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Adventure vacationers trade comfort for thrills
Guns, fast cars provide a rush at 'spy' camp

Target shooting at Covert Ops adventure camp in Arizona Pat Shannahan/The Arizona Republic

Ronaele "Ronnie" Hessey fires a handgun for the first time under the direction of Jeff Miller at the Covert Ops adventure camp in Marana.

By Nena Baker
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 27, 2001


On a desert shooting range at this old CIA training camp, Katie McIntyre is about as far as she can get from her daily life as a suburban Chicago soccer mom and Realtor.

Limbs trembling, McIntyre, 41, picks up a 9mm semiautomatic and pushes the pistol out toward a target with both hands until her elbows lock in a Rambo-like stance.

She waits for the command from an instructor wearing camouflage fatigues. Then she double-taps the trigger.


"Eeeeeeeyh!" shrieks McIntyre, who has never held a gun before. "I got it in the middle!"

McIntyre didn't know what to expect when her husband signed her up for a $3,795 weekend with Covert Ops fantasy vacations. Truth be told, she would have preferred a trip to Paris.

Not to mention, she adds, her anxiety that a cloak-and-dagger adventure outing in the midst of America's New War might be construed as bad taste.

But her reservations disappeared with the adrenaline rush that came with stepping beyond her comfort zone to learn the finer points of hand-to-hand combat, evasive driving and close-quarter shooting, tools she would need for a mock hostage-rescue scenario that caps the three-day camp.

"Getting outside your box," McIntyre marvels, "is awesome."

Lest anyone worry that the former Green Berets who run Covert Ops are training would-be terrorists, instructors say they don't go deep enough into any technique to make it useful for those with evil intent. Instead, Covert Ops, which operates every other month, is part of a fast-growing segment of the travel industry known as hard-adventure vacations, which more than 30 million Americans choose every year.

"We want to give people a taste of what they've seen in movies and heard about in the news," says Jeff Miller, president of Covert Ops. "But you'd need a lot more hours in all these techniques to master them."

Since Sept. 11, Covert Ops has emphasized the real-world applications for disarming an opponent.

"Let's say you're on board an airliner and somebody comes at you with a box cutter," says Dennis Hebler, a Cold War-era warrior built like a chunk of the Berlin Wall.

"You can take control of that weapon and come right back across your opponent's throat with it."

Inside a martial-arts dojo, 13 participants learn the technique from Hebler, then practice on one another using rubber knives. Hebler also shows them how to snap a pistol out of a bad guy's hand.

"This could come in handy if someone sticks a gun in your face at an ATM," says Andy Warner, 75, a retired hospital facilities manager from Los Angeles who won the vacation from a TV station. Warner entered the contest hoping to snag the second prize, a DVD, "but wouldn't you know I won the whole thing."

Not that he's disappointed. After learning how to snap a car around 180 degrees in a tire-screeching maneuver known as a bootleg, Warner emerges from the vehicle wearing a sly smile.

"I smell rubber," he says. "I must be doing something right."

The Covert Ops staff trains security personnel for government officials and corporate executives in Mexico, Latin America and Europe when they're not fixing fantasy-camp adrenaline junkies such as Ronaele "Ronnie" Hessey.

The forty-ish mother of two has taken up skydiving and ballooning since August, when she recovered from a virus that zapped all her energy for months. She signed up for Covert Ops after her daughter saw a segment about it on TV, then told her Wilmette, Ill., neighbors, the McIntyres, about her plans.

Next up on Hessey's adventure vacation list is a stop at a wind-tunnel in Florida where she'll work on her skydiving technique. After that, she plans to fly a MiG fighter jet.

"I would rather die splatting on the ground than sitting in my bed," says Hessey, who runs a precision optics manufacturing company with her husband. "This is participating in life."

Hessey's midlife adventure cravings propel her to the front of the line for an exercise called hooking, in which one car driven by a Covert Ops staff member makes contact with a lead car in an attempt to spin it out. Keeping the lead car moving along a winding asphalt track involves using the evasive driving techniques learned in the camp.

"I wanted him to ram me more," Hessey says as she climbs from the mirrorless, specially reinforced sedan. She wears a T-shirt that sports the likeness of the late leftist guerrilla and revolutionary Che Guevara.

"Hey, that's Che," says Miller, who had just wandered to the track from the shooting range. "I know two of the guys who killed him."

Part of the flavor of the camp is the sometimes off-color war stories spun by Miller, Hebler and other staff members. The former operatives aren't shy about sharing their political opinions or bad-mouthing certain groups.

"No matter what they say, I'm still the kind of person who doesn't like war and favors gun control," says McIntyre, a mother of four. "But I've got to admit, I really liked shooting a gun and I kind of feel a little bad about that."

McIntyre says the camp experience gives her a sense of personal accomplishment. She relishes the gift from her husband presented to her by camp staff members: an adult diaper accompanied with a message, "The color of adrenaline is brown."

She also feels a greater appreciation for real covert operatives.

"We're in a war right now, and you kind of know there are people out there doing the dirty little things we need them to do," McIntyre says. "It's not something you really want to think about, but now I know how much training and intelligence these people have to have, and how much pressure they're under."

McIntyre videotaped her escapades at the camp and she plans to share the tape with friends.

"Once they see this," she says, "I'm out of the carpool forever."

Copyright 2001, The Arizona Republic. All rights reserved.


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