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Redeemer of Stolen Lives

I would hazard a guess that few children know before the age of ten that their lives are destined for an enormous change, but I had no doubts about my life. I was certain my life would be taking a new direction very soon because if it didn’t, my father—was going to kill me.

I was born into a family with vast ranching interests stretching from Wyoming and Montana to Oregon and Washington state. My father expanded the family business from cattle and horses, which my great-grandfather had begun in 1860, to include logging, lumber mills, construction, and West Coast fishing fleets. At one time, our family had the largest privately-owned cattle operation in the country.

My father was a good businessman by any standards, but business was not his primary focus in life; not to say that wealth and power weren’t important to him, but he was also a fire and brimstone preacher, and guiding and nurturing his flock of hundreds of faithful sheep was primary in his life. That—and driving the Devil from my soul.

My grandmother Sarah, my father’s mother who had lived with us since before I was born, told me once that it was hatred of his own father that drove my father to treat me as he did. Grandmother thought her son saw too much of his father in me. Whatever it was, my siblings, an older sister. Ruth, and my younger brother, Matthew, were exempt from the abuse I received from my father.

The fruit cellar in our house was accessed through a doorway under the stairs in the basement. Inside the cellar to the left of the door, my father had embedded two cedar posts in the wall. He called the spot—the redemption wall. Almost daily, from the time I could walk, I was taken to the redemption wall and instructed to disrobe and grasp the two posts. Father would pray that the Devil would release his hold on me, then father would attempt to drive the demon from me, beating me from neck to heels with a wide leather strop.

Only when I could no longer hold myself up and collapsed to the cold floor would he stop, at which point he would order me to the bathroom for my cuts to be bathed by my mother or grandmother, then they would apply Watkins salve to help them heal.

On Sundays, father would instruct his church elders to drag me in front of the congregation, and they would strip me of my shirt and trousers so father could demonstrate his faith to his followers by beating his firstborn son in an attempt to thwart the Devil’s grasp on my soul. His followers loved the show. They would stand and shout encouragement to their leader while I anguished in pain and embarrassment.

Every member of my family knew of the treatment, as did the hundreds of people that lived in our small Willamette Valley community, most of whom either worked for my father or derived their income from his enterprises in one way or the other. Most also were members of his church. No one other than my grandmother Sarah would speak up to defend me. I don’t remember my mother ever speaking directly to me other than to tell me to do my chores early in the morning before breakfast.

It was my responsibility to crawl out of bed in the dark morning hours and walk down the hill to feed our personal riding horses and milk the cow. After cleaning the horse stalls, I carried the milk pail home, careful not to spill a drop where my mother or grandmother would skim the cream.

Matthew was a sickly child, diagnosed by the family physician with rheumatic fever. He was bedridden and kept out of school by the doctor’s orders and thus was never given any of the ranch chores to do. Ruth helped my mother in the kitchen but didn’t even sit with the men for the meal. The women in our household ate their meals after the men and boys had been fed. I don’t have many memories of my brother or sister.

My father employed ranch hands and cowboys full time and would double or triple their numbers for the spring and fall roundups, and whenever I wasn’t busy elsewhere, I was ordered by my father to lend a hand on the ranch. I’m pretty sure I could ride a horse before I could walk.

One of father’s top hands was a mountain of a man named Henry. He was a Swede from the old country and came to America on a ship after World War Two and never left.

But Henry had his demons.

Henry had been a member of the Swedish Resistance and one of a small group of warriors that would cross the border into Norway at night and attack the Germans. They were called the Ghosts, as their method of delivering death to the Third Reich was to slip into the German camps and kill the troops silently with knives. The Ghosts were so feared that many Germans went mad from lack of sleep, so fearful that they would die in their sleep.

One night towards the end of the war, Henry and his team crossed the border to ambush a German patrol. While they were away, an enemy force attacked Henry’s village and brutally slaughtered everyone. Henry and his men returned to find dismembered bodies strewn out in the streets of the village. Henry’s wife and two children were chopped in pieces, the heads and limbs stacked on top of the dinner table for Henry to find.

After burying his family, he hunted and killed Germans even after the war had ended. Finally, the authorities arrested Henry and put him on a merchant ship, and sent him away. He worked on ships around the world until finding his way to America—but he hated the Germans until the day he died.

