The Heroes Behind the Page
The Characters of Steel Fear, Part 7
John David Mann
This seven-part series takes a behind-the-scenes look at the cast of characters in the military thriller Steel Fear, co-authored by John David Mann and SOFREP founder Brandon Webb, and explores the process of conceiving them and bringing them to life on the page. You can find the first part of this series here.
Steel Fear is a novel, which means, strictly speaking, it’s all made up. Fiction. Never happened. Except … strictly speaking, that’s not entirely true. The only reason novels work, the only reason stories work, is that they are so solidly rooted in the reality of our experience. Yes, the specifics of the story may be invented by the teller, but if they ring true, if the story works, it’s because they are true. True in a deeper sense than the specifics of who, when, and where.
But let’s take that one step further. The sneaky fact is, most pieces of fiction are inspired, in whole or in part, by actual events. Inevitably, bits and pieces of real-life will be woven into the fabric, bringing their own threads of real-life texture and meaning with them — just like the articles of clothing sewn into Monica’s best friend Kristine’s quilted blanket in chapter 41:
“Kris had brought her own blanket on deployment, a quilt she’d patched together from remnants of outfits from her teen years. High school skirts, biker jackets, Goth pullovers, the sweater she’d worn (briefly) the night she lost her virginity … how the four of them had howled with laughter together the night Kris gave them the tour! Monica ran her hand over the variegated cloth. Chapters of a life…”-Steel Fear
Every story is a quilt of variegated cloth, and Steel Fear is no exception. In no particular order, here are some of the real people that we stitched into the cloth of Finn’s story.
Friends and Heroes
During the 1995 deployment on the Lincoln that inspired the novel, Brandon was friends with a helicopter pilot named Mona, who gave him a woman’s perspective on the unsolved sexual assault spree happening on the ship. Mona became the inspiration for Monica, the helo pilot we meet on page 1, and whose spirit drives the whole story to a great extent.
Chapter 1 also mentions Kara Hultgreen, the first female Navy aviator to die in a crash, which took place right off the Lincoln’s deck. That, of course, is true — in fact, the crash that killed Lieutenant Hultgreen happened in the fall of 1994, just six months before Brandon stepped onto the Lincoln’s deck for his six-month WESTPAC.
Except that Hultgreen was actually just one of the Navy’s first two female F-14 Tomcat fliers. The other, Carey Lohrenz, is alive and well, and I leaned heavily on her excellent book Fearless Leadership for our description of Kristine “Biker” Shiflin’s “night in the barrel.”
Finn’s sniper school memory of helping his shooting partner Boyd “who sucked at stalking” (chapter 13) is loosely based on Finn’s work as an instructor with a young Marcus Luttrell, which we described in The Red Circle. (I’m not telling tales out of school here; Marcus says as much in his own book, Lone Survivor.) Finn’s tragic experience with Boyd during their diving exercise off the San Diego pier (chapter 22) did not actually happen to Brandon while on one of those dives, but the description of the exercise is real, and deadly mishaps like the one we describe have in truth been known to happen.
The helo crash that killed four of Monica’s squadron mates is based on an actual incident Brandon experienced in a helo over the Gulf, which we chronicled in The Red Circle and Mastering Fear. The real-life version of the incident resulted from a sudden panic attack in the pilot; their quick-witted copilot managed to pull the chopper out seconds before they would have crashed and likely suffered the same deadly fate as the crew in the book. That quick-witted copilot’s name was Kennedy; if it weren’t for him, Brandon wouldn’t be here, and this book wouldn’t exist — so we borrowed his name for Finn’s revered lieutenant in honor of his heroism.
Lieutenant Kennedy, whom we see only through Finn’s memories and is basically Finn’s best friend, is based on Glen Doherty, Brandon’s real-life best friend, who was one of the four Americans killed in the attack on the compound in Benghazi in 2012. (If you want to meet the real person, we wrote an entire chapter about Glen, called “Everyone’s Best Friend,” in Among Heroes.)
Finn and Schofield’s reminiscences about “Captain Tom,” the captain of the Kitty Hawk, are based on the actual commander of the Kitty Hawk back in the nineties when Brandon did his WestPac on that ship. (Whose name was, in fact, Captain Steven John Tomaszeski, later Rear Admiral Steven John Tomaszeski, now retired.) We wrote about him in The Red Circle. And yes, sailors really did call that ship both “Battle Cat” and “Shitty Kitty.”
The Darker Side
Both of these characters, Kennedy/Glen and Captain Tom, were bright lights in Brandon’s past. There are also a few darker characters in the story who share some characteristics with real people.
