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Mark Bowden signs for a troop. (Photo credit: Mike Theiler / USO)
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Journalist Mark Bowden Reflects on Middle East USO Tour, Expresses Admiration for Troops

Thursday, April 12, 2012

By Christian Pelusi 

Mark Bowden claims he used to have trouble selling his stories when he was a journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The role of a writer can sometimes include the job of huckster, persuading editors to see a particular vision for pieces they would like to produce.

Pretty hard to imagine that coming from a National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestseller but that was before he generated ten books and hundreds of articles in publications like Vanity Fair and The Atlantic.

Now, Mark Bowden has gained the kind of latitude that affords him the opportunity to cover the world and has done so at an extremely high level for over three decades.

But when the idea of taking part in a USO tour was offered to him, he was a bit surprised.

"I remember [author and past USO tour member] Andy Harp asking me at a thrillers convention in New York ... which is unusual for me since I'm not really a thriller writer," Bowden said in a telephone interview from his Pennsylvania home. "He asked if I ever considered going on a tour. And I had known some folks who had done tours who are entertainers and it was an opportunity that I thought was a really great thing. I had never thought a writer would be in the position to do something like this. Anything we can do to help those who are fighting in distant places and making such commitments.

"You see video of Bob Hope and other entertainers do this and it warms your heart. I just thought how terrific and of course, I was delighted to do something like that."

Joining him on the tour last November were fellow best-selling authors Clive Cussler, Sandra Brown, Kathy Reichs and Andrew Peterson and even with his years of globe-trotting, chasing down stories, the trip left an indelible mark on Bowden. (See photos.)

"It was just a fascinating experience from beginning to end, not always the most comfortable," he said, laughing. "But most interesting. I had never visited a big base like Bagram in a war and just to see the extent of the American military operation underway just boggles the mind. The size, the complexity of the operation.

"I had never really traveled on military transport before and the logistics were just extraordinary. You can read about the numbers of troops, the sheer volume of equipment and fuel but until you see it you can't imagine the size of it and the complexity of it. So for me as a journalist, it was just a fascinating thing to see from the inside."

Despite writing about military engagement and international affairs, Bowden was once again bowled over by the American military and the jobs they perform in service to our country.

"I am always struck by the professionalism of the military wherever we went. From the privates who took you around to the generals who would brief us about what they were looking to accomplish. It's just an inspiring level of expertise that never ceases to impress.

"I think very carefully and I protect the independence of my judgment and my statements and when I say that I am overwhelmed by the professionalism and the competence of the American military, I mean it very sincerely. You meet one extraordinary person after the next."

Bowden also said that the servicemen and women he met share the same fundamental characteristics that troops from 10 and 20 years ago shared, but with a few big differences.

"I think they're more experience in combat than they were 20 years ago. I think American forces, in my experience, are highly motivated and very well trained, but those that had first-hand experience in combat or posting to war zones, until the last 10 years, made up a very small percentage of the force. You meet person after person that have done multiple tours and you start chatting with people who have been in war zones for the last 10 years. So I think that's perhaps the biggest difference, I find. ... Helicopter pilots who have flown hundreds of missions. Soldiers who are on their fourth and fifth deployments.

"I think the other thing is the internationalism of the force. I met soldiers in the field from Uganda, South America, Europe, from South Africa. We read about the international nature of the mission, but ... it truly is a real melting pot. A community that you rarely encounter."

As for the trip itself, bouncing from base to base was a new experience for just about all of them. Fellow authors Kathy Reichs and Sandra Brown reflected on the tour on a blog for the Huffington Post, where Reichs described the experience as: "Exhausting. Exhilarating. Surprising. Moving. Most of all, gratifying." Bowden concurred with all of it.

"I'm probably a little more experience in that kind of travel, the spartan nature of accommodations of a war zone or a third-world country," Bowden said. "But it was exhausting. We were averaging four hours of sleep a night. But I was also, all of those things they describe.

“I really enjoyed hanging out with Clive and Andy and Kathy and Sandra. They are all very funny and smart and charming. It lightened the whole burden of the time. Whenever it turned into a bit of a slog, they lightened things up."

And by "lightened things up," he meant it.

"Andy Peterson who is a writer but also a spearheaded our travels and had such a high level of excitement for the experience," Bowden said. "The pilot of a Black Hawk asked 'Do you want to see want to see what this thing can do?' And I'm sitting with Clive and Kathy and Sandra, who the idea of pulling stunts and G's might not have been as appealing to as this was to Andy and I wanted to say you might want to discuss this first.

"But then we're hurling to the ground and spinning and we left our stomachs deeply deposited in our shoes," he said, laughing. "But they were great sports with it and it was a great deal of fun, pushing things to the edge from time to time."

Beyond experiencing a troop's flying expertise, Bowden was also impressed with their interest in not just Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, the book and film that pushed Bowden into the public eye, but with his profession and how he gets things accomplished.

"You meet soldiers who have seen the movie or read the book or are interested in writing or world affairs or reporting and how you make a career as a journalist or a writer," he said. "A lot of the soldiers I talked to had that interest and they don't get to meet successful practitioners but because of the success of 'Black Hawk Down,' I can share with them how I work, how stories are put together, how stories are researched. And you just get into a lot of general conversations about them as people. I've corresponded with a lot of men and women I've met. I freely give out my email address, they send me books to sign, send me things to read that they’ve written. And I thoroughly enjoy that, those relationships I've made in that way."

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Photo caption: Mark Bowden signs for a troop during his USO tour last year. (Photo credit: Mike Theiler / USO) 

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