Writing Notes

Urge the Heroes

My Friends,


Four years ago today, a friend of mine was murdered in the line of duty. Chris Kilcullen was a police officer and negotiator for the Eugene, Oregon police department. I worked with him in training exercises many times from 08-11 and found him to be a remarkable man. I wrote this article in April 2011 after I got home from his memorial service.



The new University of Oregon basketball arena is fantastic. No expense was spared to give the Ducks a special home in what had been the site of Williams Bakery when I attended the school in the 1980’s. I remember waking up in my freshman dorm to the scent of fresh baked bread that first fall away from home, a smell that today can take me right back to those early days of semi-adult freedom and all the joy I felt at having the opportunity to study history.IMG03985-20110429-1633

It was an odd homecoming for me. I had not been to the campus since returning from Afghanistan. Frankly, last fall I did not think I would survive my time in theater and never expected to see again the school that became my first home in Oregon. Now that I am back, I never expected to return to it in the way I had to this afternoon.

In the arena’s lobby, I stared at the words printed on the main wall, superimposed over enlarged photos of past Duck athletes in action.

                                                Urge the Heroes

IMG03988-20110429-1646    Being a middle aged Duck, I recognized those words from our fight song, Mighty Oregon. Reading the words reminded me of the summer of ’89 when I worked at the Paul Masson Mountain Winery’s concert series. During intermissions, I had wine pouring duty and I used to give extra vino to anyone who could sing Mighty Oregon. I was amazed at how many Bay Area residents had gone to Oregon, and even more surprised at how many Duck alumni could remember the words to the fight song.

Today, those words overlayed across past hardwood glories offended me. I felt a stir of rage. Then tears. How dare we use that word in such context.

IMG03971-20110429-1354 I stepped into the arena. On the giant screen above the court, the first thing I saw was a photo I took in the fall of 2008. Displayed there for all to see was a true hero, not the false idols found here on game night.

In that photo, Chris Kilcullen was full of life, his winning smile exuding charm, his eyes full of mirth. I sank into a seat and thought of the many hostage negotiation exercises we went through together. I’d be on the throw phone role playing a bad guy holding my wife or kids at gun point, screaming irrational demands at Chris. I swore at him. I called him every name I could think of to cause him to lose his cool. I said horrible things about his mother and his wife. I probed for every weak point a man can have in hopes of causing a flare up, a quick retort or some other slip that we could discuss in the post-exercise after action review.


In other iterations, I’d been able to get under the skin of some of the other negotiators. Just before the SWAT entry team kicked in my door and took me down in one exercise, the last thing the negotiator said to me was, “Sayanora mother fucker!”


Chris teaching a new negotiator to talk me out of jumping off the city hall building at the Rilea MOUT Range, September 2008.


One memorable exercise had Chris teaching a new negotiator how to talk a person out of jumping off a building. That person was me. I jumped. Chris imparted some of his hard-won experience to his protégé, and in the succeeding iterations he talked me off the roof.

IMG_4900        As I sat in the new arena, I thought about all the vile things I spewed at Chris that never elicited a response. His calm and soothing voice was in my ear at that moment; the consummate professional. But he was more than that. He was a consummate, compassionate human being.

After one iteration, we were standing around talking. Somebody said to Chris, “You can charm the panties off a nun.”



Chris had been with the Eugene Police Department since 1998. He was a motorcycle cop assigned to the traffic unit. This meant he was out there giving people with lead feet (like me) speeding tickets. But he did it in such a charming way that those he ticketed came away feeling better for their chance to interact with him. His spirit shined that bright.

It was snuffed out last week by a 56 year old mentally ill woman. She shot at Chris with a .38 after he chased her into Springfield. This great cop, this father of two, this doting husband, died on the streets he devoted his life to keep safe for the rest of us. Exactly how a woman so deranged can legally buy a firearm in this State needs to be addressed. For now, this woman’s rash and senseless act has torn apart a family, and a community. We all need to heal. Coming so soon after Jerry Webber’s death, it was an especially cruel blow to his fellow officers.


Jerry Webber.


Over brats and beer in the Rilea starships, I talked cars with Chris. He loved his ‘50’s Chevy pick up that he’d had since his teen years, and it was particularly painful to see it for the first time on the arena floor parked beside the stage erected for the occasion.


I remember rolling into Eugene in December, 2009, on my way to bring all the photos I’d shot to Lt. Jen Bills. Until I went to Afghanistan, some of the best images I’d taken were during those weeks at Rilea with EPD. I was proud to give them to Jen so that she could share them with everyone else and their families.IMG_7463

Little did I know that two of the men I photographed would later die.

