Having been in the Army for almost 25 years and separated from my wife and/or children for much of that time, one of my greatest pleasures these days is telling stories to them during our family dinnertime. And when I say “stories,” I mean outrageous fabrications that usually involve a kernel of truth at the center of some humorous and complicated tale of how I was “scarred for life” during imaginary trauma in my childhood. It’s the pretty typical parental “you kids don’t know how good you’ve got it these days; why back in my day” type of banter, except it’s completely made up. You know, like telling my girls a story about how my mother once punished me when I was a toddler by stripping me naked, painting me with bacon grease, and pouring a bag of puppies over my head.
You see, puppies love bacon, and they have very sharp little teeth.
Anyway, my girls love this. The way this usually works is that I’ll tell some wild story, my wife will roll her eyes, my children will, for some reason, not believe the story to be true, and then they’ll have to call the ultimate arbiter of “The Real Life Story of Dad as a Child,” my mother. Giggling, they’ll pick up the phone and dial a now-familiar number. “Grandmother, is it true that … ?” Most of the time, of course, it isn’t.
One Sunday evening my daughters called to discuss the latest alleged “scarred for life” outrage committed on me when I was a child, when my mother asked them if anything interesting happened over the weekend.
“Oh yeah, Dad totally pulled a gun on Santa yesterday, it was great,” my eldest informed her grandmother cheerfully. Now, I had done no such thing. I have literally never “pulled a gun” on anyone, Jolly Old Elf or not, in my entire life. Moreover, neither of my daughters was anywhere near the area when this alleged event may or may not have occurred, and even if I had “pulled a gun on Santa” — which I definitely did not — I also definitely did not want my children snitching on me to my mom. No one likes a tattletale, Emily. So, wide-eyed, I lunged for the handset. “Love you, bye!” my daughter shouted cheerfully as I snatched the receiver away.
But it was already too late. Getting the mental image of her grown son pulling a gun on Santa Claus in front of her granddaughters out of my mother’s head was going to require some explaining.
“Mom, just wait a minute. You see, what had happened was …”
I feel like JSOC prepared me for this.
This weekend started off no differently than any of the past years that I was an instructor at West Point. It was a cool winter day, a Saturday I think, and some big event was taking place so the traffic coming onto campus was going to be crazy. I planned on following my normal routine of staying in my home office, avoiding the crowds and working on articles for The Havok Journal, and otherwise pretending I didn’t have a stack of Pershing Essays to grade. My wife and daughters headed off to Girls on the Run so I had the place to myself. So far, situation normal.
There were some indicators that this day would be different, though. The first was that a campuswide alert had gone out, involving a “credible threat” of potential violence directed against the academy, courtesy of a posting on the social media site 4chan. Whatever. I mean, it’s 4chan, where rational internet discourse goes to die. I wasn’t all that worried. But that was still Indicator 1. Indicator 2 was an announcement that a woman had been stopped coming in the gate with a semi-auto rifle in the trunk. No further details. Now, this is a military base. Military people have guns. Military people like to shoot guns. Military people who like guns can’t shoot them on the West Point campus where they live, so they have to leave post to do it. When you drive on and off post to get to the range, which is totally legal, you put your guns in the trunk. Sometimes your vehicle gets searched coming back on post. If things are on the up and up, it’s no drama. So I wasn’t particularly worried about this bit of news, either. But still, this was odd, especially in light of the potential “credible threat.”
Then there were explosions, and what sounded like gunfire in the distance. Again, this alone would not be a cause of too much concern, because West Point is actually quite expansive, and there are live artillery and gun ranges just off of the main campus.
But then, there were the sirens. It sounded like literally every cop car, fire truck, and ambulance on West Point was just outside my neighborhood. Acoustics are weird in the wooded and hilly Stoney Lonesome neighborhood where we lived. The noise could be nothing … or it could be everything. Either way, I was taking no chances. I texted my wife, “Hey, something weird is going on up here. Sounds like gunfire and maybe explosions. Also, internet threat and woman got stopped bringing gun on campus.” But because my wife was coaching Girls on the Run, she didn’t answer.
