Head Up, Eyes Open, by Hondo

By way of introduction, I am a retired cop. For my second career, I now ride the train to work daily. After 28 years in my first career, with command responsibilities for training a very large agency’s officers for many years, I have many habits ingrained as second (or FIRST!) nature. These habits are not always useful, until the SHTF. These habits are “cloaked”, because that’s how they work best, until the SHTF. These habits sometimes, even after all these years, baffle my loved ones. My aim here is to share a few things that may be useful, in light of current events, societal trends, and Murphy’s Law, because if one believes it could never happen to them, guess what; it can. It can land on you like an upwind seagull’s poop on a windy day! As a boater who has had that exact thing happen to him, I can verify that it can get messy fast! I intend to lay out some traits and habits that I aspire to and that, God forbid something bad happens, might save you (or me) one day. I am a believer in mental, emotional, and personal preparedness, in rehearsal and in “gaming out”– knowing what to do if certain things occur near me.

For Your Consideration

Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos. These names should resonate with you. They are American heroes– the ones who, when confronted with a shooter firing an AK-47 on the Paris- Amsterdam train, attacked him, disarmed him, kicked his butt, secured the threat, suffered grievous wounds, and yet prevailed. They risked everything to protect strangers and to end the situation. They were unarmed, except with their God-given wits, initiative, and courage. They had probably never discussed what to do if the scenario they faced that day ever transpired. There was no structure, no training, and no forethought required. (Although they were highly trained veterans, in two of three cases.) They simply seized the initiative and robbed it from the terrorist. They took a huge chance, they stole the moment that this coward had planned, and they won. Their example serves to remind us that the chance to win cannot transpire out of thin air; it must be taken.

Another one of my heroes is veteran and retired teacher James Vernon– a 75-year-old resident of Morton, Illinois, who just recently was the sole adult responsible for a group of kids in a public library conference room, enjoying their afternoon chess club program, when a lone knife-wielding man entered and threatened to kill the kids. James distracted the attacker long enough for the kids to escape, and then he began beating the young idiot. He was able to subdue him long enough to allow the police to arrive and make the arrest. In the process, James was badly sliced, but he refused to let the armed man win. While being stabbed and slashed deeply, he fought back, and he kept a cool head throughout the ordeal. He was a true hero, modest, deadly, and capable, proving that age is no barrier when attitude and power provide focus!

I am also very thankful for Chris Mintz, who perhaps paid the highest price of these, my most recent heroes. Chris, another veteran, was attending school in Roseburg, Oregon at the Umpqua Community College campus when he became aware of a gunman stalking and torturing his classmates and killing them with an AR-15 and other weapons.

Chris blocked a classroom door, preventing the gunman from entering a fresh kill zone. For this, Chris was shot at least five times, suffering horrible close-range wounds from a rifle. He did not give up, and he did not give in. The day of the attack was Chris’ son Tyrik’s 6th birthday, and the gunman did not care. We all know how this one ended, with the coward killing himself after being shot by law enforcement.

Chris will carry his wounds for life, with a long rehab and recovery ahead. Keep him in your prayers.

I cannot say enough about these men, who were prepared to die to defend others. They were not paid to do so. Not armed, they chose to fight back, and they prevailed, preventing many deaths, and they suffered horrible wounds. They willingly and readily stepped up, paid a price, and, thank God, survived. Call it luck. Call it providence, or call it whatever you want. They won in their fight against evil. It is no coincidence that many of these heroes are veterans!

Common Threads

I have many friends who have been shot or physically attacked with bladed weapons or hands and feet. In the great majority of cases, they fought back, overwhelmed their attacker, and survived.

Mindset is crucial to your success, in all things, but especially when bad things come your way.

The human mind is subject to many types of perceptual distortions under stress. I have seen veteran officers freeze when certain shocking things occur, and I have seen raw rookies kick butt and solve violent physical challenges without a thought. Others immediately respond with the exact level of force required to overcome their attacker, applied in a precise manner. Some people are able to experience a slowdown of perceived time, a phenomenon labeled “slow motion perception” that allows them to somehow find a sense of “flow” through a shootout in measured, calm response. Sometimes, the mind prevents focus on anything but the attacker’s weapon. Sometimes there is no awareness of the knife cutting our flesh as we fight. Certainly, some folks are predisposed toward action and courage. For others, their courage comes with no precedent but instead flows from some mysterious inner wellspring of personal will and power.

