Showing posts with label United States. Show all posts
Showing posts with label United States. Show all posts

Monday, May 8, 2017

How Fast is FAST?

Most of us have read about our military elite operators: the SEALs who are connected with the United States navy, the Delta Force and Green Berets who are with our army. But few people have heard about our Marine special units. 

We talked about one of them the Marine Raiders HERE, but there's another Marine unit called FAST. Marine Fleet-Anti-terrorism Security Team.

I featured a Marine with the Marine Raiders in WASP, the first book in the Uncommon Enemies series, and in the second book, RELIC, Brian Ackerman, our hero, is retired from a FAST unit.

FAST units are deployed all over the world. You might be most familiar with them as the team that responded to the Benghazi attack from their base in Spain.

If there is a terrorist attack anywhere in the world that involves US forces, these guys are ready to be deployed. They have received special training to handle terrorists.

"They are highly skilled in counter surveillance, physical security, urban combat techniques, close quarter combat, and martial arts... Companies contain six platoons of fifty Marines. On deployment, FAST can be stationed in Spain, Japan, and Bahrain." (1)

Right now we have three FAST companies in the US as well as a training company. Companies A and C are located in Norfolk, Virginia, and Company B, which is located at Yorktown, Virginia. These companies operate under the control of the Marine Corps Security Force Regiment located on Naval Air Station, Norfolk, Virginia.

The Security Force Regiment Training Company is located on Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads, in Chesapeake, Virginia. (2)

Can I just say all four units are about two hours from my house where there is also a SEAL team - so in the event of a zombie apocalypse, or any other disaster - I know where I'm headed. 

Marines assigned to FAST have:

  • SOI (School of Infantry).
  • Security Force School - (NSA Northwest, Chesapeake, VA) - Teaches Combat Marksmanship (shotgun and pistol), Close Quarter Battle
  • FAST Training (5 weeks)-(NSA Northwest, Chesapeake, VA) Additional training in Advanced Urban Combat. (2)
Elite US Marines, ready, willing, and more than able!

In RELIC, Retired Marine FAST member is now working for Iniquus where his work as one of the nation’s top security professionals has fueled his lust for adrenaline-laced danger. While Brian’s private life may seem risky, his professional life is strictly business. Until he accepts two private protection contracts that is. 
Available on most e-readers
Two security assignments seem simple enough. Brian’s been wrong before.

The first assignment involves protecting archaeologists, Sophia Abadi and Nadia Dajani. While digging to uncover a remote site is a bit mundane by Brian’s standard, he welcomes the chance and the challenge.

The second assignment requires Brian to do his own digging to uncover the truth. The thrill seeker is contracted by the FBI to discover who is financing ISIS through the sale of conflict relics from Syria. Problem is, his suspects are also the two archaeologists.

His initial introductions to both esteemed scientists not only reveal the challenges of protecting them, but a shocking dilemma of honoring his security contract. Seems the woman he’d fallen for after one incredible night in New York is the very same Sophia he’s now charged with protecting and leading into an FBI trap.

Meet Brian Ackerman. He has a gun. He also has a heart.

I hope you enjoy reading RELIC, I look forward to hearing what you think!


Information for his article comes from:
  • (1)
  • (2)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Your Villain Is Sneaking Over Our Borders? Info for Writers with Vincent Annunziato

Does your plot include crossing a border into the United States? You'll have to get your character past the border guards.

To help inform our writing about US borders, I've invited Kindle Scout Winner Vincent Annunziato to join us today.

Fiona - 
Vincent, in the news we often hear about border issues, and it seems like a wonderful dynamic to add to a plotline since it is a struggle for life or death, a way of living, and more. Can we start by your background?

Vincent - 

First of all, I have to state that I am acting on my own personal accord and I am not officially representing the government or CBP. The opinions expressed here are solely my own.

My background: I have worked for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) since 1996. I started out as an Inspector at Los Angeles Airport. I worked in various positions for 8 years which included passenger processing as well as cargo processing. Eventually, I was offered and accepted a position in Washington, DC. I was hired at what is termed a "Subject Matter Expert." In this position I helped build the CBP Information Technology (IT) systems. I have been there for 11 years and am now a Director.

As an IT Director, I work on one of the largest and most successful civilian government projects the federal government has budgeted. I oversee programs that Customs brokers use to bring cargo into the United States.

On this project, I have received 5 Commissioner awards in my tenure. One of them, called the Ambassador Award is the highest facilitation award given to non-uniformed staff. I was one of 2 selectees out of all of customs personnel to receive it.

I currently oversee three major programs for CBP, Cargo Release, Single Window and Mobility Apps. And yes, in my spare time I write novels.

Fiona - 
Please tell us what the duties of the border security force are?

Vincent -
Border Security breaks down into a couple of different components.

  • There is the human aspect which people are most familiar with. There is a difference between immigration and passing through Customs. Immigration focuses on rules governing people. Customs focuses on rules governing goods. 
    • When a person enters from foreign into the US they agree to abide by the laws as set forth in this country. 
    • The person must have proper identification such as passports and visas in order to come here legally. 
    • They also must adhere to the laws governing what is lawful to bring into the country. I'm sure many have seen little beagles sniffing for fruits and vegetables. But anything purchased overseas is subject to our authority. 
  • There is also the non-human aspect. 
    • To import goods into the country importers must make entry. As an example if a person were to import clothing or watches they would need to file the proper data or documentation. 
    • Imported goods have what is called duties or taxes and those charges are collected by Customs. People coming from overseas are responsible to declare those items or suffer severe penalties.
That is a summary of what CBP does with people at the border. If we expand to cargo related items. I would like to give you a little historical information.

CBP is a self-sufficient agency. Meaning we pay for ourselves.

The agency itself has been around for several hundred years. It is one of the oldest US agencies. Signed into being in 1789, the Customs service has quite a history.

