It’s Good to Be Alive

How a US military intelligence officer survived catastrophic injury and found a path to Hollywood.

After surviving friendly fire and 39 surgeries, author Samuel Hill is onto his next mission, as the first of his novels becomes a major motion picture.

For almost three decades, Samuel Hill served in US military intelligence as a Chief Warrant Officer, going on missions worldwide and becoming a key player in some of the events shaping modern history. From Baghdad to Chernobyl, Hill’s job was to get in and get out without being noticed, recognized or leaving a trace. Until one day when he was struck by friendly fire during a mission. With a severe brain and spinal cord injury, Hill was almost left for dead. In his book, Six Days to Zeus: Alive Day, Hill tried to make sense of the tragedy that left him a stranger in his own body. The book is now being adapted into a major motion picture, a co-production between Voyage Media and Phoenix Pictures, and directed by Phillip Noyce of Salt, The Giver and The Quiet American.

The first in a series of eight planned novels, Six Days to Zeus: Alive Day opens with the following dedication: “This book is a fictional account of a real soldier’s life.” The protagonist goes by Chief — Hill’s army nickname — and through his eyes, readers confront the loneliness and horrors of war. It might be a fictional account, but its spirit could not be more real.

Story continues below.

During Hill’s healing process, his analyst wanted him to cope with trauma and repressed memories. That’s when he took to writing for the first time. Based on his keen sense of vision and how he uses prose to evoke specific feelings of time and space, one wishes Hill had taken to writing sooner.

Today, Hill lives near California’s Yosemite National Park with his family. “I know what Noah must’ve felt like when he got out of the ark — flowers everywhere, baby animals, it’s magical,” he told me, before adding “It’s way better than Baghdad.”

Given his lengthy recovery — 39 surgeries and counting — Hill has dedicated his return to civilian life to writing and, equally important, to creating a sanctuary where fellow soldiers can recover from the wounds of war. Called Tier One Tranquility Base, Hill’s healing program will use nature and meditation to show veterans that a life after the service is possible.

This interview has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.

Jose Solis: Chief, you’re recovering from another surgery — how is that going?

Samuel Hill: I wasn’t expecting it to be this brutal — they cut eight nerves to kill the pain before they did the surgery. The nerves are growing back and I’m dealing with it. It’s exciting to be involved with people that are that professional; I’m one of the luckiest guys on the planet. I get to walk again.

JS: How did the writing come about?

SH: Zeus is the code-word we used on the radio to let people know everybody is coming back. We were 30 minutes from wheels-up; what started as a 72-hour mission turned into 26 months, then friendly fire came in and took a bunch of guys out. That’s where I got injured. I heard the pilot saying on the radio, “Zeus, we found Chief, we’re coming home.” It had been six days since we’d been hit before anybody came looking. When you get to that point when you’re dead and you come back, it changes absolutely everything. All your priorities are different, everything you thought was a big deal is minutiae; you come back to a body that’s not yours. You can’t help but chuckle at the world and how wrapped up people get over their latte or some TV show.

A psychologist started talking to me about PTSD and my brain injury. We wanted to get some sort of chronology and, after 30 years, it was hard to sort out what was what. We started to write things down…then he died. But I decided to continue the book. Then one book turned into 10-year segments, which turned into three books covering 10 years each. If you go back to Berlin in the Cold War in 1977 and you think about all the missions I’ve been in since, it’s staggering.

Story continues below.

JS: You’ve written about the implicit trust you put in the people you served with. It made me think of you putting the same trust in the surgeons trying to get you back to how you were before the accident. What is that like?

SH: Trust is something I’ve had to deal with for a very long time, it goes back to childhood. Betrayal is one of those things I didn’t understand in human beings, I love people and nature, I was a poet at heart, and loved playing 12-string guitar. I got the living snot beat out of me every time my dad found out I’d been playing guitar… If you read my story, between the surgeons, the court-martial, the divorce, how do you ever trust someone again? How do you allow yourself to love again, to trust anyone — a surgeon or a wife — when you’ve experienced betrayal at a level that kills your soul? How does one take that risk again when the consequences are so devastating?

Many of the surgeons told me they were the best — this is Walter Reed, after all — but after my first surgery, I was surprised when I woke up. But you hit the nail on the head: How do you cope with that? It comes down to what you do when you don’t have any alternatives. You either suffer or you kill yourself. I woke up many days asking, Jesus, why didn’t you kill me last night? It’s difficult not to snap at people when you’re in agony. Betrayal is always the 9,000-pound gorilla in the room.

Against my better judgement, I allowed these guys to operate on my spine with the hope they could keep me from being paralyzed for life. They screwed up, cut into the wrong levels and did malpractice that changed my life. There is no recourse when you are active duty military. I ended up paralyzed from the diaphragm down simply because of a “student” going too far without supervision. Betrayal comes in many forms. But when you place your trust and hope in someone, and the outcome is contrary, then you have to learn to live with what you have.

