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IA in the NEWS

Reprinted with permission.

Bond...James Bond
Uncovering the mercenary inside
By Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY
10/14/99- Updated 07:35 PM ET

IN THE DESERT OUTSIDE TUCSON - At some point, you just have to let go and do what the spy trainers tell you. Accelerating the Toyota into the turn, I yank the emergency hand brake and twist the steering wheel hard right.

Playing spy
Playing spy: Practicing room entry to rescue a hostage (USA TODAY).

There's the stereophonic scream of shimmying tires as the car spins. Letting go of the brake in midlurch, I hit the gas. And 180 degrees of separation later, I'm speeding back the way I came, nailing the so-called bootleg turn.

If bad guys were lying in wait, they're chewing my dust now. Try that vodka martini shaken, not stirred, James Bond.

All right, laugh if you will. Let the guffaws wash over me. I'm fully aware that my inner warrior, age 6, is showing. I know this spy camp they call Covert Ops - for covert operations - is little more than a Discovery Zone for Big Boys (only one girl joined our team this go-round).

I realize you can't learn enough evasive driving, hostage rescuing and close-quarter combat in three days to morph a Pee-wee Herman into a Pierce Brosnan. I know it's oh so politically incorrect to even think about things like hitting vital organs with a 9mm or cutting a man's throat with his own knife, much less take lessons in it.

Deep pockets:
The Covert Ops program is $3,795 per person and limited to 20 participants per weekend. (no airfare) Lodging, which is included, is at a former CIA training base outside Tucson. Rooms are clean, if Spartan. The cafeteria food, also included, is adequate. You need not be in great shape to participate.
Information: 800-644-7382 or www.covertops.com
 

And yes, yes, yes, if money were an object, this bit of whimsy in an ex-CIA training facility 40 minutes northwest of Tucson (at $3,795 a pop, airfare not included) would be out of the question. Not that it was for two Los Angeles buddies - a magazine publisher and the operator of high-end summer camps for kids - for whom this was a last-minute choice over whitewater rafting in Chile. Or for California stockbroker Linda Gong, who merely put off her purchase of a $15,000 Patek Philippe watch.

I'll grant you everything.

Just grant me this: I had a blast.

I wore the knees out of my blue jeans; I hadn't done that since I was 12. I have water-cooler stories enough to last me through Easter. And - though I would never say this out loud -  when our midnight SWAT rescue exercise proved a success (we managed not to shoot the hostage), I walked away with paint-ball welts all over my legs and a bounce in my middle-aged step.

"It's a combination of living out my fantasies and just acting like an overgrown kid," says Richard Lowe, 40, a Merrill Lynch financial consultant from Manhattan. A.k.a. "Big Apple" (they gave us code names), Lowe was my self-defense partner in the dojo, where we learned how to rip knives and guns out of each other's hands.

Andy Wexler, the summer camp operator, whose code name was "Starsky" - his magazine publishing buddy, Alan Lowis, was naturally "Hutch" -says the weekend paid off exactly as promised. "And that's very rare these days."

So how come? In an age when theme parks can thrill and spill you with high-tech dazzle, and fantasy camps, by comparison, are more camp than fantasy, how does this little weekend in the desert manage to work so well?

What seems to drive Covert Ops, apart from its auto high jinks and dogs-of-war folderol, are the authentic spooks at its core. They are two Army Special Forces veterans, Jeffrey Miller and Dennis Hebler, who radiate authority and expertise without taking themselves too seriously.

"They are definitely the genuine article, which I didn't think was going to be the case when I came here," says John Wood, 50, of Annandale, Va., a Vietnam veteran and articles editor for Modern Maturity (code name "Man From AARP").

Masked man
Masked man: Alan Lowis gets ready for a recon mission to rescue a hostage.(USA TODAY)

Miller, who looks like a boot-camp version of Kenny Rogers, was an espionage specialist in the Green Berets, where he helped found a hostage-rescue school. After the Army, he trained 130 police SWAT teams, working through the International Association of Chiefs of Police and countless bodyguards for Latin American zillionaires.

Hebler, a balled fist of a man with an impish grin and a ninth-degree kempo karate black belt, has even more startling credentials. He practiced the darkest of spy arts, as an assassin in Vietnam and across the Berlin Wall during the Cold War, press reports say.

