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Recalling my infantry days with Tom Clancy

  • Novelist Tom Clancy poses next to the tank on his yard overlooking Chesapeake Bay at his home in Prince Frederick, Md., Oct. 1992. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

I returned from a run Wednesday morning to learn that author Tom Clancy, the signpost of my entry into the U.S. Army, had died.

Everyone has a sight, a sound, a smell that reminds him of a specific time in life: a vision of a first car, a song from high school, a whiff of perfume from college. For me, Clancy signifies the start of my military life.

I first began reading him after I was recycled in Ranger School in 1987. Waiting on the next class, there wasn't much to do besides push-ups and getting yelled at, so we read. To this day, any mention of "The Hunt for Red October" or "Red Storm Rising" brings back memories of sawdust, sweat, hot barracks and noisy fans.

I ended up as a second lieutenant, assigned to the 7th Infantry Division — newly minted as a "light" division, so we had no vehicles. We walked everywhere with our rucksacks on our backs and were damn proud of it. I had finished Clancy's earliest novels by then and loved them. But they were all written about a world I could only imagine. Yes, I was in the military, but I knew as much about submarines as I did about flying the space shuttle.

And then, Clancy entered my world. The writer visited my post to research a novel. We already knew he was famous for his "insider knowledge" and his ability to accurately describe secret things, so much so that President Ronald Reagan called "The Hunt for Red October" a "perfect yarn" and others in the government demanded to know who had "leaked" to him.

Now, he was turning his eye onto us. Everyone became enamored of the visiting writer, with the commanding general himself wearing the ivory-handled six-inch katana that Clancy gave him on his officer's belt.

The novel he was researching, "Clear and Present Danger," was released in 1989 and became the best-selling novel of the decade — with the help of the 7th Infantry Division. While we relished the name "grunt," the truth of the matter is that infantrymen are voracious readers. There's a lot of down time when on a field problem; along with a weapon, one can always be expected to have a paperback. Slipped into a gallon Ziploc bag to protect it from a river crossing or the rain, it fit perfectly in a cargo pocket. At the end of the 1980s, almost every cargo pocket was sporting Clancy's book.

"Clear and Present Danger" wasn't about submarines or fighter wings. It was about light-fighters — grunts humping the jungles of Colombia hunting drug lords. One of its main characters was Domingo "Ding" Chavez, a noncommissioned officer in the 7th Infantry Division. Of course, Clancy made some mistakes in his portrayal. It would have been impossible not to. But he got more right than wrong. There wasn't a grunt in the division who didn't identify with Ding. Didn't want to be him.

The Cold War was winding down, and Clancy was talking about a new threat: drugs. At this time, our division was rotating through Operation Blue Spoon in Panama — the utilitarian military name that preceded Operation Just Cause. Clancy appeared to be prophetic: We were light-fighters, embroiled with Manual Noriega in the war on drugs.

My infantry days are long gone, but I still grow wistful when I crack open that book. I learned to write by reading, and Clancy was one of my primary instructors. He taught me how to craft prose, how to research. He taught me the importance, even in fiction, of a dedication to accuracy.


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