Monthly Archives: February 2012

How do you Write a Book?

Recently I explained my inspiration for writing my first novel, Paws on the Ground. So I was amped up to write it, ready to go but realized quickly I had no friggin clue how to write a book. The longest document I’d ever written prior to my novel was my master’s thesis which of course I filled with graphs and charts to fill the pages. So I did what any rational person would do when they wanted to find out about something….I Googled it!

Picture of google

I spent every free moment for several days reading about processes for writing a book. If you’ve ever done this then you probably already now the following:

-There is a lot of advice out there

-Everyone has their own methods for writing a book

-Many processes are contradictory

 

So with this in mind I looked for common themes and decided upon two: 

-write an outline

-just start writing 

So I brainstormed during my lunchtime elliptical machine workout in the tent we had for a gym in Kabul and developed an outline which looked like this: 

Intro                                      10K words

Training                                25K words

Afghanistan                        40K words

Ending                                  5K words 

Total                                      80K words 

Green Army notebookI wrote this “comprehensive” outline in the back of my green Army issued notebook that I carried around. I also used that notebook to write ideas during my travels around Afghanistan. I look at that outline now and wonder how the heck I wrote a comprehensive book with proper arc and plotting. I attribute it to reading thousands of books in my life time. 

I next established a daily and weekly writing goal for myself. My goal was 3,500 words a week which would put me finishing the novel prior to my re-deployment. In hindsight it was a simple goal to meet but there were many weeks I wrote nothing because I was traveling around Afghanistan. I like to think of that time as “field” research. 

With an outline established I went to work and started writing the next morning. As I did every day afterwards I woke at 5:00 AM, went to my office with my laptop, brewed coffee and started to write. I wrote one thousand words the first morning and never looked back. 

Funny Dog and coffeeAbout a month later I hit 17k words instead of 10K for my intro. Yep, right from the start I was writing too much backstory into the novel…. or was I?  

Do you like stories with a large lead ups (or backstory)?

Do you want action right away?

What do you think the literary agents said about my lengthy backstory?

 Here is the next post in this series:    Does self-doubt consume you?

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Military Working Dog Anax

Then and Now

This is Part II of The Marc and Anax series. You may wish to read Part I first.

Marc wakes from his sleep and his first thoughts are of his son. He’s excited to go to work.  He knows that it will be a full day of training, playing, and loving his best friend (his son), Military Working Dog Anax. 

He rushes to prepare for work with thoughts of his joyful day ahead.  Sure there are challenges through the day, but in the end he will have Anax with him.  Marc and Anax…..an unstoppable force.

That’s how it used to be before Anax was shot on patrol in Afghanistan and lost a leg.  Now things have changed.  Anax is still in his old kennel, still barks with excitement when he sees his “dad,” but Marc knows it is different even if Anax doesn’t.

With only three legs, Anax, has been retired from the Army’s military working dog program.  He is a veteran who did his time, was tragically injured in defense of his country, and deserves an honorable retirement.

Retirement is not what Anax wants though.  Anax watches as the other dogs train on searches, bite work, and general obedience. And then he looks to Marc. 

His eyes say, “Why can’t we train, Dad?  What did I do wrong?  I want to work, Dad. Please let me.”

Marc’s heart breaks every time he looks into his son’s eyes.  How do you explain to your best friend, the one that took a bullet for you, that he will never again get to do what he loves?

This is what Specialist Marc Whittaker faces every day at work. 

Click here for the next exciting chapter in this story!   

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Mal 1

What is a Malligator?

The angry offender got out of his truck and charged at the military police officer. The officer ordered him to stop. The angry man ignored the officer’s command and charged at him.

Without hesitation the army military police officer opened the back door to his patrol vehicle with an automatic button clipped to his belt.  His four legged partner, Uti, bounded from the truck and instantly started to growl, showing her long fangs.

I shivered as I stared at the intimidating four legged army military police officer.

“Stop and put your hands on your head or I will sic my dog on you,” the officer said.

Drool slung from Uti’s mouth as she danced around barking ferociously and waiting for the command to attack.

The angry man hesitated at the sight of the animal’s long fangs but didn’t back down. Neither did Uti.

The officer thought through his choices. There were no others. He instructed Uti to attack.

I swear she smiled as she heard the command. Before I could blink she had closed the gap with the offender and latched onto him with a bone crushing bite.  The offender screamed out in pain as Uti growled ferociously. She wasn’t letting go. The offender was subdued quickly.

A chill went through my body and I thought, “Man, I’m glad that isn’t me in her jaws.”

Was this the same dog that just yesterday had cuddled up to me so sweetly, licking my fingers and nestling her face against my thigh?