Henry was my first mentor— and I owe my life to his training and instruction, for without it, I would not have survived. I was about six years old when Henry began to teach me. You see, Henry knew how my father abused me. While it wasn’t his place to stop it, no one in that day and time spoke the words—child abuse; Henry chose instead to prepare me for when I would leave my family and take on the world alone.

Henry was also an alcoholic. But he never drank when he worked and would go weeks without a touch of whiskey on his tongue, and then he would tell my father he needed to go to town, and father would have someone drive Henry into Eugene and drop him off.   A few days later, father would send someone to town and get Henry out of the drunk tank at the jailhouse. The sheriff and police chief were well compensated by my father and went out of their way to keep him happy.Henry would come home, clean up, and work hard for several more weeks before another trip to town.  

Henry almost always worked by himself. He didn’t like working with any of the other hands, and that was fine with them too. Most people couldn’t understand Henry when he talked anyhow. He had never lost his strong Swedish accent and would always carry on a conversation with himself while he worked. I came to find out that he was talking with the spirits of his family he had lost and left behind in the old country. But it was a secret I kept to myself even after Henry passed.

Henry didn’t require any help when he worked anyway. He was one of the biggest, strongest men I’ve ever known. Henry probably stood 6’4″ or so and weighed near two-hundred-eighty pounds. All hard muscle and not an ounce of fat did he carry. Long arms and hands the size of a cast iron pan, he would work from breakfast to dinner without a break for lunch every day. No one could keep up with him. He carried a one-gallon glass cider jug full of spring water everywhere he worked. He would place it in a creek if one were close or in the shade of a tree to keep cool, and that was the only time he would stop or take a break. I can see him in my mind’s eye to this day, with the jug slung over his shoulder and his head back, pulling hard on that ice-cold branch water.I guess it was why my father treated him differently from all the other hands. He said he had never met a harder worker. Henry was also the only person my father didn’t preach sermon. Henry had his own demons, and I’m pretty sure my father didn’t want anything to do with them.

If you were to ask me, I honestly couldn’t tell you how old Henry was. When you’re young, adults all seem old anyways, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me to ever ask Henry or any other adult their age back then. But I do know this, that Henry had been around the horn. He had done a lot in his life, and for some reason, he took it upon himself to try and pass some knowledge on to me. I also know that Henry hated how my father beat me; although he never lifted a hand to stop him, he helped me the only way he could.

 I know that Henry figured I would try to get away from my father as soon as I was able. And so, he gave me the greatest gift he could bestow upon me, the knowledge and ability to survive and care for myself. I’ve used the skill sets he passed on to me my whole life. Although Henry knew I was destined to be away on my own, I’m damn sure he never figured it would happen as soon as it did.

Henry had worked as a logger, both in the old country Sweden and in the states. He was also a very accomplished hunter and tracker. My father always took Henry into the mountains on his hunting trips. He said there was no one better at tracking wounded animals or skinning and dressing game. Mr. McDalley, who owned the Meat Packing and Butcher Store, tried to hire Henry away from my father several times. He said he never knew a man more accomplished with a butcher knife than Henry.  

Henry was also a skilled and experienced seaman and had worked on ships and sailing vessels all over the world at one time or another. My father had Henry teach me to sail on trips to the coast, and he was my first instructor of marlinespike seamanship. He taught me how to tie knots, splice rope, make-up lashings, whippings, and the proper use and storage of rope. All essential skills I would need and use years later. 

But Henry had his demons.

Whenever Henry would go with me up into the backcountry, he always had some lesson in mind to teach me. It might be something fun like how to catch fish out of a stream without using a fishing pole, or tracking a rabbit across a meadow, or something very difficult, like sitting for long periods without moving or making a sound.

We hunted for all our food. But Henry didn’t always feel it was necessary to use a firearm, though we normally would have a shotgun or .22 rifle with us. During deer season, Henry always carried his Winchester Model 70 carbine chambered in 30.06. But Henry was so skilled as a woodsman he preferred to use other methods.

He taught me how to set snares to catch small game like rabbits, grouse, and pheasant, and how to shoot with a bow, using arrows he made himself. One time shortly after deer season had ended, we came across the tracks of a deer that had been wounded and only had three legs; one leg had been shot off by an unskilled hunter. Knowing the animal would probably end up being eaten by a mountain lion or bear, he tracked the deer into the next valley and told me to shoot it with his bow. Then after I had cut its throat with his old skinning knife, we hung it up and skinned it out and cut it up.

