My infantry days with Tom Clancy


Bloomberg News

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.

My next book is about the war on drugs — in Mexico, not Colombia, but featuring a Clancy-esque technical “clear and present danger.” I had fantasized about mailing a copy to Clancy, thanking him for his writing and letting him know how he’d touched a young grunt way back when. I don’t know if I would have had the gumption to do so, but I’m sorry not to have had the chance.

Brad Taylor is the author of four Pike Logan novels and a contributor to the Bloomberg View’s Ticker. He served for more than 20 years in the U.S. Army, including eight years in 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, commonly known as Delta Force. He retired as a Special Forces lieutenant colonel.

© 2013, Bloomberg News

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • Whistle blower’s tale with happy ending

    Late last month, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an oblique news release announcing that it was awarding an unnamed whistle-blower $400,000 for helping expose a financial fraud at an unnamed company. The money was the latest whistle-blower award — there have been 13 so far — paid as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which includes both protections for whistle-blowers and financial awards when their information leads to fines of more than $1 million.

  • High drama in Texas governor’s office

    As moments of high political drama go, it doesn’t get much better than this. Indicted Gov. Rick Perry, we’re ready for your close-up.

  • The ones left behind

    The fire this time is about invisibility. Our society expects the police to keep unemployed, poorly educated African-American men out of sight and out of mind. When they suddenly take center stage, illuminated by the flash and flicker of Molotov cocktails, we feign surprise.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category