HIS NAME MIGHT HAVE BEEN DAVE, A BIOGRAPHY OF A BLACK OPS MERCENARY
Permission to speak, sir.
He did not have a childhood.
Kevin O’Leary was born a triplet on Father’s Day 1969, fraternally three with Elizabeth and Lois, they born with cystic fibrosis, little baby girls who gutted it out for a few days. The sisters gasped for air, their tiny lungs infected, lacking the protein necessary to the proper regulation of sweat and mucus, to the absorption of nutrients through digestive fluids, the disease attacking the pancreas, the liver, and intestines. And so they coughed and they failed to thrive, and his mother’s resentment of the healthy, happy baby boy began to grow already in the only hours of two little girls’ lives.
And then they died.
And Kevin became dead to his mother, the blame for genetic happenstance falling on his tiny shoulders. His mother, Ms. Tina O’Leary of Orlando, Florida took to sleep, the grief sucking at her hour to hour, the Xanax bringing her down where the demons lay popping the Valium fallen between the cushions. His mother became a lump on the couch.
When she slumped off the sofa, she burned the potatoes and slurried the vegetables and did bad things to meat. She sickened every recipe in the book, and she became to her son’s mind “the worst cook in the world.” And always the barely suppressed scorn, the grit of her teeth below that blare of her eyes – “You’re alive, boy. And my darling little girls are dead.” “Taco night was a big deal,” Kevin says. “We ate the same stuff every night. Dad didn’t care. He could live in a hole in a wall.” For a little boy, however, the loveless cookery fit a larger pattern of failure to care.
Kevin didn’t do especially well in third grade.
He cried like a baby watching Old Yeller and Shane back-to-back at Boy Scout Camp.
His dad’s mom died, and the devastation spread to him as well, the loss of the grandmother hurting him directly, his father’s lethargy something new and awful, Kevin wanting even the old wildman back, Kevin in deep grief for the lady he called “an evil little Irish genius.”
He knew nothing apart from discipline and enforced exercise and the food that was at best insipid. He knew only a mother who felt nothing maternal towards him. A mother who on a good day might tolerate the sight of him. Who, when the drugs refused to kick in, threatened to vomit then and there if he did not leave this room this minute.
A few years later Kevin walked in on his mom seeming something more than a lump between the sheets, entwined with his dad’s best friend. The old man up in New York, and Kevin is on the phone, “Mom is messing around with Jerry O’Callahan in your bed.”
And then she took Kevin and his dad for essentially everything – house, bank account, furniture. More painfully, the divorce separated Kevin from Jane, the younger sister born after the death of two of the triplets. He admired her so much, basked in her gentle spirit, her easy love set against the disgust of their mother.
Whose letters began to arrive, afloat in self-pity. Maudlin, accusatory, and sad. Kevin read them, threw them away, and forgot. Forgot it all except the training, the readying, the quiet understanding of the warrior’s way.
“My dad raised me on a need-to-know basis,” he insists. “If I disagreed with him about the slightest thing, I asked for permission to speak candidly, sir.” Kevin prevailed in precisely no disagreements.
The day after John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Brendan Francis O’Leary enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. His service would take him to Vietnam, to long-range reconnaissance patrols past platoons of friendly troops into the deep jungle where the Viet Cong emerged from tunnels to fight an enemy lunging forward in helicopters. Francis O’Leary volunteered for the most dangerous duty in that pestilential war. He was a LURP, a warrior who hid in ambush, who killed in silence. He once lay in his camouflage for an entire day as a North Vietnamese division walked over and around him, one soldier calmly stopping to urinate next to Francis’ head.
In Dispatches, Michael Herr’s definitive account of the Vietnam War, the author spends some time around LURPs. “long-range recon patrollers who did it night after night for weeks and months, creeping up on VC base camps or around moving columns of North Vietnamese. I knew one 4th Division LURP who took his pills by the fistful, downs from the left pocket of his tiger suit and ups from the right, one to cut the trail for him and the other to send him down it. He told me that they cooled things out just right for him, that he could see the old jungle at night like he was looking at it through a starlight scope. ‘They sure give you the range,’ he said.”