 He was careful not to waste a bit of meat. We cooked fresh venison that night and then carried the rest of the meat back and gave it to my grandmother. Henry later made me a present of that old skinning knife with a sheath he made for me to carry on my leg inside my boot, and I carried that knife for many years and used it well. 

Henry must have known I would need that knife someday.

My grandmother Sarah showed me more love than anyone in the family, but she couldn’t stop her son from beating me—and the beatings grew in intensity with each passing year. She began secreting me money I was to put aside for what she called a rainy day. Only she and Henry knew about my secret stash, and when Henry was killed in a logging accident in 1965, I found he had left me a wad of cash money.

Grandma Sarah left this world in 1966 after breaking her hip and contracting pneumonia. The last time I saw her in the hospital, she slipped me all the cash money in her purse. She made me promise I would leave home at the first opportunity. I believe she thought that with my only protector gone, there was nothing to stop my father from beating me to death. I don’t think my grandmother ever expected it to happen so soon.

In 1967 I made my escape with a change of clothes and just over $600 in my boots. Before I could get out of the county, the sheriff caught me, but I managed to slip away from him. I made it a mile, and the State Police caught me and returned me home. My father beat me with his fists and sent me to wait for him at the redemption wall. I took a chance and fled while he and my mother were in a prayer session and jumped a moving logging train out of the county.

I never saw my father, mother, or siblings again.

I thought I was free from abuse. I was eleven years old and didn’t know how many forms that abuse can come in—but I was about to find out.

I made it to Eugene, Oregon, and with the help of an experienced traveler, jumped aboard a southbound freight train. Riding rough in a boxcar with two other hobos, my newfound friend Ralph shared freight train wisdom with me in exchange for a meager meal. He schooled me on the ins and outs of trains, train yards, and the difference between hobos, tramps, and bums. The first you can trust only as far as you can throw them, the second never trust, and bums you distance yourself from at all cost.

Ralph gave me good advice, but sometimes fate decides you need a further lesson, and when Ralph left the train in Redding, the two hobos, Tobias Top Hat and Sam the Snake, convinced me they could be trusted to protect me down the line. They did, in fact, when four bums tried to rob us but were beat down by Tobias and Sam swinging lead-filled blackjacks. I’d have never survived that encounter without them.

Arriving at the massive trainyard in Sacramento, Sam and Tobias purchased a slab of bacon for dinner and found a vacant shed near the river to spend the night. Later that night, after they had shared a piece of bacon and slice of stale bread with me, the two hobos tanked up on cheap booze and showed their true colors.

They beat and raped me until I passed out from the pain—using only bacon grease for lubrication, they hurt me badly. I woke later and found both men unconscious in a drunken stupor. A firm resolve to never be a victim again took hold of me, and before I escaped from their deviant clutches, I made sure neither man would ever hurt another boy again. To this day—I still can’t stand the smell of bacon cooking.

I carried with me the two lead-filled blackjacks they had fought with, and I used them against evil men in my path for years to come.

Down the road I went, burning boot leather, afraid to ride another freight car. But the highway wasn’t finished dishing me out lessons.

Heading east towards Tonopah, Nevada, I thumbed a ride with a lady and her two children. Not long after, she blew a tire on her old Studebaker, which I helped her change. We made it to Ely, Nevada, and she begged to share a room with me, telling me she had only enough money to buy gas and a meal until she got to Salt Lake City.

I let her and the children sleep in one bed while I took the other, and they left early the following morning after thanking me for my help. My Greyhound bus didn’t leave until 8:00 a.m., so I took a much-needed shower before going to buy a ticket.

After my shower, I discovered the woman had snuck back into the room and stolen all the money I had saved for my journey. I was forced to find work on a local ranch, but it took me months to earn enough to move on down the road.

Moving east, I was warned by other travelers that children were going missing along the highways and that I needed to be watchful. I took their advice, but one frigid and rainy night along a Kansas highway, I took a ride from a family. Wet and chilled to the bone, the car heater put me to sleep, and when I awoke, the family was selling me into servitude to a farmer outside WaKeeney, Kansas.

