039: Pete Turner: American War Hero on Overcoming Obstacles Behind Enemy Lines
Pete Turner, American War Hero, talks about his experiences during his tour of duty in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He specialized in going into conflict zones out into the towns and finding people that will provide valuable and classified information. Pete had had to reinvent himself a couple of times to stay focused and continue to function as he throws himself in the middle of war-torn areas, as well as with his re-immersion back home and coming to terms with life issues. Surviving that period of his life has helped him to figure out and value what matters most.
We’ve got Pete Turner. Pete to me is an American war hero. He served in Bosnia, two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and he served as a spy. We go through this entire journey, what it was like to go and befriend the different village elders, try to extract information, be in very dangerous situations, bombs being dropped and bullets flying past his head. It’s just an amazing story, and then what he had to overcome when he came back to the States. When you’re in those combat zones, you’re dealing with a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety and what that was like when he landed and how he’s overcome that and still dealing with that.
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Pete Turner: American War Hero on Overcoming Obstacles Behind Enemy Lines
I’m with Pete Turner, who is an American war hero in my book. This guy has been in over a thousand different missions in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan.
Thank you for having me. This is fantastic. I love being able to tell these stories.
I was interviewing a guy named The Captain, Charles Plumb and he was a POW in Vietnam for six years. Just to sit here and listen to these crazy tales of just the adversity. He was flying jets until he got shut down. Having people and all the intensity and the restlessness and then being tortured and shackled and all that stuff and it’s just insane. It wasn’t just one. He was in Vietnam and he had a hard enough time being a POW for six years. In your case, fortunately you didn’t get captured but still the issues that you guys had to go through all these different countries and all these different conflicts. How did you deal with that?
I live in the space between the combatants. The Taliban, Al-Qaeda, whoever it is that’s chasing and has targeted me. There’s intel, “Kill Pete.” That’s a thing. I’ve also got to satisfy my command and I’m not telling them things they want to hear. I’m a bearer of bad news a lot of time. When we go out into villages and go do things, create a well or whatever it’s going to be, everybody who digs the well is like, “We won. We dug a well,” and people are happy. Then I go back and I’m like, “Tell me what happened today?” They at least don’t talk about the well. “Show me where the government is,” and I can’t find a trace of the new government that were standing up. I bring that news back and if I don’t have trust and influence with the command, it doesn’t matter what I do. I could get killed in the staff room just as fast as I, figuratively but literally out in the field. It’s a two-way fight where I’m constantly having to create influence and trust with my own people and spend way more time dealing with and maintaining those relationships than I do outside because we are our own worst enemy in these situations usually.
You don’t show up and like, “Bosnia, here we go.” Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the Bay Area in California.
Normal high school and all that stuff. Was it out of high school that you decided to sign up for the Army?
No. I went off to college and I bounced around because I’m a nomad, wanderlust guy. I graduated at a time when the economy was down turned a little bit and so it was tough to find a job. I was struggling, but I still had work. I had a job at Costco. One day, I was just getting told no, no, no, over and over again and I’m like, “I got to do something different.”I had no experience and every job required experience. Where do you go to get experience? I’m like, “I’m going to go join the Army.” I went down and I saw a recruiter and I said, “I don’t want to be outside all the time. I don’t want to be inside all the time. I don’t want to have to do stuff that sucks, but I don’t want to be bored out of my mind because I don’t do anything that ever sucks.” He’s like, ” Take some tests.”After the test, he’s like, “You should be a counterintelligence agent, a spy.” I’m like, “That seems to fit.” I went from pushing carts in the rain to signing up to be a spy in the Army.
We used to always watch this show called 24, Jack Bauer. Now, we’re not talking about a spy necessarily in a foreign country, but everything is undercover. I’m also associating with James Bond 007 type of stuff. How do you become a spy?
First, you have to understand, there are a lot of different kinds of spies. There are guys that in place or test for bugs. There are guys that do lie detector testing and examining of clearance backgrounds. Those guys are in the spy world. You’re countering spies by looking for them and trying to detect. Does Mark need to have a clearance? That guy in effect is a spy. There are also tactical spies that are trying to do short-term impactful work and then there are strategic guys. When you see James Bond or Jack Bauer they’re an amalgamation of a bunch of these things. In reality is you’re going to specialize in certain things. What I’m specialized in is going into conflict zones out in the town and finding people that will talk to me and tell me things that they wouldn’t otherwise do.
