My Militia Weekend
Friday, June 20, 2014
The Holiday Station Superstore
Paper towels! I knew I forgot something. The sales clerk tried to talk me into the “Buy Two, Get 50 Cents Off” Duck Dynasty lighters at the checkout, but I already had my ice breaker – a 1918 German Luger from World War I that my dad brought home from the war that followed.
My strategy reminded me of when I went to France as a teenager and my host family kept wanting to barbecue everything all the time. Americans like barbecues, so we barbecue! You want to jog, yes? When will you jog? Well, I assume that militia guys like guns. So, I just brought one. “Hey, guys! Anybody want to see my Luger?” It seemed like as good a conversation starter as anything. Heck, I didn’t know. I was grasping at straws at this point.
I’m heading to the Alaska Militia/Prepper/Survivalist Rendezvous about an hour and fifteen minutes north of Anchorage, in the little community of Sutton. I’ve been there several times, hunting the plentiful fossils of ginkgo leaves, and cinnamon, and ferns and petrified wood that erode out of the bluffs. There are also many dirt roads and trails that wind up and down the hills, and back into the woods making it a popular spot for those with dirt bikes, and four-wheelers.
I covered the Day of Resistance Tea Party rally in Fairbanks this past winter, and the organizer David Luntz, who is the commander of the Central Alaska Militia, said I should come to the Rendezvous. And so I am. I have absolutely no idea how a female, liberal blogger is going to be received here, and I cannot help but feel a little squinchy as I drive north into the unknown. I can always leave, I think to myself, if things are bad.
Jonesville Road Camping Place
I have arrived at the rather large encampment, and found a spot to park in an area with a couple dozen on and off-road vehicles and trailers belonging to the other attendees. To my left, the Gadsden flag flutters in the breeze. Two Gadsden flags – one the traditional yellow with the coiled snake, the other with a camouflage background which makes both the snake and the slogan “Don’t Tread on Me” more difficult to see. I’m not sure whether this is ironic, or not ironic at all. The flags are mounted somehow in the grille of a large white truck.
This is the 3rd annual Rendezvous. The first two were held in Delta Junction, far to the north near Fairbanks. This time it’s closer to the major population centers of Anchorage, Palmer, and Wasilla, and the turnout according to the organizers is larger than last time. You couldn’t have picked a better spot, really. The campground here is large, easily accessible for large vehicles, and ringed by ochre bluffs, and snow capped peaks. Thick stands of aspen, birch, and spruce create a high defined wall around the large open area where we are camped. The sun has just dipped below the ridge, although true sunset won’t come for hours. Billowy grey clouds are rolling in, and we expect rain this weekend.
“Don’t cut yourself, dude! That’s a big fucking knife, and there’s no doctor anywhere near here,” were the first words I heard spoken when I turned off the engine and opened the door of my forest green Subaru. “No, I think we actually have a doctor,” came the reply.
A group of a dozen men are now erecting a large tent behind me, pounding stakes into the ground with a sledgehammer, and almost everyone is packing a sidearm. A large pole flying the Stars and Stripes on top, and a Gadsden flag underneath, has been erected, and the copious guy wires holding it up are marked with little ribbons of pink fluorescent tape to prevent the unwary (like me) from accidentally running into them.
Some of the trucks and RVs at the event have towed four-wheelers behind them. Kids, including a couple little girls in pink camo, and several adults are happily driving around the large open area, over the bumps and down the side roads, leaving long horizontal clouds of brown dust behind them.
My first stop was the Safety & Operations tent, where I met Mikel the Colonel of the Anchorage Municipal Defense Force – energetic, happy-faced and 20-something with a black scruffy beard and dark eyes. He greeted me and took me under his wing. He was like if Julie McCoy on the Love Boat had been a guy, and in a militia. He asked me if I was with any organization, and I said yes and told him which one, and that I was here to report on the event. He seemed slightly surprised, but I wasn’t sure whether it was because I was a reporter in general, or that The Mudflats is a fairly well-known left-leaning blog. I made sure to tell him that I’d been invited to cover the event by the organizer, David Luntz. Saying that felt like a secret password, or a spell that gave me credibility, or at the very least would put people at ease.
Mikel got me all signed in and registered for the event – the first name on the second page of the spiral notebook. I then signed a two-page waiver stating that I don’t hold anyone responsible for any horrible thing that may happen to me, via natural or manmade causes. The form stated that they expected everyone to have medical insurance coverage. I thought of the thousands of Alaskans who weren’t able to have that until recently, and the thousands more who will suffer because of the governor’s thumbs down on Medicaid expansion. I came to the conclusion that mentioning this in my first 15 minutes at the event was probably not a good plan, so I stayed mum. Mikel witnessed my signature with his own, and handed me a detailed rules and regulations sheet about firearms safety. No rifles can be loaded, handguns must be holstered and only used for urgent matters of self-defense, no drinking for 8 hours prior to shooting a weapon in the designated range area, with a range master. Their “gun control” list was actually rather impressive, and made me feel better right off the bat. Mikel put a thick red zip tie on my wrist to indicate I was registered, and trimmed the excess plastic tail with a Leatherman tool. I was in.
Then, he introduced me to Rick, a Major and the head of security, an intense stoic-looking man with steely blue eyes and greying hair, who looks like he just stepped out of an epic WWII saga; and then to Gunnery Sergeant Jon, aka “Gunny,” who sported a long bushy reddish beard, with tattoos down his forearms, and a handgun strapped to his right thigh. He was standing in a group of half a dozen men, and I went over and shook his hand. “Now you have three points of contact,” Mikel said, “me, the Major, and Gunny.” Then, I met Noah, and fell in love. Noah is half pit bull, and half Sharpei. He is wearing a pair of doggie saddle bags made of thick cotton jungle camo.
