Many of my fans often say, “I wish I had your life,” and my usual response is, “until you find out how many people have tried to take the life out of me.” As they look at me in silence, I begin to explain, it’s not always glitz and glamour.
I grew up in a family where an “I love you” was rare and I’ve endured racism from the day of my birth. I didn’t really understand it until my brother Israel’s arm was dislocated as he defended our surname while we walked home from Smith elementary school that day in Victoria, Texas.
I married young and shortly after my second daughter was born I was divorced from my predominately Irish wife thanks mainly to racism. That same day, to ensure medical insurance and the support of my children, I enlisted in the army. After my basic training at Ft. Knox, my new ex-wife and I decided to secretly remarry. It was a perfect plan with military orders to Germany, we’d finally leave racism behind. There were just a few things we had to accomplish for the plan to succeed.
First, she’d have to obtain the marriage license before my return back home while I completed my military advanced initial training. She did. Second, she’d arrange for a justice of the peace to marry us and I’d need a friend that could witness the ceremony to validate our marriage license. We did. He did. Third, after we re-married, upon my arrival to my new duty-station in Germany, I’d have to extend my tour, so my-again wife and our kids could join me in Germany.
I completed my training in Ft. Knox, went home the next day, and while I don’t remember the JP’s name, he showed up on time along with my good friend Richard Clark. The ceremony lasted maybe two-minutes. There was no time for vows much less a honeymoon. It was a done deal, married again at the fresh age of 25.
The next day I was off to Germany and once I arrived, I showed proof of marriage to my commander and he allowed me to change my tour from two years unaccompanied to three years accompanied. All went as planned. Then like the scratch on a chalkboard, STOP! Her parents saw the marriage license in the local-weekly paper public notices, and there we were, divorced again — thanks to racism.
Her and the children, now with State Dept. issued “military dependent passports” never made it to Germany and the army said, “too bad, so sad, can’t change your tour back, you’re stuck private.”
Ironically, I was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry Division, headquarters company unit in Mainz, Germany. The city and the people were amazing. Loved Europe too, but when it came to the “barracks,” all us enlisted soldiers took the brunt of an ongoing battle between our first sergeant of color and the Caucasian battalion motor sergeant — you guessed it, plain as black and white, racism at its finest, and the troops suffered. Morale was extremely low.
After 18 months of hell, I got blessed with an assignment to the army’s V Corps headquarters in Frankfurt. There I’d become the personal photographer to the new corps commander, Lt. Gen. George A. Jouwlan. The following year he earned his fourth star and moved to Panama as the Commander in Chief, United States Southern Command. I was sent to Desert Storm, but the deployment was shortened after Gen. Joulwan did a “by-name request” that I be reassigned directly to him in Central America. I left Saudi Arabia straight to Germany, and two days later I arrived in Panama where I’d eat ceviche for the first time. Delicious.
The next 26 months at USSOUTHCOM, I’d focus on our primary missions including Operation Support Justice, aka the Latin American Drug War during the Pablo Escobar era plus monitoring the Shining Path guerrillas, aka the Sendero Luminoso, more ruthless than the Khmer Rouge of Vietnam.
During my Latin America military tour, I met and worked with U.S. ambassadors and various VIP’s to include the late president George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara. There were others too, like Carol Hallett, the U.S. Customs commissioner at the time, Judge Robert Bonner, the administrator of the DEA, Colin Powell, our Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff plus the new Drug Czar, former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez and many other dignitaries.
While assigned to the U. S. Southern Command, on a routine basis I’d work with various three-letter federal agencies like the CIA, DEA, NSA, DIA, FBI, and others including U.S. Marshalls, the latter known as RSO’s, or regional security officers at the U.S. embassies, in the collection of intelligence while in the jungles of South and Central America. This included contact and interaction with assigned members of the U.S. Army’s Delta and Special Forces too.
Whether we collected intelligence on the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), the Shining Path, or Pablo Escobar, or visited the Upper Huallaga River Valley including the DEA operations at the base of Santa Lucia, Peru, we often joked about our monthly danger pay of $150. Yep, your neck for $150. It came with the oath of enlistment and I must have liked it as I reenlisted several times.
Sometimes fun, sometimes scary, and sometimes dangerous. I saw a lot of crazy things to include an entire family dig for food in the Honduran trash to survive plus despicable human rights abuses in El Salvador and Guatemala. Once we had a plan to meet with the biggest human rights violator and former dictator, Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte in Chile. Gen. Pinochet executed 3,095 people, interned up to 80,000 others, and tortured up to 30,000 by his regime, to include women and children. The mission failed after Gen. Pinochet snubbed us.