CBP has two main responsibilities. Protecting our borders and collecting revenue. We are the buffer between international terrorism and the safety of our homeland. Since we are also a revenue-collecting agency, we keep our economy moving strong. Cargo comprises most of our revenue. Individual duties are a very small portion of what the agency takes in. Commercial revenue arrives on large ships coming into ports such as Long Beach, CA and New York. It can come in on planes, trucks, trains, etc…. All of these modes of transportation bring goods into the country. And all of those goods that come into our economy are subject to taxes and duties.

The importing companies pay the US government to legally bring goods into the country

Fiona - 
How are the border guards chosen? What kinds of backgrounds and expertise are sought after?

Vincent - 

Border guards, or better stated, Customs Officials are broken up into a number of different divisions.

We have Customs and Border Protection Officers, Border Patrol Agents, Agriculture Officers, Immigration Officers, Air and Marine divisions.

Customs Officers apply to the government and are selected based on education and experience. It is the ground floor of law enforcement and you have to have a clean background, meaning no felonies associated to your name.

Officers go through a 12 to 13 week training course if selected and are trained in a number of different areas.
Everyone who attends the school must be able to prove they can: 

  • Fire a weapon 
  • Have good physical ability 

They must be able to pass a battery of academic tests too. These tests include understanding international laws and regulations and harmonized tariff schedule (classification of goods).

Fiona - 
What kinds of personalities would do well in this job and conversely which personalities would create tensions in a plotline?

Vincent - 

  • There many different types that serve in this agency. It is quite large. But when you look at the types that the public comes in contact with I really see two categories. There are the military types that come straight from military backgrounds.
    • They are usually very letter of the law and disciplined. 
    • Those without a strong law enforcement background or military background are usually more analytical. They will dig very deeply into the laws and smuggling habits and leave no stone unturned. 
    • We see these types on specialized teams performing large volumes of reconnaissance to study up on items like black market goods, drug marketing, etc. 
    • As far as plotlines, I would stay away from the typical postal worker type that is slovenly and does very little.
  • Those without military background, such as myself fall into a   different category. 
    • These types tend to be more analytical. 
    • There are more astute in the irregularities they see from trends. 
  • There is one other distinct difference especially with the younger ones. They tend to be very generation Y. Meaning they work toward small goals, very internet savvy, and believe they can do anything even if they don’t have the experience.

Fiona -
What is the craziest thing that you've ever heard of being smuggled either into or out of our country?

Vincent - 
Birds Eggs. Apparently, a person came into the airport and several officers noticed she had very large hair that went straight up. Her hair caught a lot of attention, but nobody immediately saw anything wrong.

When the woman was called into secondary for questioning, apparently the officer heard what sounded like chirping. Sure enough the woman was smuggling exotic birds into the country and they hatched in her hair. LOL

Fiona - 
That's hysterical. While many focus on the southern border when they think of border control, my concern is our vast shoreline. Does the border control and the coast guard work in tandem? What is does that relationship look like?

Vincent - 
Yes, CBP works very closely with the Coast Guard. The agency has its own Air and Marine Division.

Every area of the country is very dangerous and has its own component to deal with.

People don't think of Canada as an area that could be potentially dangerous, but I can tell you that many people forget about the car bomber that was trying to come in from up there to blow up LAX where I used to work.

The Coast Guard can stop ships if it needs to out on the ocean and although I don't have much personal experience that area we are both a part of the same department (DHS) and the two agencies have joint activities when necessary.

Fiona - 
You mentioned earlier the issues with weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) can you tell us, without giving away State secrets, the kinds of equipment that would be used to monitor for this and if there is a special task force employed?

Vincent - 
Officers are equipped with devices that can detect nuclear weapons. There are also machines that are used to detect these devices. The agency of course also relies on intelligence that it garners from outside sources such as other agencies. Every unit that works the front line receives training to detect these types of items and how to respond.

Fiona - 
When you read books or watch movies that include border safety, what do you see written incorrectly (the technical side of things)? What stereotypes do you wish the writers would stop using (the personality side of things)?

Vincent - 

Tough question. Most of the time when I see officials from CBP portrayed, they are either in the background not doing anything or being portrayed as somewhat lackadaisical. That drives me crazy.

The officer in their role has to make decisions in a matter of seconds. They are looking for something that is at the 6th sense level. Is it a twitch, or unexplained nervousness reaction?

These officers don't need probable cause to approach someone they only need mere suspicion. So an officer, a good one is "INTUITIVE." They see things before the average person, and they can decipher another person's actions into tangible, confrontable issues.

How does an officer identify a "swallower" or one who swallows drugs to smuggle into the US? Is it a person who dresses slightly off? Who looks a little slower? A little more active? When you get to this point in your character analysis, you are really uncovering a potentially complex creature that is very cognizant of their surroundings.

One other thing that may be helpful to understand, is that these people are not shy. They are always in front of the public, looking for smuggling activity. Because of this, they are usually dealing with uncomfortable situations and are not intimidated easily.

Fiona - 
You mentioned a swallower. First question - could a scent-trained K9 pick up on the scent inside of a person if they had thoroughly cleaned after the swallow? And part 2 if you have a suspicion you have a swallower how do you prove/disprove the suspicion - what 4th amendment rights are preserved by the person?

Vincent - 
K-9's cannot pick up scents on someone who has swallowed balloons filled with narcotic.

It takes a specially trained officer to recognize this kind of smuggling. I will say that it is one of the most dangerous methods for smugglers to agree too. If the balloon bursts, the people smuggling in this manner will die a horrible death.

With international law, a person is taken in (again on mere suspicion). If a person is suspected of smuggling in that manner, they are brought to a hospital for x-rays and/or a monitored bowel movement MBM. Literally, the potential smuggler will be watched and the officer will wait until they have passed the items before going any further.

Fiona - 
Describe "horrible death."