“This is the ammo dog,” said Mikel, smiling. Andy, Noah’s owner, told me that Noah is two years old, and this is his second Rendezvous. “So, he’s a veteran,” I noted, and chuckles went up in the group. Dogs are also good ice breakers. “Oh, you should have seen him when he was a puppy,” Andy said. “I got him at 5 weeks old, and he could sit right in my hand from here to here,” he held out his hand, palm up, to show me. “He should have stayed with his mama longer than that, but I couldn’t let him go to someone who didn’t know what they were doing, and wouldn’t take care of him right.” He then showed me proudly how Noah liked to fetch a stick, and would sit, and lay down, and move here and there on command. Noah liked his stick a lot, and took off like a shot over the hill after it when Andy threw it.
There is cell phone reception here, but I have not seen a single person with a phone, or a tablet, or any other electronic device. It is noticeable, and frankly it’s kind of nice to see people talking to each other and doing things without being glued to a screen.
I, on the other hand, am now sitting in my Subaru typing on my laptop, posting occasionally to Facebook from my Blackberry, and eating the Chinese take out I got on the way, which undeniably makes me a bad doomsday prepper. Depending on how long ago my last trip to Costco would have been, I figure when doomsday comes, I’ve got anywhere from a week to a month before I’m in trouble. And that’s just the food part, and doesn’t count the big earthquake, or the men in black, or the zombie apocalypse, or some other invading force. This weekend is designed, it says, to teach and train people like me. “We’re hoping to get more non-militia people to come to these events,” said Mikel. “Well, you’ve got me,” I said.
Despite the convivial nature of my greeting and introductions, it’s hard not to feel a little on edge. In my rear view mirror, I can see a man walking about 20 feet away, armed to the teeth in full camo. In my side view mirror, another man is unloading bags from the side of his van with a handgun strapped to his waist. I don’t fear for my safety, but not having been raised around guns, the involuntary stiffening of the spine, and intake of breath, and little pump of adrenaline I get when I see one is a reflex – one I hope to outgrow before the weekend is over, or it’s going to be exhausting.
Saturday, June 21, 2014
I heard people signing up for “watch” earlier, and now patrols of the encampment are happening. They began at 22:00 hours with two armed men in full camo with semi-automatic rifles, and pistols. They wore Kevlar helmets, and carried a hand radio while walking the perimeter – one clockwise, one counterclockwise. This meant that about every 10 or 15 minutes, one or the other would pass just feet in front of my car, which was serving as my tent. Shift changes happened every two hours.
I am transfixed watching the guard. Occasionally the one with the beard stops, and scans the trees that encircle the encampment. I don’t know why he is scanning the trees, but I watch him from inside this patrolled rectangle of tents and vehicles, cordoned off with wooden stakes and string, and (just like with the guy wires on the flagpole) pink fluorescent plastic tape tied at intervals to prevent people from tripping over the perimeter. There is a surreal paramilitary/safety first feeling to all this, and I’m not quite sure, looking out my window, if I feel more safe, or less safe. I decide, ultimately, that I will choose to feel more safe, because I’m going to sleep alone in my car out here, and I may as well look at it that way.
The second shift comes on at midnight, and one of the patrol people is a woman. I open my door asked her where the bathrooms are.
“There aren’t any,” she says with a regretful and compassionate wince.
“Wait… there’s no port-o-potty?” I was hoping that she thought maybe I was asking about a real bathroom or something.
“No… It’s just the trees. I’m sorry. We really tried to get one.”
“I’m so sorry! We really did try!”
“Ok, well I was just wondering. Thanks.” I tried to smile.
Shit just got real.
Did I forget to mention it’s pouring rain? It’s pouring rain.
This is not ok.
I am not above going into the woods. I, and any Alaskan worth his or her salt, have gone in the woods plenty of times, so it’s not that per se. But right now, it’s pouring rain. Pouring rain. And there are also people with firearms scanning the trees for reasons of which I am not completely clear. For both of these reasons I really don’t want to exit and reenter “the perimeter” right now. So, after doing a terrain assessment of the inside of my car, and a supply check, I opt for Plan B. I wait for the patrol to go by, and launch Operation “Pee in My Travel Mug.”
Dogs barking. New patrol. This one has a German Shepherd. Rain pounding on the roof. I am dozing at best. Was that a loon in the woods giving a distress call? I may be hallucinating. I should hydrate. But then I will have to pee…
Dogs barking again. I’ve managed to sleep on and off through the night in relative comfort in the back of my car. I folded the back seat down and used a heavy cotton sleeping bag as a pad, with another lighter one as a blanket. And I somehow managed to lose consciousness in my Subaru fishbowl, while the patrols walked past me every 15 minutes all night.
I go into the cooler and discover my mill of pink Himalayan salt has gotten flooded from melting ice and is ruined. Somehow the gods have found pink Himalayan salt at a militia campout to be as ridiculous as pink Himalayan salt at a militia campout. And they smote it.
Morning grub is a hard boiled egg with regular salt from a small paper packet, a handful of Cheetos, and a diet Coke for caffeine. Don’t judge.
The Big Tent
I pull on my boots and squish through the gooey mud bog that the parking lot has turned into, to see what’s on the schedule at the operations tent. I’m already 5 minutes late for the first morning session, “Camouflage.” I look around and realize that the large tent that was set up the night before will serve as a lecture hall.
I stand in the back, and a nice man pops open a camping chair, and sets it down with a gesture that I should sit. I thanked him and did so. The camo instructor is in his late 20s I’d guess. He has a thin face, high cheekbones, and a reddish close-cropped goatee. He is not surprisingly wearing camo, including a hat with a brim all the way around.
