Updated: Apr 24
How to be a Secret Squirrel in 27 years or less:
A journey of service to my country.
(Point of reference, I am not a secret squirrel.)
I grew up in a family that was deeply patriotic. My father served in both the Navy and the Airforce and I grew up knowing that I wasn’t going to be any different. Some of my youngest childhood memories were of me sitting in front of the TV at my grandparent’s house watching old BETA tapes of war movies. The Guns of Navarone, Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare were just some of the movies I watched over and over, never getting tired of them.
As a child I grew up with constant ear infections. These weren’t merely ear pain; they were a constant problem and often had me out of school for days on end. So much so that by the time I was 11 years old I had already been into surgery three times. By the time I was 13 my doctor had concluded that it was my tonsils that were at the root of all my problems and decided to have them removed. Sure enough, he was right. I never had another ear infection again. But the damage had already been done. I had developed so much scar tissue in my left ear that it had literally crushed those three little bones we hear about, the hammer, the anvil and the stirrup.
I’ll never forget leaving the doctor’s office in Tampa one afternoon and my mom making a comment in passing that this might prevent me from entering the military. I can still remember exactly where we were on I-275 near the Tampa Police Department. I instantly became defensive and angry. I had never considered the possibility that any of this would ever prevent me from entering the military. I was an athlete, extremely competitive and driven. I had no other plans for my life outside of the military so how could something as trivial as this be a problem? But with a severe loss of hearing in one ear that was exactly what I would be facing.
When I was 15 my parents had heard about a reconstructive surgery that was being done in cases like mine. The procedure involved removing a piece of your mastoid, a piece of the skull behind your ear, and reconstructing the little bones to be placed back into the ear. The procedure was a called a mastoidectomy and tympanoplasty. This surgery would be my fourth and final procedure not to mention my last hope at military service.
After receiving the surgery, I was told it would be a little bit of time for my hearing to come back to normal levels, if it even would. It took some time but before long my left ear was able to recover quite a bit. Overall, I went from a 30% hearing loss in my left ear to somewhere around 0-20% loss depending on the frequency range. Things were looking up!
Although I enjoyed sports and excelled in class, I really had a problem actually showing up to school. I once skipped 21 days in a row in my math class so I could hang out with my friends during their lunch period. It actually got so bad the teacher thought I had been disenrolled from school until she bumped into me. Oops… That was an awkward moment… But between skipping math, which ironically, I’ve always been good at, and skipping school entirely to hang out in the woods I ended up losing an entire year of school as a freshman and had to repeat almost every class.
But then came my stimulus. As a junior in high school we had moved to a new town for my Dad’s work. I had never seen a recruiter at my previous hillbilly high school and this new town was a booming metropolis comparatively speaking. We routinely had recruiters from every branch walking the halls of my new school during lunches. I have had dinner with Sean Connery and I can honestly tell you that I have never been star struck like I was when I saw the recruiters at my school. Along with the citified atmosphere this school had one thing my other one didn’t, a JROTC program.
As soon as I found out about JROTC I immediately enrolled. It was an Airforce program, which didn’t really fit into the image of snooping and pooping that I had created in my mind to follow, but hey, it was military, so I’d take it.
I absorbed everything I could about the military and before long I had excelled beyond what first year students were supposed to. The Chief Master Sergeant and Colonel who ran the program saw me as both a leader and a troublemaker, and often told me so. But they found that if they gave me a task it would be completed, albeit sometimes outside the guidelines of what we’d consider permissible. But that just wasn’t how my mind worked. Much like Captain Barbosa I often saw authority as “guidelines” rather than “rules”. When I get focused on something there is little that can be done to get me off track.
This became a very important trait when in 1992 I learned that despite my previous thoughts I actually had a chance to graduate on time, despite my freshman year transgressions. I went to my guidance counsellor and found out exactly what I needed to graduate. I sat down and figured out what classes I was in and what credits were needed and found that if I dropped a few of my more enjoyable classes like drafting, shop and one of my JROTC classes I could replace them with required classes and graduate early. But that wasn’t all. I also would be required to sign up for classes to be taken at a nighttime adult school during the school year. This meant no more sports. But as is so common the phrase on late night infomercials, “but wait, that’s not it”. I would also have to do the same thing during the summer for both daytime and nighttime classes. If I did all this, I would complete my schooling this year and be eligible to enlist at the age of 17. So that’s exactly what I did.
