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By Tom Demerly.

NOTE: This story is fiction based on news accounts. It does not contain factual depictions of any events from official sources.

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10:17 Local (15:17 UTC), Monday, 7 October 2013, Administrative Offices, Triple Five Group, Mall of the Americas, Bloomington, Minnesota, United States.

Bob Davis felt a chill race up his spine and down his arms. He saw his hands tremble on the desk in front of him. His ironic sense of humor kicked in when he thought, “Well, Bob, that’s why they call it terror-ism.” He looked at the two men sitting across from him, their mouths moving, but he didn’t hear the words for a second. He forced himself to tune back in to their meeting despite a feeling that this couldn’t be real. It was like walking onto the pages of a Clancy novel.

“…Possibly V-IED’s in the parking lots, ah, that means vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, a car or truck bomb, like Timothy McVeigh used on the Federal Building, if you recall… There could be some form of crude, locally produced chemical weapon; chlorine gas, something like that. Those have big shock value with the media. There definitely will be explosives and assault weapons used. They can source that equipment locally and may already have from gun shows around the Midwest. We have agents from the Bureau and the ATF at those shows. Even the NRA people have been helping us, but we can’t catch everything.”

Davis manages operations for the Mall of the Americas in Bloomington, Minnesota. Over the past eight years he has seen women give birth there, the most elaborate shoplifting schemes every devised (and busted), a ring of prostitutes operating in the mall and a coyote that somehow made its way inside the giant shopping center on a busy Saturday night. This was the first time he sat across his desk from two FBI agents getting briefed on plans for a possible Al Qaeda style suicide attack on his mall during Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year in the busiest mall in the United States.

Davis was being briefed by the FBI about possible terrorist attacks at the Mall of the Americas two days after a pair of U.S. special operations raids, one in Libya, and one in Somalia. Sixteen days earlier Al Shabaab militants attacked the Westlake Mall, a U.S. style shopping center in Nairobi, Kenya. The FBI men told Davis it was a miracle only 67 people were killed in the Africa mall attack. Based on the damage to the mall, they felt the toll would have been higher. “Westlake was a test run for Al Shabaab. It was training for them, a field exercise. They won’t make the same mistakes twice.”

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The two FBI agents pulled up a file on their tablet computer. “Our estimates of casualties here at Mall of the America in a Black Friday attack are between 400 and 800 killed.” Davis felt the grip of what an attack would mean. The country, the economy, Minnesota, his community, his tenants, his family, his job. He remembered the economic impact from the 9/11 attacks. He was 40 years old then, working for the Taubman Centers back in Michigan. They managed a large number of shopping malls around the U.S. The 9/11 terror attacks had gutted the company’s occupancy in the next five years when the economy tanked. And that hadn’t been a direct attack on a U.S. shopping center. What the FBI agents were describing to Davis now could sink the shopping mall industry in the United States.

“The real damage, though,” Continued the larger agent with the iPad, “will be the broader economic impact on U.S. business. Retail for the holiday season would be destroyed. Even the e-commerce guys, like Amazon.com, would take a hit since people would not only be afraid to shop at a mall, they would be afraid to shop, period, because of concern over another economic crash. This is the new 9/11. It really would be Black Friday”

Bill Davis had one question for the two FBI men, “So, what do we do to make sure this doesn’t happen?”

“Well,” The smaller of the two FBI men said, “We think we may have reduced the capabilities of the attackers to execute their previous plans, but we still need your cooperation here at Mall of the Americas, Mr. Davis.”

“I’m all ears guys.”

02:45 Local (23:45, 2 October UTC), Thursday, 3 October 2013, Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, Headquarters, Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA).

Nine men were arrested in Africa following the Kenyan mall attack. It took a few days for… the authorities… to extract information from those nine men. Taken one at a time none of them provided anything that seemed of much use. But each minor detail they provided, from how they paid for their meals to how they learned to use their weapons, began to congeal into a pattern. When that pattern was fit against the sides of other patterns, now electronically in a basement in Langley, Virginia, there was a horrific conclusion: The U.S. was next.