So now, we had the public threat, we had the woman with a gun in the trunk, the gunfire and explosions, and now we had what sounded like literally every first responder on West Point converging on the same location. It doesn’t take a highly trained former Spec-Ops intelligence analyst to realize that something is amiss.
However, I am a highly trained former Spec-Ops intelligence analyst and, as it turns out, maybe slightly paranoid very security conscious. Or at least I have a very active imagination. Regardless, I did what any other self-respecting JSOC alum would do in the same situation: I prepared for the Battle of Stoney Lonesome.
What would I do if I were downrange with the Task Force? I thought to myself. Well, to be honest, if this were like just about every other mission I supported, I’d probably just sit at my desk pounding half-sized cans of Rip-It and binge-watching The Wire on the unit movie drive until the operators came back with the detainees and captured equipment, and then I’d have something to do. But that didn’t really seem appropriate in this situation. So I went to my gun safe and pulled out the best weapon I had in it: my Kimber .45.
Now a 1911 is not my weapon of choice in a situation like this, because it only holds seven rounds per magazine, and to be honest, I can’t hit anything with it. Like most people, I’m much better with a rifle, and once upon a time I had a very, very nice Colt Match Target heavy barrel AR-15. But because of the change in gun laws in New York I couldn’t bring my “good” guns into the state, so I found a good forever-home for them in Connecticut before we moved. So, the .45 it was.
The reason I had this weapon in the first place is because one of the guys who worked for me on my last deployment worked with Kimber to have specially commissioned weapons done up for our team. I’ll just say up front that a .45 wasn’t my first choice for a commissioned gun. Neither was Kimber. I wanted a carry piece, not a show piece. I wanted a concealable 9 mm, or if we got a .45 I at least wanted a double stack, like a Glock or a Para Ordnance. But we put it to a vote, and the Kimber Stainless II won.
It was that gun that I had in my hand on that fateful winter day, when Santa came to town.
… a few of my favorite things
Some of the operators in the Task Force carried .45s. I was not one of them. I am not an operator, I’m an intel guy. My job was on the FOB. On the rare times I did go outside the wire, because I knew I wasn’t going to be walking far I carried ALL OF THE AMMO. I had at least 10 full magazines in pouches on my body armor, two on my M4 (one in the mag well and one in the Redi-Mag adapter), and I draped a bandolier over my neck and under my shoulder. More in the backpack if we were going to be gone a while. And that doesn’t count what I carried for my pistol. My rationale was if I ever did get into a gunfight, we were going to need all the ammo we could scrounge. And I definitely wasn’t going to get killed for lack of shooting back.
As it turns out, I carried all of that ammo for no reason because in seven deployments downrange, all with SOF units, I never fired a single shot. That’s largely because a whole lot of things would have to go horribly wrong for a field grade intelligence officer in the National SOF Task Force to have to pull out his gun and start shooting bad guys. That was simply not my job. But I remember learning a long time ago that if you don’t know what else to do in a situation, go to the sound of the guns.
Fortunately, on the day of West Point’s Battle of Stoney Lonesome, it seemed as if the battle was coming to me. At this point I had no comms with my family, all kinds of things were going on around me, and ISIS was getting closer by the second. That was fine; my family was safely on the other side of campus, and this was the faculty housing area so none of my students would be in danger either. Come at me, bro!
Now, based on what I’ve told you so far you’re probably smart enough to know where this story is leading. But I didn’t have a clever storyteller dropping hints on that fine winter West Point day. What I had was a bunch of indicators that, to paraphrase an expression I often heard my cadets use, “s— was about to get real” up in the Stoney Lonesome housing area. And I was going to do something about it.
“Not today ISIS!” I didn’t really say at the time, but it sounds good when I relate this story. I set my gun down on the key holder shelf we installed just inside the doorway and opened the door. The noise seemed louder, like it was getting nearer to our neighborhood. As I closed the door, my curiosity began to turn to concern. “Whatever’s happening, it’s getting closer. DON’T COME BACK HERE,” I texted my wife. Still no response. I put my phone down on the shelf beside my Kimber and took another peek outside.