Driving along 7thStreet, I passed a sleazy downtown motel. Something was amiss, as the place was surrounded by police, and a team of officers looked ready to enter one of the rooms. I saw Chris and his motorcycle across the street on the outer cordon and waved at him. I’m not sure if he saw me as I drove past, but even in the middle of the real action, he had a slight grin on his face. Ever the buoyant one, Chris Kilcullen. He was in his element.

It was a surprise to see the officers in a real world environment instead of the training range. As I parked at the station, a surge of pride went through me—in some small way I felt like I had a part in all this. Those weeks off from writing and away from my family to serve as a tackling dummy for the EPD never seemed more worthwhile. Perhaps some of the lessons helped the SWAT and CNT folks learn would be of use out in the field after all.

But all those iterations at Rilea failed to save Chris from a lone crazy armed with a pistol she never should have been able to obtain. I don’t have the space in my heart left to feel guilty about that—Taylor’s death owns that real estate—but I couldn’t help but second guess some of the things I’d done during those training weeks. Could I have done something different that could have given Chris the edge he needed to survive this woman’s surprise onslaught?



I imagine, there’s a lot of that going around right now. And I remembered writing about two soldiers soldiers who died in Iraq during an IED attack. The men in that platoon were quick to blame some of the decisions made on that patrol. Recriminations lingered and left some of the men embittered. From an outsider’s perspective, I thought the men had gotten it all wrong. The decisions were of no consequence. The insurgent who triggered the bomb killed those men. War happens. The bad guys cause damage despite every precaution and care taken. That’s just the nature of the business. And so it is with Chris’ death. Nobody is responsible but the woman who chose murder over a ticket.

IMG_6641  I listened as Chris’ friends and families told stories of his life. His partner listed off his nicknames, many of which were hilariously off-color. When he finished, he said, “There was one name I never said to him…best friend.”

Finally, I could not take any more. Two years, four funerals—Jon Hudson, Taylor Marks, Jerry Webber and now Chris. I go through life with my heart wide open, but these past months have caused me to withdraw and be more protective of myself. Now, I felt raw again. I stepped into the lobby and walked to the huge windows overlooking campus. Across the street, I saw my freshman dorm, Dunn Hall. Third floor, center. There was my window shared with my first roomie, Chet Nakada.IMG03987-20110429-1643

Chris was born a month and four days after I was in 1968. He went to Willamette High, class of ’86. He started at the U of O the same time I was there. I wondered if we crossed paths on campus all those years ago. Perhaps we had one of those massive lecture classes like Western Civ together. I’ll never know. But he was there, sharing the experience of the university just as I had, tasting those first sweet moments of freedom right along with the rest of us.

Jen Bills. Mark Farley. My wife, Jennifer Beggs. We were all in the student body together. In time, our lives would come together in unexpected ways, and I wondered what we would have thought of that if we had such foreknowledge back then.

Gang010       I stared at my old dorm room window and thought of dancing in the hallways. Water gun fights. The great Dunn Bun War that left our floor littered with hundreds of stale hot dog and hamburger buns the night before Christmas break. I thought of tender moments shared in the predawn hours with my first college love, waking in her arms to the delicious aroma of fresh baked bread. I once told her that I’d live in a cave if I had to just to be an historian and do what I loved. She didn’t like that thought. She had dreams of material wealth, big houses and dinner parties, little black dresses and rooms captivated by her charisma.

So not me.


But I’ll say this: mine has not been an easy professional path. Moments like this one, these farewells to friends and colleagues torn from this life through violence or circumstance weighs heavily on me, and makes carrying the work forward increasingly hard.

I turned away from the window and that idealistic gestational phase of my life. I needed to say a proper goodbye to a man whose noble heart had earned my respect and admiration.

I walked through the lobby and saw those words again.

Urge the Heroes

So misplaced on that wall. There are no heroes on the hardwood, only athletes with heart and grit. Respectable, sure. Heroic, never. Americans misuse the word “hero” all the time. It has become an ingrained cultural error, one that demeans the service and spirit of the true heroes whose lives are spent in service for the greater good.

SUC50085    Suddenly, I didn’t feel so worn down. Chris Kilcullen dedicated his life to protecting us. I’ve spent my life making sure men and women like him are not forgotten. That is my purpose, my crusade. And in that pursuit, I connected with Chris. We were both men devoted to our callings.

The big house my college sweetheart so coveted has eluded me. Coming home from Afghanistan, the financial mountain I face is a scary one. No matter. I’ve known heroes. I’ve seen them in action here at home. I walked the ruined streets of New Orleans with them. I flew into battle with them last fall. In the final judgment, that is all I need out of life.IMG_9688

I returned to the arena, suffused with sadness, but rededicated to all I’ve predicated my life upon. Somewhere in the years behind us, the kid I once was stared out that dorm window dreaming of doing the things I have done. If he could see me now, I’d tell him only one thing: I’ll keep the faith.

