Hollywood war movies are usually comprised of strong and versatile trope elements like the wise seasoned soldier, the good decision makers, and the flawed protagonist who needs a solid character arch before the credits roll.
There’s also the cast of characters that are considered the weaker links, or they’re just so naïve audiences sigh with relief when they die off.
So here’s our list of newbie boots we wouldn’t want taking point on patrol with us.
1. Conrad Vig (“3 Kings”)
He’s the funny, goofy guy who also talks too much and no one takes him seriously until you get annoyed by his presence.
Great movie, but bad karate kick. (Image via Giphy)
2. Corporal Upham (“Saving Private Ryan”)
He stops himself from saving a fellow brother because his fear got the best of him, but to add insult to injury, he gave up an easy kill shot and let the German soldier off the hook. Unacceptable!
Unfreaking believable. You had him, Upham! (Image via Giphy)
3. Gardner (“Platoon”)
We knew this over-weight character was going to perish sooner rather than later — no way his stature meets physical regs. No squad wants the guy who can’t hold his own weight — literally — on their team.
Timothy McVeigh was a reserved, withdrawn teenager who was named “Most Promising Computer Programmer” among his high school classmates after he hacked into a government system using his Commodore 64. After dropping out of junior college he joined the U.S. Army and wound up in the infantry. While at Fort Benning he started reading up on sniper tactics, firearms, and explosives.
He was reprimanded by the military for purchasing a “White Power” T-shirt at a Ku Klux Klan protest against black servicemen who wore “Black Power” T-shirts around the army base.
McVeigh was awarded the Bronze Star for his service as a vehicle crewman in the Desert Storm. He was a top-scoring Bradley Fighting Vehicle gunner while attached to the 1st Infantry Division.
As documented in his authorized biography, American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh the Tragedy at Oklahoma City, he decapitated an Iraqi soldier with cannon fire on his first day in the war and was happy about it. He said he later was shocked to be ordered to execute surrendering prisoners and to see carnage on the road leaving Kuwait City after U.S. troops routed the Iraqi army.
McVeigh wanted to transfer to United States Army Special Forces (SF) after the war, but he dropped out after he couldn’t keep up with the physical rigors of the program. Shortly after that, McVeigh decided to leave the Army. He was honorably discharged on December 31, 1991.
He wandered around working menial jobs after he transitioned out of the military, growing increasingly reactionary in his views. He left the Buffalo area because it was “too liberal” and set out looking for his former Army buddies. Along the way he wrote letters to newspaper editors that revealed his political views:
Taxes are a joke. Regardless of what a political candidate “promises,” they will increase. More taxes are always the answer to government mismanagement. They mess up. We suffer. Taxes are reaching cataclysmic levels, with no slowdown in sight. Is a Civil War imminent? Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn’t come to that. But it might.
McVeigh also wrote to Representative John J. LaFalce (D-NY) complaining about the arrest of a woman for carrying mace:
It is a lie if we tell ourselves that the police can protect us everywhere at all times. Firearms restrictions are bad enough, but now a woman can’t even carry Mace in her purse?
While visiting friends in Michigan, McVeigh complained that the Army had implanted a microchip into one of his butt cheeks so that the government could keep track of him.
McVeigh worked long hours in a dead-end jobs. He couldn’t get any girls to go out with him. He started gambling obsessively. Unable to pay back gambling debts, he took a cash advance and then defaulted on his repayments. He was enraged when the government told him that he had been overpaid $1,058 while in the Army and he had to pay back the money. He wrote another angry letter to the government:
Go ahead, take everything I own; take my dignity. Feel good as you grow fat and rich at my expense; sucking my tax dollars and property.
He rented an apartment that had no telephone, which had the advantage of making it impossible for his employer to contact him for overtime assignments. He also quit the NRA, viewing its stance on gun rights as too weak.
In 1993, he drove to Waco, Texas during the Waco Siege to show his support. At the scene, he distributed pro-gun rights literature and bumper stickers that read, “When guns are outlawed, I will become an outlaw.”
McVeigh also told a reporter that “the government is afraid of the guns people have because they have to have control of the people at all times. Once you take away the guns, you can do anything to the people. You give them an inch and they take a mile. I believe we are slowly turning into a socialist government. . . . and the people need to prepare to defend themselves against government control.”
He became a fixture on the gun show circuit and worked his way west until he got to Arizona. There he met Michael Fortier and Terry Nichols, two men who shared his radical views about the government. After growing weary of Fortier’s drug use, McVeigh and Nichols headed for Nichols’ farm in Michigan. While there they watched TV coverage of the Waco siege and both became enraged by the government’s heavy-handed attack on the compound there. They decided it was time for action.
