Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.
Matt Eversmann, the former Army Ranger of Black Hawk Down fame, has not stopped attacking since the notorious gunfight in Somalia 27 years ago. After serving a full 20 years in the Army, Eversmann took off his armor for the last time, but he continues to live a life centered around helping others. Whether it’s through his organization Eversmann Advisory, his podcast Veterans Nation, or most recently with his writing, Eversmann has dedicated himself to serving those who serve.
His first book, The Battle of Mogadishu, released in 2004, chronicled the 18-hour firefight during which 18 Americans were killed in action. Continuing his passion for sharing the stories of service members, Eversmann has now joined forces with New York Times bestselling author James Patterson to write another book. Together, they have worked to share the wide range of experiences of service members who put their lives on the line during America’s most recent wars.
Set for release on Feb. 8, 2021, Walk in My Combat Boots tells stories from veterans of different military backgrounds in their own words. Each of the 37 stories stands on its own, making the book one of the first collections to successfully describe the “common” soldier’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, which, after turning the last page, the reader will see is clearly anything but common.
When imagining a veteran of those wars, most Americans picture an infantry soldier in the turret of a HMMWV, or a Navy SEAL fighting the war through the green-lit world of night vision. The reality is that most veterans of the Global War on Terror served in other capacities. The vast array of military occupational specialties (MOS) is largely unknown to the public and often left out of the movies and memoirs. People may be surprised to learn that some veterans served as pediatricians, entomologists, refrigerator repairmen, even musicians. Experiences during overseas deployments vary greatly from veteran to veteran. The majority of stories being told about those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan center around our nation’s most elite units, and while special operations have played a larger role in the GWOT than in any previous conflict, this lopsided focus in literature has left behind a largely misunderstood generation of troops. Eversmann, himself a special operations veteran, has made it his newest mission to right this imbalance.
Walk in My Combat Boots illustrates how no single unit or MOS held a monopoly on combat experience during the nearly two decades of fighting in the Middle East. Take for instance the story of Torie Fischer, a multichannel transmission maintainer and active-duty soldier with the New Jersey National Guard. Fischer enlisted in 2003 and soon found herself wheels down in Iraq. Despite being trained on the ins and outs of radio maintenance, she was soon sitting in the back of an unarmored HMMWV rolling down the dangerous streets of Baghdad, clutching an old M16A2. Despite enlisting into a noncombat arms MOS, Fischer explains the lack of discernible “front lines” in Iraq and how her base was regularly subjected to enemy mortar attacks. Initially less than thrilled about deploying to a war zone, Fischer has since come to view her time in Iraq positively and opted to make a career out of the military.
Red, an Army human intelligence collector, also served in Iraq but lived through an entirely different war. He spent his days and nights extracting information from high value individuals for actionable intelligence. Despite not always carrying a rifle at work, Red reveals that service in a war zone took its toll. He describes his experience:
“When you’re in Iraq, you don’t have any days off. If you are here for a year, it’s 365 days, every day. You never get a break, and it takes years off your life. Big years. There’s the physical demand — always being on patrol or being stuck doing time-sensitive target missions and not sleeping for forty-eight hours — and then there’s the mental aspect of seeing all the shit you see, doing all the shit you do. Sometimes you do things that don’t feel right. You question your own morality. It’s mentally and emotionally and spiritually exhausting. Every. Single. Day.”
Eversmann does a great job describing service honestly, avoiding unnecessary commentary. He does not cater the stories he shares to bolster a single narrative. Rather, he highlights the contrast in experiences; this is the true strength of the book.
Unlike Red, Lisa Marie Bodenburg found an environment in which she thrived. Bodenburg, a Marine and active-duty Huey crew chief, never tired of serving. She was originally told she could not have the MOS she desired because it was exclusive to men, but she went on to graduate at the top of her classes from boot camp, Marine combat training, SERE school, naval aviation technical training, and CMT school. Bodenburg served as a Huey door gunner in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and despite her accolades, she emphasizes the importance of not resting on one’s laurels: “There, no one cares if you were the honor graduate or the bottom of the barrel. None of that matters. You start again from zero. It’s time to put all your training into action. And you better deliver.”
After getting out due to an injury, Bodenburg built a successful career with the National Security Agency but missed the military. Her time serving in both wars was an experience she relished, eventually influencing her to reenlist in the Marines where she continues to serve aboard helicopters.
While Walk in My Combat Boots collects the stories of those troops working uncelebrated but indispensable jobs, it covers the entire spectrum of military service, to include the stories of those who joined with the intention of fighting. Tom, a retired master sergeant and special operations veteran, describes the toll multiple deployments took on his family. He goes on to tell how his daughter helped him use those unique experiences to start a successful business. Tom’s story, one of triumph after war, is quickly juxtaposed with the story of Rory Hamill, another combat-arms veteran who found life after war more challenging.
Hamill, a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, struggled upon getting out of the Marine Corps. He had served as a rifleman and was severely wounded by an IED during his second deployment to Afghanistan. After years of battling both physically and mentally, Hamill was able to use his experiences to help others. He explained:
“I learned the importance of exercise and nutrition and taking care of myself. I began to claw and scrape my way out of my self-loathing. I started speaking to other people about my experiences. Over time, I started to love my fate. Instead of letting it control me, send me into deep, spiraling depression, I discovered a way to turn it around for good — to help others.”
He remained a prominent voice for struggling veterans until his untimely death in April 2020. Walk in My Combat Boots is dedicated to Hamill, and his story marks the book’s final chapter. Rather than focusing on the mental health challenges some veterans face, the book succeeds in neither shying away from nor highlighting those challenges unnecessarily.
Too often post-traumatic stress is seen as the natural result of all overseas service, and Eversmann superbly toes the line between neglecting and celebrating. As with every topic touched on in the book, Walk in My Combat Boots allows the reader to interpret the unique stories themselves. Eversmann and Patterson succeed in widening our field of view when observing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They paint a broad, accurate picture of what war was really like for the many Americans who served there. This collaboration from two accomplished authors is sure to make waves when it hits shelves in the coming weeks.
Walk in My Combat Boots by James Patterson and Matt Eversman, Little, Brown and Company, 416 pages, $30; available wherever books are sold on Feb. 8, 2021.
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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