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At this hour the mystery of Malaysia Airlines flight 370′s disappearance is one of the most baffling chapters in aviation history. With every hour that passes the mystery becomes more remarkable.  There was no distress signal, automated or manual, no radar track to a known accident site, no anomalistic flight data transmitted, no covert hijacking signal, no wreckage, no diversion to a remote airfield under duress, no witnesses of an actual crash in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

That the aircraft likely vanished over one of the busiest commercial shipping areas in the world, the Straits of Malacca, with 50,000 to 90,000 ships a year passing through it’s narrow, 500-mile passage is even more remarkable.

When you perform a statistical analysis of aircraft accidents over the previous 30 years that involve more than 100 passengers you see how truly bizarre this mystery is.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration maintains a detailed database of aviation accidents broken into 18 accident causation categories. They include “Crew Resource Management”, “Fuel Ignition”, “Fuel Exhaustion”, “Incorrect Piloting Techniques” and others.  All of them leave some trace to conduct a forensic investigation.

That MH370 left no trace, electronic or otherwise, is its most remarkable anomaly. Given the volume and sophistication of systems to avoid just such a disappearance one explanation is some willful intervention to counter each of these surveillance and tracking systems took place. Someone intentionally lost the aircraft.

One unnamed source has already proffered an opinion on this disappearance: MH370 was hijacked in a 9/11 style terrorist attack. The target may have been the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, a hauntingly similar target to New York’s Twin Towers. The attack failed when some intervention, perhaps by crew, passengers or other force led to the flight’s termination in a similar way to United Airlines flight 93 that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania when passengers attempted to intervene in the hijacking and retake the aircraft before reaching its intended target.

It is possible the flight disappeared when it descended to low altitude for the willful purpose of evading radar as it turned back toward Kuala Lumpur on its attack run. This admittedly outlandish theory is partially supported by Fisherman Azid Ibrahim, 66 of Kota Baru, Indonesia. Ibrahim told the New Strait Times that an airplane appeared to fly low below thick cloud deck. He followed the aircraft for about five minutes before it disappeared without crashing. Another witness reported a similar sighting about 30 km (18.6 miles) away from Kota Baru.  Businessman Alif Fathi Abdul Hadi, 29, reported to the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) that he saw “bright white lights”, descending fast into the sea at about 1:45am that same day. A third report from an oil rig also reported seeing a large aircraft flying at low altitude over the region, then a burning object.

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In December 2011 the Co- pilot on MH370, Fariq Abdul Hamid, broke regulations when he allowed female passengers Jonti Roos and Jaan Maree into the cockpit, while flying, for a flight from Phuket, Thailand to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The 53-year old captain of MH370, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, had a room in his house dedicated to a computer flight simulator where he could practice flying a Boeing 777. And familiarize others with how to do it.

In an interesting literary parallel, Ian Fleming’s 1961 novel and 1965 film “Thunderball” depicts a fictional RAF pilot named François Derval who is extorted by sexual coercion into stealing an aircraft for a terrorist plot.

This is speculation. But it has origins extrapolated from known statistical data of airline accidents along with an analysis of the region, its vulnerabilities, its known terrorist activity and additional factors. It also is partially reinforced by the emerging navigation tracks of MH370 that show it returning toward Kuala Lumpur where it originated and where the Petronas Towers are.

It is also as implausible a theory as the 9/11 terror attacks were on 9/10. Before the 9/11 attacks and former President Bush’s election the Clinton administration had intelligence that suggested a coordinated attack using airliners in the Pacific region was a plausible threat. One analysis suggested the attacks might originate from Indonesia. The theories were not regarded as actionable. By 9/12 this paradigm had shifted.

When will know the facts about MH370’s disappearance? That is another mystery. Until then all we have is questions and speculation as passing time creates more depth to one of the most bizarre mysteries in aviation history.

By Tom Demerly.

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In much the same way as Franklin Roosevelt is remembered for the Social Security Act of 1935, President Barack Obama will be remembered for the Affordable Care Act.

And it may be a larger success than any of us imagine.

The Affordable Care Act could be a masterfully engineered piece of legislation that has already set in motion the only means possible to topple big medicine and make U.S. health care affordable. But not how you think.

