They aren’t the shoot-em-up kind of superheroes, but equally awesome in their own way.
1. Maj. Carol Danvers (Ms. Marvel)
Major Danvers is a trained military intelligence officer and erstwhile spy. She’s one of the most distinguished officers in the superhero universe, a graduate of the Air Force Academy, where Nick Fury recruited her for the CIA. Retiring from the Air Force as a Colonel to be Chief of Security at NASA before becoming half-Kree (a militaristic alien race in the Marvel Universe) and then becoming Captain Marvel after meeting a Kree alien named Mar-Vell, but she acquired superpowers after an explosion merged her DNA with the first Captain Marvel… well, it’s complicated. She is an author and feminist and her powers include flight, enhanced strength and durability, shooing energy bursts from her hands, and being able to verbally judo one Tony Stark.
2. Capt. Hal Jordan (Green Lantern)
He was an elite pilot who joined the Air Force on his 18th birthday and immediately became a test pilot (it doesn’t have to be realistic, it’s a comic, ok?) before joining the Green Lantern Corps. He was also a hot shot fighter pilot who fought aliens as well as North Koreans. He was kicked out after decking his superior officer, who wouldn’t let him take leave.
3. Sam Wilson (Falcon)
Falcon is actually an enlisted airman, not an officer. He’s a former Air Force Pararescue Jumper (PJ), which makes him a great candidate for the superhero’s tendency to jump into the middle of a combat situation to ice evildoers and save lives. Not content with all that, he also counsels veterans with post-traumatic stress issues in his free time.
4. Ben Grimm (The Thing)
Another Air Force test pilot (those guys are pretty ballsy, so it makes sense to turn them into superheroes), Grimm was also a Marine and an astronaut, which is how he became the Thing in the first place. For all the clobberin’ and poor use of the English language depicted in the films, Grimm is clearly the superhero with the most book learnin’ and the most distinguished military career. Ben Grimm’s rock skin gives him super strength, durability, and resistance to extreme temperatures.
5. Lt. Col. James Rhodes (War Machine)
What better Air Force job could there be than to be the USAF Liaison to Genius, Billionaire, Playboy, Philanthropist — and your best friend, Tony Stark. That job is so awesome, it led to him being the only other person on Earth who gets to pilot a suit of armor on the level of Iron Man’s.
6. Travis Morgan (Warlord)
Flying a recon mission over the North Pole led to a plane malfunction and an ejection over what should have been Northern Canada. when Morgan touched down, he found himself in the land of Skartaris, a barbarian world in another dimension, hidden inside the Earth’s core. He defeated an evil magician attempting to conquer Skartaris and became Warlord. He was able to return to Earth on occasion, which makes all of this sound like a deployment to Afghanistan.
Over a period of several years and 21 meetings with CIA case officers in Moscow, Adolf Tolkachev, an engineer overseeing a radar development lab at a Soviet state-run defense institute, passed the US information and schematics the revealed the next generation of Soviet radar systems.
Tolkachev struggled to convince the CIA he was trustwory: He spent two years attempting to contact US intelligence officers and diplomats, semi-randomly approaching cars with diplomatic license plates with a US embassy prefix.
When the CIA finally decided to trust him, Tolkachev transformed the US’s understanding of Soviet radar capabilities, something that informed the next decade of US military and strategic development.
Prior to his cooperation with the CIA, US intelligence didn’t know that Soviet fighters had “look-down, shoot-down” radars that could detect targets flying beneath the aircraft. Thanks to Tolkachev, the US could engineer its fighter aircraft — and its nuclear-capable cruise missiles — to take advantage of the latest improvements in Soviet detection and to exploit gaps in the enemy’s radar systems.
The Soviets had no idea that the US was so aware of the state of their technology. Tolkachev helped tip the US-Soviet military balance in Washington’s favor. He’s also part of the reason why, since the end of the Cold War, a Soviet-built plane has never shot down a US fighter aircraft in combat.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author David E. Hoffman’s newly published book “The Billion Dollar Spy” is the definitive account of the Tolkachev operation. It’s an extraordinary glimpse into how espionage works in reality, evoking the complex relationship between case officers and their sources, as well as the extraordinary methods that CIA agents use to exchange information right under the enemy’s nose.
It’s also about how espionage can go wrong: In 1985, a disgruntled ex-CIA trainee named Edward Lee Howard defected to the Soviet Union after the agency fired him over a series of failed polygraph tests. Howard was supposed to serve as Tolkachev’s case officer. Instead, he handed him to the KGB.
Business Insider recently spoke with Hoffman, who won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for The Dead Hand, an acclaimed history of the final decade of the Cold War arms race.
Hoffman talked about some of the lessons of the Tolkachev case. Successful espionage, he said, is like a “moonshot,” an enormous effort that only works when cascades of unpredictable variables are meticulously kept in check.
And as Hoffman notes, his book is a unique glimpse into how such an incredibly complex undertaking unfolds on a day to day basis.
“You can read a lot of literature about espionage but rarely do you get to coast along on the granular details of a real operation,” Hoffman says, in reference to the over 900 CIA cables relating to the Tolkachev case that he was able to access. “That’s what I had.”
The archive, along with the scores of interviews Hoffman conducted in researching the book, yielded unexpected insights into the realities of spycraft: “I was really surprised by both the sort of quest for perfectionism” among the agents who handled the Tolkachev case, says Hoffman, “but also by the enormous number of things that can and did go wrong.”
