In the summer of 2002, when Hamid Karzai became president of Afghanistan’s interim government, John Zinn was there as part of his security detail. A year later, as the dust settled in Iraq from the U.S.-led Shock and Awe campaign, John was there sweeping the country for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). When L. Paul Bremer became, in effect, the interim chief executive of Iraq, John was on hand, guarding him as well.
Those years were a terrifying time for Jackie. It seemed to her that every night there was news about yet another roadside bomb in the Middle East — and all she could do was hope John was nowhere near it. She was right to be terrified because there were in fact times when he was indeed quite near the action.
Especially one pivotal day in late January 2004.
By 2004 the situation in Iraq had seriously deteriorated and was getting more dangerous by the day. John and an ex-Green Beret buddy, Ron Griffin, would spend each day hazarding the streets of Iraq, then get together in the evenings to talk over what they’d seen during the day and discuss the tactical failures they’d witnessed.
One major source of problems lay in the vehicles they were driving, which were typically some sort of high-end SUV, retrofitted with armor plating. The problem was that everyone on the street knew who was in these vehicles because nobody over there but Americans were driving these models. Our guys might as well have had neon signs on them saying, “We’re Americans! Shoot at us!” The bad guys would stand up on overpasses with binoculars, scope out one of these cars, and suddenly you’re getting an RPG up the tailpipe. (Ron called them “to whom it may concern shots.”)
And it wasn’t only a matter of how recognizable the cars were. These vehicles just weren’t designed for the punishment they were taking. John and Ron were constantly wrestling with fuel-incompatibility issues, suspension system failures, problems with doors, windows, other secondary electromechanical systems, and all sorts of mechanical fuckups. Under normal circumstances, failures like these would be minor annoyances. In conditions of urban combat, they could be catastrophic.
“If someone doesn’t do something about these vehicles,” John said to Ron, “we’re going to lose a lot of our guys.”
On January 27, 2004, John was part of a convoy on a mission through the mean streets of the city where he and Ron were working. No matter how skillful the driving or how well the three drivers kept their distance, there was no way their vehicles could not stand out like three-piece suits in an inner-city street fight. Sure enough, the convoy was ambushed. The vehicles in front managed to escape the kill zone and get away, leaving John and his companions in the hot seat. A slew of hostiles came up from behind, and John and his buddies’ car started taking heavy fire. According to the after-action report, armor-piercing rounds were fired into the vehicle through their windows. Manning the machine gun in back, John returned fire out the shattered rear windshield while the driver practiced every evasive tactic he knew.
This was when one of the vehicle’s “safety” features nearly got them killed.
A grenade blew up under the chassis, severing one of the car’s brake cables and causing the vehicle to lock up and come to an instant and complete halt.
“Motherfucker!” the driver said. John’s only comment was another volley from the big gun.
Back at base, Ron was having lunch when he and a few other guys heard the calls coming over: “Contact! Contact! Contact!…” Ron and the others jumped into two cars to form an immediate reaction force, get out there as quickly as possible, and pull out any survivors.
Meanwhile, their vehicle immobilized, John and his two teammates had no choice but to hoof it. John continued shooting out from the back of the car, laying down enough cover fire so the other two guys could start moving out before he quit and joined them. When you’re shooting an automatic weapon in an enclosed space, it isn’t kind to your hearing. And John did not go light on bullets. From that day on he was deaf as a post in his right ear.
The three went on foot now, winding their way through some back streets until they found a friendly cabbie who stopped and turned over his car keys to them. They thanked the man, hopped in, and quickly realized the cabbie hadn’t done them much of a favor: The damn thing was on its last legs. They made it another quarter of a mile before the cab quit on them.
Back on foot again. Eventually, they found a junkyard area they could slip into and get some concealment. They holed up there until one of the two reaction vehicles caught up to them and got them out.
Once back at base they learned that, by some miracle, they had not lost a single one of their men in the attack.
