How did you get started on this project?
As the country trudged through the peaks and valleys of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I occasionally heard stories of extraordinary heroism by our troops – incidents in which soldiers, sailors, and Marines risked life and limb to save a comrade or accomplish a mission. I stood in awe of those men and women, frequently wondering whether I could muster the same strength, courage, and determination.
Over time, I grew frustrated that such stories – not to mention the heroes themselves – were not well known. I wanted to shout their stories from the rooftops. War heroes of previous generations, like Sergeant York of World War I and Audie Murphy of World War II, became household names. Cities and towns held ticker-tape parades in their honor.
We have no one like that today. Instead, accounts of bravery and self-sacrifice largely get lost amidst the frenzied, and often nasty, debate surrounding the wars. The few troops known throughout America are usually famous for dishonorable reasons or caught up in an unsavory controversy, like Abu Gharib.
I finally became fed up and decided to do something about it. I have no military background and knew only one or two people that had ever served in the military, but I decided to write a book telling about military heroes. That was the start of Valor. In short, this generation does not have an Audie Murphy, and I set out to change that with this book.
What surprised you most in writing this book?
A few things surprised me. First, I thought the best parts of the stories would be the bang-bang-shoot-em-up stuff – the action parts when the hero is carrying an injured comrade through a crossfire or leading a suicide mission against an entrenched insurgent bunker. But I realized that that the most interesting aspect of these stories is typically about the guys as people. Over the course of hours-long interviews and lengthy email conversations, I saw that they were much more than guys with guns who had done brave things. They are not caricatures like GI Joe with high-powered, semi-automatic weapons, but rather well-rounded, smart guys with full lives. Learning about their backgrounds and what they were thinking at the moments of truth was fascinating to me and I found that those angles to be integral to their tales. Basically, I realized that limiting the stories to the combat scenes would do an injustice. So I would develop themes that revealed the guys’ humanity and complimented the action lines. For example:
– one Army Ranger described his young son as “my little hero” and thought about him during a suicide mission in a nasty firefight in Afghanistan;
– a Marine private told me that he’d promised his mother that he would return from Iraq in one piece and thought that he was going to break his promise during a battle in Iraq, as he carried a mortally wounded comrade through direct sniper fire and bullets danced at his feet; and
– an Army Special Forces commander told me how he had admired an Afghan Sergeant-Major and, after the man died in his arms during an ambush, began sending his own money to the Afghan’s family so that the man’s sons would not be forced to attend fundamentalist madrassas.
As a result, Valor is much more than just thrilling narratives of daring rescues and suicide-missions. That change surprised me.
Other things surprised me too. I was surprised at the guys’ humility. All of them – each and every one of them – insist that they were not heroes at all. To a person, they say that they did what everyone else would have done – that they just happened to be in the right place at the right time. They typically deflected credit, pointing instead to the actions of a colleague, or attempted to downplay the bravery of their actions or the dangers they faced. But facts are stubborn. And, in their case, they add up to remarkable stories of bravery.
I was also stunned at how much these guys, as well as the other military people I met, love their brothers. Their bond is unlike anything I have ever seen. They will do virtually anything to help each other, no matter what it takes. That moved me and I think we civilians should learn from their bond.
I also learned how hard it is to get a book published these days! I can’t count how many of my messages were never returned and how many proverbial doors were slammed in my face.
Do you have a favorite story?
I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite. Each of the stories is incredible in its own way. And each of the guys is special to me. I think I have a man-crush on them, but don’t quote me on that. I’d never admit that in public.
How did you find your heroes?
Finding stories of heroism by American troops was not that difficult – our men and women in uniform are doing amazing things all the time. Convincing military heroes to share their tales in a book, however, can be a Herculean effort. Many refused, citing a strict, unwritten military code prohibiting anything perceived as self-aggrandizement.
Eventually, I enlisted – through an intricate combination of begging, pleading, and cajoling – ten individuals to participate in my project. I secured stories through two primary avenues: veterans organizations and friends who knew people in the military. Disabled American Veterans and Veterans First, a small veterans charity in California, were helpful in securing stories.
All of the stories are about men – why are there no women heroes featured in your book?
Trust me, I tried very hard to include at least one story about a female hero. One major impediment is that women weren’t permitted in combat until recently (after I wrote the book), so there are simply fewer women who have been in those situations. Nevertheless, there are a slew of women who have been in ambushes or other life-threatening situations and acted with extraordinary heroism. I reached out to a number of them and asked them to join my project. I feel it is important to recognize the women who have served and currently serve in our military, so I practically begged a few of those female heroes to join my book. And when I say I “practically begged,” I’m not exaggerating all that much. I even tried to enlist the support of a women’s military charity. Unfortunately, despite repeated efforts, none of the female heroes agreed to participate in my book.
By the way, the same goes for homosexual troops – I reached out to several veterans groups and other military-oriented connections specifically to include a homosexual soldier or Marine to include in the book. I received a few leads and I emailed them, to no avail. They never responded to me.
Your book includes members of the Army, Marines, and Navy, but not the Air Force. Is there a reason for that?
Yes – there was a great story about an Air Force special forces officer that I learned about early in my project. His actions were truly incredible – something out of a movie – and I desperately wanted to include his story. I contacted him and he agreed to participate in the book. But I asked the Air Force for permission to write about him, and they rejected my request. I was flabbergasted – here I was, trying to write a book highlighting the heroism of our troops, and the Air Force actually said ‘No.’ I was stunned. So at that point, I figured I shouldn’t waste my time pursuing other Air Force stories and decided to focus on the other branches.
What was the writing process for you?