“Darker colors make an object appear further away,” he is saying as I sit. “That’s why when people paint their faces, they’ll make the nose darker, to flatten the face.” I have learned something new in the first five seconds.
I learned more things in the next hour.
14 Things You Never Knew You Never Knew About Camouflage
1) Don’t ever mix camo patterns – your tops and bottoms, your gloves, your hat, your rifle, should all be the same pattern.
2) The best thing ever is a “ghillie suit,” which is long shaggy fringe that looks like deer moss, or pale seaweed. If you cover yourself in ghillie, nothing will ever see you. It is at once hilariously funny because you look like Cousin It, and diabolical because you can hide in the woods and snipe people without being seen.
3) If you use a flash-bang grenade, you can disable the enemy’s night vision goggles. Anything using phosphorous will burn out the cathode, rendering them useless. Flashing strobe lights will also mess with night vision goggles.
4) There are no perfect shapes in nature, so keep that in mind. Make things look asymmetrical. If you use ghillie, it can make you look too wide to be a human being and people will miss you because the eye is trained to see human shapes.
5) If you want a decoy for when you’re under fire, put a 2×4 in a haystack and let the end stick out. The other guys will focus on it because it is a perfect shape. See #4.
6) Camo is not just visual, there is also acoustic camo, like the rain that is pouring outside. Dry ground makes more noise than wet ground, and falling rain will disguise your movements. But you will also leave tracks. So it’s a trade off.
7) You can use animal calls to communicate while avoiding detection. AHA! This may explain the loon distress call in the woods I heard last night! Yes, a loon would be distressed in the woods, but I’m pretty sure I figured this one out. I feel smug a little.
8) Despite “Hollywood’s campaign against suppressors” (silencers), they are useful. They do not completely muffle sound, but if you shoot a gun with a suppressor and you are 15 feet away from someone, it will sound to them like someone pounding a nail, not like a gun shot.
9) There is also olfactory camo. Dogs have many more scent receptors in their noses than we do. They will pick up on scent we leave behind. We are basically like giant peppershakers, he says, shedding dead skin cells out our sleeves, and pant legs, and off our heads.
10) You can deter dogs sometimes with pepper spray on your trail because they don’t like it. It has to be strong enough to make them stop, otherwise when they find you, they will just be mad at you because you are the thing that made them smell pepper spray, and that could go badly.
11) Camo guy knows someone who lost a pack of dogs that was chasing him by running into a thicket of Devil’s Club. The room groans, and laughs, and says, “Ohhhh…. shit, man.” This is because one little prick of Devil’s Club is enough to annoy you for weeks with a festering painful blister. Running through a thicket is unimaginable. But this guy did, and he got away. Whatever it took to get away from the pack of dogs.
12) You can also deter dogs with a bottle of mountain lion pee, which apparently you can buy in a store. (!!!)
13) You can also roll in horse manure to confuse dogs, but it’s not fool proof. And they do not like freshly cut hay for some reason.
14) But you will never confuse a bear with anything. Ever. If a bear wants to track you, it will track you and find you, and there is nothing you can do about it.
For further reading on camouflage, you can check out the Boy Scout Handbook, The Art of War, and the Army Camouflage Manual.
The Q&A session started a conversation about various countries and their style of engaging with snipers. The United States likes to use lots of weaponry early and hugely. The Russians use camouflage to “crawl up your nose before they take a shot.” The British are obsessed with hitting the target with just one attempt. And the Finns in the winter of 1939-40 apparently just wore white, and hid in the snow and killed thousands and thousands of Russians in narrow passes. Everyone is impressed with the Finns, and how many Russians they killed. Everyone seems to know about the Finns.
Outside the Big Tent
Time for a break between sessions. Camo guy loads his gear into a white pickup truck draped in camo netting. Camo guy knows his shit. I think if you put Camo guy in the woods with a bottle of mountain lion pee, and he dug a hole and climbed into it in his ghillie suit and covered up with camo netting, he could hang out there as long as he wanted. Unless the other guys had a bear. Nobody hides from a bear.
A youngish man comes into the tent and says he’s moved his generator so it isn’t as loud from the tent. Someone asks him why he’s running a generator, and he says he has two little girls who can’t play outside because it’s raining, so they’re in the RV watching movies. Someone says, “You shouldn’t have said that. Now we’re all going to want to hang out at your place later and watch movies. Do you have Lone Survivor?” Everyone laughs.
Next up is the event organizer, and commander of the Central Alaska Militia, David Luntz.
His topic: Base Defense. Base defense is just what it sounds like – defending your base, whether that be your home, or an encampment like the one we are in now, or a building, or any large gathering.
I’m still in the back on the camp chair. I am the nerd in the class, and the only taking notes. Raindrops come through the little holes in the tent that are not patched with duct tape, and they periodically drip with a smack on to my little yellow pad.
Before we get into base defense, he says, there are some thing we can learn from a recent event, which has gotten a lot of TV coverage – Cliven Bundy’s ranch. He didn’t go to the ranch himself, but has talked to several people out there.
“There are lessons to be learned in how we deal with the enemy. I’m not going to name the enemy,” he says. “I’m just talking about what we do in a situation when any group of ours needs our help and assistance.”
Someone at the Bundy ranch set up an 800 number “comms line” and promoted it through a Facebook group, and people were able to call and get a daily update on the situation on the ground. “If anything happens in this state, it’s imperative that we have smoothing like this,” Luntz said, “if you’re coming north or we’re coming south.” He explained that if militia groups were to come to each other’s aid, they will need scouts on the perimeter talking about conditions on the road, in the air, where there is a “high point advantage” in the terrain, and any other things of interest or import. And this information needs to be communicated. “You don’t want the people coming to help you hitting road blocks, or to get policed up.”