Captain Eagleberg is a composite of a number of terrible leaders Brandon and I have each known, especially a few that Brandon bumped into during his military career. (If you comb the pages of The Red Circle with that in mind, you’ll bump into several of them yourself.) But his fragile ego and imperious insensitivity are traits we’ve probably all seen at some point in our lives, in bosses, managers, and captains of all stripes and job descriptions.
The killer took his initial inspiration from a one-time acquaintance of Brandon’s, about whom I’ll say nothing more, except that he never (so far as we know) actually killed anyone. However, here I also drew on a bit of odd personal history: I grew up in Westfield, New Jersey, not far from the home of John List, one of the nation’s more notorious mass killers. In the fall of 1971, as I was just meeting with some friends on a project to start our own high school, that other Westfield John was quietly butchering his wife and three children nearby. At the time, none of us had a clue. No one even noticed they were missing till a month had gone by. They didn’t catch him for another eighteen years.
And Finn? I spent a few years spinning ideas for his character in the back of my brain before we began work on the book. He had two starting points: first, we wanted him to be as opposite as possible from the popular Hollywood concept of a Navy SEAL. And second, I knew he was profoundly scarred by early trauma. We don’t learn what that trauma was until near the end of the book, but it was the very first story element I jotted down.
From there, I also threw a bunch of Brandon’s history into the Finn mix. I’ve known Brandon for twelve years and know a hell of a lot about his life. (Writing seven books together will do that.) Most of Finn’s past is an invention, but it’s colored here and there with elements from his biography, blended with a massive dose of trauma and childhood conflict from another military guy I knew about. And here’s a strange coincidence for you: this guy I knew about, with the childhood trauma? Turned out Brandon knew him. But I only learned that he knew him—and Brandon only learned that I’d knew of him, too, and had had him in mind while writing Finn—after the book was finished.
Sometimes these things happen when you’re writing fiction. Reality has a weird way of sneaking in.
The events of Steel Fear are fiction, of course. Still, dozens of actual events and situations find their way into the narrative, some just tiny details, some more than that.
The daily “fodwalk” happens exactly as we describe in chapter 7—and there really was a fodwalk that started with Ozzy Osborne and Iron Man blaring over the Voice of God’s PA system. In fact, you can watch it yourself (minus the Southie accent) in the excellent 10-part miniseries Carrier, which documents a 2005 tour on the USS Nimitz, a ship in most ways identical to the Lincoln.
The “GET OVER IT!” scenario cited in chapter 63, when the Lincoln reversed course at Australia and steamed back to the Gulf in ’03 to join the breaking war effort, happened exactly as Finn describes it, right down to the wording of the speech that went out over the 1MC. (Although the fictional Eagleberg was not on board.)
The Crossing of the Line ceremony in chapter 52 is real down to every detail, and the first-timers really are called “pollywogs.” And here is a strange factoid, which you may get a kick out of when you reach the point late in the book. You’ll bump into a scene from Finn’s childhood memory that prominently features tadpoles: I originally sketched out that late scene, in all its creepy detail, before learning about the Line Crossing ritual and its nomenclature. Just another coincidence … but it’s a damnably eerie one.
It’s one of those happy accidents that sometimes drop onto the page like a gift from above when you’re chasing down a story.
The terrible event in Mukalla, Yemen, that haunts Finn’s memories is fictional, but war crimes very much like the ones that took place there are quite real and have been in the news in recent years. (We’ll learn more about the events of that pivotal Mukalla night in book 2, Cold Fear, coming in 2022.)
Finally, the main event inspired the story of Steel Fear in the first place. The idea of a series of murders on the Lincoln grew out of Brandon’s first-hand experience on a similar tour on the Lincoln. There was a serial sexual predator on board, as we explain in the Authors’ Note at the end of the book. Unlike the serial killer in the pages of Steel Fear—and unlike John List, the quiet killer of Westfield, New Jersey—that perpetrator was never found.
For all we know, he could be out there right now.
Special Holiday Offer!
Purchase STEEL FEAR as a gift and John or Brandon will send a short personalized cameo-style video to your gift recipient if purchased before December 18th. Just send us a screenshot of your purchase on the SOFREP contact page here, include the gift recipient’s name, and a good email for us to send out your custom video.
John David Mann is the award-winning co-author of more than 30 books, including 4 New York Times bestsellers and 5 national bestsellers. His bestselling classic The Go-Giver (with Bob Burg) won the Living Now Book Award’s Evergreen Medal for its “contribution to positive global change.” Seven of his books are coauthored with SOFREP founder Brandon Webb, including their first thriller, Steel Fear, which Jack Reacher author Lee Child hailed as “an instant classic, maybe an instant legend.” You can order Steel Fear, and find links to interviews with Brandon and John, at SteelFear.com.