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By Tom Demerly for

Two bicycle specialty stores closed in Metro Detroit this year. Three more suddenly changed “ownership” in November on their way to eventual closure.

On the national scale, Advanced Sport Enterprises, parent company to Performance Bicycle and Bike Nashbar, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy last month.

After decades of failure to adapt, Southeastern Michigan bicycle retail is in a brutal phase of enforced transition. Despite an overall economic boom many bike shops are a bust. Southeastern Michigan bike store closures and hasty ownership spin-offs that precede further closings confirm that.

The questions are; how did this happen; how can it be avoided and what will the industry look like once the rules of business exact their toll?

Like most significant shifts in business there is no singular cause.  A conspiracy of factors combines to weigh heavily on traditional bicycle retail. The reality that the industry has ignored these factors for so long manifests itself in this crisis.

Not every bicycle retailer is in crisis though, and some old-skool bike shops not only survive but are capitalizing on the increasing failures of retailers who thought they knew it all but had neither solid financials or enough vision to adapt in the changing retail landscape.

Southeastern Michigan bike shops like Jack’s Bicycle and Fitness, Roll Models in Allen Park, Michigan, Brick Wheels in Traverse City and Wheels in Motion in Ann Arbor are still there, still doing business and quietly surviving and growing as the others collapse around them.

In the renaissance of downtown Detroit, a new generation of bike family businesses has emerged on the shoulders of men like Jon Hughes of Downtown Ferndale and Downtown Detroit bike shops. Hughes also leads the family effort to grow the Lexus Velodrome and launch a new demi-empire in media and cycling in post-recession Detroit. He comes from a dynasty of bicycle business that stretches back three generations to Mike Walden and the formation of the country’s second oldest cycling club, the Wolverines. Even Bob Akers, who runs the decades-old, dingy, crumbling International Bike Shop in Garden City has survived as the shiny newcomers who thought they knew it all have tumbled.

Why do some shops survive while others fail? One factor common in the surviving Michigan bike retailers is they own their own real estate. But the ingredients for success, not just survival, are more complex than just owning your building.

Harvard MBAs don’t start bike shops. Bike shop owners don’t have business degrees. They start bike shops because they love bikes or have no other opportunity. They’re hobbyists. Not businessmen. The barriers to entry are low. Got $100K? You can open a bike shop. You’ll never tell a bike shop owner he doesn’t know business. As far as bicycle retail store owners are concerned, they are experts at retail. The crash of Michigan high-end specialty retailers proves otherwise.

I was this guy.  I lost my own store after 17 successful years during the recession. Then, like a scene from a movie where the plot repeats again and again, I went to work for two other retailers around the U.S. who, like me, thought they knew everything and couldn’t be told anything. They’re gone now too. More will follow.

Failure is only failure if you fail to learn. But in bicycle retail, no one listens. The first bike shop I worked for when I was 15 years old went out of business because the owners failed to adapt. The last bike shop I worked for four decades later did exactly the same thing. The owners refused to adapt. In a repetitive pantomime, I tried to convince the owners of the last shop I worked at to move the cash register to facilitate better customer traffic flow. It was a minor change that may have resulted in a minor improvement. I tried for a year. They never moved it. They went out of business months after I finally quit in frustration and left to work in another industry.

I take some small satisfaction in knowing the store that lasted the longest was mine. But business is pass/fail. You can run a successful business for 6,205 days like I did, but if you fail on the 6,206th day, you are a failure.

The first lesson I learned in losing my own store is you have to own your failure. Mine was my fault. While there were factors including a global recession that contributed to my 17-year-old store failing, I could have moderated them. Others did. I wasn’t smart enough or humble enough at the time. Some people pay college tuition for an education. I paid in bankruptcies and a modern day “Grapes of Wrath” by losing everything. While the second way may be a more durable education, it’s also more painful.

I went on to work for two more bike retail owners who made exactly the same mistakes I did while ignoring the changes that could have saved them. But bike shop owners don’t listen.

The specifics on what is killing some of Michigan’s bicycle retailers is a fascinating case study in the evolution of business that could fill a book. Bike shop owners and bike shops are, in many ways, indicative of the American economic condition. They are the epitome of small business America. As the small, independent bike goes, so goes all of small retail- good and bad. Small restaurants, pet stores, book retail, independent jewelers and all small retail can learn something from the enforced evolution and bizarre non-evolution of bicycle retail.

