Dan Sheehan: A Marine’s Memoir of War Becomes An Award-Winning Book

Dan SheehanDan Sheehan flew helicopter gunships during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and returned for a second tour with Marine Corps Special Operations Command, Detachment One in 2004. Dan turned to writing as a means to understand how his experiences in Iraq had affected him.

His first book, After Action: The True Story of a Cobra Pilot’s Journey, chronicles those experiences and gives a firsthand account of the life-changing decisions modern warriors must make in the heat of battle.

Far from a simple war story, After Action exposes the burdens many veterans carry and offers a means for these warriors to process them without the stigma of weakness.

Scroll down for a complete transcript of the interview or click the Play button below to listen to the interview now. And don’t forget to leave a comment to let us know what you thought of this interview!

After Action by Dan Sheehan

After Action by Dan Sheehan“Not all wounds are visible.”

Dan Sheehan is a third-generation naval aviator. He was eager to test his skills as a Cobra gunship pilot in the theatre of combat – and then he got his chance, first, in East Timor, then during two tours of duty in Iraq. The scenes in After Action crackle with tension and excitement as we follow his path into battle. Bullets pierce their Cobras as Dan and his comrades struggle to separate enemy fighters from civilians – ultimately deciding who lives and dies.

Through blinding sandstorms, the smoke of battle and chaos of low-altitude firefights at night, Dan puts us in the front seat of the Cobra – where we white-knuckle our way through barrages of enemy fire – and into his head as he makes split-second decisions that carry lasting consequences.

After Action received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly Select, over 50, 5-Star reviews on Amazon, and was named one of five Finalists in the Shelf Unbound Best Indie Book Award 2013. In addition, After Action won a Gold medal in the Memoir category and a Bronze medal in the ” Best Adult Non-Fiction Personal E-Book” category of the 2014 IPPY Awards (Independent Publisher Book Awards).

Dan is currently working on a second book addressing the challenges facing returning veterans.

Drawing on his own experiences, and the work of scholars and mental health professionals, this book will identify how modern warriors are ill-prepared for the challenges of returning home and offer pragmatic suggestions for how individual veterans can overcome these shortfalls themselves.

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Dan Sheehan Transcript

Tim Knox: Dan Sheehan, welcome to the program.

Dan Sheehan: Thanks, Tim. It’s a real pleasure to be here.

Tim Knox: Dan, it’s great having you. You have a fascinating background. Give us a little bio on Dan Sheehan.

Dan Sheehan: Well I appreciate that first off. I spent about 12 years in the Marine Corp. I was a Cobra pilot and went on active duty in 1996, did a couple of overseas deployments before 9/11 and then flew Cobra gunships during the initial invasion of Iraq. Let’s see, I went back again on the ground to Baghdad in 2004 as a forward air controller with a Marine Corp special operations group.

Tim Knox: Let’s talk about your book. The name of the book is After Action: The True Story of a Cobra Pilot’s Journey. Before you wrote this where you a writer?

Dan Sheehan: I was not. I was an international politics major in college and had never written anything longer than the minimum required to pass my papers in.

Tim Knox: What possessed you to write a book?

Dan Sheehan: Well I realized about five years after I came home from my second tour in Iraq that there was something left over from those experiences that was bothering me and was actually changing the way I was interacting with people, including my family. I turned to writing as a means to figure it out because I couldn’t just sit there and go, okay, something’s bothering me. I wasn’t self-aware enough to go something’s bothering me; let me track back here a little bit. Okay, it must have been that, that and that and now I know. It simple eluded me and so I had to do it through writing.

Tim Knox: So really for you it was almost a form of self-therapy.

Dan Sheehan: Exactly, it really was and the more distance I’d gotten from writing After Action the more I see that.

Tim Knox: Before this you were not a writer. You never had an inkling to be a writer.

Dan Sheehan: You know, I kept pretty solid notes and reports from my experiences in the cockpit, both in peacetime and war with the idea that maybe someday I’d sit down and write something. My father had written a book about his experiences in Vietnam. I hope he goes back and works some more on it and pushes it out again because he’s a really good writer. So that was always a thing that was in the back of my mind. In my mind though it was a fiction book and it was something that I would do if I crashed my helicopter, broke my back, wasn’t able to do the things that I do on a daily basis. I mean I’m pretty active. I like spearfishing and surfing and what not. I figured if I couldn’t do those things well then maybe I’d sit down and write.