How do you train for that? Let’s go through each one of these because each one these places are so fascinating. You go to high school, you’re in and out of college, you finally decide to sign up for the Army, and then they decide that this would be the best path for you. Off you go and you go get some training. How do you learn how to become a spy to go extract information and the trust of these different people if you haven’t actually have done that?
For everybody, it’s a different path. You want to think in your head like the military has got this big design but they don’t. Their job is to get you through school, not to make you into a counterintelligence agent. How do we get you through this singular path? You go through the singular path and you emerge and you literally know nothing about the job. You start self-developing. If you’ve got a good boss, they’re trying to put you in positions to do things. When I graduate and I go to Germany, which was where my first assignment was, there is no conflict to go to. Our day-to-day job is doing background investigations on people who work in Berlin and have access to nuclear codes.“That person has to have a top secret clearance. Let’s go reinvestigate because it’s been a while since we talked to him.”
That was the main job that we had to do and it turned out that I didn’t even do that job really. What I did was I worked in training, and every now and then we would all come back from all over Germany and run exercises. I got the benefit of sitting at the table and being the mayor of Aschaffenburg. I would play these roles and watch how my peers who had experience would interact with me. I got to have an experiential learning situation as a lower enlisted guy with people who had incredible skills who had been in Desert Storm and these kinds of things. I started a slowly extract from them and just self-mentor through a whole bunch of mentors. Like read this book, ask these kinds of questions. It seemed like everywhere I went after that, there was a theme there with training. After Bosnia and I ran sources there, the Army on accident sent me to the place where they trained people to run sources.
What are sources?
That’s when you find someone who has got placement and access to the information that you want outside in town. In Bosnia, there was some Bosnian guy that I’m like, “Help me out.” That’s about all I can say about that. That guy will now talk to me and I’ll be able to ask questions or ask him to do certain things for me. Nothing crazy, but just give me information that we seek.
The whole Bosnia conflict, it’s Croatia. Serbia, and Clinton was the president at that time. I believe he decided not to send troops in, but we just like a barrage of aircraft pound to end this thing, which ultimately the strategy worked. If that’s happening, in general, what kind of information were you trying to extract?
We send over jets and attacked. We picked the side against the Serbs and there’s no right answers so it’s not about that. We went there and then what happened was, is they signed a Peace Accord in Dayton. “We’re going to stop fighting in this one particular region.” That doesn’t include Kosovo, Macedonia, none of the other former Yugoslavian areas, but just to this area, they said, “We’re not going to shoot each other anymore. We’re going to sign this Accord in Dayton, Ohio and we’re going to send in NATO troops, US led to ensure the peace.” We are going to stand there and say, “You guys have all committed.” While that’s happening, we were looking for the ammunition dumps, the bombs, the nefarious elements that were doing atrocious things.
Murdering children and not only killing the enemy, but killing themselves to blame it on the enemy to stoke the fire, and all these things were going on. That’s my job is to find the bombs, find the bad guys, and figure out who’s trying to undermine the Peace Accord. That’s basically what I go there for. My job is to everyday go out and talk to people. I talk to farmers every day, but you can’t talk to farmers and find this stuff out. You got to talk to enough farmers and go, “My cousin, Ray, he’s the guy you want to talk to because he knows people.” Then you talk to Ray and Ray puts you onto somebody else.
Are you giving them some cash or favors?
Yeah. That’s part of what happens and I can’t talk in specifics about that because then you’re getting into a zone where it’s classified stuff. Not that anybody cares about it anymore. You’re trading things to get information. When you’re deployed, typically no one’s allowed to drink. A counterintelligence agent in Bosnia has to drink. By regulation, not only am I allowed to drink, I’m given an amount of booze to use to spark the drinking because you’re trying to loosen the tongues. Every day I got drunk a lot, but you are in a combat zone and you don’t know what’s going to happen. It sounds great, but there’s also a lot of responsibility. Not everybody in the team could get drunk. It’s a balancing act and there’s not enough resources. You’re always hoping that something doesn’t go bad on this day. Fortunately in our area, it turned out to be relatively safe, but you don’t know that when you’re in the moment.