Small bicycle retail has been quick to scapegoat the big, ugly mega-retailer and the .com as the reason for their bust. That is a lie. In the broad sense, bicycle retailers are killing themselves by failing to adapt and innovate. They do it in hundreds of small ways every day they continue to do the same tired things over and over and over. Even the bicycle retailers who have survived could do better. For most of the survivors a major reason they still exist is they own their own real estate and remain impervious to swings in the volatile southeastern Michigan economy. But even their future is increasingly in doubt as forward-thinking innovators understand new opportunities in the age of Amazon One-Click.

What will happen to Michigan small bicycle retail? One thing is certain: it will continue to change at a rate that outpaces the ability of most shop owners to adapt. That means we’ll see more southeastern Michigan bike shops closing. Unless they learn from someone’s mistakes the cycle of failure in Michigan cycling retail will continue.



Tom Demerly is a 42-year bicycle industry veteran who owned his own business for 17 years. Today he is a defense and aviation analyst for several international publications including published in Rome, Italy.







Photos and Story by Tom Demerly. (Feel free to share these photos and mention Baltia Thunder Over Michigan)


The Baltia Thunder Over Michigan Airshow at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Michigan on Saturday and Sunday, August 9 and 10, 2014 was one of the largest displays of historic and modern aircraft this year. Most of the aircraft displayed are privately owned, including one of the largest gatherings of T-6 Texan and Harvard trainers anywhere. Thunder Over Michigan also featured the U.S. Air Force Flight Demonstration Team, The Thunderbirds, along with the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Team and other airshow acts.

This is my home town airshow, one of the shows I grew up with, so it was a special event to me. Airshow organizers provided photographers with taxiway passes for special access to the aircraft and crews along with a great hospitality tent with food, drinks, bathrooms and detailed information on every aircraft in the show. Tom Walsh, the coordinator of the photo area, did an incredible job hosting aviation photographers from around the world.


The early morning light provided a unique opportunity for photos on both Friday before the show opened and on Saturday, the first show day.

This crew (above) prepares the famous B-17G, “Yankee Lady”, that lives at Willow Run Airport as part of the Yankee Air Museum. It is a flying piece of history that is beautifully maintained. Several years ago I got a chance to fly in Yankee Lady out of Willow Run as a guest.

Yankee Lady was built in 1945 and once flew as a Coast Guard PB-1G before being sold at auction for only $5,997 to a smelting company and then to an aerial survey company. It later had a career as an aerial fire bomber and also flew in the filming of the movie Tora Tora Tora about the attack on Pearl Harbor. In it’s current condition the aircraft has been completely restored, including the replacement of all fuel and electrical systems. It is seen flying frequently around Willow Run airport.


Thunder Over Michigan attracted veterans who were pleased to share stories about the planes and people who built the history celebrated here. The show crossed aviation eras from before WWII to the modern era. Here a veteran and one of the airshow pilots chat before the arrival of show crowds.


A unique perspective on the “Fork Tailed Devil”, the P-38J Lightening “Ruff Stuff”, belonging to Mr. Ron Fagen of Granite Falls, Minnesota. There are only seven P-38 Lightenings left flying and this is the second one I’ve been lucky enough to see. Ruff Stuff was built in 1945 and never saw active service. It has changed ownership several times but its most recent restoration and the stewardship of Ron Fagen in his Fagen Fighters Museum insure its future as a national treasure.


We each shot unobstructed photos of the incredible airplanes out on the flight line, an area restricted from the general public on show day during flight demonstrations. Here we set up his shots of a TBM Avenger torpedo and dive bomber.


Photographers brought an impressive array of photo equipment to capture the action. We used aviation band scanners to listen in on aircraft communications and air traffic control radio from the show Air Boss.  Shooting aircraft requires big telephoto and zoom lenses to capture the action. Canon equipment outnumbered Nikon significantly. Monitoring the show and airport air traffic control enabled us to set up shots before aircraft arrived, especially helpful with fast jets.


All the photographers enjoyed the same access to the field as the official Air Force Thunderbird photographers Manuel Martinez (left) and Stan Parker (right). I got a chance to grab a photo with these guys as they worked and even got a few tips on aviation photography from two of the best guys in the business.


