David is a decorated veteran with a decade of honorable active duty military service with the United States Air Force. He has participated in dozens of joint service military operations in multiple continents. He is a graduate of an elite hostage rescue school in England and was considered the most unconventional thinker by the instructors. He served on the Blue Knights Rifle Drill Team and the Honor Guard. He won the John Levitow Award for being the top graduate at Leadership School. David ended his career with an honorable discharge and many top performer awards to include the Meritorious Service Medal.
United States Air Force (1984-1994)
I enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1984 and served honorably for over a decade as a communications operations specialist. I had many assignments that were “unique” during this time. Many of these assignments allowed for very intense and unconventional training and operational opportunities.
Since I was raised by a Cop I already understood that if you kept a low profile and got your job done, the instructors would not mess with you as much. This was exactly the way the Military seemed to work and I was already comfortable with that model. The Military was going to be the place for me.
After completing a two year mission for my church I set my sights on the military. The active Duty Marine Corps was my first pick and I took the tests after contacting a recruiter. The Marines would only offer my artillery, even after telling me I had scored high enough for pretty much “any” job. I wanted Military Police, but no slots we available.
Next door to the Marines was the Air Force. Since I had already taken my tests with the Marines they made a sort of “claim” to me and said I could not talk with other recruiters… Well I knew that was not true and found out that the Air Force had a few Special Operations units in its inventory. Since none of these units had a pipeline for recruitment I needed to get another job first and then try my luck and skills while in boot camp. The short of it is that I went to boot camp and after only being married for under a year opted for my first assignment, then I would look into these elite units.
From the very first day of boot camp stress was the order of the day. In an attempt to break you into the Military way of life they must first heap large amounts of stress upon you and benchmark your capacities. This is the very nature of the breakdown and buildup process that is necessary to make soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.
During the first day or so I was selected as dorm chief. Dorm chief is the same thing as platoon leader. As dorm chief you are basically in charge of the flight of about 50 airmen from all walks of life. You operate under the direction if the Training Instructor (TI) which is the equivalent to a Drill Instructor (DI) in the Army or Marines. During this experience I had my own duties to attend to as well as those of my flight. This made getting everything done virtually imposable. But step by step and day by day you learn to take care of the issue in front of you and then move to the next.
This process was very challenging as they gave you more to do than could be reasonably accomplished. We lost about 11 people in my flight for various reasons. During the entirety of boot camp, I was at the beckon call of the instructors, and they regularly messed with me. I found that not only was I capable of performing under stress, but that I liked it. On one occasion we were in out barracks. One of the troops was goofing off in the bathroom by jumping over the door of the latrine. He caught is mouth on the protruding hook and severely ripped his mouth at the corner. He yelled for me and I came running. He was hysterical. I told him to calm down and that it wasn’t that bad. I could see the exposed fatty tissue inside his mouth. I calmly called the guard desk and reported the incident. By being calm I kept him calm. This was a lesson that would be well rehearsed in the coming years during other traumas. Be calm, report the facts and get the job done.
First assignment - Intelligence
After technical training I received my first assignment to Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin Texas. It was here my first commander who would later become the Director of the National Security Agency (NSA) made the important and forming comment “our job is to contribute directly to the death of our enemies”. He then began to explain how we would do that through accurate information (intelligence). This man knew his mission and who he was. He impressed upon me the focus one must have regardless of the role. You must know your role, your capabilities through honest assessment and then take action where needed to accomplish the mission.
The very nature of my job as a communicator meant that I was subject to great scrutiny and attention to detail. We provided real-time combat intelligence to the field commanders. Because of this our roles we kept fairly low key. There were four communications specialists in a unit of 120 people. It was during this first assignment I learned two key things.
First was that attention to detail and accuracy was a critical element in keeping combat commanders in the loop on bad guy activity. If we failed to report accurately the critical information we possessed, good guys could die.
Secondly I learned never to take anything at face value. After all this was an intelligence unit with real spooks and the whole classic spook drama to go with it. Later in life I would call this “Challenging the Process”.
