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 elementary school that day.
I married young and shortly after my second daughter was born I was divorced from my predominately Irish wife, again, 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 I returned 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!
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 where all us enlisted soldiers took the brunt of a 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.
Eighteen months later I got lucky and was assigned 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 new Commander in Chief, United States Southern Command. I went from Germany 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 City, Panama where I’d get to eat ceviche for the first time.
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. I’d meet ambassadors and other VIP’s to include the president, George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara; 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; the new Drug Czar, former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez and many other dignitaries.
At USSOUTHCOM on a routine basis I’d work with various three-letter federal agencies like the CIA, DEA, NSA, DIA, FBI, and others like 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 it was collecting intelligence on the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), the Shining Path guerrillas, or Pablo Escobar, a visit to the Upper Huallaga River Valley, including DEA operations at the base of Santa Lucia, Peru, we often joked about the monthly danger pay stipend of $150. Yep. Put your neck out on the line for $150.
It was fun at times, it was scary at times, and it was dangerous at times. I saw a lot of crazy things, from an entire family digging for food in trash cans in Honduras to survive, and despicable human rights abuses in El Salvador and Guatemala. We even had a plan to meet in Chile with the biggest human rights violator and former dictator, Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte. Gen. Pinochet executed 3,095 people, interned up to 80,000 others, and tortured up to 30,000 by his regime, including women and children. The meeting failed after Gen. Pinochet snubbed us.
The one meeting that did impress me, was the personal thank you I received from President George H. W. Bush at the Panamanian presidential palace for my service followed by the presentation from Gen. Joulwan of the Dept. of Defense Meritorious Service Medal for my actions. Something rare for a “buck sergeant” to receive.
Besides a medal in a box, I also received a certificate to hang on the wall. The average person only sees a piece of paper. I can’t completely tell you what I see because there are a lot of things I can’t talk or write about, especially classified operations, but trust me when I say, illicit drugs are the world’s greatest source of blood money.
The “narco” world is a perpetual dark economy often 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 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 are the three that have instilled darkness in my life that as a writer and photographer I can draw from.
Oops, I 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 documenting Joint Task Force Full Accounting. The Honorable Senator John McCain received the remains there. We had two long flights on an Air Force C-141 where we stared at the flag draped coffins from Hanoi to Anderson Air Force base in Guam, then we arrived at Hickman Air Force Base in Hawaii. A long silent ride, times two.
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 exciting and made me feel great to help people while stationed in Germany. The 50th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, Omaha Beach, and Sainte-Mère-Église were great too, especially after reuniting there with Gen. Joulwan, who then was the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. The only sad part of that trip was staring at the 9,387 tombstones at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France located in 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 including a cover-story, 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 in the newly created position I became the agency’s first Chief of the Multimedia Branch. There I’d ensure the daily radio and television programs plus photos for the Air Force website were maintained. Somewhere during that period I’d do model portfolios on my off time, earned my four-year degree, and eventually opened up a website that led to four photography “how-to” book contracts on photographing women. With that success, plus my photography workshop tour to promote my books, I left government service as a GS-12, including 17 years of eligibility toward a guaranteed government retirement, a decision I sometimes regret.
With the new fame of photographing women combined with growing up in a family that never expressed love, racism, and throw in some PTSD, yeah, I made some poor decisions. While I can’t take back my mistakes, I share them in my upcoming memoir book in hopes through my musings that other people don’t make my mistakes. I also hope to show others some root causes of the darkness that life hands us at times so people can also understand why we do the things we do, right or wrong, plus the beauty of life.
I heal through my writings and my photography, so that not all is lost. If I help one person through my upcoming book, Lens Diaries — A Memoir, then I’ve succeeded to help others avert some pains of life. Perhaps after some of my fans read that upcoming book, they probably won’t say, “I wish I had your life,” and instead say, “unbelievable,” but believe it — it did happen!
There is an old saying when it comes to writing, “In order to write about life, you have to experience it first.”