Friday, August 8, was arrival day for many of the aircraft in the show, with planes flying in from all over the U.S.. A highlight was this F-86F Sabre, “Smoky”, owned by Paul Wood from Waukegan, Illinois. The restoration and maintenance of this Korean War era jet is impeccable and it is a favorite of photographers. The aircraft was first owned by the U.S. Air Force then sold to the Fuerza Aerea Argentina or the Argentinian Air Force in 1960. It was later acquired privately in the U.S.


Paul Wood taxis his F-86F Sabre into the parking area. Notice the open speed brakes and the three holes for the .50 caliber machine guns.


The F-86F has a natural metal finish that is difficult to maintain but brilliant to see on a sunny day. The bubble canopy of the F-86F provided pilots with excellent visibility and inspired the design of the canopy on the most recent fighters including the F-22 Raptor. Pilots like to taxi with the canopy open for ventilation but must duck down to close the canopy fully.


Paul Wood cranks his F-86F through a flight demonstration that showed the maneuverability and thrust to weight ratio of the F-86F. Considering this jet was built in the late 1940’s it remains an impressive performer. The F-86 was the first fully operational U.S. jet fighter with swept wings.


A few minutes later the U.S. Army Parachute Team’s C-31A Troopship flew into the pattern at Willow Run for a landing. The pilots obliged photographers with a low pass before final approach. This is a nice sounding, Rolls-Royce powered aircraft built by Fokker. It can carry up to 25 jump equipped soldiers for demonstrations.


We had excellent access to active taxiways throughout Friday and were accompanied by helpful “safeties” who kept us from getting run over by aircraft when we were looking through a camera viewfinder. It was a remarkable experience to be so close to the aircraft as they came and went during arrival and show rehearsal.


This unusual aircraft is the de Havilland DH-115 Vampire formerly of the Royal Navy and now belonging to Marty Tibbits of Detroit. It is a pretty, unusual aircraft that operated from Royal Navy aircraft carriers after 1945 and also served, in a different version, with the Royal Air Force. The Vampire, in its many versions, was a successful aircraft that was flown by several countries through the 1990’s, including, oddly enough, Rhodesia.


If there was one perfect P-51D Mustang at the show it was Mark Peterson’s “Hell-er Bust” from Boise, Idaho. The aircraft is painted in a photogenic livery and carries a pair of simulated 500 lb. general purpose bombs. Here Mark taxis in after his arrival on Friday. Hell-er Bust has an impressive history since being built in 1945 at the North American Aircraft plant in Inglewood, California. She first joined the legendary 8th Air Force in 1945 but was transferred to the Swedish Air Force in 1948 and the to the Dominican Republc from 1952 to 1984, making it one of the last remaining truly operational Mustangs while in service with the Dominican Republic. Hell-er Bust uses the classic Packard Merlin V-1650-7 engine that produces that goose bump-inducing Mustang sound.


The B-25D “Yankee Warrior” is one of the planes that lives at Willow Run as part of the Yankee Air Museum. We are lucky enough to see it fly around the airport occasionally and got a good look at it on reception day. Five of its .50 caliber machine guns are visible in this view. Yankee Warrior is a combat veteran of WWII, having flown eight bombing missions over Italy before it was retired, then restored.


Yankee Warrior had a rather attractive pilot flying on arrival day and was meticulously turned out in its natural metal finish. This B-25 is a frequent visitor to air shows around the U.S. but I never found out who the pilot pictured here is.


A number of exciting private jets flew in on Friday including this Aero Vodochody L-39C belonging to Tim Brutsche of Battle Creek, Michigan. Brutsche owns Brutsche Concrete in Battle Creek and is a licensed Air Transport Pilot (ATP) who has been an active promoter of youth in aviation for years.


Here is Tom and his co-pilot, perhaps his wife Beth Franklin-Brutsche who frequently flies with him, taxiing their L-39C to its parking ramp.


Aircraft owners spent time on Friday chatting with photographers and polishing their airplanes for the show opening on Saturday. This TBM-3E Avenger gets a shine in the morning.


The P-47D Thunderbolt “Jacky’s Revenge” was restored from former Peruvian Air Force service in 1966 and painted in U.S. livery with D-Day invasion stripes on the wings and fuselage.