McVeigh defined his struggle in a letter to a boyhood friend:
Those who betray or subvert the Constitution are guilty of sedition and/or treason, are domestic enemies and should and will be punished accordingly. It also stands to reason that anyone who sympathizes with the enemy or gives aid or comfort to said enemy is likewise guilty. I have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic and I will. And I will because not only did I swear to, but I believe in what it stands for in every bit of my heart, soul and being. I know in my heart that I am right in my struggle. I have come to peace with myself, my God and my cause. Blood will flow in the streets. Good vs. Evil. Free Men vs. Socialist Wannabe Slaves. Pray it is not your blood, my friend.
Working at a lakeside campground near McVeigh’s old Army post, he and Nichols constructed an ANNM explosive device mounted in the back of a rented Ryder truck. The bomb consisted of about 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and nitromethane.
On April 19, 1995, McVeigh drove the truck to the front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building just as its offices opened for the day. Before arriving, he stopped to light a two-minute fuse. At 09:02, a large explosion destroyed the north half of the building. It killed 168 people, including nineteen children in the day care center on the second floor, and injured 684 others.
On August 10, 1995, McVeigh was indicted on eleven federal counts, including conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, use of a weapon of mass destruction, destruction by explosives and eight counts of first-degree murder. Among his statements while on Death Row was this:
If there is a hell, then I’ll be in good company with a lot of fighter pilots who also had to bomb innocents to win the war.
He was executed by lethal injection at 7:14 a.m. on June 11, 2001, at the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, the first federal prisoner to be executed by the United States federal government since 1963.
National veterans nonprofit The Mission Continues is launching a new program that positions veterans to be catalysts for long-term change and positive impact in communities facing daunting challenges. The inaugural Mass Deployment program will send hundreds of veterans and volunteers to participate in a week-long service engagement that will jump-start a long-lasting transformation in a city or community identified with a particularly high level of need.
For the first-ever event of its kind – dubbed Operation Motown Muster – The Mission Continues will bring more than 75 military veterans to Detroit to partner with more than 200 local veterans and community volunteers. Following Operation Motown Muster, The Mission Continues will maintain a sustained veteran volunteer presence in Detroit over the next several years to continuously support local nonprofits invested in revitalizing local neighborhoods.
“With the skills, leadership and experience they cultivated in the military, veterans are uniquely positioned to help accelerate Detroit’s comeback,” said Spencer Kympton, U.S. Army veteran and president of The Mission Continues. “We’re looking forward to an impactful week of service that will make a difference for the people who continue to call Detroit home and that will inspire others to take action and make a long-term positive impact in the community.”
Home to nearly 700,000 residents — many of whom are already hard at work shaping the future of their city — Detroit was a prime location for The Mission Continues’ inaugural Mass Deployment. During Operation Motown Muster, The Mission Continues veterans and local volunteers will add much-needed capacity to local organizations that are carrying on Detroit’s revitalization efforts. Projects planned for Operation Motown Muster include:
Refurbishing facilities at Central High School and Priest Elementary School to foster a safe and inviting environment for students to learn and the community to congregate.
Beautifying parks and future green spaces in the Osborn neighborhood, creating much-needed safe play spaces in a community that is home to one of Detroit’s highest concentrations of young people.
Converting vacant lots and portions of the Chene Ferry Market into clean, vibrant spaces for community events and an urban farm to help restore the once-thriving working-class neighborhood.
The Mission Continues has operations across the country that engage veteran volunteers every day to have a deep impact on critical challenges facing underserved communities. Veterans participate in operations by serving with The Mission Continues either as a member of a Service Platoon, undertaking regular service missions that leverage veterans’ skills and leadership to make a positive impact, or as an individual The Mission Continues Fellow, embedding as a skilled volunteer with one of the operation’s nonprofit partners for a period of six months.
Operation Motown Muster is happening from June 25-29. To learn more about The Mission Continues’ programs and opportunities to get involved, visit www.missioncontinues.org.
General Walter Krueger needed the most up-to-date intelligence against a strong and lethal opponent. For the U.S. Army fighting the Japanese in WWII, good intel could avert a catastrophe and save thousands of lives. Given the nature of the war, it would be a dangerous job.
To be an Alamo Scout required problem-solving skills and quick-thinking. It demanded physical strength – not necessarily athleticism, but the ability to withstand the rigors of long marches and missions. And of course, it required observation skills, land navigation, and cover and concealment. Anyone who expressed a burning desire to “kill Japs” was turned away.