The one meeting that impressed me was the personal thank you I received from then president George H. W. Bush at the Panamanian presidential palace for my service. That was followed by the presentation of the Dept. of Defense Meritorious Service Medal for my actions from Gen. Joulwan. A DMSM medal is rare for a “buck sergeant” to receive in any branch of military service and it’s considered the equivalent of a Bronze Star in peace time.
The DMSM did come with a small blue medal box plus a signed certificate to hang on the wall, but the average person only sees a piece of paper. I can’t tell you everything I saw because some things you just can’t talk or write about, especially classified information, but trust me when I say, illicit drugs are the world’s greatest source of blood money.
The “narco world” provides a perpetual dark economy filled with death, torture, harm, abuse, corruption, and the lack of respect for the beauty in life. If you or someone you know does illicit drugs, there’s a great chance you’ve indirectly contributed to some family’s griefs.
After my Latin America tour that included some missions with the true patriot and future whistleblower in the horrifying “House of Death” case, DEA Special Agent Sandy Gonzalez, I was assigned to public affairs with the Army and Air Force Hometown News service where I’d run the pictorial branch. During that period, still an active-duty soldier, I deployed on many missions to include the genocide in Rwanda where I documented the beginning of Operation Support Hope.
They say you never forget the smell of death, I say, multiply that by thousands in one day. No, no you don’t. Later I went on to the invasion of Haiti in Operation Uphold Democracy. There were other operations I’d cover too, but those three, operations Support Justice, Support Hope, and Uphold Democracy plus racism are the events that instilled a good chunk of darkness in my life. As a visual scribe, I draw from that darkness.
Oops, almost forgot, a fourth mission but not operation was when I went all the way to Hanoi, Vietnam in 1995 and returned back to the U.S. with 10 sets of remains as part of my documentation of Joint Task Force Full Accounting. The Honorable Senator John McCain signed for the remains. The remains, contained in ten small wooden boxes labeled one through 10, were carefully and ceremoniously placed by the joint task force personnel in metal coffins. They draped each coffin with a U.S. flag then loaded them onto the Air Force C-141 we arrived in as a team.
As we all rode back with the fallen patriots our troop seats faced the coffins the entire time. The first stop was at Anderson Air Force base in Guam where after a quick refuel, we then headed to Hickman Air Force Base in Hawaii. Two long silent rides with ten coffined patriots made me think about life for many continuous hours. No one said a word on both flights, we all felt the sacredness of peace.
There were some great missions too. When the people of East Berlin crossed into West Germany in 1989 as the Berlin Wall fell, it was a time filled with excitement and it made me feel proud to help them. The 50th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, Omaha Beach, and the visit to Sainte-Mère-Église were great too, especially when I was reunited with Gen. Joulwan, now the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. The sad part of that trip was the 9,387 tombstones at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France located at Colleville-sur-Mer.
There are also the names of “1,557 Americans who lost their lives in the Normandy campaign but could not be located and/or identified, inscribed on the walls of a semicircular garden at the east side of the memorial.” These were patriotic and honorable men and women that gave the ultimate sacrifice, and we, the living general public, worry about “little things” like the lines at Starbucks or Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
After almost nine years in the army, I left active-duty as a staff sergeant and was immediately hired back into my old job, but now as a U.S. Air Force civilian. There I still deployed on real-world missions around the globe to include a cover-story assignment, co-illustrated with the late, Pulitzer prize winner Eddie Adams, for Parade magazine, circulation 32 million printed copies.
Eventually I moved to the Air Force News Agency side of the building where I became the agency’s first Chief of the Multimedia Branch and ensured the daily radio and television programs plus photos where produced and maintained for the Air Force website.
On my off time, I worked on my photography portfolios, earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Communication, Electronic Media, summa cum laude, from the University of Texas, San Antonio. Then I got a crazy idea to launch a photography website and that led to four photography “how-to” book contracts on the photography of women. With that success, plus my photography workshop tour to promote my books, I left government service as a GS-12 along with 17-years of eligibility toward a guaranteed government retirement. It’s a decision I sometimes question.
With my new fame in photography, combined with the lack of spoken family love, racism, and a bit of PTSD, yeah, I made some poor choices. While I can’t take back my mistakes, I can share them in my memoirs in hopes through my musings other people won’t do the same. My hopes are to show others some root causes of the darkness that life hands us, so they can understand why we do the things we do, right or wrong, plus the beauty of life itself.
I heal through my writings and my photography so that not all is lost. My mantra is to help at least one person if not many people through my future book, Lens Diaries — A Memoir. That’s my definition of success. Perhaps after some of my fans read those memoirs they probably won’t say, “I wish I had your life,” and instead say, “unbelievable,” but believe it. Hemingway was correct when he said, “In order to write about life first you must live it.”