Commando-for-hire John Geddes on the life of a mercenary
As a British commando in the Special Air Services, John Geddes fought missions in the Falkland Islands and ran undercover ops in Northern Ireland and Bosnia. When he left the military, he became a soldier-for-hire, protecting American and British media crews from hostile insurgents in Iraq. He now runs a private military training facility called Ronin Concepts, where he teaches private military contractors, bodyguards, and journalists the skills they need to survive in a war zone. —Jay Dixit
How did you get into this?
It’s a natural progression from a military life. The private security sector led me into bodyguard work, Kevin Costner sort of “suits in boots.” Then Iraq and Afghanistan crept up, and now it’s armed security details in hostile environments.
What draws you to this? The adventure? The money?
It’s mainly the high adventure, the adrenaline boost. And of course the money, which is sometimes in excess of $1000 a day.
In a perverse way, does that mean you’re looking for the riskiest possible assignments—because they pay the most?
Exactly. It’s a calculated risk. Often it’s dangerous, but it’s predictably dangerous. You’re counting on your own skills and background to get you out of trouble quicker then you got in, and the temptation is to take on the task.
What’s the transition to civilian life like?
Nobody completely gets away with it. When I mix with civilian counterparts, they don’t understand what I’ve seen and done. People ask questions all the time. I’ve found it hard to communicate—being tentative, guarded in conversation.
What is it that civilians don’t understand?
Why you do it. Why you risk your life in the military in the first place, and once you get away with it, at least physically, why go do it again and possibly become even more psychologically damaged than you already are.
Friends of mine have committed suicide from post-traumatic stress. I used to dream—between dreams and nightmares. Teeth grinding. Strangely, what balances you is more trauma and more adrenaline; working in a dangerous place again has more of a calming effect then anything else. It’s a bit of a fix. It’s like Apocalypse Now. When you’re in the jungle all you can think of is home, and when you’re home all you can think of is getting back in the jungle.
Have you dealt with depression too?
I’ve suffered more from survivor’s guilt. I’ve been to over 50 funerals.
What’s it like for your wife?
My wife is a stroke specialist. She sees a lot of death on a daily basis herself. Soldiers, nurses, firefighters, policemen, they share a bond of being on the front lines, that camaraderie. She gets my gallows humor.
In an emergency situation, do you stop and think, “What’s the best thing to do?”
You react instinctively. If you think, you’re dead.
Are you afraid of dying?
When I was in Iraq my nightmare was not getting killed but getting captured. I worry about my reputation. How’s it going to look if I lose my client? If I’m captured and wind up on national TV in an orange boiler suit, how embarrassing would that be? So you have to fight to the death. There’s no way I would have been captured alive.
Can you sense when danger is imminent?
You develop a sixth sense. It’s more situation awareness. Honed by training, experience, skill.
On the road from Jordan to Baghdad, we were accosted by insurgents. You learn to pick up on combat indicators—changes in the atmosphere, something that stands out of the ordinary that you may not see that I’d definitely see. I saw a BMW parked up in a laybine with no reason. If someone doesn’t have a reason to be there, it’s suspicious. I was this vehicle in the rearview mirror and immediately knew something was going to happen.
As predicted, this vehicle came up and fired a volley of AK rounds in an attempt to pull us over. They had the windows wound down, two to three guns pointed at us, and it was pull over now or you’re dead. I fired from the inside the car, fired straight through my own car door to preserve the element of surprise.
Presumably, your fire hit and killed the guys in the vehicle.
Two or three guys in the back seat. From three feet, a burst of automatic fire, armor-piercing rounds, someone’s going to get hurt.
We sped away as the car twisted and turned and fishtailed into the ditch. Then I turned to the crew in the back and said, “Welcome to Fallujah.”
What did you feel at that moment?
A slight pressure on my trigger finger. Sorry, gallows humor.
How did it feel to kill someone?
It’s adrenaline, a little bit of shame. It’s not a natural thing to kill somebody. You never get used to it. But mostly it’s being thankful it wasn’t you and exhilaration that you got away with it again.
Ever been in a situation you didn’t know how to get out of?
Getting divorced after my first marriage. I’ve never felt so lost in all my life. I was fortunate to find another woman who took the brunt of the rehabilitation.