‘Alone at Dawn’ Author Hopes New Book Will Save Lives

June 2, 2021Mac Caltrider

The Power of Awareness by Dan Schilling. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Standing on top of a 450-foot cliff in Utah, Dan Schilling — the former Air Force Combat Controller who holds the world record for most base jumps in 24 hours — got a bad feeling about the jump he was about to conduct. 

While having pre-jump anxieties is normal for such a deadly sport, Schilling knew this feeling was different, and he listened. “Hey guys, I’m going down,” he told his friends. “You guys have a great jump, I’m just not feeling it. I’ll meet you down at the truck with a beer.” As he descended the steep cliff, two friends and fellow jumpers followed, heeding a similar internal warning. 

Recalling his last-minute bailout that day, Schilling told Coffee or Die Magazine that even though several friends made the jump without incident, he knows he made the right call. He knows because a lifetime of daring greatly in dangerous environments and with adrenaline-fueled feats has cultivated in him a keen sense of intuition. 

Dan Schilling 11,000 feet up in Little Cottonwood Canyon near his home in Draper, Utah, Friday, May 28, 2021. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

With his latest book, Schilling set out to communicate the invaluable utility of that sense. In The Power of Awareness: And Other Secrets From the World’s Foremost Spies, Detectives and Special Operators on How To Stay Safe and Save Your Life, Schilling details how the feeling that something isn’t right comes from millions of years of biological programming and is one of the great gifts of evolutionary psychology. The book’s foundation is twofold: helping people to sharpen their situational awareness and to listen to their intuition.

“This book is here to save lives,” Schilling said.  

A retired lieutenant colonel, Schilling spent more than 30 years in Air Force Special Operations — first, as an enlisted Combat Controller (CCT), and eventually, a Special Tactics Officer (STO) — where he worked alongside a long list of three-letter agencies. But at 59, Schilling, now a Buddhist, believes the best and most accessible tools for self-defense aren’t a gun or a weapon but, rather, observational skills. 

Schilling’s guide to living a full life while remaining safe, which hit shelves Tuesday, is broken into three parts: Know, Prepare, Act. Schilling collected tips from spies, detectives, and special operators to develop his lessons. More than a simple guidebook, the work is an enthralling series of stories, ranging from Schilling’s experiences as a Tier-1 operator to a detective’s hunt for a serial rapist and tales of thwarted assassination attempts on CIA case officers.

A US Air Force Combat Controller calls for fire during a mission in Afghanistan. Photo by Marty Skovlund Jr./Coffee or Die Magazine.

Displaying his skill as a storyteller, Schilling intersperses the vignettes with more structured guidelines, so the book is as exciting as it is informative. From the way a contemptuous sneer (the only asymmetrical facial expression) is a dead giveaway for danger to the way attackers tend to unconsciously lean toward their target before acting, the book is full of useful knowledge.

Schilling’s convincing argument for the accuracy of reading body language refutes Malcolm Gladwell’s popular “Friends Fallacy.” As the book’s lengthy title reveals, Schilling, unlike Gladwell, draws from both personal experience and leading experts in special operations, clandestine work, and law enforcement.

The Power of Awareness is Schilling’s third book. In The Battle of Mogadishu, he captured firsthand experiences of the men who fought in that infamous conflict in Somalia. Alone at Dawn is Schilling’s exhaustively reported account of legendary Combat Controller John Chapman, who earned the Medal of Honor for sacrificing his life to save 23 others during a heroic one-man stand on a snow-covered Afghan mountainside known to those who fought there as Roberts Ridge.

Author and former 125th Special Tactics Squadron commander, Dan Schilling speaks to airmen of the Oregon Air National Guard in 2019. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Brandon Boyd.

For his latest work, Schilling took inspiration from The Power of Now, which he said changed his life. After leaving the Air Force, Schilling struggled with his “transgressions against humanity.”

“I’ve killed more than some people,” he said. “I’ve killed far fewer than many of my friends, but it’s not about numbers in any way. All it takes is one. And that haunted me.”

Just as The Power of Now helped Schilling make peace, he hopes The Power of Awareness will help others. He explores the remote Utah canyon near his home nearly every day. Whether it’s skiing, hiking, or speed riding, he wastes no time making the most of the natural beauty around him. He travels the world in search of new experiences, visiting relatively unknown and often dangerous places. That’s where The Power of Awareness comes in.

“I want to reach everybody: male, female, sexual orientation, global travelers. Or maybe it’s the first time you’re taking a vacation overseas; it doesn’t matter. I want this book to be something someone can read on a plane and feel safer. And they will be safer. It’s going to relieve anxiety about traveling the world, and it’s going to instill well-founded confidence,” he said.

While Schilling has spent much of his life thriving in the most extreme conflicts imaginable, he says his book is really not about confrontation. 

“It’s about seeing the world and understanding your place in it,” he said.

The Power of Awareness: And Other Secrets From the World’s Foremost Spies, Detectives and Special Operators on How To Stay Safe and Save Your Life by Dan Schilling, Grand Central Publishing, 272 pages, $28

Read Next: What It Means To Be a US Air Force Combat Controller, According to 4 Battle-Tested Combat Controllers

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.

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