There were so many T-6 Texans, Harvards and this AT-16 Texan from Blanchester, Ohio it was hard to pick just one to photograph, but this bright orange and yellow paint scheme stood out from the other aircraft.


We got a raised maintenance platform to shoot photos from each day, making it easy to get great shots of aircraft taxiing and of the flight demonstrations. Each of the photographers took turns in a corner. We used a pilot band radio receiver to help locate inbound aircraft. When one photographer would see an aircraft inbound to the demonstration field they would shout out, “Aircraft, inbound, from the east…” for the other photographers to get their shot.


An operational German Luftwaffe Transall C-160D from Air Transport Wing 61at Penzing AB, Germany made a special visit to the show. The Transall is a workhorse twin-engine tactical transport that serves air force around the world and is especially prolific in Europe and Africa. It makes a pretty “whirring” noise like a mini-C-130.


The flight crew of our visiting German Transall were happy to be at the air show and brought a big tent filled with their squadron mugs, T-shirts, patches and other memorabilia. They enjoyed chatting with the crowd in English and in German and also had fun shooting photos of the other flight demonstrations while they earned some cash selling souvenirs.


Friday was a relaxed day and a chance to meet the Thunderbird pilots in person without any fences. I caught the entire flight demonstration team here for a candid group shot here.


Thunderbird #6 Opposing Solo, Major Jason Curtis of Kalispell, Montana, taxis out for Friday practice. He is a drummer and competitive snowboarder and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2004.


Thunderbird #1, Lt. Col. Bob Moseley taxis out for flight demonstration practice on Friday. The names of the enlisted flight maintenance crew for this aircraft are painted on the right side of the cockpit with Lt. Col. Moseley’s name on the left side of the aircraft. Moseley is a graduate of Virginia Military Institute and has flown both the F-15 and F-22.


We had an interesting incident on Friday, practice day, when Thunderbird #3, Maj. Caroline Jensen, had a “bird strike”, sucking a bird into the intake of her F-16. The bird damaged the engine and caused her to safely circle the field and make an expedient landing.


Major Jensen taxied past the photo stand on her way back to the flight line to switch to the reserve aircraft that was already preflighted by the Thunderbird ground crew and ready for engine run-up.


She quickly climbed down from the damaged #3 aircraft and ran to the waiting reserve aircraft while the ground crew began to survey the damage to her F-16.


All of the Thunderbird ground crew wanted to see the damage to the inside of the F-16 intake from the bird strike. The man in the red shirt is likely the aircraft engine manufacturer’s technical rep who travels with the Thunderbirds, Mr. Tom Eshelman from Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines. That a jet engine can withstand a high speed bird induction through its turbine fans and continue to fly safely is an impressive accomplishment by Pratt & Whitney.


Major Jensen climbs up to the reserve F-16 to rejoin the demonstration formation after running to the alternate jet that was already preflighted by the Thunderbird ground crew.


Lighting conditions on Friday practice for the flight demonstration were poor with flat and overcast skies. It was less than ideal for good photos. We enjoyed the practice after shooting a few photos and checked the weather for Saturday, hoping for better lighting conditions for aerial photography.


The weather on Saturday started misty but the fog burned off quickly as crews got their aircraft ready for the first day of the show. I liked this shot of the B-17G Yankee Lady with the U.S. flag in the sky overhead.


The first big flight demonstration was an giant formations of T-6 Texans and Mk IV Harvards. This is only half of the total formation. The  combined sound of their radial engines was an amazing recollection of what it was like to be near one of the big WWII fighter training bases.


The formation flying continued throughout the morning with an intricately coordinated double-racetrack pattern of aircraft flying over Willow Run. This tight formation of a P-38, P-51 and the B-17 G Yankee Lady is a living display of air power over the Pacific and the European theaters during WWII. I can’t help but wonder what the view from inside the cockpit must be like.


Ruff Stuff, the Lockheed P-38, did a few photo-pass fly-bys for photographers, giving us the opportunity to shoot photos from different angles.


P-38 Lightening Ruff Stuff as viewed from the rear quarter. Notice the superchargers on top of each of the engine booms.