Tim Knox: So really did this start off almost like a journal, a diary for you?

Dan Sheehan: That was definitely how it began, yes. The first draft of After Action was easily 100 pages longer than what’s there now and it was very flat. It was a journal. It read this day did this, saw that, came home. This day did this, saw that, came home – that sort of bland storytelling. Actually it wasn’t storytelling; it was just retelling of facts but it was a necessary step for me to go through because the memories and experiences of Iraq had become so jumbled in my head that I had to pull them out kind of like last year’s Christmas lights and lay them on the yard in front of me before I could see what I had to work with.

Tim Knox: What a great analogy. Did you find that some of your Christmas lights were twisted and knotted?

Dan Sheehan: Oh boy, they were a mess. I worked with a really good developmental editor named David Hazard. His company, Ascent, did a great job working with me throughout this process. After I had that first draft done I went to David and worked with him to… he helped me untangle some of those knots a little bit better than I had done on my own and then helped me highlight which strands were important and which strands were, you know, they might have been important for me but they weren’t important for my reader. Editing those out and getting rid of them was integral to maintaining the flow and it was critical to maintain the flow and the pace of the book.

Tim Knox: I think that’s one thing that’s hard for a lot of authors, not just new authors but old authors, to do is to actually edit out those pieces because I think as authors we tend to fall in love with our own words sometimes. You know, I really don’t want to take that out. It doesn’t affect the story but I really like it. Did you have to call upon that soldier training, that disciple to do that?

Dan Sheehan: Well I was able to… I’m still building that discipline. What I was able to rely on was my sister, who’s also a writer and an editor. She did me the great service of reading through several of my early drafts and a couple later drafts and really asked that pointed question. Why is this important? Why is it important that I know this person? My answers often were, well, because I like them; they’re nice folks. She was like that’s not sufficient. I’m your reader and I don’t care about this person so it’s distracting me. She was the first to tell me that you have to kill your babies as a writer.

Tim Knox: Yeah and that’s really hard to do unless you’re the Game of Thrones guy. Then you just kill them every time the show comes on. At what point did you look at this journal, this memoir and say hey this could be a book?

Dan Sheehan: That must have been around the second or third draft was when it really clicked in my head that what I had been through and what I was figuring out about it was actually important to share. What kind of motivated me before that was the thought, okay, this is good for me. Getting it out in that first draft was healthy for me. The second and third drafts were my attempts to clean that up a little bit so that when my children were older they wouldn’t have to rely on my fuzzy memory to figure out what I’d been through and for me to be able to share those experiences with them at whatever level was appropriate. After about the third draft and working with David, we started figuring out there’s… what I’m pulling out of my experiences, what I’m extracting as meaning from my experiences is actually important to share. I saw that amongst my fellow veterans, the guys that I flew with and fought with on the ground. We were all dealing with the same after effects with various levels of success and at varying levels of self-medication, self-therapy or simply ignoring the problems even though our ability to do so was becoming less and less with time.

Tim Knox: I’m sure you’re familiar with the book Black Hawk Down. Mike Durant is actually from here and I’ve heard Mike speak. He talks about when he was reading the book and watching the movie it was almost like he was right back there experiencing it all again. Was it the same for you writing this book?

Dan Sheehan: I did and that was why it was so cathartic for me. The years that I spent working on it, After Action, most of it was in the basement staring at my computer screen. Now I had my journal from those flights. I had my co-pilot Gash’s journal and I had hours of gun camera footage. I was able to relive these events, these action sequences in the safety of my own basement where I could allow the emotions and reactions that those events generated; I could allow them expression. I could allow them to do what I hadn’t been able to do at the time. At the time you have to stuff these things away. You don’t survive in combat if you don’t compartmentalize. When you’re doing something that horrifies you or which violates every tenant of your being, you have to put that away and accomplish your mission. Then later on it comes the requirement to deal with it. The problem is we’re not often reminded that we have to deal with it after the fact.

Tim Knox: How much action did you see? You won a Bronze Star, Action Air medals. This may be a stupid question but how intense did it get?