Herr explains the LURPs ranking among the true badasses of the war in these words: “This was his third tour. In 1965 he been the only survivor in a platoon of the Cav wiped out going into the Ia Drang Valley. In ’66 he’d come back with Special Forces and one morning after an ambush he’d hidden under the bodies of his team while the VC walked all around them with knives, making sure. They stripped the bodies of their gear, the berets too, and finally went away, laughing. After that, there was nothing left for him but the LURPs.”
When they came back from the jungle, resumed their human faces, the LURPs did their business in their own designated latrines, ate special freeze-dried rations, and enjoyed the respect, at times the fear, of their lesser comrades. Such men as the LURPs sometimes frightened the Army regulars, the draftees who had just flunked out of college, who were eight months away from the frat house. As Herr describes it “the regular division troops would almost shy off the path when they passed the LURPs’ area on their way to and from the mess tent. No matter how toughened they became in the war, they still looked innocent compared to the LURPs.” Commanders saw what they had in the LURPs, now assigned ever more dangerous missions, the strategicians blown away by killed-ratios of four hundred-to- one.
“My dad was a tunnel rat,” Kevin says. “He would insert and then come back out with whatever intel he could find.” Insertion came into one of the tiny concealed holes leading to a maze of tunnels, caves, and caverns that stretched north of Saigon all the way to Cambodia. Protected with deadly snakes, scorpions, armies of spiders, pockets of poisonous gas, and booby traps of every description, the Viet Cong would slip back into these caves after an assault or, in one exceptional case, before and after the Tet Offensive, a time in which thousands of troops mustered underground. Only the bravest of the brave would go into those tunnels, wiry and driven Marines willing to confront a guileful enemy, to crawl toward gehenna with only a flashlight, a knife, and a six-shot revolver.
Francis O’Leary hardened some there along the Mekong.
From the age of four until he left home at the age of seventeen, Kevin O’Leary rose – per his father’s strictly enforced regimen – at 4:30 a.m. By 4:35 a.m. his bed had been made, its sheets and blankets pulled to a tautness sufficient to the traditional military test: a quarter must bounce after Dad drops it on the top blanket.
Each time he passed the aisle between the kitchen cabinets, he stopped for a dozen dips. He popped pushups at his dad’s offhand command, a father who would often stick a ruler in ink, would poke the uninked end into a hole in the wall. His son would squat over the ruler with a fifty-pound barbell on his shoulders. If a speck of ink were to appear on Kevin’s perfectly white gis, he would be asked to resume the position, to squat there until told to move.
Other times, the old man would scream at him in Vietnamese with a gun in his hand. “He’d allow me to fight with BB guns, to put on the lawnmower goggles and run through the woods dressed in camo.” War games, fine; non-war games, not so much. “I was too dumb to be afraid. If you’re going to be dumb, you better be tough,” he was told.
Kevin enjoyed one day of recreation a week. “It was ‘go to church and get the hell out of here.’” He’d find his cousin Lawrence, and the two would go off to the creek, to a swimming hole about two miles away, eating their tuna-fish sandwiches in the crotch of a tree. He knew only the regimen and the schedule and a Sunday to be thirteen for a while. The older, heavier Lawrence once pushed him into the sticker bushes where the fire-ants seethed, and the score would wait for another day to be evened.
Thirteen was also the age at which a friend’s older brother took Kevin to the floor, kissing him all the way down, the rape complete in a matter of minutes. And another poisonous memory wormed its agony among a peculiarly Irish accumulation of hurts.
Kevin loved music and, after martial arts, it became his passion. He became an accomplished drummer at an early age, beating on empty Pringles cans his grandmother arranged for him. He played percussion in the band at Disneyworld, the military bunch that came walking out from the corridors beneath the park. He would join the musicians’ union at seventeen.
