In early 2008, I was sitting in a nondescript classroom along with about 30 other spy or spy support wannabes, learning all about the CIA, its history, and what roles we might play in the world’s premier intelligence agency. I was a bit nervous, as it was my first week, and after listening to others talk about their former lives as everything from PR specialists to lawyers to the full spectrum of the special operations community, I was not so sure that I fit in or measured up.
Then, in walked one of our instructors. He was middle-aged and friendly, but with his balding head, glasses, and short stature, was completely unassuming. He held a box full of books, and as he passed them out, he said not a word. When there was finally one in front of each of us, he picked one up, looked at it for a second, then looked at us and said, “This is us, this is me, and this will soon be you. Each of you will research and report on one of the names in this book, and I am betting you that once you do, you will never forget them or why they are in here.” I had already looked at the book’s cover and knew basically what it was about, but it was not until years later that the impact of the words inside, as well as the words of the instructor, would come full circle.
“The Book of Honor: The Secret Lives and Deaths of CIA Operatives,” written by Ted Gup, is a 384-page, emotional and incredibly well-written collection of stories based on the lives and deaths of some of the names inscribed in “The Book.” Those names are on display on the CIA’s Memorial Wall at all times. The Book contains the names of employees who died while serving their country, and each name is next to a 23-carat gold-leaf star. To protect intelligence sources and methods, the names of some of those officers on The Wall must remain secret, even in death.
Each of these officers is remembered in The Book by only a gold star, with no name present. Gup’s reason for researching and writing his book was pure happenstance. He walked into CIA headquarters in February 1991, during the first Gulf War, to interview an analyst familiar with Iraq. While waiting to be escorted inside, he studied the wall and The Book. He asked some questions, and even though he received a fair amount of “Can’t tell you that,” most of what he was told moved him and led to his writings.
One of the intelligence officers immortalized in The Book and on the wall, and the officer that I chose to write about, was Larry Freedman. Many have been described as larger than life, but Larry Freedman epitomized it. He was described by those who knew him as both a fierce warrior and a teddy bear, one who would end boyhood fights ruthlessly, then help the other guy up and dust him off. He loved motorcycles, and while in college at Kansas State University, would regularly hop on his bike and ride from Kansas to Philadelphia “Just to get a milkshake,” and then drive back 45 minutes later. He earned the moniker “Superjew” for his willingness to push himself to the limit and his devotion to his Jewish faith. He soon flunked out of college, but on September 30, 1965, he found his path when he enlisted in the United States Army.
Freedman volunteered for training as a medic, and volunteered again to become what he considered to be the best of the best: a Special Forces soldier. He excelled at his chosen profession, and would go on to win two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, numerous Good Conduct Medals, the Humanitarian Service Medal, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, and numerous others from his time ranging from Vietnam to when he entered service with the CIA.
His entry is one still shrouded in mystery. In March of 1978, Freedman was selected as a member of Special Forces Operational Detachment—Delta, the so-called Delta Force. He initially trained as an assaulter, then made the cut to attend the coveted sniper course, at which he excelled. He undertook covert missions in the Middle and Far East, and most of them are still classified. He participated in the ill-fated inaugural mission for Delta, Operation Eagle Claw, the effort to rescue the hostages being held at the U.S. embassy in Iran. The decision to abort the mission, the tragic accident, and the loss of close friends and teammates took a heavy toll on him.
In 1982, Freedman left Delta, but continued his Army career. Some parts of his record are murky, listing him as “infantryman (special project)” and a year later, “special projects team member.” By December 1984, Freedman was made noncommissioned officer in charge of the Special Forces Interdiction Course, where he trained Delta and other Special Forces teams advanced marksmanship, camouflage, stalking, and “delivering precision rifle fire in support of special operations.” He later left the training group and taught in the classroom at the Sergeant Major’s Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas before returning to Fort Bragg’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School as a sergeant major and instructor. He longed to get back into the field, but at age 49, even with his skill set, he was turned down by agencies like the DEA. Freedman, used to excelling and being the “go to guy,” was crushed.
But Freedman was not one to take no for an answer. A friend from Delta who had recently “cross decked” over to the CIA reached out to him. At first Freedman was skeptical, still harboring distrust from past operations run in conjunction with the Agency, rife with withheld or bad intel. But eventually he relented, and on February 31, 1990, he retired from the Army after 25 years of service and moved into the world of the CIA’s paramilitary Special Activities Division. He repeatedly deployed to Africa and Poland on missions still classified, but was frustratingly regulated to the sidelines as Operation Desert Storm unfolded.
Soon Freedman got the “just one more war” that he longed for. The east African country of Somalia, already in a state of lawlessness, was quickly deteriorating into a famine-plagued hell. Freedman was tapped to be part of a joint agency, the Joint Special Operations Command reconnaissance team, that was to deploy to Somalia and get a sense of “ground truth.” He jumped at the chance. Before he left, Freedman made a visit to an old friend and mentor, Gale McMillan. McMillan was a specialty weapons maker who outfitted special operations units, and Freedman was there to pick up a 10-power scope for use with his .308 rifle while deployed. While at breakfast one day, McMillan advised Freedman that perhaps it was time to hang up his spurs and let the young guys do the dirty work. Freedman’s reply was simple: “Mac, you know I’m doing what I love to do. If I have to go, what better way to go?”
On December 23, 1992, Freedman sat behind the wheel of a civilian vehicle along with three others as part of a route recon to the Somali city of Bardera. As they rumbled along a remote road, there was a sudden and deafening explosion. As the dust settled, three of the men lay wounded, and Larry “Superjew” Freedman was dead. His death was listed as that of a GS-12 Department of Defense civilian, but his social security number and next of kin were omitted. The three survivors were mysteriously listed as State Department security officers.
Today, there are numerous memorials to the man who lived larger than life, but died in anonymity. A bridge in Buundo, Ethiopia, where Freedman had run many missions and had made many friends, bears his name (although it lists his middle initial as R instead of N). A plaque on a picnic table just below Mount Rushmore bears the inscription “In Memory of Larry Freedman,” in honor of the spot where he would often stop to rest on his annual trek to the Sturgis motorcycle rally. His name adorns a plaque dedicated to those who died during the Somalia campaign, but he is listed as a State Department employee.
The book goes on to speak of how Freedman’s family and friends honored his life and his death, despite the restrictions placed on them by the CIA for security purposes, including not allowing his casket to be opened to place his service uniform inside. Freedman is just one example of the many honored in The Book and on The Wall, beginning with the first name, Douglas Seymour Mackiernan and ending (in this particular book) with the man I was honored to choose for my assignment.
It is a moving and well-written memorial to those who made the ultimate sacrifice while in defense of their nation, and as I said above, the impact of their sacrifice and the significance of The Wall would become evident to me soon after. From my entrance on-duty in early 2008 to when I left in 2014, three of the newest stars on The Wall and in The Book would be close friends of mine—classmates and colleagues. Like Larry “Superjew” Freedman and the other immortalized in this excellent book, I will never forget and will forever do my part to honor them.
(Featured composite image courtesy of Herra Kuulapaa)