It seemed like if two people are having a fight and then you’re the third person to come in and be the moderator or settle it. It’s just going to be one of those times where you just don’t know if somebody else is up on a rooftop and they’re still pissed because the other side killed one of their friends or their mom or something that they’re going to come at you. Are you wearing the body armor?
Yeah. You got body armor and at the time it was more of like a paper filled vest more for like just slowing down debris that came at you. It wasn’t really a bullet proof vest because that’s what we had in that era. You’ve got a helmet on, you got the body armor on and just your basic gear, rounds and all that kind of stuff.
When you were there, were you ever and this is probably going to come further in these other conflicts, but were you ever in harm’s way where vultures hanging over your head and bombs dropping there and you’re just holding on?
[Tweet “It’s one thing to be the tip of the spear, it’s one thing being part of the spear.”]
Not in Bosnia. That doesn’t mean you’re not in harm’s way because you certainly are because you’re not in control of harm. We went to a place where we thought there could be some very nefarious people a couple of different times. We had to have a lot of planning to be able to go into this zone because there’s not help coming anytime soon. By the time the help gets there, it’s just to sort out the back end of the fight. It’s not to save us. It’s one thing to be the tip of the spear, it’s one thing being part of the spear and be in town, so you have to accept that. This will illustrate this. I went up to a helicopter to go take overhead aerial shots of camps because one of the things we did was like security assessments and stuff and we had a problem with the helicopter.
We did what you would call an emergency landing, but not that exactly, just like we should land and assess. We land and assess and the helicopter pilot team like, “We’re going to have to take this thing back and we don’t want to spend any more time in the air then we have to so we’re going to drop you at the helipad and go on our way and get back to camp and be safe.” All very reasonable things. There is no party to pick me up in the helipad two miles from the camp. I’m Pete one-man team now, solo patrol. I’ve been briefed that there’s 18 bazillion mines everywhere. I don’t know necessarily where to walk. There’s a path, but you don’t know what’s there. You don’t want to make a mistake that kills you and there’s literally no one else around. I have no radio.
I was watching this show, a good buddy of mine turned me onto this new series on one of channels like the National Geographic and it’s a war in Iraq. These guys were coming around the corner and going through one of these towns and there’s people that don’t look like they’re friendly to Americans. Just like you’re talking about, they just don’t know if they’ve got these landmines that you’re going until you’re watching this truck go down the street and this thing going to get blown out the water. You don’t know what’s going to happen so the anticipation. I’m sure as we talk more about this PTSD, the anxiety of waking up and I’m sure you saw a lot of people, but it’s not just like a walk in the park. It’s a walk in the park with a lot of elements going on.
In this case, I surrounded myself with a bunch of kids and said, “Whoever decides to kill me, is going to have to kill these kids too. Again, it’s that balance of like, “I don’t have enough resources to do this, so I’m going to make this compromise. I’m going to bring these kids around me. I didn’t trick them. They’re interested in what I was doing. I used my meager Serbo-Croat skills and talk to them a little bit and we walked and I got back to the camp safe. There’s a lot of damage in that, mental damage. It’s tough to perceive when you’re 25 years old. You just don’t understand the rubber band gets stretched tight and there’s no resolution. It’s just stay stretched. In my case, I just kept stretching and stretching and adding more rubber bands and pulling. It’s a tension.
This is all about finding your summit and overcoming adversity. As we march through these different conflicts, that rubber band just gets tighter and tighter and tighter and then finally something pops. How many years were you in Bosnia?
It was basically a ten-month deployment, but don’t think of time in terms of a regular year, like every day you’re grinding. A sixteen-hour day is a normal day for someone who’s deployed and has a job like me. I’ve got a pre-plan, I’ve got to execute and then I’ve got to write reports. If each of those things takes four hours, I haven’t eaten, taken a shower or done anything else. You’re going hard all the time and if that execution phase lasts ten hours, it’ll lasts ten hours. You work a ton. You’re having so many conversations and you’re writing notes and it’s furious and your brain is just cooking as you’re trying to think through all the things you’ve got to think through.
Most people take the weekend off. I can’t imagine like, “Let’s run down and get a burger and beer.” They’re intense areas, so you got to watch yourself.