In this unit we had some very unique characters. One was a major that was rumored to speak better Korean that the North Koreans. Another was a man who was shot down in a B-52 over North Vietnam and rescued by Air Force Pararescue men in triple canopy jungle. What a range of talent and experience I was exposed to inside this school house of information gathering, organizing, targeting and dissemination.
Later I would join the ranks of the Air to Ground Close Air Support Community and participate in cold war operations, missions and exercises.
The Honor Guard and the cost of serving
During my first assignment I joint the Base honor guard and performed over 100 ceremonial burial details during the three years we were in Texas. This was a sobering experience for me personally as I was able to measure the cost of service in many ways during that time.
One experience that had a great impact on me was the death of our Honor Guard commander. He was a full Colonel, had over 30 years of active duty service and had flown combat missions in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. He passed away within weeks of his retirement and we, his honor guard buried him with as much love and dignity we could muster.
On another occasion a young Airmen was given an “incentive flight” after having won Airmen of the quarter for the base. These are amazing opportunities that allow young Airmen or NCO’s to fly on aircraft that are represented by their duties or their commands. I received two of these flights during my career. First was the OA-37 and then the F-11 in Europe. This young airmen was to fly an F-111 out of New Mexico. He was killed with the pilot when the aircraft at low level hit a mountain and disintegrated. I too at this time was a young airmen with a wife and child. I remember the service that we performed and the somber nature of this event. His death was totally unexpected as he was not in a combat job and just on an incentive flight.
Death is death regardless of how it happens. How we die may impact the living, but for the one who meets it face to face it is permanent no matter what the reasons are. My respect for those of us in uniform took on a new look and feel after this. To this day I do not care what a persons job is in the Military. If you wear the uniform and sign on the line, you are a warrior and your commitment is life and limb. We do not always get to choose our deployments, fights or missions. The only choice is weather to get on the plane so to speak. Once in flight… it is out of our hands. For this reason I thank all in uniform and cherish each moment I have.
Tactical Air Control Canter (TACC) - Close Air Support (CAS)
After two years doing intelligence, a request went out for Tactical Air Control Center volunteers. I was board with my current assignment and ready to go. I became a member of the 602nd Tactical Air Control Center (TACC). We provided targeting data to aircraft that would drop bombs on the bad guys. We did this in many forms that included ground to air communications and combat telecommunications. We had a very sophisticated computer system that was used to build the Air Tasking Order (ATO). With this system came a dozen Lieutenant Colonels that had flown many combat missions in Vietnam. One of the most famous and the one that most these men had flown was “Thud Ridge”. During this fight the Air Force sent these pilots into hell to pound enemy targets. The loss rate was very high, but these guys just carried on and did the deed. I was personally mentored by many of these legends on what Close Air Support (CAS) was, and how aircraft should be employed to maintain ground safety while at the same time get bombs on target. These were incredible men and I have to pinch myself sometimes to know that I was in the same unit with men like this.
In this unit it was clear that there is a consequence when munitions are released. You cannot call them back or redirect them (in those days). They are equal opportunity killers with a path that has been determined by the releasing agent and sometimes the environment. Therefore every detail of information must be accurate, regardless if it is voice or data. 100% bombs on target was the goal.
First contact with the enemy
During this busy assignment I volunteered for many temporary duty assignments that exposed me to new training and operations in many places. One of particular note was an assignment with Readiness Command (REDCOM) the predecessor to the joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Volunteers were requested from the Air Force with communications backgrounds because most of us had the Top Secret clearances required for this particular mission. The mission would be in support of U.S. policy in Central America.
It was during this deployment that I had to ask myself for the very first time outside of growing up in Los Angeles, could I kill another human being? To put this in perspective you need to look at the fact that even though I carried a weapon and was trained to use it, I was not an infantry soldier that is extensively trained in force-on-force engagements at that time. While that would come in great detail later in my career, at this time I was new to combat operations and hostile environments. I had been given a special operations mission as a communications specialist, and was more than likely going to be in the “heat”. Even though I had lots of extra training, it was not the kind at this time that would make the difference in a firefight. For the first time I had to determine for myself if I would pull the trigger on another human that I most likely did not know. Perhaps that person did not want to be on the other side of my fence, or was compelled to be involved in a cause that was forced upon him.