I was 17 years old when I walked into the Airforce recruiter’s office. I was assured by both my father (former Airforce crew chief on F-4’s) and my JROTC mentors that this was definitely going to be the branch for me. I was constantly fed lines about the retention rate and overall enjoyability of the lifestyle within the Airforce. But it really wasn’t what I was looking for. I tried looking into various Airforce Specialty Codes (AFSC) for jobs that would allow me to work in special operations. But this was before Al Gore invented the internet and my mentors were pushing me in other directions.
There are several benefits to JROTC but one of them was that upon completion of bootcamp you would be promoted to the rank of E3, assuming you had completed at least 3 years of JROTC in high school. This was going to be a problem for me since I was racing hard and fast to get out of high school in under a year. So, the Colonel in charge of the program wrote my congressman and obtained what was called a CHAPA letter. With this letter I would not only be given credit for 3 years of JROTC but would also be allowed to secure a specific AFSC versus just being assigned a general field. Starting to feel the pressure from all sides I signed a contract putting me in the Airforce for 6 years with the job of B2 avionics.
I was so nervous when I went to MEPS for the first time. Everything I had ever planned on for my life was riding on this moment and was fixing to take a downward turn. I flew through everything MEPS had from the ASVAB which I scored extremely well on, the physical and the background. But then came the hearing test. By this time in my life I was all too familiar with the sound booth. I had spent numerous days in those damn things hearing nothing but the deafening ringing that occurs when you’re locked in with a set of earphones on. I remember sitting through the test with 5 other guys all facing outward in the booth while the test operator gave us the instructions, “hit the button when you hear the beep”. I sat through the test straining to hear everything that I thought could even resemble a tone. At the end of the test we were all escorted out and sat in a waiting area for our packages to be returned to us. One by one the other 5 guys were called, and I wasn’t. Eventually I walked up to the enlisted man who had administered the test and asked him where my package was. He then delivered the news. My hearing on my left side was not passing… I was crushed inside.
Despite how I was feeling I shoved it deep down to hide my disappointment and told the tester that I needed to take the test again. Apparently, some of the guys were talking in the booth (at least that’s what I told him) and that was most likely the reason for my failure. So, he threw me into the next group, retested me and what do you know… I passed. The test had begun just like before by going through all the different frequency tones at different volumes on my right side. Afterwards when the testing began on the left side, I removed my headset and turned it around backwards so I would be receiving the tones intended for my left ear on my right side. I told you… I was driven… Upon completion of the test I was given a passing grade and sent to sign my final contract and eventually taken in to take the oath of enlistment.
After coming home, I told no one of what had happened. I went on about my studies determined to not let anything stand in my way. Over time I began to build a relationship with my next-door neighbor, who coincidentally happened to be a Marine Corps recruiter. We got to be friends and over time the pressure I was under to “go Airforce” reached a climax.
Through our conversations I began to realize one thing. I was never going to be happy working on electronics on the stealth bomber. This was never my intention for enlisting. So, I worked with him behind the scenes to get out of my contract with the Airforce and within two months I was back a MEPS to do it all over, this time for the Marine Corps. There was of course one caveat… I already knew I couldn’t pass the hearing test so this time around I wasn’t even going to take the chance. First time through I pulled the “old switcharoo” and passed with flying colors. This would be the second time, and the not the last, that I would take the oath of enlistment. By the way, switching my contract pretty much got me shit listed from my Airforce mentors in the JROTC program and almost got me kicked out of the house with my Dad, but I didn’t care, I was a poolee now on my way to becoming a Marine.
My parents got over my career choice in time, especially when they saw how focused and determined I was to complete school. No more trouble or fighting in school. No more skipping. No more problems of any kind. I completed my last year of school with flying colors. My parents were a little disappointed when I decided not to participate in the summer schedule graduation walk but I could care less. School was never anything more than an obstacle that I needed to overcome to get to where I really wanted to be. So, the ultimate culmination of my efforts in school was not a cap and gown ceremony. It was a ship date for 3rd Recruit Training Battalion.
I arrived at Parris Island late at night, like all recruits do, and went through the iconic initial greeting on the bus with the drill instructor. We exited the bus post haste and stood on the yellow footprints. This was a monumental moment for me. Part of me was excited, part was scared, but another part entirely just couldn’t believe it was even happening. We lined up asshole-to-belly button and walked through the giant door at RAC and took our seats to start our receiving paperwork and receive our gear. We went through the haircut and I even fell for the old “who can drive a stick” bit, which ended up with me pushing a broom. But this was once again about to come crashing down.