Once that conclusion was reached the Director of National Intelligence was briefed. He briefed the President, a man deeply embroiled with a domestic political battle when Congress refused to approve economic changes forcing a shutdown of some government offices. The President and his staff were busy with, among other things, trying to manage the first ever White House online flaming campaign via e-mail and social media. Their target was Congress and their intent was to depict them as uncompromising and unreasonable. To his credit as Commander in Chief, when the briefing materials on the Nairobi attacks reached his desk, the President did not delay. He set the wheels in motion via Admiral William H. McRaven at MacDill AFB. McRaven is the ninth man to command the United States Special Operations Command at MacDill, a unified command that coordinates the training, equipment, doctrine and employment of all U.S. special operations units.

McRaven’s units include some of the most sophisticated military intelligence gathering and analysis capabilities in the world. These operate organically to the special operations community, from the field around the world back to MacDill, largely for the purposes of mission planning. The strategic intelligence may flow upward from McRaven’s units, or downward from Langley, but flow it did, in both directions. When the intelligence McRaven’s units had collected was collated with the information garnered from the West Lake Mall attack in Kenya the picture was crystal clear.

A big part of that picture pointed back to a beach house in the Somali coastal city of Barawa.

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Force Recon Marines from the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 12 (SPMAGTF-12) at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, had been training local indigenous forces in the region. They also collected intelligence from them during training. Both special operations and CIA operatives joined the activities related to Somalia at Camp Lemonnier to help with data collection and facilitate better, more context-based interpretation of intel. SPMAGTF Recon Marines had even conducted beach reconnaissance of some areas of the Barawa, Somalia coastline. That hydrographic survey data, combined with signals intelligence, some limited HUMINT (human intelligence from operatives on the ground in the target area), satellite and drone images merged with data from the West Lake Mall detainee interviews.

Back at Camp Lemonnier, at MacDill AFB in Florida, on a ship off the coast of East Africa and in Langley, Virginia, planners held a web conference to review the final plans for a direct action mission to interdict the capability of Al Shabaab to carry out their planned U.S. mall attack.

It was Thursday night. The raid on Barawa was a “go”.

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03:50 Local (12:50 UTC), Saturday, 5 October 2013, 473 meters off the coast of Baraawe, Somalia.

High tide hit the rocky beach off Baraawe, Somalia at 04:38 hours under a dim, waxing crescent moon. Just before high tide the incoming tidal current urged the twelve combat swimmers of the Naval Special Warfare Combat Interdiction Group (formerly “SEAL Team 6 or “DEVGRU”) toward the rocky outcrops that lay just off the Somali coast. Swimming along the surface was easy; the black African waters were warm. High clouds filtered what little moonlight there was.

The assault team had left their F470 CRRC boats almost 2 miles off shore to prevent visual detection of the assault boats from land. The boats used sound suppressed motors that were extremely quiet. After dropping off the combat swimmers the rigid inflatable boats immediately turned back out to sea for recovery on a U.S. Navy ship that was even now steaming back toward the coast after the insertion.

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The first element of the combat swimmer/assault team would hit the beach, remove their swim fins and floatation vests then cross inland on foot less than a kilometer south of their target, a large beachfront villa on the southern edge of Baraawe. They would turn immediately north toward the objective. This first six-man element of the team moved inland approximately 400 meters toward the concealment of low scrub. The other six-man element lay prone in the gently lapping waves of shallow water just off the beach until the flanking assault element was in place. A series of clicks on their updated, secure AN/PRC-126 radios would signal the first assault team was in place. Then the two teams would move toward the target, a two-story villa where the objective, a high value personnel target named Ahmed Abdi Godane, was supposed to be located.

The two elements of the assault team were in place. The wind was gentle coming just barely off the ocean, it was 71 degrees Fahrenheit. The sun would not rise for another hour and forty minutes. Each member of the second assault element heard the clicks in their headset when the first element got into position. They responded with a single click of the mic button. Then each team member checked right, then left, clearing his field of fire and began a low, quick advance across the beach, trending right or north to the target.

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The building was surrounded by low walls on three sides and a high wall at the back. It made sense to go over the lower sections of the walls, enter the courtyard section, assault any threats that were providing security and then conduct the entry. Once the entry began, speed and violence of action was their primary tactic. They had to overwhelm what security may be in place quickly, assault the target building and secure the objective, detain Ahmed Abdi Godane or neutralize him, then exfil the target area. The primary extract route was by helo extraction near a defensible LZ south of the target area. The secondary extract was back out to sea.