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
BI: Your book the story of a CIA triumph: They run this source in the heart of Moscow for 5 or 6 years and get this bonanza of intelligence. But it’s also a story of organizational failure — about how this asset was eventually betrayed from within the CIA’s own ranks.
Is there a message in these two interrelated stories about the nature of intelligence collection and the challenges that US intelligence agencies face?
David E. Hoffman: On the first point, I think the big message, which is still very valid today, is the absolutely irreplaceable value of human source intelligence.
We live in an era when people are romanced by technology, the CIA included. Between what you scoop up from people’s emails and what satellites can see and signals intelligence, there always seems to be a new technological way to get various kinds of intelligence.
But this book reminded me that there is one category of espionage that is irreplaceable, and that is looking a guy in the eye and finding out what the hell is going on that isn’t in the technology — that can’t be captured by satellites. Satellites cannot see into the minds of people. They can’t even see into a file cabinet.
Even in the cyber age, it seems to me that you still have to get that particular human source, that spy that will do what nobody else will do: to let you sort of bridge the air gap, plug in the USB thumb drive if that’s necessary, to tell you something that nobody has written down …
Tolkachev was that kind of human source, an absolutely sterling example of someone who could bring stuff that you couldn’t get any other way.
The second point is, you called it institutional dysfunction but I think there’s a larger factor here which is counterintelligence …
[Intelligence] cannot simply be a matter of collection. You also have to have defenses against being penetrated by the other guys.
We live in a world where the forces of offense and defense are in perpetual motion. Counterintelligence is part of that. And counterintelligence is what really failed here.
I think it was also institutional dysfunction in the way they treated Howard. That wasn’t a counterintelligence problem so much it was a sort of incompetence: They fired a guy, they said get lost, and he was vengeful.
But I also think that — maybe not particularly in this case but just generally — the CIA did not value counterintelligence highly enough for a long time. Really the events that followed Tolkachev — [Aldrich] Ames [see here], [Robert] Hanssen [see here], that whole period of the 1985-86 losses [see here] — were a failure of counterintelligence …
There were really some big vulnerabilities there. In the end Tolkachev was exposed and betrayed by a disgruntled, vengeful fired trainee. But there were other losses soon to follow that were caused by essentially not having strong enough counterintelligence in place.
BI: It’s interesting how much the success of the operation had to do with these agents understanding Tolkachev’s state of mind based on these very short meetings that would be spaced months and months apart.
And from that they would have to build out some kind of sense of who this guy was. From the looks of it they did so fairly successfully for awhile.
DEH: That’s my toughest question. Espionage at its real core is psychology. You’re a case officer, you’re running an agent — what is in the soul of that man? What’s in his heart, what motivates him?
These are all questions that you have to try to answer for headquarters but also for yourself, in trying to play on his desires and understand them. Sometimes it can be a real test of will as you saw in this particular narrative. This psychological business can be very difficult …
A couple of times early in the operation Tolkachev revealed his deep antipathy towards the Soviet system. He said I’m a dissident at heart, he describes how fed up he is with the way things were in the Soviet Union.
He gives only a very very skimpy factual account of his wife’s parents travails, but I was able to research them in Moscow and discovered that his wife grew up without her parents. Her mother was executed and her father was imprisoned for many years during Stalin’s purges. And Tolkachev was bitter about that.
He also came of age in the time when [Nobel-prize winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn] and [Nobel Peace Prize-winning physicist and activist Andrei Sakharov] were also sort of coming of age as dissidents.
All of that rumbled around behind these impassive eyes. It’s not as if he handed over a book saying, I’m a dissident and here’s my complaint. Instead he handed over secret plans and said, I’m a dissident and I want to destroy the Soviet Union.
This psychological war and test of nerves of constantly trying to read a guy is really the most unpredictable and most difficult part of espionage. In this case, I’m not sure it was always successful.
The case officers did grasp that Tolkachev was determined. He expressed this sort of incredible determination, banging on the car doors and windows for 2 years to get noticed.
And when he’s working for the CIA he gives them his own espionage plan that takes years and multiple stages that he had mapped out. He’s a very, very determined guy. But what’s driving that isn’t always clear to the case officers.
BI: How does Tolkachev’s story fit in to the larger story of the end of the Cold War arms race?
I don’t think you could make the extravagant claim that he ended the Cold War or that he ended the arms race. But that’s not to minimize what Tolkachev did do. One of the things I discovered was how uncertain we were about Soviet air defenses in that period at the end of the Cold War …
There was always a funny thing going on with the Soviet Union. They had a lot of resources and were a very large country and the state and the military industrial complex was a big part of it. They always built a lot of hardware.
In fact they had a huge number of air-defense fighters and bases positioned all around their borders. [Air defense] wasn’t such a big deal for us but for them, the enemy was at their doorstop, right in Europe. They also had the world’s longest land borders. They had a lot to defend.
Thanks to Tolkachev, the US knew all about the radar capabilities of the Soviet-built MiG-29, the advanced interceptor introduced in the mid-1980s.
The US saw all the deployments but there was also evidence that Soviet training was poor, that the personnel who manned all these things were not up to it, [and] that there was a goofy system where pilots were told exactly what to do by ground controllers and had very little autonomy.
The intelligence about whether the Soviets had look-down shoot-down radar was very uncertain. Some people said no, they don’t have it, some said yeah. And here’s were Tolkachev stepped into the breach.
