I listened to the audible of Mark Owens and Kevin Maurer's "No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden" (2012) shortly after it came out. I liked the book well enough to rate it 5's - it was really great to hear about that mission from someone who was there. I went back and reread my review (which was lackluster and not well received) and realized what I wasn't saying in that review was that I didn't like 'Mark Owens' and I thought it was a "me, me, me" story. There had to be more to being a SEAL than that - and this is the book that shows there is.
"Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown" (2012) is the story of a flawed, heroic man who was genuinely admirable and truly loved. I'm not sure 'Mark Owens' has a conscience. I am certain Adam did. Adam was the kind of kid who stood up to a bully in middle school who was picking on Down Syndrome kid, and packed his rucksack with shoes for children in Afghanistan so they wouldn't have to endure winter barefoot. No one told him he had to do either - he was just that kind of person.
Adam wasn't always heroic. He was a crack addict with 11 felony arrests, spent a long stint in rehab, and relapsed several times. He enlisted in the Navy at 24, and worked with determination to ascend to DEVGRU, and was the best of the best. Adam overcame severe injuries that could have let him retire on full disability - he crushed his right fingers and lost his right eye, but he still passed all of the qualifications tests and reached the pinnacle of his profession.
"Fearless" was published by The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group, and the audio production is by Christian Audio. I was worried that this was going to be a preachy "you should" book, or a tale of unsupported faith. I almost didn't listen - but I remembered that Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption" (2010) had an important spiritual element for Louis Zamperini. Adam Brown's faith, and his family's faith, love and support were even more essential to him than his M4 Carbine.
Even though I knew how Adam's story ended - author Eric Blehm tells of Adam's death at the beginning - I so wanted Adam to live for his beloved wife, Kelley, and adored children, Nathan and Savannah.
Listening to narrator Paul Michael was like listening to a favorite uncle telling a well-loved family story after Thanksgiving dinner.
There's a bonus at the end - an interview with the author. That's heart wrenching, too, because of the loss of so many of Adam's SEAL team members.
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I haven't slept much since I downloaded Gayle Tzemach Lemmon's "Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield" (2015) three days ago. It's no more disturbing than 'Mark Owen' and Kevin Maurer's "No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden" (2012), and it's definitely less disturbing than Helen Thorpe's "Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War" (2014). The reason I haven't slept so well is that the writing and narration of "Ashley's War" is so good I didn't want to turn it off. It's the Audible equivalent of "I couldn't put it down."
There's a rough balance between Afghan women and American female soldiers. The majority of Afghan women are illiterate, married by age 16, have an average of 5 children, and live in family compounds carefully screened from the world (source: United Nations). In a world so small, they are the observers and family preservers.
In contrast, American women are more educated than their husbands, if they choose to marry; average fewer than 2 children each (source: Pew Research, UN); and are free to travel wherever their talents and money can take them. American women have been informally serving as soldiers since 1775, and formally a part of the Army since World War I.
The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) - the Army Rangers and Navy SEALS of legend -badly needed the intelligence that Afghani women had. Tribal mores meant that those women would not speak to men. They would, however, talk to female soldiers. General Stanley McChrystal, who graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1976 - the same year women were first admitted - encouraged development of what became CSTs - Cultural Support Teams.
CSTs are teams of women "enablers" attached to Army Rangers or Green Berets to facilitate questioning AfghanI women and children. Female soldiers volunteer and then are selected for modified Ranger training because they are physically capable of matching those elite soldiers, and they are chosen for assignments because they are mentally capable of doing the job.
"Ashley's War" is the story of the first of the CSTs. "Ashley" is Lt Ashley White (Stumpf) one of the best of the best. Lt. White and the other female soldiers who became CSTs didn't ask for special treatment - all they asked was for the chance to prove they could do the job. And they did. Lemmon's writing was so vivid, it was like being set in a ruck march at Ft. Bliss.
The U.S. Armed Services didn't officially allow women in combat MOS's (Military Occupational Skills) until 2013. The CSTs were and are there ahead of time. Personally, I was surprised to find myself with a bitter taste of jealousy underlying the pride I feel in those soldiers . I served from 1982 to 1986, and I would have loved to have the same opportunity. I doubt even at my fittest I could have made the cut, but I had friends that surely could have. And oh, just to have had the chance . . .
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When we read text, we don't read every word - our mind tells us what is there; we get the gist of a paragraph; and we move on. When we are read to, it takes longer - but we hear every word.
Laura Hillenbrand's writing is an exquisite orchid to Jane Austin's massive flowering rose bush. Both write beautifully and are and will long be remembered, but every word and sentence in Hilebrand's book is carefully trained and pruned to support an astonishing story. With Austin's work, a rose or three could be removed without notice.
That's not to say Louis Zamperini's story is austere or lacks details. Hillenbrand evokes Pre-WWII Southern California so clearly that 70 years later, you expect to see Zamperini on one of his long runs.
The description of his survival after an ocean crash is so detailed you feel Zamperini's despair as he realizes just how useless some of the survival gear stowed in the raft was.
Most of all, this is a story about the loss of dignity at the hands of captors, and the redemption of dignity. Hillenbrand shows that dignity should be first on Maslow's heirarchy, because without dignity, is anyone truly alive?
Rewind if you miss something thinking about the exit you need to take, because some of the most crucial details and changes in circumstances are in a few spare phrases . Don't miss a word of this book.
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