Dan Sheehan: It got intense but it got intense in brief moments. You could go from supreme boredom to sheer exhilaration in terror in less than a heartbeat, especially during the invasion phase of Iraq. We were flying out of Kuwait. I flew a helicopter gunship. We had about two hours’ worth of gas. By the third and fourth day of the war the forward line of troops were an easy four hour flight from our base. So you would have to refuel once or twice to get up to the fight. That’s a lot of time scooting around over the desert. What was the problem with that was the forward line of troops was usually only one or two lanes wide on the highway because we’d only cleared the highways on the way up. This was the Blitzkrieg blast towards Baghdad. We didn’t fly over the highways because that was predictable so we’re flying over wide open spaces over the desert and it wasn’t uncommon at all to be pretty bored an hour and a half into the flight and then flash on top of an accumulation of groups or an accumulation of Iraqi soldiers and aircraft weapons and have it go pear shaped in a heartbeat. So there were times when the intensity level was very high. There were other times when we were struggling to stay awake.

Tim Knox: Wow, so let’s talk about the book is doing very well. You’re winning all kinds of awards. I think you were telling me you just won something else.

Dan Sheehan: I did. I just found out yesterday actually that I won a Gold Medal in the memoir category for the 2014 IPPY Awards, which are the Independent Publisher Book Awards.

Tim Knox: Congratulations, that’s a very big deal.

Dan Sheehan: Thank you. I’m really pleased about it.

Tim Knox: Let’s talk about the process now. When you finished the book did you try to go the traditional route of agent, traditional publisher? How did you go about bringing the book to the market?

Dan Sheehan: I did initially go the traditional route. David Hazard and I saw the book at about 75-80% solution and we started putting together a proposal and started querying agents. The responses that I got back were, if I got any back, were politely worded rejections. Thank you for your service but I just don’t think this is a work I can sell.

Tim Knox: How did you handle that rejection?

Dan Sheehan: Pretty well. Better than most of the rejections I’ve been dealt with life. What kind of sustained me… it’s not like I was crying on the floor at the rejection letters but what kept me moving forward with the book was just the belief that what I had to say was important to my audience. That was where a traditional agent, a traditional publishing might not have understood that. I wrote this book for veterans and for their families. When you branch out there it’s for folks who want to understand what it’s like to serve in the military, to serve in combat and what the burdens are associated with being a warrior. That’s not a huge population in the United States. So I didn’t market this book as a war story – look at how cool we were; look how great we did. This was a book about, hey, we did our jobs. We did them well. Now we’re paying the price for it. That’s a tougher sale and maybe I didn’t articulate that clearly enough in those proposals but I understood what my message was well enough to stay focused on getting it out there.

Tim Knox: How many agents did you submit to and did you finally get an agent?

Dan Sheehan: I went through I think 25 or 30 submissions, which is on the low end.

Tim Knox: Yeah that’s a good starter list.

Dan Sheehan: Exactly and really what it came down to was I made a choice. I said I could either continue going down this road and maybe in another six or eight months have an agent, or I could put the finishing touches on what I have, self-publish. David Hazard had already worked significantly with CreateSpace and he said this is something I might want to consider. He planted that bug in my head and it grew over time. I really decided to spend my time finalizing it and getting it out there with the idea that if I could get it out there, get it in front of veterans who it could help then I could go to a traditional publisher or a traditional agent later with a sales record, with a track record that this book is selling. Are you interested?

Tim Knox: Did you go the Kindle route?

Dan Sheehan: I did. I did CreateSpace and then I did a paper copy through CreateSpace and then added an eBook through Kindle direct publishing.

Tim Knox: Now you’re actually working with Kindle and CreateSpace. They’re actually promoting the book. What’s that relationship like?

Dan Sheehan: They are. It’s a great relationship. Last November around Veteran’s Day or approaching Veteran’s Day, I was contacted by Kindle by Laura over at Kindle, or no sorry she’s at CreateSpace itself. She said that they were interested in promoting veterans who had written books and utilized the CreateSpace platform and if I would be interested here’s some questions they’d like to go through. So I filled that out and sent it in and we started chatting after that. She has been instrumental in helping me get interviews in both print and radio. It’s really helped sales develop.

Tim Knox: Are you writing full-time now?

Dan Sheehan: No I’m not. I am working on a second book but I have a four year old and a six year old so I’m constantly chasing them around and I’m still a helicopter pilot as well, working here in southern California. So I have a couple different little irons in the fire but primarily I’ve got the kids during the day and then after I get them down at night I can get a little bit of work done on the computer.

Tim Knox: Let’s talk about that. Let’s go over to the process of writing and how you write. You’re a dad; you’ve got a day job. When do you find the time to write? Is it mostly at night after everything else is put to bed?