We’ve all seen the charts and YouTubes comparing the cost of medical procedures in the U.S. to other countries. They make a case for health care being significantly more expensive in the U.S. than in other countries that already have a state subsidized or administered medical system.  It’s possible the authors of the ACA did a masterful “Potomac two-step” in selling the ACA to the powerful medical, pharmaceutical and hospital lobby. Washington sold them a Trojan horse.

ACA critics have pointed to a host of administrative problems that are likely short lived. Those problems aren’t “structural”.

A structural problem built into ACA is that the weight of medical costs in the U.S. is spread over the broader economic “ice” of the American population. That ice is still too thin to support big medicine’s current financial weight. One of two things can happen: The ice can break or some weight can be removed.

Since ACA is law, and law can presumably be enforced, the “ice” that is ACA will be held up by Washington. The weight that comes off the ACA ice will be U.S. “Big Medicine” getting whittled down to functional size. No more massive, glossy prescription drug marketing campaigns. No more mini-malls and valet parking at hospitals. No more health care providers filing endless reams of electronic files, paying staff to interpret billing and insurance logistics and creating their own internal television networks to promote themselves. Malpractice litigation will be reformed. Medicine will become more medical, less commercial and litigious.

The ACA will dry up hospital "malls" and commercial dining areas and other accessories to hospital operation.

The ACA will dry up hospital “malls” and commercial dining area and other accessories to hospital operation.

There will be blood. Hospital staff, already strained in many places, will be trimmed. Logistics will be streamlined, even doctors will earn less. Health care suppliers will suffer mightily; with many going bankrupt like auto component suppliers did in the U.S. automotive bailout. And just like the automotive bailout many of the financial negotiations that were abrasive and costly between unions and car companies will now be quickly dispensed in bankruptcy court. And for once, it will be the medical companies that will take the hit. The ACA may protect the citizen-patient.

“Health care quality will contract while health care access will expand.”

If this is the direction of ACA, intended or not, the process will be an abrasive one. We the people in the first decade of ACA will experience constant changes in health care logistics and a general decline in the quality of health care. In short, our health care infrastructure will contract to a scale similar to those of countries with functioning social medicine. In many ways that will appear as a downgrade. But in the spirit of ACA it will spread access to health care across a broader population. Instead of high-income people getting great health care and middle and lower class people getting none or reduced levels with exposure to financial ruin, everyone will get a roughly equivalent level of healthcare services and products. Health care quality will contract while health care access will expand. The optimal balance will be when the two conflicting agendas meet in the middle.

It’s possible President Obama’s ACA will be remembered as the savior of the American patient, not the American medical industry. Getting there will require a long and painful period of financial and legislative surgery that includes some painful amputations with no anaesthetic.

By Tom Demerly

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The greatest fear I had going into Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was that it would be a sad eulogy to Tom Clancy’s genius. I’m pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

Director Kenneth Branagh did his homework and borrowed subtle and successful elements from each of the Jason Bourne, James Bond, Mission Impossible and Tom Clancy franchises to weave a surprisingly good story thread that is visually well done.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a tight and snappy spy thriller. It’s well written, tightly shown and quickly paced. Camera, sound and production techniques are tasteful and pay homage to its influences. Very little is over blown. Even the sets are well dressed and chosen.

Writers David Koepp and Adam Cozad used Tom Clancy’s character Jack Ryan with reverence for Clancy’s original vision of Dr. Ryan, the nerdy analyst turned reluctant but capable action hero.

Jack Ryan gets his first kill James Bond style, in a bathroom.

Jack Ryan gets his first kill James Bond style, in a bathroom.

Chris Pine as Jack Ryan is fantastic as is Kevin Costner as Thomas Harper, his CIA boss. And because no great spy film is a success without great villains, it is a pleasure to have Kenneth Branagh as the dangerous Russian, Viktor Cherevin.

The plot hits ominously close to home, literally and figuratively, with a story line that weaves into the little known world of economic warfare. Villains originate from Dearborn, Michigan in the shadow of Ford World Headquarters. The plan is to crash the stock market in a combined terror and economic attack; a scenario everyone hopes will remain fiction.