Vincent - 

The narcotic acts like acid inside the body and literally eats away at the organs. This method was also used with dogs and puppies. Dogs have the drugs surgically implanted and when they reach the US, they are killed. Many dogs have been found in the streets with their stomachs cut open. The drug trade is a cruel and vicious employment.

Fiona - 
They made puppies eat narcotics balloons? There's a special ring in hell for such a villain.

Vincent - 

Yes. These people are not businessmen. They are murderers. And the MULES (smugglers) who humanly transport drugs are people in dire straits.

Smugglers are usually desperate for money, so they see the money which can make them more in one successful trip than what they make in a year. Of course once they do smuggle, they can't get out. If they try, it isn’t just them who have their life threatened, but all their family and friends. Nobody wins in this business.

Fiona - 
Do border officials ever do undercover ops? Or are they always in uniform?

Vincent - 
There are special ops where people go out in plain clothes. For the most part CBP is uniformed.

Fiona - 
Do you have your own jail system?

Vincent - 

Fiona - What happens to the people who were being brought over in human trafficking? Are they given medical treatment? Are they sent right home? Does this response change if they are minors?

Vincent - 
This is a sad situation. I don't really have experience with this, but yes, I do know that people are treated well, and then returned to the country they came from. They receive medical treatment and then they are deported.

Fiona - 
A question about integrity - it seems to me that if I were a bad guy (and karmic retribution didn't terrify me) that I would try to plant some people in the roll of border guard so I could get a free pass when it came to my nefarious shipments. How does your agency thwart such plans?

Vincent - 
LOL - yeah, I don't think too many criminals are into Karma. Greed usually is the prime motivator. As every agency we self police. There is a separate Internal Affairs unit that does prosecute and oversees cases.

We have a website that tracks people who succumb to criminal activity. The numbers never make sense to me. I don’t know why anyone would aid the bad guys. It’s amazing to me that people give up a good paying job for a quick hit. The cash that people make doesn’t add up either. It’s not like they make enough to go buy an island. So they give up a good paying job for some cash. Just an odd thing in my book. But something for writers to think about.

Fiona - 
How do you interact with the various governments do they give you heads ups? Do you work cases together?

Vincent -
Fiona this is very complicated question. The regular officer does not interact in this manner. The agents who are not the same as officers probably have more experience in this area. Officers usually assist in cases where our expertise is needed. We understand the flow of goods, but most of the international liaisoning (I know that's not a word) is done a different level. Agencies have to have agreements in order to share information.

Fiona - 
(English is a living language and can grow with new words. I like liasoning.)

I was thinking that the particular government and their GDP as well as the politics would have a great deal to do with things. What should I have asked you if I knew enough on the topic to ask?

Vincent - 
I guess you might ask how we keep our business competitive in a global market.

US business is one of the agency's priorities. International agreements are signed to keep domestic companies competitive. There is something called anti-dumping.

When a company from foreign produces a lot of goods at cheap prices they can flood the markets here in the US so that our companies go out of business. CBP protects our country by setting up quotas.

Fiona - 
What types of flooding? Is this Chinese steel?

Vincent -
Could be batteries, transistors, TVs. Could be anything.

Fiona - 
Besides writing on your work commute, how has your job influenced your writing?

Vincent - 

Several things actually. One I have become a very good observer of personal interactions. Many of my experiences in my work life have influenced me.

Some people identify well with a badge. They see the person as someone who is protecting them vs. others who feel the badge signifies something that is stopping them from what they want to do.

Also, I use as a constant motif one of the issues I have dealt with on an on-going basis. The job day in and day out is the same and a lot of overtime is worked so the officers have to face the same public everyday it weighs on you after a while. Overcoming that obstacle mixed in with a feeling of there has to be something better always finds its way into my characters.

Fiona - 
Can you give me a synopsis of you Kindle Scout Winning novel?

Vincent - 
33 Degrees is a very different dystopian/post-apocalyptic.

33 Blurb:

It is said that in the depths of the Underground lies a weapon so powerful it will save the Northern herd from the cruelty slavery has put them under. It is said that anyone who holds the Pulse, holds the power to freedom. It is said… well after so many years, no one really believes it anymore.

18 year old, Javin has grown accustomed to death. Burdened by a new ice age, little food and very little fuel for heat, only the strong survive under the threat of nature and the cruelty of the South. Survival is a train ride away and missing it can be deadly. Everyone battles to board so that they can work in the mines where Northerners are paid with two small meals and enough coal to heat their homes for the night.

Everyday's a struggle for the herd. Survivors would rather die than live and many say that even the sun has turned its back on them. They believe it is hidden behind the Southern wall in a city where no Northerner will journey. Javin has his own personal issues as he waits for the perfect time to kill and be killed. Only there’s one catch. A new found love, sparks unexpected hope.

In this dystopian, post-apocalyptic view of the future, Javin must rise from the depths of despair and help his people find their way back to their rightful place in the world.

A daunting task for anyone living in a world where it is too warm to die, and too cold to live.

Fiona -
And finally, per tradition will you tell us a scar story?

Vincent -
Between my thumb and pointing finger I have a scar shaped like a bird. As a young boy I picked up a piece of wood with a nail in it and lifted it not realizing it was connected at the other end. I pulled hard and the wood slipped out of my hand. When the wood snapped down the nail pierced me in the soft muscle between the two fingers. It went straight through. Ironically, no blood.

Fiona -
Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us today, Vincent.

If you want to stay in touch with Vincent, here are his links:

Fiona Quinn's Newsletter Link, Sign up HERE

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Home Front: Military Family Life - Info for Writers with Marliss Melton


I'm so pleased to introduce Marliss Melton today. I really enjoy Marliss's writing, and I believe I've read all of her work. Fast pace, intelligent, well-researched; strong, capable, caring heroes and heroines makes her my kind of writer.

Not only does Marliss do on-going research for her books, but she has her writing vetted by a SEAL to make sure she gets both the dynamic action and the personalities right. And she pulls from her own life story. 

