The Unexpected Patriot
How an Ordinary American Mother is Bringing Terrorists to Justice
By Shannen Rossmiller, Sue Carswell
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2011 Shannen Rossmiller
All rights reserved.
WHEN FIRST WE MET
I am spinning around, staring up at the bluish gray sky, as I would back home in rural Montana. I am in New York City for the first time and my senior class is now on the 110th floor of the south tower, on the World Trade Center's observation deck. I look down, clutching the steel fence and marveling at the 1,377 feet below, between me and the ground. In Conrad, Montana, the tallest objects are silos and grain elevators. Just as in Big Sky Country, I can see for miles, all the way to the New Jersey skyline. The people look like little ants. I clutch a pin of the towers that I purchased to commemorate this special day atop the tallest buildings in the world. When I peek over the edge, I hear our trip's narrator say, "If you drop a penny from this height and it hits someone on the head, it could penetrate them, hurting or maybe even killing them." I hold on to the pennies in my spring coat tightly. I am not here to cause harm. It feels like the building is leaning, which doesn't scare me; it's strange but exciting. Because it's March, my allergies are acting up terribly. It is humid and raining slightly. My eyes are burning.
On 9/11, when I got home from work, I went into my keepsake box and found the pin I had bought that day. I taped it to my computer. It was a concrete reminder of what had happened. Watching the towers fall over and over again on TV affected my whole being. It still does. I think daily of the wanton destruction, the fire, the dust, the twisted steel—the sheer carnage caused by a group of terrorists led by bin Laden who felt justified in the name of Allah to do harm to thousands of innocent people.
I have my other identities, too. I am Abu Abdullah, an al-Qaeda courier. My name is Abu Latif, and I am a recruiter trainer. I am Abu Musa. I have weapons and supplies. My name is Abu al Haqq, and I am an al-Qaeda financier. My name is Abu Zeida. I am located in AfPak. I am radicalized, a bloodthirsty mujahideen ...
But I'm jumping ahead of myself. Let's start from the beginning.
So much of who we are comes from how we were raised. For me, it was on a farm and ranch in Montana.
I was born a fighter, a "little scrapper" of sorts. I came into this world early, as a premature baby. I had a rare Rh-blood disorder, which meant I wasn't producing any white blood cells, and the nuns had to draw blood every day until my body started making them. This took a month. As a result, I never learned to sleep, a problem that haunts me to this day.
When my parents brought me home, I was so small that my dad placed me in a shoebox to show their friends and family. I was fed with a doll's bottle and had to wear doll-sized clothes, since preemie clothes were not available then. The doctors told my parents that premature babies tend to be slower and have developmental issues. So they prepared themselves for that.
I lived-up to the nickname, Little Scrapper, becoming strong and determined. I sat up, spoke, and walked ahead of schedule. I could run before I was a year old. I was so small, I didn't have to duck to get under the kitchen table, and I raced to follow my dad, whom I adored, wherever he went. I was always restless, fearless, and in search of adventure. The comfortable world my parents provided allowed me to flex my endless imagination, which imbued every day with endless possibility. At age three, when my father told me I couldn't go to town with him, I hid in the back of his pickup truck, surfacing halfway down the highway when my fingers went numb with the cold and my cheeks hovered dangerously close to frostbite.
I learned how to read at a very young age. This wasn't a huge surprise, once the preemie fears were allayed: my parents are intelligent people. My mom, Reba, was a teacher, and my dad, Darrell, was a rancher and wheat farmer who enlisted in the Navy after high school. My father was so handsome that he could have played the hero in a Western movie. At harvest time, I marveled at how he marshaled the men and the machines like a general on a battlefield.
No place could have been freer or more exciting for a kid than the twenty-eight hundred acres my family owned in the plains east of Conrad. Outside the big brick farmhouse, I found what seemed like endless barns, bunkhouses, haystacks, and fields to explore. In fact, my parents would lock me in my room at night to prevent me from wandering too far. Undaunted, I began climbing out my bedroom window to continue my nightly adventures.
I was determined to sleep anywhere but my bed. I'd sleep in my closet, a bathtub, or out in the garden in the flowerbeds. My parents would say, "Where are we going to find her now?" In fact, one night when my parents could not find me in any of my usual places they became very concerned and called around to neighbors to help search. They eventually found me asleep in the sleeper cab of my dad's Peterbilt semi truck.
I had forts all around the farm, which I built near the shelterbelts that were planted at intervals to break the prairie wind and keep the soil from blowing away. I had a Flintstones fort where I drew images of the characters—I especially liked Bam-Bam and Dino—and taped them on the large rock that served as the door to the fort. I had a Brady Bunch fort, one for the Swiss Family Robinson, and one very close to my heart based on the television show Emergency One, starring the paramedics John and Roy. I even made forts in the haystacks, until my mother told me that sometimes rattlesnakes liked to sleep there.