The Scouts’ rigorous training center at Kalo Kalo on Fergusson Island, New Guinea also served as a base of operations. After six weeks of intense training, 700 men dwindled down to 138, who formed 6- to 7-man fire teams. There were no prescribed uniforms and they didn’t pay much attention to rank.
Their first mission came in February 1944: to get intel on the Japanese on Los Negros in the Admiralty Islands. No one knew if there was a Japanese presence there; it was presumed to be evacuated. An Alamo Scout team was landed by a PBY Catalina. Once there, they had 48 hours before the 1st Cavalry Division landed.
Alamo Scouts came to within 15 feet of Japanese lines on Los Negros. Not only were the Japanese there, they were well-fed and well-armed–an estimated 5,000 troops remained in garrison. After a few close calls with unknowing Japanese fighters, the Scout teams were able to report enemy numbers to the invading forces, who successfully overtook the island.
The invasions of Madang, Wewak, Sarmi, Biak, Noemfoor, Sansapor and Japen Island were all subsequently preceded by recon operations conducted by Scout teams. They also liberated 66 Dutch POWs from their prison camp on New Guinea.
To get the most accurate information, Alamo Scouts approached to within a hundred yards of the camp’s fence dressed as Filipino rice farmers. The recon operation was never discovered.
Alamo Scouts were also to be used preceding the Allied invasion of the Japanese Home Islands, but the unconditional surrender of all Japanese forces in 1945 ended their reconnaissance mission. They were added to the occupation Army and then disbanded later that year.
Over their careers, the Alamo Scouts performed 106 missions deep in enemy territory over 1,482 days of sustained combat. Not one was ever killed or captured, though two were wounded in the Cabanatuan Raid. In 1988, the Alamo Scouts were added to the U.S. Army’s Special Forces lineage and its veterans were acknowledged with the Special Forces tab.
So check out our list of why you shouldn’t be too nice in the military.
1. Your fellow brothers and sisters will end up venting to you on a daily basis.
If you’re that sweet guy or gal who is nice enough to listen to everybody’s problems — stand by for handing out free therapy sessions.
Best news ever! (Image via Giphy)
2. You just might get put into someone’s friend zone.
You know that hot guy or girl who works down at supply?
Because you haven’t shown signs of having a backbone — instead of going out with them on Saturday night — you’re going to be watching them leave the barracks with your co-worker who has a backbone.
They’re not coming back anytime soon. (Image via Giphy)
3. People will ask for favors — a lot of favors.
You know how you’re bad at saying no because you’re too nice? Well, have fun standing somebody else’s duty Saturday night while they’re off having an excellent time at the bar.
FML. (Image via Giphy)
4. If you get even a little upset, everyone will think the “nice guy” is going crazy.
You listen to everyone’s problems 24/7, but when you decide to emote at all — everyone now thinks you’re the crazy one.
It’s okay for everyone else, but just not the nice guy or gal. (Image via Giphy)
5. You could get pushed to the side.
People have crazy schedules this day and age. So when they need to make space in their lives for something important, they might reschedule a meeting with you — the accommodating one — to make room.
Son-of-a-b*tch! (Image via Giphy)
6. Your chain of command could assign you extra duty.
Many times a bad assignment will come down the pipeline, and your chain of command needs to assign someone to work an outside event. If you’re that person who rarely gives anyone sh*t, you may be the one they ask to come on in on Saturday because you never say no.
Yeah. So, we’re going to need you to come in on Saturday. (Image via Giphy)
The Navy’s largest shipyard maintained a private, off-the-books, and illegal security force for more than a decade after the 9/11 terror attacks, costing taxpayers $21 million, the Navy inspector general reports.
The Norfolk ship yard in Portsmouth, VA established an unsanctioned security force with a glut of funding in the early 2000s, then purchased millions of dollars of high-tech security equipment and hid it from the Navy authorities for years, the IG said.
“These folks are not law enforcement, but they wanted to be, and all of their actions were done to become a law enforcement organization,” Peter Lintner, deputy director of investigations at Naval Sea Systems Command, told Federal News Radio. “The stunning thing is that this happened over the course of seven commanding officers, and not a single one of them put a stop to it or really even had any visibility on it. Everybody just thought, ‘Well, they’re the good guys. They’re the security department. They’re not going to do anything wrong.’ In actuality, they were doing everything wrong, and they knew it.”
The IG conducted the the investigation in 2014 after following a tip to the NAVSEA whistleblower hotline, but the report was only recently made available.
The security force acquired surplus equipment — including Berettas, ammunition, scopes, patrol boats, and vehicles — from the Defense Logistics Agency. Government Accountability Office investigators were able to purchase surplus military equipment for a fake law enforcement agency recently, proving that the process for purchasing military equipment is not very rigorous.
