My Dad was a good man, but for me, his goodness has nothing to do with his work at the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). In fact, my regard for the professionals at JSOC and the critically important and dangerous missions they execute behind the scenes produces powerfully mixed feelings for me. That’s because, in addition to reverence and respect, I also felt jealous loathing for JSOC for 37 years.
I was 10 years old when my family moved to Fort Bragg, NC in 1982. Prior to that I had spent time with Dad in Indian Guides, he had coached my soccer team when we lived in Germany in the 4th grade, and I have other fond early childhood memories of him. But that all changed soon after moving to Fayetteville, NC. He was gone, excessively and from my perspective, this continued until his death in 2012. I knew three things: Dad worked for JSOC, he had an important and sensitive job and he enjoyed his work.
Dad never talked about work and we never asked. This was part of the culture of my family. At age 12 or 13 I asked Dad why he had to be gone so much. I missed him and told him so. He explained that his job required it. When I asked if he could get another job he told me his truth: “I like being where the action is.” This stung and sunk in deeply. It told me at that young age that “being with my family is not as important as being where the action is.” That is not to say he wasn’t an affectionate man, because he was. He always hugged and kissed my sister and me and lavished affection onto Mom all the time. He was good-looking, a lot of fun to be around, he was gregarious with a quick wit—and never short on quips. Affection and a sense of humor were part of the culture of my family.
The words “I love you” were spoken regularly and often in my family. But as his young son, these were mixed messages. I thought if he loved us just a little bit more, he might choose to be with us over his job. For me, despite all the love and affection, his continued lack of presence made it clear where the priority was: JSOC. He loved us… just not quite enough to want to be with us. Over time, it became the norm for him to not be around. And in time, I stopped telling him that I missed him and wished he would be at home more. That just wasn’t going to change and anytime I brought it up, I could sense the conflict he felt. It hurt him and that was the last thing I wanted to do. Also, it hurt to know that when push came to shove, his family ranked 2nd to JSOC. Again, mixed messages. He loved us so much that it pained him to be reminded that we wanted him home; but not so much so that anything changed. This was part of the culture of my family.
Whenever he was home, I did my best to absorb everything about him: like lapping up puddles of water in a scorched desert. I paid careful attention to everything he said and did, whether he was talking to me or anyone else: the subject, his tone, word choice, voice inflection as well as every nuance, mannerism, and non-verbal communication. Because of the nature of the JSOC mission, I only recall seeing Dad in uniform a few times and the first time I saw him in his dress uniform was at his retirement ceremony in 1991. I was 18 or 19 and in college, living in Fayetteville only in the summer. At the ceremony, Dad made a point to thank Mom. With a bit of pained emotion, he said: “She basically raised my kids on her own.”
And this shocked me. Not because it wasn’t true, because it certainly was. It shocked me because it told me he was aware and thought about us. We mattered. I hadn’t much felt like his son, though I desperately wanted to. But when he said “my kids,” he had claimed us. And for a flashing moment, I felt like his son.
I joined the military for many reasons, but foremost because I wanted to have a connection with Dad. It was the only way I knew how. I tried to enlist in the Army right after High School, but he refused to support it and I was still 17, too young to sign up without parental consent. The ensuing argument was the first time he ever swore at me. He emphasized that there wasn’t much of a future in learning how to kill people. What would I do once I was a civilian? He also emphasized that, although he liked his job, he would always have to work for the government. He wanted me to have the freedom of other options.
Being a “military brat” and living just outside of Fort Bragg, the Army in general, and JSOC in particular, dominated my life and affected every aspect of it. It had taken my Dad, forced my Mom to raise her kids alone, and dictated where we lived. Fayetteville, the town just outside of Fort Bragg, is itself saturated with all things Army, the 82nd Airborne, and Special Operations. Soldiers are everywhere, and Fort Bragg is huge with a thriving local economy that caters to Soldiers and their families.