The chunky looking P-47D Thunderbolt, predecessor to the modern A-10 Thunderbolt II, becomes more graceful in the air. The P-47D was used extensively in the ground attack role. The black and white stripes on the fuselage and wings are called “invasion stripes”. These helped other allied aircraft identify each other following the D-Day invasion to prevent them from shooting at each other and prevented ground crews from shooting at them.


This P-63 King Cobra has a number of unique features including a centrally mounted M-37 30 mm cannon that fired through the propeller hub and an engine located directly behind the pilot. The pilot enters the aircraft through a side-hinged door, not a sliding canopy like the P-51 and P-47. Notice the intake for the centrally mounted engine immediately behind the cockpit. The tricycle landing gear was unique to the P-63 and its less successful little brother the P-39 Airacobra. Most P-63’s saw service with the Soviet Union, over 2,000 of the total of approximately 3,000 built were given to Russia by the U.S. under a lend-lease agreement. Russian pilots actually downed several Japanese planes in WWII with King Cobras.


B-17G Yankee Lady turns in toward the crowd line. The “G” model B-17 had several upgrades over the precious “F” and “E” versions, most notably the forward facing chin turret with two Browning .50 caliber machine guns to prevent aerial attack from the front.


This side view shows a puff of smoke from one of the B-17G’s engines and a good view of the ball turret under the aircraft.


B-24 “Diamond Lil” has a fascinating history as one of the very early B-24A bombers built. The aircraft had a landing accident during its ferry flight to England in the early 1940’s and had to be returned to California for repair. It was converted to a C-87 transport, a modification that likely enabled it survive the war. It went on to be restored as a B-24 with the paint scheme seen here. In this photo the crew is initiating engine start and run-up for its flight demonstration.


Following the flight demonstrations by the historic aircraft the Thunderbirds held the briefing for their demonstration flight. Here Major Caroline Jensen listens in before the beginning of the demonstration routine.


The Thunderbird diamond and solo pilots salute the crowd at the beginning of their flight demonstration routine.


Introductions of the pilots to the airshow crowd over the PA begin the show as the ground crew forms up for the demonstration in the background. From the preparation of the flight to the aerial maneuvers the entire show is carefully choreographed with impressive precision.


Wearing a pair of G-suit pants the pilots climb the ladder to the cockpit while crew chiefs stand ready to prepare the aircraft for take-off.


Engine start completed, Thunderbird #1 prepares to taxi to the active runway for take-off.


With a plume of smoke the four-ship diamond formation begins their takeoff roll at the start of the flight demo routine.


The opposing solo aircraft, Thunderbird #6, Maj. Jason Curtis, turns in across the crowd line as he closes on the the lead solo aircraft for one of their head-on passes.


Blue skies and better light gave us a chance to grab good photos of the Thunderbird diamond formation as it flew by the photo stand near show-center.


Lead solo Thunderbird #5 Maj. Blaine Jones turns in toward the crowd line for a high-speed pass.


Thunderbird #6 demonstrates a five-point hesitation roll and gives a good plan-form view of the F-16. The paint scheme of the Thunderbirds aircraft is specially designed so the crowd can see the aircraft roll from a distance.


The Thunderbird diamond formation at the top of an inverted loop at an altitude of about 2000 feet above ground level. The Thunderbirds have a “high show” routine and a “low show” routine for overcast conditions when a low cloud deck prevents them from being visible from the ground. We got to see the low show on Friday practice and the high show on Saturday.


“From the left, Thunderbird #5, Major Blaine Jones, the Lead Solo, will execute a maximum performance, high-G turn.” This sequence shows the F-16 turn in under afterburners and pull up to 9G’s. In the third frame you can see the wings of the F-16 flex upward under the G-load.


The two solos cross in the cross over break, one of the most spectacular and difficult to photograph maneuvers of the show.AA390

This pull-up maneuver is used to sequentially position the aircraft for entering the landing pattern and makes for a cool shot as the aircraft begin their break.


This maneuver begins in the trail formation with the aircraft behind each other and completes a loop up to 2,000 feet where the formation rejoins with incredible precision during the inverted, changing to the diamond formation. Condensation formed on the wingtips streams off the aircraft at higher altitude as the air cools.


The opposing solo high-alpha pass: Thunderbird #5 flies across show center at about 100 MPH or nearly the minimum speed the aircraft can maintain and still stay in the air. The speed brakes at the back of the aircraft are deployed to slow it down.