I was housed in a dormitory building along with fifteen other kidnapped boys and girls. Snatched from highways or coerced from bus stations into accepting a free meal, the children were beaten and fed barely sustainable meals while forced to work long hours on the farm.

After one day, I rebelled and fought back against my captors. Using the lead cosh’s, I gained my freedom and took the other children with me. With what little money I had, I bought bus tickets for all the children and sent them to their homes. Then, with chump change in my pocket, I walked towards Florida—the survivor of an experience that, unknown to me at the time—would shape the rest of my life.

I learned what true hunger was, feeding myself from trash bins and dumpsters while fighting rats, roaches, and other hungry men for leftover food. It was a good lesson. Since then, I have never complained about the quality of any meal I’ve ever been served. Even the worst cooking is better than scraps of bread topped with rat piss and roach droppings.

I made it to Florida one hundred and sixty-two days after fleeing my father’s ranch in Oregon. Twelve years of age, I easily passed for sixteen—but felt thirty. Some people told me I carried a look in my eyes like the men that returned from fighting in the World Wars.

I sailed out of Miami as a crew member aboard a sailing vessel heading for St. Thomas V.I. But my road wisdom and fighting spirit would be put to the test.

One of the first people we met sailing into the Bahamas was a native islander searching for his daughters. They had been carried off at night from their village on Crooked Island by modern-day slavers. Albert Saunders told us things that were not on any tourist brochure—that the slave trade—human trafficking, existed throughout the Caribbean and South and Central America.

Also, that pirates still sailed the waters, not with swords and muskets, but in modern ships with modern weapons. Albert insisted that the thousands of missing ships that had disappeared in the supposed Bermuda Triangle were, in fact, looted and sunk by modern pirates.

I was to find out just how true Albert Sauder’s words were when a few months later, I agreed to help a woman sail her vessel to Puerto Rico after her husband was seriously injured. Late at night, while at anchor on the south end of Acklins Island, I witnessed a small boat leave a ship in deep water, and sneak ashore to a small village.

I followed them ashore and found five slavers loading young girls on their boat, snatched from their beds in the village. Henry’s lessons in survival came through as I ambushed the men individually and, armed with only a fishing spear, my blackjacks, and Henry’s old skinning knife defeated the slavers and freed the girls.

Stripping the bodies of their weapons, I sailed south the next morning. Two weeks later, after putting the boat owner on a plane in the Dominican Republic so she could rush to her husband who had been flown to a hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I attempted a solo night crossing of the dangerous Mona Passage between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico.

In the early morning hours, two fast-boats of Cuban pirates tried to board my vessel. Not the unaware yachtsman they expected, I utilized the weapons I had appropriated from the slavers and fought off the pirates, and kept control of my vessel. I found out the next day when I sailed into San Juan that seven yachts had disappeared that week with all crews crossing the Mona Passage. The Coast Guard cast the blame on the Bermuda Triangle—but I knew differently.

My perilous experiences didn’t go unnoticed. I was contacted by The Organization, a private military group based in Panama that had been sanctioned by the U.S. State Department to put an end to the slave trade and piracy in the Caribbean Basin and to recover kidnap victims from South America. I was offered a job working with them, and a couple of years later, at the ripe old age of fifteen, I accepted their offer.

If it wasn’t for the heat and humidity, torrential rainstorms, mosquitoes, clinging vines, venomous snakes, and stinging bugs, I could have liked Panama.

I spent six months in the jungle in 1970-’71 and came back a few times over the years for additional training, but I never liked the country, not because of the people, who I found to be very kind and friendly, but because every time I think of Panama, I start to sweat and itch—and crave sleep.

I never got much sleep at Panama Base.

The instructors wouldn’t allow it.

We came off the plane into a secured area on the airbase and were met by a line of jeeps and four-wheel drive lorries with drivers all dressed in assorted styles of jungle fatigues. In The Organization, there was no specific uniform. You were allowed to wear whatever made you comfortable, as long as it didn’t affect the job you needed to perform.

Coming off the plane, I was directed to a jeep, and we waited while the trucks were loaded with supplies. Once the lorries were loaded, the lead jeep moved out, with the rest of us following. We took a wide, well-traveled road around the city of San Miguelito and headed northeast on a dirt road into the jungle. There wasn’t anything out there except the occasional farm or ranch.