But his dad was always pushing football, of course, because football is war in hundred-yard increments, man on man, team on team. Kevin played, played hard at tackle on both offense and defense, a skinny but surprisingly strong Irish kid, who eventually made his ferocity, his stealth and speed known at tailback. After a gang tackle, his chin bleeding into the helmet strap, he would ask himself why he was lying here hurt, “Oh yeah, for my dad.
Always it was Kevin and the old man. The solitude crept into the house, and it brought them together in something beyond the natural father-son affiliation. The senior O’Leary knew the rough edges of the world, and from early, early childhood he toughened his little boy to them.
Kevin did not name a dog until he was eleven years old. He was afraid to become attached. So he called then “Dog” or “Doggie.” Invariably they were pit bulls, not susceptible to socializing with a little boy, the dogs around for feral hog hunting. They didn’t last long, the O’Learys losing at least one dog per hunt, out for five and six days on the St. John’s River. One dog did earn a name. “Cody” he was called. Because he smelled a deer in the vicinity, Cody once jumped off a Nissan pickup bed at fifty miles an hour. Two miles into the woods, the other dogs followed the smell of blood until they found the clearing where he had dragged a yearling. “He brought home a lot of meat for the family that day.” Cody would lock down on the prey and just not let go. Somewhat like his owners.
Out there, moving about in a canoe, Kevin learned the stink and the pull of the tropics. He made the enveloping heat a welcome friend, him with a .22, unafraid, feral himself, at last loosed a bit from the rigor and the rules of the house back in town. But the insects. Always the bugs, thousands upon thousands of mosquitoes and ticks and gnats and flies.
“I was the little kid who wanted to go pick flowers out of a garden,” he says now. “My dad was a man who wanted me to become the monster that he was, to pursue the demons that he could not let go of. Somehow my dad knew that I was going to be a maniac. And he knew how, and he did his part to encourage the maniacal in me.”
Meanwhile, Kevin knew more about weaponry than all the students and teachers in his high school combined. At the age of seven, he found in his hands an Israeli Military Industries .45 Desert Eagle, put there by a man who wanted to witness his son’s stuff. The large-framed, gas-operated, semi-automatic sat young Kevin on his ass, but the grin on his pink face told Francis O’Leary all he needed to know about Junior. His dad introduced him to the Browning Hi Power, the single-action, semi-automatic handgun used by the armed forces of more than fifty countries. Soon enough Kevin began firing his .22 rifle with one hand, a habit that he continued on into larger caliber long-guns, the realization upon him that he was developing upper-body strength well beyond the average human male. “Our family has always had a preference for Browning Hi Powers,” he says
He has been throwing knives since he was nine, and so he can stick five of five in a man’s neck from twenty yards.
From the age of seven, three days out of seven, he trained blindfolded. With a tight black tie about his eyes, he walked out in the dojo, while a father who learned stealth in the jungle maneuvered without sound in the shadows, a father with a stick. His dad would come at Kevin from any point on the circle, and Kevin learned to feel the arrival of the attack. He learned to see without seeing, to perceive the speed and direction of the assault, and to react with jabs and blocks, the out-of-nowhere kick at a fast forty-five miles an hour. Two or three times a week until the age of eighteen the same blindfolded training. Two or three times a week until two good eyes became beside the point. And soon enough he would go to work at dusk, do his best damage then to an enemy too dependent on eye contact.
At eleven he was ranked number one in the world for his age group in fighting, kata, and weapons. As a child, he wasn’t “of rank,” but in the company of an accomplished father, he found admittance to rarefied circles of the martial arts. “I was a cute kid, and nothing more. No prodigy, certainly.” At fourteen, his stature changed. His kata drew notice, he in his white gi with the dirty belt, competing against kids with “cool karate clothes, doing back flips and splits. I was made fun of. All the time, it seemed.” He turned the derision into impetus for still more discipline, more work. His hurt and his anger made a tough kid tougher still. He felt homicidal on a daily basis, but then, as he says now, “there’s so little difference between Ted Bundy and your average trial lawyer.”