Thunderbird #6, the opposing Solo, trails condensation vapor as it pulls up to the vertical to rejoin the four-ship diamond formation.


All six aircraft form the wedge formation high into the afternoon sun with thick vapor trails coming off their wingtips.


The six-aircraft wedge formation passes in review under slight overcast.


Then flies into clear sky with a complete change of lighting.


Finally the diamond formation pitches up to the vertical and executes the high bomb burst with one of the solo aircraft rolling vertically through the middle. It was a classic Thunderbird finale.


Back on the ground with the chocks in place Thunderbird #1 prepares to shut his engine down at the end of the flight demonstration.


It’s a tradition to wait after the airshow and meet the Thunderbird pilots in person for a handshake, photo and an autograph. Here the Thunderbird team leader, #1 Lt. Col. Greg Mosley, poses for a photo with a fan.


Thunderbird 12, Major Darrick Lee, high-fives a fan at the end of the airshow.


On my way out of the show I met aviation artist David Ails. Ails was displaying and selling some of his incredible digital aviation art depicting aircraft including the P-61 Black Widow and F-4 Phantom. Ails represents a new breed of aviation artist who uses digital media for creation of incredible images that depict historic aviation events and aircraft.




















By Tom Demerly.


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


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.


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.


“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.


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 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:


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.


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.

By Tom Demerly.


When I woke up in the room I had no idea where I was but something smelled like dust and urine.

There was a man I had never seen before asleep in the twin bed next to the one I was in. He snored.

I sat up, put my feet on the floor and saw they were in decent shape, slightly swollen, skin mostly intact, nine toenails, only one gone. Much better than last time. My mouth was dry. I had a headache. I could stand on my own though.

It took two showers to get all the dust, sand, grime, urine, blood, smoke, stale sunscreen and even fabric bits off of me. I was thankful I didn’t run out of hot water. There were some dead insects in my hair that rinsed out. I took mouthfuls of warm water from the shower. Brushed my teeth four times. After I threw out the clothing that was producing the smell of piss and dust in the room I actually felt clean.

Petra, Jordan, 9 November, 2001; 105.38 miles from the Gaza Strip, 168 miles (by helicopter) on heading 24.1 degrees to the Syrian border, 267.16 miles on heading 55.4 degrees to Iraq.

The Jordan Telecom Desert Cup was a 105-mile non-stop running race from Wadi Rum to Petra, Jordan. I had just finished as the top American, or the second American, I don’t remember which. I had informally allied with a man named Andrew during the previous night. He was a soft-core pornographer from South Africa.


Andrew and I had a mutual interest in racing together. As the youngest male in the race at 22 he was competing for a special prize at the finish line. I had an interest in being the top U.S. finisher. If we worked together to keep each other on course, awake and from freezing to death in the high desert during the night, then made a 30-mile dash at sunrise into Petra we would each achieve our independent goals.

As we trotted into the desert night, packs on our backs, Andrew recounted lurid tales of his business to keep us awake. He met an opulently configured, 18-year old aspiring young lass he described as a… “milk maid”, apparently a common South African colloquialism. The pair drove her father’s expensive Land Rover to the beach one night where she intended to “audition”. Apparently her performance was so commanding that Andrew neglected to notice the tide coming in. It swamped their Land Rover. They only noticed when it began to float and teeter. They were forced to immediately abandon the vehicle, sans apparel, before it capsized. They were left naked on the beach with a long walk ahead of them. Andrew volunteered for the nude jog for help while the young lady searched the tide for swaddling clothes. He considered it training for this race.

It was so cold in the freezing, high desert wind just before dawn that we stopped at a nomadic encampment and asked to roll ourselves up in their rugs for warmth. The incredulous Bedouins obliged and we made ourselves into a kind of human shawarma-wrap in their tent carpets. I promptly passed out. Andrew did too. We slept for over an hour.

Just before we arrived at the finish line we descended a series of ancient steps carved into the wall of a deep desert wadi or canyon. They led to the Lost City of Petra. Jesus Christ had walked these steps. It was said that if you descend these steps you are cleansed of your sins. I could use that.

I remembered we were lunching with staff from the U.S. Embassy in Syria. After I dressed and returned from lunch I learned the man in my room was a U.S. helicopter pilot, and this adventure had only just started.