The people I mentioned all became aware of the attackers, and then they moved towards the threat, which is the opposite of what most people would do! They proved that “it is not the size of the dog in the fight; it is the size of the fight in the dog” that determines success!

So, you may wonder, why I wrote in the beginning of this article that I ride the train to work daily. Was it to foreshadow the story of the American heroes on the European train?

Nope. It was mentioned because I need to illustrate what I perceive to be one of the saddest things about our modern world, and I know you see it, too. It’s everywhere.

Because all around me, every day, on every train, people are staring at the small screen of their @#$% smart phones! What an ironic name for a device that effectively eliminates and counters the gains of millions of years of evolution that granted us alpha predator status, enabling our forebears to hunt bears, sabertooth tigers, lions, and mastadon!

Critters that could squish us like bug, or bite us into tiny bits, we routinely stalked and killed. Now, amongst the hundreds (or thousands in a given year) of people I commute with, no one is paying attention to their surroundings! They look like a herd of grass-eating prey, all looking down. When I do make eye contact with another aware human, we are usually both surprised, and we usually smile at one another. Situational awareness is more than downloading the latest dating app!

Let’s go back to that train in France, where those young men saw and acted on their environment, and to me they proved their worth as human beings (not that they needed to prove anything.) They were (are) alpha predators, and they fulfilled their destinies brilliantly. Chris Mintz is a true hero and an alpha. Mr. James Vernon is a true hero and an alpha predator. Some might say that all of these people were actually “sheepdogs,” in the sense described by another hero of mine– Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. I agree that they are sheepdogs, stepping up to defend the flock, but they are far more than that in my book.

Here’s the thing: I want to look you in the eye on that train, in the grocery store, and on the street.

However, looking another person in the eye can be a tricky thing, right? In the world of street gangs, sidewalks outside of urban nightclubs, rural cowboy bars, subways late at night, and prison yards, a look in the eye can inadvertently identify us as a threat, throwing down an unspoken (or unintended) challenge.

So, what should we do? I suggest this: work on your subtlety. What I mean is be like a hunter. Camouflage is not always a pattern on clothing or to be found in expertly constructed “hides.”

Animals and people have an innate “spidey-sense” that lets them know when they are being watched. I am lucky and have always had this gift, since long before my L.E. days, and it has saved me more than once. So, a big part of what I am saying is that you should be aware of who is looking at you.

When observing, make it look like you are not observing. Practice looking out the corner of your eye at things, sweep your eyes across and past your “target”, learn to understand the nature of human movement, and maybe learn to use the @#$% smart phone as a prop when observing your environment. Human predators (bad people) will often try to employ a ruse to enter your personal space– a request to know the time, to ask directions, or to ask for a dollar for gas. Learn to step back to maintain your own safe distance, and learn to do it without being confrontational or obvious. Criminals well understand the “sucker punch,” and are experts at moving s-l-o-w, then startlingly fast as required. Learn to do this. It costs nothing.

A huge mistake is to get “hard eyed” and blatantly stare at or stare down a perceived threat. It is advisable to mask your intentions until the very moment you choose to counter a physical threat. A spear fisherman knows that when you look at a fish they are gone. If you do not target them, they will drift in to take a gander, and then you’ve got them.

We are visual animals. Hence, our eyes are mounted up high and wired directly to our grey matter. Use the gift with subtlety.

And when it comes to words, remember that it is never good to easily take offense at the noises of fools or to enter into a debate or argument with someone, especially strangers, as many times this argument with a rude idiot can easily escalate into a violent encounter. This is always amplified when alcohol or drugs are involved.

On the train, I want people to think my earbuds mean music is blaring and my attention is diverted, because it might mean I am spoofing you into believing I am not hearing every word you say when no music is actually playing. The perception created by the earbuds can become a huge advantage!