Then, there were the lessons about what not to do from the Bundy Ranch. They didn’t get scouts out fast enough. They didn’t realize the national attention they would get. “It surprised both sides, but it really surprised the feds. And I’m not saying that the feds are enemies,” he said pointedly, “but you need to know your enemy and understand your enemy.”
“What we are doing here right now,” he indicates the room, “is we are building a coalition of like-minded people. It will bring us closer and develop trust. So, if something happens I can say, ‘I know you, and I know you.’ There is some trust there, versus, ‘Who’s this guy?’ And those guys are out there. They’re out there… especially in our line of work,” he said, presumably talking about infiltrators from federal agencies who we are not saying are the enemy.
And at the ranch they were very open about everything, he said, and that this was a good thing. “That’s how we get grassroots support,” someone called out.
“Yes. And what does the President like to say? ‘Transparency.’ He likes to use that word,” said Luntz to a low rumble from the group.
Next we moved on to prepping the battlefield. First get a map and identify good areas to assemble. “’You need to be able to say, ‘Assemble at Advancing Mermaid, and have everyone know that’s Chuck’s hayfield.’”
15 Things You Must Never Ever Forget When Defending Your Base
1) Use the terrain to your advantage so you can funnel people and ambush them like the Finns did with the Russians, or take out bridges, or make barricades, or use a bulldozer to dig ditches, or reroute rivers with dynamite. I did not know that rerouting rivers with dynamite was a thing. Use the terrain to defend your position. Think about how you might be attacked from the ground, the air, or by subterranean tunnels. Yes, that has happened so be aware.
2) First, send scouts to your location to feed you information. Build a plan, don’t just roll everyone in to Advancing Mermaid at the same time, because then you could all be wiped out at once. Security must sweep and clean the area. A quick reaction force can assist if needed.
3) Secure your perimeter with people who have guns and comms (communication via radio or some other method). Then time-phase people in, little by little, so you don’t make everyone vulnerable at one time. Don’t send leaders in together. Stagger everyone. Safety is paramount when creating and defending your base!
4) Then start dividing your area into wedge shaped pie pieces with identifiable edges. Azimuths and landmarks are needed so everyone is clear about their area to defend. If there is an area you can’t see, decide how you will handle it, like maybe with a barricade, or land mines (!), or pushing the perimeter out so you can see the edge. You need to make these decisions. “Everyone becomes an artist,” he explains. You can tell that he likes the strategizing part of this. It’s like he’s describing how to play chess.
5) Stagger your weapons placement. Don’t put all the heavy stuff in one place – like your Claymores and mortars. Consider knock-down power, and killing ability and figure out where things will have the best use. Spread things out.
6) Build your area up. After the big pie wedges, create smaller ones and make sure there is overlap so everything is covered. You don’t want guys madly swinging their weapons to and fro, all over the place. You want to be able to say, your area is between the broken tree, and that big rock over there, and that’s it.
7) Do not forget things coming at you from the air. “I don’t think anyone here has anti-aircraft guns,” says Luntz, “but if you do… hey, I want one!” He and everyone else gives a good laugh. He then points out that you can bring down an aircraft with small weapons fire, if you have enough people to do it. You can find out about this on the internet. “And they say it’s against the Geneva Conventions, but if we’ve got Russians or U.N. troops dropping in here…” “I’m fuckin’ shooting ‘em!” a voice interrupts from the crowd. More laughter.
8) Law enforcement will shut down cell phones and power, so think of other ways to send messages like with signal mirrors, or lasers. Low tech is a huge advantage. Passwords, color codes, signals, or known locations for message drops should be used. Technology can be monitored and disabled.
9) Remember, just because they have drones, doesn’t mean we can’t have drones. They are expensive and cost $1500 apiece. But they will give you a live feed of what’s happening for 12 minutes. That remark makes me realize we are talking about reconnaissance and spying-type drones, not missile type drones. The cheaper aerial drones give you less time to record, and it’s not a live feed. You have to download the video. The quad copter style is the best performer in high winds, but you need two people to operate it to make it “combat effective.” I learn that there is a drone here at this event, and someone who can operate it! I also sense some mixed feelings about drones in general.
10) You can see a cigarette from a mile away, and “that gives the enemy a head shot.” So there’s another way that smoking can kill you.
11) In Alaska the road system is limited, and if supply routes are held “by the wrong people,” we will have to go across land. Traveling 10 miles in a day with a pack, and pulling a sled is a huge thing. It can take weeks to travel from place to place. Leave small caches of food, fuel, and a water filter for yourself in places where you can find them on your route. It doesn’t need to be much to make a huge difference in survivability. Someone chimes in and suggests leaving yourself baby wipes, and everyone agrees. “It boosts your morale,” he says, “It’s nice to feel fresh.”
12) The harsh reality is that you may at some point need to evacuate Advancing Mermaid, “because you want to live.” So, have a rendezvous point and time for people to meet and arrive as close to that exact time as you can so you’re not just sitting around, like a duck.
13) Some people have a gun in every room in their homes, just in case. Or a picture frame or mirror that you can open and there’s a gun rack behind it.
14) Be careful when you shoot in your home because a shotgun blast can go through two interior walls and lodge in the exterior wall. Know where people are and what rooms are connected. You can also get special home defense ammo that will only hit a person and not go through a wall. Air Marshals use this on airplanes so they don’t shoot through the wall of the plane and depressurize it if they need to kill someone.
15) You can create fencing with felled spruce. Chop the limbs off and leave the jagged stumps. An older bearded man pipes up, “I did that at my house, and everyone says ‘Why’d you do that?’ and I says, ‘Try to get accrossed it!’” Point taken, older bearded man. Point taken.
