These are the combat experiences of the first Marine to command a special operations task force, recounted against a backdrop of his journey from raw Second Lieutenant to seasoned Colonel and Task Force Commander; from leading Marines through the streets of Mogadishu, Baghdad, Fallujah and Mosul to directing multi-national special operations forces in a dauntingly complex fight against a formidable foe.
Congrats on your New book! Tell me about When The Tempest Gathers
This is the story of what it’s like to lead those who fight America’s war told from one Marine’s perspective. It’s a perspective that varies widely in context, from the experiences of a raw second lieutenant leading Marines through the streets of Mogadishu, to those of a task force commander directing special operations forces in a complex fight against a formidable foe. In that sense it offers at least some variety and, I hope, a sense of progression.
The story is intended to be more about the people with whom I have served than it is about me. Because I am a Marine – and without, I hope, appearing parochial – much of this story is about Marines, who in a sense belong to a world of their own. There is something enduringly familiar about their collective personality that I have always found comforting. The Marines who landed with me in Mogadishu, were much the same as those who marched on Baghdad, captured Fallujah, and subsequently took the fight to ISIS in Northern Iraq: upbeat, funny, brave, gracious, savvy and profane. And devoted to one another to an extent that often surprises outsiders. But the story is by no means all about Marines – I have been fortunate enough to lead in combat men and women from every service both from the conventional forces and within the special operations community, and they all share that same mutual devotion. And a justifiable pride in belonging to a profession whose demands most Americans would avoid.
And in so far as this story is a memoir, I have made every effort to describe things as they were, rather than how I may have wanted them to be. I am open about the hard lessons that I have learned and the mistakes that I have made along the way. And – although this was particularly difficult for me – I am candid in discussion my own struggles with the isolation of command, post combat trauma and family tragedy. My initial drafts of the book omitted this area of my life, but a friend of mine advised me that if you are going to write a memoir you have to be totally honest, and he was right. I like to think that even readers who are not particularly interested in the military will find some inspiration in this part of the story, which is, I think, ultimately about hope and resilience.
Why did you decide to write When the Tempest Gathers?
Two months prior to deploying to Iraq in 2016, I suffered a family tragedy. During the deployment I was able to stifle much of my grief by focusing on the task at hand, but upon my return it caught up with me. Faced with the full impact of my loss I wasn’t sure which way to turn. It was a curiously helpless feeling, not one that I was accustomed to and I found myself almost desperately looking for distraction. One evening I just started writing, not with the intention of writing a book, but rather series of stories that my children could read when they were older to understand why I had been away for so much of their childhood. To my surprise, I found writing utterly absorbing – so much so that it helped me deal with my grief and gave me a focus outside work. I wrote for a couple of hours or so every day, more on weekends, and over the course of several months ended up with over a hundred thousand words. It was then that I decided to see if I could get it published – and, somewhat to my surprise – was successful. I would be lying to say that I wasn’t overjoyed to find a publisher, but at the same time I was almost embarrassed. It’s a curious ambivalence. I am quite proud of the book, but at the same time a little mortified that I have written a memoir – that must be the Marine in me!
Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?
I’ll pick one story simply because it did not involve combat but nevertheless was far more terrifying to me than any of my experiences in war.
“In March 2011, with the rebellion against Ghadaffi in Libya in full swing, I was sent to Malta with a small team to coordinate the evacuation of US citizens from Tripoli. This required some delicate work, because no US aircraft were involved in the evacuation, and we were not sure how many US citizens were left in Tripoli. We set up a process with the state department NEO task force in Washington whereby they would attempt to contact US citizens in Libya, telling them to head for the airport if they wanted to leave, and giving them my number for further coordination. I would then guide them to a link up point in the Tripoli airport terminal, where they would be met by an “expeditor” whose task it was to shepherd them through the cordon of Libyan customs and immigration officials to the tarmac where another guide would lead them to a waiting plane – which was usually a military aircraft of a European nation.
I sat around a table with officers from eight European militaries, all of whom were manning radios or phones that allowed them to talk directly to their participating aircrew. At one stage early on in the process, we were frustrated to hear that aircraft were taking off from Tripoli empty, even though we knew that there were hundreds of foreign nationals waiting at the airport. The problem, it appeared, was that the Libyans were no longer allowing the expeditors carte blanche to bring foreigners through to the tarmac. We needed to have someone with diplomatic muscle to walk into the terminal and escort evacuees out to the aircraft. The call went out to various embassies in Malta, and soon we had a pool of diplomats from various countries, flying into Tripoli aboard military aircraft to perform this essential task.
As conditions in Tripoli became more dangerous, a growing number of embassies removed their diplomats from the pool.
On the fourth day, I was in contact with two American families making their way to the airport in Tripoli, and watched with some concern, as the pool of diplomats was whittled down to a handful of Irish and British diplomats. An Italian C-130 aircraft had just taken off from Rome bound for Malta, where it would pick up two Irish diplomats before proceeding to Tripoli. As the aircraft touched down in Malta, the Irish diplomats received a call from their embassy barring them from participating.
The British colonel in charge of the evacuation effort looked around the room “Well, that’s it then unfortunately. I have one British diplomat available, but he can’t go in alone”. An hour later I was on the aircraft bound for Tripoli, wearing a vest labeled “British Embassy’ – keenly aware that I was violating a direct order that no US personnel were to travel to Tripoli.
