lot of duties you wouldn’t think of. From there, we went to Ramstein and the medical center, which is the first place wounded soldiers go to out of the war zone. We went into the hospital ward and got to speak to one guy who was very excited about meeting us and wanted to be a writer. Despite his injuries, his face lit up when he was talking about writing. He was really, really into it.”
By this time in the tour, the writers had visited four bases, had meals in numerous cafeterias, and began to notice a pattern that led to an emotional moment for all. Margolin said, “We ate at the mess halls and didn’t all sit together. Instead, we went out to the other tables to join the soldiers. We’d go to a table and ask, ‘Can we join you?’ and introduce ourselves.”
The emotional moment the writers experienced happened during one of those lunches, as described by Wilson. “We met in the cafeterias for lunch because that’s the best time to meet the soldiers. What we saw was that they keep an empty table in the cafeteria for missing soldiers. There’s always one table with a single place setting. It’s always empty—waiting for that soldier to return.”
Both Margolin and Wilson felt that there were no sad moments on the tour, which had a lot to do with the soldiers themselves. Wilson said, “Even the ones who lost limbs tended to be upbeat and that keeps you from getting maudlin. I mean, with all they’re going through, you don’t want to look that way in front of them. Pity would offend them.”
“I was a bit nervous before we left about meeting people with such severe injuries,” said Margolin. “I was a criminal defense lawyer for 25 years, but meeting someone in person who had lost a leg or an arm concerned me at first. What was surprising were the really great attitudes. There was no one feeling sorry for themselves. I was sorry they had to suffer like that, but it was very uplifting to see these men and women take things in stride.”
The writers both noted that they received warm welcomes from fans at the bases. Wilson said, “I get email from soldiers all the time telling me how the books get them through the downtime between deployments. It’s good to know you have fans and to meet them, but it’s touching to know your books mean something to these men and women who are risking their lives for us. Of course, Harlan had the most fans coming up to him because he outsells all of us.”
Margolin and Wilson agreed that the trip was a rewarding experience and would do it again, if asked. In addition to bringing the writers closer to the troops, the USO tour also brought the writers closer together. Margolin said, “When you’re on a trip like this with five other writers, you develop a bond. There were no rampaging egos. We were all awed by what we saw and what everyone over there was doing. We’ll be friends forever.”
Learn more about the authors participating in Operation Thriller IV on their websites: Kathleen Antrim (www.kathleenantrim.com), Harlan Coben (www.harlancoben.com), Heather Graham (www.eheathergraham.com), Phillip Margolin (www.phillipmargolin.com), and F. Paul Wilson (www.repairmanjack.com).