Overhead surveillance by an RQ-170 Sentinel drone would provide a live video feed to the command center back at MacDill and help give the Naval Special Warfare operators on the beach a high degree of situational awareness via radio. What the Sentinel video showed now was troubling. There were more personnel between the insertion point and the objective than normal. Within the walled compound itself, no less than eight hot targets could be seen, some of them milling around from target to target as if they were spreading information. Outside, there were more than ten hot spots between the insertion point at the beach and the objective. The insertion would almost certainly involve contact earlier than they planned.

A common feature of operations in this region is that its difficult to tell who is a combatant and who is not from overhead surveillance. The hot spot on the drone feed may be a fisherman rigging his boat to go out at first light, or an insurgent walking a security perimeter armed with an automatic weapon and grenades. Until the assault team got eyes on they would not know from the drone feed. They didn’t have to wait to see to find out.

The insurgents initiated contact with one man firing a single round at one of the SEALs as he moved to a concealed position across the beach to establish the flanking position. The single round alerted every other sentry. The SEAL’s weapons were suppressed. When another assault team member put two rounds into the insurgent it didn’t make enough noise to be heard back at the compound a couple hundred meters away. Nonetheless everyone in the compound was alerted by the single shot, then the silence. Now they were coming outside the wall.

The assault team worked an “L” shaped hasty ambush on the objective, both teams directing controlled fire toward targets they could see. When the volume of returning fire began to increase the SEAL assault team leader radioed for a pair of Viper gunships from an assault ship orbiting off the coast to swing inland for fire support.

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The Viper gunships, an upgraded version of the AH-1 Cobra helicopter, overflew the target from the ocean. They banked hard and attacked facing back out to sea to avoid collateral damage from their guns. When the rounds from the AH-1Z Viper ‘s 20 mm cannon hit the compound the result was like cracking open a hornet’s nest. The pilot and gunner could see personnel and vehicles scatter through their Thales Top Owl helmet imagery system. White streaks showed the path of gunfire reaching into the dark to find the assaulters.

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Special operations is a fragile craft with a courageous heritage. But the reality is lightly armed men are flung against sometimes heavily fortified targets in inferior numbers. Their primary advantage is speed and violence of action. If their objective is compromised before it can be overwhelmed their chances of success evaporate by the split second. The SEAL assault force commander on the beach knew this well, having operated on both sides of this double-edged sword for a decade. He knew he had men inland a few hundred meters who risked being cut off from the sea extraction route and that securing a landing zone for extraction was, at best, an iffy proposition now.

The assault was compromised before it began. He signaled for mission abort and emergency extraction.

This contingency was well drilled. The beach fire team put 40 mm grenade fire on the target while the inland team broke contact, peeling back toward the sand and the sea. Each man covered the next in a modified version of the classic peel maneuver to break contact. The Vipers overflew the target at high speed and low altitude, this time flying inland and banking left or south, the opposite direction as before, then paralleling the beach on a gun run to cover the SEALs.

Only twenty-five minutes after the first assault element crossed the beach the team was back in the water as their assault boats raced back inland to recover them. After a twenty-minute swim to the east and south the recovery boats spotted the infrared strobes of the assault teams and the recovery was completed. The Vipers left their orbit along the beach just before the SEALs were picked up off shore and the assault force collapsed back out to sea as the sun lit the horizon an angry orange. It would be hours or even days until U.S. assets would know if the target had been compromised in the raid.

The raid on Baraawe to capture Ahmed Abdi Godane did not go as planned. It also was not a failure. While the primary objective was not achieved it may have killed or wounded Godane. If not, it sent a clear message to Godane and his men: The U.S. will cross the beach to get you before you can get us. Regardless of the results on the beach that night in Baraawe that message was sent and received loud and clear.

10:58 Local (15:58 UTC), Monday, 7 October 2013, Administrative Offices, Triple Five Group, Mall of the Americas, Bloomington, Minnesota, United States.

“We’ll have teams of agents operating undercover all the way from the parking lots to the inside of the mall itself.” The FBI agent told Bob Davis. “We need to put some of our people under cover as store employees and mall workers over the weekend too. Prior to the weekend we’ll be installing some additional surveillance equipment outside and inside the mall. We’re pretty sure we know what we’re looking for and this surveillance should prevent any operatives from gaining access to the mall.”

Davis thought he should be reassured. The thought of installing security checkpoints at the entrance and exit to the mall was unthinkable. It would ruin business and attract the wrong kind of media. This softer approach seemed much less… obtrusive. He hoped it was enough. He noticed his hand shake again.