At some point during our initial weeks we were expected to take another hearing test… WTF!!! Seriously? So here I was again faced with realization that my hearing was a problem but this time the booth was set up differently. This one had a window with the tester directly in front of recruits. I made the mistake at that point to come clean to my senior drill instructor. Not really sure why, but at this point I knew I wasn’t going to pass and felt like coming clean was the only thing I could do. I was retested under the supervision of my SDI and sure enough… not passing. I was taken aside, counseled, and dropped into medical reconditioning platoon (MRP) for injured recruits while they decided what was going to happen with me. In MRP you were expected to work around the base while processing discharges or medical boards. This process ranged from weeks to months depending on how much of a fight you put up about the conditions of your discharge. I worked mess duty in the drill instructors chow hall, polished floors in the headquarters building, and did general clean up and shit work around the base. But I didn’t care, I was here.
Before long I received the news that I would be going home. I met with some Marines who were counselling me through out-processing, and I was told I would be given an Entry Level Separation for a fraudulent enlistment and a RE-3p reenlistment code. According to them I would have to wait one year upon being discharged before I would be allowed to re-enlist. In hindsight it would prove to be far more difficult than this to get back in, but I suspect they knew this. I left Parris Island shattered but still with some hope that one day I would be back to complete all this and fulfill my mission.
After coming home, I was really lost. I had grown up doing CADD work with my Dad, so I had skills to fall back on, but nothing that I really had any desire to pursue. I worked a few jobs, just waiting the time so I could re-enlist. I knew I couldn’t pass the hearing test but time away had given me hope that even worst-case scenario, I’d do whatever I needed to, to get past that test and get back in. But a year went by, the recruiters changed, and I would not be as fortunate again.
The new recruiters didn’t know me. They didn’t care about my tenacity or determination. To them I was a difficult waiver in and amongst countless easy candidates. The first recruiter I worked with wouldn’t return calls, the second wouldn’t be honest. I wrote letters to two Commandants of the Marine Corps and even managed to get General Mundy’s aid on the phone one time. But it would take seven years of closed doors before I would get another chance.
In that seven years I went through several stages. First rebellious, where I found myself involved with a “gang”, if you want to call it that. We weren’t really involved in any major violence or anything like that, but what we were involved in would ultimately come back to haunt me. The second stage I went through was that of providing for my girlfriend who would later become my wife. She had left home to come and live with me and I began to realize that I was now responsible for someone other than myself. This led me to step away from the illegal activities and focus more on holding down a steady job for the both of us. But as is so often the case our past has a way of catching up to us. Before long I would find myself facing two felony charges for grand theft auto. As far as my enlistment was going, bad just got worse…
I spent 4 years on probation for my involvement and in that time had gotten married and had two kids. With the thought of the Marine Corps being a distant hope, I focused on my family and my work. But I continued to train, running frequently, preparing and even following up with research and letters from my doctor who had done my ear surgery. I followed up with a new recruiter I had met who was honest and blunt. He returned phone calls, took time with me but was always straight about what sort of chances I was looking at.
Back on my Feet
At 25 years old I was managing a design team for a commercial engineering firm. I was making close to $70k a year and doing quite well for myself. I was stable, a family man, and starting to get back into my faith. But as good as all these things were, they would actually become a hinderance to my enlistment. In 1998 when I began pushing hard to re-enlist, I was nearing the age cap and would require an age waiver. I would also now need a family waiver and a financial waiver. Apparently, making good money and walking away from it was a problem and they needed an extra document attesting to the fact that my wife and I knew that we would be going from $70k to $22k a year. But all this was in addition to two character waivers that I would be required to have for the felonies and my previous fraudulent enlistment. So, it was an uphill struggle to say the least. I met with nearly every Marine Corps NCOIC and OIC in my area, ultimately having a face to face sit down interview with a Major, who was the OIC of my area. After a 30-minute interview where he asked me about my past, my future plans, my reasons for enlisting he informed me that he was going to approve me and even provided me with what I am told was an impressive letter of recommendation.
Once again, we were back at it. With all my waivers approved at this level and my contract ready to go my recruiter told me I would need to be ready to go when he got the paperwork back. Everything was sent off to 6th Marine Corps District Command at MCRD Parris Island and the wait began. Days and weeks went by, soon months went by. Then I got the call… I received a call from my recruiter about 10 in the morning that my package was approved but I had to be ready to go now. “What battalion?” I asked, because I was set on finishing what I had started with 3rd Battalion, which is rumored to be the hardest battalion out there because of its location and distance away from public view. “3rd Battalion”, was his response.