Through this experience of having to resolve my actions in conflict I realized a couple of things, first; I was not a stone cold killer, but could do what wqas needed, and second; I was a thinker.
The answer to the question, could I take another persons life came in the form of many brief enemy contacts over the years and in many forms. The truth of my response would be founded upon the desire to preserve the lives of those on my left and on my right, and in some cases people I did not even know. Many films have correctly talked about this as a reality of war (fighting for those on your left and right), and I am here to confirm that one of the most pure motives in being willing to take another human beings life, or to risk your own is to preserve your life or those lives entrusted to you.
Commitment to your team and the preservation of your life was the lesson learned during this phase of my military career. Later on this would have a whole new dimension during Hostage Rescue training later on.
The Rapid Deployment Force (RDF)
As members of the TACC we were part of the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF). We always had bags packed and were subject to little or no notice departures world-wide. Our mission was to provide tactical communications and close air support to the war fighters that would also be in country within the first 24 hours of a conflict. We went on so many deployments during this phase that my newly born child would reference photos of me on the wall when I was holding her and asking “where’s daddy”.
This was my first experience with frequent departures, no ability to share information with your wife and a longing for the newborn babe at home. Nearly a decade later, the same longing would exist, but be compounded by another war in the Middle East and two more children.
Next assignment Operating Location Alpha – Special Operations EUROPE
After a year in the TACC I volunteered for a long tour over seas (4 years). I was selected for duty in the United Kingdom and could bring my family. This was a very unique assignment that landed me in the middle of the early undeclared war on terrorism in the late 1980’s. Due to the nature of our mission (Support Special Operations Forces) we were exposed to a unique and a developing culture that tended to break the mold you might expect from conventional forces. Thinking out of the box was encouraged by these warriors, but sometimes did not align itself with all the normal way of doing business.
Our mission was to support Special Operations Missions under the designator “Flintlock”. It was during this time that I attended a hostage rescue program under the direction of in the Ministry of Defense (MOD). This was after the Elite U.S. Delta Force commandos had cloned the Special Air Service (SAS) model of hostage rescue and when the United States was building this capability through out Europe because of the inherent daily threat to people and resources there. How I got involved in this program is a strange story but worth telling.
Shadows on the towers
One night I set out in between these frequent deployments and grabbed a couple of my buddies. I convinced them that we needed to do some night tactical rappelling off the 80 foot free standing water towers on base. It was getting late on our quiet little base and it was time to sneak in a few fast free falls before sun up. We used these towers often for this purpose, but that was during the day and the command post was notified.
Well, it took some convincing to get my buddies to come with me on this trip, but they finally agreed. With painted faces and camouflaged uniforms we grabbed our gear and infiltrated the towers near the Ministry of Defense checkpoint. We made our way up the towers and began to have a grand old time zipping down at intense speeds.
The cool thing about night rappelling Aussie style (hookup in the back) and freefalling face first is that your depth perception gets off just a little. As the ground comes up you have to really adjust to get the breaks on at the right time. Well… this went on for about 30 minutes of pure joy. Then out of the corner of our eyes near the bottom of the tower we saw an off duty British man walking his dog (that looked like him) down the road that ran near the towers. We froze… he walked right under the tower following the road to the MOD shack a quarter mile away and then made large circle back. Since we were frozen like the ninjas we thought we were, we thought nothing of it and felt we were safe.
What I failed to realize was that this was the same day in 1988 an Iranian Airliner was shot down by a U.S. warship in the Persian Gulf and all 300 souls were lost. Because of this we were on a war footing (again). Major events happened often, so most likely it was just another day in the world as far as we were concerned. Unfortunately the security forces on base were not as casual about this event as we were. As a result of this event the security forces on base, which we did our best to avoid on missions like this one were on high alert. Little did we know that our British gentleman walking the dog was a Sergeant Major in the British Army with exceptional powers of observation. He stopped at the MOD shack and called the security forces out to investigate the “shadows on the tower”.