Master Sergeant Jason Hathaway had told me then, “She’s got it all: intelligence, incredible drive, a nasty bite, and a great personality.  She’s a Malligator!”

She looked part Belgian Malinois and part alligator, but what is this Malligator?

A prodigy dog, a momma, a drug-finding machine, a sweetie pie with the drive of two dogs and the bite of an alligator.  That’s a Malligator.

For the past two years Uti was part of the Department of Defense’s Puppy Program.  Only the best are chosen for this breeding program.  She gave birth to two litters and then the powers that be decided it was her time to hit the field and contribute in other ways.

She’s squarely built, a little underweight at about 55 pounds, and has three ribs showing, more than she should.  She has a black muzzle and her black ears stick straight up most of the time.  She has a mahogany coat with some black tipping. She is a picture-perfect Belgian Malinois.

One of the sergeants warned me, “She’s the type of dog you want–lean,mean and quick.  She may be smaller than the others, but those are the ones you should be afraid of.”

“Catching” is the term for being the target of a dog’s attack training. Out of the three dogs Specialist Nolan “caught” today, he was most wary of the Malligator.

“She’s going to put me on my ass, I just know it,” he told me as he smiled and donned the padded protective sleeve that is used to “catch” dogs during training.

The officer called for him to stop, but he ran even harder.  He knew the Malligator was watching him.  He knew he was running for his life!

The Malligator closed the 100 foot gap quicker than I’ve ever seen a dog run and launched her attack.  She used the running soldier’s momentum to take him down as she clamped onto the protective sleeve.  She fell down with the soldier, but her jaw was locked.  The Malligator had found her prey!Military Working Dog Uti

Amped up from the training, tail wagging, Uti happily held the sleeve in her mouth as she strolled by me. I wanted to reach down and pet her like I had yesterday but kept my hands tightly by my side.

Now you know–respect the Malligator!

Does anyone want to mess with this pooch?

Has anyone been bitten by a Malligator?

Please share!

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U.S. Navy SEAL Team 18 members with a multi-purpose dog take part in a demonstration of combat skills at the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida November 11, 2011. The demonstration is part of a Ve

Cairo the Bin Laden Hunter

Who was that dog on the mission to kill Bin Laden? Cairo, the famed Bin Laden hunter?  Do we have a sighting? Who is this Cairo character and why has his image captivated the world?

Cairo is now synonymous with the daring raid on May 1, 2011 by Seal Team Six to take down America’s public enemy #1, Osama Bin Laden.  The Bin Laden raid is the event that drew widespread national awareness to our four-legged service members.  Did Cairo lead the Seals to Bin Laden in that compound?  Did Cairo have to “take any one out” with his mouthful of teeth and fangs?  We might never know, but we yearn to learn the full story.

This isn’t a picture of Cairo but, like Cairo, this is a Belgian Malinois, Multi Purpose Canine (MPC) and a Seal Team Member. This picture is of Seal 18 conducting a demonstration.

Seal Teams are elite members of our Armed Forces who are part of the United States Military’s Special Operations Command.  Seal Team Six is an unconventional force and one of the best we have.

Likewise, MPC are unique to Special Operations.  So what is a multi purpose canine and how do they differ from conventional dog teams?    Stay tuned for the next post on our ”Special” Canines!

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How does this Soldier feel about our Withdrawal from Iraq?

Miltary Working Dog with Soldiers in Iraq

 

Recently someone asked me how I felt about the United States withdrawing from Iraq.  I wasn’t really sure how to respond.  I guess I really hadn’t thought much about it.  For me Iraq has been an afterthought for many years.  My focus, much like the Army, has been on Afghanistan.  Since I’ve spent plenty of time in Iraq, I suppose I should have an opinion on this topic, so here goes.

As a professional soldier, my charter isn’t to debate the merit of our nation’s war.  I’m simply a cog in the wheel of a high speed locomotive.  That locomotive, the United States Army, has a clear mission: to fight and win America’s wars. Period.

When the government says we are done, then we are done, regardless of what our military leadership believes.  The military does what the civilians who run the Army direct.  Our Commander in Chief is the President of the United States.

This is why you generally don’t see active duty service members publicly voicing their opinion on what our government should or shouldn’t be doing.  You should never see an active duty service member publicly lambasting the President or his policies. Heck, we could get court martialed for this.  US Soldiers and Marines rests with thier Military Working Dogs at Forward Operating Base Wilson in southern Afghanistan

But to answer the original question: I feel relieved.

For two reasons:

  1. I’m relieved that we won’t lose anymore service members in that alien country for reasons I have yet to rationalize in my head.
  2. I’m relieved the crazy nightmare of a deployment schedule our Army has been enduring will ease.  Believe me: our Soldiers need some relief.