Fiona - 
Marliss, can you share a little of your military history?

Marliss - 
As the daughter of a foreign service officer, my many siblings and I grew up in mainly third-world countries, settings that later helped to inform my stories. 

My travels gave me a facility for language, and I have taught Spanish, ESL, and linguistics at my alma mater, The College of William and Mary. I married an Army officer right out of college, but he died eight years
into our marriage, leaving me with two sons. 

Love brought a Navy man into my life, along with four more children! I’d like to think this makes me an expert at parenting. More likely, it has enriched my understanding of family dynamics, something that also shows up in my books. 

My membership in the military community has left me with an understanding of military customs, jargon, and protocol and a huge appreciation for the bond of brotherhood that forges warriors together. 

I have an enormous appreciation for our special operators and the risks they take to protect American lives. My desire to produce realistic fiction has led me to seek out the expert advice of a Navy SEAL commander, Mark Divine, who answers my many questions and edits my action scenes for authenticity. 

As a military spouse, I have endured long separations and experienced the fear that the families of today’s military members feel. 

I’m also an avid animal lover, which causes me to bring dogs, especially, into my stories. LOOK AGAIN, A Novella, has raised thousands of dollars for Hero Dogs, Inc., which trains service dogs for injured U.S. veterans. All in all, my background has given me all the right tools to create military romantic suspense that is both realistic and touching.

Fiona - 
When you were growing up in a military family - were you living on bases?

Marliss -
I've lived in both on-base and off-base housing. In Laos, Thailand, and France, we lived in the capital cities among the locals.

The military base I lived in was here in the USA, in Virginia.

Plus, as an Army officer's wife, I lived at Fort Dix, New Jersey for three years.

Fiona - 
When you were living locally, were you attending school on base?

No, I never attended any base schools. I attended the American School of Paris and the International School of Bangkok, in Thailand.

I could tell you in Thai what colors to wear on what days of the week! (That's been terribly helpful as you can imagine).

We spent a lot of time learning local customs and the language. As a result, I never learned all the U.S. states or their capitals. I barely knew any US history by the time I returned to the states for 6th grade.

Fiona - 
I'm wondering about "kid culture" on bases did you participate? Or did your living off base mean that you were more imbued with non-military friends and doings.

Marliss - 
From 6th grade through high school, I lived on a base, and there was definitely a kid culture there. None of my friends or I knew stuff that American kids knew. Who were the BeeGees? What clothes were cool to wear? We had no idea, and we didn't really care. Traveling the world had opened our minds to larger issues and more important things about humanity.

Some of us had fathers who had seen and done some gruesome stuff. One of my father's friends committed suicide on Christmas morning. We were aware of the sacrifices and struggles involved in upholding US interests overseas.

A lot of my friends and many of my siblings went on to serve our country in various ways. I really can't say what my sisters do for a living, but I'm doing my part, too, raising awareness of the lifestyle of our military men and women--especially Navy SEALs so that readers have a better appreciation for what these operators endure to keep us all safe.

Fiona - 
Let's talk about that for a moment. What did the parents say to their children about what their military parent did for a living? What did people say to each other? Was this subject openly discussed? Just a known part of life?

Marliss - 
In the segment of the military in which I grew up, the parents were not at liberty to discuss their missions. We kids had to read between the lines, taking note of current world events and guessing how our parents played a part.

Of course, the adults knew what was going on.

Fiona - 
How did that feel to you, reading between the lines? Do children discuss their concerns with one another? Or is it considered the norm? For example, my kids don't sit around talking about what either my husband or I do for a living.

Marliss - 
The kids would certainly discuss things and speculate. Many of them had fathers who would take off for years at a time. This made kids more aware than your average American teen. So many have gone on to serve their country in the armed services, and some in humanitarian ways. It was normal to be aware and to ask yourself "How can I do my part when I grow up?"

Fiona -
What kinds of systems are in place to help the families stay whole?

Marliss - 
I don't think there were any systems in place to help families at that time, but that has certainly changed in the past two decades. 

The military has services in place to help families cope with hardship and to get psychological help and find the support groups they need. People are much more open in confessing that they have trouble coping. Back when I was younger, that wasn't the case. Suicide and alcohol were very prevalent, even among the children of servicemen/women.

Fiona - 

When a service member passes away, a family is living on base, what happens to their living arrangements? Can they stay there for awhile with the friends and supports, or is it necessary for a new widow to move quickly?

Mariss - 
They are not hustled out of their home. I am not positive of the time they may stay but I believe it is long enough to allow children to complete a school year. Families of deceased veterans continue to receive benefits until the spouse either remarries or the children are considered adults. The military takes care of its own.

Fiona -
That's so good to know.

Marliss - 
I will say, on the previous subject, that it is harder for Navy SEALs to admit that they are having problems. Mental strength is of paramount importance to them, so they don't want to admit that they might be cracking. As a result, there is some drug use with a small segment of special operators, but by and large, they have taught themselves to think positively, to reframe negative aspects of their lives in order to thrive even in a hostile environment.

When you read the bios of Navy SEALs, you can see a common thread: They are uniquely capable individuals with an almost superhuman capacity to overcome hardship.

Fiona -
When you are reading books/watching TV and films that include service families. Do you find some common mistakes? Common prejudices (both good and bad) that you disagree with?

I ask this because the background and personalities that come to life in your writing are so real, and I feel I am learning about the culture, which fascinates me.

Marliss -
Oh, totally! I started watching a recent Navy SEALs movie, and it was all wrong! The TV portrays SEALs like they are regular military people, with strict protocol and procedures. "Yes, sir," "No, sir," etc. It's not really like that at all. With the SEALs, even the lowliest enlisted man is treated as someone with something important to contribute. They are much more slack on the "sirs," and the difference between officers and enlisted is minimal.

