Heather Graham and Kathleen Antrim on Touring with USO for Operation Thriller IV

I think that most people have experienced some form of loneliness in their lives. But can you imagine the increased loneliness you would feel if you were plucked from your home and dropped into a hostile country surrounded by strangers? That sense of loneliness can be overwhelming. At that time a little piece of home can be a needed comfort. Being able to disappear into a good book can sometimes provide that comfort. The United Service Organizations (USO) knows that. So the USO teamed up with the International Thriller Writers (ITW) for Operation Thriller IV.

Operation Thriller IV visited troops in the U. S., Kuwait, Germany, and the U.K. It featured bestselling authors Harlan Coben, Phillip Margolin, F. Paul Wilson, Kathleen Antrim, and Heather Graham. Today Kathleen Antrim and Heather Graham join me to talk about the USO and Operation Thriller IV.

Abby: Now my idea of a USO tour was based on seeing Bob Hope and friends entertain the troops on TV.

Kathleen: Oh exactly.

Abby: When I read that members of the International Thriller Writers were touring with the USO I kind of wondered what other talents you all had and what you did for the troops.

Kathleen: If we were dancing and singing and doing dog tricks? Yah! No. We actually are considered a niche tour for the USO. We appeal to the readers overseas. Many of our troops read particularly when they are in places like the Middle East where there is not a lot of entertainment and your down time can be very boring. So they are very thankful for books. Plus the USO is able to take us places that they can’t take big shows.

Heather: When I first found out that I was asked on it, I was delighted, really delighted. I do remember the fall of Vietnam. Friends that came home were just beat to pieces. It was just a terrible time, and I’m not sure that we did everything, we kind of swept Viet Nam underneath the carpet. So when I see soldiers go out now, I’m so worried about them. On the other hand, I am so absolutely grateful. So I was just really pleased to be asked on this with an amazing group: Kathleen Antrim, who does a lot of our arrangements with the USO, Phillip Margolin and F. Paul Wilson, Harlan Coben and myself. I think we were kind of lucky because I think the 5 of us bonded immediately. We were frequently in tight quarters and everybody just liked everybody. What we actually did more so than anything is say thank you. We started off by going to Walter Reed Medical Center in DC which made me think that it is something that everyone should have to do. We have such a tendency to wake up and whine about little things that are wrong and think that our lives aren’t exactly what they should be. And when you go to Walter Reed and you see just how damaged some of the soldiers come back physically and the amazing work that they do to repair them. And then the attitude of they’re not going to give up. They’re going to make everything that’s happened to them just be part of their lives and they are going to move forward. “It’s my job. That’s what I’m doing.” They don’t see themselves as doing anything other than their jobs. So visiting the Walter Reed Medical Center just at the get go was such an amazing eye opener.

Abby: Kathleen, before you went on the tours what was your impression of what the USO did and how did that change?

Kathleen: Before I went on the tours I didn’t know that much about the USO. I probably had the same impression that you did – that it was Bob Hope. But the USO is so much more than that. Yes they provide entertainment, but they do so much more. They have USO facilities on bases where they’ll have banks of phones where the troops can call home for free. They’ll have all kinds of electronic gaming stations and couches and they try to bring just a touch of home to our troops where ever they are. They will have library areas for reading. They will set up things like gaming where our troops can play against professional athletes via the internet. They just have such a wealth of programs. I really would invite anyone and everyone to look at all the USO does and all the programs they have. They have 27,000 volunteers around the world. They have a very small staff but they have all these amazing volunteers who run all of these different facilities. They do everything they can to try to make our troops comfortable and provide that extra thank you to them of which they are so deserving.

Abby: Heather, what was your favorite part of the tour?

Heather: The best in the actual tour for me was when we were at the base in Kuwait. A soldier was on the telephone provided by the USO. He came and got me and asked me if he could borrow me and come talk to his girlfriend. His girlfriend is a big reader of mine so I ran over and got on the phone in Kuwait to talk to his girlfriend in the United States. To see the young soldier’s face when I was speaking with her, I just thought, “How Sweet. Here’s this guy in Kuwait, and he’s so happy because of something he can do for someone back home.” I thought that was beautiful.

Abby: Kathleen, what was your favorite part of the tour?

Kathleen: For me my absolute favorite part is that I am just so surprised, startled, and so impressed by the amount of responsibility these young people have. If I was an employer I would be hunting for people who’ve been in the military. They’ve just had so much more responsibility than what I see in the kids stateside. When you see these young kids 19 or 20 years old taking care of an air craft worth $500,000,000, and it is their responsibility? It’s just remarkable. They are so dedicated. So earnest and so responsible. They are just our best and brightest. They really are.

Abby: Heather, did you and Kathleen get to have the same experiences as the men on the tour or were you segregated?

Heather: Oh no, everything was absolutely the same. In fact I was almost a little disappointed because we thought that we were going to be sleeping together in a hut somewhere. But that did not happen. The one thing that Kuwait taught me was that I am so grateful to be an American. Not that anything happened in Kuwait. We were with security forces and we stayed at a lovely hotel. So many things that I heard while I was there… Being female, the oppression put on women in so many of these countries is just staggering. So the one thing that hit me more than anything is thank you God. Thank you God that I was born where I was. So that is one thing that struck me so much is how grateful I am to be an American.

Abby: Kathleen, how hard was it to herd the group and give out challenge coins?