Within a few years of his work, we knew exactly what they had and what they were working on. Tolkachev was also bringing us not only what ws happening now but what would be happening 10 years from now. A
nd if you think about it in real time, if you were in the Air Force and thinking about how you were going to deal with Soviet air defenses, getting a glimpse of their research and development 10 years ahead was invaluable …
There was also a fine line between [air defenses] and the nuclear issue. There were two aspects to strategic nuclear weapons that depended on air defenses and the kind of stuff Tolkachev brought us.
One was obviously bombers. In the early days of the Cold War [the US had] a high altitude strategy. B-52s would fly at a very high altitude and bomb from 50,000 or so feet.
Then we made a switch and we decided that the Soviets’ real vulnerability was at low altitudes. And it’s true. They did not have good radars at low altitude …
The strategic cruise missile scared the living daylights out of the Kremlin, because they knew they could fly right under their radars.
BI: Much of this book consists of reconstructions of scenes that were top-secret for many years but that you put together through researching the cable traffic and conducting interviews.
What do you see as the biggest challenge of writing about these dark spaces in American national security?
There are all kinds of missing jigsaw pieces in these narratives that we think we know, say, about terrorism, or about WMD. One of the things you find out if you’re one of those people who go with a pick and shovel at history and try to unearth rocks and tell stories is that pieces are missing — tiny little pieces, and also important things.
In this story there were a bunch of gaps that I had to report. I had enough to tell the story, but you never feel at the end that you know the whole story …
I still think there are big parts of what Tolkachev meant that are still in use and that are legitimately still classified. Even though this case is three decades old, it’s quite likely that some of that stuff is still considered pretty valuable intelligence.
If you’re looking for tips on how to shirk military service, you’re about forty-some years too late. And if you’re looking to dodge a draft, you are also probably not our target audience.
For those unfamiliar with their civic duty, U.S. law says all male citizens of the United States and male immigrants (and bizarrely, illegal immigrants, too) have to register for the Selective Service System (SSS — aka “The Draft”) within 30 days of their 18th birthday. You are not joining the military but registering with the government to be available in a time where a draft would be necessary.
The U.S. first started drafting civilians during the Civil War. Back then, rich men had many other options open to them avoiding Civil War service. To dodge the Civil War draft, people could pay a less wealthy person to take their place in the draft, pay a crooked doctor to give them a bad health exam, or outright bribe draft officials.
The modern Selective Service system was established to raise an army to fight in Europe during World War I. It was used again from 1940-47 to raise troops to fight World War II, and then again to meet the needs for the Korean War. Between the end of WWII and the Korean War, men could just be drafted to serve, regardless of the demands of a national emergency.
After Vietnam, President Gerald Ford abolished the draft entirely in 1975 but President Carter established the draft system in place today as a response to the potential threat posed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
President Nixon established a draft lottery in 1969 but stopped drafting military-age males in 1973 when the U.S. military became an all-volunteer force, but not before an estimated half million people avoided conscription.
There were two kinds of methods to avoid being drafted when you number was called: illegal and legal. There were a few laws in place relevant to Selective Service meant to keep necessary men in their homes and with their families. Purposely pursuing a legal waiver or deferment for any reason is draft avoidance. Those who could not meet the criteria for legal would mitigate their responsibilities by illegal means, this is called draft evasion or more popularly known as “draft dodging.”
Those who received deferments (especially politicians and other people who like to closely associate themselves with the military) will fervently argue there is a distinct difference. Here are 11 ways people beat the draft in the 1970s.
1. Be a Conscientious Objector
Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mennonites, the Amish, and Quakers are all considered Peace Churches who are opposed to any kind of military service. They were allowed to serve in other ways, however, but in a civilian capacity. Dishonest conscientious objection would be illegal. You can still be awesome as a CO, by the way. Clergymen and missionaries were also exempt from the draft, which is how Mitt Romney deferred while spending two years in France as a Mormon missionary.
2. Make up a health condition
The military is surprisingly strict about the medical conditions of those it enlists, even if they really need the manpower. Gastritis, ulcers, hepatitis and anemia are all common, treatable conditions the military will flat-out reject you for having. Diabetics are out, too.
If you don’t have one of these or you’re in perfect health, just make up a health problem! During the Vietnam draft, people would stay awake for days ahead of their medical screening, do a lot of illegal drugs, or otherwise make themselves appear generally unhealthy to avoid being draft. Ask Ted Nugent about doing meth and crapping his pants to avoid the draft.
3. Have children who need you
Men with children and families who depend on those men for their livelihood are in a lower draft priority than single men or childless husbands.
4. Be a homosexual
And if you’re not a homosexual, pretend to be! In the 1960s and 1970s, it was perfectly fine to both ask and tell. If men out to dodge the draft were afraid they wouldn’t be asked, they would wear women’s underwear to the medical exams.
5. Run away to Canada
Upwards of 40,000 draft dodgers fled to Canada between 1965 and 1975. Many stayed in Canada after the war’s end, and some even stayed after President Carter pardoned them all on his first day in office. Those who stayed became Canadian citizens.
6. Go to college
Student deferments were very common ways of beating the draft, though many students were really in school to be in school and not simply to avoid Vietnam. Notable examples of those receiving student deferments include Bill Clinton (1 deferment), Joe Biden (5 deferments), and Dick Cheney (5 deferments).
While a college deferment was very common, it is still a major point of contention for politicians seeking office today.