One of my mom's favorite stories is about a time when we were coming home from Conrad to the farm after shopping one day. I was upset that she didn't get one of the things that I wanted for dinner that night. I was particularly peeved because I had invited John and Roy to come to dinner. I was standing up in the front seat of our Suburban, adamant that we had to treat our guests well. She wasn't taking me seriously, so I told her that when we got home, I was going to run away. (I was three and a half.) After we got home, I packed up my belongings and headed out the front door, only to sit down at the end of the driveway. My mom watched me for a long time through the kitchen window. And when she finally came out and said, "I thought you were going to run away!" I said, "How can I run away when I'm not allowed to cross the road yet?" That was the extent of my protest.
I found relief in my forts. I felt at peace. One day, my dad brought home a red Honda 70 three-wheeler, which allowed me to get to my forts, some of which were as far as a mile and a half away from the farm (this was in the days before ATVs). I had a matching red helmet with gold sparkles on top. I remember the incredible sense of freedom and excitement that day brought.
My forts were private, and I was fiercely protective of them—I did not want to share them with other kids. When I was three and a half, my parents put me in a Montessori preschool in Great Falls that I attended three days a week. This was not long after my brother, Aaron, was born. I wasn't hyperactive, but I think my mother needed time to attend to my newborn brother, who was born with the same Rh-blood disorder I was born with, and it was probably also a way to rein me in. In Montessori school, I would learn French and more formal reading skills, as well as tap and ballet. My mother was a tap and ballet dancer her whole life, so she approved of this effort to socialize me with feminine activities. The one thing my parents did not anticipate from the Montessori school experience was having this little French-speaking thing with no one to talk to back home. They couldn't understand a word.
My mom says I was born five years old. When I was a kid, I would rather hang around and talk with adults than with other children. One of my clearest memories growing up was the Sunday night ritual of watching 60 Minutes. As soon as I heard the "tick, tick, tick" of the broadcast's intro, I was right there on my dad's lap. I was also fascinated by the nightly evening news and the larger world outside our farm. When the American hostages were taken in Iran in 1979, and the news media counted the days, I remember thinking, "That is so many days—when is this going to stop?" I can still recall the TV images of the era, as well as the last days of the Vietnam War and the airlifts. I even remember the Watergate scandal.
Ever since, I've had a keen interest in current affairs, news, history, and culture. One of my other favorite things growing up was the Childcraft Encyclopedia set my parents gave me. It introduced me to fascinating subjects including the Civil War, ancient Egypt, the ancient Greeks and Romans, and so on.
My other favorite pastime as a youngster took place on Saturdays in the spring and summer—cow slaughtering. I loved to sit on the fence post, and I couldn't wait for the sound of the rifle shooting the cow. Although I harbored this macabre fascination for the slaughtering ritual, I never stayed around to watch the butchering process, which entailed pulling the guts and innards from the dead cow.
My dad always had a book in hand, a habit he retains to this day. He likes true crime. My mom, on the other hand, was very stereotypically "feminine." She was in charge of the local Junior Miss pageant, and for seventeen years she did all of its choreography. Though I loved and admired my mother, it was my father whom I related to and found interesting. He would leave books in the grain trucks, combines, or his pickup, and when he went off marshaling his harvest crew I would grab them and wander through the pages and pictures. Once my dad finished a book, he would place it in the storage collection of boxes and paper grocery bags we had underneath the staircases in our home. Left alone and overcome with curiosity, I would sneak in and grab certain books to read secretly at night. In what marked the beginning of a lifelong pattern of compartmentalizing those interests that marked me as different, I protected my growing interest in the contents of my dad's books, because I knew they weren't meant for my impressionable eyes—especially with titles like In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter. I knew there was a reason they were underneath the stairs and not on the living room bookshelf. But I couldn't help myself.
One of the kinds of books I couldn't get enough of were those about serial killers. The first serial killer who caught my attention remains my favorite. Ted Bundy was a handsome guy. He was very charismatic and highly intelligent. I was eight when I first became aware of and interested in Bundy. To look at him you'd never know he was a killer, let alone a serial killer. In later years, when I read new books about Bundy, I learned that while traveling from Washington to Colorado, it was thought he had actually passed through Montana, and it was strangely exciting for me that he had once been so close.
What fascinates me about people like Bundy is their behavioral and psychological makeup. They know enough to hide what they're doing and they're aware that it's wrong, yet they have no conscience, so they do it again and again.
At the end of my fifth grade year, we had to do a project on things that were of interest to us. Most of my classmates presented on subjects such as the solar system, cooking, quilting, and so on. As I recall, their projects were age-appropriate but did not hold my interest. I was convinced that I had the best presentation, thinking, "Wow, have I got something!" I asked my teacher if I could make my presentation last. I truly believed that mine was going to knock them all out. I knew it was something that they wouldn't know anything about. I got up in front of my class with my three poster boards of Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, and John Wayne Gacy, who had all the little boys buried under his house. I started with Ted Bundy because he was handsome and happened to be on trial at the time down in Florida. I'd see reports of the trial on the news and thought he was a rock star. I next presented John Wayne Gacy, explaining how he dressed up as a clown to entertain at parties, and his interest in little boys. Finally, I told them how Ed Gein was the prototype for the movie Psycho. I described how Gein would skin women and place their remains over his dead mother.
