My second book — from HarperCollins, 2018
The tumultuous story of two gay soldiers, who forge a lifelong friendship before, during and after Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Brett and Drake battle for love and freedom to survive three wars and one exhausting policy.
They adopt wildly different strategies to outmaneuver the silent adversary, yet each rises deftly to Lt. Colonel, inside the great American war machine rumbling through adventures in the Middle East.
Two harrowing love stories — at war.
Dave as Infantry Drill Corporal,
Fort Benning, long ago.
Written by a former infantry grunt, who has followed these soldiers and many others for sixteen years, most of it in hiding. Soldiers First tells the story of three decades of social change and military "adventures" through the lens of these two gripping lives and the men they loved.
Brett served in three wars: Iraq, Afghanistan and The Gulf War. Drake deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus hotspots in Kuwait, Korea, Haiti, Venezuela and Egypt. Both played significant roles at Guantanamo Bay a decade apart. They have led extraordinary careers on the front lines of many of the international developments of the past thirty years. This sprawling story will take you inside all those places, as well as grubby army towns and high-level Pentagon meetings, seen through the eyes of these two men and a string of boyfriends, as they struggled with an invisible foe.
My two protagonists served on active duty before, during and after the policy, and their perceptions of what they were up against changed drastically over two decades. I hope to take you inside their world, as it evolved — first their lives as soldiers, and then the curveball that hits them and slowly transforms their careers. Their lives weave in and out of experience with lesbians, enlisteds and sailors, airmen and Marines, but I do not attempt to document the policy's impact on every gay community. This is a deeply intimate story of two fascinating soldiers — and the men, and occasionally women, they loved.
Brett and Drake bring remarkably different perspectives. Brett is a short muscular Korean with a massive barrel chest and bubbly disposition, fond of chatting up truck drivers and clerical staff alike, amusing them with bad puns. He immigrated as an infant, and as he grew up he helped raise his younger siblings, while his parents ran a deli in Queens. West Point turned his head around, taught him how much he had to overcome as an Asian, unaware he had much bigger hurdles ahead. Drake was a gruff, brash good ol’ boy, with a hulking linebacker body and a wicked sense of humor, wielded in a fading Tennessee twang. Battle can affect a soldier many different ways, but in Drake's case, decades of internal struggle in and out of warzones mellowed his disposition. It taught him new concepts of what it means to lead.
I am currently at work writing Soldiers First. I've been on it full-time for six years (since 2010), and part-time long before that.
The book began percolating in 2000 with an extensive two-part story for Salon.com on three gay captains. I clandestinely spent five months with several closeted active duty soldiers, Marines and airmen in Colorado Springs and was stunned to discover how their world was completely different than what I'd seen, heard and described on the outside. It was easy for them to find quick, meaningless sportsex under the policy, but nearly impossible to find a boyfriend. So we named it:
We changed their names and identities to protect them. It was the first major story ever inside that world, and it won the GLAAD Media Award for best on-line story of the year. For the book, I have focused on two of the soldiers. (For now, I will continue using their pseudonyms on this page, but they will go public in the book.)
The gay captains I profiled in 2000 went on to even more tumultuous lives. Two were promoted to Major and then Lt. Colonel, serving in all three of our recent wars. I have been following their struggles for sixteen years and I could not invent fiction this intense.
I spent most of those first ten years working on Columbine. I took my time and hopefully got it right. I wanted something even more intimate for my second book. I spent another four years researching, writing and contemplating, before I committed to the project in 2013. The further I got, the more I knew: this is the story I have to tell. That's when we took the project to auction, and HarperCollins enthusiastically signed on.
You can get a brief taste of what's coming in recent pieces I published:
- Vanity Fair: "To Be a Gay Cadet at West Point These Days". June 2015. (I returned in 2016, to observe how West Point continues to evolve, and to absorb more color for the West Point chapter.)
- New Republic: Two dispatches from Guantanamo Bay:
- Guantanamo Bay: The 9/11 Trial Has Gone Completely Off the Rails April 17, 2014
- Guantanamo Bay: The Tragicomedy of the 9/11 Trial April 15, 2014
- Vanity Fair: The Orlando shooter may have been gay? The gay community isn't surprised June 15, 2016 (This piece includes an incident from my experience as a gay man in the infantry.)
You can read press coverage of the book acquisition and here is the official announcement:
(October 24, 2013) Harper Executive editor Tim Duggan has acquired North American rights to Soldiers First by Dave Cullen, New York Times Bestselling author of Columbine, winner of the Edgar Award and Barnes and Noble Discover Prize. A former soldier himself, Cullen offers a war story and a love story in this account of two closeted gay men whose lives and quest for love paralleled the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy. Sold at auction by Betsy Lerner at Dunow, Carlson and Lerner Literary Agency.
We met with a dozen publishing houses to discuss the project, and I was very impressed by the Harper team. They share my vision for the book. I am really excited about working with them, and bringing this story to you.
Pictures from my second visit for West Point's gay-straight alliance weekend, April 2016:
What still shocks me about this next picture is how many West Point cadets are active in the gay-straight alliance — and happy to be pictured at the dinner, knowing it would be plastered all over social media.