This is Part II of a four-part series on Nay SEAL John Zinn. Click here for Part I.
In the spring of 2000, John Zinn asked his lawyer father, Michael, to help him form his own corporation: a restaurant that would include a gigantic man-made wave so that people could come to the restaurant and surf while they were there. John also became interested in buying the rights to a British-made amphibious vehicle and distributing it here in the States. He also tried his hand at stockbroking. It eventually became a running joke at Michael’s office: John calling and yet again changing his articles of incorporation to fit his latest new idea. Over the next few years, that corporation’s name would change six times — and there were dozens of other business ideas that never even made it to the corporate-naming stage. Nothing quite came together. To a casual observer, John’s serial-entrepreneur efforts might have seemed no more than a string of harebrained ideas that would never amount to anything. It would be a few years before the evidence would prove it, but that casual observer would have been dead wrong.
Meanwhile, John and I continued in our SEAL careers on parallel tracks. When I went to Golf Platoon he joined Bravo, our sister platoon, and deployed to the Middle East at the same time I did. While we were part of the amphibious readiness group (the one that ended up rushing to the aid of the stricken USS Cole), Bravo was stationed in Bahrain, where it engaged in non-compliant ship boardings, enforcing UN sanctions against Iraq. On that deployment, John proved himself one of the team’s most outstanding performers.
A hostile ship boarding called a VBSS (visit, board, search, and seizure), is a high-speed, precision operation. After sneaking up alongside the hostile ship with your fast boats, you have to get your guys up and over the ship’s railings before the onboard crew of smugglers and pirates even realizes you’re there because the moment they know they’re being boarded they’ll take aggressive countermeasures. In the case of a smuggling ship on the Gulf, they’ll haul ass for nearby Iranian waters, where you’re legally powerless to do anything.
During the critical split-second board phase of one of Bravo Platoon’s VBSS operations, one of the guys fired a grappling hook that failed to catch on the pirate ship’s railing.
“I was still processing the fact that the thing hadn’t taken,” John’s OIC explained afterward, “and in a fraction of a second John threw another hook up there by hand.” John’s hook caught, and within the next few seconds, he had scuttled up the line and was up there on the railing laying down suppressing fire with a squad automatic weapon (SAW) while the rest of the boarding team crawled up the line after him. “I’d never seen a reaction time like that before,” his OIC added. “And I’ve never seen one since.”
When our deployments ended, John and I were both coming up for reenlistment, which would mean a decent cash bonus if we opted to stay in. I was married by that time; John was engaged to his girlfriend, Jackie, and we were both thinking about the financial demands of starting a family. I took the bonus and stayed in, moving from Golf to Echo Platoon, which was scheduled to go overseas later that year. (Though we could hardly have guessed we would end up in the mountains of Afghanistan hunting for terrorist training camps). John took a different path. When Bravo Platoon got back from its deployment at the end of 2000 John surprised Jackie by saying he wasn’t going to reenlist. He loved being part of the teams — but he wanted out.
John was a valuable asset (he was hell on the M60 machine gun), and our command didn’t want to lose him. The commander of SEAL Team Three offered to raise his bonus, but John turned him down. The offer went up; he turned it down again. They finally got up to $60,000 (an unheard-of amount), but he turned that down, too.
As he said, he had bigger fish to fry.
John left the service in early March 2001, and he and Jackie were married a few weeks later. By this time Jackie had her master’s degree in food science and had gotten a good job offer from National Food Laboratories, up in the San Francisco Bay area. Since John had enlisted right out of high school, Jackie suggested he take this opportunity to go back to school and get a degree. “I grew up on the East Coast,” she says, “in a family where it was ingrained into us that the way to success was to go to college and get a good job. I really couldn’t picture any other path.” John didn’t see it that way, and he didn’t give much of a damn about school, but he agreed to give it a shot. They moved to Oakland and he enrolled in a community college there while he looked for a job.
John found college life frustrating and at times infuriating. The other students were only a few years younger than he was, but to John, they seemed like kids who had seen nothing of real life. It was hard to sit there listening to those professors spouting their academic worldview, armchair-quarterbacking events halfway around the world — events John had seen up close in all their gritty reality. While I was tracking down Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in the mountains of Afghanistan with my fellow SEALs, John was sitting in a classroom being bored out of his mind.
Meanwhile, he continued coming up with idea after idea for new businesses. Every time he hatched a new concept he’d pitch it to Jackie, who listened and did her best to temper her own natural skepticism. Earlier that year, just before they were married, John had presented Jackie with the idea of putting ex-military personnel on domestic passenger flights. “Our biggest national threat is in the air,” he told her. He changed his corporation’s name to SkyGuard and worked with a martial arts master to develop a simplified version of Okinawan karate that flight attendants could employ in the narrow confines of a passenger airplane aisle, with a curriculum they could cover in about two hours.
Jackie had thought the idea was a bit far-fetched. Then 9/11 happened. “Oh, my God,” she told him. “You were right!”
Still, the SkyGuard idea did not come together. Jackie adored John and believed in him. But so far none of his brilliant ideas had panned out — and they had to eat. John needed to get a job.
Toward the end of 2001, John got a job offer with the sheriff’s department in Half Moon Bay, a sleepy San Francisco suburb. With 18 months as a naval police officer in Guantánamo Bay, plus four years in the SEALs, he was the very definition of “overqualified.” Be that as it may, the job required that he enroll in a five-month program at the local police academy. He started in January 2002.
John was the best student his instructors had ever seen at the academy, both physically and academically. This was interesting, considering that John had never before been more than a mediocre student (unless the subject involved athletics). But over his years in the service, he had learned how to focus his energies on whatever task he saw as important, and he was killing their standards. The jock who didn’t care about school had become the ultimate student.
One week before graduation, the cadets were practicing one-on-one takedowns. John was disgusted at how laid-back his classmates were as they went through the motions. When his turn came and a classmate faux-attacked him, John took the guy down for real, and hard. He didn’t injure the man, but that dude was down before he had a clue what had hit him.
The instructor suspended John on the spot. After a hasty conference, the administration judged him “too aggressive” for the academy. With a week to go till graduation, he was booted out of the program.
John was devastated. He could joke about it to Jackie (“I would’ve been better off over in Oakland, where there’s a murder every day!”), but it was no joke. Being kicked out of the academy also meant that the police job was gone. The young couple had just bought a home and were now carrying a substantial mortgage. Jackie’s job notwithstanding, they really needed John to generate an income.
This was the spring of 2002, and the so-called War on Terror was just hitting its stride. My platoon was on its way home from Afghanistan, to be replaced by others. Things were already heating up in Iraq, and those on the inside could sense the drumbeat to war. The government was stepping up its use of contract security agents overseas. As part of SEAL Team Three, John’s AO (area of operations) in the SEALs had been the Middle East, so he was highly qualified. If the Half Moon Bay police department couldn’t see a way to use him, private security companies like DynCorp and Blackwater sure could. And the money was good.
So John signed up, and for the next few years he was in and out of the Middle East working as a private contractor.
This is Part II of a four-part series on Nay SEAL John Zinn. For Part I click here.
This excerpt is from Brandon Webb & John Mann’s bestselling book, Among Heroes, available everywhere books are sold and on Amazon.