When I opened the door a second time, I saw that several of the women who lived on our street were outside at this point, and I was thoroughly confused. Don’t you people know ISIS is coming? I thought. Look I get it, probably at least half of these women are active duty or vets — we could probably set up a hell of an L-shaped ambush if we hurry. But where are your guns, and why did you bring your children? I mean, kids that small, you’re going to have to put them on something crew served. They’re not big enough to handle small arms on their own. Maybe they could bring up Class V or Class I or something once things kick off. But I’d just leave them in the house. They probably don’t even know how to IMT. Or how to stop a sucking chest wound. And they are definitely not going to be useful for CASEVAC. I weigh over 250 pounds, if I get hit and one of those kids tries to fireman-carry me, it’ll snap their spine.
Fortunately, I kept all of those thoughts to myself, because now that I listened a little closer, the noise didn’t really sound threatening at all. Those percussive blasts I was hearing weren’t gunfire, it was the “whooping” of a police siren. And those deeper rumbles, they sounded more like … fire trucks.
Feeling pretty silly at this point, I began to realize what was happening. This wasn’t a traveling terrorist attack. It was a Christmas parade. Feeling a little sheepish but also very relieved, I stood in my front yard and waved as Santa, his elves, and a contingent of Rabs — West Point’s cheerleaders, the Rabble Rousers — passed on a float, escorted by … pretty much every first responder on West Point. I was rewarded with a handful of Christmas candy tossed my way from the float.
All’s Well That Ends Well
After the convoy passed, I took my candy back into the house, picked my gun up off the shelf, and put it back into the safe. I picked up my phone and called my wife — still no answer — and left a message that it was cool for her and the kids to come home. It was then that I noticed a string of missed messages from my wife, which she had left during what I came to call “Operation ISIS Santa,” which I didn’t see because I had put down my phone.
“It’s just the Christmas float, they’re giving out candy. DON’T FREAK OUT,” read the final text.
“Don’t freak out?” Well, NOW she tells me.
My wife and daughters arrived a short time later, thoroughly confused about why I was the slightest bit concerned about Santa’s convoy rolling through our neighborhood. “We knew right away what it was, and we told you not to worry about it,” my wife said.
So I got the indicators wrong, and misjudged the situation. Everything ended up okay though; nobody got hurt, and I got free candy. Plus I now have an interesting story to tell. That said, I want to make it absolutely clear that I didn’t point a gun at anyone. The weapon never left my house. I didn’t even chamber a round. I know it probably seems silly, but I’m not going to feel bad about wanting to protect my family and my students from a potential threat. After all, “see something, slay something,” or whatever. Wait, sorry, I mean “see something, SAY something.”
Thinking about it after the fact, I realize that a middle-aged white guy bursting onto an active-shooter scene on West Point while waving around a personally owned weapon is probably asking to get shot. By everyone. I mean, the bad guys would be shooting at me, the first responders would probably think I was the perp and start shooting at me, all of the other middle-aged men showing up on the scene with their personally owned weapons would probably start shooting at me, and I’d shoot back at them … it would be a bad situation. Hopefully they’re all as bad with their handguns as I am with mine, and no one would get hit, Stormtrooper style. But at any rate, maybe next time if I decide I want to roll up onto an active-shooter situation, I’ll take my trauma kit and not my boom stick. Lesson learned for next time. And there was a next time.
I did make a big mistake, though, in explaining Operation ISIS Santa to my wife, in front of my daughters, who I affectionately (and accurately) refer to as “OPSEC Violator #1” and “OPSEC Violator #2.” It is very interesting that the story went from “Dad thought he was going to have to help fight off a terrorist attack” to telling their grandmother that “Dad pulled a gun on Santa.” I wonder where they get their storytelling predilections from.
And that’s the story of the time I “pulled a gun on Santa.”
Author’s note: No Santas were harmed in the course of this story — no matter what my kids might say.