Kathleen: Oh! I loved it. But it was so funny because it got to be competitive. It’s an old military tradition and basically coins are designed to represent whatever mission that command is on. So we had an Operation Thriller IV coin. What you do is, when you meet a service member you shake their hand and drop it into their palm as you shake their hand. They will just slide it into their pocket. They will do the same with you if they have a coin from their mission. The challenge part comes when you are all at the bar that night and somebody pulls out a challenge coin and drops it on the bar. If you don’t have one on you, you have to buy that round of drinks. If you do have one then they have to buy. So it’s an old time tradition. Having done the tour before I was always ready. It got competitive. We had a ball. We had so much fun. And you just get really close to the people that you are on the tour with because it is such a unique experience. You are seeing things and doing things that you would usually never get to.

Abby: Heather, what was the most touching moment you experienced on this tour?

Heather: Nothing touched me as much as my days at the hospitals because in times of war you tend to get numbers of the death tolls. What you don’t get is a concept of how many come back just cut to ribbons, minus limbs, in need of so very much. So I think it’s important to recognize this. This is going to sound silly and off the wall and one of the things I get to say because I am an American. When you look at the things they put out a Congressman is paid something like $175,000 for the rest of his life and a serviceman’s pension is something like $12,000. The comparison with what goes on is just staggering. But it’s not even that, I mean we are a capitalist nation and that’s what we do. But I just really think that we really need to make sure that our national income takes care of those who are out there working and fighting to make sure that we have a nation. That was something that really struck me, too.

Abby: Kathleen, you helped give out awards at the USO Gala. What was that like?

Kathleen: The USO Gala is the big gala they do every year It is an incredible experience in that they give the award to a service member for each branch of the services. The stories of what these people did to become a service member… There was one gentleman who defused 40 – that’s four zero – Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs with no protective gear on. To make sure his team was safe. To take care of his team. I mean the stories are remarkable. We helped with bringing awards out. I will never forget standing there holding the award waiting to go on stage and hand it to the General. I was so caught up in the story that I completely forgot what I was supposed to be doing. I had been listening to that story and it was so remarkable that I was thinking, “Are you kidding me?” Our troops are truly heroes. They are just so humble about it. It’s almost like they are embarrassed about it. “Like really you don’t need to be doing this.” And they will say time and time again, and this is probably the most surprising thing to me. “It’s just my job.” “Oh it’s no big deal, it’s just my job.” And you are thinking, “Are you kidding me?” You are half way around the world. Your babies are home with your wife and you aren’t going to see them for a year or 16 months. And you do all of these incredible things to keep us safe back in the United States. And you just tell me that it’s your job. Like No. This is so much more than that!

Abby: Heather, I read that your dad was in the Navy. Did he ever get to experience the USO?

Heather: You know he loved Bob Hope so I’m sure he did. It’s sad to say that he died when I was 20. Sadly that was a while ago now. He loved the Navy. He really did. I think my dad was a gorgeous guy but he lost his hair. When he was a bald man he looked like Mr. Clean. When I was growing up I would ask him all the time how did you end up bald? He said, “Man, I was on that ship. When that first bomb went off the hair jumped out of my head!”

Abby: So your dad was handsome and funny! Kathleen, did you experience anything on the tour that will carry over into your next novel?

Kathleen: Yes. I have experienced some things on both tours and I will tell you what it is. It’s the warriors attitude. I am writing a book set in the late 1200s and it’s a historical action adventure novel. It has to do with Mongolia, the Great Kublai Khan, the Venetian Republic and Marco Polo. It’s kind of a Marco Polo meets The Pirates of the Caribbean and that warrior attitude. And that warrior mentality and the strength. And to actually be exposed to people like that it’s just, it’s amazing.

Abby: Kathleen, don’t you have another project you’re working on with the USO?

Kathleen: Yes. There are so many of our troops who have stories to write. They are really interested in learning about writing and just understanding how publishing works. How do you write a book? How do you get a book published. My baby is called Writing Warriors. I had to fight to bring authors to bases around the country to teach the class of writing. So many of our troops and family members have a story to write. They want to learn to write. So we are having a pilot program on December 6th in San Diego. Doug Lyle, T. Jefferson Parker, and I are going to do the first writing workshop. As you know writing workshops can be very expensive. So we want to be able to provide those kinds of workshops to our troops and their family members for free. The USO is very excited about it so they’re partnering, and we’re going to do a pilot on December 6th. I am very excited about that.

Abby: Heather, on September 24, 2013 The Night Is Forever came out. Is this the last of The Krewe of Hunters series?

Heather: No. No. There will be more Krewe next year. The next book out will actually be Cafferty and Quinn. That was a new series that started this year with Let the Dead Sleep. And the second book in that series is due in March, 2014 is Waking the Dead. And then in the summer there will be 3 more Krewe books. They are The Hexed, The Cursed, and The Betrayed.

Abby: Heather with your writing schedule I don’t know when you have time to do anything else! Is there anything else either of you’d like to add about the USO?

Heather: I cannot say enough about them. We would walk in with the USO emblem on our clothing. Every time we would see soldiers the first thing they would say was, “Oh the USO. Thank you, they provide so much.” I couldn’t encourage people enough to make sure they do support the USO.

Kathleen: I would just continue to say thank you to our troops. They are the amazing ones. I would invite others to thank our troops. If you do donate to a charity please consider donating to USO because they do such an incredible job and your money goes to a really good place. It doesn’t get eaten up in the bureaucracy.

Abby: Thank you both for all of your efforts in thanking our troops. I appreciate it. And I’m looking forward to hearing and reading about your next adventures. And a special thank you to our troops and the USO for all you do!

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