So when Dad tried talking me out of joining, I couldn’t envision living any version of life without serving at least 4 years in the military. When I insisted on joining, he eventually said (and I’m paraphrasing here): “Get your degree first and then I don’t care what you do, but if you go in—go in as an officer.” It’s only in hindsight that I see he wanted what all parents want for their kids: a better life. I didn’t see it that way at the time.
Eventually, nursing checked all of the boxes. It was a noble profession, sought after by the Army, and it would be my job to save lives, not take them. After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 1996, I went back to the Army to join. At that time, they were conducting a Reduction in Force (RIF) and were RIFing nurses, which is how I ended up joining the Air Force instead. I’ll never forget the Army recruiter telling me: “The Army is making a big mistake and is going to regret it in 10 years.” I ended up joining the Army 10 years later and that recruiter could not have been MORE right. But that’s another story.
I started working as a civilian staff nurse in a 26-suite (if I remember correctly) Operating Room (OR) at Carolinas Medical Center, a Level I Trauma Center, in Charlotte, NC—specializing in neurosurgery. I worked there two years before joining the USAF, as they required at least a year of experience before they would take me as an OR nurse. I took my work seriously and sought out the hardest jobs. But no matter what I did, in my mind, it was never enough. When I was in the Air Force, I was embarrassed that I wasn’t in the Army. I volunteered to deploy twice—but knew I could never stack up to Dad. I had no idea how many times he deployed, they were too numerous to count and always ongoing. No matter how technically skilled I was, how good I was at my job, or how hard I worked, it would never be Special Operations.
While in the Air Force, I switched places with someone for a deployment to an undisclosed location in May 2003. I assumed it was to Iraq. After signing the NDA, imagine my surprise and embarrassment to find out we were going to Guam as part of a military buildup to keep an eye on the North Koreans during the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq. After that disappointingly uneventful deployment, I was again able to switch places with someone tapped to deploy to Iraq in 2004. I felt equal parts thankful and guilty that we were only there 4 months, while the Marines did 7-month deployments at the time, the Army did 12 months (or more), and some National Guard units did that, or more, as well. Added to this were my own guilt and conflicting feelings about being away from home. I too was choosing this. I was choosing to be away from my wife and kids.
After more than 10 years as an OR nurse, I was simultaneously burned out and wanted to do something more operational. I resolved to leave nursing and sought out how to become an intelligence officer. At the time, the only way to switch jobs in the Air Force was to separate from Active Duty through a program called Palace Front and find a unit willing to take me in and train me in a new job in the Reserves. In 2005, a new unit, the 710th Combat Operations Squadron, (710th COS) was being stood up and they were looking for Intelligence Officers. After a series of in-person and telephonic interviews, I was ultimately accepted as a 14N1 (Intelligence Officer). The plan was to separate from Active Duty and within a few weeks be back on temporary Active Duty to complete the 9-month training in Goodfellow AFB TX. Once completed, I would look for a civilian intelligence job at Fort Bragg, NC while serving as an Air Force Reservist in the 710th COS based in Langley AFB, VA.
But that’s not how it worked out. During the series of interviews, I was repeatedly asked if there was going to be any internal conflict because of my previous nursing experience. A primary duty of the position was to be a targeteer, which involved planning and coordinating bombardment attacks. I would have to accept the possibility of collateral damage. This was emphasized because someone with a medical background in the unit had experienced issues. I told myself, and my superiors, that I would be perfect for the job because I would work that much harder to ensure meticulous and careful execution of my duties.
For some administrative reason, my active duty orders for intel school didn’t go through. My boss was frustrated because it would delay my school start date and he was anxious to build his team. Then there was another delay and another. At one point he said to me, “I don’t understand this, I’ve never seen this happen before” and whatever it was—it happened at least a few times. Every delay pushed my entry back by a few months. So much for a smooth transition into the Reserves.