JS: I’m a writer. I don’t know how to do anything else, and when I’ve asked myself questions about how to keep going in my own life, I’ve found answers in writing. Was that the case for you?

SH: No question. My go-to before was a 15-mile rucksack march or going for a run carrying a 120-pound rock — to physically abuse myself to the point of exhaustion so I could deal with whatever was going on. During my childhood in upstate New York, I’d hunt for days and days. When I came back from war, busted up, laying on the couch, unable to function because of spinal injuries, I was trapped in my head and couldn’t do the things I used to do for comfort anymore. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do from a wheelchair for the rest of my life.

Writing has been very cathartic and therapeutic. I didn’t know how to write, so I went to a group, asked questions and after all the effort they told me it was emotionally sterile. How do you go back to what happened in the middle of the desert and make people understand what it felt like? Writing the first chapter took me almost three years. Then I hit my stride. It is cathartic when people come to me after they’ve read something and ask me to sign it. It was almost like I give them permission to tell their stories. It reinforces the idea that if everybody put their problems on a tree, you’d still go and pick your own.

Story continues below.

JS: Putting your book out in the world is also like sending your child away. How did you deal with that, given your history of trust issues?

SH: It ain’t over yet! I actually had finished the book, talked with the Book Locker, had the cover, the library number — all that was missing was to push the button and publish it. I sat there for hours, asking why I wanted to do this. What would the ripple effect be? I’d gone to the edge of my rope with humans when it came to ridicule and betrayal.

The key in all of this has been my wife. She’s a horse doctor; she wrestles with thousand-pound horses every day. She was the one who said “You’re a bad-ass warrior and you’re sitting here whining. Of course you should publish.”

JS: You were 17 when you enlisted and you didn’t know where the path would take you. Are there parallels between your life in the service and your new career as a writer?

SH: I didn’t know what I was getting into when I joined the service. I was tired of eating squirrels and showering in the gymnasium. I had to do something different. I saw a guy driving around in a brand-new Formula Firebird. He got out of the car and was in a Marine Corps uniform and then I knew — that’s how you made money. I joined to be a cook, but they told me my squirrels weren’t good enough and they had enough cooks. But there was an opportunity for me if I could get on a plane that afternoon. They handed me the paperwork and I was gone that day.

The point of the book isn’t about what happened, but what to do next. How do you get back on the horse that threw you? What I did in the army got me nicknames like “psycho,” but I knew what it felt like to be beaten up, tortured and left on your own. For the first time now, there’s a little glimmer of pride in knowing I came back for a reason.

Story continues below.

Hill was awarded the Legion of Merit in recognition of his service the US.

JS: How did you come up with the idea of dividing your books into life lessons? Did you conceive these lessons as you were living them — or is that the gift of retrospection?

SH: It’s very much a product of retrospection, of looking back, knowing the lessons you’re learned and reconfirming the impact those lessons had on your life. Especially in the “covert world,” where trust and betrayal are very real things, a matter of life and death.

In an upcoming chapter, I write about how I brought a guy I really trusted into “black-ops” — he wasn’t cleared for it, he didn’t have the experience. We were just starting to get computers and he was good at it, but he ended up selling information to the Russians and 132 people in our safe-houses were murdered because this guy had nine kids and needed money. The life lesson there was: just because you trust someone, it doesn’t make the person trustworthy.

JS: You’re a very private person, live in the mountains and keep to yourself. How do you deal with being more of a public person?

SH: It’s absolutely miserable! [laughs] When you become disabled you realize very quickly that what people assume is normal doesn’t count anymore; you can’t do many things everyone else does without thinking about it. You need to communicate a lot more when your body is broken, which is a hard thing to do when you’ve always been a ghost. When you come back after having an accident in the service, you also deal with the moral wounds of war. There’s physiological things like PTSD and medical conditions, but when you throw in the moral wounds that make you act in ways you don’t understand, there’s no way you can have normal relationships.

Going public, writing this series and making a movie about this is very much like going on stage and taking your clothes off. I’ve learned you have to be vulnerable at the heart to connect with humanity. So, this is my very first attempt at being vulnerable in public. It’s contrary to everything in my covert lifestyle. So far, the responses, the critiques and reviews, have been overwhelming. It somehow gives people permission to tell me their story and I’m a much better man for learning this.

Story continues below.

JS: You write about how time moves in the desert. Reading the book feels like you were capturing time.

SH: I didn’t know how to put emotions into my work because it’s contrary to everything I’ve been trained to do. You’re not supposed to ask for help. You’re not a Tier One soldier if you feel something. It’s all the male bravado crap we stick into a closet to become invulnerable, steel soldiers. If you have PTSD, you’re a piece of shit. Now you can’t work because you have mental issues and people think you can’t work and do the “right thing.”