John and Ron stayed in-country until March, but that was their last trip as private contractors. That night they took a yellow legal pad and sketched out the concept for a vehicle that would become the focus of John’s entrepreneurial energies from that point on.
“It’s crazy over there,” John told Jackie once he was back stateside. “Our guys are getting blown up left and right. What we need is a fully armored vehicle, built from the ground up to blend into the traffic of the country where we’re operating.”
Jackie heard the passion in his voice and saw the gleam in his eye. “Uh-oh,” she thought. “Here we go again.” But over the years she’d learned that John’s business ideas, even though none had yet come to fruition, were often ingenious and at times brilliant. As John described the custom-built vehicle he envisioned, Jackie could see he was onto something important.
Not everyone had the same level of faith in the concept. After all, John and Ron were security guys, hired guns — not engineers. “Knuckle-draggers don’t make vehicles,” as Ron puts it. Well, that was about to change.
John wanted the vehicle to look indigenous and be as fully armored as possible without looking that way. Indigenous. Armored. He called up his dad with the seventh and final name for his corporation: Indigen Armor.
During the rest of 2004, while I was busy developing and teaching the NSW sniper course with Eric Davis, John and his partners (Ron and another ex-Spec Ops security guy) were creating Indigen Armor. They put together a detailed proposal, with CAD drawings of the vehicle they had in mind, then shopped their idea to companies with the connections and financial clout needed to put it into production.
Every company they approached said the same thing: “Great idea — but we get pitched great ideas all the time. We’re not interested until you actually build the thing and show it to us.” Developing the idea for their vehicle was not going to cut it. They were going to have to hire someone to build them a working model of the damn thing.
John had already done the research and knew the ideal manufacturing partner. They approached a racing car company in southern California with a strong track record and a good-size manufacturing facility. The firm agreed to build their demo vehicle and be their manufacturing partner. All John and Ron had to do was come up with about $100,000. They each put in 20 grand themselves, money saved from their contracting work, and then did what every capital-deficient entrepreneur does: started talking to friends and family.
By July their financing was in place and they were ready to go. It took a little over two months to build their demo model, and John and Ron were on-site all day, every day. It was nerve-racking, having all that friends-and-family money on the line. And the ’round-the-clock intensity of the production process was brutal, even for guys who were used to working in a war zone. “Hellacious” is how Ron describes it.
That September they invited all the contacts they could come up with to a debut showing at the racing car company’s facility in Huntington Beach. The showing was a runaway success. Soon they had a $10 million contract, starting with an order for four vehicles. John and his partners were able to pay back every investor — with interest — in far less than the promised one year.
Jackie’s long-standing belief in John was vindicated at last: His dream company had become a reality. Indigen Armor was off and running.
Except that nothing ever goes according to plan. Ever. It’s the first rule of combat and the first rule of business.
One day John got a phone call from their client with some extremely upsetting news: The race-car company, their manufacturing partner, was going behind John’s back. They wanted to squeeze Indigen Armor out of the picture altogether and deal directly with the client. After all, they were the ones building the thing, right?
In Special Operations you’re trained to respond to any threat from any direction, no matter how unexpected, with immediate and decisive force. John and his partners didn’t waste any time. They terminated their contract, sued the car company, and won a $2.1 million arbitration award. Which was good news financially — but now they were without a manufacturing partner, and where did that leave them? John was undaunted. Spec Ops training again: The ability to respond to any situation with creative solutions is just as important as knowing how to shoot your weapon. Often more so.
The day the wire transfer from the award landed in their corporate account, John said to Jackie, “Well, the Band-Aid’s been ripped off.” She asked him what he meant. He grinned and said, “It looks like we’re gonna build these cars ourselves.”
Jackie was floored. Was he saying they were going to create their own production line? John had never intended to become an automaker. He had no experience in designing, outfitting, or running a manufacturing plant. Was he out of his ever-loving mind?
But that was exactly what they did.
This excerpt is from Brandon Webb & John Mann’s bestselling book, Among Heroes, available everywhere books are sold and on Amazon.