We drove for two hours through thickly forested hills and valleys, crossing countless streams and several shallow rivers. Finally, the jungle opened up, and I got my first sight of Panama Base and what The Organization was doing here. It was a private military unit trained to work for and assist corporations and small countries in security, combat support, and advanced military training. Organization personnel also were tasked with selective jobs that either could not or would not be done by legitimate governments who needed to comply with the Geneva Conventions.

In other words, The Organization was an army for hire that did the dirty work that no one else wanted to do—but that needed to be done. 

The Organization mainly recruited veteran military personnel from around the world but also took in specialists, people that had unique talents that would be considered illegal in most societies. I met people that had left careers as pickpockets, burglars, lock-pickers, and second-story men and women. And several people that could do a variety of different things but had the uncommon trait of being able to move on streets and through crowds without being noticed.

We called them ghosts.

“God, this place is big,” I told Avi, one of the instructors who would become my friend for life, “How many men are here?”

“We have some people out on jobs, but there are about three hundred here now. Most are just support personnel and regular troops. You’re going to be trained in specific skills since you already have maritime skills like boat operation, navigation, and diving down pat.

“But to start, you still have to do the basic weapon training and jungle survival course that lasts about a month. When you return from that, if you complete it, the instructors will take you and teach you more specific skills. Let’s go get you kitted out.”

Avi led me into a large wood-frame building with a metal roof and introduced me to Fergus, who he called the supply sergeant. “Marcus, this is Fergus. Any kit you need, from boots to toothpaste, you can get from him. He’s also in charge of the armory, so he’ll fit you with your weapons and ammo. I know you have some weapons skills, but we’re going to take you to a new universe while you’re here.

“Starting today, you’ll never go anywhere without your weapons. You can carry your knife and blackjacks, but your firearms must be with you at all times. During the jungle course, you’ll carry your rifle in your hands, without putting it down, even to eat or take a shit for thirty days. We want you to get so used to your weapons; you’ll feel naked without them. Okay, Fergus, let’s get Marcus sorted.”

Fergus shook my hand in his bear paw-sized grip. He stood back and gave me the once over, then turned and started loading stuff on a big sorting table.

First up were two bergens, backpacks or rucksacks, you might call them, that would carry all my kit except for my rifle and compass. Those stayed on my person. In it or strapped to it would go my clothes, water, food, first aid kit, ammo, parachute cord, stove, canopied hammock, and anything else I needed to survive or wanted to haul around. I’ll tell you, the list of items I thought I needed got shorter the longer I was in the jungle. I learned you never went into the bush to pee without your rifle in your hands and bergen on your back. Your life may count on that.

As Fergus brought my kit off the shelves behind him, I loaded everything in the bergens. Last was a web harness with ammo carriers and a short machete, a necessary item in the jungle, and a holstered Colt 1911 with extra mags and carriers on a web belt; I was very familiar with it.

Next, Avi introduced me to the M-16, or what we called the CAR-15 carbine, with a 15-inch barrel and four-position selector switch. Noticeably absent was any carry strap.

“You’ll not want a strap on your rifle in the jungle,” Fergus answered my question. “The jungle will grab hold of everything you have, and you don’t want to fight the jungle for possession of your weapon. Keep it in your hands at all times. Avi put six loaded 30-round magazines of 5.56 ammo in my web carrier and showed me how to chamber-check my weapon to make it safe.

“First thing in the morning, you’ll start two days of basic weapon training. Until then, don’t load your rifle, but you do carry your 1911 loaded—always.”

We grabbed all my kit, and Avi led me to a barracks building with about thirty cots lined up in it. We put everything on an empty cot. “Alright, first thing, strap that machete on your web belt. Put on your web carrier and wear it at all times unless you’re sleeping, and even then, keep it close to you. It has your extra ammo—and a rifle without ammo is just a heavy club.

“What you’ll learn here at Panama Base is to survive—anything, anywhere. In the jungle, on the streets, in a desert, or on the ocean. Survival means you get to live—that’s it. Now let’s go get some chow.”