"He has one helluva sense of humor," an ex-colleague told the Orange County Register last year. "But make no mistake, behind those baby blues is a stone-cold killer."

During briefings, Hebler promises us a "taste" of the real thing. "You get highlights of everything we probably did over the years. And this goes all the way back 32 years ago, when I was running around Cambodia like the fool I was, doing the things we did. But I learned quite a bit. I'm 57. I'm still here."

He and Miller still dabble in cloak-and-dagger, launching private, cross-border operations into countries such as Algeria to recover children kidnapped in divorce disputes. But with Covert Ops, where they are the core of a team of espionage and car racing experts, Miller and Hebler offer talents that amount to a kind of shadowy peace dividend.

"A lot of people in this (espionage) world take themselves very seriously. And the idea of being an entertainment more than the real thing - I'm sure that there's a lot of people who think that's just terrible," Miller says one night over beers at the base saloon, explaining the genesis of Covert Ops. "But I don't care. I'm 53 years old. I've been doing this all my life. I think there's a lot more money in this."

And, he points out, "I have a whole drawer full of résumés from guys in the (Army 10th Special Forces Group) who want to come work."

'Engage them or die'

Yellow marks the spot - paintball games
Drive-by targets The key to fending off an ambush: Keep the car moving and blast the bad guys dead-center. Losers are easy to spot: They're the ones with the big yellow splotches.(USA TODAY)

The floor shows for the weekend are the Miller and Hebler war stories, spun out over lunch or dinner to mesmerized students. But when it's time for class, they and other instructors are dead serious, never talking down to us soft-in-the-middle urban novices about off-road vehicle attack maneuvers, unarmed self-defense, strategic car ramming, surveillance, combat pistol shooting and other skills.

Says Miller during the close-quarters armed-conflict class at the gun range: "We're talking about the possibility of coming into conflict with an armed person who's better than you, who's faster than you, who's got the drop on you and who you have to engage in order to save your own life. Because your only choice is to engage them or die. So first, we're going to talk about fear and what it does to you."

Student Daniel Wall (code name "Shadow") is a computer product development manager from Uniontown , Ohio, who got the weekend as a 48th-birthday gift from his wife, Robyn. "The sense of reality (instructors) bring to teaching the basic skills made Covert Ops something more than just a fantasy camp," he says. "This is probably as good as it gets until the Star Trek holodeck becomes commercially available."

Where else can you take a break from ambush exercises and chat with an elegant Frenchman and former Rhodesian mercenary, instructor Patrick Ollivier, about his near-spiritual experience of surviving three AK-47 wounds during a real-life ambush in the African jungle?

"You realize that life is strong," Ollivier, 48, says.

"Life is one of the most powerful forces there is."

Which is not to say that this fantasy camp, which was in only its second round of classes when I took part recently, doesn't have a few hokey edges.

Getting a rush

Incredible Adventures, the travel firm in Sarasota, Fla., that markets Covert Ops as a joint venture with Miller and his crew, greets visitors to its Web site with this: "Your adventure begins at the Tucson, Ariz., airport."

Silly me. Where else would an adventure begin?

The plain brown envelope in the mail says to contact a "beautiful blonde" in the airport lounge, who, with the proper verbal exchange, will pass me a newspaper that has secret instructions taped inside for getting to the Covert Ops base.

I'm supposed to duck into a bathroom stall to read my instructions.

I bump into "Starsky" and "Hutch" coming out freshly enlightened. But by the time I go in, the airport cleaning crew has closed the restroom. I'm up spy creek without a toilet. What would Sean Connery do?

Goofy intro aside, when the moment arrives two days later for our SWAT team to free a student kidnapped by the Environmental Nazis (they burst into our class, firing semiautomatic paint-gun rifles and yelling, "Everybody freeze!"), my heart's beating like a drum.

Pump-action paint-ball pistol at the ready, I've made sure I'm the first person to enter the front door, where there's the most likely chance for gunplay - a decision I later can't quite explain to my wife, who thinks I'm nuts.

Hebler's words are echoing in my ear: "Action is faster than reaction."

We open the door and rush in.

My after-action report (DESTROY AFTER READING):

Total bedlam. But the hostage survives. The bad guys are splattered with paint. We are victorious.

Signing off now -- agent "Hemingway."

(Hey, come on, it's fantasy camp.)

Covert Ops


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