He threw his first hand grenade at the age of fourteen. It blew up a palm tree.
The old man would call at two, maybe three o’clock in the morning. The phone must ring but one time. It must be immediately grabbed by a panting Kevin, a youngster ready with his K-Bar to do some damage.
He learned to play chess using pieces almost as tall as he, a big old mahogany samurai-themed set with a shogun, of course, for a king, purchased by his grandfather a hundred years ago. He feels certain that he might still compete on the collegiate level. Maybe not at Webster University or the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, but at Boise State maybe or Auburn. He could play chess at a football school. More strikingly, he could still play football at a chess school. The concussion grenades, the knife wounds, the years of sleeping on the ground, the full-contact karate and kick-boxing since 1983, days in which he fought without headgear – all of it together has not stopped this man in his forties from preserving quickness, agility, and upper-body strength that Nick Saban might notice.
The last time he ran a forty-yard dash, he was drunk, with a line or two of blow up his snout, and he still came in under five seconds.
To earn his fifth degree black belt, he fought successive opponents for eleven hours. He fought his dad who was “doing knife forms. It’s like watching something digital through an old Philco television set. Still lethal though. The old man is still lethal.” He threw up into a bucket several times. And then, the testing at last ended, he saw some guy in the dojo sitting before a computer screen and looking at, God forbid, child pornography. Kevin slapped him around and then threw him into a far corner.
Politics and other shit going right out the window
Mention the Battle of Mogadishu, and most Americans’ eyes will glaze over. Mention Black Hawk Down, and glazed eyes leap with remembrance and feeling, the imagery unforgettable, our guys dead and dragged through the streets, the mutilation of their bodies a dismembering of the American spirit. Kevin O’Leary sat in mute recognition as the historical events of October 3, 1993 unfolded a few blocks away from where he and Devi sat, again, in an old Toyota.
The story begins a dozen years earlier, as all over Somalia ancient hatreds festered beneath more and more frequent outbreaks of tribal violence. In the resulting vacuum of central authority, regional warlords seized localized power before, of course, these thugs turned all red in tooth and claw with the thugs next door. Fought by forcibly inducted teenagers high on khat and testosterone, the conflicts devolved to murder of the innocent, deprivation of the needy, and general confusion of the outside world.
In Somalia in those years, everyone was needy. Amid news-hour images of fly-flecked, teary-eyed children, compassionate countries rushed food and medicine to a place ineveitably described as “war-torn.” And, of course, the warlords confiscated the supplies for their own little army’s use, for the recruitment of new fodder to the gang. The world responded again, led by President George H.W. Bush who committed U.S. troops to the protection of the supply lines, ensuring that donated food went to the hungry, that the morphine serve some purpose other than a warlord’s birthday party.
A cacophony of journalism across the land did not help matters, as in a flutter reporters came to outnumber peacekeepers. No one much understood what was going on though, the internal politics of a tribal nation lost on western European nationalists. After twenty-four Pakistani soldiers died in a horrendous firefight, the United Nations passed Resolution 837, ordering the arrest of the massacre’s mastermind and his henchboys. As those responsible melted back into the general population, all retributive attention fell on one particular warlord, the demonic and demonized General Aidid. Several attempts at capturing the general failed, and one turned corrosive when UN troops fired into a crowd of civilians, killing twenty. Warlordly revenge followed: four members of the press murdered, three UN soldiers from Italy shot. US troops destroyed suspected Aidid depots and, finally, his headquarters with seventy dead Somalis en route.
