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A Viking Hoard discovered in Cuerdale, Lancashire (Daily Mail)

I’m still working off a theme of Kingsnorth, and language, and storytelling.  I might be compensating for our loss of Jim Harrison, which was a hammer blow for those of us who have devoured his work, much in the way he devoured life.

So.  Kingsnorth.  The Wake is a rare book in that its originality–not in the story, necessarily, but in the manner of telling it–stays on, long after the book has been read and put up.  Buccmaster won’t leave me alone.  Perhaps it is because I have written a bad novel and know where the bar is set for a good one, that the book lingers, tauntingly.  It’s hard to say, precisely, but one thing leads to another in these studies and because I am a language nerd, and spent 20 years in martial pursuits, I have stumbled again on the Ulfberht, which combines two or three obsessions in one glorious place.  Perhaps you know of it.  I had known of the +Ulberh+t once, but it faded into memory until Buccmaster, that bastard, drove me into some research and I picked up the trail again.

Ulfberht was a brand name.  A trademark.  A symbol of quality and wealth.  It’s a Frankish word, inlaid on the finest swords of the Viking era–high carbon, crucible steel, forged at incredible temperatures, nearly without defect.  There is no absolute proof, but present theories place the manufacture of the swords somewhere in the Frankish empire.  About one hundred or so of the swords have survived the centuries, and they have been found in the Baltic, Norway, and Germany, among other places.  Here’s the kicker:  the steel could not have been produced during the Viking era in Europe.  European steel at the time was far behind, riddled with slag, which weakened the steel and produced an inferior product.  Scholars believe the steel was probably from India, Persia, or somewhere in central Asia.  This would have been possible, as the Rus were known to travel across the Baltic, through various rivers and ultimately down the Volga to the Caspian, and to maintain an active trade network there.

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Modern Master Blacksmith, Richard Furrer, Quenching the Ulfberht in Oil

Because the swords were so expensive, so lightweight, versatile, and flexible, nearly shatterproof, they would have been highly desirable weapons, and it is most likely that the Vikings who acquired one did so by killing its original owner.  The early Vikings were quite poorly armed, it turns out, and contemporary chroniclers, witness to Viking raids, describe them as being “almost without arms,” instead carrying clubs and brittle axes, or tossing back spears hurled at them, until they could plunder the arms they desired.

This video, which will require a sit down and a beverage due to its length, tells a remarkable tale of the swords, and Richard Furrer’s attempt to make one in the modern era.  If you’ve seen it you are lucky, if you have not, please take the time to enjoy…

Ulfberht, which seems most likely to have been an enterprise, given the tremendous amount of work that went into building the sword, made swords for nearly three hundred years.  And, not surprisingly, there were copycats.  Far inferior swords, bearing a derivation of +ULFBERH+T, have been discovered, but due to their inferior manufacturer they would have been prone to shattering–a problem not associated with the real McCoy.

A word–McCoy–son of Coy–which leads to another item I’d like to share, given the Norse raiding and occupation and the long tentacles reaching back to Buccmaster, and much beyond, and his obsessions, and my own, sitting here on the bridge of our flagship in the Oregon Cascades, my own sword–A Marine NCO sword–close at hand.  The Norse contribution to our language is quite stunning, if mostly invisible to us.  We are familiar with the French and Romance language contributions to the language we speak, but most often we don’t think about the shadows left behind by Norsemen, who appeared suddenly in fast ships, and by noon and had sacked and plundered and fired, or when they meant to stay, built lasting communities ruled by Danelaw.

So here’s something to ponder.  This little gem was originally produced by Professor Roberta Frank, of Yale, and reproduced in Anders Winroth’s “The Age of the Vikings.”  It is a narrative in which every word is arguably derived from Old Norse.  It is Buccmaster approved, so enjoy:

The odd Norse loans seem an awesome window onto a gang of ungainly, rugged, angry fellows, bands of low rotten crooks winging it at the stern’s wake, sly, flawed “guests” who, craving geld, flung off their byres, thrusting and clipping calves and scalps with clubs.  But for their hundreds of kids, the same thefts, ransacking, and harsh slaughter, the wronging of husbands, the bagging and sale of thralls, the same hitting on skirts and scoring with fillies, the lifting of whoredom aloft, the scaring up and raking in of fitting gifts, seemed flat and cloying, and got to be a drag.  They shifted gears, balked at gusts, billows, rafts, and drowning, and took to dwelling under gables, rooted in their booths and seats on fells beneath the sky.  Dozing happily on dirty eiderdowns, legs akimbo, they hugged their ragged, nagging slatterns, bound to birth and raise a gaggle of wall-eyed freckled goslings–ugly, scabby, wheezing, bawling, wailing tykes in kilts.  Though our thrifty swains throve in their bleak hustings, wanting not for eggs or steak, bread or cake, they gasped and carped at both by-laws and in-laws and–egged on by the frothy blended dregs of the keg–got tight, crawling, staggering, swaying, loose-gaited athwart much and mire and scree.

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Cognitive Dissonance, A Borderland Variation

 

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*this piece originally appeared in “The Nugget News”, March 22, 2016

The idea that we can hold two disparate ideas in our heads at the same time, and agree with them both, the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, has rarely been so starkly illustrated for me as it was after a week on our southern border with Warfighter Outfitters.

We did good work down there. And work of all kinds. There was physical labor, brush clearing, trash collecting, well-digging. There was psychological work. Brotherhood, friendships formed, healing, and an opportunity to share experiences. There was educational work: the hard job of collecting background information, asking the right questions, learning natural history, and eye opening, on the ground, real life experience and briefings from subject matter experts. All of that is important.

But one thing that will keep resonating for me, long after the particular lessons learned have been absorbed and filtered and faded into the background of my experiences, was the walk I took–escorted by Border Patrol agents who carried M4s with advanced optics and eyed every bush, every fold in the ground wearily–following a simple path, lined with stones, through the saltbush and sand and rocks into a slight depression, a dry wash, not fifty yards from the pedestrian fence on the border.

You can’t see it from the road. You can’t see it from 15 feet in any direction. It’s screened by thorny brush and palo verde, but when you make the corner there it is: a simple cross memorial with a fading parade flag, erected for Kris Eggle.

Kris was 28 when he was murdered in the sand. At the precise spot where his memorial now sits, in all of its simple humility.

From Cadillac, Michigan, Kris was an Eagle Scout, a member of the National Honor Society, and valedictorian of his high school class. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in wildlife biology. Then he became a Park Ranger, studying boars and bears at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Canyonlands, and eventually Oregan Pipe Cactus. He was also an EMT, a member of Search and Rescue, and a qualified wildland and structural firefighter.

That’s who Kris Eggle was: a giver. A believer in things larger than himself.

He was killed by people who traffic in narcotics and human beings, who had just finished murdering people on the Mexican side of the border, and at the behest of their bosses, people who buy zebras and giraffes and tigers and put them in their backyards as symbols of wealth.

By people who traffic in death, whose employees worship death, and believe in nothing beyond death.

Think I’m kidding? I know it is true because I have kicked dozens of doors, serving felony narcotics warrants, engaged in violent confrontations with the occupants, and discovered rooms with altars to Santa Muerte, La Madrina, the patron saint of death, terrifying skeletal statues complete with burning candles, offerings of food, money, and dope. And not just once. Many times.

The people who killed Kris Eggle, who even as you read this are leading groups into remote desert lay-off sites, or raping them in some canyon wash, or robbing them four days into the Arizona desert, with fourteen more to go, get nothing from me. I have no use for them at all. They contribute nothing but misery, grief, and destruction. They are a menace and a disease and where our side of the border is complicit, where we fail to make the choice to stop being a market, or coddle their criminality, we are equally despicable.

And still, I have enormous sympathy for those people who, out of desperation, out of a situation so thoroughly corrupt and without hope, so utterly deprived of realistic alternative, would risk their lives and the lives of their families to come here on the dream of a better life.

I would.

What wouldn’t you do to ensure a better life for your children, or your grandchildren?

Given a similar set of circumstances, amounting to a life of perpetual serfdom in an entirely corrupt kingdom, where the rulers and their court worship death statues and criminal saints like Jesus Malverde, there is nothing I would not do, nor any number of any country’s laws that I would not break, on the slimmest hope of escaping, of giving my family a better life: that is, any life outside of eternal servitude and slavery to corruption.

So its possible, this dissonance, even for one who once made a career enforcing the law. But its hard too, gritty and brackish, and dry like the sand. It carries sticky thorns, with barbs impossible to remove, it’s venomous, it’s sharply angled and slippery like the cliff walls and sheer, rugged, passes of Organ Pipe.