The IG estimates that the Navy spent $10.6 million on labor and payroll for the unsanctioned security force, and $10.4 million on the excess equipment.
The Norfolk security crews went to extreme lengths to keep their stockpile of equipment a secret. They created fake license plates for their vehicles, and would move their cache of weapons and tech off-base whenever the Navy’s asset manager came around to take inventory.
“They drove all the vehicles out, loaded everything on the flatbed and stashed it in one of the back parking lots on the local naval base,” Lintner said. “When the asset manager got there, it was literally an empty warehouse, but the day before it had been packed full of tools, vehicles, all types of material.”
When investigators confronted those in charge, “they admitted they hid it deliberately,” Lintner said. “That’s what they said every time: ‘If anybody found out what we had, they would have taken it away from us and we wanted to be ready for any contingency.’ Their motto was, ‘It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.'”
In 1998, Steven Spielberg put forth what’s considered one of the best war movies of all time, Saving Private Ryan. The filmmaker brings audiences inside the life of an infantry squad as they maneuver through the bloody battlefields of World War II.
Saving Private Ryan follows a squad of Army Rangers whose sole mission is to locate one soldier and bring him home after his brothers were discovered to be killed in battle.
Despite the film’s title, the movie doesn’t center around the eponymous Pvt. Ryan, but rather the men who bear the struggles of war to find him.
So, check out five reasons why we think Saving Private Ryan should have been about Pvt. Ryan.
5. The Ryan brothers getting separated
After the audience learns that 3 of the 4 Ryan brothers have died in battle, General Marshall is informed that they were all separated due to the Sullivan Act.
Watching the Ryan brothers as they get split up, knowing it might be the last time they would ever see one another, would’ve been an exceptionally powerful scene.
These Army officers discuss the news of Pvt. Ryan’s dilemma and formulate a plan to get him out. (Image from DreamWorks Studios)
4. The paratrooper’s perspective
At one point in the film, Capt. Miller learns about all of the mis-drops that affected airborne soldiers, including Pvt. Ryan. How awesome would the footage have looked with Spielberg behind the camera, capturing the paratroopers’ perspectives on inaccurate drops?
Lt. Colonel Anderson informs Capt. Miller of his new and incredibly difficult mission — find one man in the whole damn war. (Image from DreamWorks Studios)
3. The first battle over the bridge
Cpl. Henderson debriefs Capt. Miller on their bloody encounters with the Germans while babysitting the bridge. Some of us would have rather seen that intense footage as opposed to watching one of our favorite medics pass away as a result of an avoidable firefight.
2. Humanizing Pvt. Ryan
Let’s face it, Pvt. Ryan isn’t our favorite, but we understand why he didn’t want to leave the only brothers he had left. But, a few minutes before the Germans show up to fight, Pvt. Ryan tells Capt. Miller a funny story of the last night he and his brothers were together.
Actually seeing the Ryan brothers all together, causing a ruckus, would bring some comic relief to an otherwise dark film.
Toward the end of the film, Capt. Miller brings Ryan in close and tells him to “earn this.” These simple words have a significant impact on Pvt. Ryan’s life moving forward. But, outside of bringing his family to Capt. Miller’s grave, we don’t know how Ryan lived out his days.
Centering the film around Pvt. Ryan and showing a montage his successful, post-war life could help give us closure.
The military makes a big deal out of when a rifle goes missing, not to mention when a nuke disappears. In spite of the fact the program is designed to be “zero defect,” here are 7 examples of doomsday devices wandering off (including a few where they never came back):
1. 1956: B-47 disappears with two nuclear capsules
The first story on the list is also one of the most mysterious since no signs of the wreckage, weapons, or crew have ever been found. A B-47 Stratojet with two nuclear weapons took off from MacDill Air Force Base, Florida on March 10, 1956 headed to Morocco. It was scheduled for two midair refuelings but failed to appear for the second. An international search team found nothing. The U.S. military eventually called off the search.
2. 1958: Damaged bomber jettisons nuke near Tybee Island, Georgia
On February 5, 1958 B-47 bombers left Florida with nuclear weapons on a training mission simulating the bombing of a Russian city and the evasion of interceptors afterwards. Over the coast of Georgia a bomber and interceptor collided. The interceptor pilot ejected, and the bomber crew attempted to land with the bomb but failed. They jettisoned the bomb over the ocean before landing safely. Since the plutonium pits were changed for lead pits used during training, the missing bomb has only a subcritical mass of uranium-235 and cannot cause a nuclear detonation.
