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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Body Guard Duty - Haiti

By David "Jager" Burnell  

There is a strange phenomenon that takes place when one is asked to risk his life for another human being. As a professional body guard for high risk areas on a recent deployment to Haiti I saw first hand the grateful souls that understood we were the very thin line between them and a headline story. I also saw and heard first hand the mocking tones and cutting comments from the very souls we were there to help.

Perhaps the issue is that we as guardians look at the world through a different set of eyes. We scan for posture, hands and eyes... we look into the movement and spacing of healthy capable men and women in a crowd... even though danger can come from anyone regardless of how they look or move, it is a process of looking at the obvious first and then scanning to the apparently lesser threats.


The ability to survive in a third world country where kidnapping is not only a common venue, but a profitable business is deeply ingrained in one's ability to look beyond the things that you may see or feel in a given area and understand geographic trends, history and current relevant activities that will give you a better lay of the land.

Those who have been to the high risk area may reflect on their past experience and think "all is well" because they survived their first deployment. This is a sure method of becoming a new statistic and creating opportunity for those who look for soft targets.

During my recent deployment to Haiti as the Chief of Security for the Utah Hospital Task Force our advice was often disregarded as over the top and not relevant to the current circumstances. The Task Force Commander was an awesome principal and completely got it. he was an adviser to President Regan and a great man... the 120 doctors and nurses however were there to give humanitarian aid and many had never been out of the country before. For many the first mission they went on was the largest natural disaster in recorded history. Many of them we not compliant to our counsel and some paid the price.

Everyone wants to believe it will not be them, but the reality is that if we are blind to the possibility of a threat we can easily become a victim... the deeper we go or the more we fight the protector who has dug deep for real bona fide intelligence the more we play into the hands of the opportunists. A strong presence balanced with good open movement in well populated areas during daylight will reduce the risk compared to small groups traveling with women late at night in poorly lit or unpopulated areas.


For one doctor who decided to take a ride in a local tap tap (cab) this lesson became way too real. Upon getting into the vehicle the driver needed gas, the doctor was approached for the cash and he produced his wallet... second mistake. Then after fueling the vehicle the car drove down a series of side streets until his personal safety beacon was screaming at him to abort. To his credit after yelling at the driver repeatedly with no response he got out of the vehicle and managed to get back to the hospital without further incident. While he felt safe enough to take the risk, once he jumped into the car it could have gone much worse. Whether he was a candidate for abduction (a U.S. doctor would bring a good bounty) or a simple robbery and ass whopping it doesn't matter. He broke several key rules.

Rule #1 never go anywhere alone. Rule #2 never show your money... stash some expendable cash in an easy to get place separate from your real funds. Rule #3 when in trouble break contact immediately and seek a public area for help. He did well with rule #3 but had the driver produced a weapon things could have gotten much worse and turned out much different.

Just prior to our arrival there were two female christian missionaries who were picked up at the airport by a cab. The driver took them both to a warehouse where they were gang raped five times each. During this process I would imagine they would have preferred a hyper vigilant protector guiding their paths.

When we first landed in Haiti at a recently "secured" airport one of the senior members of our task force came over and said "do you think you really need those rifles?" I imagine for him coming from a happy valley setting at home he might not have ever been in a fight let alone had to pull a trigger on someone. I looked into his big blue innocent eyes and said "how about we give it more than an hour in country before we put down our weapons".

In the world of professional body guards in high risk areas it will be important to listen to the client and have the ability to appear less lethal than a rifle slung over your body at times, but the ability to bring measured violence to bear immediately is critical to preserve this life or lives of those in your care even when they might not agree or understand the dynamics of it.

It is understandable for people who have never been a victim to want to believe they never will be. A simple look into those who have been victims will refresh our perspectives and help us realize that they too did not intend on becoming a target of violence or advantage.


