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Interview with Jeffrey Wilson

Learning to find God in the fog of war is not a new theme in human storytelling, but it’s one that’s close to the heart for author Jeff Wilson. After terrorists attacked America on 9/11, Wilson rejoined the active duty Navy and served as a combat surgeon with the Marines, a SEAL team, and a Joint Special Operations Task Force. He was put in violent situations where, in his words, he saw and experienced things he had a hard time resolving. It led him to reexamine or even question his faith.
Jeff hasn’t shied away from writing about those experiences. He and fellow Navy veteran Brian Andrews write the Tier One series, and under pseudonym Alex Ryan, the Nick Foley thriller series. However, his latest standalone book, War Torn, unapologetically delves into those personal questions and struggles that Christians face on the battlefield and back at home.

In my recent conversation with Jeff, I learned more about his own journey and the friends and family that God used to bring him back to a place of faith. Then, we talked about the fictional men and women in War Torn, and Jeff’s desire that his story reaches the hurt and wounded places of real men and women who serve our country.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?
I hope that this book shares a positive message with all sorts of readers. For war fighters, I hope they will see that their struggles and questions are shared by others, and that the answers lie in relationship—with family, with team mates, but mostly in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. War raises inevitable questions about God and His role in our world, but the real answers are in those relationships. This is a fallen world and this was never, ever God’s perfect plan for His children. But that’s the blessing and the curse of free will. The promise is that He will be with us in this world and then the next, but only if we let Him. We can lean on Him and surrender our struggles and in that surrender, He will bring about good things.

For families, I hope they gain understanding of their loved one’s struggles, because I can tell you they are things hard to share even with those closest to us. We don’t want those horrible things to be seen by our spouses and children and we don’t want them to see the dark side of ourselves that can be unmasked in combat. In seeing behind that curtain, maybe they can better help their loved ones on the road to healing and a stronger relationship with God. And for everyone else, I hope to share a glimpse of the world and the sacrifices these men and women and their families live with, so that our churches and communities might be better equipped to help them come all the way home.

Rachel and Kelly, the wives in War Torn, act as pillars of strength to each other as well as the men in their lives. Did you have models for them?
My wife Wendy was a real inspiration for the strong women in this book. She is the most amazing person I have ever known. Not only is she a wonderful wife and the perfect mom for our four children, but she has a strength and a faith that are a true inspiration to me. God knew I was going to need her and put her in my life at just the right time. I had literally just returned from my first deployment in Iraq when I met her. The timing couldn't be more perfect, but God's like that isn't he?

She was so accomplished when we met—two master’s degrees, working for one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, learning to speak fluent Japanese to launch a new product. But the most important thing in the world to her is still her faith and her family. She is very gifted in sharing her faith in a way that is so relatable. She is the one that God used to bring me all the way home on my journey

Wendy has a best friend, Kristin, and they have a relationship of both friendship and sisterhood. They are always lifting each other up, praying for one another, sharing victories and losses—they were the real-life models for Rachel and Kelly.

You never mentioned the words “survivor guilt,” but it seems that both Rachel and your hero, Jake, experience it. Does it just come with the territory of writing a war story?
I’m not sure that it’s part of everyone’s story, but it is unfortunately pretty common, and, yes, it was very intentional that this was part of their story. I think that the guilt you feel from actions you take or maybe don’t take and the guilt of simply being the one that makes it back can be real hurdles in the healing process. It’s definitely something I’ve dealt with, having lost men close to me.

Why would God take this amazing guy—in the case of the book, the character of Cal—who seems to be doing everything right and let me, with all my flaws, make it? Not only does it instill guilt, but it can make you question what you believe about God. Is he at the helm here? What is he doing? Does he care at all?

When things seem unfair, it makes us question—but here’s the thing: The Bible doesn’t ever promise fair. The promise of Romans 8:28 is that when you suffer unjustly in this fallen world, that God can bring good from it if you surrender it to him. This became a really important theme in the book. If you’re looking for fairness and justice in the horrors of war, you’re going to be really frustrated and disappointed.