I owe it to men like Chris.



Originally Published April 30, 2011:



Categories: Home Front, Writing Notes | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Note to My Readers

David Fish, one of our recent visitors to this little corner of the web, lost his father in the Southern Philippines during a Marine PBJ Mitchell mission in 1945. His father served with VMB-611.

David’s note reminded me that I had some photos and film footage of Marine PBJ’s. In doing some research, it looks like the film footage is of VMB-612, and I could swear the legendary Jack Cram is in some of the sequences. Not sure which units the photos are of, but I am posting them here today in hopes David might be able to catch a glimpse of his dad. Stay tuned for another post in a few hours.

In 2009, I lost somebody in Iraq very close to me. I used to call him my unofficially adopted son. Almost six years have passed and I think about him every day. The sense of loss, the grief over his death has diminished, but I know it will never go away. His death became one of those inescapable fault lines in life that change everything. I look back, and I see my life was heading in one arc before 2009. After, it went a totally different route after his death.

I remember in the 1990’s when I was interviewing Gerald Johnson’s widow, Barbara, her grief over his death had been one of the defining elements of her entire life. It never goes away. My friendship with Barbara gave me the first insight I had into the cost to those left behind in the wake of war. I was so young and naive back then, thinking that the war was a great and tragic adventure, the source of endless stories. Barbara suffered through seven decades of pain after Ged died in 1945. I get that now.

Jeez. Even writing about this chokes me up.

Anyway, whenever I can, I’ll do what I can for those of you out there who have lost someone in service to your nation. I’ve collected about 45,000 photographs over the years and have a lot of film footage as well, and I’ll do my best to find images of your loved ones, or at least of their units.



John R. Bruning


marine pbj sqn024




Categories: Writing Notes | 7 Comments

The Writer Private Legg

Bataan Death MarchPrivate First Class John Legg grew up in Tioga, West Virginia, another of Depression Era kid who sought escape and opportunity through service to his country. He joined the Army Air Force, where he was trained to be a teletype operator and clerk.

On December 8, 1941, Legg was stationed at Nielson Field on Luzon, Philippines, and might have been one of the clerks who sent the teletype warning to Clark Field that it was about to be hit by a Japanese air attack. Legg was an aspiring writer who wanted to pen a novel about the Philippines. His experiences there had given him much inspiration, and he’d been keeping notes for what he hoped would be his first book. In his off-duty hours, he wrote poetry as well.

He was not a rifleman; he was not a special operations sniper. Legg was one of those anonymous young Americans who carried out one of the mundane daily duties that keeps a military organization functioning. The jobs have zero glamour, and historians rarely even make mention of their jobs, let alone those who filled them. Legg was captured when the Philippines fell in the spring of 1942. He survived the Death March and made it to Cabantuan prison camp, but the ordeal had wrecked his health. He steadily declined, suffering from dysentery and malaria until he died on August 16, 1942.

His mother was notified via telegram the following year of his death. A short letter followed the telegram a week later. It ended with this sentence:

“May the thought that he gave his life for his country as unselfishly and heroically as if he had died on the field of battle, be a source of sustaining comfort to you.”

Small comfort to a West Virginia mother who would not even learn of the exact date of her son’s death until 1946.

John Legg had a writer’s eye and heart. In On Writing, Stephen King wrote that most people either are born with the talent and it can be honed, or they just don’t have it. No amount of effort or work can replace that innate gene that makes a truly gifted writer. Legg was one of those who had the innate talent.

The world lost a beautiful mind when he died in captivity. Had he lived and realized his potential, one wonders how his words could have affected and changed those who read them. His death was but a tiny piece of a mosiac that stretched the globe. So much lost potential. So many discoveries, inventions, changes and art lost to all of us with the deaths of so many souls. One wonders how much further we could have advanced and evolved as a species had we not lost so many millions like young John Legg.

Only a few examples of his talent survive. Here is one of his poems that he wrote sometime in 1941 while feeling far from home out on the edge of America’s Pacific ramparts.


Dreamer’s Haven

Beyond the fields of clover bloom

Beyond wheat fields so green

Far past the dust of traveled roads

Where travelers all convene.

Where we hear not the rattling wagon

The hum and grind of the mill

There is a place, known just to me

Where everything is still

A path lies winding through the woods

And leads to a sheltered grove

Of maple, beech, dogwood and pine

That form a shaded cove.

Within, a space is almost bare

Of briars and vines that creep

And here a carpet of flowers and moss,

Lies green, and soft, and deep.

