Review: A Bond of Brothers in ‘Three Wise Men’

February 12, 2021J. Ford Huffman
three wise men book review beau wise

The three Wise boys grow up in El Dorado — the one near Hope in Arkansas, not the mythical one in South America — where Jeremy, Ben, and Beau are not “big on GI Joes” or “playing war.”

However, their mother is a “walking encyclopedia” of US military conflicts, some involving relatives. A great-great-uncle served in World War I, a grandfather and uncle in World War II. Following a bedtime history lesson, mother Mary closes with a prayer: “Lord, please protect my three sons.”

Theirs is a home where Halloween is celebrated as the church-named Harvest Festival. But boys will be boisterous, and the band of brothers has a passion for guitars and drums — and songs such as Van Halen’s “Runnin’ With the Devil.”

three wise men book review beau wise
After the memorial service for Navy SEAL Jeremy Wise, his younger brothers boarded flights bound for Afghanistan. “To Ben and me, it was the only way to truly honor Jeremy and everything he stood for,” Beau Wise writes in Three Wise Men. Photo courtesy of Three Wise Men/Twitter.

Their father, Jean, a physician with a specialty in reconstructive plastic surgery, expects “nothing but good behavior and academic excellence” from his sons and daughter in what co-author Beau Wise calls a Leave It to Beaver family. 

Straight-A Jeremy, the oldest, graduates from Christian high school and accepts an appointment — the official letter is signed by then-Gov. Bill Clinton — to the US Military Academy. The family crams into “Dad’s little Piper six-seat aircraft” and delivers Jeremy to West Point. 

That’s the first Wise-brother step into the military. Eventually the prank-playing and Pulp Fiction-quoting three kin are bearing arms — and traverse afar. To Afghanistan.

“Instead of looking forward to the {December} holidays, Jean and Mary Wise were dreading have three sons in Afghanistan as the calendar flipped to 2010.” 

So much for idyllic El Dorado. 

If you are not familiar with the Wise men, the subtitle of the book is a spoiler alert. However, knowing Jeremy’s and Ben’s fates does not hamper you from being engrossed by the war-zone predicaments in Three Wise Men, told in Beau’s voice — cathartically, no doubt — with co-writer Tom Sileo. 

In serviceable prose, the book presents a family’s story and explores the meaning of service, the responsibility of duty, the fortitude that resilience demands — and brotherly love.

Sileo co-wrote Brothers Forever, the 2014 tribute to Travis Manion, a Marine killed in Iraq, and Brendan Looney, a Navy SEAL who died in Afghanistan. He co-authored Fire in My Eyes (2016) from SEAL Brad Snyder, who was blinded in Afghanistan, and Medal of Honor recipient Flo Goldberg’s 8 Seconds of Courage (2018). 

He and Beau present personal reflections from a brother, mainly about his brothers’ selfless actions — examples of valor minus bravado.

Jeremy (“Jerms”) leaves the Academy for medical school and becomes a SEAL. After service, he is working for the CIA in 2009 as a contractor with the company formerly known as Blackwater.

Beau and Sileo reconstruct the catastrophe at FOB Chapman, where informant Humam al-Balawi receives permission to enter the post without being frisked. Soon after he gets out of his car, the triple agent blows himself up — along with Jeremy and six other CIA employees. 

The moment is visualized in Kathryn Bigelow’s movie Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and in The Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick’s The Triple Agent (2011), a book the authors praise and reference. But their retelling remains intense. 

Ben enlists in the Army as an infantryman in 2000 and graduates eight years later from Special Forces school. He’s a medic and sniper, and his Operational Detachment Alpha 316 team has served in Afghanistan 18 months in two years. 

three wise men book review beau wise
Sgt. Beau Wise, left, nearly chose suicide after losing both brothers to war and being pulled from combat. Instead, he honors Jeremy and Ben by helping his fellow veterans & Gold Star family members. “The last life they saved was mine,” Beau writes. Photo courtesy of Three Wise Men/Twitter.

In 2012, Sgt. 1st Class Wise is nearing deployment’s end when an assault mission takes him to Balkh province near Uzbekistan. 