Dan Sheehan: It is, night when everything’s put to bed although right now I do have two days a week when both my kids are in school so that helps me out. I’ve got a brief window I can get two or three hours I can get two days a week so that’s kind of nice. Generally speaking after the kids are down in bed then that’s my time to get to work. My wife travels for work so it’s not uncommon for her to be on the road for multiple weeks on end. It almost makes it easier for me to write she’s not here because I don’t have the inclination to sit and watch TV by myself. When she is here I have other things that I’d prefer to be doing. I get more done when she’s not here.

Tim Knox: Now that you are a writer – you started off doing the journal to memoir; it became a book and now you said you’re working on a second book. What is your process for working on this second book? Tell us a little about it.

Dan Sheehan: The second book is a more directive approach for veterans for how to understand, how to recognize, understand and then deal with the after effects of combat tours, of stressful situations. What I came to realize throughout this entire process of writing After Action and then my blog and speaking engagements and things that I’ve done after that has really shown me that we as American men, as American warriors, men and women – we are very, very well-prepared to go into combat. We are very ill-prepared to come home from it. All of our preparation is frontloaded and then when you step off the plane coming home your preparation, your training, everything is now behind you and you’re facing a new set of challenges that you didn’t anticipate, you weren’t told to anticipate and you weren’t given any tools to handle. There’s a lot of challenges involved with coming home from events like this and there are challenges that have been understood by societies in the past and there have been effective means to deal with them. Those don’t exist in our society.

Tim Knox: What’s your process for writing this book? Are you outlining the book? Are you just starting from day one and plowing through? It’s a little different from the first book.

Dan Sheehan: It is different and the seed started being planted about a year and a half ago. The more I read the more I started understanding this warrior’s journey from a macro level, not so much just my journey but what warriors throughout mythology, throughout history and throughout different cultures have all gone through. I started to see the parallels. So the seeds started being planted a long time ago and the more reading I’ve done, the more they’ve germinated. I did create a storyboard up on the wall in my office with some basic concepts, some things that were important. As ideas came up I’d write them down and make them into a movable outline and develop that into an outline that is actually workable for me. I can’t sit down and outline something in a Word document or in longhand because I tend to run down into rabbit holes. I get too detailed and I get too far in. If I just have a little sticky note with an idea or a concept on it I can put that up on the wall under a chapter and two weeks later come back and look at it and go no that should actually be over here and move it around.

So it provides me with an initial structure to hang arguments on and to develop the flow. I’m working with David Hazard at Ascent again right now and I’ve done probably five chapters, a couple iterations of different ones and I’ve finally found the voice and I finally found the appropriate level of focus to now start with what is going to be a… I’m two chapters now into a working draft that’s good. I have to go through a lot of getting wheat and chaff out and then I can throw out the chaff and eventually I find that wheat there. That is my process at this point.

Tim Knox: I was going to ask you about the voice that you’re using to write this book. Do you consider this a self-help book or is it a here’s my opinion and here’s what you should do? What is the tone of the book?

Dan Sheehan: It’s a mixture of both. It is a self-help book. I address this immediately upfront in the Prologue. This is a good friend of mine, when I told him about it he basically shot me in the face. He said you’re writing a self-help book for guys and gals who hate self-help books to help them get over a problem they don’t want to admit they have. Good plan.

Tim Knox: That’s pretty powerful.

Dan Sheehan: Yeah and I said you’re absolutely right and that’s why it’s important for me to do it. We’re not told to expect this. Those that we trust and those who have been through it before, maybe they have processed their own things, maybe they have figured out a way ahead of it but not enough are sharing it. So I feel a sense of duty almost for having been through this, having processed some of my own experiences and been able to put them into a cohesive narrative in the first book and then go outward from there and see this at a macro level as a warrior’s journey. I figured out a couple things that I believe are really important and I feel just as though I had been on a patrol and found an enemy force, it would be my responsibility and my duty to radio that back, to get it back to headquarters so that appropriate things could happen. Well I’ve been through this process. I figured some stuff out. I know where there’s some danger areas. I know how guys can move through it safely. I have a duty to help them and to send that information back.

Tim Knox: Exactly. Do you see this perhaps turning into a platform if you will where you speak on this topic and become an advocate for this sort of thing?