By Hell or Highwater
I left work immediately and called my wife on the way home. I literally told her, “Staff Sergeant is on the way and I’ll see you at graduation”. She was/is unbelievable… My recruiter picked me and took me to MEPS were once again I had to go through the whole process again. They rushed me through everything, I took my oath of office (again), and I was ushered in to sign my final contract and wait for the bus to take me to the airport. At this point in my life I think I’ve enlisted more than anyone else I know. But waiting there for the bus I received a phone call at MEPS. My recruiter had told me that something had happened and the Colonel at MCRD had denied my package at the last minute. Apparently, there was some discrepancy about whether my two felonies were two counts or whether they were two separate incidents which showed a pattern of behavior. Once again, I was on my way home…
I knew at this point that this would be my last go and as such I had nothing left to lose. I told my wife we were going on a road trip and called my recruiter and asked him if I could get my enlistment package. I never told him why I needed it and he didn’t ask, so I drove over to the recruiting station, grabbed my package then made our way for Parris Island. I never explained to my wife what was going on. Nor did I know what I was going to do when I got there. But we arrived in Beaufort late that evening and settled in for the night in a local hotel.
In the morning I got up early and headed for Parris Island. It had been years since I had been there, and my wife had never been there. We arrived at the gate around 9am and I pulled up to the gate. I told gate security that I was there for graduation, which coincidentally happened to be that same weekend (seriously, it couldn’t have worked out more perfectly). This was pre 9/11, so talking your way onto a military installation wasn’t as difficult as I’m sure it is today. Having previously worked at the base I made my way to the 6th Marine Corps District headquarters building, parked the car and walked inside with my package.
I was met by an aid just inside the vestibule and I informed him, “I’m here to talk about my enlistment package”. Needless to say, the stunned look I got from him was repeated over and over each and every time I was forced to repeat my request to a new guy. After a slight ass chewing from the Sergeant Major, I was taken upstairs to Colonel Slick’s office where I waited outside while the Sergeant Major went into the Colonel to discuss just what I was doing there. I found myself being interviewed by probably a half-dozen Marines in the office who all asked, “you did what!?!?”. After a short time, the Sergeant Major returned and informed me that Colonel Slick would not see me and there was nothing further to discuss. I was handed a phone in the office from one of the admins working there and to my surprise it was my recruiter. He was laughing in shock at what had just happened. Although it would be years later that the movie would come out, a fitting illustration of his reaction to me could be summed up in the scene in Anchorman where Ron Burgundy tells his dog Baxter, “I’m not even mad, I’m actually kind of impressed”.
This time things were truly done with the Marine Corps. But it was also different. Because this time I knew I had done everything in my power to make it happen and it didn’t. Don’t get me wrong. I was still upset but I knew there was nothing more I could have done. It wouldn’t be for another ten years that I finally told my wife that I never had an appointment at Parris Island and that even upon my 4th and final hearing test I had once again switched the earphones.
Never Give Up
Although this would apparently complete my military career it would not be the end. One thing I studied in counterintelligence is that each of us has motivators. In CI you’re taught to look for motives along the lines of the acronym MICE. MICE stands for Money, Ideology, Coercion and Ego. While these primarily exist within the realm of CI as possible categories of motives to betray one’s country, I would hypothesize that these motives go deeper than that, into what an individual values. If that is the case than it stands to reason that each of us possesses a “chief motivating factor”, something that when pressure is applied rises to the top. We all value money, but when money is pitted against principle (ideology), one will inevitably take precedence. If you do this enough times you will eventually be able to create a hierarchy of character which intelligence professionals could then exploit.
God had revealed to me that the military was an idol of sorts. It was something that I was placing above Him and as such in His grace He prevented. But this also caused me to self-reflect. Was I joining the military for glory or recognition (ego) or was it for service and patriotism (ideology)? The truth came on September 11, 2001. On that day, like most Americans, I was reinvigorated and motivated more than ever to do whatever I needed to serve. But the question would be where and how.