Meantime, some generals of our own were assembling a contingent of Special Forces, to be called Task Force Ranger (TFR), with the singular purpose of capturing the elusive Aidid. Four hundred crack troopers in all, drawn from Delta Force and Army Rangers, TFR went to work with a battle plan riddled with poor intelligence and some damned poor decision-making. By embarrassing mistake TFR grabbed hold of an alleged Aidid only to be shown that the man was an especially strong supporter of the United States. TFR then arrested and detained eight members of a UN delegation in another red-faced move. Obviously, the bounty of a whopping $25,000 on Aidid’s head was proving insufficient to defection within his ranks, to tattling from the locals.
Meantime, Somali guerillas enjoyed two significant tactical advantages: they were fighting on familiar ground; an army of thousands could emerge from what seemed a peaceful assembly of townspeople, friend or foe indecipherable, women and children potential combatants waiting to kill with a smiling shot to the back.
On October 3,1993, TFR was handed intelligence confirming that the bastard Aidid himself would be attending a secret meeting in an anonymous building in Mogadishu. A quick plan ensued. The infantry studs would convoy in armed Humvees. AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships would do their damage while Delta Force would rope down onto the target from hovering UH-60 Black Hawks. High above, a Navy P-3C Orion would deliver the surveillance necessary.
The warlord’s meeting turned out to be a big one, with more than ninety attendees. The Cobras initiated the attack with some shock, some awe, major salvos of anti-tank missiles slamming into the two-story building, as more than a hundred TFR troops landed in a street now frenzied with Somalis running for safety. And then the street was empty.
With the first explosion of a Cobra missile, the Somalia militia thereabouts joined immediately with Aidid supporters and, within minutes, hundreds of citizen-soldiers were marching on the American position. Knowledgeable citizen-soldiers there, knowing that the Black Hawks held especial power in the RTF’s understanding of the situation, and so they directed RPG-17 rockets at the three helicopters there above their homes. A direct hit on the tail rotor of one of the copters brought it spinning to the ground. The second helicopter flew courageously into the battle, its Rangers dropping straight and true. It too felt the pop of a Somali rocket, but somehow managed to limp back to base.
The troops arriving in ground transportation came under heavy fire, which they returned in kind, heavy machine guns in the Humvees taking roll. Casualties mounted on both sides, as the convoy made a wrong turn or two among the crowded sameness of downtown Somali architecture, failing to cement the perimeter, holes now here and there as our trucks drove around the block looking for the assigned place to park. In time, a Humvee or two found the building where twenty-four prisoners taken from the enemy meeting waited for whatever. No General Aidid, however. He another no-show. A failure of American intelligence of the lowest sort.
The bad guys now aboard, the convoy reformed, with orders to rescue the survivors of the downed Black Hawk three crowded, congested, impossible streets away. Then came the communication that a second helicopter had gone down, this another destination after the pickup of comrades, wounded and well at a place not four hundred yards away, yet impenetrable through the alleys and dead-ends and delays of streets not meant for Department of Defense hot rods. Firefights broke out here and there: three burkaed figures producing AKs from beneath the black, an upstairs window flopping open for the pop-pop of a nine millimeter in the hands of a ten-year-old, a grenade rolled from the back door of a rugmaker, an impromptu pile of café tables and outdoor chairs enflamed in the blockage of a street that just screamed “Ambush.” And that’s the way it went, even with a second convoy of heavy trucks dispatched from HQ, it too shot all to hell until, night coming home, both bunches of vehicles hightailed it on back to headquarters, some brave men left on foot to fight their way toward home.
About ninety troopers had built a defensive posture of sorts at the site of the first Black Hawk crash. A small nation of pissed-off Somalis were closing in on all sides, as a quick-reaction force from the 10th Mountain Division joined by remnants of the original Delta Force and Ranger units looked toward rescue. Pakistani tanks and Malaysian armored personnel carriers pulled up, and the gathering began at both crash sites, the dead and the wounded brought aboard.
The headlines followed in due time.