When I reached the memorial, alone with my respectful Border Patrol escorts, who stood behind me, I said a few words for Kris, for his memory, and for the ultimate sacrifice he made in a desperate stand against those evil beings who would enslave us all for their private zoos, who count their money by weighing it, and who would murder benevolence forever, if they could.

And I’ll say it one more time, in public. Thank you, Kris Eggle, and Godspeed.

Organ Pipe, The Quiet Conflict

 

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*this article originally appeared in The Nugget News, March 22, 2016

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, established in 1937, is composed of 517 square miles of majestic Sonoran desert, bordered to the south by Mexico, to the east by the massive Tohono O’Odham Reservation, and to the west by the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. A designated UNESCO biosphere reserve, it is 95 percent designated wilderness. It is home to numerous species of birds, cacti, bobcats, mountain lions, deer, and numerous historical sites. It may be one of the most beautiful National Monuments in our country.

It is also one of the most active and dangerous narcotics and human smuggling corridors in the world.

On August 9, 2002, 28 year old park ranger Kris Eggle was shot and killed while pursuing members of a drug cartel, who had fled into the United States after committing a series of murder in Mexico. This event, combined with others, prompted an 11 year closure of America’s “most dangerous national park.”

The park was reopened in 2014, but it is still quietly dangerous.

Organ Pipe lies within the US Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, in the Ajo Area of Responsibility, which includes 64 miles of border, and over 7000 square miles of hard, unforgiving desert.

While on assignment with Warfighter Outfitters, I learned from USBP Agents that while the park is now almost entirely open to visitors, their own estimates suggest that at any one time, as many as 200 people are actively smuggling narcotics or human beings in the hardscrabble mountain ranges and broad desert valleys.

The Border Patrol and Park Service utilize a broad array of technology, old and new, to accomplish their mission, including daily horseback patrols, ATVs, aerial drones, ground sensors, infrared radar, and sign-cutting techniques. There are over 500 Border Patrol Agents assigned to the Ajo station, and they are working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

And still the people keep coming.

US Border Patrol statistics for 2015 show that in the Tucson Sector alone, which includes Ajo Station and Organ Pipe, over 63,000 apprehensions were made by Border Patrol and Park Service law enforcement agents. Some 6000 of those apprehensions were unaccompanied juveniles. 14,481 were of people other than Mexican descent. In the same time period, agents seized 746,868 pounds of marijuana, 153 pounds of cocaine, were assaulted 87 times in the course of their duties, and rescued 790 individuals in danger of dying in the vast Sonoran desert.

Of the more than 63,000 apprehension cases, slightly less than half were accepted by the US Attorney’s office for prosecution.

Sometimes people just give up, beaten by the desert. For them the Border Patrol has installed rescue beacons, a big red button on a box, affixed to a tall radar tower. Pressing the button means rescue. In Border Patrol parlance, they are referred to as “quitters.”

One Border Patrol agent told me: “We find everybody out here. Families of Romanians. Indians, Chinese, you name it, they are all here.” He pointed to nearby Sweetwater Pass and Alli Wau, gaps in the Puerto Blanco range. “They have scouts up there, right now, for days and sometimes for weeks, with full blown camps, and they have a radio network that stretches all the way to Phoenix.”

This agent described finding and dismantling the “spider holes” and campsites, often equipped with solar panels for recharging radios and cell phones.

He assured me that every move we were making was under observation from both sides of the border, and being communicated over the radio.

One look at the terrain, vast, open, commanded by towering peaks and occupied by armed smugglers, instantly dispels any notion of easy solutions.

Another agent described the incredible tension of making large apprehensions alone, in an incredibly vast desert where backup may take 45 minutes to arrive, and a life-flight helicopter takes two hours from the minute the call is made. “It’s scary. You never know. It only takes one person in a group to turn the whole thing sour.”

Steve Birt, 60, in his third year as a full time park volunteer, who was assisting Warfighter Outfitters as they dismantled a smuggling site and collected hundreds of pounds of trash—water bottles, running shoes, improvised backpacks, food wrappers, and piles of “carpet slippers,” an improvised attempt to deter Border Patrol sign-cutters from following smugglers—said, “I wish to God that school kids could come down here to see how bad it can be.”