Lunch time. I’m having PB&J. I feel like a camper.
I lick the remnants of peanut butter off the plastic picnic knife, and cut my tongue. I feel like a bad, lame camper.
But, there is good news! I have seen the drone! A man parked next to me in a white pickup truck opened a large hard plastic case, and took the drone out of it. It is black and has lots of propellers. I wonder what it will be like.
The Big Tent
Time for the next session. But this one is not just a lecture. Something is going to happen… a mission! Major Rick asks how many people will be participating and counts hands. There are 16, which means four squads of four, which is two companies – Alpha and Bravo.
It will be focusing on basic formations, to give people an idea of what it actually feels like to move in wedges and staggered columns, and other configurations, instead of just looking at drawings, or YouTube videos. People will learn, if they don’t already know, how to move as a unit both in open country and in narrow wooded paths.
You can work in small groups and be effective, he says. Three or four people could hold Isabel Pass with only light arms.
Now Gunny takes the floor and explains what will be happening. His voice is loud and booming. The next thing that happens is a five-minute barrage of words that sound like English, but whose meaning is completely obscure to me. Things like – tapping, and peeling off, and advantageous positions, and yelling bang bang bang, something called a FOB which I’m assuming has nothing to do with pocket watches, enemy contact on the trail, using trees and ridges, and many other things. He writes a bunch of lines and X’s on a large sheet of white paper like a football coach while he speaks.
“Okay, is everybody tracking?” he booms. A collective “yeah” goes up from the tent. “Everyone got this seared in their memory?” “Yeah!” I did not say yeah, because even though I am the nerd taking notes, I do not even know what has just been said. I opt not to raise my hand and say, “Excuse me, Sir! Can you repeat that please? I don’t get it.” I will just be following along behind, so as long as I stay out of the way, I’m hoping it won’t matter that I have no clue what is actually happening.
Everyone must now leave to go drop off the clips from their rifles, and make sure they are disabled with zip ties so they are inoperable. I am relieved by this information. They are allowed to keep a loaded sidearm, but they are absolutely not to use it “unless you get mauled by a bear or shit-stomped by a moose,” Gunny says. This seems reasonable to me.
Everyone is ready, and moves en masse to the large open area next to where the cars are parked. They move across the field in wedge shaped formations, like migrating geese, and drop when Gunny yells, “DROP!” Noah the Ammo Dog loves this drill, and is running up and down the field wearing his camo pouches, and visiting the fallen troops wagging his tail.
I hear from a man named Jim who seems to know, that we will not be seeing the drone demonstration after all, because “the guy forgot the cord or something.”
It’s always the cord…
Alpha company then moves off down one of the four-wheeler trails and in to the woods. I stay with Bravo company to be their war photographer. I do this mostly because Noah the Ammo Dog is in Bravo company, and I like him and want to be on his team.
Bravo Company stakes out an area on the dirt road at the edge of the woods to wait. Four wheelers, with people who have come for a weekend ride, zip past on the trail, and without fail everyone does a double take when they see guys in camo holding AR-15s and wearing side arms lurking in the bushes, or standing vigilant at the edge of the road.
“I could see where this could be intimidating if you just came out here to go four-wheeling,” one of the militia members confesses sheepishly.
A few moments later, as if to affirm this sentiment, three four-wheelers stop on the trail at a high point overlooking Bravo Company. They are not sure which trail they want to take. A woman’s voice comes over the ridge, “Um, you guys? We’re surrounded by crazy people with guns, ok? So, can we just like, move now?” They do.
Another group comes from the other side a few minutes later, led by a woman with her small daughter sitting in front of her. She looks at me, and says, “Y’all ok? Are we good?”
“Yes, yes it’s fine,” I say, smiling.
“You’re taking pictures of this?” she asks me, looking at the cameras around my neck, and probably my lack of firearms.
“Yes, you can go ahead, it’s fine,” I reiterate, trying to be as casual and breezy as possible, as though this situation is perfectly normal and happens every day, and the group passes quickly through.
I have felt mostly like an outsider until this point. But speaking for the group even in this minimal way, and being, for all intents and purposes a member of it was disorienting. Suddenly, I was part of the “crazy people with guns.” And I realized that even by this point, it all didn’t seem as strange as it had only yesterday. I’d chatted with these guys, and listened to their conversations, and heard the safety measures, and read the sheet about the strict weapons policy for the event, and knew the rifles were empty and disabled with zip ties, and that nobody was to shoot anything unless there was shit-stomping or mauling by a wild animal happening. And I knew that when they encountered the enemy, they would literally be yelling “BANG! BANG!” into the woods instead of shooting anything.
But I also realized that this woman knew none of that. And Bravo company probably looked completely terrifying, and I was probably the least terrifying because I had cameras and was wearing a shirt from The Gap, but still I was part of the terrifying people. And a little short circuit occurred in my brain. I got a very small taste of what it feels like to be feared, even when I wasn’t dangerous, but also knew that if I was on a four-wheeler, I’d be freaked out if I came upon this scene I was now in. I figured the best thing to do was smile a lot at passing motorists. Big smiles, with teeth. I noticed that a few of the others would give a little nod and a small smile as well.
It seemed like we were waiting a long time for Alpha Company to meet their fate. And then David Luntz, who was orchestrating this exercise came over to talk.
“Well, what do you think?” Luntz is affable, and soft-spoken with a soothing voice, and a chestnut colored beard. He’s the sort of guy you’d have over for a barbeque or a beer.
“I’m definitely learning a lot,” I said. “But it’s taking a little getting used to.”
