« Hackers And Caffeine| Main | Hooked on Tolstoy »

I was an Ambassador and Taken Hostage by Militants

| | Comments (2)

Today I'm a management consultant, agile coach, and hacker. But it wasn't always that way.

Twenty-Five years ago, I was sitting in handcuffs in the Sergeant Major's office at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He was telling me my life was ruined. Life as I knew it was over. How I would enjoy spending the next three years in federal prison?

Just three months later I was honorably discharged. A couple of years after that I had my own consulting business.

Funny thing happened on the way to the end of my life.

I used to joke to people that I loved the fucking Marine Corps, and the Marine Corps loved fucking me. It was juvenile, but it spoke to the conflict I had about the Corps. On one hand, I was honored to be there, I loved my country, and I wanted to serve. On the other hand, my entire life was disintegrating around me and the Marines felt like a prison from which I could never escape. I loved the Marines. I hated the Marines.

I felt strongly both ways. Very strongly. I was deeply in love with something I hated. It was driving me crazy.

As much as I loved the Corps, I should have never went in. I had flat feet. For most folks flat feet isn't a big deal. For some, like me, they make prolonged standing, running, and marching very painful. I didn't even know I had them -- nobody told me until I was processing for the service. Nobody told me they could kill my chances of executing my duty. I was oblivious of any problem, until much later when I spent weeks and weeks wearing sneakers with my feet taped up, popping Ibuprofen like candy. The corpsmen acted like it wasn't a big deal -- hey, nothing broken, nothing bleeding, you're fine! Stop your whining!

I was the only son in a fatherless family -- my dad died just before I went in. Being a sole heir isn't a big deal unless the family is in crisis. As soon as I joined, though, my family went into crisis. Mom was diagnosed with cancer and had a 40-pound tumor removed. She was recovering at home -- prognosis uncertain. Sister was failing high school. Firstborn son had a serious birth defect and would require multiple surgeries in the next few years. And my wife? All I wanted in my first wife was somebody that was easy going, liked to party and have fun. As I found out, this made for a great date but a lousy wife. She never wrote, never called, couldn't be bothered to live with me on base, and kept hocking all my stuff at the pawn shop while I was away. Other than that, and the men, she was perfect.

Did I mention they all lived together? It was like a soap opera on steriods back there. At work I wasn't able to walk without limping and at home every time I called it was a disaster-of-the-week. The baby is fussy all the time. We don't know what's wrong with him. Haven't seen your wife since yesterday. Sister's getting kicked out of school for truancy.

Not knowing what to do, but with the stress continuing to mount, I finally reached the point where I'd take any solution just to get some kind of resolution. So, like any kid, I ran away. Not permanently, just long enough so that I knew I would be in very serious trouble when I came back. Serious trouble was good: it meant that people would start taking options away from me and things would work out. Anything was better than this.

While I was gone, I lived with my cousin for a while, trying to figure out what the hell was going on in my life. I went and saw a couple doctors that told me 1) you're not crazy, and 2) you're going to have problems with your feet the rest of your life. Sort of a win-one, lose-one situation. But eventually, as planned, I went back and faced the music.

So there I was, sitting in the Sergeant Major's office as he read me the riot act. He paced back and forth, spewing invective. I knew I was in big trouble -- things were working according to schedule -- and I knew I deserved everything he was throwing at me. At the end, as he was finally winding down, he just looked at me and said:

"Well? Got an excuse for yourself? Any reason for all this?"

At that point I figured it didn't matter what I said, so I timidly explained my problems. I expected him to hit me.

I held my breath.

He sat down. And then he got this look of total incredulity on his face, as if elephants were jumping out of my ears.

Then, like the loving man he was, he spent the next 15 minutes yelling about the various ways I was an idiot for not telling him all of this before I ran off. That my chain of command was there to help me solve these problems. That I was lucky I had enough brain cells left to tell him what was up. That what I needed to do was to document my situation. Then there was a part about various people having relations with themselves. Then there was this other part about inflicting numerous forms of pain and suffering on me if I were lying.

He was just that kind of guy. A real sweetheart. Damn, I miss him.

