He Joined the Army After 9/11. Now Sean Parnell Is a Best-Selling Author.
Sean Parnell joined the Army Rangers in the wake of 9/11 and served his country until he was wounded in battle in June 2006. Parnell, a highly decorated captain, shares his memories of war and why he chose to write his memoir “Outlaw Platoon” and novels “Man of War” and “All Out War.” Read the lightly edited transcript, posted below, or listen to the podcast:
Virginia Allen: I am joined on The Daily Signal Podcast with Sean Parnell, decorated Army veteran and New York Times bestselling author.
Sean, thank you so much for joining me.
Sean Parnell: Hey, it’s great to be here. Thanks for making some time for me today.
Allen: Absolutely. Well, Sean, before we talk about your latest book “All Out War,” which is fantastic, I want to talk for a moment about your service in the Army. You joined the Army in 2001 and served until you were wounded in combat in 2006. Why did you decide to join?
Parnell: I was faced with the choice, or with the opportunity, of joining the military in the wake of September 11th. I was a young sophomore in college and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I was an elementary education major for awhile and then I was a secondary education major for awhile.
I just remember very clearly waking up, laying on my couch, not particularly motivated for the day, staggering over to the television set, turning it on, and watching it flicker to life just in time for an airplane crash into the World Trade Center.
I felt like my life was boiled down into those very moments after that terrorist attack. It was funny because I sort of knew exactly what I wanted to do in that moment even though I didn’t come from a long line of military leaders or people who had served in the military at all.
I just knew that joining the military and being a part of America’s collective, which was a response to those attacks, was what I was meant to do with my life. So, two days after [I’m] down at the recruiter station telling them that I want to join the Army—and not just the Army, I want to join the infantry, go to Airborne School, go to Ranger School, and get on the front lines and take the fight to the enemy, the enemy who attacked us on 9/11. That’s what I got an opportunity to do.
Allen: Wow. Thank you for sharing that, and thank you for your service and for your courage and the giant “yes” that you had in the wake of September 11th to serve your country.
Parnell: You’re welcome. You know, anytime people thank me for my service, I think about that and I appreciate that. What really dawns on me every time is that it was an honor to serve. Putting on that uniform, and that you’ve got that American flag on your shoulder and the might and power the American military at your back. You feel like you can accomplish any mission, you know?
We went to Afghanistan back in 2006. In January of 2006 we got there, and if you remember back to that time in this country, the eyes of this nation were wholeheartedly fixated on the Iraq War. Every Congressman and senator every day talked about… IEDs and weapons of mass destruction, and there was a debate raging on the Hill about whether or not we should even be there.
We went into Afghanistan sort of blind. Intelligence was very scarce. And I tell you right now, we just got thrown into the meat grinder, and we didn’t really know what to expect, but the enemy hit us pretty hard. We were there for 485 days, the longest combat deployment in global war on terror history. So it was a pretty crazy deployment, to say the least.
Allen: Yeah. That’s so intense. I want to ask you a little bit more about that because you led the legendary Outlaw Platoon in Afghanistan, like you said, for 485 days under very heavy combat.
For those who might not be familiar with Outlaw Platoon, can you share a little bit more about your mission, why you were there, and what happened?
Parnell: Yeah. Our mission was real simple back in the day. It was to close [in on] and destroy the enemy, and if you can find that Osama bin Laden guy while you’re there, well, that’d be great. You know? It was pretty simple.
What was interesting about the time is that the politicians and the generals just sort of left it to the military leaders on the ground to figure it out, which is how the U.S. Army is meant to function and operate, and I think we did a great job being empowered to make those difficult decisions on the ground.
So we were there, the Outlaw Platoon, the story itself is just essentially the story of my troops. One of the things that I realized pretty quickly when we were there is that my soldiers, every soldier has to go on what they call R and R leave, rest and relaxation leave.
They go home for two weeks and then they come back to the fight, and almost universally I heard stories from my soldiers coming back into the fight saying somebody thanked them for their service and then they’d immediately pivot to, “Well, where are you deployed?” And then my soldiers would answer, “We were in Afghanistan.” And then the American that asked them would breathe a sigh of relief and just say, “Oh, thank God you’re in Afghanistan, because Iraq is just so bad.” My soldiers would think, “Well, God, I just got shot in the head last week. We get shot at every day. Americans have no idea what’s going on here.”
So I realized pretty quickly after I got back, and I was lucky enough to make it back alive, the responsibility to tell their story and to ensure that that heroism is passed down from one generation to the next.
That responsibility lies with me as the leader, and that was sort of the catalyst for me to jump into the writing process and putting together the story of Outlaw Platoon, which became a crazy New York Times best-seller from the first week that it was on sale, which was kind of surprising and shocking for me for sure.
Allen: Yeah. Wow. How much of that first book that you wrote, “Outlaw Platoon,” was directly following what you had experienced in Afghanistan and telling those personal stories?