But Tom Clancy’s fiction has an ominous way of weaving its way into the headlines.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit never sags and builds well to a strong climax. There are a few corny moments but remember, this isn’t a strict Clancy plot. It weaves influences from every corner of the spy thriller genre, and does it with respect and tribute to each. While these stories do become somewhat cookie-cutter this one is flavored uniquely and with enough craft to make it a snappy 105-minutes. And yes, there is a sequel planned that hopefully continues with this fine cast in the upcoming Without Remorse.

Tom Clancy would have loved Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. It is tight, quick and nice looking. This is a pleasant surprise after the painful loss of a great author and storyteller who created these characters. That new writers are able to execute on Clancy’s vision confirms their talent and reverence for his mastery.

Taking to the streets with a nod to Bourne franchise in "Shadow Recruit".

Taking to the streets with a nod to Bourne franchise in “Shadow Recruit”.

By Tom Demerly.

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Early July 2005: I was in the car. CNN was on. There was a report of a “U.S. long range reconnaissance team lost in Afghanistan”. They went to a commercial.

I pictured what must have been going on. Marine recon, Army Special Forces, Naval Special Warfare, Air Force Special Operations. It was one or some combination of them.  They had no comms, they were cut off, they may be lost, their food was gone. They may not even be alive by the time it made the news.

In the mid to late 1980’s I was a member of a U.S. Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Team, Co. F., 425th INF (RANGER/AIRBORNE), Michigan National Guard. I was the scout/observer for our five man reconnaissance team.  We never saw combat then. But the sense of being a long way from home, cold, wet, hungry and with no communications is a very familiar one. Our radios never worked. We rarely got comms. We often walked home, even on training missions.

In 2007 when Marcus Luttrell wrote his book Lone Survivor I read it in one sitting, and didn’t sleep well for days. His account of a long range surveillance mission gone bad is harrowing and realistic.

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“Lone Survivor” author Marcus Luttrell signs his new book “Service”. Luttrell’s incredible account of Operation Red Wings deserved a better film adaptation.

This weekend Director Peter Berg’s adaptation of Lone Survivor hit theaters. Berg is the mastermind behind the impressive and haunting film The Kingdom from 2007.

Berg executes the complex story of Operation Red Wings told in Luttrell’s Lone Survivor with the level of authenticity you expect for a 121-minute Hollywood movie. There are moments when the film “works”, sort of. But for the most part it is clunky, forced and unrealistic feeling.

Berg may get a pass because faithfully depicting the horror of a small recon team retreating down a cliff side in the high Afghan mountains of Kunar Province is technically demanding. But remember Steven Spielberg’s D-Day landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, a scene so real it makes you recoil in terror and smell the cordite, exhaust fumes and gore. Even Ridley Scott’s Blackhawk Down, while very “Hollywood-ized” provides a more authentic and vertiginous sense of what combat must be like. Both Saving Private Ryan and Blackhawk Down “feel” more realistic. Lone Survivor relied too heavily on bad set dressing, rotten camera movement, poor make-up and a generally inauthentic “look” to deliver.

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The cast of “Lone Survivor” look more like an airsoft convention than a Long Range Surveillance Team.

The shape and storyline of Lone Survivor is good but the look and feel is shallow and contrite. There is so much “punch” and terror to this story it could have been done better. The digital effects, especially of aircraft and wide scenes, are embarrassingly poor by current standards. Lone Survivor simply looked “hurried” and synthetic. The make-up effects of wounds and blood looked like something you’d see in a Halloween haunted house. Even after three days of a long range reconnaissance patrol the characters didn’t look authentically dirty and grimy.

Another nick against Lone Survivor is that the “Afghanis” didn’t look like they lived in the mountains of Kunar Province. They looked like people from an L.A. cattle call for “Afghan” extras for a film shoot. For reference on how to get it right look at the realistic pirate depictions in Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips . Barkhad Abdi and Barkhad Abdirahman were authentic and believable in their roles as Somali pirates, in no small part because they are from Somalia.

Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor is not a total failure. The audience in the theater spontaneously applauded when the credits rolled, so it got their attention. But it isn’t the authentic and horrifying insight into Long Range Surveillance and Marcus Luttrell’s incredible book that I had hoped for.

By Tom Demerly.

Cmdr. Brian W. Sebenaler, commanding officer of Naval Special Warfare Basic Training Command (BTC) speaks to members and guests during an establishment ceremony for the command held at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. BTC reports to the Naval Special Warfare Center and is charged with the basic training of all naval special warfare forces, including both Navy SEAL and special warfare combatant-craft crewman (SWCC) basic training programs, which include the BUD/S course and SEAL qualification training for SEAL candidates, and basic crewmen training and crewmen qualification training for SWCC candidates. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin S. Beauchamp/Released)

Cmdr. Brian W. Sebenaler, commanding officer of Naval Special Warfare Basic Training Command (BTC) speaks at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin S. Beauchamp)

52 years ago today President John F. Kennedy signed into law the formation of a new special operations unit called the U.S. Navy SEa, Air and Land” or “SE.A.L Teams”; the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Teams, the Navy SEALs.

No military unit is more misunderstood, misrepresented or misquoted. The Naval Special Warfare Teams are also justifiably celebrated as one of the most vigorous, capable and successful combat units in the entire U.S. arsenal.

Over the past 30 years I’ve been occasionally privileged to work and socialize with members of the Naval Special Warfare community. I’ve never failed to be impressed by their internal standards, training and capabilities. And by their humility.

The history books tell you the Naval Special Warfare Teams were born from the Underwater Demolition Teams, the “Frogmen”. Since then their mission and capabilities have expanded to include intelligence gathering, direct action, rescue, security, reconnaissance, technical and operational development and a host of other missions so diverse it has presented major challenges to these units.

(left) Athletes participate in the Navy SEAL Fitness Challenge in Dearborn, Michigan. (right) Naval Special Warfare Operator Mitch Hall wins the annual SuperSEAL triathlon in Coronado, California. (Photos by Tom Demerly).

(left) Athletes participate in the Navy SEAL Fitness Challenge in Dearborn, Michigan. (right) Naval Special Warfare Operator Mitch Hall wins the annual SuperSEAL triathlon in Coronado, California. (Photos by Tom Demerly).

Another great challenge facing the Naval Special Warfare community is the media’s love affair with them. Officially and unofficially the Navy has fed into this, with everything from support of Hollywood film projects to unsanctioned technical support of computer games and thousands of books.  In 2008 and 2009 Naval Special Warfare promoted a national fitness competition called the “Navy SEAL Fitness Challenge”. Naval Special Warfare has supported an annual triathlon called “SuperSEAL” and “Superfrog”.  Naval Special Warfare also sponsored the Ironman World Championship along with several triathletes who are active members of The Teams.  Next week a new Hollywood movie, “Lone Survivor”, joins over 40 popular movies featuring Naval Special Warfare operators as diverse as “G.I. Jane”, “Transformers” and “Act of Valor” that featured cast members from the Naval Special Warfare teams.

In the past decade there has been tremendous growth in the Naval Special Warfare community.  The last time I visited the Phil Bucklew Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California during 2007 there was a construction project underway to house new Basic Underwater Demolition School students and expanded administration activities.

Naval Special Warfare has also seen its share of controversy.  In 2010 a west coast Naval Special Warfare operator and instructor was arrested for trafficking weapons smuggled from Afghanistan and sentenced to over 17 years in prison.  In 2013 Esquire magazine ran a feature story alleged to be an interview with a Naval Special Warfare Operator who claimed to have killed Osama bin Laden during a U.S. raid on Pakistan. The interview was sharply critical of treatment of Naval Special Warfare veterans.

What I’ve learned from the Naval Special Warfare Teams and their members is that they are human. While they are exceptionally dedicated, incredibly well trained and maintain an impressive level of proficiency in a vast array of skill sets they still suffer the fallibilities of the common man. They have difficulty in personal relationships like the rest of us and struggle with divorce and emotional challenges.