In some areas, they have that ability where you can take time and slow down, but that’s not something that’s ever been really afforded me. I’m good at war. I need to be out in the front of the war and talking to people. That’s where I can have my most impact. I can do analysis, but not everybody can go and sit in a cafe and be in harm’s way and think through all the questions you have to ask. Let me give an example. I can read someone else’s report and I can say, “Here’s where you’re losing track of the conversation.” I can read between the lines the questions they should have asked, but they don’t have the presence to be calm in that moment. Now, granted this happens later on in this Bosnia, I’m cutting my teeth. I’m figuring it out. I’m having my thousand conversations that you have to have to understand what the heck you might be doing. You talk about development, that’s what Bosnian really was for me was development. Learning what it takes do this job.
Now, you come back to the states, I presume but where were you based on?
Out of Germany, Frankfurt area.
You come back to Germany, could you get out at that point?
I still have some time left so I went to Arizona to Fort Huachuca.
What is the commitment?
I signed up for a five-year active commitment, eight years of total time. I’m committed to five years and after that we can pretty much decide what I wanted to do from there. I’m still within that five-year window, I go to Fort Huachuca, which is where they train everybody. That’s Arizona. That’s basically Mexico, really south central, eastern area. At Tombstone, we’re south of tombstone, an hour South of Tucson. We went there and then I worked at the source course there. I’m coaching and mentoring senior level people that are coming through this course. It’s an advanced course and I’m playing every day and again, drawing from them and then basically taking like, “Here’s what does and doesn’t work.” The doctrine is very strict. It’s like climbing mountains, you know what you do and then you adapt what you know to what the mountain requires. You’re not going to climb K2. It’s just not worth it. It’s the same thing where you’re teaching people to find that path, that’s the right way up the mountain because it’s incredibly hard to get someone to trust you in these kinds of situations. How do we get the trust?
Using that mountain climbing metaphor, it’s really true. It’s the same mountain you go up. I’ve had buddies that have climbed Mount Everest on a bluebird day and there was no issues outside which is very difficult. Then those guys decided go into the super storm just like, “I’m sure that you’re up there, in some days it’s calm and everybody’s like, everything’s cool and then next thing you know, all hell breaks loose. What do you do with that?”Now, you’re back in Germany and you still have time and now we entered into Iraq and I think you had two tours, right?
A lot of this time I’m out of the military. When I was in Fort Huachuca, my boss said, “Let’s get you a Master’s degree and let’s get out. You are great at this, but this is going to drive you crazy.” She did the best favor for me. She’s like, “You don’t need to be here. Come back, don’t come back but just get out and go try other things for a while,” so I did. Then I went to Chicago and got married, had a kid, my daughter Brenda, she’s awesome. A bunch of dudes flew planes into some buildings and at the time, I was in the reserves. I stood up from my desk once we figured out what happened, we didn’t even know it was terrorists yet. I’m like, “That’s got to be terrorism.” I went to where my boss is and said, “I got to go do army stuff,” and he’s like, “Yeah, I know,” and so I left. I was the first guy in my unit and I stayed there for the next twenty somewhat hours because we just did Chicago. We don’t know where are we next. We didn’t know what the airplane already in the air coming. We just had no idea.
Where do you go?
I go over to the Great Lakes Naval Station over there where they still have a base and there’s a little pocket for Army people and I just go there and I’m ready to do whatever. Again, that may not seem like it, but that’s the rubber band just continuing to be pulled tight because no one else from my office, the entire floor, no one else got up with a job to do that meant I have no idea what it means up to and including getting into a firefight. You get up and you go and you sit there for 24 hours and you wait. Most of it is just the waiting but that waiting all has a cost.
That’s how I think Bush was in the office and so we did go to war with Iraq. There was two, there was Bush One to Bush Two. This is after the Twin Towers. How long after the Twin Towers came down and we reset. We need to figure out what’s going on and you said, we’re going. How long between when that happened and when you ended up back in Iraq?
There’s actually a skipping stone in between. 9/11 happens, 10/11, I’m in the mid-East. I’m in Egypt and there are tourist who go to the pyramids and things like that for soldiers while we’re out doing exercises and being present in the region. My job was to oversee what happened. I didn’t really have a spying-type job but guys like Dr. Hawass that you see on the history channel all the time, he’s the main Egyptologist out there. I had to talk to these guys and assess what’s going on. Are our people safe? Are we a target right now when we go on these sightseeing trips? Yes, I’m sightseeing. One of the things I always say is, if you see me working, you’ll swear I’m just goofing around. I’m on a sightseeing trip, but my brain is doing other things.
