Sand and Fire
Published by: Putnam Adult
Release Date: July 10, 2014
North Africa. A jihadist leader has seized a supply of chemical weapons and is wreaking havoc: a nightclub in Sicily, a packed street in Gibraltar. Acting on information, Marine gunnery sergeant A. E. Blount, at six-foot-eight a formidable warrior, the grandson of one of the first black Marines, sets out with a strike force to kill or capture the terrorist.
But it’s a trap. Several Marines are killed, some are captured, and the jihadist promises that unless forces withdraw, he will execute one prisoner a day. Immediately, Blount’s friends and colleagues Sophia Gold, now with the U.N., and Colonel Michael Parson, working for the United States Africa Command, rush to Libya to help coordinate rescue efforts. The ordeal, however, has only begun. Soon they will all be fighting for their lives in the sand and fire of the desert.
“This page-turner offers thrilling action sequences and harrowing plot twists in abundance.”
“Rather than relying on crude violence and gratuitous action scenes, Young takes the time to offer the reader a window into the deliberative process of these military men and women of action. There are, nonetheless, hearty helpings of realistic shootouts and fistfights.”
“Young has a gift for allowing the reader to experience the emotional aspects of being a soldier and for describing the desolation of the desert countries our troops are patrolling. Military-thriller fans should make Young’s work an essential addition to their reading lists.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“A realistic, engaging, action-filled novel.”
Backstory: The Story Behind Sand and Fire
In the first days of the Iraq War, my Air National Guard crewmates and I flew a C-130 Hercules to an airfield in Numaniyah, southeast of Baghdad. We carried tons of Meals Ready to Eat to Marines who had pushed north from their line of departure at the Kuwait border. We didn’t stay long; the devil dogs helped offload the MREs quickly, and we took off to return to our base in Oman.
But during our short time on the ground, I could see the fatigue in the men’s faces, and I wondered what they’d experienced and what challenges lay ahead of them. I heard not one word of complaint, and I saw in those faces not just exhaustion but an unshakeable commitment to the mission and to their fellow Marines. They lived in pretty rough field conditions, and I felt guilty about flying back to my air-conditioned tent and hot meals. These guys seemed willing to endure any hardship to carry out the core mission of a USMC rifle squad: “to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy.”
This is my fifth novel in the Parson and Gold series, but the first with a focus on the Marine Corps, and the furthest from my personal experience in the Air Force. I wanted to make the novel as authentic as I could, so I reached out to the Marines for help with questions about tactics, weaponry, and Marine Corps culture.
The Corps allowed me to observe an exercise at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia, and to chat with instructors at the Weapons Training Battalion at Quantico. Much of what I learned in those visits, especially with regard to Marine Corps Scout Sniper training, made its way into this novel.
When I put in requests to visit USMC units, I appreciated the way Marines did business; they gave prompt replies with a refreshing absence of red tape and foot-dragging. Ask a Marine a question and you’ll get a straight answer.
As a former reporter in civilian life, I noticed something else that impressed me. Marine Corps leaders trust their people. Many times when I visited a corporation or other institution as a journalist, a public relations official would sit in on every interview, listening for any word that strayed from approved corporate spin. On Marine bases, however, senior leaders allowed me to speak with junior officers and enlisted personnel without a PR officer standing over them every minute.
Make no mistake: Marines are very conscious of their public image. But they don’t seem to live in fear that a private will say something stupid. I suppose they have two reasons for that: One—they have more important things to worry about. Two—Marines are professionals, not usually given to stupid comments.
Formidable as they are, however, Marines don’t win wars by themselves—not even those as tough as Gunnery Sergeant Blount. So I tried in this novel to demonstrate how different services, and even different services of other nations, work together toward a common goal. If you spend much time around the modern military, one of the watchwords you hear often is “jointness.” That means teamwork between various branches of the military. In both exercises and real-world missions, my Air Guard career gave me opportunities to work with the Marines, the Navy, and the Army, as well as the armed forces of several countries including Britain, France, Germany, Chile, and Bangladesh. I don’t think the general public realizes how much international cooperation goes on, and I hope this novel brings that picture into sharper focus.
Readers of my previous novels may remember Blount’s introduction in The Renegades. He began as a minor character, but I got so much positive feedback about him that I decided to give him a star turn in Sand and Fire. I certainly enjoyed writing him, and I hope readers enjoy getting to know him better.
Though this book required me to research Blount’s branch of service, I needed only to call on my past to write Blount’s recollections of farm life. Blount’s memories of Southern tobacco fields are my own. I grew up on a Carolina farm, where my parents, Bobby and Harriett Young, taught me the value of hard work. Incidentally, my parents continue to live on that farm. “Blount’s” catalpa tree is dead now, but the ponds still contain fish, the fields still produce crops, and the woods still harbor game.
I can’t say I know anyone exactly like Blount; he’s a composite of people I’ve known. So is his grandfather, for that matter. I used to hunt quail and pheasant with a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who had survived some of the most hellish fighting imaginable in the Pacific campaign during World War Two. Though he told lots of stories, most of them had to do with garrison life. I heard him talk about combat against the Japanese just once. Even on that occasion he said very little: “We had to dig those bastards out.” And in reference to severe losses among officers and senior NCOs in one particular battle: “We lost a lot of high-priced help.” On most days he preferred to talk about dogs, birds, and wildlife management.
This novel describes chemical weapons attacks against civilians in Sicily and Gibraltar. Those incidents are, thank God, fictional. But they reflect events that did take place in Iraq in 1988 and in Syria in 2013. The threat of chemical weapons in the hands of terrorists and rogue nations represents a nightmare scenario, and chemical weapons are easily produced. Each day that goes by without their use comes as a result of hard work by intelligence agencies, military personnel, and international groups such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
On a personal note, as I wrote this novel I retired from the Air National Guard after twenty years of military service. I can scarcely find the words to express my gratitude to my brothers and sisters in arms for their friendship and professionalism.
While you read this, many of my friends in uniform remain in harm’s way. As the guardians of an elected democracy, they serve in your name no matter how you voted. Never send them into battle lightly. Always keep them in your thoughts and prayers.
The fine sands of the Sahara Desert lifted into the sky and crossed the Mediterranean. Scirocco winds whipped the dust over miles of water, and the particles in the air added a golden tinge to the twilight’s glow. At Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily, Gunnery Sergeant A. E. Blount took a deep puff of his Cohiba, looked up at a blood-red moon.