A 1990 white Lincoln stretch limousine covered in dust slowly pulls to a stop. Former Army Ranger Angel Cortes, his brother, and a few of their posse roll out of the door. Their clothes sport a sketch of a grinning jack o’lantern.
They are carrying AR-15s, Multicam plate carriers, high-capacity P-mags with 5.56 armor piercing ammunition. Glocks are tucked in their waistbands. Moments later, rounds are ricocheting through car windows. Screeching high velocity lead rips into passenger side doors, metal on metal screaming as the car interiors are ripped open, their soft innards gutted by the physics of force times mass.
This could be the beginning of a post-apocalyptic film or a violent street crime. But it is not.
Instead it was a friendly gathering of ex-special operations soldiers on a practice shooting course, dreamed up and funded by former Army Ranger Angel Cortes. Bringing veterans together to shoot the shit and shoot some targets is his way of giving back and building a community of veterans and a few trusted civilians to talk about life.
Look closely and a few fine details start to emerge from the smoke and gun powder and dust. Listen closely, and you start to hear a melodic rhythm to the pattern of fire. This is not the chaotic gun fight of a street skirmish gone off the rails. Angel and his friends maintain a continuous volley of fire. When one person empties their magazine, another increases his rate of fire. They unload and reload sequentially, so that there’s never a time when someone is not firing. They are leaping and bounding in a smooth synchronicity, like members of a ballet company who have rehearsed this dance over and over again; there is a grace and a fluidity to their violence that upon close examination belies their level of training. They are shooting moving, communicating, and executing dilapidated cars the way a butcher cleaves a chicken. Look closer and you see even finer details. The magazine holders are made by Crye precision, a bespoke brand of high-end gun gear made by hipsters in Brooklyn (the gods of war have a funny sense of humor) that has become the go-to standard for the most elite Special Operations units in the world. Their skin and shirts are marked with bone frog tattoos, scuba bubbles, parachutist wings, globes and anchors. G-shocks and Garmin watches adorn their wrists. These are the subdued brands of SEALs, MARSOC and a variety of other commando units, many who have spent the last several decades at war.
The firefight ends as abruptly as it started. There’s no high fives, no whooping and screaming, little fanfare to signify the end of the run. After all, these are not the streets of LA… but it easily could have been for Angel and his brother who admittedly grew up in LA’s gang life as affiliated members. Nor are these the streets of Anbar or the dirt roads of Afghanistan. But once again… it easily could’ve been. Five years ago Angel was deployed to Afghanistan attached with 3rd Special Forces Group.
For much of the American public who holds caricatures of veterans in their heads, this seems like a strange scene. The wars are over, or at the very least waning. Many veterans are suffering. An un-indoctrinated civilian might ask, “Should they be out playing GI Joe on the range? Don’t they need to heal?” Some civilians might even be cognizant of the story of Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL sniper who was shot by a PTSD stricken veteran on the very shooting range he was trying to help him with rehabilitation. These narratives neglect the full range of experience of a large portion of veterans who are returning from overseas.
Angel, like many of the veterans out on the range this day, became a man in the military — literally. Angel’s mom signed his papers to join the service when he was 17 years old. He was in combat in Iraq by the time he was 18. He spent most of his 20s, his formative learning and earning years, deployed. While other 18 to 30 year olds were forming networks and connections that would determine their trajectory in life, Angel was fighting and watching his friends die.
Returning at 26 to the civilian world, Angel had three kids, no savings, and few job skills that translated to civilian life (there are a few jobs outside of the smoke-jumper community that require a static line parachuting qualification). He worked at a yogurt shop while attending community college. In the military, every penny of his paycheck had been spent on supporting his brother and sister back home. He took his last active paycheck to treat himself to one thing to commemorate his multiple combat deployments, a 1990 325I BMW. The beemer just kept breaking and his wife suggested he purchase a car that was more reliable. So, he saved some money and got the infamous 1990 white limousine, with mahogany interior, which became his famous daily driver. Inspired by Bam Margera of the Jackass skater culture, it represented how Angel was driving forward in his own unconventional style. While going to school, Angel started a T-shirt company, the OG Pumpkin, based on a design made for him by his son. The pumpkin design, like Angel, is paradoxically both menacing and friendly. It has a ghoul-like appearance that is sinister, sarcastic and yet somehow seems to be laughing with you.
Angel promotes his OG Pumpkin brand online and on Instagram. Like all great advertising though, his greatest asset is word-of-mouth— and the word is starting to spread. Every month Angel uses the proceeds from his company to hold shooting range days for his fellow veterans who like him are navigating the twilight between active duty service and the civilian world.