He pointed south to Mexico, only ten yards away through the pedestrian fence, where a ransacked collection of houses and abandoned vehicles sat among the cactus, then slowly dropped his arm. “It’s about awareness,” he said, sighing. “On both sides of the border.”

 

 

 

On The Border, With Warfighter Outfitters

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Ajo Range, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  This peak is a favorite hide for smuggling scouts.

Brett Miller, of Sisters, Oregon, founder of the highly successful non–profit, Warfighter Outfitters, recently led a group of wounded veterans on a four day Engagement Mission to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

The veterans, who assembled in Ajo, Arizona, from Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Oregon, and California, were partnered with agents from the US Border Patrol, the National Park Service, and full-time Park Service volunteers, to dismantle smuggling sites, to improve and rehabilitate landmark sites, and to learn first-hand the hard realities of daily life on the remote southern border.

Miller founded Warfighter Outfitters after being seriously wounded by an IED attack during a 2005 tour in Iraq. He spent the next three years as an in-patient, two more years as an out-patient, has endured 7 surgeries, and continues to recover from a serious traumatic brain injury.

“While I was in the hospital I had a lot of time, staring at ceiling tiles, and I kept thinking about the kinds of things veterans would want to do,” Brett says.

Out of this long and painful healing process, the notion of Warfighter Outfitters was born.

Brett focuses on a single basic idea: the importance of getting wounded, and in many cases desperately struggling, veterans out of their houses and onto the land, hunting, fishing, or participating in “engagement missions” in places such as Yellowstone National Park, where recovering veterans with Warfighter Outfitters have helped repair trails and build corrals, or at Organ Pipe, dismantling sites, repairing damaged structures, and participating in surveillance operations.

Brett cites the disturbing fact that 22 veterans a day are committing suicide as a driving force behind these missions.

“If I can get them out of their house, and out hunting or fishing, they can find some relevance,” Miller says. “Particularly in a place like this, which is a tactical environment, something they understand.”

Last year, Warfighter Outfitters served over 400 veterans, and Brett himself spent 211 days on the water guiding his fellow wounded veterans on rivers throughout the western United States, in addition to hunting trips and the engagement missions in National Parks.

For the engagement missions, Warfighter Outfitters is supported by Arch Ventures, a venture capital firm based in Chicago that is deeply involved and committed to wounded veteran programs.

“What Brett is doing is incredibly important to these guys,” says Stacey Pinsoneault, of Arch Ventures, “and we are here to fully support his efforts.”

A member of the Arch support crew, Pinsoneault, who lives in Chicago, was joined by CFO Mark McDonnell, as well as Alice Siebecker, a retired senior National Park Law Enforcement officer, who flew in from Montana.

And they weren’t there for window dressing. In addition to arranging vehicles, meals, and coordinating schedules, all three volunteers joined Warfighter Outfitters’ veterans in the hard work under a blazing Sonoran sun.

The Organ Pipe engagement mission is now in its third year, and is maturing into a working partnership between Warfighter Outfitters and the undermanned government agencies tasked with enforcing the law and preserving the monument’s natural and historical sites.

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Mike Pence, Creswell, Oregon, zeroing in at the OP

“This is my second year coming,” said James Fries, an army veteran who was shot in the face in Somalia. “I really enjoy it. I like being with the guys, and doing something important. It just feels good. You get to see things nobody else does.”

This year’s trip included dismantling and cleaning up smuggling camps and lay-up hides within yards of the dilapidated pedestrian fences and vehicle barriers on the border. The veterans collected hundreds of pounds of detritus left behind by smugglers, and the mission was important not just for the preservation of the lands, but for the overall tactical picture.

A heavily armed Park Service law enforcement officer, who was providing overwatch as the veterans worked, said: “This is really important to us. By getting this cleaned up we can see how the cartels are changing their tactics, what new routes they are going to use.”

A second project in the National Monument saw the veterans clearing brush from an overgrown corral. A mile and a half hike from the Alamo Canyon Campground site, on the edge of a dry wash in the shadow of the Ajo range, an old corral and a primitive well are remnants of the Gray Ranch, a desert cattle operation that occupied the area for decades.

Veterans, at the behest of a Park Service archaeologist, cleared brush from the corral, and then set to work redigging the old well, which had been completely filled in as the result of a 2012 flash flood that tore through the wash.