I remember trying to point out how these individuals shared similar backgrounds and traits. Each suffered from childhood abuse, neglect, and isolation. Each felt that his obviously superior intelligence and appeal were not properly rewarded by society. Real and imagined insults and slights became justification for murder, ritualized and perverse. Not one of them possessed the kind of spiritual foundation that would have given him the strength or inspiration to reject the evil that boiled inside and to find a better path.
As I wrapped up, I was aware that I was not getting the response that I had expected. Everyone had clapped at the end of the other presentations, but not mine. I remember thinking, "Why are they looking at me like that?" The next day, I found out that the principal had received calls from concerned parents, and my mom and I had to meet with him in his office over the incident. He made sure I knew how inappropriate my presentation was. My mom had no idea of the subject matter of my presentation as I was left to do my schoolwork and projects mostly on my own. What I remember most was the one word consistently used to describe what I had done: "disturbing." I remember how surprised I was to be in trouble. I wasn't a troublemaking child.
My saving grace in the aftermath of this incident was that it was the end of the school year. That summer I hid away from the normal summer activities I loved, like swimming at our local pool.
The experience of my class presentation reinforced the feeling that I was different, even a little strange. It taught me to be careful about sharing my true self. I came to believe that if you want to get along, it's not a good idea to show too much intensity or individuality. It makes people uncomfortable, and they may reject you. I went through the rest of my public school years with my guard up. I tried to conform, and although I was ultimately accepted by my peers, it was lonely growing up because nobody ever knew me very well. I was too afraid of being judged or ostracized to let people get close to me. I still struggle with this today.
I always dreamed of going to law school and becoming a crusader, someone who could make a difference. Even though I withdrew my acceptance to law school to get married, I always felt that the profession was something that I would eventually pursue. In some ways, I think that dream fueled my desire to pursue Internet intelligence work, because it seemed so vitally important. It became my new dream to someday work my way so deep into the world of terrorism and counterintelligence that I could take out some highvalue target terrorists.
The core of what motivates me is doing the right thing or righting wrongs when possible. I seek to gain and retain the respect of people I admire because that is important to me. If someone tells me I can't do something, I will instinctively seek to prove them wrong. I have no patience for negative people. I have a need to understand the world, and I will pursue something until I can understand it.
CONRAD IS A QUIET, PICTURE-POSTCARD kind of town, where families, churches, and schools are the nerve centers. Many locals have roots a century or more deep. I can count more than a hundred relatives in the area. The hardware stores, gas stations, and farm supply shops that line the two-lane highway leading into town are family-owned. The people you pass on the road wave hello. It is not uncommon for people there to fly flags on their front porches every day of the year.
I've known my former husband, Randy Rossmiller, since we were kids. His father, also a farmer, was friends with my dad, and our families got together from time to time. When I returned to Conrad from college, we moved in the same social circles. Randy was easy to talk to and very smart. But the first thing any woman would notice was that he was handsome in a very warm and approachable way. Tall and slender, he had soft brown teddy bear eyes, thick brown hair, and a friendly smile—he was a dead ringer for Ben Affleck in Pearl Harbor. We started dating in late 1992. In 1995, we married and moved into one of the houses on his family's farm. We have three children, a boy and two girls. We were a big busy family, part of a larger Rossmiller clan that was very close-knit—sometimes too close- knit.
Randy's father, Lawrence, passed away suddenly in March of 1989, leaving Randy and his two brothers to share the work and responsibility for the farm, which included supporting his aging mother. As with any family business, the operation came with plenty of stress and conflict, which sometimes spilled into our relationship. I loved Randy and I wanted our marriage to work, but the conflicts and strain within his family were too much for me to take. By 1999, the stress and pressure of the dynamic of being part of a family farming business had taken its toll. Because we lived 35 miles from the nearby town where our kids attended school, Dutton, they had an hour commute to and from school each day. In 1997, I returned to work in the legal field, taking a part-time position clerking for a local court, which led me to a full-time position with a law firm in Conrad in early 1998. By the time conflict started to brew with my family's farming business in late 1999, I had been working in Conrad for almost three years, which made it difficult to accommodate the kids' afterschool activities and interests as they went to school in Dutton. Over the summer of 1999, it was becoming more apparent that it was time for a change not only for the kids but for our family. Though it was a hard decision to make, I decided to move with the kids into Conrad to enroll them in school, which would also accommodate my job there. W decided to move into my deceased grandmother's home until we were able to find more formal living arrangements. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Unexpected Patriot by Shannen Rossmiller, Sue Carswell. Copyright © 2011 Shannen Rossmiller. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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