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Matt Cricchio and a photo of his book cover of \"Security Day\" [View Image] Matt Cricchio’s debut novel, “Security Day,” focuses on the complex relationship between the people of Afghanistan and the U.S. military. (Courtesy of Matt Cricchio)

Grad’s war novel highlights the complicated relationship between the U.S. military and the Afghan people

Navy veteran and VCU alum Matt Cricchio served in Afghanistan. His debut novel, “Security Day,” will “change how you think about American conflict overseas.”

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For Navy veteran and author Matt Cricchio, Afghanistan was complicated. It is a point he brings home again and again in his debut novel, “Security Day.”

While in Afghanistan, Cricchio served as an interrogator and spy handler. He built relationships with the Afghan people and tried to get information that would help the military. Cricchio would relay information to his commanders and did his best to protect the identity of the Afghans who gave it to him.

“Unlike a lot of people that went to that war, I formed very close relationships with Afghans,” he said. “I was in their culture. It was my job to do that.”

Cricchio is unsure why some of the Afghans decided to help him. Some were tired of the U.S. military and hoped it would go away if information was provided. The motivation for others is unclear, Cricchio admitted. He dedicated his book to nine military personnel who died while he served in the Navy, but also “to the Afghans who, whatever their reasons, helped us.”

The novel explores the complicated relationship between the U.S. military and the Afghan people and how a small number of people benefited financially from the huge amount of money that poured into the country during the war. 

“The book is not only deeply personal to me, but I think it tells the story from a perspective that's unique compared to all the other books about Afghanistan or Iraq written by veterans,” Cricchio said. “That’s because it includes a lot of the Afghans.” Matt Cricchio [View Image]Matt Cricchio

Wanting real-world experiences 

Cricchio comes from a military family. He graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Humanities and Sciences in 2006 with a degree in English and decided to enlist in the military. He always planned to earn a master’s in fine arts but first wanted to serve his country.

“I felt instead of going to an M.F.A. right away as a 21-year-old who never experienced anything, that I wanted to sort of do something outside of the normal,” Cricchio said. “My dad was in the military my whole life. I mean, basically everyone I knew was in the military. And so I made this decision when I graduated to enlist, try to get with the Special Operations Unit and experience, I guess like that high-speed sort of life.” 

His military experience was different from others. He was never an infantry soldier. Instead, he started as a military analyst and was eventually trained as an interrogator and source handler. He spent nine months at a Marine training center in the United States and was deployed to Afghanistan after the training was completed. 

During his time in Afghanistan, Cricchio saw warlords and gangsters who made money off the presence of the U.S. military. His novel, which is based on real events, centers around a warlord who protected weekly military supply convoys on security day and the complicated relationships that developed. 

Besides military personnel, the novel features two Afghans. Cricchio said people in the United States often do not have a sense of the sacrifices that the Afghan people made during the war. The people who entrusted him with information were putting their life and the lives of their family in danger. Cricchio said he does not want to discredit the service of Americans in the military, but he thinks the war is more complicated than it was portrayed in the media. 

“I think the American public, from the perceptions they got in the media, and I'm talking the broad range of media from, you know, right wing media to very mainstream media and even further to the left, what they were told about the situation was not accurate,” he said. “And I would think people even on the ground experienced the same thing. Nothing was like it appeared and the book kind of goes into it.”

Returning to VCU 

Cricchio began writing “Security Day” while still serving. After leaving the military in 2013, he began applying to M.F.A. programs, including VCU’s M.F.A. in creative writing. He used sections of the novel in his application. He was accepted to several other schools but chose VCU mostly because the program, spread out over three years instead of the traditional two, has a lighter class load that gives students time to work on projects.

“There was just a bunch of things that the VCU M.F.A. program offers that beat out every other school, in my opinion,” Cricchio said.

“The book is not only deeply personal to me, but I think it tells the story from a perspective that’s unique compared to all the other books about Afghanistan or Iraq written by veterans. That’s because it includes a lot of the Afghans.”Matt Cricchio

By the time school started, Cricchio had mostly finished the novel. He made connections in the publishing world while at VCU and eventually signed with an agent. But getting the book published proved difficult. Many of the books about Afghanistan by veterans focus on their experiences. Most publishers told Cricchio that the public did not have any interest in the Afghan people.

Cricchio said he understands that perspective. Many publishers want to tell the heroic story of U.S. service members, but Cricchio believes there is room for more voices when talking about Afghanistan. The U.S. military spent 20 years in the country and the lives of the Afghan people and the military were intermingled.

“I'm not going to downplay heroism, but there's heroism on both sides in that war,” Cricchio said. “Heroism looks a lot more like mercy than it does Rambo. And I wouldn't write a Rambo book anyway. That's not what that book was about. It was about compassion and mercy and how far people are willing to go to protect their families.” 

Cricchio eventually self-published the book. His fellow VCU alum Rachel Beanland, whose book, “Florence Adler Swims Forever,” was named Amazon’s Featured Debut when it was released in July 2020, said Cricchio brought “a soldier’s heart and a writer’s pen to the story,” and that “Security Day” will “forever change how you think about American conflict overseas.” Kevin Powers, a VCU graduate whose war novel, “The Yellow Birds,” was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award, said Cricchio’s book is “written with extraordinary insight into the complexities of both modern warfare and the hearts and minds of those who fight them.”Matt Cricchio's novel, \"Security Day.\" [View Image]“Security Day” is a different kind of war novel, Cricchio said, and though many publishers want to tell the heroic story of U.S. service members, Cricchio believes there is room for more voices when talking about Afghanistan. (Courtesy of Matt Cricchio)

Critical of the withdrawal 

Recently, the people of Afghanistan have taken center stage with the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the plight of thousands of refugees. Overall, Cricchio was highly critical of how the withdrawal unfolded and said many military people he knows are also upset. They feel all the fighting happened in vain. He believes the United States needed to withdraw from Afghanistan, but more planning was warranted.

“I still believe in my country, but I am profoundly disappointed,” Cricchio said. “We need a better plan than the one that we executed. Leaving was the right thing. It was the necessary thing. But I know because I worked with so many talented people, I mean, everyone on that list in the front of the book was a profoundly talented person. And I know we could have done better. I wish we had.” 

When the withdrawal was taking place, he worried about the Afghans who provided information to him. He had not had any contact with them since leaving the military but recognized that some could be in danger. 

“You make promises that you know you can't keep because you're going to come home and you hope that the people that come in after you are going to continue that promise and they often do,” Cricchio said. “But when a mass evacuation happens and mass withdrawal happens, you feel like you broke your promise.”

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