In addition to these activities, the veterans were given a VIP tour of the Border Patrol’s Ajo Station, including a very rare glimpse of the Tactical Operations Center, where agents monitor a highly sophisticated radar and optical network, and coordinate missions on a 24 hour basis.

On their final day in the desert, the veterans were taken out to a remote area by a heavily armed contingent of Park Service officers, spending time at an observation post actively looking for smugglers with high-powered spotting scopes and FLIR technology.

The wounded veterans were also hosted and honored by the Ajo, Arizona, Elks Club, with family style appreciation dinner.

Brett calls these “Engagement Missions,” because wounded veterans are actively engaging with each other, and with outside entities who want, and need, their help, reviving a sense of brotherhood that many of them desperately need.

Ryan Lantta, an army veteran from Fresno, California, who was shot six times in the chest near Ramadi, Iraq, surviving only because of his body armor, and who nevertheless had most of his ribs broken and a lung collapsed by the blunt trauma, said: “I love this. I love being around the guys. It doesn’t matter where we come from, or even if we know each other. We speak the same language. It’s like we are in the same squad.”

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Ryan Lantta served in the Army.  Here he offers what is known in the USMCas the FMF (Fleet Marine Force) Salute…

Says Brett: “The hunting and the fishing, the engagement trips, they are the only thing I have found that can possibly come close to duplicating the esprit de corps and camaraderie of the brotherhood we left behind.”

Hours after they had started digging out the old Gray Ranch well in the relentless heat and sunlight, eight feet lower than they had started, the veterans struck water. Taking five minute turns down in the well, shoveling rock and sand, hauling it out one bucket a time, always guarded by a Park Service law enforcement officer who kept his eyes on the towering cliffs above, they had done it.

A park ranger who was supervising the cleanup had said they would never find water.

The veterans celebrated and laughed, good-naturedly mocked the ranger, then posed for pictures. Mike Pence, from Creswell, Oregon, hit by an RPG in Iraq and severely wounded, yelled loudly up into the Ajo Range, where the cartel scouts were watching: “You’re Welcome!”

And when the laughter died down the veterans stretched out and rested their aching backs in the shade of a giant palo verde. It was quiet then, the quiet of physical fatigue and deep contemplation, the quiet of a remote desert canyon.

And down in the well, the water, cold and brackish, kept soundlessly seeping upward through the sand.

This post originally appeared in The Nugget Newspaper, March 22, 2016

 

From Ajo to Iwo and Back

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Iwo Jima, from Mt. Suribachi, photo by Bob Grooney

I meant to be back here earlier, truly, but I’ve been fighting some kind of nefarious sinus infection, and yesterday was pretty much a loss.  My breathing is not the best, and I stumble around the house sounding like an air-wrench at a tire shop, just trying to pull O2 through my nose.  So there is that.

For the Arizona trip I took a companion, one I’ve traveled with before:  Goodbye, Darkness, by William Manchester.  Some of you may know of this memoir.  Manchester was a brilliant New England college kid who joined the Marine Corps after Pearl Harbor.  They sent him to OCS, where only a few days shy of graduating as a 2nd Lieutenant, at the top of his class, he told them to stuff their commission.  A series of duplicitous and outrageous incidents caused him to believe he could never be “officer material.”  I know that feeling.  The nabobs at my former police department convinced me of the same thing.  At any rate, Manchester was made a sergeant, then, and shipped him out to the Pacific, where he fought at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

In the book he travels back to the islands.  Not just the islands he fought on, but many of the islands of the pacific campaign, including Tarawa, Peleliu, Guam, Iwo Jima, and the Phillipines.  The book is Manchester’s personal reconciliation with the absolute horrors he witnessed and experienced.  He is an older man when he returns, and in the memoir he is haunted by an old Sergeant in his dreams each night, an accusatory, salty, and challenging version of himself.  By day Manchester hauls himself through the same jungles, sweating out memories and striving to shake hands with that young Sergeant over the hard moat of time.

The book is a masterpiece.  Hands down.  Every American should read it.

A few weeks ago I had the honor interviewing an Iwo Jima veteran, Bob Grooney, for the Sisters, Oregon, Guide.  I met him at the liquor store–we have only one liquor store in Sisters, and in Oregon that is the only place you can buy liquor–and Bob owns it, has owned it for decades.  I had called Bob earlier to schedule the interview, and by way of bonafides had told him I was a Marine, and that my grandfather was a Marine who had been at Bougainville, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima.