Can your non-military readers gain any insights from your theme of survivor’s guilt?
People experience all sorts of trauma, but often think their loss is trivial compared to someone else’s. For example, we’ve all heard of some guy whose whole unit was lost in combat. That was my experience—I lost a lot of people all at one time. There's a tendency to think your situation can’t compare with that. However, your loss is your loss. It’s not a contest. Whatever is causing you to feel guilty or mad at God is completely valid for you. Anyone that has suffered tragedy, which eventually is all of us, can relate to this book. The answer is the same. Romans 8:28 is universal.

How typical is it for two friends like Jake and Cal to serve together? How did you use their relationship to develop your story?
I had the great honor to serve within the Naval Special Warfare community, one where brotherhood is much more than just a word that’s batted around. The bonds that form in war—or in other forms of diversity and struggle, I’m sure—are very strong indeed and those friendships are powerful and hard even to explain. It’s probably far more common for these intimate friendships to form in the military, especially down range, rather than before. So, that’s why I chose the National Guard for them in the story. National Guardsmen are Army, but they are community based and it’s far more common for two friends to join together and still serve together instead of being stationed across the country from one another. I wanted that sense of family and community for the couples in the story. For Jake, that bond of brotherhood was a powerful motivator to be open to Cal’s sharing of his faith and that eventually led to his conversion. But the flip side of this comes later, in the face of loss, that is gut wrenching and difficult.

I was struck by the dichotomy in Pastor Craig as being both a spiritual force and a human being with frailties. How did you develop his character?
I love to hear that came through because it was a strong goal of mine. I was so blessed to have formed a close friendship with Pastor Chris Bonham at Grace Family Church in Tampa. I approached him about helping me with the book, and getting the pastor characters right. He felt strongly that I needed the Craig character to have his own struggles and frailties, and that would make the message he delivers eventually much more powerful. I think he was right. You can receive ministry from the pastor better when you can relate to him as a human being rather than a superhero. It’s a huge motivating force in all the pastoral staff at our church.

You minister to military men. Do you live in a military town?
We live in Tampa, home of MacDill Air Force Base. The United States Central Command (CENTCOM) is headquartered here. CENTCOM runs all the military operations in the Middle East. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is also here. It is the parent command for the Army Rangers, Navy Seals, Green Berets.

Tampa is a beautiful town military with a mix of retired and active duty military here. Since Grace Family Church has 10,000 to 12,000 members across five campuses, the opportunity to have a military ministry is huge. I work with my friend Mario Martin in the ministry. There’s been a huge need to work with active and retired military and we've been amazed at what God has done.

Do you use real names of your friends and family in your books?
Yes, I do that a lot but I always get permission. I'm surprised at how many people ask me to use their names. We are using my dad's name Buzz, in the fifth Tier One book as this really cool CIA character.

Your book has salty language not typically found in Christian fiction, albeit inserted in realistic places and situations. Is that why you independently published?
That was one reason. I worked hard to make sure there was nothing gratuitous. I don't know how I could have possibly written the book without showing what Jake went through. The goal of the book is to reach people who are struggling. If it comes across as too hokey, people going to read two chapters and put it down and I'm not going to reach the people I want to reach. This book is part of the ministry that I'm passionate about. I used the character of Cal to bring the topic of profanity forward and to have a frank discussion about it. Obviously, my goal was not to offend, but to make the story realistic enough to resonate with those who need the message I’m sharing.

One reason to independently publish more than the language, actually, was the violence. When my agent first shopped the book to faith-based publishers there was the concern that we heard, more than once, that the violence would be difficult for their readers. I remember thinking at the time that seemed out of place—maybe even a little maternalistic. Our faith is everything to me and my family, but Wendy and I still saw the last Bourne movie and I read Brad Taylor’s last book. The point is, as Christians, we don’t isolate ourselves from reality. In the world, though not of it, right?