“This is all about networking, you know? It’s about getting to know people. Like, I’m up in Delta Junction, but now that we’ve had the event down here, I’ve met new people. And if I’m ever in Anchorage and get a flat tire, I know people I can call.”
“I’m glad there’s no ammo,” I said.
“No, no, no…” he replied. “We don’t want accidents here. We want people to be safe, and learn, and have a good time. If we had the money, we could use blanks sometimes, but this is a self-funded operation.”
“Can’t blanks cause damage too?” I wondered aloud.
“Funny you should say that,” he said with a chuckle, taking off his glove and showing me a scar on the palm of his hand. “I got that from a blank.”
I looked at the scar, “Someone shot you in the hand?”
“Yeah,” he said sort of sheepishly. “Back when I was a private.”
“What happened?” I wanted to know.
“Well, I was wearing a pair of leather gloves with wool liners, and so I wanted to see if the leather glove would stop the blank. So I put my hand on the end of my rifle and shot.”
“You shot yourself on purpose? What could go wrong?” I smiled.
He laughed. “Yeah, privates are stupid.”
He told me that the militia he commands, the Central Alaska Militia, is totally self-supporting, and that all the guns and equipment that I saw had been paid for out of pocket by militia members themselves. His militia collects $25 a year in dues, and uses the money to buy things like the big tent we were in earlier.
I mentioned to him my observation that despite some major political differences, that the progressive left, and the far right actually had some important things in common concerning issues of civil liberties, NSA spying, engagement in foreign wars, the importance of independent media, rights to privacy, and pushing back against corporatism.
“Yes!” he said. “I agree. But people on both sides like to stick in their corners. But if we stick in our corners, we’ll all go down together.”
I said that I had learned this weekend that we can come together on other issues as well – nobody likes camping in the rain, and everyone loves their dogs, and indoor plumbing. “We should basically be singing kumbaya right now,” I said and he gave a big smile.
Suddenly we hear noises like firecrackers coming from down the trail. Alpha company had been ambushed! I could tell it wasn’t gunfire, but it made a loud hissing, crackling noise, whatever it was. Shortly, Alpha company came back down the trail looking a little dejected, and Bravo Company gave them a quiet supportive cheer and a golf clap.
Now it was Bravo Company’s turn to head into the forest of doom.
“You can go down there and take pictures if you want,” Luntz said.
I turned back to him as I walked down the trail. “David Luntz, I do believe you are sending me into an ambush!” He laughed.
The trail was lovely, lined with tall thin birches and spruce, and beautiful dappled light. Noah was on a leash at this point, pulling up the rear while Andy was out in front. We walked for a while, silent and stealthy, scanning the trees, looking backward on the trail, hyper-alert and focused like ninjas.
Noah sensed the ambush before we did. He laid down on the trail, chin on paws, and gave out a little whistling whine. Moments later, there was the crackling sound again from up ahead. “Shit,” called Andy in disappointment from the front of the formation. “Contact left! Contact left! Contact right!” He came running back down the trail quickly, followed by several others who took up position on the side of the trail. He’d been looking at the high ground, a suspicious ridge where the enemy might be hiding out of sight. And in looking up, he’d neglected to also look down, and had set off a trip wire, triggering the crackling noise.
“Bang! Bang! Bang! Pow! Powpowpowpow!” People shouted gun sounds into the trees, and out from the trees. There were shouts from everywhere.
A few minutes after that, our nemeses came out of their hiding places. We have seen the enemy, and they are us, only now instead of just the camo they left in, they sported bright blue berets on their heads – except for Camo Guy who was back in his full ghillie suit. I expected no less.
“Damn! I knew it was gonna be the blue helmets!” someone in Bravo Company said laughing.
It struck me after a second that the “blue helmet” reference was a political one.
“Well, I don’t know what you mean!” said Gunny, feigning ignorance of the reference. “Why, blue is a symbol of peace throughout the world!” This was perhaps for my benefit. There was chuckling.
We gathered around and debriefed about the trip wire, and about the importance of looking up and looking down. Andy was disappointed in himself that he’d been the one to trip the wire. “That’s why we do this,” Gunny said. “That’s why we practice this stuff. That happens. Now you’ll all know next time.”
We did learn that we were much quieter and stealthier than Alpha Company. Camo Guy said that he’d actually seen us before he heard us, even though we had a dog. We beamed with pride. I asked Noah, “Who’s a good boy?” and scratched his ears.
Both groups joined to discuss the exercise once we got back to camp.
Dinner time. I am glad I survived the ambush, but it was tiring anyway. Another survivalist cheater’s meal of leftover fried rice.
Inside the Perimeter
It’s time for a self-defense class from Major Rick, with wooden stakes in the place of swords. I have to say, I did not see the sword fighting part coming. I learn that if you make your opponent believe that your thigh is vulnerable, you can execute a quick three-step maneuver wherein you sever his leg tendons by surprise, allowing you to then eviscerate him, and quickly follow up by removing his head.
19:25 The Operations Tent
Mikel said earlier that he was around if I felt like chatting, and we spent a nice time talking about the militias. He is the commander of the Alaska Municipal Defense Force, an Anchorage militia that has been in existence for three years. He was the one who signed me in yesterday, and is happy to talk about the purpose of his militia. “It’s all about uniting as Alaskans,” he says. “Alaska is prone to all kinds of natural disasters – tsunamis and earthquakes and floods and fires. We want to keep people safe.”