“Peacekeeping mission leads to five hundred Somali dead”
“Americans dragged through Mogadishu streets”
“UN prestige suffers near-mortal blow”
“Clinton administration embarrassed”
“Osama bin Laden claims US weak and cowardly”
“American relief for Ruwandan genocide compromised”
Thirteen blocks north, Kevin O’Leary hears the helicopters taking fire, heavy fire, the chatter on his radio rabid now, as he began to learn just how bad it was. The megaphones were all around, Somali in stereo, Aidid militiamen shouting, “Kasoobaxa guryaha oo iska celsa cadowga!” “Come out and defend your homes!”
His leg still not completely healed from his wounding and capture a few months previous, Kevin had come again to East Central Africa for interrogation of an al Qaeda suspect. The target had agreed to a meeting, was attending in hopes of building a needed road leading to a warehouse for foodstuffs. “We had bombed the hell out of the road, and we’re telling them that we’ll fix the road if they help us get Aidid. So we had reason to believe that the man knew something,” Kevin says. The intelligence had theretofore been passing through Sarge because, as he said, “No one is going to talk to your Casper ass.” Well, maybe.
Kevin’s first, and last, encounter with the suspect came in a large house in one of the nicer neighborhoods in Mogadishu. When he walked into the home’s great room, the man was handcuffed by one arm and one leg to a straight-backed chair, a fairly elegant room for that time and place, with high ceilings and hard surfaces that created a faint echo, mimicking the effect of the interrogation as just a few minutes into the session the circumlocution had begun. The man seemed distracted, his predicament of the moment counting for very little as he looked about the room, mumbling incoherently about cousins and gossip and tribesmen and scuttlebutt, nothing of substance, and Kevin felt almost from the beginning that little of value would transpire between them. The body language was all wrong, effectively, almost proudly suggesting that the infidel who has just walked in was especially dumb, that the runaround was well underway. The irritation flashed in Kevin’s eyes as the man refused to look at him. He was rocking back and forth on his buttocks, fidgeting, even more uncomfortable than the handcuffs warranted. Time to escalate, stronger tactics called for, and now comes the repeated pouring of five gallons of cold water over the subject’s toweled face. The buckets came again and again. And the circle talk continues, four hours and more, the round-the-bush replies of the waterboarded man and the interpreter, and Kevin had heard enough. He cut the man’s wrists, told him to watch himself bleed out. When still the subject refused to cooperate, Kevin shot him in a shoulder, then the second shoulder. A foot, then the other foot.
It was only after Kevin had blown them both away . . . blam, blam, blam . . . . blam, blam . . . had just drawn down on the both of them and clocked them into the afterlife, that he realized his mistake. He had allowed the interpreter to pat the man down, to frisk him for weapons, and together they had concealed the Glock. The al Qaeda type in the chair was rocking back and forth on his buttocks because the pistol was poking him, was hurting him.
“Sarge was a click away, back at the compound, when I called to tell him that Homeboy got all twitchy on me, that the two of them were dead before they hit the ground.” At the sound of the gunfire, the other members of the team had broken down the door, Kevin asking for a wet-nap, wondering if there were a barbecue joint nearby, some place where he could find a wet-nap to blot the blood off him.
When Kevin and his guys left the house, they heard the copters coming, saw the RPG take down the first Huey. “We heard major vehicle movement. The ground was damned near shaking. I knew the military was operating a klick or so down the road. My guys, we could hear the gunbattles start,” he remembers. He couldn’t see the copters, the buildings around him just tall enough to block vision of the first Black Hawk going down. Two SAT calls followed to Butterscotch, Already strapped up, ready to move toward the gunbattle, the team called Rafael. “These guys need help,” Kevin said.
“If you go there, you’re not coming back,” the answer from Florida.
“It’s bad, brother, but I can make it.”
“No, you don’t understand, if you go a mile over to help those people, you’re fired.”
The team was not there, after all, the need for operational secrecy shutting down any possibility of helping the embattled American soldiers. Sadly, ironically, two of Kevin’s old high-school friends, good Marines, would die in the firefight.