I am, in fact, listening to determine your intent and evaluating your ability to do harm or become a hasty ally. I am listening for metallic clanking sounds– the snick of a blade being deployed. I am looking for the print of your so-called “concealment” holster, and I can often spot off-duty cops not only by their demeanor but by their choice of holsters and poor concealment choices. Crooks are even worse; they’re constantly fidgeting and touching a concealed firearm.

In the cases described here, many types of cues presented themselves to our heroes. Shots fired is an obvious clue that bad things are happening nearby. But, what about that guy with the large, heavy duffel bag sitting across from you? We like to say in my previous work that it is the hands that will hurt you. So, train yourself to be aware of what people have in their hands, where they are reaching, and especially what they are trying to hide from your view.

If the demon of violence comes to you, act with decisiveness and efficiency.

There is another thing I have heard from many people I respect. They say, “If I am to die, I will die going forward!” Their meaning is “I will not go down without a fight, even if it looks like there is no chance.” Then, remember that you have nothing to lose.

I do not want to overemphasize the wrong thing but brutality to counter a threat may be called for. I do recommend, for those who are able, to work to gain strength and balance and speed of movement. Try a martial art studio, understanding that the worst of them are just franchises designed to fill their bank account and give you false confidence. Ask around and talk with people you respect before you choose a dojo. In a real fight, you probably will get hurt. If there is a knife, avoid it, but you will probably be cut. Understand how to stabilize yourself and others, maybe carry a combat tourniquet, and learn first aid! Again, even if you are shot, know that you can survive. Chris Mintz knew this that day in Roseburg.

I think it is crucial to rehearse mentally and to make a sort of game out of saying, “if X happened right now, what would I do?” Where are my exit or ingress points? Who in this crowd would assist me in a hasty counterattack? What weapons are available to me? A can of soda on an aircraft is an awesome impact tool, when forcefully applied to the nose or throat, as is that silly “buckle only” seat belt demo tool used by the flight crew before take-off. A rolled up magazine is a superb hasty impact tool, when you hit a person in the temple with the rolled up end.

The other most commonly thought of weapons– knives, sticks, firearms– are rare for most to possess, but perhaps you should acquire the ones you are allowed to carry and do so regularly. Pepper spray is legal in most areas, and a pocket or tactical blade can also be a godsend. Try to obtain training to use whatever you choose to carry! It will serve you well in a court of law, after the fact, and help to mitigate or eliminate civil liability for the inevitable lawsuit.

Here’s the thing. I am so lucky, as I am allowed to carry a concealed firearm pretty much anywhere, anytime I choose. Guess what? I do carry, and I do practice, and you will not see the weapon until it is deployed. At night, I have a light either mounted on the weapon or in a pocket. There is always a spare mag or a speedloader on me when I am armed and a very sharp, big knife that will serve as a helpful tool or as hasty protection if required. I carry pepper spray, to provide force options, and handcuffs. In a theater to watch a movie, there is a weapon with a laser, if possible, to go with the light. I believe in insurance, and have several plans for representation and expert investigative help after a deadly force incident occurs.

Recently my spouse asked why I carry a gun, now that I am retired. Did I want to be a cop, still? A hero? (She doesn’t like guns; most doctors don’t.)

I was shocked that she asked me this after living with me for so many years, but I paused and took the opportunity to explain my philosophy in detail, in a soft tone, methodically.

I told her my intent was never to intervene in any minor matters, never to be a hero to store security if a shoplifter is running away or to prevent a couple from yelling at each other in Walmart, or to threaten anyone on the road or display the weapon in any way. It only comes out if there is a real, imminent deadly threat in my immediate environment. A shot is never to be taken unless I am sure of my backdrop, sure I have all the players identified, and if there is a chance I can prevail. It is never to be used unless very bad things are happening, right now. She paused, nodded, and said she “got it”.

So when you scan that crowd or ride that train, look for me or someone like me– someone paying attention. If there is a nod, an acknowledgement, however brief, know an ally is there, in that crowd, watching.

Have a plan of your own. Never let fear drive your actions, and live well.