7. Have a high lottery number
366 plastic capsules, each with one date of the year, were dumped in a large glass container, then drawn, opened, and assigned sequentially rising numbers. The first capsule was September 14. So all men born on that date, from 1944 through 1950, received the first priority for call to duty.
The remaining capsules were drawn and assigned a number. A second lottery was also conducted for the 26 letters of the alphabet, to determine the order of priority (by last name) for each date. The highest draft number drawn was 195.
8. Hold an “essential” civilian job
These are also known as “reserved occupations” and are so necessary to a country’s war effort, drafting them is illegal. The jobs cannot be done by others and cannot be completely abandoned, but those men were required to continue working that job.
9. Get married
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson changed the draft law to allow married males to be drafted, if they didn’t have children. Before August 26, 1965, however, getting hitched was a Get Out of Vietnam Free card. Johnson quietly changed the rules to keep up with the demands of the war. Hundreds of couples on the West Coast ended up in shotgun marriages to avoid serving.
10. Forge military ID or reserve papers
Some men in Northern states formed groups which made fraudulent National Guard or Reserve papers, identifying men who bore them as having already enlisted. For upwards of $5000, men could acquire these papers and take them to the local draft board to be relieved of their obligation.
11. Enlist anytime
Even during Vietnam, men received credit for serving. If you completed a military service obligation, you couldn’t be forced to re-enter the military. If you called up to be drafted, you could avoid it by enlisting and choosing your service.
If you couldn’t remember any of these tips, you could just learn the words to Phil Ochs’ “Draft Dodger Rag”
Failing to register for the draft could mean ineligibility to hold a government job, the inability to apply for student loans through the Department of Education, and a condition of citizenship for immigrants who arrived before their 26th birthday. It is also punishable by a 250,000 fine and up to five years imprisonment, among other consequences.
So it’s a good idea to register. The U.S. is unlikely to have a war which requires national conscription anytime soon and there hasn’t been a real draft since the last days of the Vietnam War.
According to a report in the Navy Times, Article 1168 has been added to Navy Regulations, prohibiting the “wrongful distribution or broadcasting of an intimate image.” The addition of this regulation means that Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice can be brought into play against the next “Marines United” scandal participants.
“The addition of Article 1168 ‘Nonconsensual distribution or broadcasting of an image’ to Navy Regulations serves to underscore leadership’s commitment to eliminating degrading behaviors that erode trust and weaken the Navy and Marine Corps Team,” Rear Adm. Dawn Cutler, the Navy’s chief of information, said in a statement quoted by the Navy Times. “It provides commanders another tool to maintain good order and discipline by holding Sailors and Marines accountable for inappropriate conduct in the nonconsensual sharing of intimate imagery.”
“This article adds the potential charge of Article 92 ‘Failure to obey [an] order or regulation’ to the possible charges that can be used against an alleged perpetrator. Each case of alleged misconduct will be evaluated on its own facts and circumstances,” Cutler added.
Previously, the Marines had been relying on Articles 133 and 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, according to a March 5 release by the Marine Corps. Article 120c was also seen as a possible option in some cases.
Articles 133 and 134 are seen as “catch-all” provisions for “conduct unbecoming.” According to the UCMJ, violations of Article 133 “shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.” Violations of Article 134 are to be “punished at the discretion of that court” while taking into consideration “according to the nature and degree of the offense.”
Throughout history, humans have often weaponized faith. This makes any discussion of the intersection between wellness and spirituality especially tricky because it can be divisive – which is counterintuitive to our relatively inclusive military and veteran cultures.
However, as a Marine I’m always ready to tackle tough things, and as a social scientist invested in teaching veterans how to optimize their performance at home and work, I cannot ignore the compelling data surrounding the positive effects of spirituality.
Maj. Alejandro Sanchez, chaplain, Puerto Rico Army National Guard, says a prayer during the ceremony that marked the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. (U.S. Army photo)
What does spiritual fitness have to do with anything?
There are explicit, direct, trackable ties between resilient trait cultivation and spirituality. These ties include common-sense connections to things like behavioral health, social support, and philanthropic leanings, and the more mysterious connection between positive thoughts and their impact on us at a cellular level.
From Stanford to Duke University to Oxford, some really interesting research is being conducted globally on the ways in which spirituality and religiosity (self-reported connection to organized religion) can improve everything from healing and recovery time to pain tolerance and longevity. The protective effects faith offers when it comes to depression and anxiety conditions are especially significant.
Many scholars and scientists who are not religious do believe that at some level we’re wired for spirituality. For example, at the top of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs sits transcendence – or the human need to connect with something bigger and outside of ourselves.
The protective factors offered by spirituality and religiosity are very powerful – even more powerful than many of the behavioral health practices that the military currently invests in financially. Because of this, the topic deserves a closer look in any honest conversation about building resilience.
So what’s the tie-in to resilience?
The links between spirituality, religiosity, and resilience can be found in three main areas that are significant not only statistically, but also practically in terms of health benefits.
1. Behavioral Health
People who identify as individually spiritual enjoy a number of benefits at the psychological and neurological levels. However, these health benefits are amplified and extended with higher levels of subjective religiosity – in particular when people take their spirituality a step further and practice it with some kind of community.