Several times during our deployment many of the doctors or nurses would come up to us and share with us their genuine appreciation for being that thin fragile line between them and the masses of hurting, starving or unknown people. We as men willing to lay our lives down on their behalf welcome those observations and it truly does foster a deeper willingness to risk on their behalf. After all we are people that think and feel. Appreciation becomes reciprocal. It does not mean however that a negative word or a mocking gesture will cause you to be thrown under the bus. That is not in our nature to be that way and is contrary to the mold of men that stand as organic ballistic protection for complete strangers. But it is a plus.

In one of our many missions as the sun was setting a young healthy male appeared at the tent city where our medical personnel were giving aid. I had told the team that we wanted to get moving prior to dark so we could account for everyone and at least be on the road heading towards our base. I of course would have rather been in the compound before nightfall but knew I had to blend my vigilance with our important mission to provide aid. As the young male got on the phone as the sun began to set another three males with cell phones arrived. Now remember these people had little food and limited water, yet these young men had phones and crooked ball caps signifying style amidst poverty.

As we were loading our folks up way to close the the vampire hour a car pulled up with another doctor who quickly dismounted. This happened minutes after I sent a man with a machete behind his back out of the reach of our perimeter. As I told the doctor we needed to go he barked a stern "shut up" at me. I kindly but firmly told him we needed to go now... he again yelled his disdain for my attempt to block his mission. I then grabbed him and told him he was jeopardizing the safety of everyone here and that not two minutes ago I send a man who was hiding a machete behind his back away and that those healthy young lads with cell phones were accumulating at a way to rapid rate. I also told him that the person that would have to deal with this unwinding mess and most probably be left behind in a fight would be me. He sheepishly got in his newly arrived vehicle and went off to perform another medical at another location in complete darkness.


Later he would apologize to me and explain that his blood sugar levels were way off. These are the dynamics of dealing with people who do not have all the information, and are living in a third world environment where dehydration and food levels severely compromise their judgment.

To the credit of the other doctors, nurses and staff they had previously calmly and quietly got into our vehicles and prepared for departure prior to his arrival. Tunnel vision is a killer in high risk areas and can come from a newly arriving doctor to a scene he is unfamiliar with or from an operator who has not kept himself hydrated or salted. Either way belligerence is deadly.

One of the lessons learned here is to establish a clear understanding that states when certain parameters are met i.e. at darkness authority is shifted from the lead doc or even task force commander to the head of security. The reality is that you might not have that luxury and be required to work it out again and again in the field in real time. As trust is developed and the leaders and principals know your are even headed and only there to provide their safety these types of events become less common and are mitigated on the front end through clear and open communication and planning.

One of the best examples of this working in a real situation took place when we were driving to a remote and beautiful country orphanage up north in Haiti. In route a loud and violent explosion took place in the bus. I was sitting in the open door in the rear and Bravo, my good friend, was situated in the front open door of the same bus to prevent anyone jumping on. As the explosion and glass shards blew into the bus we came to our feet and I yelled "get down now!". Without exception everyone went to the ground and got small... then Bravo and I got up at the same time to access threats and deal with them. As some folks started to rise up a bit out of curiosity I yelled again in even tones "stay down!", to their credit they did. As the bus started to stop I communicated to "keep moving, do NOT stop". In a few minutes we discovered that another large vehicle passing to close on the left side had struck our extended mirror generating the large explosion and glass.

This was a perfect example of the people listening to a command voice under stress. I congratulated them on the "dry run" and said they all performed perfectly! "You go down and we go up... perfect". After this event those in the bus got the message that we were there to help and were really responsible for engaging the threats while they took a low profile. Sometimes it takes a little drama to get the point across and to test the mettle of those being protected and the protectors themselves. It wouldn't have gone very well had Bravo and I got into the fetal position and screamed like babies or became too loud and excited while yelling at the top of our voice commands. Calm, firm tones with clarity were key in establishing control in chaos. Through this experience several of the folks commented on how fast it went down and how quick we took charge. Long periods of being bored with short flashes of madness is the hallmark of this type of work.