A series of weird coincidences occurred over that time of waiting for my orders. I’d overhear someone talking, see a picture, read a sign, or hear a word as if saying to me: “You’re supposed to be a nurse, you’re not here to kill, you’re here to help.” I pushed these away for weeks and months. But at that time, thoughts of collateral damage started to bubble up inside me. The movie Munich came out in theaters and when I watched it, I was struck by the portrayal of an endless cycle of violence. Violence itself wasn’t solving any problems beyond physical survival. Violence, or the threat of violence, is essential in providing security which is essential in creating a space for problems beyond physical survival to be solved. This is the space where cultures and civilizations are advanced.
I had seen trauma many times as an OR nurse. While in Iraq, we treated everybody that came through our unit: including enemy combatants. In fact, one of the last OR cases we did was to stabilize an insurgent who had inadvertently blown himself up trying to attack us. Was it really who I am to now make a career of finding the most effective ways to kill these people? Again, this coincided with feeling not good enough and not fitting in. There just didn’t seem to be a place for me. After several months of waiting and continued delays, I eventually accepted that whatever I was going to do… being an intelligence officer wasn’t part of it. With a great sense of shame, I self-eliminated from my slot in the 710th COS. I felt I’d let the unit down (which I did), myself down, and even worse, my chance to be more like Dad. I let it slip through my fingers. I was so close.
It was difficult for me to tell my Dad but I did. At the same time, I didn’t want him thinking I judged him or anyone else for what they did. Because I didn’t then and don’t now. I don’t envy those that kill in service to our country but am grateful that they do what they do. It’s ugly… but at times necessary. It’s just at the end of the day, it wasn’t what I was supposed to do. Dad understood and respected my decision. That meant a great deal to me.
So I went back into nursing, first again briefly as a civilian, and then ultimately joining the Army in January 2007. I started the process in the Fall of 2006, almost exactly 10 years after the first Army recruiter’s prophetic words. Again, I threw myself into my work. I was subsequently in charge of ORs in Fort Irwin, Iraq, and Fort Bragg, NC. Each of those experiences built upon the others but culminated personally with Womack Army Medical Center at Bragg. It was there, and on my second trip to Iraq, that I most felt the kinship of comradery (a story for another time).
When I first moved to Fort Bragg in 2010, Dad was deployed to Afghanistan. He returned late one night and I went to the airport to pick him up. The first thing I said to him was: “I love you Dad, you look like shit.” He looked like a tired gnome. His skin was gray and hung from him like rags. He looked physically and emotionally contracted… diminished as a human being. It’s easily seen in the eyes: a paradoxically piercing and tired glare, yet part of the gaze is somewhere else, not in the here and now. My first thought was: “He’s not going to live much longer.” My next thought was: “Surely people in his unit see this, why doesn’t somebody at JSOC intervene?” He was dying before my eyes. He was literally working himself to death.
“Dad, you need to take care of yourself.”
I visited him every weekend that he was home. In the back of my mind, I resolved to savor whatever time he had left. We talked about family life but also some about his experiences in Somalia. Years before, Mom had told me that he’d never been the same since his return from there in 1993. I talked to him about PTSD, survivor’s guilt, and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). I wanted him to understand that there were terms for the things he was describing because they can all be treated. He heard me out but didn’t listen. He was too far gone.
So the following year, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, it shouldn’t have surprised me. As a kid of 8 or 9, I remember being shown pictures at school of lungs of smokers, the risk of cancer, and heart disease. I sobbed to Mom about it and begged Dad to stop smoking. I’d throw away his cigarettes wherever I found them until Dad eventually put a stop to that. I then resorted to carefully breaking each one and returning them to the pack until Dad put a stop to that too.
Dad lived 4-5 months after his diagnosis. Of course, JSOC was there. JSOC was both a tremendous blessing and a curse. So many people came to see him and stayed with him, while also giving Mom, my sister, and me our time and space with Dad. For the first time, I saw faces to what had only been a faceless acronym since childhood. JSOC was a blessing for many reasons. I saw that the JSOC folks genuinely cared about Dad. They provided wonderful support.