For example, binge drinking and promiscuous sex – which are high-risk for our bodies – are generally discouraged by major world religions. Religious people across demographics and age exhibit lower rates of smoking, alcohol abuse, drug use, and almost all risk-taking behaviors than their nonreligious peers. They also enjoy lower rates of depression and anxiety, better mental health, and even a slower progression of dementia.
In short, people who gather around an idea of virtue and live it out with community support are less likely to engage in physiologically high-risk behaviors. This tendency toward healthier living results in better long term health outcomes.
2. Social Support
People who are very religious tend to be members of a faith community and enjoy strong social ties as a result.
Many faiths encourage both the practice of gratitude and giving to others outside of the social contract (which is essentially the idea that if I do something nice for you, you’ll do something nice for me). They prompt members to give to people who can’t fulfil their end of the social contract. This is the essence of philanthropic giving, which has demonstrated physical, mental, and emotional health benefits.
Of course, you needn’t be spiritual to give generously, but religious Americans give significantly more both financially and in terms of volunteer hours than their nonreligious peers.
3. Positive Thought
Researchers have found an inexplicable link between the practice of prayer and lowered blood cortisol levels and increased high-level cognitive capabilities. Because the brain influences bodily functions like heart rate, blood pressure, and the immune system, shifting what happens in the brain through spiritual practice can have significant physical impacts.
U.S. Marines participate in a formation run prior to a physical-training competition. Elements of the 15th MEU are ashore in Djibouti for sustainment training to maintain and enhance the skills they developed during their pre-deployment training period. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jamean Berry)
In fact, in prayer (unlike in meditation) the relationship centers of the brain light up. The parietal lobes light up too. These lobes are on the side of the brain and allow you to experience feelings of empathy. In the Christian tradition there’s a sacred text that speaks to being transformed by the renewal of your mind, and today we’re understanding that spiritual practice can actually grow your empathy and increase your ability to connect deeply with others.
Aren’t there downsides to religion?
It’s true that all of the benefits of a beloved social community can also turn negative. If acceptance lowers blood cortisol levels, rejection raises it. So many people have been battered by faith communities around the world. However, although finding an affirming community of faith is a complicated process, it is also important because it reinforces the helpful behaviors and activities listed above.
If you’re curious, but don’t have a tradition you feel drawn to, commit to doing some research. Maybe take a cultural literacy course on world religions to orient yourself. Then, carve out time to ask yourself big questions in a sincere way. Do some research, some learning, and look for an affirming faith community that feels like an authentic choice and fit.
The three pillars of a resilient life are social support, self-care, and spirituality. The individual value of these pillars is backed irrefutably by science, and – when practiced together – their benefits increase exponentially.
This PTSD and trauma-engagement program welcomes veterans of all faith backgrounds. It provides resource for active duty servicemembers and veterans looking to bring spirituality to their day to day.
Big Question Inspiration
What has “faith” or “spirituality” looked like in my past? What does it mean to me?
How would I assess my current spiritual health? Do I spend time on it? Do I think about it at all?
What do I believe?
Where do I need to go to learn more?
Who can I reach out to as I figure this out?
About the Author
Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas is a U.S. Marine veteran and wellness coach who writes about resilience building, creating strong communities, and the science of spirituality. You can find her new book, “Brave, Strong, True: The Modern Warrior’s Battle for Balance”, here.
Afghanistan. Distant, foreboding, little understood.
Known as the “Graveyard of Empires” the carcasses of countless soviet war machines rust away in mute testimony to the futility of that savage war. The more I read about Afghanistan the less I seemed to know. Watching the news was even more confusing and it appeared America had entered this same graveyard and that we were now fighting elusive ghosts otherwise known as the Taliban.
I remember watching the newscasts in the 1990’s of the Taliban as they rose like a cancer throughout the country, oppressing women, killing those who opposed them and imposing their radical version of Islam on all. Nothing made a deeper impression on me than the public destruction of the massive Banyam Buddhas and the wholesale “cleansing” of Afghanistan’s precious ancient history. Then came 9/11.
In 2010, then our 9th year of the war, I was still struggling with understanding why we were there, who we were fighting and maybe most importantly who were we helping? I got it in my mind that I wanted to make a sort of “combat travel film” that didn’t just following brave men in combat but one that also helped to explain more about the land and the people. Digital technology now makes every soldier a potential documentarian and it was under these auspices that I started to look for a story. It didn’t take long and it would change my life.
Enter Team Cobra
A Sergeant friend of mine told me about a group of all-volunteers from the Oregon National Guard who, in 2008, wanted to deploy to Afghanistan to “impart change” by helping the local population and training the Afghan National Army. They would return a year later as one of the most decorated units in Oregon National Guard history. While I didn’t at the time know the particulars, I knew I had to tell their story.
Of the 17 men that deployed, I interviewed 6 of them. I had between 2 and 4 hours of initial interview footage from each man. With each interview their stories started to intertwine and after the interview process my real work began. I listened to these stories on my headphones over and over again. Their journey to Afghanistan was over, but mine was just beginning. I watched countless video clips and looked at thousands of photos, each one representing a puzzle piece. Weeks turned to months. The sound of the newspaper being delivered in our driveway served as a reminder that I might have missed another night’s sleep. I was learning about Afghanistan, about the diversity of the people, about courage, about honor and about loss.
Watch Gary Mortensen’s ‘Shepherds of Helmand’ on The Mighty TV here.