A sparkling spring from an unknown depth

Flows upward;  in it one finds

A thirst consoling, icy draft

Sweeter than goblets of wine.

The silence is unbroken here

Hour after hour the same

Unless a bird calls to its mate

Or a tree frog croaks for rain.

In this shaded cover, one soon may be

In the peace of contentment, the best

And knowing there is naught to harm

One may think, or in sleep, on may rest.

In the stillness one’s thoughts often wonder

To things gone behind, far away.

One remembers some happenings of life,

With gladness, and others….dismay.

Your dreams are made real by surroundings,

You picture a castle so fair

And awake to find sad disappointments,

In that your dreams vanished in air.

And then one may just sit and gaze

Into the sky, so far away, so blue.

And think how happy you would be

If only your dreams could come true.

If you are sometimes tired of life,

When friends forget, and there seems

To be no joy, break away and come

To the woodland cove, and dream.


–PFC John M. Legg

Categories: World War II in the Pacific, Writing Notes | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Writing in the Woods

14261106052761930810878So, my next book is due in August to Hachette, and I’ve been doing a lot of travel for the research end of this project. In September, I took a month-long road trip that took me from Oregon to Texas, Maxwell Field, Alabama, up to Arkansas and St. Louis, then back home via Nebraska, Utah and Idaho.

I just got back from spending ten days at the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia. If you have an interest in the Philippines during WWII or the SWPA–you need to check the MacArthur Memorial out. Amazing resource.

I’m now sitting on about eight thousand pages of World War II documents related to the life and experiences of the legendary Paul “Pappy” Gunn. Indestructible is the title of this latest project of mine, and it chronicles the experiences of Pappy and his family during the war.

I try to write in inspiring places. I finished Shock Factor and wrote much of Trident on the beach in Capitola, California, staying the Venetians or the Harbor Lights next to the wharf. Much of my work is done in an old USAF SAGE air defense command center left over from the Cold War. I rent the control room, where instead of plotting unidentified aircraft on the projection wall, my family watches Harry Potter movies. Much of the building is empty, which allows me to take breaks and roller skate through the hallways wearing the helmet I carried in Afghanistan. The kids and their friends will often have nerf wars there, too.

But right now, I’m up in the Cascade Mountains, writing at a cabin I’ve used since 2009 to kick start projects. When I first came up here, I would bring Volley, my New Orleans cat. He would lounge next to me in a rocking chair as I wrote, fire going in the wood stove. During breaks, we’d hike through the woods together, and my little orange cat would stay right with me. Later, I started taking Vol and our “Gateway Dog” Mizette (a French papillon) up here, and they would hang out together while I worked.14266989446461644734216

I’m not sure how many books I’ve worked on here. I know I finished The Trident up here and wrote most of Level Zero Heroes too. It is a great refuge, and very remote. For the first four years, I had no phone or net access from the cabin. I’d have to drive four miles into the nearest town (population 75) to access wifi and get reconnected to the outside world. The only hotspot was the Cedars, a bar with the best juke box I’ve ever encountered. I was there over the weekend, working in the back of the bar on Saturday night as a bachelorette party raged. George Thorogood was supplying the tunes, then John Mellencamp and CCWR. Nothing like hearing Up Around the Bend in a dive bar on a Saturday night. 🙂

Anyway, I’m up here right now telling the story of Pappy Gunn and his family. I have great whiskey with me, thanks to my old friend Dawson Officer. He opened a distillery next to my office outside of Corvallis, Oregon a few years back. Dawson was a soldier with 2-162 Infantry, Oregon National Guard, and he named his company 4 Spirits after the fallen men his company lost in the ’04 Iraq deployment. His bourbon whiskey cannot be beat–so smooth. Check it out of you are a fan of good spirits.IMG_0252

Plenty more to come on this site when I get back to the land of the living later this week. I did want to take a minute and thank each and every one of you for coming to visit my little corner of the net. It is so rewarding to see this site grow and watch as visitors from all of the world get to know some of the amazing individuals I’ve written about here. So, a profound thank you once again. I know we all have tons of things competing for our time these days, and for you to spend some of that precious resource here with my words means more than I can express. I’ll do my best to keep finding interesting stories and photographs in the months and years to come.

In the meantime, the Japanese have just bombed Nichols Field in the Philippines, and Pappy’s got to protect his family. Mizette is here with me, sleeping in the rocking chair Volley used to love. I’m surrounded by hundreds of pages of notes, and binders full of documents.


Chapter three awaits….



Thanks for Reading, if it wasn’t for y’all, I would not have a career doing what I love,


John R. Bruning


Categories: Writing Notes | 3 Comments

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