Anyway, I respected that two editors took the time to tell me that while they didn’t think they could get the book done with their imprint, they felt I should not tone it down. Both acknowledged that the power of the story would be diminished. We pitched to a few traditional publishers as well—who loved the story but found the “religious themes a little heavy handed” which would seem to imply they missed the point altogether. In the end, it made sense to try my hand (my first attempt, I’ll confess) at indy publishing. It has made me respect so much the hard work that indy authors have to put in—being a team of one. And I think I more fully appreciate my team at Thomas and Mercer and the hard work they do for us on the Tier One Series.

Speaking of violence, I could almost hear, see, smell, taste and feel the combat scenes in your story, but not overwhelmingly so. Did you have first-hand experiences to draw from?
I think that the secret to the success of the other novels that I’ve written alone and with Brian is the realism that we lend to the story. We’re both Navy veterans, and I’ve made several deployments with both the Marines and Naval Special Warfare (the SEALs) including a Joint Special Operations Task Force, so I have extensive experiences to draw from—seeing things that are impossible to unsee, being in the suck, as we call it, and feeling the rush and terror of combat. We both are still tightly connected to that world as well, both personally and through our friends and team mates still out there on the “tip of the spear.” For the message of War Torn to resonate, I wanted the reader to experience that along with Jake and his friends as intensely as possible. But for that book, I also wanted to convey the raw emotions of those experiences so that the reader can understand where the crisis of faith that so often accompanies war time service comes from. Without understanding how Jake and our real-world war fighters come to that place to begin with, the message of redemption through Christ will feel hollow.

You say that killing is an unnatural state. Is that why people may start to doubt their faith in war, as in, “where is God in all of this?”
Dave Grossman, a psychologist and former Ranger, wrote On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in In War and Society. He discusses the psychology and psychopathology of being a police officer or a soldier who is called on to do something that is morally repugnant. As a kid, you shoot the bad guy with your finger and he falls down. No one feels bad about that. But if you actually have to kill someone, or someone’s trying to kill you, it’s a psychologically devastating thing. In our conventional armed forces, there is an expectation that there will be a certain number who just cannot do it. When it comes time to pull the trigger they can't because it’s not a natural thing. It’s multifactorial. You aren’t prepared. Having Biblical answers ahead of time about these kinds of questions would be awesome but almost no one ever does. You don’t really know what to prepare for until you’re there.

Pete’s personality was greatly altered by what he experienced. Does that happen to many/most who serve in a war zone?
I wouldn’t say most, but it’s more common that we would like to imagine. I think young soldiers are particularly susceptible. Real war is not like the movies and in combat there are only very rare moments of “victory.” The seasoned, career soldier, especially in the Special Operations community, is less susceptible to what happens to Pete, but it is a mistake to think even high-level operators don’t suffer from doubts and loss and psychological trauma. War is a highly unnatural state for human beings and everyone is affected in some way and to some degree from it.

Who is the typical reader for War Torn?
This book is my first faith-based novel so I guess I’ll have to wait and find out. It’s our hope that it will appeal to both war fighters and their families, as well as others who want to know more about their struggles. In the Tier One series, Brian and I were surprised and delighted to find that we have as many women readers who love the series as men. I tried to make War Torn appealing to everyone, but I guess we’ll have to see if I achieved that goal.

Jake used the phrase, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Do you have secular readers who are surprised by the inclusion of spiritual matters in your stories? Have you had feedback about the amount of scriptures you used in the book?

In War Torn I’ve tried to make it clear—in my cover synopsis, the website, my revised author bio—that this a Christian, inspirational novel, so I would expect that the inclusion of those elements will not come as a surprise to anyone. We will certainly have people read this book who are fans of the Tier One series, but we’re not trying to trick anyone into being exposed to the faith message of the book. This book is unashamedly a Christ-centered story of struggle and redemption that I hope can resonate with anyone.