The security forces were very covert as they surrounded the Water towers – we watched their approach and it was a very good one. There was no place to go…we were trapped. I was ready to Rappel again and beat feet when all of a sudden the tower was illuminated in a blinding bath of intense light. The voices blow yelled “do not move” “we have you surrounded”. Here I am hanging in my harness and I am not supposed to move. Guns were visible and we were ghosted.
After we yelled “we are Americans… don’t shoot” they hauled us off to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC). It was here I met some folks that would become friends for a long time. The Sergeant in charge was asking why we were in the towers. We explained that it was a “training” mission (wink wink) and we needed the cover of night to rehearse our skills. Contrary to getting in trouble I was asked if I wanted to teach rappelling to the Emergency Services Team (EST) from Mildenhall, which led to teaching the team at Lakenheath too. I said “sure” and one thing lead to another. I ended up teaching rappelling and hand to hand combat to the Lakenheath team as well as becoming great friends with many of them.
NOTE: EST is the equivalent of a SWAT team.
Hostage Rescue “Green Light”
Word got out about my involvement with the EST programs and I was invited to attend a formal hostage rescue program that would be held on our base. Instructors and tactics would come from many backgrounds and the core focus would be when negotiations ended and the “green light” was given. Our training started at the “green light”.
This program spanned many weeks and was held at odd times during the night and day. Our gear was blank adapters and M-16s, our facilities were condemned buildings, but the instruction was excellent. We spent hours, days and weeks learning and practicing approaches, shoot-don’t-shoot recognition, movement, assaulting, breaching and many other skills that would culminate in a Field Training Exercise pitting us against our instructors.
From this classic experience I saw what great instruction can do when tools and facilities are weak. I also was exposed to significant amounts of stress. The exercises were so intense that after one particular room clearing where I was the bad guy, a teammate who was part of an entry team continued to fight after end exercise (ENDEX) was called. He muzzled my face and pulled the trigger with an open barreled M-16 and live blanks. I would have had severe facial damage was it not for the quick reactions of another teammate who put his had up and deflected the muzzle flash. I caught only a portion of the blast in the face and my buddy got the rest. He was treated and the kid who shot me was out of the program. Sometimes when the cheese is up we continue to fight even though the threat has been neutralized. Good stress training will reduce this response as participants benchmark themselves under adverse conditions and know how to amp up or down as needed.
Hostage Rescue training would impress upon me the need to train how you will fight. Loads of repetition and realistic training are the building blocks of muscle and mental memory, and the ability to act appropriately instead of processing the threat, pondering potential consequences and then acting with a significant delay. These would be other building blocks that would provide me with a foundation of advanced decision tree skills. Another way to look at this is to say; “if I do this, then this may happen”. Being able to make these decisions under stress is a critical skill in a rescue or combat operations.
Bodies on the tarmac
One of my duties on the base in Europe was to be on “standby” for critical communications in between deployments. One day my pager went off and I beat feet to the communications center to get the message traffic. As I got there I found that we needed to open the flight line for an inbound mission. Thinking nothing of it because I had done it so many times before, I notified the folks that were needed to land a plane. When the plane landed there were several metal coffins that were being transported. They had American flags on them and there were no details as to what had happened. Since we were in the “know” normally I was surprised at this event.
I contemplated this for many days and concluded the following: For many years the fight against bad guys has been going on. It was especially intense during my assignment in Europe from 1987-1991. I know from personal experience that events come and go without anyone in the public ever really knowing what is happening. In my opinion it is essential that covert missions proceed to secure our way of life and liberty. This is done by keeping the bad guys guessing all the time. Occasionally they guess right and good guys die. Sometimes we hear about it through the media, other times coffins show up on a flight line and the burials are quiet and personal for family and loved ones.