All went well at first. I found the US families and, after guiding them to the aircraft, returned to lead another group of foreign nationals. On my way back to the aircraft with my charges, I was cut off by a jeep full of Libyan security personnel. One of them had overheard me asking about an American family – and was now convinced that I was an American. The game was indeed up – and after refusing to be taken to the terminal for questioning – I ran to board the Italian aircraft, reaching the ramp just before the jeep could cut me off. There then followed a nerve-wracking standoff. Several jeeps full of Libyan soldiers surrounded the Italian aircraft, facing a squad of Italian special forces soldiers who stood in a protective line on the ramp.
Through loudhailers the Libyans repeated their demand that the Italians turn me over, and in between doing so heckled me with threats. The atmosphere on the aircraft was, to say the least, tense. It began to get dark, and one of the jeeps drove up to the base of the ramp, illuminating with its headlights the inside of the aircraft. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, the Maltese government reported to the US ambassador in Malta that there was a US citizen on the ground in Tripoli – in trouble.
After a period of some hours, the Libyans inexplicably relented and the aircraft was allowed to take off. As soon as we cleared Libyan airspace, I began to tremble uncontrollably – which was an unaccustomed reaction for me and not one that I had ever experienced in combat. Because of the delay the aircraft would no longer be able to drop its charges (including me) in Malta as originally planned, but was bound instead for Rome. Although this undoubtedly meant the end of my career, this mattered little to me at the time.
In Rome, I was looked after by the British embassy, and caught a flight to Malta the following day. To my surprise and relief, there were no repercussions for me. I even received a thank you from the Ambassador, who had met that morning with one of the families that I had escorted to the plane.
The first line of the Marine Hymn ends with the words To the Shores of Tripoli, a reference to the exploits of Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon whose landing near that city in 1805 is part of Marine legend. Now whenever I hear those words sung, I think back to those long hours at the mercy of Gaddafi’s goons – a fate that I faced with considerably less resolve than O’Bannon showed against the Barbary pirates all those years ago“
What is the biggest takeaway that you hope a reader will take from your book?
There is no single takeaway or message for the reader. Rather I hope that my story will entertain and at the same time that at least some aspect of it will resonate with those who read it. Some may find particularly interesting the challenges of command in combat – particularly some of the unusual commands that I have had. Others may be intrigued by the more personal aspect of the story – dealing with the sense of isolation and, at times, self doubt that accompanies positions of responsibility – or trying to focus on that responsibility while handling the grief of personal tragedy.
What are you reading now?
Vietnam by Max Hastings, the most comprehensive and yet enthralling account of that war. I highly recommend it.
What books had the most impact on you and your development?
George McDonald Fraser’s “Quartered Safe Out Here” – his story, expertly told, of being a young infantryman in Burma during the closing months of the Second World War. The Road to Mandalay by John Masters, about his experience as the operations officer and then commander of a Chindit Brigade. John Masters subsequently became an acclaimed novelist.
Can you provide a specific example or story where reading has helped you learn from others experience? Was there a specific challenge where you were able to rely on others experience to make your decision?
There is one story from the Road to Mandalay that is such a sobering reminder of the burden of command that, terrible though it is, I find it helps me whatever challenges I am facing at the time in perspective. When the Chindit Brigade commanded by John Masters is almost surrounded by the Japanese, he orders them to split up into small groups to give everyone a better change of escape. A group of his men are too badly wounded to move, so – to avoid them falling into the hand of the Japanese – Masters shoots them himself.
How did your leadership and ethical philosophy develop?
Strangely enough, I have learned a great deal from bad examples. I was a lieutenant in the early 90s at a time, before the Marine Corps implemented the command selection process, when there seemed to us lieutenants to be a disproportionate number of bad commanders. The memories of the misery that a bad leader can cause his subordinates remains with me, and when I sometimes catch myself reacting the same way, those memories are enough to put me instantly in check.
What is one of the best investments you’ve ever made in your military career?
Time to myself – every day. It’s absolutely essential. And not just PTing – I mean quiet time. Reading is especially productive for me in allowing me to settle my thoughts and put into perspective the events of the day.
What is Next for you?
I enjoyed writing this book so much, I would love to write another – but I have to figure out what to write about now!
Pre-order When The Tempest Gathers Here or at your local Base Exchange.
COL. ANDREW MILBURN was born in Hong Kong and grew up in the United Kingdom where he attended St Paul’s School and University College London. After graduating from law school, he enlisted in the US Marine Corps as a private. He was commissioned from the ranks, and as a Marine infantry and special operations officer, has commanded in combat at every grade. As the commanding officer of the Marine Corps’ special operations regiment, he was selected to lead a multi-national task force given the mission of defeating ISIS in Iraq. He retired in 2019 as the Chief of Staff of Special Operations Command, Central (SOCCENT), the headquarters responsible for the conduct of all US special operations throughout the Middle East. Since then he has written articles on topics such as leadership, ethics and culture change, for a number of publications, to include The Atlantic Magazine. He and his wife Jessica live in Tampa, Florida with their two children and a coterie of rescued dogs.
Andrew can be reached via LinkedIn & Facebook