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First to fight, first to write 

Andrew Exum may be just 25, but he has been through some harrowing experiences.

Exum has made history as the author of This Man’s Army: A Soldier’s Story from the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism. His combat memoir is the first to emerge from the War on Terror -- and it was written in Savannah.

“I wrote the book for two reasons,” Exum says. “The nation was concentrated on Iraq. It seemed a lot was glossed over about Afghanistan. The other reason I wrote it is that it’s important to write a first person memoir and narratives are important. Nearly everything that has been written is from a reporter’s perspective or a historian’s perspective.

That’s “vastly different” from someone who actually fought in the war, Exum says.

“They don’t see the unit coming together, they don’t see the training, they don’t see what the soldiers face on coming home.”

Exum was disappointed when he checked the Dec. 29, 2002, edition of New York Times’ Year in Review calendar to see what they said about Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan. There was no mention of the battles at all, although the death of Milton Berle and Kmart store closings made the list.

Much has been made of the fact that Exum obtained degrees in English and the Classics at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, before beginning his military career. But he says soldiers come from all different backgrounds.

“A lot of the guys I led had college degrees, while others were dirt poor,” he says.

But Exum does realize that what he did might be considered unusual. “Only two people in my classes ended up joining the Army,” he says. “When I imagined what the Army could be, I couldn’t imagine being behind a desk. If war broke out, I wanted to lead troops.”

While Exum was not an Army brat, his family has a long history of serving in the armed forces, going all the way back to the Revolutionary War.

There also is a family propensity for writing. “My dad is a retired journalist,” Exum says.

In 1996, Exum joined the Army ROTC program when he entered college. Not only did it give him a chance to serve his country, it financed his education.

After graduating in 2000, Exum completed officer training. He then entered the Army Ranger School at Fort Benning. His book is the first to describe Ranger training in detail.

Exum became a platoon leader with the Tenth Mountain Division in upstate New York. At the time, he assumed they would serve in a peacekeeping mission.

Then the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 occurred. Exum and his men prepared to deploy to New York City to help with disaster relief. However, on the morning they were to leave, he was told the National Guard would be doing the work instead.

At first, Exum was disappointed. He had joined the infantry so that if war broke out, he would be on the front lines, and going to New York seemed like a good start.

Within days, he was given another mission. Exum and his men were the first conventional unit to deploy to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

After several months deployment in Kuwait, Exum and his men were sent to Afghanistan to fight in Operation Anaconda. The purpose of the operation was to dig out the Taliban and al-Qaeda stronghold in the Sha-e-Kot Valley, which resulted in some of the heaviest fighting and heaviest casualties in the Afghan campaign.

The experiences Exum recounts in his book are harrowing, particularly when his unit is threatened by an Al-Qaeda soldier with a machine gun and Exum is forced to kill him.

But the book also has a great deal of humor, plus intimate glimpses of Exum’s encounters with family members as he prepared to go to war. The book follows him to Iraq where he participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom, but most of the action that is described takes place in Afghanistan.

After returning from Afghanistan, Exum moved to Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, where he took charge of a Ranger platoon. They began to train for the anticipated war in Iraq.

But after surviving combat unscathed, Exum suffered a serious knee injury during a street hockey game. After undergoing surgery, he feared his military career was over, but began pushing himself to recover.

When doctors pronounced Exum eight months ahead of his rehabilitation schedule, he was able to go to Iraq, where his unit helped to rescue Private Jessica Lynch. However, he watched the rescue on the Internet because of his injury, and doctors warned him not to re-enlist.

Exum completed his service in May with the rank of captain. He is currently on a cross-country book tour to promote his book.

Writing a combat memoir carries with it a sense of duty. “You feel burdened to get a good narrative out there,” Exum says. “I believe this is going to be the first of many.”

Large portions of the book were written at The Gallery Espresso, when it was at its Liberty Street location.

“I was recovering from the knee injury,” Exum says. “I had a lot of time on my hands.”

It is not surprising that the war is Iraq has overshadowed the war in Afghanistan, Exum says.

“Iraq is a much larger expedition, a much bigger war and more controversial,” he says.

But the war in Afghanistan also is important, especially historically. It was the first time in history that any foreign power had won battles in the Sha-e-Kot Valley.

Exum’s name was embargoed until the book’s publication, so early stories and reviews of the book referred to him as “X.”

“I was writing while still on active duty,” he says. “I never wanted it to be a distraction. I ended up telling the guys I led in the Rangers a couple of days before I left the unit.”

A cross-country book tour is certainly different from a tour of duty. “It’s a bit surreal,” Exum says. “I find it is difficult to talk about myself.”

Exum feels media coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are misleading.

“The public doesn’t get a real human perspective of the war. They see the names of the guys who died,” Exum says. “But because it is such a smaller Army fighting the war, they may not ever know someone who fought.”

National television coverage is particularly at fault, Exum says. “They have 30 minutes to tell all the news, national and international, and really only 20 minutes of that is news,” he says. “A lot of the time, the public gets an incomplete picture.”

Although he is originally from Chattanooga, Exum considers Savannah his second home. However, he will not return here after his book tour ends.

“I’m moving to Beirut in the fall,” Exum says. “I will learn Arabic. I want to write a book on the Arab youth culture.”

Despite his knee injury, Exum is not able to leave the War on Terrorism behind. “I think that even though physically I’m not able to do the stuff I used to, I still feel the need to continue to contribute to the global war on terrorism,” he says.

“I want to try to understand why Arabic young people feel the way they do towards Americans, towards the world,” Exum says. “Eventually, I want to work for the State Department.”

Exum has received a scholarship to attend American University in Beirut. “It is a really good university, an English-language university, and the longest-established university in the MIddle East,” he says.

For many people, combat is a life-changing experience. “My experience didn’t really change me,” Exum says. “Elements of my personality that were there before are still there. I probably have a better view of what the world is like than I did before, though.”

The entire world has been changed because of terrorism, however. “9/11 sent a wake-up call,” Exum says. “Those of us who actually fought have been given a sobering wake-up call.”

But there isn’t a thing about his experiences that Exum would change. “I have never had a greater privilege than leading the men I led in the Rangers,” he says. “I thank the Lord I had the opportunity to spend my days with those men. It is such a great honor.”

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Linda Sickler

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