I left the office knowing that I had some paperwork to put together. My life was still over. Who would have thought it? Your life falls apart and you're supposed to go fill out a bunch of forms. Now that I'm 40 this all makes total sense, but back then I was a kid who just lost his dad and the lesson from life was very clear: you're on your own. You got problems? Everybody has problems. Stop your whining. To me then, it was idiotic to think that I should fill out forms when I had a bunch of problems. What problem was ever solved by a form?

Maybe the Sergeant Major had a point about the brain cell thing.

I completed the paperwork, and like the noob I was, I expected an answer the next day.

Instead I waited.

And waited.

My Lieutenant came to me and asked me if I wanted to be an ambassador for a week or two. At the time, the Marines were forming up company-sized Special Operations Groups, capable of Special Forces-type action behind unfriendly lines. Nobody wanted another Iranian hostage situation, so we were getting ready for the next time. If the crap hit the fan again the Marines weren't going to be caught flat-footed, so to speak.

It was simple: my platoon would become a cadre of Islamic Fundamentalist Terrorists. I was the unlucky ambassador taken hostage. Three of the guys were the embassy security detail -- or what was left of them. The platoon would have full reign over how to fortify and defend the hostages, including strapping explosives onto us and booby-trapping our cages. Sometime -- nobody knew when -- Charlie company was coming for us.

Hey -- who could resist? It was like acting except you have weapons and stuff that explodes. L-T told me why I was selected. "Markham: you're 10 pounds overweight, you can barely keep up with us on the 5-mile runs, and you spend all your time thinking about the outside. Hell, you're half-civilian already."

So as I waited. the platoon set up on the outside of the base in some old WW II Quonset huts. And then we all waited.

The guys had a blast, dressing up in robes, speaking in cheesy mid-eastern accents, praying at the appropriate times and ways, moving us around a lot. One day we built an indoor swimming pool out of sandbags and splashed around.

I really enjoyed my time as an ambassador.

Steadily, day-by-day, air activity increased. An interesting thing about helicopters: you can't really tell where they're at. Charlie company messed with our heads using this fact. Fly a little here, fly a little there. Fly a lot, fly just a little. Pretty soon everybody gets used to helicopters in the area. The sound just comes from all around and goes without notice.

Late one night as a I sat alone tied up in a corner of an upstairs area, I noticed another guy in the rafters. One minute the place was empty, the next minute there was a guy there. He looked like a greyhound: not an ounce of body fat, totally camouflaged, and he moved like a cat.

"I didn't see you there, " I said, quietly, not to alert the "terrorists".

"I know. You only see me because I let you see me," he said.

Okey dokey then -- must be force recon. Great guys, just a little on the psychotic side (at least to my young mind) Let's not make the guy-who-can-kill-you-fifty-ways mad, all right?

I just smiled uncomfortably and stared at my feet, trying not to make any sudden movements.

There were helicopter sounds, but there were always helicopter sounds. To this day I don't know if the rescue arrived by air or not. Suddenly there were bright flashes and concussion grenades and yelling and shooting and people running around and all hell broke out.

It happened quickly. Very quickly. Within seconds, the rescue force cut through my platoon, making their way up the stairs. You would think both forces were evenly matched, but surprise, surprise, dead-of-night and shock-and-awe make a powerful difference. They ran in and grabbed me and the guards. It was at this point I realized that being rescued wasn't something where they would escort you to a car. I kind of thought James Bond would show up in a tux and introduce himself as he lit a cigarette. Bond, James Bond.

It didn't work like that. Instead you're picked up bodily and slammed through the compound and thrown on the ground while you're being physically covered by other marines. It was more like what a sack of rice feels like when manhandled by very angry farmers. You're a big, heavy dead weight that they're going to protect with their lives as they sprint you out to rescue.

The copters came, and we ran out. Or rather my rescuers ran and I was hauled. Suddenly, close-by, machine-gun fire! My sergeant, seeing the rescue was on, had played dead in the corner letting the rescuers do their thing. As soon as he heard the forces leaving he jumped up and started shooting at everybody in sight with a SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon). It was a nasty trick, but a good one: I found out later the rescuing forces took 70% causalities before they "killed" him.