Start at the Bottom
In late 2001 I started training in Brazilian Jiujitsu, a martial arts style made famous by the Gracie’s in the UFC. I took to it like I took to the military pursuits. I trained 6 days a week for years and competed in numerous competitions long before BJJ competitions were mainstream. By 2005 I was training and serving as an assistant instructor at a school in Brandon, Florida, not far from MacDill AFB. Because of the proximity to MacDill, which happens to be the location of CENTCOM and USSOCOM, we got a lot of military service members in our schools interested in training. One such individual was a Lt Colonel, who was a Ranger and worked as an aid of some kind for a senior general officer at USSOCOM. He and I hit it off because of interest in training as well as the fact that our kids were nearly the same age, and both trained as well.
Before long my instructor and I were offered an opportunity to come to MacDill and do a training seminar for the protective detail in charge of his boss. All of these guys were SOF members from various branches, so it was a little intimidating at first. But we did our seminar and at the conclusion of the class I was asked about the practicality of what we do. I was challenged by one of the members of the team and within a few seconds had submitted him. It probably bears mentioning that this was before the military adopted BJJ as the basis of its combatives program. So, I had a slight advantage… In the end we performed our service and I remember feeling like I had actually contributed something. This would later lead into other teaching opportunities including going to Fort Campbell, Kentucky to teach the 3-187th of the 101st Airborne during their pre-deployment work up.
I am not sure of the time frame but at some point, after 9/11 I had begun looking into private military contracting. I had previously looked into other avenues of military service including the French Foreign Legion but never felt right about serving at the behest of a foreign government. I had watched a documentary on the internet about a company called Executive Outcomes and began to see an opportunity to still serve. Prior to this I had no idea what a private military company was. In looking into the requirements for such companies I noticed that none of them were interested in someone with my background.
I began seeking out training of any kind that I could get to make myself more attractive to recruiters. At the same time, I was filling out every online job application I could to such companies as Blackwater, Triple Canopy, Olive Group, etc… Each of them had the same response, “must have hostile environment experience”. There is a scene from the 1994 film Dumb and Dumber where Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) asks his crush Mary (Lauren Holly) what the odds are of the two of them working out. To which she replies, “1 in a million”. His response summarizes my attitude at the time, “so you’re saying there’s a chance”.
One of the places I was training at was frequented by a private security company out of Orlando, Florida. At some point the owner of the facility, who happened to be a former Marine infantry officer, and the owner of the PMC had gotten into a discussion and my name came up as a possible source of teaching BJJ. This company was made up entirely of MARSOC and NSWF members. Upon coming into the training facility, which I pretty much had free reign of at this point, I was handed a card by the owner and asked to give this company a call about teaching. This was the first interest I had received, and I wasn’t going to squander it. In the days that followed, I called the firm up, had a couple of telephone interviews with them, exchanged some paperwork and then never heard any more from them. Until 2009.
Prior to 2009 I was working in the engineering field, managing a design firm and raising a family. I also went through a period where I began to question everything regarding my faith. Prior to this, my faith had primarily been founded on giving some sort of mental ascent to the fact that Christ had died for me, but it never penetrated any deeper than that. But now things were becoming very real. Why did I believe what I believe? Who was right? What were the foundations of what I believed? All these questions were forever on my mind and I remember looking up at an eclipse one night and realizing that everything I knew intellectually was true and that if I was honest, I had never had a relationship with God.
I sat up for weeks on end, in the evenings, barely able to sleep more than a few hours at a time. Most nights I left the TV on so that I could keep my mind distracted long enough to fall asleep without pondering my inevitable fate. I realized that my relationship with God was superficial at best. It really just involved me throwing wishes up in the air and him granting them. I had no regard for His call on my life and was guilty of treating him like a cuckold. Cuckold. There is no more fitting a word. It is an old English term that refers to a husband who knows his wife is cheating on him but allows it to keep the relationship with his wife. I had pursued everything other than God my entire life, only seeking Him when I had trouble getting what I wanted. Much like a wife who comes home to the safety and security her husband provides and uses his resources to dote on her adulterer.
I was brought into brokenness and repentance and through that a real relationship with God only made possible through the price His Son had paid. I began to devour everything I could to answer the questions that were floating around in my head. I questioned everything I had been taught. In the end I found myself affirming what I had previously accepted intellectually but now at a much deeper level. I had new pursuits and new desires. While the military and service to my country still had a special place in my heart nothing was more important than my relationship with Him.
While I continued to dive deeper into my faith and grow in my relationship with Christ, I kept one eye on pursuits overseas, never completely giving up and another one on my work. On occasion I would take on security jobs, falling back on some of the various training I had obtained in my pursuits of working overseas. But another dark cloud was looming on the horizon, the economic collapse.