What the SEALs and all military units have in common is the bond of brotherhood that is prevalent with all of them. It is especially powerful among the Teams because of the extreme hardships that these men have faced together. They have all been driven to extremes that would break most men and the way they survived was by pulling together. Once a Team man, always a Team man. They are bonded through the unique experience of BUD/S (Basic underwater demolition training), where perhaps 16 men will graduate from the original 212 that enrolled.

Fiona -
What personality traits do you frequently see in the wives of SEALS - that must be a special brand of woman both to catch his interested and to be able to deal with the lifestyle. What about the children? Do you see a pattern of traits in them? Their fathers are the best of the best and always in danger.

Marliss - 
I haven't gotten to know the children of any Navy SEALs, but I've met and exchanged emails with some of the wives. As you would expect, SEALs have extremely high standards, especially SEAL officers. Their wives are lovely, but they are also extremely smart and just as driven as their husbands. They have a "can-do" attitude that is critical if the marriage is going to survive. They have to have TRUST in their husband's skills, and FAITH that their men are doing something critical to the country. They have to be willing to accept their husbands' possible demise by reminding themselves that their man died doing what he loved--that he would not have wanted to die any other way. These women are STRONG.

SEALs make great fathers. When they are home, they devote themselves to family life. 
I think most SEALs who are fathers are motivated to make the world a better place for their children.

Fiona - 
If a writer is working on an MS that includes SEALs do you have any resources you could suggest to help them get their writing right?

I'd recommend: 
LONE SURVIVOR, by Marcus Luttrelle 
SERVICE, also by Marcus.  
THE HEART AND THE FIST by Eric Greitens 
FEARLESS by Eric Blehm 
NAVY SEAL DOGs by Mike Ritland 

I trust you would find them as stimulating and inspiring as I do!

Fiona - 
I have one more military life question for you, but before we get there, can you tell me about your favorite scar or harrowing story?

Marliss - 
This prompt gives me serious pause. I have several scars and several harrowing stories to tell, but none of them would leave a reader feeling good. I’m still in my forties, but I’ve hit a lot of bumps along the way, and readers of romance prefer to read stories with happy endings. But often tragedy ultimately results in happiness, so I will share the story of my mastectomy scars. Last winter, I was diagnosed with an early stage of breast cancer. I had a lumpectomy, but the margins weren’t satisfactory, so I had a another, and that’s when they found even more cancer. Rather than risk dying in ten years, I opted to have my breasts removed. Turns out that was a good decision as the lab found still more cancer in tissue that was taken away. Losing my breasts caused losses in other areas. But the entire experience helped me to appreciate what so many women have to endure. I’ve gained empathy and wisdom and connected with so many fabulous ladies because of the experience. When something good comes out of something bad, the human spirit triumphs. I can say I’m proud of those scars!

Fiona - 
Thank you so much for sharing such a personal story. My very best wishes for your health.

Let's talk about Christmas and the military - many trees are missing a mom or dad lounging nearby. Many kids are sitting on Santa's lap asking that their parent come home safely as their most wished for gift. If our writers have a military family's Christmas in their plotline - what should they know from your life experience? 


Marliss -
Christmas can be an especially tough time for military families. It's just not the same when a family member is away on Christmas Day. Military families have learned to be flexible--sometimes they celebrate Christmas early...sometimes they delay. They know that Christmas is more "real" when everyone is there. 

Wikipedia Army Raider Brigade at Christmas

My advice to writers would be to go ahead and depict a Christmas where Dad or Mom is missing. Reach into your readers' hearts and strum a cord that will tune them in to the sacrifices so many service people are enduring. And while you're at it, do something special for a military member this year. I'm going to donate a box of books to the local Army base library who will ship them to service people overseas. Send cards. Donate online--not just at Christmas but all throughout the year. As long as you are conscious of and grateful for the scary, lonely sacrifices being made on your behalf, you can help to mitigate them. Merry Christmas and God bless us, everyone.

Fiona - 
Thank you so much for being here today, Marliss.

To you and my readers,
may you and your loved ones be safe, warm, cared for, and appreciated - now and all year long. 

My special gratitude for those in our military, first responders, nurses and doctors whose service to us keeps them in the trenches and away from their families.

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

Monday, December 1, 2014

International Terrorism: Info for Writers with Cpl. Allen Norton


US Navy 020312-O-0000X-001 Homeland Security A...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
ThrillWriting is pleased to welcome back Corporal Allen Norton. Cpl. Norton graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell with a certification in Homeland Security and also graduated from Columbia Southern University with a degree in Criminal Justice. He attended the National Center for Bio-medical Research and Training through Louisiana State University and recently graduated from the University of St. Andrews, and obtained a Global Certification as a Terrorism Specialist. In addition, he is a recognized Certified Homeland Protection Professional (C.H.P.P.) Cpl Norton obtained this certification through the National
Sheriffs Association and the National Domestic

Preparedness Coalition.

Fiona - 

People have been wreaking terror across borders since time immemorial. At what point do we draw a distinction between raiding and terrorist activity?

Cpl. Norton -

When it comes to International Terrorism the oldest in existence (The Father of Modern Day Terrorism) is the Irish Republican Army or IRA. Interesting enough, they actually formed in New York City during the late 1800s as the Finian Force.

Fiona - 

When I think "terrorism" my mind jumps to the Middle East - and parts of Africa. Is that because those are our only threats, and the IRA etc. target other countries, do you think?

Cpl. Norton 
Probably, but when it comes to the IRA more Americans willingly donate to that terrorist organization over any other. Most from the Boston-NYC region. Interestingly, you bring up the Middle East; did you know that the first terrorist organization there was Jewish?
They were known as the Irgun and very active in the 1940s against the British. One of their prime leaders was Menachem Begin. 

Fiona - 
I had no idea. So you do a lot of training in the area of terrorism, can you tell us what are the main ingredients in our "stay safe soup"? 

Cpl. Norton - 
The United States does plenty. Overseas partners with other countries (Jordan is VERY good) is vital. The CIA does a good job also.

