Behind the Book: David E. Grogan

I have always loved veterans’ stories. My dad was an Air Force fighter pilot in the 1950s, so there was no shortage of military tales to go around. Some of my favorites involved pilot candidates washing out of flight school because they passed out while getting their shots; an Air Force dentist reading instructions out of a manual while another dentist carried out those instructions on my dad’s teeth; and my dad dropping my mother off at the base hospital to deliver me because he had just returned from a training mission (he did come back after a nap). On a more somber note, he told us how his F-89 Scorpion carried nuclear tipped missiles to take out Russian bombers if the Cold War ever went hot. My great Uncle Carl was another veteran who could keep us spellbound on my grandmother’s front porch, as he talked about being a mule tender with the U.S. Army in France during World War I.

These stories, and others like them, made veterans my heroes. So I was thrilled when I found the syndicated radio show Veterans Chronicles, hosted by Gene Pell, during the summer of 2013. At the time, I was assigned in the Pentagon working for the Judge Advocate General of the Navy, but my family lived in Virginia Beach. That meant commuting 199 miles from Virginia Beach to Washington DC every Sunday and back again on Fridays. Usually wired from a venti Americano, I’d leave either location around 8:00 pm to miss the Washington DC area traffic. The drive provided at least a couple of uninterrupted hours to listen to Gene Pell interview veterans.

Although all the stories were fascinating, something clicked with me when Gene Pell interviewed Vietnam veterans. Perhaps it was that I watched the war on TV growing up as a kid, with the evening news reporting the body counts every day. Or maybe it was that I felt I didn’t know enough about the war or the men who fought it, but the stories compelled me to dig deeper.

As I did, Sapphire Pavilion began to crystalize along I-64 and I-95 between Virginia Beach and Washington, DC. What if an unarmed U.S. Air Force plane on a Top Secret mission were to disappear over South Vietnam in 1968? Their families would never know what happened to them and the secrecy surrounding the mission would keep the crewmembers from receiving the recognition and burial they so deserved. That is until thirty-two years later, when two men looking for the plane in Vietnam’s Central Highlands find the wreckage and unlock the door to what happened during that turbulent time so many years before.

Soon after the two men find the wreckage, one man dies of a drug overdose and the other lands in a Vietnamese jail. That’s when the story’s main character, retired Navy JAG turned Williamsburg attorney Steve Stilwell gets involved. To help him get his new client and longtime friend out of jail, he hires an associate counsel, Casey Pantel, a former Army helo pilot who lost her right leg below the knee in a crash over northern Iraq.

Although a legal thriller through and through with twists and turns around every corner, Sapphire Pavilion provides the vehicle for tackling some tough veterans’ issues: the suffering of families whose loved ones never come home; Wounded Warrior issues and survivor’s guilt; and the toll military life takes on the families of those who serve. With the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan well into its second decade, these issues are just as relevant today as they were fifty years ago at the height of the Vietnam War.

In an effort to honor those veterans I first started to understand while listening to Veterans Chronicles back in 2013, I dedicated Sapphire Pavilion to all Wounded Warriors and Vietnam Veterans, especially those heroes still waiting to come home. That was a good start, but it wasn’t enough. Most soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines or Coast Guardsmen don’t get the recognition they deserve, nor do they seek it. The average veteran just blends in with the community around him or her. In many respects, that’s what our nation wants—the citizen soldier who answers the call and then reintegrates quietly into the community when his or her warrior duties are finished.

Although that sounds great in theory, it’s not that easy. Veterans have a host of unique issues they have to deal with and they deserve to have their stories told. I may not be able to help resolve issues, but I can try in a small way to emulate Gene Pell by interviewing veterans and publishing their stories. Sergeant Dick Berg, who served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968, was my first featured veteran, and I will honor other veterans every month in my Voices To Veterans Spotlight. When Sergeant Dick Berg’s daughter posted “My boys enjoyed reading the interview and learning about their grandpa’s life experiences” on the Facebook link to her father’s story, I knew Voices to Veterans was the right thing to do.


SAPPHIRE PAVILION (May 2017) by David E. Grogan from Camel Press