The company I was working for had managed to struggle through the collapse longer than most but in the end, we were all hit. In 2009 everyone was laid off and my wife and I found ourselves at home. To make matters worse my wife’s sister was diagnosed with terminal cancer and had moved in with us with her family so that my wife could take care of her during treatment. At the time I was the only one in the house working and I was doing whatever work I could find, from snaking out drains on hotels that I had previously designed, to making handyman repairs for a friend’s construction company on foreclosure homes.
God Opens Doors
Later that year I was on my knees praying for work. We were losing our house, losing our cars and there didn’t seem to be anything on the horizon that was going to change any of this. As I stood up from my bedside, I turned off the light, plugged my phone in and got in bed. I heard my phone “ding” that I had received an email. I looked at my phone and there it was. The company that I had interviewed with years prior wanted to know if I wanted to participate in an anti-piracy course. In the wake of the Maersk Alabama incident piracy on the high seas had become a big deal. There would be no cost to the course and there would be a possible job offer upon completion and graduation. So, without hesitation and taking into consideration the providence of God in answering my prayers I accepted the offer to attend the training.
I showed up to the training and was surrounded by numerous other candidates. One by one we went around the table as each guy introduced themselves and their background. SEAL team 2, Marine, SEAL team 3, Army intelligence… and then there was me. It’s all a blur and I don’t even recall what I said but I was the least comfortable person there I guarantee. Then the instructor introduces himself, “Marine” was all he said. I would later find out that this was greatly under exaggerated.
The training consisted of everything from tactical training to medical. I felt my performance was decent, not the best, but not the worst, but I was hungry and had little options. The income this job could provide was in desperate need, not to mention the once in a lifetime opportunity this would present to get some kind of experience. All the experience I had gained to date was a mix of event security at high profile night clubs, little bits of executive protection, but mostly revolved around teaching and training.
I completed the course and went home and waited. And waited. And waited. I stayed in contact with the instructor of the course who became the chief operations officer for the company. Then one day I received the call. I was selected to go and conduct vulnerability assessments on shipping vessels going through the Gulf of Aden and conduct training for the crew on anti-piracy, anti-boarding procedures. I would be on a rotation with a pool of 5 other guys who had also gone through the program. I’ll never forget standing in the backyard of a foreclosed home making some minor repairs and falling to my knees to thank God as I got the call. To this day, I cannot tell you why I was selected, but I was.
Within a few weeks I was on a plane headed for South Carolina where I would pick up my first ship. I would be assisting another program graduate who had already ridden shotgun with the instructor on the first vessel. I followed along during our first outing, but it wouldn’t be long before we would run into some hiccups. It wasn’t anything major but the vessel we were on was similar, but not the same as the previous vessel he had been on. As a result, much of the training aids has to be adjusted and he was not computer savy. We were issued a laptop and with my experience in engineering and CADD I was able to get it all squared away. This was a bit of a challenge since it all had to be done in a tight timeline and without the benefit of the internet since we were out to sea. We had to improvise and adapt but, in the end, it went off without a hitch and I was given team lead position for the next vessel.
One by one we conducted all the required training and assessments. Most of the time we were well received but sometimes we weren’t. I learned a lot on those trips about dealing with people, especially people of higher rank or position. The whole experience was one of the most beneficial contracts to my development that I have ever experienced. From designing security models, to testing their effectiveness, to modifying the models based on current intelligence of how piracy was changing in the region it was amazingly shaping to my development. I learned to draw from the operational experiences of my counterparts, and they gained confidence in my background in engineering and overall tenacity. In the end we had contracted for 12 vessels amongst the six of us in two-man teams and I performed 9 of them, 8 as team lead. It was also here where I found that I had a gift in teaching.
At the end of the contract I was home and once again out of work. While I was definitely happy to be home with my family, I was also starting to learn about something called “away sick”. It refers to the feeling one has when they are antsy to get back out there. I had had a taste of the world I wanted to be in, and nothing was going to ever satisfy again. But I still had responsibilities to my family and needed to do whatever was necessary to ensure they were taken care of. So, I went back to construction work, but all the while continued to apply with other firms on other contracts.
I mentioned earlier about our “chief motivating factor” and the introspective questions it caused me to ask of myself. Was I pursuing this for glory or duty? The answer would identify what drives me. Whether it came from a place of selfishness or a place of selflessness. At this point I honestly wasn’t really sure. I would go back to my training. Continuing to do whatever I needed to stay proficient, all while working and paying the bills. It wouldn’t be until 2011 that I would receive an email that would symbolize the very thing that everyone said was impossible. Afghanistan.
