'Seabiscuit' Touches Lives in Iraq

Laura Hillenbrand's mega bestseller "Seabiscuit" and the hit movie that followed have reached far beyond the realm of Thoroughbred racing and become international treasures. But not even Hillenbrand was aware just how inspirational her book was until several recent e-mails from Iraq.

The e-mails were sent by Sherman R. McGrew, a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army stationed in Balad, Iraq. The last one, received on Dec. 14, brought Hillenbrand and her boyfriend, Borden Flanagan, to tears. McGrew had written Hillenbrand a week earlier, telling her how a "single dogeared" copy of her book had been making its way through the troops. McGrew said he even read it during a mortar attack, admitting that perhaps he took the old saw, "Can't put it down," a bit too literally, but added that, "Once the incoming mortars are in the air, there isn't a lot you can do anyway but wait."

Hillenbrand replied to McGrew, calling him an inspiration and thanking him for his sacrifices. She told him how thrilled she was that her book was able to bring such joy to the troops and provide a brief respite from the horrors they have had to endure.

One of Hillenbrand's main sources for the book was Col. Michael C. Howard, USMC, a great-grandson of Seabiscuit's owner, Charles Howard. After returning from Iraq this past June, Howard told Hillenbrand of his harrowing experiences, such as disinterring tens of thousands of murdered Iraqis.

Hillenbrand's most recent e-mail from McGrew was accompanied by several photos. The first was taken at an elementary school in a small village where McGrew's troops had been delivering medical aid. He happened to have "Seabiscuit" with him while speaking to a class of young girls. Through an interpreter, he explained to them that it was a famous book about "the greatest horse that ever lived," and that millions of copies have been printed. The girls were very impressed to learn that the book was written by a woman, and that some of Seabiscuit's ancestors were Arabian horses. McGrew went on to tell them that maybe one day they could grow up to be famous authors, too.

Between McGrew's own experiences and seeing the faces of so many young, innocent girls light up as he spoke of Seabiscuit made him realize what a profound effect Hillenbrand and her book had on people of all ages and cultures. He told her, "You have immortalized the lives and times of people who lived life to the fullest. Without your efforts, their incredible story would have been lost to us all. I thank you for that. And it is YOU who is truly an inspiration."

At the bottom of the e-mail, McGrew added a P.S. saying, "I just learned that Saddam Hussein has been captured. Now those young ladies I met today really can have a future."

"Reading that, and seeing the photographs of those sweet, smiling Iraqi girls standing with Lt. Col. McGrew, Borden and I broke down in tears," Hillenbrand said. "It is wonderful to see an American soldier greeted with such joy and goodwill.

"My book has recently been published in Arabic, and I'm now in the process of trying to purchase several hundred Arabic copies so I can have them airlifted to those little girls. My foreign rights agent is now calling this Operation Trojan Horse. My Arabic publisher is in Egypt, and it appears that if I can buy the books from them, they may be able to ship them directly from Egypt to Iraq. I've written back to Lt. Col. McGrew to see if he knows any way that we can get the books directly to those girls.

"The story of Seabiscuit is, more than anything, about the breadth of possibility, and I want those children to see the world as a place where they are free to be what they choose to be. Thanks to men and women like Lt. Col. McGrew, that's possible now."

McGrew has promised Hillenbrand that he will see to it personally that the books are placed into the hands of the children. The project has been given the codename OPERATION SEABISCUIT.

"The little girls here tug at my heart," McGrew told Hillenbrand. "This is a difficult society for them. It's male dominated to an extent that is hard for us to comprehend. They are sometimes stunned that someone actually pays attention to them, as opposed to just the boys. I will never forget these children. If my service here helps give them hope for the future, then it's been worth it. I love to think of these children reading "Seabiscuit" in their very poor villages and dreaming. Who knows what these small seeds planted will bear in twenty or so years?"

More on Seabiscuit, from Eclipse Press