Dan Sheehan: Well I have done some speaking in the aftermath of After Action. I’ve spoken to veteran’s groups and Vietnam veterans, also Wounded Warrior groups and active duty Marines as well and training commands. I do see this as something that’s important to discuss. I do enjoy engaging with an audience and chatting about this and bringing it up into the open and putting a face on it. You could walk down the street and see me and you wouldn’t think that I’d been through anything. I’m well-adjusted and most veterans that come home from veteran are able to put that out there, that persona of I’m a strong, tough guy or gal and I’ve been through some things but I’m good and I’m moving forward in my life. But there’s an undercurrent. There are things going on internally that if you don’t take care of they can really become difficult to deal with over time and become harder and harder to hide.

Tim Knox: I think that’s one thing that a lot of people forget. Soldiers are trained to be tough, are trained to be self-sufficient but they’re humans on the inside. There’s emotions there. I don’t care if you’re a 250 pound muscled Marine. There are emotions and feelings underlying there that a lot of times they won’t admit to having themselves.

Dan Sheehan: Exactly right and the entire post-combat, the VA system, the veteran system in this nation is predicated on the veteran seeking help and self-identifying, saying, “Hey, I’m hurting or I’m in trouble. I need help.” That is something that is a very difficult bridge to cross. I think that there’s around less than 50% of veterans who have actually applied for the benefits that they have earned because of that simple requirement to self-identify, to do something that a veteran wrongly considers showing weakness.

Tim Knox: Right, having to ask for help.

Dan Sheehan: Exactly.

Tim Knox: Dan Sheehan, the first book is After Action: The True Story of a Cobra Pilot’s Journey. Do you have a title for the second book yet?

Dan Sheehan: I don’t as of yet. Still working on that one.

Tim Knox: It will come to you. You’re truly inspiring and you’re working with the Kindle folks, the CreateSpace. Have you thought done the road to the future? Is your intention to become a full-time author?

Dan Sheehan: I would like to do that, however what I would like to do actually is get this second book done on the veteran’s process of really coming home and completion of the warrior’s journey. Then I’d like to get into fiction, I really would.

Tim Knox: That was my next question – have you thought about writing something in the fiction genre.

Dan Sheehan: I have. I need to be able to shoehorn more time out of my day to live in a fantasy world but I would like to branch into fiction after this book is over.

Tim Knox: What kind of fiction appeals to you?

Dan Sheehan: Well one of my favorite authors is Christopher Moore and his sense of humor comes through so clearly in his books that he could be writing about vampires or 17th century artists in France and the sense of humor carries you through. He’s definitely one of my favorite authors. What I would like to do though is inject that sense of humor into some of the realities… well that’s not the phrase. What I’d like to do is use some of the seed corn from my experiences as a Marine and twist the endings a little bit here and there, create some of these colorful characters that I served with and worked with – create them in a manner that they can see themselves but probably nobody else would be able to say that’s this guy.

Tim Knox: The two seminal books that jump out at me are Catch 22 and MASH.

Dan Sheehan: Yes, I’m a big fan of Catch 22. I’ve read that more times than any other single book. Yeah, something along those lines. I’m not a sci-fi guy. I don’t think I would really be a good chick-lit author so I think I’ll probably stick to what I know.

Tim Knox: Dan Sheehan, the author of After Action: The True Story of a Cobra Pilot’s Journey, the new book yet to be named. Dan, where can the folks find out more about you?

Dan Sheehan: Well I’m online at DanSheehanAuthor.com.

Tim Knox: We’ll put a link up.

Dan Sheehan: Perfect and the After Action’s available on Amazon.com and through CreateSpace and Kindle.

Tim Knox: I encourage folks to go to your website because you’ve got some great photos over there.

Dan Sheehan: Thanks.

Tim Knox: That’s a heck of a mustache.

Dan Sheehan: Yeah there’s certain things you can get away with when there’s a lot of shooting going on but as soon as the shooting dies down then the regulations get put back in place.

Tim Knox: Dan, this has been a pleasure. Any final thoughts to the writers out there, maybe those that have been in similar situations as you or looking at writing a book based on their past and their memories? Any quick advice?

Dan Sheehan: Do it, whether or not it goes anywhere. If you’re writing about something that you’ve been through that you want to process then get it on paper. If you want to push it out and get anybody else to read it after that then that’s just gravy. Getting it out for yourself is an important first step.

Tim Knox: Great advice. Dan Sheehan, author of After Action: The True Story of a Cobra Pilot’s Journey. This has been a lot of fun. Let’s do it again when you’ve got the next book out.

Dan Sheehan: Sounds good, Tim. I’ll definitely be in touch.

Tim Knox: Alright Dan, have a great day.

Dan Sheehan: Thanks, you too.

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