I won’t tell you about the interview, you’ll have to read the Guide for that, but I will tell you this:  when I arrived at the Gallimaufry–the name of our liquor store, that for other reasons Wendy and I have always called the Gallifinakis–Bob took me into the storage room, away from the crush of folks in the store stocking up on their short dogs and bottles of Captain Morgan.

So we were standing in there, among the boxes and crates, when Bob went over to the corner, bent over, then came back to where I was standing.  In his hand he had a small bottle.  In that bottle was sand from Yellow Beach on Iwo Jima, where he had landed with the 25th Marines in 1945.

Bob Grooney was 15 years old when he joined the Marine Corps.  15.  He was on Iwo Jima, where 7,000 Marines were killed, from D+1–his outfit couldn’t land on the first day because the beach was an utter chaotic disaster–until the end of the fight.

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Bob gave me that bottle of Iwo sand.  For Marines, Iwo Jima is sacred, and Bob’s gesture was the equivalent of being handed a piece of the true cross, by someone who was there when Christ was lifted up.  That doesn’t overstate it, particularly if you have a real blood connection to the place.  You don’t have to understand, but standing there, in that stock room, holding that bottle of sand, it was everything I could do to prevent myself from bursting into a flood of tears.  I can’t articulate it, but it’s real, that brotherhood of Marines, and it stretches through generations.  In a world presently carved into pockets of surly identity politics and meaningless grievance theater, I thank God for that brotherhood.  And it isn’t just among Marines.  Last week in Arizona I felt it–and the feeling is hard to describe, but it’s something about family, where all is forgiven, where no one is left behind, where you are going to take rations of shit, and give them back, and it’s all good, and where the mission matters–with veteran dogfaces from the US Army.  And I loved every second of it; I always will.

I put the bottle, which Bob had thoughtfully labeled with his outfit’s name, the place where the sand was collected, and the dates of his service on Iwo, on the shelf in my gun cabinet, next to a color photo he had taken from the top of Suribachi–which he also gave me–when he returned for a memorial in 2005.  And they reside there now, beside other photos and mementos of other sandy and less desirable places.

I hope, some day, I will be able to pass these things on, the way Manchester does in his book, and the way Bob Grooney did for me in the store room of his liquor store.  At the end of the day we have our memories, and our artifacts, and a solemn and sacred duty to pass them forward, in a meaningful way, so that they might come to life for our descendants in the future–whatever that may hold.

 

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A View from the Diablos, across the Sonoyta Valley, to Old Mexico

I am back.  I have officially returned to base.  I did not have the opportunity to dash off as many dispatches as I had hoped, due to various time constraints, a shaky wi-fi connection, and general end of the day fatigue.  I did not repeat the Jameson’s mistake, believe me, because the following morning I suffered mightily for that pratfall, shoveling buckets of rock and sand out of an old ranch well.

But I would like to give you some sort of After Action, something useful that you can take away.  It isn’t easy.  I spent yesterday writing three separate articles for the Nugget News, and I still have a larger piece to write, and these posts, and the hardest work is distilling the experience on our border into something that resonates, is fair, and asks the right questions.  I might just stick to the facts.

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Ajo Range, from Alamo Canyon

Here are some:  the morning following the Jameson’s incident, we were joined by Park Rangers and caravanned to the base of the Ajo Range, in the eastern portion of the park, whose back side borders the massive Tohono O’Odham reservation.  The Ajo is a brief, spiny, range and a favorite route for smugglers, who are often spotted, if not apprehended, at various lay-up sites and observation posts.

We parked at the Alamo Canyon Campground, then hiked a mile and half east along Alamo Canyon, following a dry wash full of cholla and organ pipe cactus and giant boulders, with towering, three ton saguaro casting thin shadows.  It was hot, likely the hottest day of the trip.

Our mission that morning was to clear brush, at the behest of a park archaeologist, from an old corral that once belonged to the Gray Ranch–another story all by itself–and to dig out a primitive well that had been filled in by a 2012 flash flood down Alamo Canyon.  Each of us had some kind of tool to use, pruning shears or limb saws, and we went straight to work on the brush.  I spent that time with Ryan Lantta, an army veteran from Fresno who was shot six times in the chest in a firefight in Ramadi, Iraq.  Miraculously, his body armor caught all six rounds, but the blunt trauma broke most of his ribs and collapsed his lung.  It is fair enough to say that he has seen the elephant.

