La. author mines Iraq war for tales of friendship

After two tours of duty in Iraq, Michael Pitre left the Marine Corps with plenty of stories, none of which made for sparkling conversation.

“In the civilian world, everyone wanted to hear stories about the war, and I didn’t want to tell stories about the war that would make everyone uncomfortable, but that was most of the stories that I have,” said Pitre, a Cut Off native, LSU graduate in history and creative writing, and New Orleans resident.

So, Pitre stuck to humorous observations. Yet, he didn’t stop thinking about the people he knew and what they went through so far from home. He began writing stories intended only for him and his wife, Erin, to read.

“It didn’t really become a book until my wife was reading these short stories I was writing at night, and she said, ‘You know, these are all the same characters. You’re probably writing a novel,’” he said. “At that point, I made the effort to make it into a book.”

With an ease and speed sure to make jealous all would-be published authors, it has happened.

“Fives and Twenty-Fives,” Pitre’s fictional account of a unit that cleared roadside bombs, goes on sale nationally on Aug. 26. Published by Bloomsbury, it alternates the perspectives of a Marine lieutenant — the character most resembling the author — a corpsman and an Iraqi interpreter and introduces other memorable characters. The setting alternates from their days in Iraq to postwar difficulties and reconnecting in unexpected ways.

“None of it is really autobiographical,” Pitre said. “It’s informed by experience. My experience in Iraq was pretty pedestrian compared to the experiences of the characters of the novel. It’s mostly about the experiences of people I knew and a desire to do right by them.”

Pitre was stationed at Taqaddum Air Base, between Fallujah and Ramadi, on both of his Iraq tours, first as a lieutenant and commander of a wire platoon installing fiber-optic cable at multiple bases, the second as a captain who ran the battalion operations center nightly from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., when most of the convoys were on the road.

“When you’re in that position, you’re privy to everything that’s going on everywhere,” Pitre said. “That’s where a lot of the events in the book are drawn, things I know that happened. It’s also the fact that the things that are happening are happening to your friends.”

It’s the friendships, some of which are unlikely, others that are strained by the toll of warfare and the demands of military discipline, that drive the story rather than combat, which pops up infrequently but vividly.

“Fives and Twenty-Fives” — a reference to distances in meters Marines looked before and after they exit vehicles to investigate a roadside bomb — also includes the perspective of Iraqis, some of whom were torn between their love of American culture and their hatred of what the military ouster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the subsequent occupation had done to their land.

From having received a master’s degree in English from the University of New Orleans, Erin Pitre knew author and UNO writer-in-residence Amanda Boyden, who read the manuscript and recommended it to an agent. The agent signed Pitre within two weeks and Bloomsbury picked it up two months later.

“It was really a magical experience,” Pitre said. “A couple of chapters got reworked, nothing extensive. It’s pretty close to what the original manuscript was.”

Pitre will be on a 12-city book tour starting Aug. 25. Having earned an MBA at Loyola University, his day job is with the Gray Surety insurance office in New Orleans, but he is already working on a second book, a Civil War novel set in Louisiana.

“I think I’m done with Iraq,” he said.