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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Everywhere I Go

Veteran’s Day caught me by surprise. I have grown accustomed to holidays that stick to Monday like gorilla glue. Or, in this case, perhaps, guerilla glue.

But Veteran’s Day was born out of World War One, where armistice officially began on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. That’s the moment the foxholes went quiet and the doughboys could breathe air free of smoke and burning potash. The nation came to revere the actual date more than the chance for a three day weekend of hammocks, hot dogs and beer. So it’s a Thursday that has me suddenly and haphazardly thinking about the veterans I have known.

The first one that jumps to my mind is a young man, just 21 when his actions set him off as a character who took my breath away. Saul Guerrero is pictured here in his uniform. He served in Iraq--saw a lot of things, learned a lot of things. On a blistering night in June, 2006, his soldier training and valiant heart saved a life no more than an ounce or two of curdling blood away from ending on an Arizona sidewalk. He ran out into the darkness, toward danger, to save a stranger in unknown circumstances involving hostile gunfire.

One of my favorite writers is gentleman tennis legend, Arthur Ashe. He died some time ago, when Saul was just a child, but I know it was for the type of man Saul would become that Ashe once wrote, “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” – Arthur Ashe

So undramatic was Saul’s urge to serve that he never even knew he’d been featured in a book until well after A Sudden Shot had been published. Although we’d all been looking for him (soldiers have a way of disappearing into unknown corners of the globe), he stumbled upon us by accident.

As I pondered the photo of Saul in his uniform at that happy moment when I got to see him together with the man he’d saved, I remembered that Paul, the one in the wheelchair, is also a veteran. It was his own U.S. Army training that helped him recognize that he was, in fact, dying on that sidewalk and when Saul appeared at his side, it was the recognition of his crisp and strong command of the situation that gave Paul the relief that he was in good hands, the hands of a soldier whose training Paul knew well.

Paul, who will never wear a uniform again, more often in a hospital gown than any other outfit, is quite a soldier himself, inspiring thousands with his spirited will to live and triumph over the greatest battle ever.

I remembered some of my favorite moments with Paul and a vision of a juror who continues to visit him popped up in my mental viewing screen, shyly at first and later effervescently showering him with hugs and his treasured lipstick marks and even the conspiratorially conveyed gift or two. She’s also a veteran. She recently ended a 25 year career in the U. S. Army where she learned to look after some of the nation’s most prestigious and highly valued assets. Look at that picture--she's still doing so.

That led me to smack myself on the forehead: One of the most impressive personalities I discovered in delving into the wretched year of the Serial Shooter is, yes, a veteran. Phoenix Homicide Detective Cliff Jewell worked unflinchingly in scruffy corridors, bloody alleys and sooty sheds seeing patterns where no one else did. He started his law enforcement career in the U.S. Air Force. The instincts honed there helped stop the killing here.

I hadn't finished considering Cliff Jewell's dramatic adventures in Southeast Asia when my thoughts veered forward to spring 2011 when my next work will be published. For that story, I interviewed a young man who outwitted a rampaging murderer and handed police an airtight case instead of what they otherwise would have found, an inscrutable and probably unsolvable double murder. He told me it was his U.S. Army training that kicked in, keeping him one step ahead of his pursuer, surviving to lead the emergency responders safely in till the bullets stopped.

That’s when I gave up trying to make a list of all the veterans who personally affected me this year. It’s clear there are too many, they are everywhere, past, present and future. Veterans not only serve us on foreign shores but they bring back skills and fortitude that benefit our home communities daily right here inside the comfy borders of the U.S. of A.

After he found us and I got to witness his reunion with Paul, I was very excited to ask Saul Guerrero to join me at a book signing event at a national chain book store. I was exuberant at the thought of him signing his first autographs. I encouraged him to wear his wonderful uniform with all the decorations, red, yellow, blue, white, on the jacket.

As we were setting up the chairs and projector that night in the store, a browser in the stacks of books started tossing comments at Saul. At first, busy as I was, I couldn’t hear the comments properly. I saw Saul smiling so I was happy--perhaps he was getting his first much-deserved admirer from amongst the book reading crowd. But in moments I saw the store manager approach and intervene.

Soon she was shouting at the customer and ordering him out of the store. Saul was still smiling, while the store manager was incensed and I was both astonished and aghast. Far from fan accolades, the customer had actually been heckling my guy in uniform, a true action hero if ever there was one. The customer was anti-military or anti-war or anti-Obama or anti-Bush and took the opportunity to fling his sarcasm and smug opinions at a man in uniform who happened to cross his path.

“You don’t even know what he’s here for,” screamed the manager in Saul’s defense, “just get out!”

But there was Saul, still smiling happily and making friendly gestures to his heckler. The heckler stormed off into the dark desert night. I don’t know if it was the manager’s raised fist or if it was Saul’s cheerful grace that shamed him out into the shadows.

For Saul turned to me and merrily continued sharing his philosophy, “I love it,” he said, “This is what I fought for. This is America. We all get to have our opinions. We all get to speak up whenever we want. I LOVE it!”

I peered at him carefully. Was he being extraordinarily affable in order to get through an awkward situation where he was a guest?

No. His eyes were twinkling. Saul meant it. These were the authentic outpourings of his own heart, his own American opinion, his own soldier’s soul.

We did our presentation, went through the slides and I loved hearing Saul’s commentary on the events of June 8, 2006, when he cradled a dying man’s head and brought him back to life. It was time to pack up, tuck the crime scene tape away, fold the chairs. Another book browser stepped into view from behind a book rack. He walked a little past us but kept throwing glances back at Saul. Just as I was shaking Saul’s hand good-bye--I’m telling you, I did not make this up--and he was visibly leaving, the book buyer approached.

I quickly told the man of Saul’s role in the true story of A Sudden Shot: The Phoenix Serial Shooter. The shopper took the book in his hands, hefted it, then clapped Saul on his decorated soldier shoulder.

“I buy this book, “ he said in a soft European accent, perhaps from the Low Countries, perhaps from a larger neighbor, “not for the story but for you. I buy this book to honor you.”

Beaming like a doting mother--or a proud patriot--I handed Saul a pen and watched him sign his name in the title page.

The experience I’ve had in watching veterans at work in their community through their service to the Serial Shooter investigation, the trial or even the dangerous emergencies on their doorstep make Arthur Ashe’s words resonate deeply. They bear repeating.

“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” – Arthur Ashe

Thank you, veterans, from a grateful citizen.





  1. I really enjoyed this entry you wrote for Veteran's Day as I think it shows what a good writer you are becoming. I hope you will have an extended career in writing about crime, as I think we need writers who have the fortitude to shine their light into the dark corners of crime, so that the public can better understand crime, how it begins to form and do a better job of stopping it!

  2. Thank you, Gerry. I was astonished when I started thinking of how many veterans were involved in THIS crime. I could have gone on, but then I'd never finish writing. All the thanks in the world is not enough.

  3. In addition to her books I think it is wonderful that she is "aware" of all of these men and their contributions to our society. What a neat story about saving Paul's life. Saul, low keyed, doing his job, risking his life, doing it because it is the right thing to do. In the book I remember that when he was saving Paul he didn't know if the murderer's were still around. Nice blog

  4. Thanks, anonymous. You remember correctly. Not only did Saul not know if the murderers were still there--he did not know if Paul himself was an evildoer. As Arthur Ashe said, Saul had an urge to serve "whatever the cost."