1. How I Got Here: Patterns of Hindsight
How do we end up doing what we do in life? How do we become what we become? How did we get where we are today? At some point in our lives, we all ask ourselves these questions. Of course, there’s no single, causal explanation or answer, but by looking back through the pattern-revealing lens of hindsight, we can recognize some of the defining activities, experiences, ideas, and opportunities that ultimately shaped our paths. History reveals patterns, and patterns reveal life.
I was born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois. My parents gave birth to nine children. Yes, we were of Irish-Catholic descent (it’s the first question most people ask when they hear nine kids).
Built in 1896, the house I grew up in is the same house my mother lives in today. With four boys and five girls, life had its share of unique idiosyncrasies. Food was always scarce. We considered bologna a delicacy, and when there were actually a few slices left, they were usually hidden be-hind or under something else in the refrigerator—familial Darwinism at work. Although the house had six bedrooms, all four boys slept in the same room. My mother locked us in at night to keep us from going downstairs and raiding the kitchen. To get the extra rations I was sure I needed, I started climbing out the window, crawling across the roof, hanging off the gutters, and dropping to the ground, where I’d then reenter the house through a basement window I had left open before going to bed.
My brothers and sisters would probably say that my greatest talent as a kid was finding things. My parents ran a tight ship. When one of my siblings gained possession of something my parents thought inappropriate, such as my sister’s low-cut hip-hugger pants, my older brother’s Doors album, or my younger brother’s BB gun, my parents confiscated the “offensive” items and stashed them away in the types of places where no one, including my parents, would ever look again. Inevitably my siblings would turn to me for the recovery operation. My process was elementary. The size, shape, and composition of what I was looking for were key. A BB gun required a rifle’s length of rigid hiding space volume; a Doors album a long, thin slot; while my sister’s pants could be squished away almost anyplace. I’d always imagine where I would hide the object if I were my parents (up high and out of reach from my little brother, odd and unexpected compartments for my sister’s stuff, etc). I knew every nook and cranny in the house, so if a dresser or a box in the closet were askew, it was a surefire clue that I was getting hot. Nothing was out of bounds as a hiding place: inside TV sets, behind dresser drawers, on top of the furnace in the basement. I never failed in a finding mission—ever! Helping my brothers and sisters find their stuff was cool, but it wasn’t what jazzed me; I thrived on the thrill of the hunt.
I’ve come to believe that within the heart of every boy lies the seed of a warrior. Even a boy born and raised in a bubble with no exposure to TV or toys will occasionally chew his toast into the shape of a gun, or stealthily roll his bubble across the room to sneak up on his mom. The degree to which the warrior seed grows and flourishes is dependent on the life experiences in which it’s nurtured. For me, there was one seminal experience that I first took part in at the age of seven. It wasn’t the Boy Scouts. It was “bombing cars.”
For me and my friends, bombing cars had nothing to do with trying to scare people or damage their property. Instead, it was our way of imbibing what I have since come to know as “the warrior’s cocktail” (the thrill of the hunt mixed with the thrill of the chase).
To get the best possible chases, the types that would challenge our ability to run, dodge, evade, and outsmart, we were picky. We picked our bombing positions with great care to ensure we always achieved surprise. Houses surrounded by thick evergreen trees or juniper bushes were our favorites. We threw snowballs only at cars driven by men—the younger and the more, the better. Back then, there was a high price to pay if you got caught. You either got the crap kicked out of you and your face washed with snow on the spot, or you were dragged off to the police station and locked up until your parents came to get you—my claim to fame was that I never got caught.
At times, our numbers would swell to upward of fifty kids, some-times heaving more than fifty frozen projectiles; on those days we called it carpet-bombing cars. Before we’d start bombing, I’d gather the younger kids around—most of whom were pretty scared—and share what we called the golden rules of bombing.
“Be prepared. Know how all the gate latches open and shut, and remember who has dogs in their yards. Pull your hat up high so there’s nothing blocking your vision and your ability to see what’s going on around you.