I didn't see any of it because I was on my way out. Hey -- three minutes or so and we're gone. We were flying hell-for-leather in the pitch black to the U.S.S. Saipan.

When we hit the Saipan the referees announced that I was booby-trapped and the guards had defected and were now trying to kill as many sailors as they could. The operation instantly evolved into a full intruder alert with combat-ready Marines securing the ship as they fought compartment to compartment.

Seems like nothing could go right for Charlie company that night.

I stayed on ship for a couple more days in sickbay, then rode a helicopter back to base. I remember thinking during both helicopter rides how unnatural it was to move around by means of beating the air into submission with forty tons of heavy machinery. Lots of flashing lights and buzzers, and the copter bounced up and down quite a bit, but we made it back.

Six months later a copter crashed off the Saipan, killing over a dozen marines from Charlie company.

A week later I was released with an honorable discharge. Up until the day of my release I had no idea that I was getting out, that they would drop charges, that all would be forgiven, or that I would get an honorable discharge. I kind of pictured them taking all of my uniforms and leaving me on the side of the street with $20, but that's not how it worked at all.

I learned a lot from my time as ambassador and Marine. Paperwork means stuff to people: really important stuff. Thinking you have to solve every problem on your own is an additional problem to your other problems: one that makes all the others worse. No matter how much you love something, it's not going to make a square peg fit into a round hole. What people experience in the service has to do with the type of work they do and the unit they are in. Hidden assumptions hurt. A lot.

I've never told anybody my story of how my career in the Marines ended until today -- I've always been too ashamed. Even after having the charges forgiven, in my mind I don't think I'll ever live down running away. It was unforgivable. But I didn't know what else to do and I was just a kid. That's all I have for an excuse.

I hated the Marines. I loved the Marines. It was the best thing I've ever done in my life and I could never do it again. Sounds weird, but it's the truth. I'm honored that I got to serve my country. All the pain taught me a lot about how I act under stress. The problems at home didn't go away magically because I got out -- that took another 2 or 3 years -- but by being home I was at least able to to make a difference. I was so embarrassed and ashamed by getting out early that I spent the next several years trying to live up to what was expected of me: getting straight As in college, working two jobs, starting my own business, always striving to be as helpful to others as I could. This "bad experience" changed a passive, wait-for-life-to-happen person into and active, go-make-it-happen person.

Everything -- good or bad, noble or base, wonderful or terrible -- ends. It doesn't always end the way you want it to, but it always ends. And when it does, you get a chance to start over.


I am sad for you that you kept this to yourself for so long.

I am happy for you that your have finally released yourself from the burden of this secret.

You, your wife and children will be the better for your courage.

Should there be a next time take the leap of faith sooner that forgiveness is divine and that you may never forget you can choose to find forgiveness and move on.

You deserve to be happy.

This was a really interesting and touching story, and I'm glad you were finally able to get it off your chest.

I don't think you should be ashamed of what happened. I don't think any human being could cope with that combination of stressful situations and not have some sort of breakdown. Running away is probably about the least severe sort of breakdown.

Also I appreciate reading this because it gives me perspective and makes me realize some of the things I worry about are quite petty. Actually I'm sure most things most people worry about are quite petty compared to your experience. As tough as it was on you, maybe we all would benefit from similar experiences.

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right? I know it is a cliche but I think it has truth.

- A fellow hacker

Leave a comment

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on September 8, 2009 9:56 AM.

Hackers And Caffeine was the previous entry in this blog.

Hooked on Tolstoy is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Social Widgets

Share Bookmark this on Delicious

Recent Comments

  • Ryan L: This was a really interesting and touching story, and I'm read more
  • Touched by your sharing: I am sad for you that you kept this to read more

Information you might find handy
(other sites I have worked on)

Recently I created a list of books that hackers recommend to each other -- what are the books super hackers use to help guide them form their own startups and make millions? hn-books might be a site you'd like to check out.
On the low-end of the spectrum, I realized that a lot of people have problems logging into Facebook, of all things. So I created a micro-site to help folks learn how to log-in correctly, and to share various funny pictures and such that folks might like to share with their friends. It's called (appropriately enough) facebook login help