But I also saw who his real family was. And it wasn’t us. Despite outward appearances and my wishes for it to be otherwise, we weren’t really a family anymore and hadn’t been in many years. I was 39 years old at the time and much more a visitor to my Mom, Dad, and sister and they seldom, if ever, visited me or my family. At the time, I didn’t understand what I was feeling. It was a new kind of pain. I’m an introvert but had no issues speaking in front of people. I did it every day in my various jobs for the Army. I’d spent 16 years in ORs making hard decisions and performing under pressure. But at Dad’s eulogy, I really struggled and couldn’t do anything but cry-talking. It happened again when JSOC memorialized him. I couldn’t keep it together.
I didn’t understand why at the time, speaking had never been an issue and this was more than just grief getting in the way. I see now that it was because I didn’t believe whatever words I was forcing myself to say. And that wasn’t me: I had always spoken from the heart: to my wife, my kids, my patients, my soldiers, and civilians. I lost my “voice” in May 2012 and writing this is a part of getting it back.
With the clarity of hindsight, I see that I became that 12-year-old boy again–a son that wanted his Dad to be in his life. I was feeling the most personal of pain, striking at the core of my being, as was my Mom and sister. Yet I was to bear that pain in front of the strangers of JSOC and in my own family. It was painfully clear who Dad’s family was and it was JSOC. I wanted to say: “My Dad was a great man, I wish I’d gotten more of him in my life. But instead, he consistently chose to spend it working at JSOC rather than be with my Mom, my sister, and me. He eventually fell into a self-destructive spiral, catalyzed by devoting his life to JSOC, suffered from PTSD, survivor’s guilt, and possibly TBI until he finally worked himself to death.”
We forge familial ties through the trials of adversity. It can happen outside of the military but often occurs in military service. It happened to me. As it did, I struggled with it. Was I betraying my own wife and kids (…that’s yet another story)? The point is, when I saw the interactions between JSOC folks and Dad, I got it. I understood how and why it happens. I also understood where I fit into that equation. We were a side gig in Dad’s life and JSOC was the Main Event. Any chance of changing that was gone. I didn’t know him nearly as well as I would have liked. I felt like a stranger at his funeral.
Years before, when Charlie Faint (owner of The Havok Journal) first told me he was going to work at JSOC, I was jealous. My first thought wasn’t: “What a great opportunity for Charlie,” it was “He’s going to be able to spend time with Dad,” something I had desperately wanted since age 10. And he did. Charlie’s dad and my dad both worked at JSOC in the 1980s. Dad continued to work at JSOC after retirement and was still working there many years later when Charlie came to JSOC as an Army Major. Charlie and my dad were founding members of JSOC’s Joint Exploitation Squadron (JES) and were the first official commander and deputy, respectively, of the JES’s CI/HUMINT Troop. While this was important work and a good experience for both of them, it was also a reminder that I’d blown my chance to get into the intelligence field via the Air Force.
That said, if Charlie hadn’t worked at JSOC he wouldn’t have been there to deliver the eulogy at my father’s memorial service, or to present the Flag to my Mom during the funeral. I was comforted in only a few instances during Dad’s 4-5 month dying process. Charlie presenting the Flag was both surreal and supremely comforting. We didn’t become brothers through our military service, or his work with my father. He was my best friend since the 8th grade. We were the same ages, each had a sister the same age, and our Dads both worked at JSOC. He took my sister to her senior prom. I was the best man at his wedding. His house was my house and vice versa. I literally grew up with him. He was my brother from childhood and the only person who, just by being there, could reach the 12-year-old me raging inside at his funeral. At the time, I’m sure he had no idea of his impact.
In writing this I’ve come to understand that I never hated JSOC. At the end of the day, it’s an organization with a mission. I was angry at Dad and hurting that he chose it over being with his family.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on November 6, 2020.
Mike Warnock is the editor-in-chief of The Havok Journal, an Air Force (USAF) veteran, and retired Army Nurse Corps officer. After working 10 years as both a civilian Operating Room (OR) nurse and USAF OR nurse, he served in the Army from 2007-2019. The majority of his 23 years of professional civilian and military service were spent in clinical nursing, which included working in several ORs, in various clinical leadership and administrative positions with two deployments to Iraq.