You have had quite an interesting work life, to say the least. You could probably write any number of books on a variety of subjects. Reflecting back, what do you see as most significant to your publication journey?
I have indeed had a pretty diverse life and been blessed with an amazing number of experiences. But the writing has always been there for me—it’s the one thread through it all. I’ve been writing since I was very young and through each career change, writing has always been my outlet, first in short stories and later in novels. I guess to do the things I’ve done has always required a don’t quit, get it done attitude, and that’s super important in starting a writing career. There’s a lot of luck and timing and perseverance required and you gotta have pretty thick skin. I did take the common advice of writing what you know and I think rather than the one particular experience or skill or whatever, it’s the diversity of it all that has best served me—allowing me to write a variety of characters, settings, and plots with authority.

What is your writing routine? Do you plot it all out, or make it up as you go?
I have the luxury of writing every day these days—and it is truly a luxury because gone are the days where I spend half my writing time getting back into the story, rereading what I’ve done already, and finding my groove. I write best in the morning, so I try and get a couple of hours in after the kids are dropped off at school Then the afternoons are best for the increasingly busy business side of the job. I fall in the middle with plotting.

In the Tier One series we plot each third with a fair amount of detail for the story arc and characters, because we’re writing together and need to be on the same page. It’s not highly detailed, but more of a summary of action for each chapter. When I’m on my own I’m even less structured, starting with a general idea of where to go and then letting the characters and story guide me on the journey, which is way more fun.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
Most of my recreational life revolves around my family these days. Lately I’m spending a lot of time trying to raise awareness of the issues front in center in War Torn and so I spend lots of time reaching out and consulting with churches and faith organizations looking to launch Military Ministries like what we have at Grace. Wendy and I travel and at least a couple of times a year just the two of us—we’re strong believers that the greatest gift we can give our kids is parents who passionately love one another so we’re highly intentional about dating each other and making time for us. The kids and I like indoor rock climbing and they all love the beach, so we try and make time for that. We love skiing as a family and Wendy and I are Scuba divers, and the kids are thinking about trying that out. I used to be a pilot and miss flying so much, but there’s just so many hours in the week.

What books are on your nightstand right now?
Stephen King’s End of Watch, the third book in William Miller’s Jake Noble series, Noble Intent, and The Disciplines of a Godly Man by R. Kent Hughes—a book my Thursday morning men’s bible study is walking through right now. I wish I could say my Bible, but I keep leaving it out on the back porch where I read in the mornings.

You are still a practicing surgeon. What’s your biggest challenge in balancing writing time with your other responsibilities?
Well, it helps that I’m no longer a full time vascular surgeon. I have no hospital-based practice, take no call, work no weekends. I was blessed to find a job where I can use my talents and training in a way that’s impactful and rewarding, without the 80-hour work week common in my specialty. That being said, working and raising four kids while leading a men’s military ministry and writing full time does present some scheduling challenges, of course.

Any sage advice for new or aspiring ACFW authors?
The advice I give to young writers is to make the writing a job—a part time job while you work full time at something to pay the bills at first, of course—but still a job. What I mean is, you schedule out your work week with tasks and meetings, etc., and you have to do the same with your writing. Look at your week, and actually schedule your blocks of writing time like you would anything else, rather than squeezing it in on the fly. If you can set aside just ten hours a week you will be amazed how much you can get done. Used effectively, that ten hours can be 5,000-6,000 words a week, which means you can write a rough draft of a novel in six months. It requires commitment and discipline, but a little time can be a lot of work if it’s properly structured.

Write because you love it and stick with it. No matter where you are in your writing career, you’ll be a better writer next year than you are now, so write, write, write.


Teresa Haugh, a graduate of the University of Montevallo, is a recently retired public affairs specialist with the U.S. Forest Service. She and her husband enjoy life in Alaska, the Last Frontier. She takes pleasure in talking with other authors about their writing journeys, and is completing her first full-length novel.

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