Chemical weapon attacks on international sites.
Jihadist holding Marines threatens to kill a prisoner a day.
Soldiers and diplomats struggling for a resolution.
Tom Young’s new novel offers a situation that sounds as real as a news broadcast.
In SAND AND FIRE, a Marine gunnery sergeant faces the jihadist in North Africa who has obtained chemical weapons. After inflicting casualties and destruction on a nightclub in Sicily and a crowded street in Gibraltar, the terrorist seizes members of a Marine strike force and threatens executions unless forces withdraw from his area.
The novel’s realistic tensions comes from former Associated Press journalist and retired senior master sergeant Young, who’s familiar with the world of which he writes. As in previous books—which include THE MULLAH’S STORM, SILENT ENEMY, THE RENEGADES, and THE WARRIORS—he offers a look inside a region and a world that continues to be a focus of international concern.
In this tale, heroes from previous books, Sophia Gold, now with the U.N., and Colonel Michael Parson, now working the United States Africa Command, join Gunnery Sgt. A.E. Blount, the six-foot-eight grandson of one of the first African American Marines. A rescue must be mounted for the Marines, and an unforgettable ordeal is ahead with the threat of a nightmarish outcome looming.
With the book due in stores and online outlets in July, Young, who logged nearly five thousand hours as a flight engineer for the Air National Guard in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia, and elsewhere, answered a few questions about his new protagonist Blount, the realism of his stories, and events unfolding in the Middle East today.
In SAND AND FIRE, you envision a troop situation that seems real and familiar. Is it inspired by a particular incident, or is it more of a what-could-happen scenario based on your military experience?
It’s a I-hope-it-never-happens scenario: terrorists getting their hands on chemical weapons in variety and in quantity. Fortunately, I have never experienced a chemical weapons attack. But my training during twenty years in the Air National Guard included how to respond to that scenario. In chem warfare exercises I learned to recognize symptoms of chem weapons poisoning, how to use protective equipment such as gas masks, and how to administer antidotes. We even practiced flying into a chemical-contaminated environment, wearing protective suits, special masks, blowers, and filters.
The novel provides a glimpse at how U.S. forces would take on an enemy in a toxic environment. I hope I illustrated what that would look like—and how operating in a chemical environment makes even simple tasks hard.
One of your supporting characters from a prior book takes the lead in SAND AND FIRE. What led to the elevation of A.E. Blount, and how much is he inspired by soldiers and Guardsmen you’ve known?
Gunnery Sergeant Blount—a six-foot-eight African-American Marine—made his first appearance as a minor character in my third novel, THE RENEGADES. Blount nearly stole the show; people liked how the powerful and quick-thinking Marine had a soft spot for children and great loyalty to his friends. I got such a positive reader response about Blount—and I enjoyed writing him so much—that I decided to give him a star turn in his own novel.
Like all my characters, Blount is a composite of people I have known. During my deployments as an Air National Guardsman in Iraq and Afghanistan, I helped fly supplies to U.S. Marines. I came to admire their dedication and professionalism, and I created the character of Blount partly as a tribute to them.
I have one thing in common with Blount: We both grew up on a Carolina tobacco farm. His childhood memories of working in the fields are my own.
You also have a back story novella about Blount called PHANTOM FURY. What insight does that provide into his character and perspective?
In PHANTOM FURY we see Blount ten years ago as a young staff sergeant during the battle of Fallujah. I hope this novella paints an accurate picture of what the U.S. Marines went through in one of the toughest engagements of the Iraq War. I also hope the novella paints a richer picture of Blount—and shows his capacity for compassion in the most brutal of circumstances.
And by the way, you don’t need to read PHANTOM FURY to understand SAND AND FIRE. And it doesn’t matter in what order you read them. Either can stand alone.
In the past you’ve written about the on-the-ground operations in military thrillers, balancing that with diplomatic and political worlds surrounding the core action. You continue that with this book, right? Does this book focus on any new dimension of that world?
I like to show the way the various branches of the military work together in the big picture, and I continue that theme with SAND AND FIRE. The reader will see the Marines, the Navy, and the Air Force cooperating toward a common goal. And I also introduce a new minor character, a French Air Force pilot, who demonstrates the international teamwork that’s pretty typical in modern military operations.
One new dimension I explored in SAND AND FIRE is the conflict every service member feels between duties to family and duties to country and comrades in arms. In the opening chapter, Gunnery Sergeant Blount has promised his wife and kids that he will retire from the military and come home to stay. But he finds himself torn when he realizes his friends are about to go into harm’s way once again.
Almost as we speak we’re seeing new Middle East events unfold, and we’re also reminded of the continuing instability and how much various forces can affect that stability. What went into the creation of your jihadist? Again, is he based on anyone you observed in military or journalistic work? What about his terrorist strategy with chemical weapons?
My villain in SAND AND FIRE, Sadiq Kassam, isn’t based on any one real-life terrorist, but his rhetoric and goals reflect those of jihadists such as Osama bin Laden, and even those of earlier terrorists such as Carlos the Jackal. Kassam’s terrorist strategy is much like that of any terrorist: to inflict maximum casualties for maximum publicity to further goals based on twisted motivations.
I know your goal is always to write a thrilling tale, but how much do you strive to tell the story of troops on the ground from the inside? Do you believe you’re bringing additional perspective to readers who may experience conflicts mostly through the headlines? Does a novel let you expound upon material in ways journalism prohibits?
Journalism can show you the troop movements, the official statements, and even the personal stories of military personnel. But only through fiction or memoir can you get inside the head of a Marine firing from a fighting hole, or a pilot pushing up the throttles to take off on a combat mission. If I do my job well, I can put the reader in that situation and let him or her feel the heat, smell the rifle smoke, and feel the G forces.
Less than one percent of the American population has served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The cultural and experiential gap between the military and the population it serves grows wider and wider. I hope my novels can play a small role in bridging that gap by showing the motivations and mindset of those who serve.
To take things in a little different direction since I think everyone’s interested in your process, what’s your writing day like? How do you divide writing and research and staying informed?
On a typical day, I’ll write in the morning. I tell myself I have to get at least 1,000 words, and I don’t let myself do anything else until I have completed those 1,000 words. On a good day, I’ll reach that goal by lunch. Then I can devote the rest of the day to research and the business-related details of writing.
In the Air National Guard, I spent two decades as a flight engineer, and I used to work as an airline pilot, so writing flying scenes comes pretty easily. I have to do research, however, when I write about ground troops. That research can take many forms. For example, I visit military museums, and I have taken a long-range rifle course to get acquainted with sniper marksmanship. I visit military bases, and I e-mail friends from other branches of the military and I ask them dumb questions.
Anything else you want to tell us about the new book or upcoming titles?
As PHANTOM FURY comes out, we’re approaching the tenth anniversary of the Battle of Fallujah, which took place in November of 2004. And on this ten-year anniversary, we’re seeing Islamist insurgents running riot across much of Iraq. A lot of Americans bled and sweated into Iraqi soil to give the Iraqi people a chance at something better than this, and the latest news comes as a bitter disappointment to a lot of veterans.
The current situation serves as a reminder of the need to make sure the nation sends its troops into harm’s way for the right reasons, with clear long-term goals, and with sustained backing to achieve those goals.
At the time of his retirement as a senior master sergeant in 2013, Tom Young had logged nearly five thousand hours as a flight engineer for the Air National Guard in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia, and elsewhere. The author of five novels, most recently THE WARRIORS, he lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
To learn more about Tom, please visit his website.