Every red-blooded American, in particular military veterans, has an affinity for Frank Castle. Born out of the pages of Marvel comics, Frank Castle returned home from war only to have his family viciously murdered by the mafia. Declaring a one man war on crime, Frank Castle became the Punisher. In the new Netflix series, Castle’s origin story is re-hashed and updated for the Global War on Terror generation but most will probably not be aware of the real life, and still classified, joint CIA/Joint Special Operations Command missions that the series alludes to Castle participating in.
Let’s take a brief stroll down memory lane for additional context, because Frank Castle didn’t start with Frank Castle. The Punisher is actually inspired by The Executioner, a long running men’s fiction book series featuring Mack Bolan. War Against the Mafia was first published in 1969, establishing an entire genre of fiction. The series was penned by Don Pendleton, who actually coined the term “action-adventure.” Down the line, Marvel comics drew some inspiration from Mack Bolan when they created The Punisher. Like so many other guys who went on the serve in the military, I grew up reading both The Punisher and The Executioner and my extensive collection of these books and comics still resides up in my mom’s attic.
In the Marvel comic, Frank Castle served as a Marine in Vietnam. Garth Ennis was probably the best of the writers to ever work on The Punisher and he fleshed out a pretty detailed backstory on Frank going into his deployments to ‘Nam and how that influenced his future. Currently, Ennis is back at it writing a flashback mini-series about Frank’s first tour in Vietnam as a Marine Infantry Platoon Leader.
Several Punisher movies have been made over the years, all of somewhat dubious quality. There was the 1989 Dolph Lundgren movie that I rented on VHS (once) as a kid, then there was a fairy decent take on the character from Tom Jane in 2004 that deserved a sequel to really hammer down what could have been a franchise. Then there was the loathsome Punisher: War Zone released in 2008. You’re better off tracking down a copy of Dolph playing Frank Castle on laser disc than wasting your life watching War Zone.
Audiences were super stoked to see Jon Bernthal play Frank in an extended cameo appearance in the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil series. Marvel and Netflix made a smart play, beta-testing Bernthal on Daredevil before green lighting a full Punisher TV series. Now that the new series is released, I’ve been able to view the first few episodes and am looking forward to watching the rest before I write a review. One thing I did want to comment on is Frank Castle’s backstory in the new series.
As mentioned above, Netflix has had to re-write Frank’s origin story a bit to jive with the times. Bernthal is a little young to be a Vietnam veteran and to make the storyline up to date, they made Frank a former Force Recon Marine who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. In one episode, Frank Castle reflects to an old Marine buddy of his that there was one particular deployment to Afghanistan where things got really blurred.
The episode includes many flashbacks to that deployment where Frank and his team mates are “sheep dipped” into the service of the CIA. This is an old school term not really used anymore, but implies that you can shave the wool off of a sheep making it look very different, however the fundamental nature of the sheep remains the same. This is a bureaucratic sleight of hand trick in which US military personnel are put under the auspices of the Central Intelligence Agency. In this manner, the President can go on television and tell the American public that we do not have troops deployed to countries X, Y, and Z.
For decades there has been a very interesting nexus between the CIA and U.S. Special Forces, one that represents a long-term relationship between these organizations, one that has never really been written about before. Some of it is official, some of it is more like a phone call and an ask for a favor.
There are many different ways to sheep dip military personnel but the method depicted in The Punisher television show is called DSSS standing for the Defense Sensitive Support System. DSSS is the mechanism that allows the CIA to request military personnel for support and vice versa. This system also allows US military personnel to conduct missions under the CIA’s Title 50 authorities for covert operations.
During the War on Terror the CIA had run blended teams of CIA case officers, para-military officers, and sheep-dipped operators from Joint Special Operations Command. These teams have been active in Afghanistan, Yemen, and beyond. They’re called Omega Teams, and this is what you see fictionalized in The Punisher series. For many years troops from SEAL Team Six and the Ranger Regiment (specifically the Regimental Reconnaissance Company) were placed under the auspices of the CIA to conduct covert operations, snatch and grabs, and to take out high value targets. They almost exclusively targeted foreign fighters, rather than groups like the Taliban.
Some of these teams did outstanding and professional work. JSOC asked no questions when these operators returned to their home station, they were not debriefed, the military seeming to not want to know what they were doing for the CIA. However, there were times when things went off the rails. One Omega team was actually disbanded. While it is a work of fiction, the gist of what The Punisher series alludes to is accurate.
Things got blurry out there.
Featured image courtesy of Netflix