In the chow hall, Avi introduced me to some of the other instructors. Most of them took to me right off, telling me they’d already heard of my antics with the slavers and pirates and my runs into Cuban waters. I was younger than all of them, and I felt like they treated me like a younger brother. Don’t get me wrong. They cut me no slack. On the contrary, I think they worked me harder, and overall, that helped me become better.

Tobih and Yafet were both Israeli, ex-Mossad like Avi.

Brock and Cedric were British out of the Regiment, the SAS.

 Darcy, Fergus, Liam, and Quinn were all Irish and loved to blow things up but also, like the Israelis, could disappear in a crowd of two on any street.

Gijs, Jozef, and Pieter were South Africans and had been in the military since they were in diapers. They knew no other life.

Paul and Brian, like Malcolm, were ex-U.S. military, and all had done tours in Viet Nam in recent years before joining The Organization.

They were exceptional soldiers, all of them, and I learned more from them than I can tell you in this short story. I thought I had done pretty well, surviving my trek across the U.S. at age eleven and my encounters with bad guys in the islands, but I truly learned how to survive anything from these warriors.

I’m only able to write these words today because of them. I wish they were all still alive so I could thank them—but they’re not.

Avi escorted me back to the barracks filling up with men after chow. “Sort your kit out tonight before you go lights out. Pack your main bergen in order of necessity, what you need first on top. You’ll be taught what’s really important during jungle survival, but do the best you can. Your spare bergen stays here with any extra kit. You’ll only carry one in the bush.

“A full mag in your rifle at all times, the extras in your web carrier, any that don’t fit, or any belted ammo for the light machine guns you might be carrying goes in the top of your bergen—order of necessity, remember. First aid kit in the outside pockets of the bergen, where you can grab it without unpacking. Under ammo, put your hammock—you’ll hang it every time you stop for any length of time. It will soon be your best friend. There are bugs and snakes that will make your life miserable enough, so don’t sit or lay on the ground unless you’re dodging bullets. Canteens are full—always. The bug juice is 100% DEET. Use it liberally, but watch out; it will melt plastic. Makes you wonder what it does to your body?

“Your cammies, wear what’s comfortable, but no underwear in the jungle. You’ll fight crotch rot all the time, but if you wear underwear, it’ll rub you raw. You’ll figure out what works as time goes on. The rubbers are not to protect your dick during sex,” he said, chuckling. “Putting them on when you cross deep streams helps keep the leeches off your dick. When you walk out of this building, you’re bergen is on your back over your web carrier. Pistol and machete strapped on your waist and rifle in your hands. Be ready to move out at 04:30. You’ll eat chow and then meet your instructors for the basic weapons course. You’ll do fine. You’re way ahead of the curve, but listen—don’t talk, and you’ll learn. Got it? I won’t see you again until you’re done with the jungle course, so take care. You’re in great hands. We only hire the best of the best for our instructors here. You’ll learn a lot.”

I hardly slept that night or any other night for the next six months.

Brock came to get me at 04:00, thinking I’d still be asleep, but I was loaded and ready, which got me a nod of approval. We went to chow, and I began to learn how to eat, piss, shit, or dress without putting my rifle down. After chow, we went to the armory. There were a few people there, but I had a one-on-one with Brock for the initial weapons course that day.

I was taught how to break down and clean my rifle and pistol. I learned to clean them at least twice a day and more often if possible. The basic drill is always knowing the condition of your weapons and to maintain a running count, as close as you can of your available ammo. Brock had spent most of “his twenty” he called it, in the Regiment and had been sent into the armpits of the world, both with teams and solo.

Not much time was spent on firearm safety. It was assumed you knew not to point any weapon at anything you didn’t want to shoot, including yourself. Finger off the trigger at all times, unless you’re shooting someone or something. Safety on, unless you’re pulling the trigger, and ALWAYS—keep a round in the chamber. If you have to chamber a round to shoot a bad guy, you’re most likely going to be too late.

By the time we took midday chow, I was pretty fast at taking down my weapons and putting them back together. I would, of course, get much, much better in the coming months. After chow, we hit the range, and I was told that every day I wasn’t on patrol in the jungle, I was to shoot 500 rounds minimum through my pistol and 1000 rounds through my rifle, minimum. More was better.

