A. J. Tata on "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast

A. J. Tata on "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Anthony "A.J." Tata is on his third career in 2017. Maybe his fourth, if you count politics. Tata now devotes his time, full-time, to writing thriller novels featuring primary character Jake Mahegan.  Tata started writing during his first career, serving his country as a member of the U.S. Army. He rose to the rank of Brigadier General before retiring after 28 years.

Tata grew up in a military area, around Virginia Beach. His parents both taught school, and his father also coached high school football. Tata had thoughts of following in his parents' footsteps, but his wrestling ability led to a scholarship offers from several schools, including West Point.

"That (teaching) was really what my plan was, and then when I got into West Point, of course, I got switched on to leadership," Tata remembers. "When I was at West Point as an athlete, and certainly as an athlete in high school, the leadership you learn as an athlete, particularly in team sports, translates over very well to the military."

Tata's military career took him across the United States and around the world. He led troops in Bosnia during Operation Joint Guard, in Kosovo in Operation Joint Guardian, and in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Each tour deepened Tata's expertise in leading men and women, and strengthened his appreciation for the country he served.

"The one enduring lesson I learned from all of those tours, regardless of where I was, is that America is a great place," Tata says. "The great majority of Americans who have not had the chance to dive in, do research or visit, do not realize the vast gulf of difference between a Kosovo or Bosnia or Afghanistan or Iraq, and America, with our liberties, our freedoms, our infrastructure and our system. In Afghanistan, you bond with those people, especially if you are a senior officer. I was Brigadier General, so I bonded with all these governors of different provinces, and they don't want you to go. Because you're making change, positive change for them, and they know how far they have to go. It's such a different lifestyle that we don't, even my children, don't understand."

Tata's books feature characters that often find themselves in dangerous, even potentially life-ending situations. He writes from experience, having survived conflicts and skirmishes while fellow soldiers were hurt by enemy fire. Tata cites one particularly intense helicopter ride to a northeast province in Afghanistan, not long before he retired.

"We had been monitoring some combat in a close but not connected area," Tata says, setting up what is about to follow. "Suddenly, some holes started appearing in the side of the helicopter, and that's never a good thing. The left engine catches on fire, and we come in for what we call a 'hard landing' into the base camp. Thankfully we were that close. It was just a storm of machine gun fire and rocket propelled grenades. It was a three-sided ambush, and for 90 minutes it was just duking out. So Jimmy McKnight grabs me by the body armor and says 'sir, the last thing I need is a dead general in my base camp'. I said 'I'm happy to oblige you Jimmy'. We started jogging toward his bunker, this sergeant gets shot through the arm. As we get in there I did the one thing a general can do: a) stay out of the way and b) pick up the radio. I called back to Bagram (Air Base) and said 'we're taking some heavy fire here'. Suddenly we had a B-1 bomber overhead, two A-10s and two brand new Apache helicopters about 30 minutes later. McKnight turned to me and said 'sir, you can fight with me anytime', because that stuff was overhead and helping out."

Tata says his first book deal was one of the main reasons he decided to retire from the military. "I was at a point where I was young enough to have a second career," he says. "I was a young general. Dan Allen, who is now Vice Chief of Staff for the Army, and I were the first from our West Point class promoted to general. I took a look at it, assessed opportunities and went on from there."

Tata was also recruited to attend Broad Center Academy, a non-profit group that trains and prepares individuals for leadership positions in education. Tata turned the knowledge into a Chief Operating Officer position with public schools in Washington, DC, and later he took over as Superintendent of Wake County Schools. Hired by a Republican-majority school board in 2010, Tata was fired less than two years later by a board then controlled by Democrats.

"We made some great gains in Wake County," Tata says reflecting on the short time as the Superintendent. "I was the right person for that system at that time. I came in, walked the tightrope right down the middle, and brought the community together and helped them begin to heal. That's what they needed. We focused on children instead of politics. They had the best scores they'd had in the history of the school system, particularly in low income children. For the first time in the history of the system they broke the state average, if you can believe this, for their subgroup in "No Child Left Behind". So, there were a lot of things that happened that were really, really good in Wake County, and it's unfortunate the way politics overruled children."

Pat McCrory came calling, pointing Tata toward a third career in the newly-elected governor's cabinet as North Carolina's Secretary of Transportation. Tata worked on the job for more than two years. By that time, the writing that began while Tata was in the Army was beginning to flourish. He had already written thrillers in the "threat series" (Sudden Threat, Rogue Threat and Hidden Threat), and had gotten a second book deal to feature Jake Mahegan. Tata says he performed the tasks of DOT Secretary while penning the novels, but in the end decided to leave politics behind.

"I got a really nice book deal and said 'Governor (McCrory), I can't do both'," Tata remembers. "I had tried to do both, and it was bringing some, I don't know if it was negative attention, but it was 'why is the secretary also publishing a book?' The first book "Foreign and Domestic" did very well and I said, I'm not going to be able to do both of these. I could do both, but the optics on it, the perception would be something that perhaps the governor didn't want."

Tata shares his military expertise on cable news programs, debriefing with reporters and anchors when the United States takes action around the world. He is currently at work on his fourth novel featuring Mahegan. The first three (Foreign and Domestic, Three Minutes to Midnight and Besieged) are set in North Carolina. Tata's travels across the state have sparked ideas and backdrops, raising questions that he turns into action-packed stories.

"Thank God for iPhones and the notes function because for Three Minutes to Midnight, I was somewhere and I saw the cooling tower at the Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant," Tata shared. "I had just read an article that showed the fracking zone from Durham County to Moore County, and in the middle of it us Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant. I said, 'nuclear plant, fracking, what could go wrong?' That was the genesis of the idea that whole book was built around."

Jake Mahegan will return, Tata says, in early 2018. He will undoubtedly be forced to rise to the challenge of saving friends, family and country from a threat. A.J. Tata has faced challenges, both personal and professional, and has emerged to become one of the top thriller-writers in the business. Together they make a good pair.

You can listen to the entire interview with A. J. Tata on the free "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast:

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