“When the chase starts, stay flexible. We can run anywhere we want—we’re kids, they’re not. Change directions a lot: the more you stay out of his sights, the less he’ll want to keep chasing you. If the snow is fresh, don’t ever hide—your footprints will lead him right on top of you.
“If you can’t outrun ’em, you gotta outsmart ’em. If the guy is about to catch you, slow down a bit, then drop to the ground in a ball and he’ll trip over you and go flying into the snow. If you get caught, start bawling your eyes out, and tell ’em you were just walking home from school and some older kids told you to start running. If all else fails, just stick with me. I’ll make sure you get away.”
More than any other activity in my youth, bombing cars was the experience that allowed my warrior seed to grow and thrive, while also arming me with a mind-set full of options as both the hunter and the hunted.
High school was sort of a halcyonic blur for me. I spent most of my time hanging out with my friends, playing sports, or just plain ol’ having fun. I ran cross-country and played ice hockey, dual-purpose handrails that kept me out of trouble and in great physical condition. I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin, and babysat for my neighbors to make my kicking-around money. Although there aren’t many things I’d change about my adolescent years, there was one event during my senior year of high school that, if given the opportunity at the time, I definitely would have requested a do-over.
A few months before graduation, a girl who was a neighbor of mine told me that if I were to ask her friend to my prom, her friend would definitely say yes. I was totally psyched. I had yet to attend a single dance in four years of high school, and this would be my last chance. I had had a crush on her friend for a long time, but had never been able to get my nerve up to ask her out on a date. Now, with the threat of rejection greatly minimized, I figured I might just be able to close the deal. While walking home from school that day, I mentally rehearsed the words I’d use when I called her on the phone later that evening. I was the king of dialing six numbers, then hanging up the receiver—this was not going to be easy. Lost in my hypothetical phone conversation, I didn’t notice the jacked-up Dodge Charger jump the curb and skid to a stop on the perfectly manicured lawn a few feet away. “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin was blaring from the Bose in the back. Three of my friends jumped out and surrounded me. They were fired up about something. “Wait until you hear what we got planned for prom night,” Billy Pappas, a fuzzy-haired Greek kid who loved to drink beer, announced. A keg of beer? A live band at the party afterward? I wondered. Billy didn’t wait for my answer. “For all those suckers going to the dance, this is gonna go down as the greatest prank in school history!”
“Wait a minute, Billy. Aren’t you going to the prom with your girl-friend?” I asked in disbelief. “No way,” he replied. “This will be much more fun!”
“Come on, Pete, we can’t pull it off without you,” they all chimed in together. I didn’t say anything. “Without you we’re sure to get caught; we need you, man.” Ego has a powerful pull on all humans, but on a male teenager, it’s enslaving. As they explained the “plan” to me, I don’t remember if it ever seemed like much of a good idea or even like much of a good time, but they acted like they really needed me. I wasn’t thinking in terms of the last dance, or the girl, who was probably at home that very minute waiting for my call. All I thought about was how much my buddies admired my talents as an escape artist, and how throwing my hat in with them gave me an easy way out of having to step up to the plate to actually dial that seventh number.
The day of the dance, we pooled our dollars and change together and bought a case of beer and a bushel of ripe tomatoes. With the tomatoes and beers divvied up among us, the four of us settled into position, hidden in a thick tangle of juniper bushes that blanketed the corner house one block down the street from the high school. There we sat for the next two hours, waiting for what the plan predicted would be a parade of buses loaded with prom couples on their way to the dance. We whiled away the hours by guzzling our beer and talking about how stupid all the other guys were for actually going to the prom and missing out on all this “fun.” The air lay heavy with the stench of piss and pine. Finally, a single orange school bus rumbled down the street toward our ambush position.