By Tom Demerly.

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I collect promotional e-mails. I love the medium. I’m fascinated by it. I love the good ones and am entertained by the bad ones. Every once in a while, but rarely, I’m inspired by one. Here are 4 promotional e-mails, 3 are very good, 1 is a disaster that will drive away customers and take the fast lane to the “spam” box.

Here is the idea: We’re looking at these the way they view on my iPhone. Most people see promotional e-mails on their phone now. Soon, nearly everyone will view them on a portable device with a screen oriented more vertically, as with a phone or phablet, as opposed to a computer screen, which is wider than it is tall. That’s important to realize when you write your e-mail copy and design your e-mail, as we will see.

Next, think about the real-word ergonomics of how people interact with their e-mail on a mobile device. Where are they? How long is their attention span at the moment they will see it? What are they doing when they see it and how does it initially view? This goes a long way toward driving that golden BB metric, the “open rate”. If you have a high open rate, you’ve cleared the first hurtle.

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Here is a great one, and I love this e-mail and the headline it came with. “20% OFF”. No bullshit. No poetry. No extra words. This is brilliant. It will convert to orders on their website.

This is how: I subscribed to the list somehow so I am already interested in the product category. That step is done. Now all I will act on is a deal on something I’m interested in. And, since people only see this e-mail for… a maximum of 2 seconds (that’s right, only 2 seconds- and that is the max) it says what it has to say, big, bold, short and to the point and gets out.

My behavior that follows is to quickly click through to the site. If there is anything there I want and 20% is enough of a discount, and, as a consumer I have the discretionary income to create “open to buy”, chances are I will dump something in the shopping cart. The e-mail worked. Short. Fast. To the point. Bam. Winning.

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Here is an anomaly, and these are rare and brilliant. Patagonia and Orvis both do a good job with this very difficult type of e-mail promotion that may not convert to sales within a few seconds of opening it, but it sets a mood and establishes my set of beliefs surrounding the brand and their products.

Retailers usually don’t use these- and they usually don’t work for retailers. Brands usually use these to help establish what their brand is all about. What they mean, what they stand for. Again- this usually doesn’t convert immediately, but it will plant an effective brain seed to bring a customer back later. And, the other brilliant thing about this medium, a kind of visual “haiku”, is that it doesn’t mention prices. It only establishes image or cache’.

This e-mail will make me look back at Orvis again. If there is a good follow-on promotion, I may order. They got my attention, they did it with mood and imagery, and they kept price off the table for now. Winning.

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Here is a train wreck. And it is real. This is from a big-box triathlon retailer. It is hopeless. Remember, 2 seconds… You’re driving your car, you’re sitting in an airport watching your flight get updated, you’re waiting in line at Starbucks, you’re at a drive-thru line and you’re quickly checking your e-mail. This shows up. Delete. Junk Mail.

This is words. Words, words, words, words. This is the guy who just talks too much. It plathers on about… something (I didn’t read it, it has taken less time to write this blog and I’m a busy man) and it has no point. It. Is. Just. Too. Long. Period.

Remember, this is how the e-mail showed up on my phone screen. This is one of the worst sales/promotional e-mails I’ve ever seen. This company has fallen into a trap of sending these and I collect them for just this purpose; to show people what NOT to do. I keep them because soon they will be bankrupt, again.

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OK, get your mind out of the gutter. I know it’s tough, but try to focus on something other than the boobs. Just try.

Consider that you are selling a product category to a strong buying demographic: Young, affluent, high percentage of discretionary income, very fast moving, using lots of mobile gadgets and very connected. You need visuals. Rich visuals. Also, the product you are selling is visual-based. Sports cars, fashion apparel, anything with appearance as its key appeal. Like boobs. So you serve the visual of the product first and foremost. Copy??? Is there even copy on this page? I can’t remember. All I saw was pastel colors and appealing round things. I remember this from when I was born. I was screaming and hungry, and this fixed everything. Still does.

They could be boobs, they could be wheels, they could be food. It is a visual play for a visual product. And it sells. The brilliance of this approach by Frederick’s is they realize that men are a large percentage of their customers, buying apparel for their wives or girlfriends and, in the case of their better customers, both (at least temporarily).