The Terrorist Screening Center, which was established after 9/11 has become a vital tool also for the US local authorities

Fiona - 
You can check it out with this Video Quick Study. Inside a secret U.S. Terrorist Screening Center CBS News.

Cpl. Norton, if I was a writer putting a character in a situation overseas - an American citizen -  would the American government do anything to help me? Would this be public? Would they work behind the scenes? And any chance that a SEAL team might go in and save me?

Cpl. Norton - 

They would, but with politics today I guess it would matter how important the person was if it would be public or not. SEAL Teams have obviously been used before, but that is usually a last resort.

Fiona - 
When you are reading books/watching shows and movies about terror - and I know you are stepping carefully in this interview - what are the holes in the cloth of the story line. What are the writers getting wrong based on false understanding or even cinematic expedience?

Cpl. Norton - 
I think one of the biggest issues, and we discussed this in the Domestic Terrorism interview is that nothing is solved in 1-2 hours. It's not always as exciting as Hollywood or the newspapers make it seem. 

Probably one of the biggest pet peeves I have is that the investigations in shows are illegal for the most part. A lot of the techniques that people use are just impossible to use in real life, whether because you just can't or because it's illegal. Plus a lot goes into an investigation; it's not just one thing that solves an incident. It's many building blocks that add up to a case.

Fiona - 
Can we discuss the concept of terrorism as a career choice? One of the things that struck me when I attended your lecture was the educational levels of the people who are recruited.

Cpl. Norton - 
Sure, to be anything in a terrorist organization a college degree is mandatory. I'm talking bio-chemistry, biology, chemistry, computer science, economic, business, etc. You pretty much have to be fluent in multiple languages. It takes a lot of smarts to run a terrorist organization or to be anything important in one.

Fiona - 
And there are perks to your enrollment. You indicated that terrorist organizations work on a business model and even have sick leave and vacation time... can you speak to that and then my question would be - do they see themselves as professional terrorists? Soldiers? What?

Cpl. Norton - 
To become a terrorist, there's an application process. They get paid vacations, holiday pay, health insurance, etc. just like we do. They also can apply for certain positions within the organization, Al-Qaeda is probably the best known group for doing all this, though others do it also.

They would consider themselves professional freedom fighters. Rarely would a terrorist ever say they are a terrorist. They actually consider us the terrorists, so it's all in the eye of the beholder.

Fiona - 
My final question for you - Can you talk about familial impact? How does being in the family of a terrorist impact life and what happens if the terrorist martyrs himself? 

Cpl. Norton -
That's a great question Fiona. It's important to realize that some of the families of members of terrorist organizations do not support them or want them to be a part of it. Look at Osama bin Ladens family, they disowned him and excommunicated him from the family because they didn't support what he was doing. That's why terrorists hide their faces, it has nothing to do with cowardice, they are just protecting their family from retaliation. Whether the family supports them or not. 

Sometimes poor families will sell their children into terrorist organizations because they need the money, food or shelter that these groups promise. Other families are promised the world if a member blows themselves up for the cause. What's amazing about terrorist organizations is when they promise a family something they always deliver, if they didn't families would stop doing what they are doing for them. So actually, a terrorist organization is very trustworthy, weird as it sounds.

Fiona - 
Was there something I missed that you're dying to tell me?

Cpl. Norton - 

When it comes to terrorist organizations Hamas has the largest infrastructure of any foreign terrorist group on US soil. They have never intentionally attacked a US civilian or installation though, they are basically here for fund raising.

There are approximately 500 different foreign terrorist organizations on the earth right now. Only 58 are recognized by the U.S.

Fiona - 
You have been unbelievable kind to help us writers write it right.

Cpl. Norton - 
Thank you so much for the time speaking with you, these three interviews have been very enjoyable. If anyone has any questions or wants up to date info that is posted, please visit our Facebook page at GDSI Intelligence and Training and like us. Information is updated regularly.

Fiona - 

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Government Intelligence 101 - Information for Writers with Jeff Critser

Author, Jeff Critser
Fiona - 

Hi Jeff - so great that you stopped by ThrillWriting today - can you take a minute and introduce yourself to the readers? You know the usual - what you've done with your life, your aspirations, and dreams...

Jeff - 
Sure thing. I am a former Naval Aviator and military intelligence officer on national SIGINT programs. I've always had a storytelling mindset (despite being an engineer by training) and during a writing assignment in graduate school, I knew at that stage that I wanted to be a novelist. Tom Clancy was one of my first inspirations when he wrote The Hunt for Red October, and even to this day, he is one of my favorite authors.

In addition to working signals intelligence operations (SIGINT) in the military and other national operations, I consult on security programs today in a variety of capacities. My main goal as an author is to weave stories in and around intelligence and espionage situations.

Fiona - 
Let's start there. Can you give us a mini tutorial. A kind of "What Every Author Should Know About Intelligence" overview?

Jeff - 
Here are some of the key points I would like to impart to the readers regarding military intelligence:

1) Intelligence agencies are byzantine organizations. They are
     highly compartmentalized, thus making it difficult for any one
     person (or persons) to know all of the activities and operations.
     Even the appointed heads of NSA, DIA, and other military
     agencies (a flag-ranked officer*)  only serve for a few years at
     the post and have difficulty learning the full breadth and scope
     of their own organization. Most of the continuous knowledge
     base resides with the deputy directors (civilians) who serve in
     the same role for many years.

   * Flag Rank Definition: (DOD) A term applied to an officer
      holding the rank of general, lieutenant general, major general,
      or brigadier general in the US Army, Air Force or Marine
      Corps or admiral, vice admiral, rear admiral or commodore in
      the US Navy or Coast Guard. source

The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2) The compartmentalization and frenetic pace of intel collection and the backlog of background checks can lead to security breaches and help enable turncoats like Edward Snowden. The intel community relies too heavily on Counter Intelligence (CI)/Lifetsyle Polygraphs (with EPQ*) to “catch” potential spies. While there has been considerable push-back regarding the validity of polygraphs, the agencies are essentially doubling down on them to shore up security problems.

