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Ask the Mercenary

Commando-for-hire John Geddes on the life of a mercenary.
Jay Dixit
This post is a response to George Carlin's Last Interview by Jay Dixit

As a British commando in the Special Air Service, John Geddes fought combat missions in the Falkland Islands and ran undercover ops in Northern Ireland and Bosnia. When he left the military, he became a commando-for-hire, protecting American and British media crews from hostile insurgents in Iraq. He now runs a private military training facility called Ronin Concepts, where he teaches private military contractors, bodyguards, and journalists how to survive in war zones. —Jay Dixit

How did you get into this?

It's a natural progression from a military life. The private security sector led me into bodyguard work, Kevin Costner sort of "suits in boots." Then Iraq and Afghanistan crept up, and now it's armed security details in hostile environments.

What draws you to it? The adventure? The money?

Both. It's the camaraderie you miss from that military background. It's mainly the high adventure, the adrenaline boost. And of course the money, which is sometimes in excess of $1000 a day.

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In a perverse way, does that mean you're looking for the riskiest possible assignments—because they pay the most?

Exactly. It's a calculated risk. Often it's dangerous, but it's predictably dangerous. You're counting on your own skills and background to get you out of trouble quicker then you got in, and the temptation is to take on the task.

What's the transition to civilian life like?

Nobody completely gets away with it. When I mix with civilian counterparts, they don't understand what I've seen and done. People ask questions all the time. I've found it hard to communicate—being tentative, guarded in conversation.

What is it that civilians don't understand?

Why you do it. Why you risk your life in the military in the first place. And once you get away with it—at least physically—why you go and do it again and possibly become even more psychologically damaged than you already are.

Psychologically damaged?

Friends of mine have committed suicide from post-traumatic stress. I used to dream—between dreams and nightmares. Teeth grinding. Strangely, what seems to balance you is more trauma and more adrenaline. Working in a dangerous place has more of a calming effect then anything else. It's a bit of a fix. It's like Apocalypse Now: When you're back in jungle all you can think of is home, and when you're home all you can think of is getting back in the jungle.

Have you dealt with depression too?

I've suffered more from survivor's guilt. I've personally known 50 guys, from our parachute regiment, our comparatively small Special Forces Airborne group, who've been killed. I've been to over 50 funerals.

What's it like for your wife?

She's a stroke specialist. She sees a lot of death on a daily basis herself. I think soldiers, nurses, firefighters, policemen, they share a bond of being on the front lines. I feel that camaraderie with her. She gets the gallows humor.

Can you give me an example of gallows humor?

You hate to have your head completely blown off. We saw this guy and the top quarter of his head was blown off. The bottom row of teeth were exposed along with the rest of the top of his neck. And somebody said, "If you want to get ahead, get a Reach toothbrush." That's gallows humor. It defuses, it steels you psychologically.

In an emergency situation, do you stop and think, "What's the best thing to do?"

You react instinctively. If you think, you're dead.

Are you afraid of dying?

When I was in Iraq my nightmare was not about getting killed, but about getting captured. When you get to my experience and age, you're more cynical. I worry about my professional reputation. How's it going to look if my client is captured? How's it going to look if I'm captured? If it comes to it and if I lose my client and surrender, then wind up on national TV in an orange boiler suit, how embarrassing would that be? That's what goes through my mind. So you have to fight to the death. There's no way I would have wound up getting captured alive.

Can you sense when danger is going to come before it does?

You do develop a sixth sense. It's more situation awareness. Honed by training, experience, skill.

On the road from Jordan to Baghdad, we were accosted by insurgents. You learn to pick up on combat indicators. Changes in the atmosphere, something that stands out of the ordinary that you may not see that I'd definitely see. I saw a BMW parked up in a laybine with no reason. If someone doesn't have a reason to be there, it's suspicious. I was this vehicle in the rearview mirror and immediately knew something was going to happen.

As predicted, this vehicle came up and fired a volley of AK rounds in an attempt to pull us over. They had the windows wound down, two to three guns pointed at us, and it was pull over now or you're dead. I fired from the inside the car, fired straight through my own car door to preserve the element of surprise.

Presumably, your fire hit and killed the guys in the vehicle.

Most definitely. Two or three guys in the back seat. From that range, three feet, a burst of automatic fire from a rifle, armor piercing rounds, someone's going to get hurt. We sped away as the car twisted and turned and fishtailed into the ditch. Then I turned to the crew in the back and said, "Welcome to Fallujah."

What did you feel at that moment?

A slight pressure on my trigger finger. Sorry, gallows humor.

But how did it feel having killed someone?

It's adrenaline. It's a little bit of shame, and thankful it wasn't you. It's not a natural thing to kill somebody. You never get used to it. But mostly it's exhilaration that you risked your life got away with it again. It's like skydiving: You save your own life by pulling the ripcord—or in this case, by pulling the trigger.

How do you feel after the danger has passed?

You escape in the vehicle. Then it's Jack Daniels time when you get to your location. It's exactly the same as skydiving. It's exhilarating, you want to party on, you want to share it with people—so you go to a bar. You meet like-minded people who've just had the same experiences, you just have a few beers, you talk about it, rejoice in it. You realize you just saved your own life by pulling the ripcord. You say, "This is kind of a dangerous sport, isn't it?"

What were you like as a child?

I was known as a bully basher. I used to box. People used to come to me if they were having problems with bullies and I'd take care of it. I'd always wanted to be a soldier. In England, you'd have these commando comics, Second World War adventures, cartoons. SAS was my favorite—the Special Air Services. I joined the Airborne Unit first, then eventually put in for SAS selection.

How much of your job is people skills?

All the time. Winning "hearts and minds." You have to be able to win the local population over. They're ordinary people just like us, they're just normal people trying to get on with their lives, get on with their kids, get on with their religion. They're not a million miles away from us.

How do you win hearts and minds?

Communicate. Talk to people. Help people. Share a little bit of water if you're out in the desert. Generally be a good guy.

If private military contractors fight for the money, are they susceptible to changing sides?

You have to make sure you're on the right side of the fence. Today's private contractors and mercenaries in Iraq are on the right side of the fence.

If you get injured, who takes care of you?

It's quite an expensive insurance cover for private military contractors. The companies pay for Lloyd's insurance. The rates change based on the perceived areas of danger. Yes, Iraq is no less dangerous than it was, but the danger is more predictable. Insurers have more information to work on.

Any regrets?

I regret that I don't have another five years forces in the special forces. The younger guys—they go about what they've done. Jumps into a situation, house assaults, taking down bad guys, kicking doors in. They're doing a lot more at the moment than when I was there. It may be misguided, but there it is.

Ever been in a situation you couldn't get out of?

Getting divorced after my first marriage. I've never felt so lost in all my life. I was fortunate in finding another woman who took the emotional brunt of the rehabilitation.

Jay Dixit is a science writer based in New York.

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