He vets potential members, he says, first with a phone interview from the chaplain, Captain Nick, who is a non-denominational minister. “We are open to all faiths,” he says, and the chaplain’s job is to provide counseling and foster moral character. If the potential candidate passes muster, they’ll then have a face-to-face meeting with Mikel, and if that goes well they will be invited to hang out with the militia, which meets every Wednesday for training exercises. They also do a “light background check” of prospective members for criminal history, and to make sure that they are not “too overeager, or aggressive towards the government.” They understand if people have “made a mistake,” he says, “but if someone cannot legally possess a firearm, or has a consistent history of criminal activity, this is not someone we are interested in having in the group.” The Anchorage Municipal Defense Force has 15 full-time core members who act as leadership and train other volunteers.
I ask him why, if he is interested in being in a militia to help people in natural disasters, he did not sign up for the State militia, The Alaska State Defense Force. “It’s essential for citizens to have a militia that is apart from the state,” he says. “We need to make sure that when the government does respond, they don’t abuse it. And private, local militias can truly serve local interests. The state focuses on the state, but we focus on individual communities. We are well-regulated, and autonomous. We want to partner with other groups, like shelters, and the Red Cross, and the American Heart Association, and preferably non-governmental organizations.”
He pauses for a second and looks at me earnestly, “Do you feel like we’ve been acting in a professional manner?” he asks, and appears concerned. I told him yes.
We talked about the perceptions of the public concerning militias after the Schaeffer Cox trial, and the recent blowback about people open carrying in public and how that is perceived by people outside his world. He acknowledged that the militias have some work to do to improve their public image. “All we can do to change that perception is to educate people as best we can, and to keep doing positive things. We don’t want to scare people, we want to teach them who we are.”
I mentioned the woman on the four-wheeler earlier in the day who was freaked out, and he looked a little dismayed. But overall Mikel, a former manager of a Best Buy store, retains an upbeat and optimistic attitude.
It’s late now and I’m getting ready to sleep. As I sit here typing in the front passenger’s seat, a group of 10 adults and one child have begun to cross the open space toward the perimeter. Noah the Ammo Dog throws his head back and lets out a good wolf howl as they approach, and runs over to greet them. “He’s really friendly! He’s really nice!” calls Andy who is one of the two guards on patrol now.
Camo man is nearby, still in full ghillie suit. I can tell he likes wearing the ghillie suit, and everyone likes when he does. He’s like a big awesome seaweed monster.
“Oh, my gahhhhhd!” a woman calls out. She appears to have been drinking, and is holding a large bright pink cup with a lid and a straw that one might imagine contained some kind of cocktail. It matches the color of her bright pink jacket. “This is really difffficullt!” she says too loudly in our general direction. “I don’t know whether I should just laugh, or get a picture of you! I feel like I’m at Disneyland!”
I feel defensive of Camo man for a minute, and am overcome with the desire to explain to this ignorant drunken women how the ghillie suit is the best kind of camouflage and why. “It can make you look wider than a human being so you are not recognizable to the enemy! It has no definitive lines and can render you virtually invisible!” I want to call out my window, as this is happening directly in front of my car. Camo man says she can have a picture with him if she wants, and the group sends over several members to pose with him.
“This is just so… Alaska!” the drunken woman declares to no one in particular.
The pre-teen boy in the gathering picks up a longish stick from the ground and starts making automatic weapon fire noises, pretending to mow down his group.
They drift away, slowly weaving across the open area toward a column of thick black smoke that has begun to rise from behind several parked RVs, which are not with the militia – an area where there have also just been vigorous and prolonged bursts of gunfire. The smoke does not look like campfire smoke, and there is a lot of it. This is apparently party central on Saturday night. Anarchy by the pond.
This Saturday is also Solsice night, and even though it is midnight, you can easily read a book with no artificial light. Cars and trucks and jeeps filled with hooting people file past our encampment. Last night, the patrol was a little off-putting but tonight, with all the inebriated cavorting, and gunfire, and smoke, I’m actually glad there will be people circling the perimeter. The shift has changed, and Noah the Ammo dog is probably slumbering in his little blue tent.
I am going to try to sleep now. It’s been a long day. David Luntz is on patrol, but seems to be walking throughout the encampment, and not just the perimeter.
I am awakened by the bright, warm, morning sun streaming in the car window. The rain clouds are gone and the sky is blue and clear, with only a few high horsetail clouds. I check the time and it seems very quiet in camp considering it’s so late.
David Luntz sees that I’m up and moving and comes over to the car. He asks how I did last night, and did I sleep alright. I tell him I slept fine after the gunfire subsided. He shakes his head, and points over in the direction of the former column of smoke last night.
“So I just want to point out that those people over there are ‘average citizens’ with guns, and it’s the people here in the militia who know what they’re doing and are acting responsibly. That was a dangerous situation over there last night. You don’t want to mix alcohol and firearms like that. And they were burning tires too – crazy stuff. But I think that’s how people see us…”
“Is that what that big column of smoke was?” I ask.
“Yeah. We actually sent someone over there to check it out because we thought there might have been a vehicle on fire. That was an unsafe situation. Those people were not acting responsibly… That’s why we had the roving guard last night instead of walking the perimeter. There were vehicles driving close by, and checking us out and we’ve got a lot of people and expensive equipment here.”
11:00 Inside the Perimeter then Outside the Perimeter
This morning started off with another self-defense class, put on by David Luntz’s son, also named David Luntz, who is a martial arts expert. I learned what to do when someone sneaks up and grabs you from behind, or comes at you menacingly with a hand on the shoulder. The keys to putting someone in a world of hurt, apparently, are nose, solar plexus, and groin. The bending of thumbs and elbows in directions they were not made to go can also give you an advantage. I learned a fancy trick to swat a knife out of someone’s hands, but it is easier to do with a larger knife than a plastic picnic knife. But don’t scoff and think you can’t get hurt with a plastic picnic knife. I did that yesterday at lunch. Just ask my tongue.