I’m having conversations and I’m looking for things all the time. I was there. I ended up not having to stay very long, but I came back in November of 2001 and then shortly thereafter I left Chicago, I moved to California to try to get away from all that stuff because I could sense I was getting drawn in because that’s what I’m good at, but ultimately did. I got drawn back in. In 2003, I got signed up to go back as a contract intel person because there’s just not enough experienced assets to go handle this new mission. I was back in Iraq in the early part of 2004 and was there. When they hung those three contractors off the bridge, I was in Baghdad when that was happening with orders to get in a car and drive north.
What’s Baghdad like?
Baghdad is a big city. It looks a lot like Mexico in places where you drive around and there are all these little small shops and everything, but there are billionaires, there are all kinds of different people that have tons of influence. It’s a world-class big city but in this case, you could drive around for days and have nothing bad happened, but you’re not in control of when bad happens in Baghdad in that time. You just don’t know.
What was your role in Iraq? Now you’re over there as a contractor and obviously you must’ve been extracting more information. How do you know where to go?
It’s different depending on what they want you to do. There are a lot of legal things that have to happen and what they want is the military people to be the front face for them to do all of the stuff that they’re allowed to do legally because as a contract person, I’m not really allowed to easily to do it, but it’s a conflict zone where they’re shooting so things happen that are weird. My job basically is just to be available to help out and interview people that come on the camp. Do whatever I can to make sure the Army people can go out. Here’s the problem. The Army people have just been through training. They’re like me showing up in Germany. They have no idea what to do and so they’ve got to cut their teeth in a live hot environment and so it’s really dangerous. When you talk to Iraqis in that era in 2004 in Mansour where I was, those people died and so when you talk to them, you have to understand, one, you are likely killing this person. Two, they are likely lying to you if they want you to go kill someone else. You’ve got a heavy ethical burden to do your job, do it well and reduce the amount of harm you’re doing in town. It’s very hard to even understand that as a junior person and most of these people were junior.
How did you get over that?
I’ve worked with higher level assets. I satisfied the job that I wanted to do there that no one understood and I’m like, “If you guys don’t get it, I know what to do.” I do what I always do. I go find the tier one guys. I go find the SEALs, I go find the special operators and I say, “I know you don’t have enough resources and the three of us here are really good at this and in this case, I’m not the boss of this team, that’s another buddy of mine.” We go over to the special operations camp where they’re talking to the SEAL guy and I’d been out of the game for a while and so I’m like, “I’m not going to know anybody. You guys just got out of the Army, ”My two partners, “What are we going to do?” I’m like, “Let’s go over and see what happens.” We go over and the main guy over there is like, “I know you, you’re Pete. I went through that course and you were my instructor and you’re a fantastic, what do you guys want to do?” That hooked us in and we had the bona fides to operate. These guys took us in and work us hard, put us in the environments to help.
What was the most intense situation, conflict? I don’t know if there are bombs that are dropping, there’s bullets whipping by, there’s people that pull a gun on you. I don’t know what that would be.
Every night we got mortared in our little area where we lived was under the path of these mortars and that doesn’t even rank with the intensity of that. Any night, you don’t know when, if the mortar might hit your room. You’d get to a point, we don’t even go to the bunker because it doesn’t matter because most of the time you don’t make it anyhow so you just accept that those mortars could kill you. You get to that level of comfort with something that lethal. I was driving in a car that got hit by a mortar. It’s just blown up as you could get.
It was crazy because they’re dropping the same mortars and they would always come down. I’m driving the truck and we are boom, boom and they’re walking and your brain does the math and you’re like, we’re driving right towards where the next one is going to be. We got as low as we could go, got going as fast as we could go everybody else is clearing out because there’s people walking everywhere and it hit. It blew out the back window. It shot metal through the car. It was all kinds of holes in it and luckily both of us were all right. That barely ranks because there’s so much conflict. So many different ways of getting blown up and shot at. We got hit by a tank one night, an American tank in our car and on that again, barely registers because you have bullets whiz by, you have big bombs go off in a patrol.