And the “Wall” came tumbling down - Berlin
In 1989 the Berlin Wall was taken down by economics and a successful military/political strategy that lasted over 40 years. It was however not done without firing a shot. Many shots were fired in many lands with varying results. Bottom line, organized communism in the form of post WWII was done in Europe and I was there to see it’s unwinding. It was surreal as locals from the western side of the wall began to rip it apart. I had been on a war footing for two years with the big Russian bear and all his might still intact. Mixed emotions were the order of the day and questions like “what would happen to the nukes?”, “how will the East blend with the west” and “is this real?” were the topics of discussion. For me personally, I was glad as could be to see the families from Germany reunite. Freedom would then spread to the rest of the Iron curtain and the world would never be the same. Now an open world economy would be mingled with varying shades of democracy in Europe.
Since I was there in Europe when this happened I was able to seen first hand this things that happend priorto, during and after the wall came down. This was an epic experience as the old cold war came to a close.
With weapons and talent now available from the eastern block, global terrorism and a few new centralized tyrants acting as appendages would rise in this new world.
An act of terror - blown up in Tunisia and fighting through
One of my best friends in England and a fellow communicator was named John. We spent lots of time together on and off duty and worked very closely for four years. John married an English lady and was destined to be in the United Kingdom as long as possible. One summer John wanted to go to North Africa on holiday. I counseled against it because of the situation reports (SITREP) of that area. Lots of bad guy activity in the Mediterranean. He decided to push on anyway and took his wife with him to Morocco and Tunisia. The world headquarters for Arafat a long time dirt bag and terrorist was in Tunis, Tunisia. Needless to say I was uneasy about his personal travel in that area without a gun and friends with guns.
At 11:00 pm one night a few days after John and his wife left, my boss knocked on my door. “I’ve got some bad news about John”. My heart stopped and I waited as the details of Johns incident with Middle Eastern terrorists unfolded.
He, his wife and a bunch of mainly western tourists were on a bus in Carthage, Tunisia when the bus exploded from the bottom throwing passengers into the roof. John was injured in both legs and his feet with multiple fractures. His wife has bad burns on her legs and other passengers were even more critically wounded.
John managed to get himself and his wife out of a broken window and “run” to relative safety a few meters away. He then collapsed on the ground and realized at that time that he had no more capacity to walk, yet alone run.
When the police arrived they took all the cameras and ripped the film out of them. John was transported to a hospital and placed on the floor. He got meager treatment at best for several days.
The authorities said that the air conditioner on the top of the bus exploded and that it was an accident. No official declaration was ever made about this incident and no one to my knowledge ever claimed responsibility. However a few weeks later several Hotels went up in explosions in the same area and the same TANGOS claimed responsibility for these events.
During this time I was ready to go and kill someone. Who do you kill when some anonymous group or individual blows up your best friend and his wife? Immediately a deep set enmity existed between me the people who prey through terror. I realized then and know now that evil men exist and prey upon the weak and defenseless to make their points heard. That is my personal definition of terrorism. John became a victim of it in a very real and permanent way.
After we managed to get through all the red tape of getting John and his wife back to the UK which was not easy. He began the long and painful surgeries and a multitude of recoveries. They had to put the bones in his feet back together. He had long pins sticking out of his feet for nearly a year. He was told he would never walk normal again and was going to be released from the service. He was devastated.
I was Johns mate and would do anything I could to help him, but there was little I could do. I remember his desires to run again and get ready for his dream assignment of Air Force Combat Control. He had been trying to retrain into this elite unit for years with no slots available.
Since we worked out regularly John wanted to get back into shape and not only stay in the Air Force but still get into Combat Control. Eventually he cut the toes out of his combat boots so the protruding pins would not interfere with his movement. He began to walk after many months. His toes would not bend like normal feet do so he would roll them in order to make motion forward. The pain for him was constant but NEVER did I hear him complain or make excuses or say “why me” …NEVER. John just put one foot in front of the other until he could run. About a year or so after the incident, John ran 1 ½ miles for time. He met the required time to stay in the Air Force, but was not able to fulfill his Combat Control dream. He retired years later.
Here is a man who could have said “I am done” give me my retirement now and I will fade away. But he fought trough tremendous adversity and would never give in to the pain, doctors, dooms analysis or others self imposed limitations. John is my friend and one of my main hero’s in life. If you were to meet him you would never know what happened or why, he just would not share it. He is the ever quiet professional.