Once the hero agreed to participate in the project, I interviewed them extensively about their background, the incident in question, and what’s happened since then. The interviews occurred in a variety of ways. I interviewed Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL who was killed in a tragic shooting in early 2013, for eight hours on the phone while he was in Baghdad. Other interviews were conducted exclusively by email. But most of them were a combination of phone, Skype, and email.
I’m an attorney by trade and have led criminal and ethics investigations for more than ten years, so conducting interviews is second-nature to me – I have conducted hundreds of depositions and interviews over the course of my career, but these interviews were among the hardest. These guys are hardened in many ways and discussing their emotions and feelings does not come naturally. Also, it was really painful for some of the guys to discuss their stories, particularly when friends died or they suffered injuries.
So I had to probe and sometimes ask uncomfortable questions, trying to draw out nuance that they may have overlooked or go places they didn’t really want to go. I wanted to place the readers in the guys’ minds, so I wanted as much nitty-gritty detail as possible. For instance, I frequently asked the guys what a particular setting smelled like or what their hands felt like in a certain situation – that always got a what-does-that-have-to-do-with-anything look but it helped me set the scene for the reader. I also explored their backgrounds and what led them to the military. I also asked them about friends and colleagues that were killed abroad and how that impacted them. A few of them told me that they hadn’t really explored their feelings about the incidents in such detail, so my interviews were akin to therapy sessions. Several of them cried during the interviews.
After conducting the interviews, I did some additional research about relevant issues and interviewed relevant witnesses. Then I would write up their stories. Behind securing a hero’s participation, writing the stories was the most difficult part of the process. I love writing, but it was a painful process at times – particularly because I have a demanding full-time job and we have two very active young boys. [My wife Jana is an absolute saint for giving me the time to sneak away from my daddy-duties and write this book. She really took the brunt of it for all those years.]
Once I wrote up one of the chapters, I shared the draft with the protagonist, just to make sure my telling of their story was accurate. The response from the guys was one of the best parts of the process. It was indescribably rewarding to hear their response.
Former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle is one of your heroes. He was killed in a tragic shooting in Texas. Tell us about your experiences with Chris.
Working on Chris’s story changed my life. His was the very first chapter that I worked on. I changed as a person as I conducted the interviews with him and wrote his chapter. First, I conducted more than eight hours of interviews with him while he was deployed in Baghdad. His self-sacrifice and dedication to the mission left a huge impression on me. He told me a story of when he tried to save a Marine’s life and failed and how the young man died in his arms. He said that motivated him to try an even more daring rescue of several trapped Marines a few days later, which is the incident that I focused on in my book. Hearing what Chris and the other Americans were doing over there and the challenges they had to confront, I recall thinking that I can’t really complain about much in life.
Chris also taught me a lot about humility. I interacted with him and conducted lengthy interviews with him long before he wrote his book, American Sniper. He was still a nobody at that point – but he never ever mentioned his incredible achievements to me. I am amazed at that. He was the most lethal sniper in American military history, with 160 confirmed kills (255 claimed kills); he received multiple Bronze Star medals and Silver Star medals; Iraqi insurgents dubbed him the Devil of Ramadi” and offered a bounty of $80,000 for his head; the Navy SEALS (!) called him “The Legend.” Think about that concept. When Navy SEALs call you a legend, you’re the real deal. Yet, Chris never mentioned a word of any of that to me. If I had done all of those things, I would have tattooed all that on my forehead and told everyone I’d ever met! But that’s the difference with Chris, as well as the other military guys. Medals, awards, and hoopla mean nothing to them. Chris told me: “If I did this for awards, I woulda been outta here a long time ago,” he said. I remember that moment and it was like a thunderclap going off in my brain. I think it changed me as a person.
But beyond that, Chris’s story was the first one I started working on and working on his story showed me that I could actually do this project. Something clicked in my mind as I was talking with him and envisioning how the story would unfold – it was “Hey, I can do this!”
I could go on and on. In short, it is no exaggeration to say that Chris Kyle changed my life.
What do you hope comes from this book?
I started this project because I believed that our troops don’t get the recognition they deserve. These men and women volunteer for the military and many end up in extreme danger – all for the betterment of our country. And for a long time, the only stories about our troops overseas were negative – Abu Gharib and things like that. So I wanted to do my part to honor those men and women and highlight their heroism. This was my way of saying “Thank you.” If military folks – as well as their families – read this book, and they walk just a bit taller because they know that their country supports them, then that’s a success for me.
On a personal level, I have two sons – Micah (4 years old) and Levi (8 months old). I hope they read this book and appreciate the sacrifice that our troops make. I hope they grow up and develop the sense of selflessness that the men in Valor displayed.
There’s one other thing: one of my biggest regrets in life was that I didn’t choose to join the military. I thought about it frequently over the years, but I never pulled the trigger (pun intended) and did it. One of the heroes in my book, an Army corporal named Steve Sanford who received the Distinguished Service Cross for his exemplary performance in Iraq, told me in one of our conversations: “Everyone has to do something for their country. This is your something, my friend.” I initially downplayed his comment. But Steve was right – Valor is my “something.”
You have committed to donating a portion of proceeds to military or veterans’ charities. Why?
At first, this project was about telling thrilling stories and honoring our military service members. But over time, I grew even more enamored of our troops and I became even more familiar with the extreme sacrifices they make for our country. That’s when writing this book developed into a life mission for me. I wanted to do my part to say “Thank you!” to the troops. So I decided that one concrete way to show my appreciation is to donate some of the profits of the book to charity. It was never about money for me, so this was a no-brainer. The hard part is figuring out which charity to donate to because there are so many groups doing important, noble work. But, several charities helped me in significant ways over the course of the project and I would be remiss if I didn’t give back to them.