What is your mindset in all these? I know you’re there, you’re doing your job and you’re very good at it. When they light up fireworks, sometimes, just when they’re not used right, it makes you flinch. I can’t imagine what that would be like. I don’t know if “You just get used to it,” is applicable here or you do, but you don’t and it just stretching that band that you’re talking about.
[Tweet “You reach a level of capacity where you accept that you’re not in control of your fate. “]
There’s an acceptance that you have to have at least in my mind, in my game and what I do. A lot of people around me. One time, there were rockets coming in to the airfield where we’re at and everybody’s diving to the ground and trying to run towards the bunkers but I already know because I’ve been around this stuff like those are nowhere near us. It’s still within a quarter mile, but there’s nothing I’m going to do about those things. I’m not going to bother with laying down. I’ve got other things to do. You reach a level of capacity where you accept one that you’re not in control of your fate, which is a big thing and that does not apply really in the states, not the level that we’re playing that. Then two, you also say, “I know that I don’t control when conflict comes, but when conflict comes, I’m already making the decision that at some point I will take decisive action whether it’s killing everybody around me or saving a bullet for myself or whatever.”
You put yourself in that zone so that when you get to that point, if you do, you’re not thinking of what your options are. You’re like, “This is the time right now where I go to kill everybody. That’s the only way for me to for sure to get out of here.” Nobody ever gets into that zone in the States. This is the world that you live in. Now, keep in mind, a lot of the people there on the camp aren’t in that place. They’re providing food, water, facilities. They don’t have to be in that zone. Part of my job is to find the absolute worst humans on earth in that region because that knows the things that I need to know. You have to accept that. You have to accept that you’re not in control of your fate. You have to accept that you might have to do heinous, horrible things in that moment to survive because the ethics don’t. Ethics right now in this table aren’t the same.
At some point in time, when all the dust settles and it floats back down to earth and now you’re back in society, like all this stuff that had been built up. It’s just that natural mental reflex of just being, you hear a car backfire and you flinch or you hear the fireworks going off right and you break into a sweat or something. There’s this subconscious of that. It just seem that enough of that over a period of time in these really intense situations as you described them, would just a take a toll on people and you see all these people, they’re coming back from these conflicts and while the Americans that have been killed in action, there’s that number and there’s this other number that’s just like 10X of people who are psychologically damaged and it takes in the bad thing, suicide, alcoholism, drugs, all kinds of stuff. They get into just to help cope with what’s going on.
It’s called hyper vigilance for a lot of us and for me for sure, it is. I’m at Gabby Reece’s house doing an interview for the Break It Down Show, my podcasts that I do and my buddy and I are sitting there. We’re in Malibu. This is pretty safe. She’s got a wall, a cement wall that goes around the front of her house where the road is and an RV drives up and stops. It stops because it’s beautiful and they want to get out and take a picture in the turnout. My head turns 45 degrees and I’m laser-focused because I don’t know who’s getting or what’s getting out of that RV and I don’t know if this is the time where they had decided to attack Gabby Reece and Laird Hamilton.
That’s a no way reality but my limbic brain, my blizzard brain goes, “There’s threat,” and it shoots out cortisol and adrenaline. It’s not even, yes, it can be fireworks for sure, but it can be how a guy with a mustache and a tan picks up a phone and puts it next to his face. I see that at quarter mile and I look and it’s on. That guy is absolutely harmless and it’s just on the phone and happened to be looking at me. It’s things like that that you live with because your brain is so geared to go, “There is threat, there’s threat, there’s threat,” that it manifests it. Then you might react to that threat that’s not real. You create an alternate reality that’s a lot more dangerous than it really is.
I don’t know which one is worst. You probably are both equal. I was down in Tanzania climbing Kilimanjaro. When I was down there, in addition to the six NFL guys that Chris long had invited to go down there and build water wells for the Maasai people, there was also for a Green Berets. There are two amputees and another guy who is blind, who’s Ivan Castro. Ivan was in the middle of the heat when one of these mortars went off the shrapnel came and ripped out his eyes. To have him climb that mountain, to have this girl Kirstie Ennis go and she was a gunner. I talked to her. The plane crashed, it flipped over and she used the first above-the-knee amputee.