Then you realize you’re, in fact, human: what you learned in the military doesn’t work out here.

You are taught “violence of action” — taking the fight to the enemy in an instant. You end up with “God syndrome” from calling in A-10 or B-52 air strikes that decimate villages, move mountain ranges, collapse tunnel systems and kill enemy combatants by the hundreds with one push of a button. You get patted on the head and fed milk bones cause you’re a “mad dog,” then told to sit on the couch and behave. The things you learn in the military are not acceptable out here in American society! The transition and adjustment can be severe.

Since I didn’t know how to recognize emotion, I had to slow down, experience what was in that closet. It’s a huge part of Tier One Tranquility Base — we slow things down to the point you can see what happened that day. You can see a bullet fired at you and the dirt moving around it; you can smell the air of that specific moment in time. When you slow down time, you deal with information so horrific that you couldn’t even think about it. Through meditation, I’ve been able to look back at the first book and realize I’ve grown.

JS: Tell me more about Tier One Tranquility Base.

SH: There are guys who come up here, their life is a mess. They’re taking 30 pills a day and have all these suicidal ideations. You look at these guys and say “That was me, five years ago.” You cross your arms, going “I’m good,” and you want to go back to where you were because things don’t work out here. That’s why many go back to war, do 16 more tours, because it’s easier to do that than to sit down and fix your life. Meditation is a big part of this.

JS: Meditating seems so hard, though. No one wants to sit down and be with themselves.

SH: When I was training, I used to do all kinds of martial arts and meditating, but that was about projecting force, breaking things, killing people and blowing shit up. This is completely different. This is about cracking your blackened heart and letting some light in. Sometimes your comfort zone is pain, but you don’t need to stay in that pain forever.

Story continues below.

Voyage Media Founder & CEO Nat Mundel.

JS: I was very moved by the description of how you changed your vision and learned you couldn’t always trust your eyes.

SH: It’s like waking up and never going back to sleep. I’ve had the honor of seeing men wake up when they come home. I had a conversation with a guy here who asked me why he can’t sleep now. I told him that if we had a 70-year-old brain in a 20-year-old body, that would be amazing. But as you go through life, there are moments of awakening at 25, 35, 45. In the old days there was a sense of community, where elders passed on knowledge to the younger generations. Now we’re so busy, we don’t respect our elders anymore. That’s the downfall of America.

When you see things differently, you can look back at your own actions in a previous life. That’s what I call “younger age” — and all you can do is pity yourself for being that asleep. You weren’t intentionally being stupid; even if someone told you the right thing back then, your brain wouldn’t have been ready for it. It’s like reading the Bible. As a kid, it’s all rhetoric and ceremonial; you go through the motions because you think you have to. But when you die, when you go to that light and feel that knowledge and wisdom and every struggle you had seems like a waste of time and you’re done — you realize everything has to be the way it was then to be what it is now. You? You’re just along for the ride.

Death is such a magical thing: it’s not the scary crap you see on TV. I didn’t understand that, and I’ve died twice — once in the desert and once on the operating table at Walter Reed. You gotta stop worrying about what you can’t control. Worry about your own five meters and make the world a better place.

JS: How did the movie come about?

SH: Someone in my writer’s group found an ad that Voyage Media put in a writer’s publication and asked me if I knew anything about them — they help authors and writers outside of the “Hollywood system” to develop their projects and bring them to the entertainment industry as movies and TV shows. I was also looking for a sounding board to check my manuscript and see if it was worth publishing or if it could have traction as a movie. I was led to Voyage because of its unique business model, and Voyage brought on producer-screenwriter Kathleen McLaughlin, who also works with [director] Phillip Noyce. Before I could even get the first book published, Phillip was on the phone to Nat Mundel, Voyage’s CEO. To show you how green I was, Nat called to say that Phillip had “attached to the project.” I had no idea what that meant, nor who Phillip was. Then Phillip brought on his longtime friend, Oscar-nominated producer Mike Medavoy of Phoenix Pictures.

JS: It strikes me there are several parallels between the military and the film industry. Both are institutions with people in different ranks working toward a common purpose. Phillip Noyce can’t make a film on his own, in the same way an officer can’t complete a mission alone. Does this make you at all less wary of Hollywood?

SH: Yes — and here’s the point: you have to be vulnerable at the heart in order to connect to another human being. Phillip Noyce, Edward McGurn — then vice president of Phoenix Pictures — Mike Medavoy, Kimberly Hunt and Nat Mundel all came up here and talked with me for three days. At first I was offended when Kimberly asked my stepson if he felt scared of my PTSD. I calmed myself and realized these weren’t your typical Hollywood people, in it just for the money. I did research and learned Phillip made some of my favorite movies. I love Patriot Games, Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Giver, and didn’t know he’d made them. When I connected the dots and realized this was the guy who wanted my book, I was thrilled!