3. 1961: Two nuclear bombs nearly turn North Carolina into a bay
On January 24, 1961, a B-52 carrying two Mark 39 bombs, each 253 times as strong as the Little Boy bomb that dropped on Hiroshima, broke apart in a storm and dropped both of its bombs. One survivor of the crash, the pilot, was able to alert the Air Force to the incident. The first bomb was found hanging by a parachute from a tree, standing with the nose of the weapon against the ground. It had gone through six of the seven necessary steps to detonate. Luckily, it’s safe/arm switch, known for failing, had stayed in the proper position and the bomb landed safely. “You might now have a very large Bay of North Carolina if that thing had gone off,” Jack Revelle, who was in charge of locating and removing the weapons, said. The other bomb’s switch did move to the “Arm” position but, for reasons no one knows, it still failed to detonate, saving tens of thousands of lives.
4. 1965: Loss of Navy plane, pilot, and B43 nuclear bomb
A Navy A-4 Skyhawk was being moved aboard the USS Ticonderoga during a military exercise December 5, 1965 when it rolled off its elevator with a pilot and a B43 nuclear weapon loaded. The plane sank quickly into waters 16,000 feet deep. The status of the weapon is still unknown. The pressures at that depth may be enough to detonate the weapon and the waters were so deep that it would’ve been hard to detect. If the weapon is still intact, it would be nearly impossible to find as very few vessels can make it down that far.
5. 1966: B-52 crashes into KC-135, four thermonuclear bombs are released over Spain
On January 17, 1966 a B-52 was approaching a KC-135 for refueling when the bomber struck the tanker, igniting a fireball that killed the crew of the KC-135 and three men on the B-52. The plane and its four B28 thermonuclear bombs fell near a small fishing village in Spain, Palomares. Three were recovered in the first 24 hours after the crash. One had landed safely while two had experienced detonations of their conventional explosives. The explosions ignited and scattered the plutonium in the missiles, contaminating two square kilometers. The fourth bomb was sighted plunging into the ocean by a fisherman. Despite the eyewitness account, it took the Navy nearly 100 days to locate and retrieve the weapon.
6. 1968: B-52 crashes and a weapon is lost under the Arctic ice
Like the Palomares crash, the January 21 crash of a B-52 resulted in four B28 bombs being released. This time it was over Greenland and at least three of the bombs broke apart. Investigators recovered most of these components before realizing they had found nothing of the fourth bomb. A blackened patch of ice was identified with parachute shroud lines frozen within it. Recovery crew speculated that either the primary or secondary stage of the bomb began burning after the crash and melted the ice. The rest of the bomb then plunged through the Arctic water and sank. The weapon is still missing, presumed irrecoverable.
7. 1968: The sinking of the USS Scorpion
The USS Scorpion, a nuclear-powered attack submarine, was declared presumed lost on June 5, 1968. The loss was especially troubling for the Navy since the boat had been following a Russian research group just before its disappearance. At the time it was lost, the Scorpion was carrying two Mark 45 antisubmarine torpedoes (ASTOR). The wreckage would not be found until October 1968. The USS Scorpion is still on the floor of the Atlantic under 3,000 meters of water and the cause of the sinking remains unknown. The torpedo room appears to be intact with the two nuclear torpedoes in position, but the Navy can’t tell for sure. Recovery of the torpedoes would be extremely challenging, so the Navy monitors radiation levels in the area instead. So far, there has been no signs of leakage from torpedoes or the reactor.
Imagine a Michigan student spending a semester at Ohio State. Or a UT student going to Oklahoma University. Getting sent to a rival should would be intense – and that’s exactly what Army and Navy have been doing for decades.
Every year, juniors at West Point and the Naval Academy switch places, spending an entire semester in enemy territory. Before they go back to their respective institutions, they go through the “prisoner exchange” at the annual Army-Navy Game.
Rivalries exist between all branches of the military – and college students are no different. The Army-Navy rivalry is so intense because it’s so old, but like all those other rivalries, it’s all in good fun. At the end of the day, the Cadets and Mids are still U.S. troops and we all fight on the same team.
That doesn’t mean they don’t get to have fun. The “Prisoner Exchange” is a time-honored tradition – one of many.
As for the differences between the academies, Cadet Tyrus Jones said it’s all about academy culture.
“Life is different because everything is centered around the Navy,” Jones told Army Public Affairs. “It’s a little bit of a different lifestyle and culture between the two services. It has to do with our history and how it’s evolved over the years.”
Jeremy Lee MacKenzie is an artist & filmmaker whose career began after being incarcerated as a teenager. His artwork, “Hidden Blueprints,” is a collection of wood-scrollwork cut from blueprints that were hidden in the prison system. He discovered the blueprints while serving sentences that totaled eight years, for bank robbery & drug trafficking.