This won’t sell to everyone. Some people will take offense. It is sexist. It is. But that customer isn’t a Frederick’s customer anyway and wouldn’t have received this e-mail. This e-mail shows the goods (literally and figuratively) and it will convert. Another thing about Frederick’s e-mail marketing is frequency. They keep boobs in your in-box daily. You never forget them.

That’s the quick and dirty on promotional e-mails, because promotional e-mails are a quick and dirty business. Especially when done right.

 

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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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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.

By Tom Demerly.

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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.

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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.

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By Tom Demerly.

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I survived the collapse of Detroit, the Middle East after 9/11 and watched East Germans through binoculars while dodging spies. I’ve never had a sense of looming change like California. The ground beneath your feet is unstable, and it’s not just geology.

California is ruled by silent fear. The culture is collectively grasping the dead image of the California dream.

It must be similar to sailing on the RMS Titanic in 1912 or being on Wall Street on 9/10. Everything seems fine, but there is a tectonic uneasiness. Consider that both the Titanic tragedy and the 9/11 attacks happened by the slightest of circumstances. California is vulnerable to a similar flutter of the butterfly’s wings. It is a culture perched on the fulcrum of the American dream, or nightmare. It can so easily go either way.

I lived in Mission Viejo, California for a year. The neighborhood was idyllic with soaring palms, manicured landscaping, and artificial lakes. Traffic jams of BMW’s delivered perfectly coiffed teenagers to the local high school in what looked like a cattle call for an Abercrombie catalog shoot. If nothing else, Californians are beautiful.

When I arrived in California I walked around a corner to discover two 40-ish females hefting their breasts in comparison. “Oh!” The woman remarked when she noticed me, “We’re sorry… we just got these.” Californians eat natural foods but have artificial breasts. They are afraid of the inevitability of aging and spend enormous amounts in a losing battle to avoid it. There is a cultural aversion to dressing your age in California.

California is crowded. So crowded that I lived inside a massive, sprawling strip mall. The expanse of strip malls is like a skin-eating disease on the terrain. The lesions have connected with each other across the tissue of the landscape to engulf the corporate housing boxes of consumers. We were caged there between purchases and labor shifts.  It resembled an above ground ant nest with nice landscaping. The ants drove Benzs instead of following scent trails.

My cell between the strip malls in California had 2 windows, 2 rooms and cost about $1600 a month. Now I live in a house with 17 windows, 9 rooms and it is $800 a month. I also have a massive yard. In California I slept with my head 9 feet from the front bumpers of cars parked outside. And their constantly bleating alarms. I did have a nice pool though.

Southern California is fragile. One morning on my five-mile commute to work a traffic light went out. One traffic light. The ripple effect throughout Orange County was bizarre. Nearly the entire distance of my five-mile route was delayed or stopped because of one traffic light failure. One. What would happen if there were power failures here like the East Coast power failure of 2003?

California works (now) because of a little known but real principle of space management called the “chicken coop” theory: When there are too many chickens in the coop to all sit on the floor at once you must continually bang on the side of the coop to keep some chickens in the air. The result is an unsustainable society of increasingly collective fatigue. If every Californian had to drive somewhere at once the roads could not handle the number of vehicles. If too many Californians flush their toilets at once…

You may ask, “What about the authentic surf culture? The liberal, progressive attitude and the tolerant society?” Those are the depictions of California we see in themed mall stores, music videos and media. The reality has shifted to an industry of depicting those things. Instead of being California, California is in the business of selling California to the rest of the world, or at least what they think California is. Or was.

What was most embarrassing is that many Californians were very up-tight about being laid-back. They were incapable of poking fun at themselves. When they made fun of me for calling a carbonated beverage “pop” I would reply, “Sorry dude, it’s totally soda man, that was so lame of me…” they would stare at me blankly, as if I had just taken the laid back Dude-God’s name in vein. The reality is that the California surfer dude is simply a hillbilly with a trust fund. Sorry to totally harsh on your scene dudes.

Mostly, Californians are lonely and afraid, and I was one of them. I asked a close friend who was moving if he needed help. He said, in all seriousness, “I don’t want you to help me because you might need me to help you.” That was California in a nutshell.

I went to the same pretty little check out girl at the grocery store every time for a year. The last week I lived there the girl asked, “Why do you always come through my line?”

“I think you are pretty.” I told her. She told me she was taking her break at six and asked if I wanted to have coffee with her next door at Starbucks.

“No,” I said. “I am moving back to Detroit tomorrow.”