Earlier that year I had lost my mom to a long and protracted battle with cancer. My father followed a few weeks afterwards. In my own sorrow I consumed myself with telling the story of Team Cobra. They too knew loss. One of their leaders, Bruno DeSolenni had died in an IED attack and the impact on these men would be profound and everlasting.
Each night as I worked on the film I felt closer to these guys, even though they had only met me months earlier for a few hours. But that didn’t matter, I felt a huge responsibility to tell their story in a way that would honor them. I was nervous to show the final cut to them because I wanted to tell the story right. They were gracious and thankful and said to my relief that it was faithful.
When the film finally debuted almost a year later everyone of the soldiers were there for the premiere. They stood on the stage after the screening and answered questions. It was after this that I really got to know them, not just as soldiers but as people.
In my attempt to make a film about Afghanistan, I ended up making a film about America. It’s seems so easy to accept the popular indictment that we have lost it as a country. But I would submit that all around us are exceptional people. I am proud to say I know six of them. They are simply some of the finest people I have ever met and I know that if I was ever in need I could call any of them and they would be there for me. Not because I’m special, it’s because that’s just what they do. They went to Afghanistan to help, some of have gone back, one didn’t come back and some of them are there today.
I am honored to call Jerry Glesmann, Paul Dyer, Marking Browning, Dave Hagen, Dominic Oto and Steve Cooper my friends. They helped me more than they will every know.
Gary Mortensen is an award-winning documentary film director, President of Stoller Family Estate (a premiere Oregon winery), and is active in helping to preserve and share the stories of our veterans. See more at www.veteranslegacies.com.
If you’re a veteran living in the Washington, DC area, the hit Netflix series House of Cards wants you. Filming on the fourth season starts this July and they’re looking for extras. The show wants to cast men and women who actually served.
There’s always a chance they’ll give someone a line which would get you into the actors union which could lead to a huge action movie career. Or you could at least be visible in a couple of shots, allowing you to show the episodes to your friends and family and talk about what it was like to work with Kevin Spacey.
Check out the details from Project Casting below. They’re very concerned that applicant follow instructions to the letter, but that should be easy for anyone who served and got an honorable discharge, right?
Also, when showbiz folks say “play either right before or right after the July 4th weekend,” they mean “film either right before or right after the July 4th weekend.”
How to apply:
MILITARY VETERAN (age 28–40, male AND female) – Preferably someone who actually toured overseas in Iraq or Afghanistan. This will play either right before or right after the July 4th weekend. Please have a flexible schedule.
TO APPLY please email: email@example.com WITH
4. Waist and Jacket/dress sizes
5. Three (3) Selfies. Selfies, not headshots. Must be recent!
After serving in the Armed Forces, beginning a rewarding career is one of the most important steps a veteran can take. Sadly, the expense of attending college or enrolling in a vocational training program can be a major obstacle. A fully-online technology program called V School hopes to change that. Partnering with We Are The Mighty, the online school is offering a full-ride scholarshipto help a deserving veteran, active or reserve military member, or one of their dependents on their path to success.
V School has been helping veterans break into tech since 2013.
V School describes itself as a “veteran-backed tech education,” and for good reason. One-third of their staff members are veterans, and the school is approved to accept the G.I. Bill. More importantly, the program is highly-rated and seeks to help students to succeed in more ways than one. Here’s what every student can expect from the V School experience:
A flexible schedule based on content-mastery, not rigid deadlines
Outcome-based training focused on preparing students for future employment.
A student-staff ratio of 1:8
Access to a lifetime of career support from industry insiders
Assistance building a strong portfolio to help land your first job in tech
Mentorship from alumni and fellow vets
After completing the program, graduates are prepared to hit the job market hard.
On Course Report, 55 students have reviewed the school, with an average rating of 4.8 stars out of 5.
Verified reviewer Ryan Pettingill shared one of many rave reviews, stating, “The product this company brings to Utah is absolutely top notch. The mindful teachers and other cooperative faculty work hard every day to provide an excellent learning experience. The skills I have learned here about Website Development surpass anything I could have learned at a traditional 4-year University. Choosing this school may have been the best decision I have ever made to seriously change my career path.”
Who the V School Scholarship is for
If you’re an outstanding member of the military community who’s passionate about coding and ready to step into a new career, we’re talkin’ to you. Military spouses and family are welcome, too!
How to Apply
Prior coding experience isn’t required, but every applicant will need to take an aptitude test to see whether you’d make a good fit for the job. You’ll also have to fill out an application and answer a few essay questions. Easy! If you’re interested in being the recipient of the Full-Ride Military + Veteran Scholarship, apply online right here. V School can’t wait to meet you!
The F-15 Eagle, arguably the most successful fighter jet of the modern age, could be in for an early retirement with the US Air Force thanks to skyrocketing upgrade and refurbishment costs.
In a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Air Force and Air National Guard brass informed the panel that a plan was recently formed to retire and replace the F-15C/D variant of the Eagle far ahead of schedule by a matter of decades, though no decision had been made on that plan. While the Air Force did plan to keep the Eagle flying till 2040 through a $4 billion upgrade, it was recently determined that a further $8 billion would need to be invested in refurbishing the fuselages of these Eagles, driving up the costs of retaining the F-15C/D even higher than originally expected — presenting what seems to be the final nail the Eagle’s eventual coffin.
So, what will the Air Force likely do to replace this 40-year-old wonder jet?