He was inspired to become a filmmaker while working as a prison movie projectionist where he studied screenwriting and was released with scholarships to Champlain College. In 2015, he was awarded a screenwriting fellowship to Stowe Story Labs and that same year, won gold in the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards in LA.
In 2017, MacKenzie completed his film “Hidden Blueprints: The Story of Mikey,” and received the James Goldstone Emerging Filmmaker Award. In 2018, he was chosen for the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Award and was then admitted to the USC School of Cinematic Arts to pursue his MFA on a George Lucas Scholarship.
Annenberg Media: Tell me about where you are from and your life growing up?
MacKenzie: I’m from Burlington, VT and my childhood was complicated. I had a lot of challenging things happen while growing up and I ended up in adult prison at the age of 17 for bank robbery. Looking back, it feels like it was 100 years ago, like I’ve lived in quantum time where every year contained the events of five years.
Annenberg Media: What is the most distinct memory you have of your mother and father?
MacKenzie: A positive memory I have of my mother is how she always encouraged me to be an artist and be creative. She was always very honest and encouraging if she thought I was good at something. My father encouraged storytelling and read me a lot of books growing up. He tested me on the stories to see if I was listening. He would reread me the same story and then change certain plot lines to see if I was paying attention. I would stop him and tell him, “no dad, the storyline goes like this…”
Annenberg Media: What challenges did you face at school and in the community?
MacKenzie: My parents separated after my younger sister passed away. I lived with my mother most of the time and my father during summers. When I was really young, I did well in school. At a certain point in my childhood we moved into a trailer park where we were living in poverty. A lot of the people living in that trailer park did not care much about school and were into drugs. Those became really tough years since I valued education but was now being punished for valuing academics.
At first I had to fight kids often when getting off the school bus because I was into focusing on school. My parents always tried focus my attention on education. I was very young and got sick of fighting and being an outsider, so I ended up joining the crowd. I got into drugs to succeed in that world. I often wondered if people around me who chose the drug path, went through those same bad experiences as I did.
At the age of 12 or 13, I transitioned into selling drugs and became a drug dealer. I wanted to excel in a world I was way behind in. By 14-years-old, my parents had lost full control. I had an 18-year-old stripper girlfriend living with me. I was deep into the world of drug dealing: at age 14, it was cocaine, 15, it was opiates, at 16, I was arrested for dealing heroin and at 17, I was locked up for bank robbery.
Bang, that escalated quickly! My parents were baffled at how things changed so rapidly.
Annenberg Media: Where did this lifestyle lead you?
MacKenzie: I served three sentences totaling eight years. During one of those sentences, I earned my high school diploma but was still struggling to separate from the drug world. During the course of one of my sentences, I was sent to a corporate prison in Kentucky. When I got there, I got my first college opportunity. Hazard Community College selected 20 inmates who they gave grants to start college while incarcerated.
Due to overcrowding and the mistreatment of inmates, a lot of violence was going on in the facility. It was a for-profit prison and the administration was not friendly. I had to make a choice between focusing on college or joining an uprising in the prison. A group of inmates were planning a revolt and ended up having a riot at the facility. The riot took over the facility for a night and the administration building was burned which included the education facility. The college opportunity went up in smoke. We were in lockdown for many months while they rebuilt the prison around us. This gained a lot of national media attention.
Annenberg Media: Did you have any creative outlets while incarcerated?
MacKenzie: Isolation can be a powerful tool. After the riot, while in lock down I started designing artwork. I would design blueprints for big pieces of wood-scrollwork. I had learned this wood cutting technique as a teenager from an old clock maker in prison and I taught myself how to design. I was designing on taped-together pieces of paper but we weren’t allowed to have the paper so I had to hide my blueprints until I could bring them home.
Those blueprints came to be my artwork years later. I used them as a tool for storytelling. Many of the blueprints I drew didn’t directly depict prison but told the stories of our experience on the inside through ancient themes. When I was not designing I started getting into TV and movies and I started watching this show called “Medium.” Everybody watched it. It was a way to escape from prison.
MacKenzie: My darkest moment came during my third sentence when I could no longer hide from my darkest truths and my responsibilities. I couldn’t hide the impact my actions had on my friends, family and community; I experienced a paradigm shift. I was in a segregation cell where I had more charges coming. The drug dealers who had been supplying me since I was an adolescent, who I had been protecting my whole life, were not protecting me or anyone else. The whole veil of that world came crashing down.