Completely tanked, all four of us lurched out of the bushes hooting and hollering like deranged savages. Each of us heaved five or six tomatoes in a manner completely commensurate with the effects of downing five or six beers. I don’t believe a single tomato so much as grazed the bus—I can vouch for all of mine. Standing on the edge of the street in the warm spring twilight of my senior year, I remember staring at a couple who were sitting in the back of the bus, lost in each other’s arms, and completely oblivious to me and the tomatoes I had just hurled. Police sirens screamed in the distance; someone had called the cops.
What had I done? I wondered. I turned aside my last best chance to go to a high school dance for what had to be the lamest prank that I had ever participated in. Down the street, two of my buddies stood silently, mirror images of me, but not Billy. He was out in the middle of the street in a full-up purple rage, screaming at the top of his lungs, “Screw you, Cindy!” while flipping the bird like a spear at the now distant school bus. That’s when it hit me. It all made sense.
The prank was all about revenge against his girlfriend, whom he had broken up with a couple of weeks earlier. To pull off the prank, and—perhaps just as important—to help pay for the beers, he needed me and my buddies.
I’d been duped. I should have seen it coming. I could feel the giant L forming on my forehead. I felt like a total loser.
“Hey, guys, the cops are coming. Follow me.” I turned and sprinted into a nearby alley. Three hours and many miles later, the cops gave up. Thanks to the chase, and the fact that all of us got away, my buddies considered it the greatest prank of all time. Not me. Most of us can remember the name of the person we went to the senior prom with. I can only remember the name of the girl I never asked.
The silver lining of my heartfelt regret was that the incident precipitated a lifelong quest to better understand why I sometimes made such chowderheaded decisions. I never wanted that giant L to form on my forehead again. I also had one more mistake to add to my lifelong résumé of mistakes, the curriculum vitae for all wisdom and knowledge.
After high school, I attended Southern Illinois University (SIU), in Carbondale, Illinois. I chose SIU not because of academics, or special curricula, or even because it was in Illinois. I chose SIU, because it was in the middle of the Shawnee National Forest. The 275,000 acres of the Shawnee National Forest lie in the rough, unglaciated wilderness region of southern Illinois between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. I fell in love with the area on my first visit to the school. Over the next four years, the forest maintained a powerful pull on my scholastic psyche. I spent most weekends hiking with friends into the forest’s roughest and least explored recesses. The names of these places—Panthers’ Den, Giant City, Trail of Tears, and Devils’ Kitchen—were accurate indicators of both their inaccessibility and the wilderness hazards they presented.
In those days, SIU was most famous for its Mardi Gras–like Halloween party. Tens of thousands of students would flock to SIU each year for the festivities. The town encouraged the melee by closing Main Street and allowing the elaborately costumed revelers to party and riot until they literally dropped. The costume was a big deal; you weren’t just supposed to wear it, you were expected to become it. Pirates, whores, vampires, and gangsters. I noticed that the costume one chose was in many cases, a good indicator of some defining slice of the costume-wearer’s personality.
I dressed up as the same thing every year, a commando. I didn’t know much about what a commando was. Inside my untainted nonmilitary mind, I perceived a commando as a hybrid of James Bond and a Spartan warrior. My predilection for impersonating a commando had nothing to do with guns or blowing things up—though I definitely thought those were cool, too; rather, it was the intrigue behind the role that completely enraptured me. Specifically, what I considered the tools of the commando trade—disguises, deception, and diversions, all used in the name of out-smarting an adversary. With each successive year that I dressed up and immersed myself in the role, I felt more and more certain that I was find-ing my path.
During my second year, I went with friends to our school’s down-town movie theater to see the twin billing of The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. I was mesmerized. It wasn’t the music, or missiles, or even the moxie that captivated me. Instead, it was the futility of the way we fought the war and the objects of that futility, the brave men who had to do the fighting. The two movies piqued my interest in the Vietnam War. My newfound curiosity motivated me to do something that all of my academic courses had previously failed to do; I became a regular at the university library.