Some may see this as a narrow view of this historic event. That’s OK with me.  We’ve all lived with our nation fighting two simultaneous wars for the past eight years.  But these wars have consumed my family’s life and those of my closest friends since I crossed into Iraq on the first evening of the ground war in 2003.

Will Iran influence Iraq?  Will Iraq erupt into civil war? Can Iraq sustain the western democratic government we emplaced?  Will the Iraq security forces be able to secure the country and its borders?  Will we be able to influence Iraq in the future?

I don’t know. In fact no one does.  Only time will tell.  But for now I breathe easier knowing I won’t lose any more of my brothers and sisters in that country.

Fellow military police dog handlers pay tribute to their fallen brother, Cpl. Max W. Donahue during a memorial service at Forward Operating Base Delhi, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Aug. 21, 2010. Donahue was killed Aug. 7, 2010, while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. (Official US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Skyler Tooker)

Note:

According to the Defense Department, 4,487 service members were killed in the Iraq war. More than 30,000 were wounded.

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U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Brandon Fipps and his dog Paco return to base cropped

What is a Soldier’s Inspiration to Write a novel in Afghanistan?

What made you want to write a book?

I’ve been asked this question countless times over the past year and my silent responses range from “What you don’t think I could” to “Why not” to “I was inspired to do so.” My actual answer depends on my mood that day, how the question was phrased, and the person’s tone. Before I can answer that question I think you should learn a little a few things about me, things most people don’t know.

Where_the_Red_Fern_GrowsI’ve always loved to write and always did well in school in writing. (Math is a different story.) Of course my grammar always lacked and my inability to complete term papers until the night before they were due had an effect on my grades. In reflection, as I constantly research grammar rules on the internet, I do wish I had paid better attention in middle school English! I don’t regret waiting until the last minute though. I work best under pressure.

I have an active imagination and am a lifelong reader. When I was a kid I could easily read a book a day in the summer. I owe my mom for instilling in me an obsession of books. Thanks, Mom! The first book that really made an impact on me was Where the Red Fern grows by Wilson Rawls.

I grew up wanting my own Old Dan and Little Ann. I now have them, but they aren’t red ticks hounds or named Old Dan and Little Ann. They’re vizlas named Stella and Sammy and you’ll read a lot about them in this blog and my book.

Sammy and Stella

Handsome Sammy and Sassy Stella

I just read Where the Red Fern Grows again for inspiration and it still breaks my heart.

Okay, back to the initial question. I wrote Paws on the Ground because I needed to and the book needed to be written. I wrote it for myself, but I also wrote it because the general public needs to know what our dog teams are doing on the front lines in our fight against tyranny.

I’ve been deployed five times. It is never easy. You miss your family and friends, worry about them and count the days until you will be with them again. I’ve always found the mental aspect of being deployed so much harder than the physical. Traditionally I’ve found refuge through working out in the gym and running. The problem is I have torn ligaments in my right wrist, a herniated disk, two bulging, and degenerative disk disease in my back. So my ability to express myself through exercise has been significantly reduced. I had no outlet this last deployment to Afghanistan and desperately needed one.

I remember the moment the idea of writing a book popped into my head vividly. I was in Kabul. It was early November, 2010 and US forces lost three dogs and two handlers to the enemy in a single day.

We had a really bad few week period where we were losing dogs or handlers almost every day. I was reading the reports and thought to myself, people need to know what these kids and their dogs are doing out here. These kids and their dogs are heroes.

At the time I was reading a lighthearted book about a vineyard in Tuscany and thought to myself, I could do this. I can write a book. In fact I’m gonna write a book. Yes, it was as easy as that. I just decided one day to do it.

So to summarize why I decided to write a book: I wrote Paws on the Ground to educate the public on dog teams in the current day battlefield. It then became my outlet, my obsession and something I needed to help me through the challenges of being deployed in a combat zone.

The book is still my obsession and I’m working on getting it published while simultaneously working on the next novel in the Paws on the Ground Series.     

What in your life have you just decided to do and then accomplished it?

How did it work out for you?

What is your outlet from stress?

So I had the inspiration which is great. But how the heck do you write a book?

I explain how I started in the next post.

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Marc w Anax lying down next to him

Memories that Never Fade

During direct combat with the enemy, the fog of war is capable of consuming you. There are times when things slow down or speed up, periods in which you don’t remember your own actions. And then there are impressions during the fight that are ingrained in your brain forever.

Your thoughts are rarely of yourself but rather with your fellow warriors, especially if one of those warriors is like a son to you.  Specialist Marc Whittaker found himself in that exact situation with his best friend and son, patrol explosive detector dog, Anax.

A relatively routine security mission? Maybe. But this is Afghanistan where nothing is routine.  The enemy always has a vote and on this day the enemy was determined to ensure their voice was heard.