We worked well together, and it wasn’t long before we had our portion of the corral cleared out, though I took a few breaks in the shade of an old corrugated tin that was holding up a length of fence–sweating out my penance–and drank enough water to empty Shasta reservoir.

Above us the sheer cliffs of the Ajo Mountains shone in the bright sun, and the sky was cloudless and blue.  The armed Park Service Ranger kept his eyes on those hills, where scouts were watching us, and held his M4 in a constant low-ready.

We broke briefly for lunch.  Mine was an apple and more water, which was all the risk I was willing to take on behalf of my belly and the headache.

Brett Miller, the Warfighter Outfitters founder, and Mike Pence, who had been hit by an RPG in Iraq and seriously wounded, from Creswell, Oregon, had already started on the well and made several feet of progress.  They were stripped down and working furiously, hauling one bucket of sand and rock out of the well at a time.

One of the park rangers had told them they would never hit water.

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One bucket at a time, Brett Miller down in the hole

I joined in.  The three of us worked in five minute shifts, filling buckets, hauling them out, telling jokes, and before long all of us were there, some of us pretended to be working, others didn’t even bother to pretend, but enjoyed the camaraderie anyway.

And then it happened.  We struck water.  It didn’t bubble up, but it started seeping, rapidly, until there was almost a foot of water–and still growing–at the bottom.

Mike, who had taken off his boots and socks and was still working in the bottom, hollered mightily into the Ajo Range:  “You’re welcome!”  It echoed off into the canyon and we all laughed, because we all knew that although we were doing this for the Park Service, the ultimate benefit would be enjoyed most by the traffickers.

But there is a flip side.  Though they wouldn’t admit it openly, the Park Rangers hinted that they would place seismic sensors near the well, and use them for their own purposes.

I think this tale of well-digging and sensors, and the sure knowledge that we were being watched, and that somewhere up above us there was undoubtedly a conversation about how stupid we were to be digging out a well in the middle of the day, does a fair job of summarizing the borderland experience.

That night we were hosted by the Ajo, Arizona, Elks Club.  After a shower and a much needed nap, we arrived at the Elks and enjoyed a fabulous family style dinner, met some new people, made some new friends, then returned the La Siesta for a late night dip in the hot tub.

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Did you see that?  Park Service LEO’s with FLIR at the OP

Next morning early, we joined with three Park Service Rangers, loaded for bear, and occupied an observation post in the Diablo Mountains, east of Tillotson Peak, and spent several hours scanning the hills with FLIR and Swarovski spotting scopes.  We didn’t see anyone, but they were there.  One of the Rangers pointed out various places in the Ajo’s and the Diablos that he had personally dismantled long-term scout camps, semi-permanent hides with solar panels for recharging cell phones and radios.

And then it was time for us to go.

We made Phoenix with almost no time to spare, rushing the clock because the travel agency had let us know that I had been “flagged” and they were unable to check me in over the computer.  Nobody was sure what that meant, but it was an odd feeling, to be out on the desert, surrounded by invisible smugglers and nefarious beings, thinking that I was on some kind of list of dangerous people.  It turned out fine, in the end, and didn’t mean that, but that is a curious psychological experiment.

That’s all I have for this post.  I’ll be back here tomorrow, with some more thoughts and details, some that I think might blow your mind.  I just wanted to let you all know that we are all home and happy, and that I appreciate very much your comments and for sticking with this humble site.

The Hills Have Eyes

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Line Camp, Us/Mexico Border

My friends:  it is difficult to relate exactly the experiences we are having here, particularly after a bottle of Jameson’s at the La Siesta, with a new friend and aging combat veteran, but I will do my best.  I’m going to order this in terms of an After Action Report, because after nearly 20 years of carrying a gun in defense of the Constitution and those things that make us Americans, I think it is both fair and appropriate to seek that fair and balanced approach.  That statement alone is a post, whose hard earned lessons I can’t even begin to articulate.

What I learned today:  The Ajo Area of Operations (AO) is currently the most active dope and human smuggling area in the United States.