Mikel was my partner, and much bigger than me so I had to stand on tiptoe and reach up when I was attacking him from behind, but we had fun twisting each other’s arms until we fell in the dirt, and pretending to crack each other’s skulls into our kneecaps, and slow motion severing each other’s spinal columns with our deadly elbows.
Here’s one way you can do that. You’re welcome.
The next classes involved food preparation and storage, and how to maintain your Individual First Aid Kit (IFAK), and Splints and Tourniquets. I was looking forward to these, but I got sidetracked and missed them completely. But I will tell you the reason I got sidetracked, and what shiny object did that to me. THE DRONE.
Yes, the drone is back! The missing cable was retrieved, and the drone was activated to do a flyby of the knife fighting class. “Don’t look at the drone!” David Luntz senior instructed everyone. “And don’t shoot the drone!” someone else called as everyone laughed. The drone sounds like a swarm of angry hornets, and has a camera attached to it, which is operated via remote control. The person operating the drone has special goggles that show what the camera is seeing. The drone is very, very awesome. I would like a drone.
Josh the drone guy is Mikel’s friend, and is a general contractor who uses his drone for all kinds of things like before and after shots of construction projects, and movies. Today he will be shooting footage for a promotional video about the Anchorage Municipal Defense Force to spark interest and recruitment.
I follow along again to the location of the mission in the woods yesterday, so that a half dozen militia members – all in full camo with rifles – can do some formations and running through the woods, and the drone can film it. I get to look through the goggles and at the monitor in the lid of the hard case, which shows what the camera is seeing.
At one point there’s another four-wheeler coming down the trail, and I brace for the raised eyebrows and wide eyes and searching looks I got yesterday. It’s a guy in his 30s with a 5 or 6 year old boy wearing a helmet sitting in front of him.
“Hey, that looks like fun!” he says with envy.
Back Inside the Perimeter
By the time we get back from the filming, there are people already starting to take down their tents and pack up equipment, and I begin to do the same.
David Luntz comes over to say goodbye and gives me a quick interview.
“Everybody out there in Mudflats World should have a love of freedom, and liberty, and protecting their rights,” he says, as he puts his parting message out.
He hugs me and thanks me for taking the time to come out and see for myself what the militia is all about.
I found Mikel, and thanked him for his hospitality, and for letting me smash him in the groin, and crack his skull and throw him down in the mud. He said I’d done very well. He reiterated that he hoped I found the event to have been run in a professional manner, and confessed that there were a few people in the group who had some misgivings, and worries about what I was going to say.
“All I’m going to do is to say what happened, and what I saw,” I said. And that seemed to be good enough for him. “You should come out and join us some Wednesday in Anchorage when we meet!” he said as a final good-bye.
Then I went over to the group of organizers who were sitting in camp chairs by the Operations Tent to thank them for having me. Gunny asked if I’d had a good time, and I told him I had a surprisingly good one. This made everyone in the little circle beam.
Tamara, the guard who broke it to me about the bathroom situation leaned in and said, “I kept my eye on you every night, you know.” And I remembered her smiling and waving at me as I typed in the car when she was on patrol. I thanked her a lot, and told the group about how my perception of the patrol changed from Friday to Saturday night, which they liked.
“That’s why we did that,” said Major Rick, looking over to Kamp Krazy on the other side of the lot. “People can get a little out of hand sometimes.”
And I also thanked them for being so friendly, especially to someone that they knew probably didn’t share their political views. I went through my usual info share about how progressives and Tea Partiers have more in common than you might think at first.
Gunny piped up in his growly baritone, “We may have differing opinions, you know. But you tell me what you think and I’ll tell you what I think and let’s talk about it, and talk about why we feel the way we do. People on each side just shut down and don’t want to talk to each other. We need to talk, and we need to listen. And hey, thank you for coming out, and actually doing this, and giving it a shot.”
“Speaking of that,” I said, “Is there going to be any shooting or any target practice or anything?”
It was explained to me that there was a range set up in a nearby gravel pit, and there was also a range master, and targets, but that it had gotten late, and there was still a lot of take-down to do, and that it wasn’t going to happen.
“Next time!” they said.
I pulled out of my parking space and around the little string with the pink tape flags. I had exited the perimeter. I passed by the little pond of anarchy, and the cluster of RV’s that had caused all the ruckus last night with the fire, and the hail of bullets. And as I did, it struck me that despite the hours last night of continual gunfire, the Militia had not fired a single shot the entire time.
I rolled down my windows and blasted some Mozart, as a soundtrack to the incredible Alaska mountain vistas. The weekend was not what I’d expected. Granted, there is always the reporter’s equivalent of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – the act of observation, by its nature, will change the events being observed. It actually makes more sense to me thinking of it in terms of human nature than physics. So, I’ll never know how much of what I heard was for my own benefit. And I cannot know what happened when I wasn’t around, and I don’t know who didn’t come to this event. I have no doubt that there are scary people out there in the woods, and they are likely not the ones to show up and socialize at a public event where they have to sign in, and there are people with cameras around. If the militia movement hopes to win over the hearts and minds of the average citizen, it will be up to them to keep those people out of their organizations, and to police themselves. They will have to stay vigilant to the threat caused by the dangerous rogues and lone wolves of which they may become aware. A couple signs on the trails to reassure people they’re entering a harmless training exercise with no ammunition might not hurt either. And bathroom facilities.
But I can say, I left with a much better feeling about the militias than I started with. They could have easily ignored me, or asked me to leave, or given me a hard time. But they didn’t. They were welcoming, and kind, and fun, and willing to talk. And that’s something. And for Americans who lament the growing political and philosophical divisions in our country, that’s really the beginning of everything.