Withering fire erupted around Marc and Anax, forcing them to fall back as bullets whizzed by them.  Marc had body armor partially protecting him, but Anax didn’t.  Marc shielded Anax with his body, not caring about his safety–only Anax’s.  They were completely out in the open when the fire got too heavy. Marc decided they needed to find cover.

Imagine as you are running for cover, bullets peppering the terrain around you, you glance back…your son is not by your side like normal.  You stop, look back and see him whimpering on the ground, his blood rushing onto his once mahogany and black fur.  Fear takes hold and panic sets in as you scream out.  Your son just took the bullet that was meant to end your life.  Those are the impressions that  are ingrained in your head for the rest of your life.

How do you pick up the pieces after an event like this?

How do you deal with the grief, guilt and pain?

How do you go back to work with dogs?

What happens if your son survives to  sees you working with another dog?

How do you explain this to him?

How do you start over with a new dog?  Can you?

Click here for the next exciting chapter in this story!   

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Why Risk It All?

I was talking to a friend recently who mentioned that her brother-in-law was planning to deploy to Afghanistan next year.  She was befuddled about why he had sought out and volunteered for deployment to a combat zone.

Why would someone volunteer to leave his family and place himself in harm’s way?  Why would anyone in his right mind voluntarily go to a place where every day you wake up not knowing if this is your last day on this earth?

No, he’s not crazy. He is just displaying one of the values we expect of our service members,  Selfless Service.

Wikipedia defines selfless service as “a commonly used term to denote a service which is performed without any expectation of result or award for the person performing it.”

I hear a lot of rhetoric about service to the nation and such, but to me selfless service has a deeper meaning.  Here is what it means to me as a United States Soldier: you do your part.  If you don’t do your part, then someone else is going to have to pick up your slack.  It’s as simple as that.

It’s irrelevant whether or not you believe in these wars.  This is a debate for the politicians and maybe the “occupy Wall Street” protestors.  I’m a United States Soldier and I answer my country’s call whenever and wherever.

I can’t speak for my friend’s brother-in-law as to why he volunteered.  I can only share my own reasons for seeking out a deployment to Afghanistan in 2010.

I have to look myself in the mirror every day. I have to live with myself.  I have to look at my fellow service members; some whom I know have four or more year-long deployments.  If I don’t do my part, then one of them will have to do it for me.

As a leader, how can you lead if you have no credibility?  Credibility isn’t granted through an assigned rank alone. Credibility is earned.

Okay, enough rambling.  In my novel Paws on the Ground I’ve told the story of several American soldiers based on my experiences.  The characters are fictional, but the people they represent are real. They are American Soldiers who fight for one another.  Fortuntely they have a secret weapon in this fight, their dogs.

Osama-Cairo

SEAL Team 6 & Cairo

On the first night of May 2011, two Black Hawk helicopters took off from Afghanistan on a top-secret mission to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. The Black Hawks, which had been modified to disguise their heat signatures and mask them from radar, were bound for Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was suspected of hiding. The crew included 23 members of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team Six, members of the Army’s select Night Stalkers regiment, and a dog named Cairo.

It was a dark, moonless evening—“low loom,” in military parlance. Cairo, a seventy-pound Belgian Malinois, sat on the floor of the second chopper, huddled among eleven SEALs and an interpreter.

He likely wore a lightweight tactical vest made with dual Kevlar panels, which were designed to withstand everything from knife attacks to shrapnel, and an infrared camera that could transmit images back to his handler. All told, he probably carried more than $20,000 worth of gear.

His skills and intelligence, however, were what made him indispensable to the mission. Cairo was trained to fill any number of roles. The first would be to stand guard outside the compound, alerting the soldiers to anyone who approached. If a crowd gathered, he could help keep the locals at bay. Inside the compound walls, Cairo could sniff out bombs or booby traps; he could even help locate bin Laden, in the event he was hiding in a spider hole or some other secret area. If someone in the house tried to escape, Cairo could chase him down, utilizing his speed (twice that of a human’s) and strength (a bite pressure of seven hundred pounds per square inch). In the most extreme scenario, he might even be used to take down bin Laden, attacking without hesitation on a simple command: “Get ’im!”

According to the mission, Cairo’s helicopter was supposed to hover over one corner of the compound as a few SEALs rappelled to the ground, with Cairo strapped to his handler’s chest. But things in the military seldom go according to plan. The first chopper spun out of control and had to ditch, so the second chopper’s pilot landed in a field across the street. Cairo and four of the SEALs quickly set up a perimeter, and the rest of the team stormed the compound. Thirty-eight minutes later, bin Laden was dead, and Cairo and the SEALs were on their way back home.

(Reprinted with permission from the November 2011 issue of Texas Monthly.)

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