I’d been out to Niland about six weeks before starting SEAL Tactical Training, with one of my buddies from Team Three, John Zinn. John and I were both surfers who’d grown up in California. He looked like your average skinny surf bum, but he was an excellent waterman and a great athlete. When I arrived at Team Three we hit it off right away.
As new guys, John and I were sent out there for a week to help support one of the SEAL platoons doing some training. One day we’d been sent out on some sort of resupply mission in a bare-frame, stripped-down Humvee. We’d completed the work and were done for the day. We were out in the desert, and no one else was around. We said, “Hey, let’s see what this bad boy can do.” We took off, taking turns driving, busting around the desert mountains, and launching that Humvee over rises in the barren desert terrain like the Dukes of Hazzard.
It went something like this… yaaa hoooo!!!
As we were tearing ass down a long desert stretch, I saw a dip up ahead and started slowing a little to navigate it. John said, “C’mon, man, punch it!” and I stepped on it. Suddenly there was a gap in front of us. I accelerated, doing my best to jump it. All at once, we were airborne. Everything slowed to a crawl. John and I turned and looked at each other, eyes wide, in slow motion: a Thelma and Louise moment. It couldn’t have been more than a second and a half that we were airborne, but it felt like a full minute. Then we landed. We had managed to clear the gap, but we came down so hard on the other side that it blew out the left front tire and bent the rim. We had no spare. How the hell were we going to explain this?
We radioed in. The guys at the base said they didn’t have anyone free to come out and get us, so we should hang tight for the night. We weren’t sure exactly where we were, but we knew we were somewhere in the vicinity of an area designated for ordnance exercises. In plain English: a live bombing range.
We slept out there that night in the Humvee and woke up early the next morning to the sound of F-18 jets screaming overhead and ordnance dropping in the distance. Were they getting closer? We weren’t sure.
We got on the radio and said, “Um, hey guys, can you get us out of here?” We passed them rough coordinates and asked them to hurry. They came out and brought us a spare; we changed the tire and drove back to camp. Now we had to explain what had happened.
At the time the camp was run by a SEAL named Steve Heinz. This guy was like something out of a cartoon. Take whatever overdrawn, exaggerated picture you can form of a ridiculously tough Navy SEAL and exaggerate that by a factor of three. That’s Steve: an ogre of a man, chewing scrap metal and swallowing it. He ran that camp with an iron fist. Nobody screwed around there — nobody. So here we are, a couple of new guys who just busted one of his vehicles. We had been afraid of those F-18s. We were terrified of Steve.
First, we went to see the mechanic and explained that there had been some rough terrain out there, and we blew a tire. He looked at the bent rim, then back at us. “How do you explain that?”
“The terrain was rough,” said John.
“Very rough,” I echoed.
He looked at us. “What the hell were you guys doing?”
John looked right back at him and said, “It was very, very rough terrain.”
The next few hours were not fun, waiting for the hammer to drop. Finally, we were called into Heinz’s office. He lit into us. “What the hell were you doing out there? You want to tell me you guys weren’t out there hotdogging and fucking off in my vehicle?”
“No sir,” John managed to get out. “We were just driving.”
“It was really rough terrain,” I added helpfully.
Heinz glared at us, then dismissed us with a growl. “Get the fuck out of my office.” That was the end of it.
John went on to BRAVO platoon and did four years there. He met a food chemist named Jackie, fell head over heels in love with her, got out of the service, and married her. When 9/11 happened, John was one of the first guys doing private security for companies like DynCorp and Blackwater as an independent contractor. The pay was outrageous, especially once we went into Iraq. He did that for a few years, then took a pile of earnings and formed an armored car company called Indigen Armor with an army buddy from their experience driving around being shot at over there. I like to think that our crazy outing at Niland helped plant a seed for his later success.
A few years later John and his buddy sold their majority interest, and he and Jackie had a child. Then in 2010, he was killed in Jordan in a freak accident. John was a good guy, one of the best. His dad, Michael, is a great lawyer, and I became good friends with him after John’s death. We are friends to this day. John was as solid as they come, and I miss him.
Thanks for reading.