I realized the effect my life was having on everyone around me and the people I had protected and followed didn’t care about me anymore. I was in the segregation cell and I noticed there was a broken razor blade on the floor. “This is my out,” I thought. This was one of the few moments in my life where I contemplated suicide. But, I looked out the window and thought to myself, “No one could explain this to my dog, she’s never gonna know what happened.” I just wanted to see my dog again. She probably saved my life. Tests find a way of placing themselves in your path, especially at your darkest moments. I needed to let things play out until the end.
Annenberg Media: How was your life impacted after making the decision to stay alive?
MacKenzie: That was a very challenging period of time, but it passed. And I ended up getting a job as a prison movie projectionist. It was a makeshift movie theater with prison walls. We screened everything from the original “Star Wars” to “Casablanca” and “Chinatown.” It was a powerful experience watching “Star Wars” projected onto a prison wall.
While working as a prison movie projectionist, I started writing stories with the women’s prison. The women were relatable and had similar situations to mine. But we weren’t allowed to write to other prisons so I would send the letters to my father and he would re-address them to the women I was writing. I invited them to write a story where the women and I could insert our own characters and set them off on a journey together. I was very grateful to the women for that, as it provided a creative medium that was very valuable. It also provided companionship and helped with loneliness.
Working with the prison movie theater was a crucial time for me. All those earlier years of my father testing me on stories came back to me. I decided I wanted to become a filmmaker. I focused on screenwriting and reached out to different colleges to get the books they used in their screenwriting courses. I was no longer in a corporate prison and I made a deal with teachers to recycle prison paperwork. The education offices would print scripts on the back of the recycled paperwork I brought them. Filmmaking was like life or death- in my previous life I was going to die and this new life was the only way out. There were no other choices.
Annenberg Media: Did you plan on getting further education?
MacKenzie: I got a scholarship to go to college when I came home. The scholarship letter came from Bernie Sanders, which I still have. When I came home I realized there was all this time that I had missed. I did a lot of catching up in college.
As soon as I got to undergrad, I won gold in the Page International Screenwriting Awards for a screenplay. The award and screenplay got me connected with Julie Pacino, Al Pacino’s daughter. I began to excel and was pushed more towards directing. Julie ended up producing my film, “Hidden Blueprints.” Things began to happen much more rapidly and I ended up using “Hidden Blueprints” to apply to USC.
Back then, Ben Stiller was making his show “Escape at Dannemora” and his group reached out to have me in the show as an inmate. I have an escape on my record- at one point I tried to run away from prison- so I was not able to get security clearance to enter prison. But, I took a role as an extra on a different part of his show so I could still be apart of the production. I had this really funny moment where I was standing on set with Ben Stiller to my right and I was quietly watching him work. Then, the main actress comes out and I’m suddenly hit with this really familiar feeling: the actress was Patricia Arquette who I watched in the TV show, “Medium” years ago in that destroyed prison in Kentucky. I realize I’m standing in the middle of a show about escaping from prison starring the actress of the show we all used to watch to escape from the prison we were in. It was an interesting and affirming moment.
I sent the production staff of the show an email about it. It made me reflect on how far my arc had brought me. Within a matter of days the George Lucas Scholarship came in for USC. It gave me chills. I had projected “Star Wars” movies on a prison wall. Now I was headed to LA.
Aron Meinhardt, J. Lee MacKenzie, and Julie Pacino
Annenberg Media: Why Hollywood and why now?
MacKenzie: This is the epicenter of storytelling. I came here to fully engage in storytelling and USC helped me get here. I knew this was the path. This is the place to begin and branch off. This is a time when people from all different places and backgrounds can tell stories. I felt like I was one of those people that could have a place here.
Annenberg Media: What is it like to be a George Lucas Scholar at the School of Cinematic Arts?
MacKenzie: From where I come from, it has been extremely helpful and it has been an honor to have the opportunities I’ve had. I had the opportunity to work with some incredible people like Riley and Austin Lynch, Julie Pacino, Aron Meinhardt and many others. I got to collaborate with C. Craig Patterson who is a great friend, he is on a George Lucas Scholarship as well. I look forward to seeing who else I get to meet and work with.
Annenberg Media: What are your career and life goals?
MacKenzie: I want to direct movies. I direct films not because I love it, but because I feel compelled to. Telling stories was my only way out and it is the only pathway I see forward. I am going to continue on that path and see where it leads. It took a lot of people helping and believing in me to get this far. It didn’t start out that way. I deeply appreciate the people that helped me along the way. Wherever this path goes, I hope it is fruitful for both myself and for those that helped.
Annenberg Media: How is the coronavirus social distancing affecting you and do you have any recommendations?