Basically she hopped to the top of Kilimanjaro, which is insane. It took us forever to get up there, but the courage that these people have and the commitment right to what they’re doing for the US and for the world was remarkable. Then you put on top of that, on top of their injuries this mental capacity of these things that you’re talking about, which is just remarkable. To me, life is a lot of perspective, “I played in the NFL. Big deal.” When compared to what you guys do for us, to keep this country safe and to provide those freedoms that we have. I want to move on to Afghanistan, what does Afghanistan like?
In a lot of ways it’s the same thing, the people in general. I’m not being very unfair to characterize everybody, but this is sort of the best way to frame it for our purposes. They’re like abused wife or abused kids. There’s not a lot of trust and there’s a lot of hand shyness to anything that we do. I don’t mean actual hand shyness but that’s the characteristic. You have to handle the people in the same way. A lot of my peers and my friends would say, “When you go, it’s totally different. You’re not going to understand what’s going on.” I know exactly what to do because I’m starting with the people on the ground and for all of my conflict experience, the space where I get the most comfortable is even smaller and it’s in dealing with the non-lethal things that really matter. If we’re going to be here and if we’re going to expose ourselves to this harm and if we’re going to provide help, let me find that help.
Let me go out and see what actually works to figure out what matters. It’s not some academy that we build. It’s the governor saying, “I need electricity in this office because who’s going to show up in the office if there’s no electricity. I can’t promise people something when there’s nothing here.” That’s even more dangerous space because now I’m in this conflict space and I know enough to know that’s not good enough. I’ve got to get even deeper and carry less weapons, be more academic and still roll around with guys with guns, but understand that every time I’d go out with them, it even further limits my ability to be the guy I need to be for the people on the ground because I’ve got to work quickly. The difference for me is more about, I had built a system that worked in Iraq and I wanted to test it in Afghanistan. The countries really for me could be fill in the blank countries, it doesn’t matter, there’s people in a conflict zone. I can work in that zone. That was really the difference was I graduated myself from being a pro to being an expert when I went to Afghanistan.
What’s the terrain? What are the cities like?
I was out in the country. There’s a main route that goes around the entire country. It’s about the size of Texas. Imagine, if you just drew a big circle around all the big cities. That’s sort of what they do. I’m off of that route and another mountain range over. It’s rugged, it’s every size rock from pea gravel to eighteen-foot high boulders. It’s really big and massive. You know this kind of terrain where you look and you realize that the mountain you’re looking at is 20 miles away, but everything’s so big, it may as well be right across the road. It’s the same mountains. It’s huge. You can hear for miles. Your space and time are kind of warped by that because the environment is so big and you’re at 8,000, 10,000 feet all the time. The terrain is as rugged and as hard to get around as you can and you put 100 something pounds on your back every day, and you know what this is like.
When you get ready to go do Everest, you’re going to have a lot of weight on your back end to go up and down the mountain a zillion times, that’s us every day. You’re climbing over different ridges to create surprise in the middle of the night. You’re going up and over and you can only move so fast. One of the things we lose sight of here is when you go on a combat patrol, you can only go so far because we go past that. There is no help ever coming. You’re going to all die if someone else chooses to kill you. You can’t get there and be out of breath. It doesn’t matter who the weakest link is, that’s where you work from. You get everybody over. If someone rolls their ankle, you’re not going back. You have to go at a pace that everybody can manage and all of those things.
Only the strong is your weakest link, I say this all the time.
The weakest link is not weak.
You’re going at their pace. It is what it is.
Someone’s got to carry five gallons of water on top of everything else because you need to have enough water for everybody, so you move slow. It’s that kind of terrain. It’s just massive, rugged, hard to live in terrain.
Now, ultimately you’re back, you’re in the States, what has that re-entry meant to you?
It’s been the biggest challenge of my life. I came back and my relationship was over and I had to deal with that. That’s always hard. You go from being relevant.
It was over because of the time spent a way or is it over because of just PTSD, hyper intensive whatever word you use?
A lot of the American sniper movie, those things happened to me. I didn’t go to a bar and not go directly home, but I sit on a beach and just stared out at the beach and was in a rage for no reason at all. My girlfriend is going, “What is going on? Why are you so angry?” I’m like, “I’m not mad at anybody.” It takes a while to get home even. Three days to travel home, two weeks to like, “I can relax. It’s cool here.” Then probably months before you just finally settle in and you’re not anxious all the time, at least for me.