Parnell: Yeah, 100%. … When I first got back from Afghanistan, what I immediately started doing was compiling what’s called patrol reports, and so every time you leave the wire, it’s part of the leader’s job to write a report of what they did outside. Like a daytime group, how many trucks you had, how many men you had with you, the names of the men, the weapon systems on the trucks, the people that you met on the battlefield, whether it’s human intelligence or villagers in villages, or talking to village elders, or getting attacked by the enemy. All that stuff goes into the reports.
What I did is just started piecing together what was to become “Outlaw Platoon” in a coherent story from those events. So what you read on the pages of “Outlaw Platoon” is, at the end of the day, I think, like 10% of our experience, but it encapsulates what is I think a 485-day combat deployment and what it’s like for an ordinary infantryman on the ground in the war of Afghanistan.
Being an infantryman in combat is something that’s truly unique. Seals get a lot of street cred in this day and age, and they should, they’re awesome, and they take the fight to the enemy, but what’s unique about infantrymen is they’re left out there to figure it out.
When we were deployed on the border, we were deployed on a base, and we just sort of held the line there. Never left for a year, 16 months essentially. Almost a year and a half.
There’s a special bond forged between infantry because we sort of get all the crappy jobs that nobody else does, and we hold the line, and at the end of the day every other branch to include U.S. Special Forces and Seals, they support the infantry. They come into our area of operations and we keep that area of operations safe for them to do the surgical strikes they need to do for us to win the war.
Allen: I want to go back for a second to June 10, 2006. That was a very significant day for you and your men. You were in battle and outnumbered nearly 10 to 1, and under very, very heavy fire, but you made it out alive, and the men that were with you really honor you for having saved their lives that day. Can you tell me a little bit about that fight, and do we see that fight written into any of your books?
Parnell: Yeah. June 10, 2006, is the day in my mind that I call my “Alive Day.” I was wounded on June 10, 2006, along with almost every member of my platoon. It was just one of those days where we were doing a routine observation post and we got attacked by a force that outnumbered us 10 to 1.
They had hit us with airburst mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, and then they had placed two different support by fire positions with three machine guns apiece, and had us in a crossfire.
Then they attacked with 80 to 100 enemy soldiers in this relentless attack that lasted something like six hours. They had 200-plus enemy troops, and I had 24 guys on the ground. So we fought like hell for probably what felt like forever, and the attack was pretty relentless. I’ve never experienced a rate of fire that heavy. We could not move an inch, the fire was so heavy.
So within the first minute of that engagement, every key leader of my platoon was wounded, myself included. What I realized that day and part of the reason why we survived is … You always hear that the American military is the best in the battlefield because of our technology and our weapon systems, and all of that is partly true, but really what separates us from our enemy is … the love and brotherhood that we share with each other. You always hear great leaders are supposed to inspire their troops through their actions, but the reality of the situation is on that day it was great troops inspire their leader.
For me, I saw the selfless acts of my soldiers trying to save one another every minute during that fight, and that was really what inspired me to fight further, faster, and harder than I ever thought that I could.
So after six or seven hours of this intense firefight, we eventually fought the enemy off, fought the enemy to a stalemate, actually. We had to drop something like 21 what you call JDAMs, 21 2,000-pound bombs—a JDAM is a Joint Direct Attack Munition—just to break the enemies’ will to fight that day, and we limped off the battlefield victorious, but we took our licks, too.
Allen: Wow. Thank you for sharing that. It’s just incredibly powerful to hear your personal account. You came home and received two Bronze Stars, one for valor and a Purple Heart. But after your injuries forced you to retire from the Army and you decided to write “Outlaw Platoon,” was your thinking, “I’ll write this one book and kind of be done”? Was being an author something that you had always aspired to do?
Parnell: Yeah, yeah, for sure. The answer to your question is twofold. Yes, I thought that “Outlaw Platoon” would be the last book. No, being an author—It’s difficult to say. I loved fiction from the time I was a kid.
I think the first book I read on my own was “The Hobbit” in third grade, and I just fell in love with the idea of building a fiction story and creating a world, and all the cool stuff that J.R.R. Tolkien did in those books. They just mesmerized me. And so I thought, “Man, someday I’m going to write a book,” and this is 10-year-old Sean. But back then it was sort of like saying you want to be an A-list celebrity or direct a major Hollywood film. It just didn’t ever feel like it was a reality to me.
So I guess in that sense, I’d always dreamed of writing a book, so when I had the opportunity to write “Outlaw Platoon” and then have it published and be successful, I started thinking to myself, “Well geez, maybe I can make this dream a reality and maybe I got more books in me.” Because I always wanted to write fiction, I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll start trying to learn the craft.”
So that was sort of what put me on this path of trying to migrate from writing nonfiction to fiction, which are entirely different styles all together.
Allen: Your most recent book, “All Out War,” is the second book to feature your character Eric Steele. The first was “Man of War.” And Eric Steele, he’s an American Special Operative and a character that as a reader you’re just instantly drawn to. How did you come up with this character?
Parnell: The process of character development can be a highly personal one because at the end of the day, I think our hero that writers write in books and readers read … they’re part of us. So just looking for the sort of daily inspirations that we draw from that we would then say, “Hey, this is a characteristic that I’d love to have in my hero.”