Lessons Learned:

The cartels have networks of paid professional scouts buried in the Santa Rosa Range, hard on the US side of the border, which overlooks the entire Ajo Valley, and a radio network stretching from Ajo to Phoenix.  The Agents are powerless to stop it.  Blame that on manpower shortages, geography, or politics–they know the sites exist and can do nothing to stop it.  Occasionally, they conduct massive  FLIR assisted heliborne raids, or four wheeler “Trojan Horse” operations in attempts at interdiction, a version of a tactic I once employed as a domestic narcotics agent, but mostly they fail.  They are also hampered in their law enforcement duties by the Wilderness designation of the entire site, which precludes the involvement of the motorized vehicles of any kind.  Imagine that.

Everything we did today, which was largely picking up trash from dope and human smuggling ops, is under constant observation.  The Border Patrol guys we worked with–who commute 4 hours each day from Phoenix or Tucscon just to come to work–something to think about in the the most active smuggling corridor on our southern border–advised me that there were active lookouts in the Santa Rosa Range on the US side of the border, places such as Sweetwater Pass, or Alli Wau, which we could clearly see, as well as the multiple elevated sights on the Mexican side of the “fence”, which were actively communicating our activities.  They assured me that if we could hear the radio comms we might be surprised at the commentary on our clothing choices.

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Old Mexico, As Seen From The Border Fence

One of the Border Patrol Agents related his experiences in recent months when he was assigned to Nogales, where he personally detained 27 migrants, alone, and where he advised that they had detained over 2700 children, many of them in the 4-5 year old category, without parents, and were left to decide what to do with them.  There is so much wrong with that simple tale I can’t even begin to articulate it.

This is an enormous issue, one that most Americans at home with their comfortable choices are unable to even contemplate.  Since retiring from law enforcement in southern California, where a different version of these issues confronted my own conscience on a daily basis, I have done my best to inform those in my new Oregon neighborhood about the very strange choices they will some day have to confront, largely to unappreciative ears.

But today I was here, on the border, encountering smuggling sites with piles of “carpet slippers” and other accoutrement of the every day activities on the border.  And I spent hours, frying in the Sonoran sun, with agents of our Border Patrol who betrayed only a seasoned, 1000 yard stare, attitude about what is happening on our borders.

This conversation is not going away, and I have my own experiences to inform an input, but what I can report from my first real experience here, on the front, at the fence, where the rubber meets the road, is so astonishing that I can only fail to report it accurately.  That is particularly true after enjoying a Jameson’s, or three, with one of the wounded vets I am here with, a guy who took a .762 round through his face while fighting in Somalia.

Do you remember that?

Let’s take a look at what we are doing, friends.  The world is a gigantic place, full of venom, and young Americans keep paying the price for these elections, whose lurid and furious spectacle we keep enjoying daily, and the putrid pile of candidates we must choose from.

I don’t know.  I’m a little tight at the moment, blame the Jameson’s, and room 124, and maybe I’m even a little pissed off.  I’m here with men who fought and suffered real consequences from these decisions, real wounds and recovery in their bodies, from Panama to Mogadishu to Ramadi, and I can only offer in discussion my own tiny wounds, earned on the hard and dark streets of America, defending the constitution each and every night, or in broad daylight in nice neighborhoods, in violent confrontations, and their outcomes, or one sad and regrettable late night where I came home with my uniform covered in fresh, dripping, blood, and where my wife, that Angel I do not deserve, took my pants and shirt and hosed them off in the back yard of our house–while sending me to bed with assurances that all was well.

Geezus.  What did I ever do to deserve a woman that solid?

I have no answer.  But I know something is happening to our dream, that frontier dream where we get to build a life against the intrusions of government, against those agents of destruction or disinformation, of some other easy dream, those agents of destruction who live for weeks, or months, in our national monuments, paid off by people who buy white tigers and rhinos and giraffes for their compounds, and who peddle cheap white chrystals of death to our children, whose ultimate aim, whether they know it or not, is to kill freedom and choice and benevolence forever.  And all of it is supported by those chattering heads we study each night on our televisions, who can’t for even a minute utter a single sentence in defense of our own history and traditions and those deeper beliefs who have defined us for 200 years.

I have kicked doors in the United States, number 1 in the stack of young men with badges trying to defend something, and entered rooms with statues representing only death, with burning candles and offerings of food, or money, or even pounds of dope, and been forced to wonder, where is the world I believed in once?

Come here, friends, take a look around.  Read the tea leaves.  Talk to people.  Ask questions.  Ask yourself.  Something is going on.  None of it resembles your expectations.