I just thought about you and your story and just that adversity. Maybe you just answered this by saying it’s still going on, but from the time that you came back, when was the last time you were in Iraq?
Iraq, it’s been since 2011.
What about Afghanistan?
It’s been five, six, seven years. Where are you in that process?
Yeah. It’s been awhile. You’re always trying to figure it out. I’ve had to reinvent myself a couple of times because literally, unless I want to go work in that world somewhere, which I choose not to and I think I’ve done enough, no one will hire me. I would apply for jobs I was qualified for that literally were written for me like dealing with multicultural groups and solving problems. I’m like, what? That’s exactly what I did, but in an environment where people wanted to shoot me in the face. No one would hire me and then you just like, I went from being really impactful with my work to now, I have to be a handyman. I’m not handy at all, but I had to become something. You adapt and that causes further damage because now like “I’m educated. I have experience, I have value.”
This is very similar to what NFL players go through. I’m 29 and it goes right at the cliff. What do you do? You are there and you just go on and the whole self-worth. It’s very similar and obviously we’re not getting involved, but just in terms of that, that gap. What’s my purpose? Where am I going? I think that’s what this whole thing is all about and this is what this podcast is about, is really trying to talk to people who have gone through. I’ve gone through plenty of my own stuff and just really understanding that there is a plan out there and it just takes people some time to go from one point to the next point to really figure it out. You just used a great word, reinvent. I’ve done the same thing. It looks like you’re doing amazing stuff now. You’ve had to dig in to dig out, so to speak and you’ve got this really cool podcast. Tell us about that?
The Break It Down Show is the main thing that I do. I do a number of podcasts, but it’s the main one. It’s the one where we get incredible guests. We’ve had you on and your show is going up. Also we’ve had, Stewart Copeland from The Police has been on my show, but also Johnny Walker who was my interpreter in Iraq. My co-host, there’s two of them. There’s Jon and there’s Mark. Mark Valley is an actor here in Hollywood. He was like a main guy on Boston Legal. He’s been the lead in a bunch of things. He’s a West Point Grad and this artisan and then Jon is a private eye but also a drummer. He’s got this soul of music and everything and I’m like a mix of both of those things too.
We just have this great time having these shows. Sometimes it’s a solo show, sometimes it’s the two of us talking, whichever combination, but we have incredible conversations. For me, it’s telling the stories of combat so we can understand what we’re putting our people through and how to do that better. It’s also like, “I want to talk to Nobel Prize winners.” I don’t dislike reality stars, but let’s talk to the person that’s inventing ways to change our lives for the better, who’s understanding science. You might find anything on our show where you might be an Iraqi interpreter and it might be a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
I think we share a common interest and love of what we’re doing. I don’t make money doing this. It cost me to do this but I love it. I used the word lucky me in this, right in some of the people I’ve had, I’ve probably interviewed 45 people now. The guy who was attacked by a shark and the POW that I talked about and I’m here talking with you and I’ve got other war heroes that are on the schedule. It’s just amazing the amount of adversity of the people that come over. Then here they are now and their success story. They still find their way. It’s just great to be on this side and listen to these. I really feel like my life has been enriched.
[Tweet “I do this first because it’s enriching my life and I want to share that with people.”]
I see those exact words all the time. I do this first because it’s enriching my life and I want to share that with people. It’s so incredible.
It’s called the Break It Down Podcast and people can tune in. Where else can they find you?
In social media, @PeteATurner on Twitter. I’m active on there. I’ll talk to you for sure. Facebook, Pete A. Turner and BreakItDownShow.com. We love to talk to people. We’re always involved with that kind of thing. It’s not hard to find me, Pete A. Turner.
Pete, I so appreciate you coming on the show.
It’s just amazing your journey and you seem like you’re on the right path. I know I’m better for it, so appreciate it.
My pleasure. Thank you very much. It’s fun.
Resources Mentioned in This Episode:
- Pete Turner
- Charles Plumb
- Break It Down Show
- show with Mark Pattison
- Stewart Copeland
- Johnny Walker
- Break It Down Podcast
- @PeteATurner – Twitter
- Pete A. Turner
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