The Air Force had at first planned to replace the F-15 with the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, but successive cuts to the Raptor program left the branch with only 187 fighters, a substantially lower quantity than the planned buy of around 700. This forced the decision to keep the Eagles in service longer, and thus, the aforementioned investment of over $4 billion was made towards upgrading all combat coded F-15C/Ds with new radars, networking systems, and avionics to keep these fighters in service up till around 2040, when it would be replaced with a newer sixth-generation fighter, also superseding the fifth-generation F-22 Raptor.
Once the F-15 gets pulled by the mid-2020s, the Air Force claims it already has a solution to replace what was once a bastion of American air power.
This solution comes in the form of enhancing F-16 Fighting Falcons with new radars from Northrop Grumman, and networking systems to take over the Eagle’s role in North American air defense, at least in the interim until the Air Force begins and completes its sixth-generation fighter project, which will bring about an even more capable air superiority fighter replacement for both the F-22 and the F-15.
The Air Force has already begun extending the lives of its F-16s till 2048, through a fleet-wide Service Life Extension Program that will add an extra 4,000 flight hours to its Fighting Falcons. Air Force leadership has also advocated buying more fighters, namely the F-35A Lightning II, faster, so that when the hammer does eventually drop on the Eagle, the branch’s fighter fleet won’t be left undersized and vulnerable.
Even with upgrades, however, the F-16 still has some very big boots to fill.
The F-15 was designed primarily as an air superiority fighter, meaning it was built to excel at shooting other aircraft down; all other mission types, like performing air-to-ground strikes, were secondary to its main tasking. To perform in this role, the Eagle was given stellar range, sizable weapons carriage, fantastic speed (over two and a half times the speed of sound), and a high operational ceiling. Conversely, the F-16 was designed as a low-cost alternative to the F-15, able to operate in a variety of roles, though decidedly not as well as the F-15 could with the air-to-air mission. Its combat range, weapons load and speed fall short of the standard set by the Eagle. Regardless, the Air Force still believes that the F-16 will be the best interim solution until the 6th generation fighter is fielded.
The USAF’s most decorated F-16 pilot, Dan Hampton, doesn’t disagree with these plans. In an interview with The War Zone, Hampton argues that though the F-16 lacks the weapons payload that the F-15 possesses, advances in missile guidance and homing make carrying more air-to-air weaponry a moot point, as pilots would likely hit their mark with the first or second shot, instead of having to fire off a salvo of missiles. Hampton adds that the F-16’s versatility in being able to perform a diverse array of missions makes it more suitable for long-term upgrades to retain it over the Eagle. Whether or not this will actually work out the way the Air Force hopes it will is anybody’s guess.
Your local exchange’s package store could soon have a surprise for you military history buffs: a little taste of “Old Blood and Guts” for your tumbler.
Kentucky’s Boundary Oak Distillery is now distributing a liquor bearing the face of the famous Gen. George S. Patton. Even though it hails from Kentucky and is made by a bourbon distillery, the libation isn’t actually bourbon. Instead, the manufacturers call the barrel-aged cane liquor “Patton Armored Diesel” after the tradition Patton started during World War II.
According to Boundary Oak, that World War II-era drinking tradition included a “drink, a cup, and a sign his troops associated with Armored Diesel.” The bootleg hooch was made differently from division to division, using a mixture that included bourbon, whiskey, scotch, and white wine. One variation even had a shot of cherry juice to represent “the blood of our enemies.”
Patton commanded the 7th Army during the Allied invasion of Sicily in World War II and then led the 3rd Army through France and Germany after the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944. He died in a car accident shortly after the end of the war in Europe.
He is one of the most celebrated leaders in the history of the United States Army.
Waters will help promote Patton Armored Diesel, which retails for around $46 per bottle.
Its first big promotion features a limited edition collector’s case for the bottles. The case is designed to look like a mini version of the general’s footlocker, complete with the stenciled “PATTON” lettering on the lid.
“We’re not trying to glorify alcohol, we’re just trying to glorify him,” said Goodin in the same AP interview. “This generation, they enjoy craft American spirits, and we want to give them a history lesson along with a good drink.”
She is “currently a poolee,” Marine Capt. Adam Flores told the Beaufort Gazette, “and will begin recruit training in the near future.” Opha Mae will be the 21st such mascot, but her starting date is currently unknown.
She will eventually take over duties, which include attending ceremonies and graduations, from Cpl. Legend, who is in poor health, the Beaufort Gazette said.
On August 9, 2014, Staff Sergeant Brandon Dodson lost both his legs to an improvised explosive device blast in Shah Pusta, Afghanistan. He was on his fifth deployment.
About 19 months later, in mid-March 2016, Brandon completed a Team Semper Fi surf camp. It was his fifth time surfing since his injury.
“What’s really interesting about surfing,” says Brandon, who was born and raised in California and surfed all his life, “is it’s the only thing in my life that’s easier since I’ve been injured. Sitting versus having to stand up, I actually surf better now than I did before.”
“The part that’s really difficult is getting from the car to down by the water and paddling out through the breakers,” Brandon continued. “I’m either in big prosthetic legs, or short house legs or a wheelchair — none of which work well in sand. Once I’m in the water, though, I’m totally independent.”
Brandon’s journey to the waters off San Clemente, California by way of Afghanistan has been a truly remarkable one.
Born at Naval Air Station Lemoore in central California (his father was a Marine), Brandon enlisted in July 2003 and was deployed to Iraq a year later. He served as part of a Marine Expeditionary Unit on a ship off the coasts of southeast Asia in 2006, and deployed to Iraq a second time in 2007.