Much like the phone call I had received from my Marine Corps recruiter in 1999, I had received an email from a British security firm working in Afghanistan on a Department of Defense contract. They were in desperate need of armed security guys to do force protection work in Afghanistan. They had reviewed my resume and told me if I was willing to leave within the week the position was mine. I called my wife and we agreed and within the week I was on a plane to Dubai and then to Bagram AFB in Afghanistan.
Arriving at Bagram was an experience in and of itself. Despite all the flying I had to do while doing anti-piracy work, I have never really been a fan of flying. I’m not afraid of it but it’s definitely not something I enjoy. Coming into Bagram airfield the planes have to make a sharp descent as a result of the mountains around the base. This was a bit of a departure for someone who had spent much of his time on commercial flights where passenger comfort was factored into flight paths. This wasn’t that.
Upon landing and exiting the plane I got my first taste of contract life. Before departing the US I was given a packing list and told to strictly follow it. We were not allowed to bring clothes that were not on the list, electronic devices or anything of the sort. As such I exited the plane in 17 degree weather with nothing but a polo shirt and a thin Northface pull-over. It would later come to light that someone at the company had emailed out the summer packing list by mistake. To make matters worse we were literally left to wander the base with no idea of where to go or what to do as our company contact had not even arrived. So, 5 of us sat there on the tarmac freezing our asses off while the military got ahold of our company. We got shuffled from hangers to just sitting around outside by the military where we ultimately sat huddled together on a rock alongside a HESCO barrier. Around 2am we were finally picked up and shoved into a forerunner where we dealt with military base security lecture us on the seat belt safety infractions for having guys lying on top of each other on the back seat because the cargo area was packed with gear.
After driving around the base for a while we finally got into our tents for the night and were allowed to get something to eat while we waited for the next plane to take us to our forward operating base (FOB) where we would be working.
We left Bagram the next day and flew up north to Camp Van Aalst in the Kunduz province. This place was much smaller but more along the lines of what I’d expected to be dealing with. Tents, makeshift ranges, towers, walls, etc. We all had to qualify on the weaponry the company had secured (which is another story in and of itself). From AK’s to RPK’s and PKM’s we all had to demonstrate that we could meet the contract requirements set forth by the Army. We also had rules of engagement (ROE) and cultural assimilation classes where we were brought up to speed on Pashtun practices so we wouldn’t jeopardize relationships that were being built by ODA members with the locals.
We all signed non-disclosure agreements (NDA’s) and as such I am not allowed to discuss the extent of the contract. But what I will say that my time there primarily centered around force protection, vehicle transport and personnel escort. The company I was working for held the contract for and we worked with Task Force 3-10. It was an amazing experience but also was the start of my realizing that some of my motivations weren’t as pure as I had thought they were. I spent much of my life pursuing the military and all things related, thinking that my pursuits were of the purist motives. Selflessness, sacrifice, patriotism. But while on the one hand I am standing around looking at where I am at in awe, at the same time I am asking where this is all going.
Our government counterparts literally had the best of the best in terms of facilities. This is likely as a result of who they were and what their mission was. One of the items they had was a fully equipped BJJ/MMA tent. Since our work schedules were 7 days a week, 12 hours a day we were busy all the time. But when you were off it wasn’t exactly like you could go anywhere because of the remoteness of the FOB. As a result, word got around that I was a BJJ blackbelt and I began to meet up with guys about training in my off time. Some of the guys were contractors but others were operators assigned to the task force. I got to train a lot with these guys and it definitely helped pass the time away from my family.
I took every opportunity I could to get off the FOB. I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I wasn’t going to see it wasted from the inside of HESCO barriers. Because we were a private security firm we had much of the same logistical issues as any other business. Medical, mail, payroll and other such odds and ends. The military didn’t provide these things and as a result of the remoteness of our location we had to travel to a larger installation known as the PRT, (provincial reconstruction team) run by the German military, to obtain these items. I volunteered for each and every off-FOB excursion I could. We’d roll out in soft skinned Hiluxes and Forerunners and make our way to the PRT. As often as time permitted, we stop by local shops and pick up 5:11’s pants that were ridiculously off size, with the zippers on the wrong side and Oakley glasses that famously became known as Faux-kley’s. I still have my local made “plate carrier” that was a knock off of some US production item.
