By Laine Siklos and Tiffany Smiley
At sunrise on the Friday before the killing of notorious ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Bagdhadi, our 11th Armored Blackhorse unit boarded four Black Hawk helicopters and flew in formation across the silent desert. Soon we landed near a town called Razish with reports of enemy ISIS combatants in place. Our special forces operation had officially begun.
We drove a few miles to base camp in darkness and waited for our commanding officer to brief us. Feeling a surge of adrenaline and still tasting the dirt from our chopper’s hard landing, we were mentally prepared for the unknown.
Our mission unfolded exactly as planned. We surveyed the town, called out at multiple points for the enemy to surrender, and pursued our target down a claustrophobic, dead-end tunnel, ending in a smoke-filled room that reeked of gas. We were told our terror subject was holed up in an outer building. After checking for booby traps, we kicked in the door, put our sights on our target, and fired, killing him instantly. We did not allow him to die a martyr via suicide vest.
Full disclosure: our story was no video game. Nor does it align with the death of the actual al-Bagdhadi – but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the real deal. That’s because we were not on that mission, which took place the following day led by highly trained Delta Force soldiers during a raid in northwest Syria. We were, in fact, taking part in a simulated terrorist sweep conducted by the U.S. Army. Although our mission was an exercise designed to expose civilians to authentic special ops conditions, the experience was a reminder of the very real, awesome responsibility our armed forces personnel take on every day.
We are two professional women and mothers living comfortably on the West Coast, close friends in the trenches of life. One of us (Tiffany) is a nationally recognized motivational speaker on perseverance and resilience. She founded Hope Unseen with her husband Scott, who graduated the US Military Academy at West Point and was blinded by a suicide bomber shortly after being deployed to Iraq. The other (Laine) is a former media executive and chief of staff for a global investment firm. Both of us are staunch advocates for injured veterans and military spouses.
Along with 40 other executives in media and technology, we participated in a full-day immersive “combat” experience the U.S. Army hosts four times a year at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert. Almost the size of Rhode Island, it’s the world’s largest, most advanced combat training facility. As its website describes, “Fort Irwin provides realistic joint and combined arms training focused on developing soldiers, leaders, and units of America’s Army for success on the 21st Century battlefield.” Attendees spend a day with troops, receiving briefings, exploring tanks, jeeps, and helicopters and performing mock raids in full gear, stopping only for a quick MRE (meal ready-to-eat).
The day we spent hunting for terrorists in the fictional Razish was a shinier, gentler version of an actual op, but it provided a genuine appreciation of the risks and stresses experienced by military forces in the field. The soldiers we accompanied were dead-serious, intelligent, dedicated and sharp-witted. These talented professionals could flourish in cushier, more lucrative positions — senior sales execs, bankers and lawyers – but they chose military service instead.
Before the surprise raid in mid-October that took out the world’s most wanted terrorist, al-Bagdhadi was embedded in one of Syria’s street markets. In our simulated exercise, we walked nervously through a throng of vendors selling everything from fruit to souvenirs to electronics, searching for enemies and weapons. We tried to imagine such a heart-stopping sweep taking place in New York’s Union Square or LA’s Brentwood Country Mart.
Al-Baghdadi killed himself and at least two of his children by early evening on Saturday. A day earlier, our mission complete, we left our Black Hawk at Burbank Airport and were on our way to an In-N-Out in Studio City, still covered in dust and facial grease. In our world, children were giving the orders – for burgers and fries, to celebrate the end of the school week. They greeted us at home with a hero’s welcome. My tech-savvy, 13-year-old turned off his video games and converted a large-screen TV into a photo gallery. In the comfort and safety of home, we sat with the children and walked them through the images to explain what we had witnessed.
Most of our troops – especially those tasked with carrying out special missions – don’t get to share this feel-good moment. In fact, they may not be able to tell their families where they are or what they did that day. Imagine coming home each night and not being able to share your life with the people you love.
Our men and women in uniform are sent to do the toughest, most challenging and dangerous work possible on our behalf. Upon returning to civilian life, they often struggle integrating back into society, whether finding employment or rebuilding normal relationships. That’s where all of us can help – by taking advantage of veterans’ translatable skills: executive decision-making, organization, contingency planning, follow-through, teamwork, trust, leadership discretion, and honor.
There are so many ways you can honor our brave soldiers well beyond an annual Veteran’s Day thanks for their service. Pick up their tab when you see them at the airport. Donate your gift cards or purchase pre-paid international calling cards. Visit the websites of the Disabled American Veterans, Homes for Our Troops, Wounded Warrior Project, or USO for more ideas.
The parting words of our commanding Brigadier General, when asked what we could do to share our experience, simply said: “Go tell our Army story so that others will know too.” A worthy takeaway to remember long after official Veterans’ Day has passed.
About Authors: Laine Siklos is founder and principal, Embassy Row Global, a strategic advisory firm for entrepreneurs and executives. Tiffany Smiley, a former nurse, directs a motivational and resiliency program called More Than Me. She co-produced a documentary film based on her husband Scott’s military experience.