I have to say, I thought right back to my soldiers, and I would think back through that entirety of that combat deployment to my medic who was shot in the face but treated 12 casualties and saved three lives. And Sergeant Hall, one of my soldiers who stormed up a hill, fought through [an] enemy line, saved the Marine’s life. He was shot in the pelvis.
These are all heroic actions. These are all the types of actions that you would see Eric Steele do in a fiction book, and I just said, “What better way to create a character or draw inspiration for creating a character than by looking at my men for that inspiration on the battlefield?” And so, I did.
It’s been funny. People are like, “Steele, Eric Steele, isn’t that a little too on the nose?” And I always laugh because it kind of does feel that way, but I had a commander in Afghanistan whose last name was Steele, S-T-E-E-L-E. He was [6-foot-8-inch], 300 pounds, larger than life.
I’m also from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is the Steel City. So it worked on both a professional and personal level for me, and I thought it sort of spoke to the core of who Eric’s Steele was and I sort of just created him from there.
Allen: Yeah, I think it definitely works very well. It gets the point across.
Parnell: Yeah, I try. You want your protagonist to have like a Jack Reacher-esque name. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher was sort of the first mainstream character that had a real catchy, sort of edgy last name, and I thought I sort of need something like that to hang with the big dogs. So Eric Steele was created, and the hope is maybe I’ll be with the big dogs one day, but for now I’m just sort of content learning the craft and trying to build the brand.
Allen: What do you hope that your readers take away from reading “Man of War” and “All Out War”?
Parnell: I think any storyteller writes with the question of a theme and moral question in their stories. The whole reason why we read stories is because in some way, shape, or form, they speak to the society that we live in today and they answer some fundamental question.
One of the questions that I think is the moral question in “All Out War,” my most recent book, is, “Are you a man or are you a slave?”, [that’s] sort of a general theme. How that manifests itself in Eric Steele is he just very literally wonders what is the point of his mission? Why is he listening to people that are higher up than him and doing their bidding without questioning it? And at the end of the day, is the mission worth the cost?
And the villain that he faces poses the same question to himself. He’s been used as a slave his entire life, and he’s been abused and he’s lost a lot. And he’s angry, and he resents the people that have abused them. So they’re both enveloped and face the same moral question and theme, but how they answer those things and the actions that they take in service of the theme and the moral question are very, very different.
So why the reader reads this book is to get an answer to that question that Eric Steele has, “Is the mission worth it?” And eventually, you get an answer in the end of the book.
… When they read this book. I hope [the readers] realize that through Eric Steele, the American mission and who we are as a people and the things that we stand for in the world matter and are fundamentally good, just like Eric Steele.
But also, I just want people to read and have fun with a great action story. I feel like in many ways much of what we see on TV is real heavy. I feel like we’re in the golden age of television entertainment, from shows like “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead”—all those shows are iconic and great, but they’re also super deep and heavy.
So what I wanted to do is maybe give people moments of that depth in these books, but I ultimately just wanted to put together a fast-paced, action-packed story with … a good hero that we can show to our kids and be proud of.
Allen: I think that you definitely hit the nail on the head.
Parnell: Thank you.
Allen: Absolutely. As someone who does love action stories, I picked up “All Out War” and I just have not been able to put it down. So I do have to ask, is there going to be a third book in the Eric Steele series?
Parnell: I’m glad that you asked. It’s a good question. Yes. So this is the crazy thing about writing, and I’ve been thinking about this as I was launching the second book in early September, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, I’m launching this book and I’m writing the third,” because I’m delivering one book a year.
So right now I’m 35,000 words into the third Eric Steele book, and this book is just hitting the fan. Eric Steele, people are dying all around him, and there’s a traitor in his midst. He doesn’t know who he can trust, yet he’s left to figure it out and solve this mystery and save the day.
I think that “Eric Steele Three” is a more nuanced and compelling story than “Man of War” and than “All Out War.” I think that’s the goal as an author anyways, is to get a little bit better each book. But I love the way that this story is shaping up, and coming off of what Eric Steele experiences in the end of “All Out War,” trust and legacy are central themes of this book. What it means to serve and what you lose in the process is on the forefront of his mind.
I’m excited to see what’s left in the story. I’ve got about 70,000 words left, and I’m excited to finish it up and get it out there to the readers because I think readers will love it.
Allen: That’s great news. I look forward to reading it when it comes out.
Allen: Where can people buy your books now, and how can they be following your work?
Parnell: You can get my books anywhere books are sold, and in every format. If you like hardcover books, you can pick up a hardcover and read them. We’ve got eBooks and audiobooks. R.C. Bray reads the audiobook for both “Man of War” and “All Out War,” and he is over the top good.
And you can check me out on Twitter (@SeanParnellUSA) or on Instagram and Facebook (@OfficialSeanParnell), or you can go to my website, officialseanparnell.com, to keep up with everything that I’m doing.
Allen: Great. Well, Sean, we really appreciate your time. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast and sharing all about your amazing books with us.
Parnell: Yes. Thank you. Thank you for having me, I really appreciate it.