After returning home and serving as a drill instructor in San Diego, Brandon was deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 and again in 2014. He uses the word “surreal” to describe that most recent deployment.
“We were living in nice built-up barracks with anywhere from 3-man rooms to 12-man rooms,” he explained. “We had Wi-Fi, we had a gym, we had a nice chow hall, we had laundry, we had salsa nights, movie nights — we had all the amenities. We’d go from that to doing patrols outside the wire for five days and killing bad guys.”
When Brandon stepped on the pressure plate connected to five pounds of homemade explosives, he was on day one of a three-day operation—the last patrol of his deployment. He was MEDEVAC’d to Camp Bastion, where he remained in a coma for two days.
“I was told I needed 19 liters of blood transfused into me,” he recalls. “I bled out roughly four times the amount of blood in a human body. Then they flew me to Landstuhl; that’s where I woke up. I was there for 3 days, in and out of surgery. I landed in Bethesda August 14, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Brandon’s wife, Jasmine, first learned about the Semper Fi Fund during his initial recovery in Bethesda and Brandon got to know the Fund’s representatives as his recovery progressed.
“When you’re inpatient at Walter Reed, you’re approached by about 1,000 nonprofits that want to see you,” he explains. “The Semper Fi Fund stood out because they had actual people that came around that were damn near employees at the hospital, they’re there all the time. They were so nice, they had so much good advice, and they were able to talk to my wife and family and were able to comfort them in so many ways.”
The support provided to Brandon and Jasmine and their family included helping Brandon’s mother and two brothers with their wages so they could step away from their jobs and be with him during his initial recovery period.
“They helped us to go on a family vacation for my one-year Alive Day,” Brandon added, “and they provided me with the ability to participate in multiple different events — not just surf camp, I did a water skiing camp, another surf camp in Virginia Beach, and I handcycled the Marine Corps Marathon in 2015 with Team Semper Fi.”
“A lot of guys that are injured like me, traumatically injured, some don’t take advantage of opportunities like this,” Brandon says. “They’ll sit and not go on trips and they don’t want to go out in public and not try anything new, and I think that’s the wrong way to go about it. My wife and I, we’ve taken every trip and opportunity—stuff I’ve done before, like surfing, and stuff I haven’t done.”
“The Semper Fi Fund, they’re the best nonprofit for wounded warriors out there, and they help in any capacity. Not just handing out money, even though that’s part of it, but if you need a special adaptive piece of equipment or car modifications, plus they run all these adaptive sports programs—surfing, skiing, all kinds of athletic sports. Anything you can think of, they offer a camp for it. As a Marine, I would say that the Semper Fi Fund is the number-one nonprofit, they’re amazing.”
Looking back over his experiences of the last dozen years or so, Brandon says that he doesn’t get worked up over small things anymore (“like dumb stuff I see on Facebook”)—and has reached an interesting family-oriented perspective on his injury.
“There’s nobody really handicapped in my life, nobody’s in a wheelchair,” he says. “My wife and I, we both had really healthy families growing up, so I was never really exposed to handicapped people at a personal level. It’s not like I was judging them in any way, I don’t think, I was just unaware.”
“Now, what really makes me happy is that my son was only 18 months old when I was injured, so the way he’s growing up, this stuff is not gonna faze him at all. That’ll make him a better person, which makes me happy.”
We Are The Mighty is teaming up with Semper Fi Fund and comedian Rob Riggle to present the Rob Riggle InVETational Golf Classic. The veteran-celebrity golf tournament will raise money and awareness for Semper Fi Fund, one of our nation’s most respected veteran nonprofit organizations, in support of wounded, critically ill and injured service members and their families. Learn more at InVETational.com.
So check out five things enlisted troops love, but officers freakin’ hate — according to our resident military officers.
5. Practical jokes
We all love to play some grab ass to liven up a dull situation, and some jokes do go too far — f*ck it. Once the principal officer shows up, consider the fun is over. Most officers aren’t fans of practical jokes especially if they’re the butt of that joke — but enlisted folks love it!
(Note: I’m told this doesn’t apply to pilots…)
It’s common for service members to grow mustaches — especially on deployment. The military has strict grooming standards for all facial hair and officers keep a close eye out on them. We wouldn’t want a single hair follicle to fell out of line — we’d probably end up losing the war.
(Note: The exception appears to be “Movember”)
3. Dipping tobacco while standing duty
Sometimes we need a nicotine fix and aren’t allowed to walk outside for a smoke. So we tend to dip tobacco and leave the spit bottles laying around. We’ll give this one to the officers since spit cups aren’t sexy.
When you’re just starting out in a leadership position and trying to lead from the front — no officer wants to get beaten in a sprint contest by someone who just graduated high school 6-months ago.
It’s probably why enlisted troops always have to run at the officer’s pace.
Lt. Col. David Bardorf and Sgt. Maj. Michael Rowan lead their battalion on a run during the annual battalion’s physical training session to support the Combined Federal Campaign. (U.S. Marine Corps photo: Lance Cpl. Nik S. Phongsisattanak)
1. Buying expensive vehicles right out the gate
Some branches are supposed to clear significant purchases with their command before executing on the sale. This system helps the enlisted troop from blowing his or her already low paycheck on a car with 30% APR — that’s bad.
Troops love buying brand new trucks — until they have to actually pay for it. (Source: Ford)