I tried to get John a Purple Heart since he was wounded by terrorists, but even though the U.S. Army soldiers who were blown up at a disco tech In Berlin received theirs, no other real precedent existed at the time.
I was in Europe when Saddam went into Kuwait in 1990. Desert Shield was a busy time for us as we all prepared for the fight that was coming. I was a volunteer to deploy to the gulf as a combat communicator and had my name on three separate lists. The tasking for manpower sent mainly National Guard and reserves from the states. They kept most of us in Europe where we were to support defense against potential Soviet aggression. Even though the wall came down, the Soviet Army was intact. I was upset that I had to stay in England and bugged command so often they finally put me on a pager for deployment. The pager went off twice and I was in line for departure when I was cancelled the final time. I ended up working patrol and security in England using some very sophisticated technology. For the most part I was board to tears, but I did my job and protected the resources and families on the base - sheep dogs don’t always get to choose their assignments. We had a very large war readiness compound with lots of bombs on our base. Every one of these bombs were loaded up and dropped in the desert on the “bad guys”.
Before the war started and it seemed Desert Storm was imminent, I sent my family home as the terror threats in Europe were at an all time high. I spent four months without my family. My son was only three months old when they left. I Will never forget the day they left... one of the toughest of my life with war looming and all the uncertainty that goes with it. At the time it was thought the casualties would have been in the thousands and we would all have to go over eventually on rotation. They even converted all the Gyms to fatality processing stations. That will wake you up. As the morning of departure came for my family I got them all in the neighbor’s car for the trip to the airport. My three month old son was in his mothers arms and I kissed him on the head, hugged my wife and two daughters and watched them drive away not know if and when I would seen them again.
As I returned to our home and began to pack up some of the items to get ready for the movers, I went to my son’s room and grabbed his other blanket from his crib. I held it in my hand and smelled his presence. I wept openly. When the movers came there was one less blanket to pack as I retained it during the duration of the conflict and my separation. I would hold it after my patrols were over and smell the ever distant presence of my son.
I received a video from my wife about two months into the war. With great haste I ran to the video machine and put in the tape. On it were my children talking to their father far from home. The most touching for me was my youngest daughter who was two years old at the time. She could be heard walking around the house saying “I want my daddy, where’s my daddy.” Needless to say I asked my wife not to send any more videos of the kids. To hard to watch when your future was uncertain and part of the world was trying to kill each other.
Last military assignment
In February 1991, I was assigned to Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota. The Air Force had sent about 12 communicators to this base with very high security clearances so we could establish a Special Security Office (SSO). This facility would support the B1 bombers nuclear and conventional bombing missions. This project was cancelled after we all got there. While in the orderly room I was approached by a Master Sergeant who asked me if I knew anything about computers. I said I knew some and used them at home (this was in the day when the computer was still up and coming). He said “your perfect then” I ended up as the Base Computer/Network Manager at Ellsworth Air Force Base. I was responsible several project managers from each unit and the transition of a base wide population of 4000 computers users from mainframe to client/server computing. I was responsible for establishing access to the Internet (harder then as it was new) and the secure integration of Department of Defense Systems. Prior to this assignment I knew nothing about networking systems, but after the Air Force spent several thousand dollars on me I became a pretty marketable person. I was the force behind the first fully operational Base Networking Control Center in the Air Force. Ours became the government standard for Information Technology implementation Air Force wide. I would later use this and previous assignments in business related to technology, tactics, training and operations. Thank You Uncle Sam!
During this assignment as I was “flying a desk” I needed something to keep the blood flowing. I found the local Search and Rescue (SAR) team through a co-worker and never looked back. This team covered a very large county and included the Mount Rushmore National Monument. It was well funded and trained as hard as any other elite unit I personally worked with.
I would eventually separate from the Air Force after being selected for Combat Control duty at the age of 33 with orders in had to the indocrtination course at Lackland AFB. The Air Force offered me a lump sum of about 30k to get out and I took it. On to business for several years. I was done with active duty and it was time to transition.