We weren’t training for long-range battlefield tactics. That wasn’t what we did. Our job wasn’t to take a city. Our job was to sneak into the city and kill some bad guys, then exfil the kidnap victims without getting caught. We fought on the street or in alleys, in rooms or in buildings. Close range, where you could, as Avi once said to me, “Smell your enemy’s breath”—close quarter’s battle.

I learned to deploy my handgun while I was holding off an attacker, shooting multiple aggressors from inches away. I was taught fast reloading and clearing weapon malfunctions while moving and shooting because that’s what a real gunfight requires. If someone is shooting at you, you better be moving, and moving and putting rounds down range is even better.

On the third day, I started the jungle survival course with Brock, Cedric, and Pieter as my instructors. There were eleven trainees when we started, only three when we finished.

The heat and humidity, snakes and bugs, and just the jungle weeded out the others. I was told later that most new trainees don’t make it through the jungle course, which is why they start with it. No sense teaching other skills if a man can’t survive the jungle course.

The course started with navigation. Just like the open ocean, only a fool would venture into the rainforest or out of sight of land without good navigation skills. I excelled at this as I spent years on the ocean looking at compass and plotting headings. In the jungle, you could get lost, traveling twenty feet.

We had one guy, though I can’t remember his name because he was gone quickly, that walked out of the camp to go pee and was lost for two days. The instructors tracked him, so they knew where he was, but he didn’t. When they finally brought him back in, he was done. His head was so messed up to the point they took his weapons away. The jungle can make you crazy.

After navigation, we learned basic survival. How to set up our hammocks that were a stock SAS issue with a canopy to help keep you dry. I say help, and I use that word loosely because, in the jungle, you’re always wet. I loved my hammock. It kept my butt out of the bush. If it’s not raining, the plants and trees are pissing on you as the big leaves hold water until you brush up against them, and then they dump on you. Building a fire in the jungle is a trip when everything is wet, but unless you want to eat cold and have no coffee or tea, you need to learn and learn quickly. Our British and South African instructors wanted the kettle brewing the moment we stopped for anything, so you learned quickly or faced their wrath.

Tracking and hunting in the jungle was another skill where I excelled. I’d hunted from the time I’d been a child and my old mentor Henry taught me to track, kill, and skin game, so I was in my element. I even showed the instructors how to set snares using the para-cord we all carried. I caught lots of game with the snares.

Speaking of game, Panama was full of game. Hundreds of different, noisy birds. Monkeys, thick as fleas. Wild hogs and anteaters, and I loved shooting the tapirs. They’re delicious. More kinds of bats than I can describe and many, many kinds of cats. Ocelots and pumas and leopards and more. Weasels that will rob you blind.

The damn monkeys—they piss on you from above and throw their shit down on you. Disgusting animals. But pretty good to eat, and we ate them a lot.

Anyway, the jungle is full of animals, and you can live off the land, which we did the last two weeks of the course. My snares became very popular since we could travel quietly without shooting game—and put down the miles. Humping a loaded pack with ammo and rifle while soaking wet is hard enough out of the jungle. Walking five miles in the jungle is like doing twenty-five anywhere else. Brock figured we covered over five hundred miles through the dense rainforest that month. As people gave out or quit, the instructors would radio a spotter plane that flew over us every day, and an evac chopper would come to take the spent trainees out.

Finally, there was only me and a guy just back from Nam, a good guy named Jerry Davis, and another guy with very good skills and, like myself, was born in Oregon, Steve Rawlings. With two days left, the instructors told us the last test was an E&E drill.

We must individually escape and evade the instructors and make it back to base. From twenty miles away, in thick jungle with only game trails to follow. The instructors split us up and took us miles apart before giving us a four-hour head start. It was one of the toughest things I ever did.

 I never stopped but to fill my canteens and a few times to pick some ripe bananas to keep me going. I heard the instructors tracking me the first day, but I lost them that night and was able to navigate by the stars whenever I could see them through the thick canopy throughout the night.

I stumbled into the base at 20:00 hours the next night. Steve Rawlings was an hour ahead of me. The instructors had caught Jerry that morning, and Pieter and Cedric had flown in with him. Jerry had sprained his ankle, which slowed him down, or he might have made it. 

Brock came out of the jungle on my trail thirty minutes behind me. “I almost caught you, Marcus,” Brock told me with a big smile. “If you hadn’t started running down that last hill north of the base, I think I’d have got you.”