Sitting at the same table in the rarely visited periodical archives section each night, I spent weeks scouring thick black binders full of old issues of Life magazine. I read every Vietnam story, but the pictures had the biggest impact on me. I had lots of questions, so I sought out and talked with some Vietnam veterans who were teaching at the school at the time. They shared many of their perspectives with me, and the more I heard, the more frustrated I became. I was generally frustrated because as hard as it was for me to admit at the time, I realized that my country lost the war. I was specifically frustrated because the more I learned about the decisions made by various leaders during the war, the more I became certain that it was the decisions, not the enemy, that caused us to lose. How could so many seemingly bright, intelligent people in our government have made so many bad decisions? From Kennedy and McNamara through Nixon and Westmoreland, the decisions they made concerning everything from how we got involved to how we actually fought the war completely perplexed me.
I wondered why we didn’t create a guerrilla army to fight the Viet Cong instead of spending billions to create a Westernized version of a conventional army that neither fit the culture of the South Vietnamese nor the enemy adversaries they were trying to defeat. When I looked at the combat pictures in Life, I wondered why our military forces traveled in such large, lumbering groups instead of splitting up into small teams to give them greater agility. Why did they fly helicopters every-where, announcing their locations and intentions to the enemy wherever they went? Why didn’t they stay in the jungle, instead of going back to their base camps all the time? To defeat the enemy, why didn’t we fight like the enemy?
Although it would be many years until I felt comfortable admitting it, I began to grow a deeply seated operational respect for the Viet Cong. They were always light and agile. They carried and wore only what they needed for the mission: a tube of rice, an AK-47, a few magazines of am-munition, and loose-fitting, dark pajamas. They seemed to have a what-ever-it-takes attitude toward combat operations. They massed only when required, and they usually fought in small groups of as few as two or three men. When things got too hot, they melted back into the jungle to fight again another day. They were nimble.
The American history course I was taking at the time offered a field trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to tour the famous Civil War battle-field of the same name. Initially I wasn’t interested—after all, what could I learn from walking across a bunch of cornfields and talking about a battle and a war that happened more than a hundred years earlier? A few days later, while walking on campus, I ran into one of the Vietnam veterans I had recently befriended. I asked him what he thought about visiting Gettysburg. “If you want to learn about what went wrong in Vietnam,” he responded sagely, “you can find the answer at Gettysburg.” Then he turned around and walked away. That was all he had to say about that. Curious to discover the meaning of his orphic response, I signed up for the trip later that day.
At Gettysburg, our group conducted an interactive tour of the battlefield. Walking across the heavily wooded hills and gently rolling corn-fields, our guide explained the tactical significance of each of the major engagements. The most striking was the spot in the middle of the battle-field where the notorious Pickett’s Charge took place. General Robert E. Lee, the commanding general of the South, ordered General George Pickett and fifteen thousand of his men to march in a box formation across a mile-long stretch of open cornfields and conduct a head-on assault against the front-line forces of the Union Army. The Union forces were ensconced behind a four-foot-high stone wall on top of a panoramic hill. As I stood in the middle of the cornfield and stared up at the hill and the wall, only one thought came to mind: How could they have done this to their men? I could not understand how General Lee and his subordinate generals, such as Pickett, could have been so monumentally reckless with the lives of their men. Our tour guide told us that one of the Southern generals—James Longstreet—seemed to recognize the insanity of the head-on assault when it was first discussed, but instead of falling on his proverbial sword and doing the right thing for his boys, he capitulated to the divine exhortations of General Lee. “It is God’s will,” Lee continuously reassured his subordinate officers. Half of the men who started Pickett’s notorious suicide charge ended up killed, or injured. They died for the cause, but they were killed by their own leaders. Of course, the Southern officers had no corner on the recklessness market in the Civil War—the Union Army sent their men to equally unthinkable deaths at Manassas and Fredericksburg, to name but two.
