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Published: Sunday, 5/21/2006

'Tiger Force' writers here for lecture series

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War, published last week, is the detailed saga of an American unit that was given too long a leash in rural Vietnam. Many of the soldiers became unhinged, shooting farmers as they toiled in their fields and blowing up women and children who had run for safety in underground bunkers.

During seven months in 1967, while anti-war protests were gathering steam on the home front and San Franciscans were reveling in the Summer of Love, scores of Vietnamese civilians were killed by the young Americans of Tiger Force.

Their crimes would be examined for four years by an army investigator, who recommended prosecution for 18 men. But the administration of President Gerald Ford, with Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary and Dick Cheney as chief of staff, ordered the investigation buried.

This fascinating story of how a page of American history was unearthed will be discussed by authors Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss at Tuesday's 7 p.m. Authors! Authors! lecture.

The two former Blade reporters first wrote about Tiger Force in a four-day series called "Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths," published in October, 2003. The series won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

After the stories appeared, a slew of agents and publishers asked the reporters to write a book. Sallah and Weiss interviewed several senior editors, then waited for the results of an open-bid process, and were pleased when their first choice, editor Geoff Shandler at Little Brown, won the bid.

"We realized he knew how to deal with journalists," Sallah said.

They were thrilled to be writing a book, but it would mean even deeper immersion, for yet another 27 months, into some of the most vicious acts humans can commit.

It took an inevitable toll on both writers.

"It was a very dark subject to carry around for a very long time," Sallah said. Added Weiss, "I haven't seen my kids much for three years."

Tracking down former Tiger Force soldiers demanded relentless research skills, but getting the men, now in their mid-50s and older, to open up about horrors that they committed or observed 36 years earlier was an even greater challenge. "There were some very difficult moments and interviews - anger, tears, grief, broken families, substance abuse problems," Sallah said.

When he and Weiss agreed to produce the 400-page book, they decided it would have to be character-driven nonfiction, with carefully recreated dialogue, an accepted practice in nonfiction prose. They would also need to interview the men and their families again. An unusually large number had died in their 30s and 40s, from alcoholism, drug abuse, and cancer related to Agent Orange. Most suffered from post traumatic stress disorder.

"For the book, we had to ask them to go back and dig deeper. The guys didn't want to," Weiss said. But telling readers what truly made them tick was essential. "We didn't want to create one-dimensional characters."

The book meant precious time away from their families.

Sallah, 50, is married to Judi Sallah, a former Toledo police officer who is studying to be a teacher; they're parents to children 14, 10, and 6. He's the investigations editor at the Miami Herald, heading a three-reporter team and working with writers in other departments who tackle in-depth articles.

Weiss, 46, is married to Suzyn Weiss, who has been a music teacher. Their children are ages 20, 18, 16, and 12. As deputy business editor at the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina, he runs the daily business section and helps coordinate special projects.

Uncovering Tiger Force's rampage began in January, 2003, when Sallah spent a month driving everyday from Toledo to Ann Arbor, where he pored through thousands of records that had been given to the University of Michigan's Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library by U.S. Army Col. Henry Tufts.

Tufts was ousted from his job as top Army cop just as the investigation into the Tiger Force atrocities was wrapping up, and when he left his job he took boxes of records with him and stored them in his basement. He asked a Washington-based Blade reporter to place the records where they'd be part of the public domain, after he died.

Sallah and his editors at The Blade figured he'd devote a month to perusing the records. On the second to the last day of that month, he came across a 22-page classified file, labeled the "Coy Allegation," which included brief descriptions of nearly half of Tiger Force's war crimes. Sallah wrote a memo to his editors suggesting that the contents of that file appeared to be the best bet for further investigation.

Weiss, who had spent 14 years reporting for the Associated Press before joining The Blade, joined him on the project. They were later joined by former Blade reporter Joe Mahr.

They agreed that there had been a government cover-up, that they wouldn't make excuses for horrific behavior, and that the writing would be stark and void of the goriest details.

"We would lay out the case and show the readers what happened," Weiss said.

They split the research and interviews, outlined the book, traveled together to Washington and Vietnam, and sat side-by-side for untold hours, collaborating on every phrase.

On April 5, 2004, the day the Pulitzer Prizes would be announced, they were wrestling with the four or five chapters of the book they had already written. They knew it wasn't working, so they agreed to scrap everything and start anew.

"It was too much like a news article," Weiss said.

Tiger Force's early reviews have been positive, and both men hope their unflinching look at what happened, why it happened, and how it was covered up will serve as a cautionary tale.

"The question is what can be learned from Tiger Force," Sallah said. "I think the military can learn from this. We're in Iraq and there are atrocities I think all these things can become part of our institutional memory. It's not just what we did to the civilians, but what you're doing to these guys."

Added Weiss: "We did this in a way so maybe the vets will know they aren't entirely responsible. It also came from the top, who left them hanging."

Contact Tahree Lane at:

tlane@theblade.com

or 419-724-6075.



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