The rest of the training consisted of advanced weapons training; in other words, how to fight and kill with a weapon. We worked half days with firearms, shooting thousands of rounds daily, then with the Israeli instructors learning hand-to-hand fighting. They taught a unique method of up close and personal defense called Krav Maga, which simply put is a get-it-over-quick technique of either disengaging an aggressor or quickly disabling or killing the enemy. No sparring with the opponent, no trading blows, or long-drawn-out punching. You use whatever means to stop the engagement immediately with weapons, body parts, or the kitchen sink if you can throw it.

In Krav Maga, the fight is over when the aggressor is unconscious, has bones broken, or is dead; it makes no difference as long as he or she is stopped quickly. Most engagements last ten seconds at the longest, most much less.

Because of my past work with knives and my saps, I was allowed to improve my skills with them. I had always used the saps on the chin and head region because that was how I saw them used by the hobos I took them off of, but Avi, Tobih, and Yafet showed me many more strikes I’d never worked with, such as pressure points of joints, the knees, and elbows. All could be debilitating if done correctly. A lot of work was done just using what you brought with you, meaning your body parts. Kicks and strikes using feet, hands, and the hardest bone on the body—your elbow. Even head butts, if done correctly, can kill an opponent instantly.

Two weeks were spent with the Irishman, where I was taught to blow up stuff. Those guys kept me in stitches with their constant joking and ribbing of each other and the trainees, of course.

We got to use several variants of the CAR-15, and I finally settled with a 10.5″ barrel model I preferred for close engagements and dynamic entries of buildings. I was allowed to take my personal weapons with me when the training was completed, and I took that short-barreled rifle and a 15″ model and my Colt 1911 and machete with me back to Miami.

I was trained to operate solo. Experience had taught us that if a squad of men walk into a village, the kidnappers know about it immediately. But one man, by himself, dressed like a local, can blend in and track down the kidnappers. With only a few exceptions, I worked every kidnap recovery alone.

After 185 days in the jungle, Malcolm found me on the range doing transition drills from rifle to handgun. “Finish up today. We’re on a plane back to Miami tomorrow. All the instructors are extremely pleased with your skills. When these guys tell me that they’ll fight alongside you, that’s the best recommendation a man can get. Clean your weapons and pack them and your kit and be ready to roll out after chow in the morning.”

To be honest, I’d almost forgotten how long I’d been there.

I spent the next twenty-two years recovering kidnap victims, working and living on the streets, back alleys, fetid jungles, and dank ports in third-world countries, mainly in Colombia, but my AO—area of operation spread into Central America and the Caribbean Basin. I spent time in Haiti and was dispatched on missions into Cuba eleven times. I was never sent into nice places. None of the hundreds of kidnap victims I recovered ever told me they had worried about being abducted before it happened. But the experience changed their lives—forever.

They were snatched off the streets, from their homes, from beside hotel pools, and walking to their cars in crowded parking lots. The one resounding factor with every victim was their lack of situational awareness.

I was fortunate to bring out every victim I was sent after alive. But many were not whole. Most, including the men and boys, had been raped. Some had fingers and hands cut off, women had their breasts slashed or cut off, and the children—I will never forget the look in the eyes of so many of the children I recovered. They had been horribly abused physically, but physical wounds heal. It was the mental abuse—something no child is ever prepared for that took its toll. Some would never recoup.

Unfortunately, I heard that many of the victims I recovered would later take their own lives. They simply could not live with the mental anguish they had been subjected to while captive.

One thing Henry told me that I never forgot was that there are a lot of evil men in this world—that need to be killed. I did what I could, but I couldn’t get them all.

The men I trained and worked with are all gone now. A few lived long enough to die of disease or old age, but most lost their lives in foreign countries attempting to save kidnap victims they had never met before. It is a dangerous business. I alone am the only one from Panama Base left to tell our story.

What I regret the most are all the victims I never got a chance to recover. They are forever in my mind.

You see—I have my demons too.

Author and adventurer, and survivor of child abuse, Marcus Miller spent twenty-two years rescuing kidnap victims from Colombia and the Caribbean Basin. A firearms instructor, self-defense, and edged weapons instructor, he brings real-world skills to his writing. Currently, the author of ten published novels and numerous short stories, he is sixty-six years old and travels across the U.S. in an RV.


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