In the firefight, Ben saves an Afghani commando and volunteers to clear a cave in order to rescue women and children in another. He throws a grenade, and his teammates hear shots. A soldier sees “Ben fall backward onto the rocks,” and “bullet holes are everywhere” below his waist. 

His “manhood”? “You’re good, bro!” Reassuring words, but in Landstuhl, Germany, Ben’s legs are amputated, and the bloated figure in the hospital bed “is the person we were told was Ben.” He dies, and “Benny and Jerms were back together in a better place.” 

Beau (born Matthew Jordan Wise) is the sole-surviving son when the Wise family goes to Dover Air Force Base for the second time in two years. 

On the tarmac, Marine Corps Commandant James F. Amos assures Mary Wise that Cpl. Beau “is not going anywhere for a long, long time.” 

With that, Beau’s “ill-fated future as a Marine Corps gunner” is finished, and three years later he is despondent. A liter of Jack Daniel’s becomes “almost a nightly ritual,” and he is considering whether to use his M1911 pistol on himself when he decides to watch the Army-produced DVD of Ben’s funeral service. He has an epiphany: 

“Jeremy and Ben Wise saved a lot of lives during their eight combined combat deployments and more than 14 years spent defending our nation.” Perhaps the last life they save will be his own.

three wise men book review beau wise
Beau Wise at his brothers’ graves. Photo courtesy of Tom Sileo/Twitter.

Much in Three Wise Men is sad. But remarkably, hope persists. In the acknowledgments section, Beau says helping Gold Star family members is “the number-one goal” in producing the book that bares his soul to public evaluation.

You’ll wish the book were more open — specifically, about Jean and Mary. Her anguish after hearing the news about Ben’s injuries is devastating and unforgettable.

“Lord, you already took Jeremy,” she says. “You can’t have Ben.” 

The line is wrought with pain and leaves a reader wanting to know how Mary copes with daily life, including losing her husband to Parkinson’s disease in 2016. How does she get out of bed in the morning?

Despite the sorrow, Three Wise Men has light touches, including little boy Beau’s being coerced — by his brothers — into a laundry chute back in El Dorado. And on the last page, Beau offers a twist to the title of the book. His point is sentimental yet sublime. 

Three Wise Men: A Navy SEAL, a Green Beret, and How Their Marine Brother Became a War’s Sole Survivor by Beau Wise and Tom Sileo, St. Martin’s Press, 304 pages, $18

Noted but not reviewed

Here are other current books Coffee or Die readers might find of interest:

First Platoon: A Story of Modern War in the Age of Identity Dominance by Annie Jacobsen, Dutton, 400 pages, $28

In his review in The Washington Post, military journalist Greg Jaffe says the nonfiction book is correct in noting “the dangers associated with the modern surveillance state.” 

Jacobsen also “ably documents” the trauma faced by 82nd Airborne Division platoon members whose leader, 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, was imprisoned for war crimes and pardoned by then-President Trump.

The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck, Berkley, 368 pages, $16

In this novel, Robuck presents the story of 37-year-old Virginia Hall, the Maryland native who spied for the Allies in France during World War II. 

The Spymaster of Baghdad: A True Story of Bravery, Family, and Patriotism in the Battle Against ISIS by Margaret Coker, HarperCollins, 324 pages, $29

Coker was a Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times, and her nonfiction book brings to light the story of a covert intelligence group of formerly ordinary Iraqi people. The Spymaster of Baghdad will be available wherever books are sold on Feb. 23, 2021.

J. Ford Huffman
J. Ford Huffman

J. Ford Huffman has reviewed 400-plus books published during the Iraq and Afghanistan war era, mainly for Military Times, and he received the Military Reporters and Editors (MRE) 2018 award for commentary. He co-edited Marine Corps University Press’ The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (2012). When he is not reading a book or editing words or art, he is usually running, albeit slowly. So far: 48 marathons, including 15 Marine Corps races. Not that he keeps count. Huffman serves on the board of Student Veterans of America and the artist council of Armed Services Arts Partnership and has co-edited two ASAP anthologies. As a content and visual editor, he has advised newsrooms from Defense News to Dubai to Delhi and back.

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