(*EPQ: Embarrassing Personal Questions)

Link - to NSA Polygraph brochure dos and don'ts, expectations.

 3) Most intelligence agencies exists to provide actionable
     intelligence to the war fighter in the field. That is
     why most of the intelligence agencies are part of the DoD and
     not civilian. The CIA is a major intel agency but is not part of 
     the defense establishment. 

 4) There are 16 identified intelligence agencies (actual number is

      The “Big Five” agencies are:
National Geospatial Intelligence Agency
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
      * Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) 
      * National Security Agency (NSA) 
      * National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) 
      * Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) 
      * National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency 

       While most people think the CIA is the
       biggest intelligence group, the NSA and
       NRO have much larger budgets (which is

 5) Inter-agency rivalries and feuds are very common, marked by
     senior representatives from each agency vying to out-work the 
     others for recognition and control of budget. There are
     numerous examples (most of which cannot be discussed
     outside of a cleared audience) in which a major intelligence
     operation went terribly wrong because one group refused to
     share intelligence with a sister agency for fear of losing bragging
     rights or having budgets diminished. The Berlin Wall tunnel 
     snafu during the Cold War was a famous case of inter-agency 
     fighting and posturing. Despite many attempts to corral this 
     infighting, these feuds are still prevalent today. In my
     novel, COLD SHADOWS, the various agencies had different
     parts to play. The insidious Rafter was a direct action (DA)
     operative from a deep black  group of the CIA. The DIA was the
     agency overseeing operation URGENT VECTOR, and the NSA
     was providing real time SIGINT tracking for targets of interest.

Fiona - 
You were explaining to me that the agencies are byzantine, and they are run by both military and civilians. The military are rotated out fairly rapidly leaving these groups to mainly be captained by civilians. What qualifies the civilians and is there difficulty in communication between these two groups and trust issues?

Jeff - 
There are significant trust issues between the agencies because they compete for recognition and funding by the White House, Congress and National Command Authority. The main weapon they use against one another is withholding information from another agency.

The military staff in these agencies have significant operational experience and provide critical insight as to what works (or what won't work) while most of the civilians are scientists, analysts, and engineers that are focused on the technologies and developments needed to accomplish the mission. For example, the NSA is one of the largest employers of scientists and engineers in the world. These guys are 20-30 years ahead of anything we've seen in the commercial sector.

Fiona - 
Who is more likely to be the next Snowden? Military personnel or civilian?

Jeff -
Современный компьютерный полиграф ЭПОС-7: сенс...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Traditionally, leaks come more from civilians than military, but both sides have been guilty over the years. Two issues that impact the trustworthiness of the people hired for these sensitive programs are: 
1) The overload that the investigative teams
    are facing with vetting employees for
2) The dependence on CI/Lifestyle
     Polygraphs for weeding out potential
     traitors. Many of the traitors
     historically have passed their polys with no
     problem, so the efficacy of these are often

Fiona - 
Polygraphs and psychopaths don't mix. As in - a psychopath (like your character, Rafter) won't have biomarkers of anxiety.

Jeff - 
Yes, that is correct. Many psychopaths and sociopaths will pass their polygraphs. They have no conscience.

Fiona - 
The NRO - Why have I never heard of this before our little chat?

Jeff - 
NRO logo
NRO logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The NRO is highly secretive because they maintain and operate the entire fleet of "overhead assets." This is intel-speak for spy satellites. Some of the most sensitive technologies used in the intelligence gathering reside in the satellites. Very powerful and highly sensitive programs exist with the "overheads."

Fiona - 
Okay so let's talk vocab.

Jeff - 

Seal of the C.I.A. - Central Intelligence Agen...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Sure thing

Fiona - 
DA means direct action what would that entail?
Also, Deep black and SA...

Jeff - 
CIA DA groups are ones that employ paramilitary tools and techniques to accomplish the mission. They're armed with conventional and unconventional weaponry and spy gear/techniques (called "tradecraft") to accomplish the mission. CIA DA teams belong to the clandestine services are often recruited from military special operations teams like SEAL Team Six (DEVGRU) and Delta.Deep black means "Special Access Program." This is abbreviated as "SAP". SAP programs are ones that don't officially "exist" and are wrapped in very tight secrecy and highly compartmented. Before the F-117 and B2 programs were released to the public, they were SAP.
"Above Top Secret" is used a lot in the movies and TV. Here's what that means: The clearances run, Confidential, Secret, Top Secret, and Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information (abbreviated "TS/SCI"). The TS/SCI programs require very special clearances and "need-to-know" before someone can be "read in" to the program. These are the so-called "above Top Secret" clearances.

Fiona - 
"NSA was providing real time SIGINT tracking for targets of interest." Explain SIGINT

Jeff - 
SIGINT is Signals Intelligence. Essentially, this is intelligence garnered and exploited through any electronic medium. Cell phones, faxes, emails, radar, etc. SIGINT is gathered through a global array of very sophisticated sensors that eavesdrop on electronic comms.

LINK - This is the NSA frequently asked questions document.

Fiona - 
If I put this information into my blog, tell the truth, will the NSA bang on my door? Not that I'm afraid - I like meeting new people, mind you - I just want to be prepared.

Jeff - 
No worries, we will not divulge anything that is sensitive.

Fiona - 
Explain the use of the word paramilitary.

Jeff - 
Para literally means "above". This does not mean that paramilitary groups are better than military from that word, but that the teams have are trained and outfitted similarly to elite military teams, but their missions and reporting agencies are very different from military ones. The CIA clandestine service is a "paramilitary" group As stated before, many in that group come from military spec-ops, SEALS, Delta, Force Recon, etc

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Fiona - 
Your thriller Cold Shadows has to walk a line between being accurate with the terms (the alphabet soup of military talk) and vocabulary that civilians use. You also have the CIA, DIA, and NSA involved. DIA being the Defense Intelligence Agency. When many people don't know what these agencies are/do how do you pull the reader along? I imagine that this is problematic for anyone who is coming from a place of expertise and now, as novelists, they have to "keep it real" and yet keep it accessible.