In January of 2012 we were informed that the contract we were on would be canceled for convenience, something the Army retains the right to do apparently, and we would all be shipping out and headed home in February. Part of me was saddened by the news, but part of me was excited and anxious to get back to my family. So, we boarded a plane, headed back to Bagram, then Dubai and then home.
I remember coming back through customs after getting off the plane in the US. The customs guy greeted me, looked at my passport and said, “thanks for your service”. I almost cried… That was a greeting reserved only for those guys in the military. But as the pride began to swell within me so did the conviction. I saw clearly at that point that my motivations were selfish. I hadn’t served my country because I was fighting for freedom or waving the flag. I did it because my family needed financial support, and this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and a dream come true.
After getting back I worked in various other jobs because quite frankly the economy still sucked. I did tree work, worked as a conductor on the railroad and continued to train and stay proficient. I took on later State Department contracts in South America as well as private contracts in the Caribbean. Some were hostile, others weren’t. But I gained a great deal of experience in a variety of different disciplines within the security field. I have continued my education based on my experiences and recognizing where my strengths and weaknesses lie.
When we think of idolatry, we tend to gravitate towards pictures of little wooden statues or ancient pictures or representations of a deity. But the truest definition of idolatry from a Biblical perspective is simply, anything we place before God in our hearts. For some it could be a relationship. For others it could be money or status. For me it was self-will and determination. Much like Jonah who fled away from God when he was told to go preach to Nineveh, I was determined to do things my way. But just like Jonah, God broke me down and eventually I surrendered to His will.
God had equipped me with a passion for military service, patriotism, brotherhood and sacrifice; but I had to be stripped of my idolatry first. Once this was gone, I was then pliable enough to be used for His purposes. Opportunities that I had previously never considered began to open up. I’ve had the chance to work and train with guys well beyond my stature. Its opened-up opportunities to minister to guys who would otherwise never listen to anything regarding Christ or the gospel.
It has taken me 27 years to discuss my background and it’s been something that I am routinely asked and pressed for. Some feel like if you don’t discuss it you have something to hide. Others feel like if you do discuss it, you’re narcissistic and self-absorbed. I quite honestly feel that if you need a resume to listen to anything I have to say, then you probably aren’t my target audience. I was training with a guy one time who was a SEAL. He was telling about some stuff he had been involved in and he concluded with this statement. “I’m not trying to sleep with you”. The idea being, there was no incentive to lie.
I’m not trying to secure a book deal. I’m not promoting my resume for personal gain. I’ve had the opportunity to do some great things which I and those with me will quietly share. But at the same time, I want God to get credit for things. So, I’ve divulged my short comings, maintained my integrity within the community and tried to show that in my weakness, He is made strong. I’m not promising you success, fame, a dream job or anything of the sort. In the end when you follow Christ, you get Christ. And that has been far more than I deserve or could have asked for.
I have been fortunate enough to be born in the United States and as bad as things are, I have worked in 6 countries on 3 continents and I still feel the US is worth fighting for. We are rapidly circling the toilet for sure, but our founding fathers faced an uphill battle as well. To stand against the superpower of the day was unconscionable, but the fear of God and the heart to persevere was enough. People say the American dream is dead. I disagree. Because tenacity, perseverance, faith and sacrifice, all filtered through the lens of the fear of God has allowed me to go places and do things that people said was impossible.
I wrote an article in SpotterUp online magazine in which God had given me these words:
I’ve not gone further when I could’ve
I’ve not dove deeper when I should’ve
For yet as long as I live
I still have but one more thing to give
I’ve not gone further when I could’ve. There is always more I can do.
I’ve not dove deeper when I should’ve. There is never a time to not draw nearer and deeper to Christ.
For yet as long as I live, I still have but one more thing to give. The fact that I have breath means that God is not done with me. I have more I can do, more I can give, for Him.
The same is true for our country.
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Chron 7:14)
If my people who are called by my name.
This is not a call to the world. This is addressed to His people. Today that’s Christ-ians.
Will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways.
We cannot affect what others think, say and believe. But we aren’t called to either. Those who claim the name of Christ are called to repentance.
Then I will hear from heaven and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
He will hear us, He will forgive us, He will heal our land. He does all this, not us.
The overarching theme of my entire life is that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). But also, that work without faith is equally dead. We have never done enough. We should never be content with where our relationship with Christ is. As long as we have breath we can draw nearer, dive deeper, turn from wickedness and humble ourselves more. Whether He heals our land will be based on His grace, His mercy and His provision.