MacKenzie: As I said, isolation can be a very powerful thing. I know a lot of people are stuck inside right now, for much longer than they are used to. A lot of movies are not getting made. People are scared and they are experiencing their own moments of darkness. But some of the most creative years of my life began with isolation and darkness like this. It wouldn’t surprise me if the solitude of this pandemic inspires and gives birth to a lovely period of filmmaking in its wake, the likes of which the world has perhaps never seen. I really hope to be a part of that movement and I think we will all feel fortunate when we see it happen.
Featured image shows J. Lee and Isabela Penagos—USC arts students.
Jose Luis Sanchez was a Marine sergeant serving in Helmand province in 2011 when he stepped on an IED and lost his leg in the blast. On Apr. 18, 2016, he ran the Boston Marathon to show support for the victims of the bombings there three years ago.
His Apr. 18 race in Boston as part of Team Semper Fi was his second marathon. He ran his first in the Oct. 2015 Marine Corps Marathon where, with the help of others, he finished despite fracturing his leg and busting his knee.
“It was my first marathon ever,” Sanchez told UPROXX. “I was just so motivated by everyone else’s love and support. My mind was like, ‘Yeah, man. You can f-cking do it!”
Sanchez wanted to run the Boston Marathon as a show of solidarity with the survivors of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. Sanchez’s history as an IED survivor put him in a unique place to understand their pain and to show support.
“It hit me in January or February,” he said, “and I just felt that I had to run the Boston Marathon. I wanted to run the race and support the bombing survivors, to show them that life goes on and all you have to do is just push through it.”
The urge to drive others and to prove himself physically was what powered Sanchez during his time as a Marine.
“I always tried to motivate others, like my Marines,” Sanchez said. “I’d push them as much as I could, encouraging them to always go after it. Even after a long patrol in Afghanistan, I was the guy who’d say, ‘Let’s go workout. Let’s do push-ups. Let’s do squats.’ I was always that type of guy. Going to the gym, taking groups on long runs, doing PT.”
When most people retire from the military, they look forward to spending more time with family, relaxing, and maybe pursuing their hobbies.
Neall Ellis isn’t most people.
After a successful career in both the Rhodesian and South African militaries, Ellis became bored with civilian life. Rather than sit back and relax, he decided to pursue the only hobby he knew — kicking ass.
With plenty of strife and a need for fighters throughout the African continent, Ellis decided to become a mercenary. He wasn’t going to be just any mercenary though. Ellis recruited a team and procured an Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunship.
Ellis’ mercenary work eventually brought him to Sierra Leone, which was in the midst of a civil war in the late 1990s. The government of Sierra Leone, backed by the British, was attempting to quell a rebellion by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).
Ellis saw things differently. Though the rebels were attacking at night, and he had no night vision devices, he proposed that he and his crew fly out to meet them and try to drive them off. To his crew, this sounded foolish and none would agree to fly the mission. Unperturbed, Ellis, piloting his helicopter alone, flew against the rebel onslaught.
In the dead of night, with no crew and no night vision, Ellis fought off the rebel advance. When the rebels came again, Ellis once again flew alone and turned them back from Freetown. Only when his helicopter broke down and he was unable to fly did the rebels finally take the city.
But Ellis wasn’t done fighting. Even though the government of Sierra Leone had lost the capital and could no longer pay him or his crew, they kept flying.
In an interview with the Telegraph, Ellis told them, “I have not been paid for 20 months. I do it because I don’t know what else to do. I enjoy the excitement. It’s an adrenaline rush.”
His staunch defense of Freetown had also drawn the ire of the RUF. His actions had so angered the RUF that they sent him a message: “If we ever catch you, we will cut out your heart and eat it.”
Ellis’ response was epic.
Ellis loaded up his bird and flew out to deliver a message of his own.
Arriving over the rebel camp they proceeded to drop thousands of leaflets, with a picture of their helicopter and the words “RUF: this time we’ve dropped leaflets. Next time it will be a half-inch Gatling machine gun, or 57mm rockets, or 23mm guns, or 30mm grenades, or ALL OF THEM!”
And he meant it. Although heavily outnumbered, Ellis kept fighting the rebels.
Eventually, his efforts drew the attention of the British, who decided not only to return to Sierra Leone, but also to provide support to Ellis and work in conjunction with him.
His vast knowledge of the country made him a valuable asset to the British and he actively participated in operations.
In September 2000, Ellis flew his helicopter in support of Operation Barras, a rescue mission of several soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment who had been captured. He would also flew missions with the British SAS.
Ellis and his crew would stay in Sierra Leone until the defeat of the RUF in 2002.
Ellis’ reputation earned him a trip to Iraq working with the British during the invasion in 2003.