Jeff - 
It is a very fine line to walk, and if you're not careful, you could end up in the weeds and confuse the reader. Some authors go way too deeply into the military jargon and operational speak. For me, I have no problem following that since that is the world that I come from, but civilians' eyes glaze over pretty quickly. In COLD SHADOWS, I wanted to give just enough detail to explain what was happening (and to keep military enthusiasts happy) without boring the reader with deep technical descriptions.

The feedback so far has been very positive that there was enough explanation embedded without killing the pace of the story.

The military loves jargon and bizarre vernacular, so authors with military backgrounds have to remind themselves to not wade too deeply into those waters unless the work in question is specifically intended for a military audience. If that is the case, then the more techno-speak, the better!

Fiona - 
So when you are reading along, and a civilian has attempted to make a military enthusiast happy, what is a tell-tale sign that they are not from a military background? Do you see a mistake pattern that you can give us a heads-up about?

Yes, military people pick up on that right away

For example, the "above Top Secret" line. Nobody with SCI access uses that term. When I see it, I know it was from a civilian with no intel background

Fiona - 
Is it offensive? Amusing? Irritating?

It's not offensive, but it's irritating that it's not authentic.

Fiona - 
So they should buddy up with a military guy/gal and get them to beta read for them?

Jeff - 
That's always a good idea.

Fiona - 
So writers the big take away here is - if you know the vernacular use it like salt a little adds flavor too much makes the end product unpalatable - and writers if you don't have the background seek out a beta reader and bake them a chocolate cake to thank them for their help.

So here's an snippet from a story I'm working on:
Amanda reached out to pull her purse from its resting spot by the sink. Reaching in, she retrieved her work badge. It was a Pentagon issued SCI biometric badge. “Sensitive Compartmented Information, Amanda? Dr. Amanda Campbell? What the hell?"

Jeff - 
Regarding Dr. Campbell, Small point of distinction with SCI - 
The general clearance level is called "TS/SCI", but her actual compartments that she is cleared for would be listed after "TS". 

I can't list the actual compartments because the names are classified, so I will make this up. If she were cleared for the "ZEBRA ELEPHANT" compartment, her clearance in writing would read "TS/ZE". You can make up fictional compartments (they're typically two words) and use that in your writing. Only people who are similarly cleared will know the actual compartments, and they will NEVER be used outside of a cleared SCIF. SCIF - Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. These are the blacked out rooms with big vault doors and armed guards and only special comms gear inside.

Fiona - 
Yes, that's what she does. Define "comms gear."

Jeff - 
Communications gear that is encrypted to that level of security needed for that SCIF. No regular phones or computers.

Fiona - 
Okay so on her badge what would it say to give her access to the area?

Jeff - 
It usually says nothing, but it will have several things on it. 
1) A photo 
2) Bio-metric coded info (for readers that have it) 
3) A color scheme to denote the compartments she's cleared for 
4) Her name 

Fiona - 
You can tell she is SCI by the colors on her badge?

Jeff - 
Yes. The color codes are unique to the agency and are classified in their meaning. It helps make sure that everyone can quickly spot those who are cleared and those who aren't.

Fiona - 
OK I'll revisit how I said that. May I cut a slice of your chocolate cake for you now?

Jeff - 
Yes, thank you. It's fine how it is. Just a very minor point in distinction. Remember, the compartments are never spoken in an unclassified setting. The names of the compartments themselves are classified.

For writers of intelligence-genre books, have fun with the writing and let your imagination run wild. Call on a friend who is "in the business" if you need a reality check on what you've written. A VERY important thing to remember is that you should NEVER divulge an actual intelligence apparatus/asset or operation if you have knowledge of it. Not only will you land in a lot of legal hot water including jail time, but you will be endangering the lives of agents in the field. For most people, though, knowledge of actual operations is hard to come by, so this rule isn't broken often. Have fun, be imaginative, and sweep the characters into the deep unknown. The more fictional it may appear, the closer to reality you might actually be.

Fiona -
This is the part of the interview when I whip out our traditional question, "Tell us the story behind your favorite scar."

Jeff - 
Well, the one that is most prominent in my life is above my left eye. It was from a soccer accident at Vanderbilt in my senior year. It required surgery to fix my badly broken nose and ruptured blood vessels. The interesting part was that exactly two years earlier, I had another head-on collision with a player that damaged my right eye (also needed it stitched). The player that ran into me was the same guy both times, just two years apart. After being hit the second time, I actually started to punch him for splitting my head open (again!). I couldn't see because I had blood in my eyes, but I found him on the ground next to me and started punching him furiously. We were both taken to the hospital for surgery (he had torn a major blood vessel in his head that had to be sewn together).

Fiona - 
Was there a girl involved in this saga?

Jeff - 
No girl this time...just two aggressive males duking it out on the field two different times two years apart. I even yelled obscenities at him as we rode in the ambulance together (side by side gurneys).

Fiona - 
I caught the "this time" bit about the girl. The chances of being hit by the same guy are really pretty slim - I'm sure you've considered that this was karmic retribution for some past life offense...

Jeff - 
Most likely so. I've had my turn in the barrel for sure.

I would pay good money for the ambulance ride video.

Jeff - 
Had this been today, I'm sure it would be on YouTube from someone's cell phone camera two guys squirting blood out of their faces, blind, punching each other in the middle of a soccer field as ambulances rush to the scene. Classic. It looked more like a horror film. Texas Chainsaw style.

Fiona - 
Thanks to Jeff Critser for sharing his knowledge and insights with us. 

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

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