This particular range day was a vehicle range. A mid 90s silver Jetta and a white Toyota Corolla were towed to a remote shooting range in the foothills of Los Angeles. The tow truck driver, 40-something hispanic, with easily recognizable ink indicating a formerly affiliated or incarcerated life, looks like he could’ve been right out of Angel’s neighborhood. He dropped the cars in the middle of the range, then headed to the safe fire spectators area where Angel’s dad was grilling carne asada and adobo tacos for the group.
About 30 veterans, including SEALs, Army Rangers, MARSOC and a host of other operators from the alphabet soup of elite units (DEA, HRT, SWAT, others), teamed up in impromptu pairs to run drills, shoot targets and offer tactics and tips to each other. The vehicle course is a treat even for top-tier units. It’s not every day you get to practice shooting through the front windshield of a car to hit steel targets. The operators were jovial but subdued. The culture of Special Operations, which pays homage to the idea of a silent professional (although more often in word than deed) makes it uncool to express too much emotion, even after letting 30 rounds rip through your muzzle.
Putting together range days is not just about shooting. in fact it’s very little about shooting. It’s merely Angel’s version of golf. It allows him to spend time with his friends, his fellow veterans, network about business and entrepreneurialism, and re-capture some of the community that ended when he took off his uniform.
Ryan Garcia is one of those veterans. He returned home from Nangarhar, Afghanistan last year after serving in the 2nd Battalion 34th Regiment out of Ft. Carson, Colorado. He didn’t know Angel in the service, but had watched his YouTube videos about becoming a Ranger and going through selection. Garcia, like Angel, had grown up in Southern California, and upon completing his last tour returned home. His transition was somewhat rocky. He ostensibly was going to school, but didn’t exactly move from the front lines to the front of the class. “When I got out, I lost my purpose … yeah I’m getting through school, but I was in a depression. I would say I was busy but I wasn’t doing anything.” About six months ago, between Xbox games, Garcia saw a post of Angel’s from the shooting range. Inspired, he went to shoot. What he found was a camaraderie that seemed to fill a hole he didn’t know was missing. Being around fellow veterans was a first step toward a healthier reintegration. Garcia spoke with Angel about classes, and saw how Angel was attacking the classes like a mission. Previously Angel had helped inspire Garcia to excel in the Army, now he was leading by quiet example by stressing the importance of classes and community. Garcia remains grateful for Angel’s mentorship, and now helps out other veterans as well. “At end of day whether you’re in a warzone, or back here, we have each other’s back.”
For other veterans it’s a chance to stay involved, and help. Mike O’ Dowd, a former Navy seal close quarters combat tactical instructor volunteered his time at the range day to help other veteran sharpen their skills. O’Dowd, who runs a Company called Defense Strategy Group that teaches civilians shooting tactics and skills said, “By hosting these range days, Angel has been bringing veterans from all branches together in our natural environment. He’s given us a space to feel at home again, with people we trust. It’s something that I’ve been missing since leaving the Navy.”
Ultimately, Angel’s path as an entrepreneur, starting with a clothing company, studying to become a registered dietitian, even the range days he puts on for his fellow veterans, speak to something larger. Veterans return from service and overseas, and face a series of choices: What am I going to do? How do I support myself? And more fundamentally: Who am I? What is my purpose? Those questions are more formally known as veterans transition. There are significant headwinds for veterans transitioning out of uniformed service; many lack formal education and networks for civilian occupations, some are struggling with the invisible wounds of war, and many struggle to find purpose in a world where your mission isn’t briefed to you before you go out the door. Angel, and the cabal of veterans he has touched, show all the promise of a way forward. Coming home to a community where he once sold guns on the street, he is now a community leader, teaching self-defense and gun safety. Returning to a family that was abusive, he has broken the cycle of abuse, and is not only a father thrice over but a patron of the entire family. Angel came from a home where he often had only one meal a day, and is now feeding his fellow veterans.
Like many veterans, there was no clear path for Angel when he left the military. Instead he used the same skills and values that got him through Ranger selection and 24 months of combat, to find his way in the civilian world. Taking care of others, perseverance, service above self, finding a way to win; these are traits burnished into the character of special operations personnel. What he lacks in formal education, he made up for in hustle and drive. While Angel and many of his fellow veterans return home and are still fighting demons from their time overseas, they also have a host of skills and armor that are allowing them to become leaders in the civilian world. In some way this was the original mission of the Jack-O-Lantern, in the old world it was designed to ward off evil spirits. Angel, and his band of OG Pumpkin brothers, continue to do just that.
Kaj Larsen is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared on NETFLIX, CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, VICE, Huffington Post, and numerous other outlets. Prior to his work in television, Kaj spent five years on active duty serving as a US Navy SEAL. As a lieutenant, he led a team of special warfare personnel in covert operations overseas deploying as a detachment commander in support of the Global War on Terrorism. Kaj continues his service as a science diver for Force Blue, a team of veterans in support of ocean conservation.