Editor's note: Best-selling crime novelist Michael Connelly recently returned from a 10-day trip to the Middle East with the United Service Organization, a nonprofit organization that provides entertainment and assistance for troops and their families. Connelly's next novel, "The Black Box," comes out November 26.
(CNN) -- The slick, black aircraft came roaring down the runway on its way into the sky. We had been allowed to watch the takeoff from an elevated viewing area about three-quarters of the way down the strip. There were the five of us attached to the USO's Operation Thriller III tour: writers Kathleen Antrim, Joe Finder, Andy Harp, Brad Meltzer and me.
A handful of airmen assigned to a U.S. Air Force base in the Mideast were on hand as well. I was tracking the jet's advance down the runway with my video camera. I pivoted as the plane swept by, and my view was suddenly blocked by one of the airmen. He stood pumping his fist up and down as the jet rose in front of us. I momentarily paused on him and lost the plane. It streaked by with a blast of sound and air displacement that went right through me. I turned my camera in time to catch the afterburners as the aircraft rose at a steep angle into the sky.
I thought I had blown the shot with my pause on the airman's pumping fist. But then I realized I actually had the real shot, the shot that told the fuller story. The shot that underlined what I had been seeing over and over as we traveled from base to base and visited troops stationed in support of military efforts.
From the truck drivers to the pilots to the gate sentries to the colonels in command, the effort is one of pride and preparedness that left me with a new take on what it means to be heroic. These people, far from home and seemingly in the middle of nowhere, are the noble but unknown troops. They've got true character.
When I had first been approached about joining a USO tour comprising authors, I jumped at the chance. After all, I am in the hero business. I write about fictional characters who face adverse circumstances and with relentless spirit and drive overcome the odds to succeed -- sometimes at great danger and cost to themselves.
This is the coin of the realm when it comes to fiction. It's character, character, character. Slick plotting and exotic settings and forensic detail are all window dressing on the real deal. Readers come into a story looking to connect with a character they identify with and want to ride with. They are looking for heroes.
So what better way to meet and research heroes than a USO tour? I heard that last year's Operation Thriller USO tour went to Afghanistan and the one before that visited troops in Iraq. The writers on those trips were furnished with Kevlar helmets and flak jackets. I assumed we would make a similar journey, that we were going where the troops dodged sniper bullets and IEDs as a matter of course each day.
But then I got the word. Operation Thriller III would not be going to the front. We would spend a week visiting support bases scattered across the Southwest Asia. Though my family breathed easier at the news, I have to admit I was disappointed. I had signed up to meet heroes and now I was going to meet the troops who backed up the heroes.
Well, I got that wrong.
On our weeklong USO tour, I got the chance to visit with the heroes who load pallets of water on cargo planes, the heroes who patrol the desert for explosives dating back to the first Persian Gulf War of 1991, the heroes who fix and maintain the vehicles that cover the rugged ground in Afghanistan and the hero pilots that fly in supplies instead of bombs.
Most of them came from reserve units from across the United States. It is work that is not without danger, but still it never gets the notice of the media focused squarely down range on the fight. No matter, these troops weren't looking for attention and they weren't looking to be called heroes. They simply were going about their jobs with pride and professionalism, knowing that down range it mattered. Like the airman fist-pumping at the side of the runway, character and heroism are where you find them. Sometimes, it's maintaining the plane instead of flying it. Sometimes, it's moving water bottles instead of bullets.
I met an Army specialist on a base in Kuwait who drives a forklift. He didn't wear a combat helmet. He wore a hard hat. His hard hat was a custom-made white cowboy hat he had ordered off the Internet. His job was to move pallets of water on to cargo planes that lifted them to bases all across the region. In a place where summer temperatures routinely break 100 degrees before the sun is barely up, bottles of water can be as important as bullets.
Eight months into his posting, he said he had helped move more than 3 million bottles of water and counting. It was a figure of which he was proud. He knew he played an integral part in the fight.
I didn't get to Afghanistan, but the USO and the man in the white hat taught me a lesson in what it is to be a hero.
They showed me sacrifice, pride, professionalism and reminded me that being part of the team and doing the job right -- whether anyone is paying attention or not -- are the ingredients of character.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Connelly.