Soldier of Fortune Days: A Self-Indulgent Memoir

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 Shot in Lebanon just before the 241 Marines were killed by the suicide truck, utterly preventable except for the stupidity of the State Department and the lack of balls of the Marine command. Don’t get me started. All photos mine.

Those were wilder times, hardier times, memorable and loose. The veterans of Vietnam were not yet aged and, as happens after wars, did not settle easily into selling air filters at the NAPA outlet. They had lain atop Amtracs in the tropical night, with star shells blazing white in the sky and the smoke trailing almost solid and the distant roar and thump of artillery. They had known the fast flight of helicopters over emerald-green dangerous jungle and the clotting dead and garish disemboweled and the crack of AKs. It was not preparation for the boredom of civilian life.

And so they came, we came, some of us, to work for Soldier of Fortune, dread magazine of purported mercenaries, in Boulder, to the horror of soft, nice liberals whose town it was. SOF was more a pretext and framework for international adventuring than anything else, although it was honest journalism. The staff were ballsy, uproarious, given to guns and motorcycles and skydiving and the holy god Adrenaline. Unconventional. I doubt that they had even heard of convention.

America was not then the pansy world of today. This was before our age of milquetoasts, sick-puppy transgenders who lop their willies off, and squishy delicates in panties who have never jumped from a high-wing Cessna or seen the eagle rays 130 feet down on Caribbean walls or even baited a fish hook. Because the nation’s vets subscribed heavily to SOF, the money was there for trips to the world’s war zones. We didn’t waste it. Staffers and freelances went in and out of Afghanistan, Laos, Israel, Africa.

SOF sold a sordid smell, sold dark dreams of sentries with their throats slit on night-time ops, and many came through the offices who had done these things. Yet the sordidness was mostly marketing. The staff were the most intelligent of all the publications I have worked for. There are men of high intellect who don’t want a life of faculty meetings or corporate law. Jim Graves, managing editor, a Marine of the Walking Dead in Asia. Dana Drenkowski, fighter pilot, later lawyer. Jim Morris, three-tour SF, one of the best writers I have read. (Above and Beyondis my favorite of his books)
Bob Brown himself. Donna Duvall, not military but classy, Southern, and as bright as they come. Jim Coyne, two-tour door gunner and later pro photog. I’m not sure whether Kenn Miller, former LURP who reads classical Chinese like English, was in the group, but fit the profile. His Tiger the Lurp Dog is well worth a read. SOF was a ticket to ride, which is exactly why Bob Brown, retired Army colonel, had founded it. We rode. God, did we ever.

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I forget exactly where this was, but probably in El Salvador. I do remember the mosquitos. Enough photos of men crouching with rifles and you could begin to think the human race consists exclusively of idiots.

I became scuba editor. It was an excuse to go diving with spec-ops groups whenever I got the chance. Tourist scuba is nice with all the pretty fish, but deep and dark come to appeal. We were kind of cowboys about it.

And stories, thousands of stories. Our unstated motto probably was “He who dies with the most stories wins.” I remember one night diving with Force Recon off Vieques in Puerto Rico. The elite outfits dive without lights for obvious reasons, as the bad guys would throw grenades at glowing parts of the ocean. Not optimal. You follow the fins, like rubber bat wings, of the guy in front of you by the faint glow of infiltrating moonlight.

Anyway, one night I was aboard an insertion boat, a fair-sized fast craft laughably regarded then as stealthed, and we were pulling an RB-15 inflatable boat full of Recons. Warm wind, muffled engines, slap-slap of water, that sort of thing. The idea was that we would pull them to a hundred yards of shore and then pop a shuttered strobe to tell them to cut loose and paddle the rest of the way in.

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From a couple of weeks in the Angolan bush with Jonas Savimbi. I like to call the photo “Carry a Fill Flash, Stupid.” On my return I once spoke to some really nice people about the difficulty of shooting blacks in Africa, thinking they would understand that I meant “photographing blacks.” They didn’t.

I had one of those high-powered Vivitar flashes to shoot some other things going on and asked the skipper if I could us it. Sure, he said. I did. The Recons being dragged behind thought it was the strobe and cut loose a mile and a half from shore and had to paddle…. No, they didn’t kill me, but probably considered it.

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With the IDF somewhere in occupied Lebanon.

Again, it was a man’s world, a thing not in good odor today among the flowers and cup cakes and squealing little sweeties all worried about microaggressions. We would land in San Salvador and go around customs courtesy of the military authorities because some of us were carrying things customs wouldn’t have liked. By day we cruised the countryside with the military and by night ran the bars and whorehouses. For many of us this had been the drill over half of Asia. I know, your mother wouldn’t have liked it.  There are many alive today who knew Linda’s Surprise Bar in Saigon, the Khemara in Phnom Penh, Lucy’s Tiger Den in Bangkok, and the Blue Fox in Tijuana. All very shocking, I don’t doubt.

On assignment with SOF in the Third World you met men who made Batman look like an accountant in tortoise-shell glasses. Some were legitimate: Mark Berent, Papa Wolf, who flew Fast FAC — forward air control — in F-4s over Indian country in Nam. Others were less wholesome. There was Frank, I’ll call him, a wee short guy who would kill you in a heart beat — .45 ACP was his means of choice — and had been involved in a helicopter jail-break from….well, he was Frank. Nobody at SOF committed murder, or did much of anything seriously illegal under US law, though it is possible that certain of the writers may have partaken of ganja, the herb, that evil  marijuhweeny.

Nah.

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Partying at Soldier of Fortune. Left to right: Byron the Enforcer, Reg Hoolihan, Mary squeeze of Bob Brown, Bob Hisself, and Mouse. Not all of these were the men of exceptional intelligence I mentioned. Maybe you guessed.

Other countries’ laws were another thing. There were border crossings that occurred without notification of the national authorities. (If you are sneaking into Laos to look for POWs, which some SOFers did, you probably don’t call the Communist government in Vientiane to let them know.)

Even in America we saw a side of life that would send Ivy darlings running for Mommy’s apron, and perhaps reorder their social thinking. The cops in Denver thought SOF was a righteous mag, and so I got a ride-along with a couple of cops who regarded me as an ally rather than an enemy. It was on East Colfax, a bad-ass section. As tourism, nothing else, they took me to a squalid apartment full of scag-heads.  The rooms were hot, stiflingly hot, and half a dozen black guys were nodded out, too much so to pay us any attention. The air stank of tuna fish, which apparently all they ate if they remembered to eat at all — and the walls were so covered in scurrying roaches that it was like living wallpaper. The cops didn’t do anything to them. What would have been the point? But it wasn’t the city that people think they live in. It was my introduction to police life.

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Recons at Lejeune. Civilians usually haven’t heard of them. They say heartwarming things like, “Crush their skulls and et their faces.” Not many transgenders.

Time went by, the vets got too old for SOF, and the staffers and freelancers moved on. Graves went back to school in computer science and built a career, Donna moved to Paladin Press as an editor, Drenkowski is a prosecuting attorney in California, and I turned into a respectable, if that is quite the word, reporter. While it lasted, it was a hell of a show.

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