(left) At the Phil H. Bucklew Naval Special Warfare Center for SuperSEAL triathlon. (center) On board an 11-meter RIB off Coronado Island. (right) With Naval Special Warfare Development Group original member and author Chuck Pfarrer

(left) At the Phil H. Bucklew Naval Special Warfare Center for SuperSEAL triathlon. (center) On board an 11-meter RIB off Coronado Island. (right) With Naval Special Warfare Development Group original member and author Chuck Pfarrer.

One of many things that makes them exceptional is they do all this set against the backdrop of a necessity to maintain operational security and rarely disclose their true challenges among non-military relationships. This makes their tremendous burden even greater.

Naval Special Warfare is a community worthy of effusive praise and recognition. They have shouldered a mighty share of the burden of the Vietnam Conflict, numerous “peace time” actions, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Global War on Terror and other conflicts while maintaining a level of inter-unit quality almost unmatched in the world.  On their 52nd birthday it’s worth acknowledging their contribution.

Authors Note: If you are a fan of books about the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Teams you may find my review for MILTECHREV.com of Greg E. Mathieson Sr. and David Gatley’s impressive new book, Naval Special Warfare here of interest. It is the definitive work on Naval Special Warfare available to the public:

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2014 New Year's fireworks on the Burj Khalifa, Dhubai.

2014 New Year’s fireworks on the Burj Khalifa, Dhubai.

1. You do not know when you will die.

2. It will be sooner than you expect.

3. There will be things you wish you had done.

4. Not fearing death makes you more alive.

5. You will fail in life. Try again. Don’t give up.

6. Don’t fear failure. Instead, fear not trying.

7. Happiness is a balance of striving for new and being content with now. Do both.

8. True friends are one of the most important things.

9. Understand what you can control and control it vigorously. Let the rest go.

10. Plan for later but live for now

By Tom Demerly.

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I walked into my friend Mark’s house around 6:30 PM one evening. He lives about a block away. I was returning, in a small way, one of the many big favors he has done for me since I moved back to Michigan. What I saw was shocking. To me at least.

Mark and his wife were seated at a small, round table with a tablecloth. They each had plates, and cups. They were eating food with knives, forks and spoons. It was like the set of a 1950’s movie: a husband and wife having dinner around 6:30 PM, a new baby sound asleep in another room. It was positively… normal.

It struck me pretty hard: This is what that fleeting, ephemeral thing called “normal” looks like.

Like many people I didn’t have  a “normal” family when I was a kid. I had a dad with mental problems, a single mom, and two sisters long gone for those reasons. My childhood was not bad. I didn’t have everything I wanted, I did have everything I needed. But my childhood was different from what I saw at Mark’s house that night.

My family was fractured. Fractured by distance, disapproval, loneliness, lack of communication, forgiveness and trust. In other words, we’re like most families. We have our problems. We have more skeletons than a medical school.  One sister got married in Africa; I’ve got a niece in who lives in Japan. The only way we could keep our distance any better would involve NASA.

Two things that happened in the last decade caused me to revisit the value of family: I almost died and so did my 91-year old mom. As I type this she lays in Beaumont Hospital after two heart surgeries in three days.

When I moved back to Michigan my friends urged me to moderate the fractures in my family. It took time, but I did. It was frightening and humbling. It has also been rewarding and invigorating.

Peace efforts within a family are a lot like negotiating between warring factions in a third world country. Since I have a little exposure to the later, I used what I learned there.

Firstly, you approach it with ownership of your own mistakes and a lot of humility. Secondly, you do a lot of listening. You do what author Stephen Covey said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Thirdly, you bring some pretty thick skin.

A critical mindset is that you have to leave the past where it belongs- behind you.  You talk a lot about how things could be. Should be. You replace blame with empathy; you replace the lesser past with the idea of a greater future. And you focus on the half of the glass that is full. And mostly, you forgive. Living in the previous world of family arguments, disconnects, betrayals, broken promises and let-downs cannot result in a constructive dialog. It doesn’t foster healing.

Not everyone will get it at first. Families are made of complex personalities and complex pasts. But the behaviors of listening, understanding and forgiving are as contagious as the ones that drive families apart.

Ultimately we decide which behaviors we want in our family by which ones we choose to live in our present. When we make that decision and live it, we get along better.

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