Florida State University student John Crawford thought he was beginning a new chapter in his life when he got married in 2002, but his story took a dramatic turn when he learned on his honeymoon that his Florida National Guard unit would be deployed to Iraq.
What followed was 12 months patrolling the streets of Baghdad and a critically acclaimed book documenting the experience. "The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier’s Account of the War in Iraq," was published this month by Riverhead Books, a division of the Penguin Group.
The book, which debuted at No. 21 on the New York Times Best Sellers list, is a collection of short stories that chronicle the transformation of a group of mostly naïve college students to men hardened by the realities of war.
"The book is an honest, truthful account of soldiers in Iraq," Crawford said. "They’re regular people put in an extraordinary situation. It’s a cliché to say these are people at their best and their worst, but that’s what it was."
At their best, the soldiers were loyal, brave and heroic. At their worst, they were bored, angry and fearful. But the soldiers persevered despite being ill equipped in a hot, dangerous and dirty place. "You can’t just put someone to work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," he said, explaining the frustration that led the soldiers to get into some of the situations detailed in the book. "No one could do that."
Crawford, now 27, joined the National Guard after serving a stint with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. He thought it was a good way to pay for college, and he enrolled at FSU. He was just a few credits shy of earning a degree in anthropology when his unit was called to serve.
Crawford’s deployment began in Kuwait in February 2003, and he and his unit crossed into Iraq on the first day of the invasion. Baghdad fell more quickly than anyone imagined, but Crawford’s unit stayed on to patrol the streets after most of the other soldiers involved in the invasion were sent home.
"We knew we were going to take part in the invasion, and after that, we thought we’d go home," he said. "But they kept extending the date and it went on and on. We could never get comfortable because we kept thinking we were going home and then it wouldn’t happen."
Bored one afternoon, Crawford borrowed a friend’s laptop and began writing a short story. A journalist who was embedded with the unit read the story and sent it to a friend who was an agent. Before he knew it, he had a contract, a big advance and no idea how he would ever produce a novel. Instead, he wrote a series of non-fiction pieces that are placed roughly in chronological order. He finished writing the book about three months after returning to Tallahassee in February 2004. He completed his commitment to the National Guard in October of that year.
So far reviews have been great, with words like "powerful," "raw" and "compelling" used to describe his work. He has already done interviews with Terry Gross from National Public Radio’s "Fresh Air" and Jon Stewart from "The Daily Show."
"One day I was watching ‘The Daily Show’ and the next day I was on it," Crawford said about how much his life has already begun to change since the book was published. He is busy promoting the book, but he hopes to complete his bachelor’s degree at FSU and maybe one day even pursue a doctorate.
The Palatka, Fla., native said he always loved writing, but he thought of it as a hobby rather than a way to earn a living. Now, not surprisingly, the first-time author is pondering future writing opportunities. Although the book title suggests otherwise, his Iraq experience may not, in fact, be the last true story he ever tells. This spring Crawford plans to go to Afghanistan as a civilian to write about the continuing war efforts there.