On the bus ride home from Gettysburg, I wondered why both sides fought the war the way they fought it. Why did they organize the way they did—fighting in rank-and-file (box) formations, and always in the open? Why not just create small teams of men who infiltrate at night and find openings in the other side’s defenses? And why not use trees and terrain for cover while shooting at the enemy? It all seemed like common sense to me. Maybe that’s what the Vietnam veteran meant when he told me that Gettysburg would help me understand what went wrong in Vietnam. The way both wars were fought defied explanation, because the decisions made around the way they were fought defied common sense. The pattern of poor operational decision-making and senseless sacrifice of good men’s lives that defined Gettysburg, other Civil War battles, and Vietnam would stay tucked away in a special corner of my mind throughout my military career, and remain there to this day.
A few months later, in April 1980, an event occurred that had a coagulating effect on all of my previous life experiences. While whiling away time between classes in the SIU Student Center, a news flash interrupted the program on the big-screen TV. The newscaster reported that the United States had just conducted an abortive hostage rescue mission in the desert of Iran.
In the days that followed, the details of what became known as the Desert One Hostage Rescue Mission were revealed to the nation. Planned and executed under the utmost secrecy, eight helicopters, six C-130 trans-port planes, and ninety-three Delta Force commandos secretly infiltrated Iran to conduct the hostage rescue mission. The plan was to rendezvous in the middle of the desert at a place called Desert One, fly on helicopters to another point called Desert Two, and then storm the American embassy in Tehran and bring home the U.S. hostages. But Delta Force never made it to Desert Two or Tehran. The mission was aborted after three of the eight helicopters developed mechanical problems on the way to Desert One. The mission ended in disaster when one of the helicopters that did make it to Desert One collided with a transport plane while refueling on the desert floor. Eight American warriors died in the inferno that followed. The hostages would remain in captivity for another eight months.
For the United States, the operation was a monumental failure. Follow-up congressional investigations revealed a surprising level of negligence by the government agencies and military leaders involved. Specifically noted were three major deficiencies: (1) the way the mission was planned and the overly complex plan it produced; (2) the overdependence on the use of ill-equipped helicopters and their ill-trained pilots; (3) and an overemphasis on operational secrecy among military leaders, which prevented them from sharing mission-critical information with each other.1
The failed Iranian hostage rescue mission was a Rubicon moment for me. The awareness that brave men had risked and given their lives in an attempt to save fellow Americans caused me to reflect for the first time on my own life. I realized what a great life I actually had, and how fortunate I was to have all the freedoms and opportunities of growing up and living my life in the United States. I also felt equal parts of embarrassment and frustration. Embarrassment that my country had failed such a crucial mission on the world stage and frustration with the way the military planned and executed the mission, which essentially doomed it to failure before it ever got under way.
Once again I asked myself how so many seemingly bright people could make so many bad decisions. I didn’t watch the TV news again for almost a month. Instead, I went on a lot of long runs to contemplate what my life was all about, and how I might somehow be able to make a contribution for the greater good. I was, at that point in my college career, an accomplished marathon runner and triathlete. I spent most of my time out-side the classroom running, swimming, and biking through the rolling hills and forest trails of southern Illinois. Within a few weeks I knew what I needed to do.
I wanted to pay something back to my country; I wanted to make a contribution. I decided to join the military. Three years later, after completing the requirements for my bachelor’s degree and attending graduate school, I signed up to join the army and attend Officer Candidate School. When my recruiter, a senior army noncommissioned officer, asked me what motivated me to join the army, I told him I wanted to make sure that the United States never again failed in an important mission, and to make sure that good men would never again die due to bad decision-making. Al-though it probably sounded a bit corny at the time, I added “my goal is to save lives, not take lives.” He responded by asking me if I was interested in joining the Army Medical Corps. “No,” I told him with great officiousness. “I want to join Delta Force.”
I wanted to participate in the most sensitive and complex missions our country would face. I wanted to operate as a hybrid of James Bond and a Spartan warrior. I wanted to make a contribution; I joined the military to become an officer in Delta Force.