a monkey on (one's) back
- slang: A drug addiction. Did you hear? Pete checked himself into rehab to deal with the monkey on his back.
- A burden. This project is such a monkey on my back right now—I can't wait for it to be over.
It’s 3 AM. The East African bush is both quiet and loud at the same time. Those who have spent time there, know what that means. For those who have not been there, it is impossible to explain. I am in a single file column on a dirt trail wide enough for one person, with a half dozen uniformed police officers and about as many plain-clothes Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID) detectives from the host country. Light discipline is perfect, not because they think about it – most of them simply don’t have flashlights. Not counting mine, there might be two flashlights between all of them, both with batteries about to give out at any second. Noise discipline is also perfect, not because they are aware of it – but because they are scared.
We are on our way to raid a compound consisting of several buildings and several “shrines” – mud huts used by witch doctors to perform their ceremonies. We are after a witch doctor named Waswa, who sacrificed several children in the past. Most recently he killed a village safety officer and kept his head inside his shrine along with the skulls of the previous victims, hanging his genitalia on the walls of the shrine. This is not a unique case, and these are not one-off circumstances.
Welcome to Africa.
I make my way along the single file, squeezing between the people and the bush that surrounds the trail. I try to reach every uniformed cop because they are the only ones who are armed. As I pass each of them, I touch the safety on their AKs to make sure it is engaged. My plan is simple. The click of the AK safety being dropped is tattooed in my brain after decades of use. If I hear that click, I am finding the deepest hole available and will stay there until the shooting stops. Lack of light and noise discipline may be deadly eventually. Lack of weapon discipline is deadly immediately.
I am tired, hot, and uneasy.
I am feeding The Monkey.
After more than three decades, I still remember exactly when The Monkey climbed on my back. It was January of 1985. My friend and I were on winter break after our first semester in college. I spent my entire childhood and youth skiing. The snow was my everything. We were in a lovely town called Kirovsk, far above the Polar Circle on the Kolsky Peninsula in the Russian Arctic. Although an extremely inhospitable place, it is also one of the best, if not the best, places to ski in Russia.
We went to one of the hotels in town to eat. It was an older 1950s building with a big atrium in the main lobby. As we walked in, I saw a bearded man painting a mural in the atrium. To this day I don’t know why or how we ended up spending the next several hours talking and drinking with him. He was recently discharged from the army, where he spent his entire service time in Afghanistan, in one of the mobile air assault units that did the majority of the real work, along with SF units, during the Soviet presence there. By the time we left that hotel, I was a different person. That bearded man, whose name I actually don’t even remember, changed me and changed the direction of my life. The Monkey was born.
I did not like college. Looking back through the experience years past, I came to realize it was not college I did not like, I was just going to the wrong college. Because of my father’s and all of his friends’ sciences and technical backgrounds and education, the same was a given for my education. Liberal arts was not even on the table. Not because I would not have been permitted to attend a school like that – it simply never occurred to anybody, me included.
After the conversation with the bearded dude, I simply coasted through the second semester before walking into the dean’s office literally as he was going to call me there to tell me I was out. I beat him to it and told him I was leaving.
When I informed my parents that I quit college and that I was going into the army, it went ok with my mother but not so well with my father. The fact that I did not know what was happening to me in my head, let alone could not possibly articulate it, did not help the situation. I just knew I was looking for war. I knew I had to feed The Monkey.
Every Russian city, town and village is either split into districts, or is a part of a district, and each district has a military recruitment office. Before I got on the bus, I spent hours and hours at my recruitment office, trying to get an appointment with anybody who I thought had some kind of decision-making power. I begged for assignment to either airborne or border patrol troops. Airborne was doing most of the work in Afghanistan. Border patrol was my “safety school”. At that time, Soviet Border Patrol troops were under the command of the KGB (Komitet Gos. Bezopastnosti, the main Soviet Intelligence Agency), not the Defense Ministry, and as such, were a springboard to the KGB SF units.
I got assigned to Combat Engineers instead.
I went to a 6 months Combat Engineering school that combined boot camp, AIT, and NCO school all in one. The school is a Division size unit. Each class is a platoon. If you graduate as the best student in your platoon, you get to choose your permanent duty base at the Board hearing upon completion of the training. Only one person per platoon gets to choose and I made sure I was that person. I told the Board, headed by a 2-Star Division commander, that I was going to Afghanistan. He told me that he wanted me to stay at the school and instruct. I told him that I had earned the right to choose and that I was going to Afghanistan. I am pretty sure my heart rate jumped 50 beats above my max heart rate. I don’t know how I did not pass out before he agreed to send me to Afghanistan.
I got assigned to 40th Army, to a Special Purpose Combat Engineering Battalion. Except it was stationed in Uzbekistan, not Afghanistan. The Soviet Union (which is what it was at the time) was split into Military Districts. There was no separate Military District for Afghanistan operations. Those were conducted by the forces of the 40th Army under the command of Turkestan Military District and with no distinction between the units stationed on the Soviet side and those on the Afghan side.
I went to Afghanistan many times on what in the Russian military referred to as “business trips”. My Battalion supplied nearly all the engineering equipment to the Afghan operations. We ran convoys in an out of the country bringing the equipment in. But when something happened, we were reactive. We did not hunt, that was not our job. I wanted to hunt. The Monkey was still hungry.
I submitted requests to my Battalion Commander for a transfer to a unit inside Afghanistan every six months, as allowed by regulations but my requests were never acknowledged and I was ultimately discharged from the same Battalion in which I started my service.
After I got discharged from the army, I applied and was accepted as a member of the 35th Soviet Antarctic expedition. I was stationed at a base called Mirny. Mirny was the starting point of biannual supply convoy to Vostok Station, one of the only two intercontinental Antarctic stations. My parents got married right before my father went to Antarctica himself, and he was one of the scientists stationed on Vostok when I was born, 22 years prior to me going to Antarctica.
I crossed the continent as a part of that convoy twice. As of the time of this writing, thirty years later, I remain the youngest person who has ever taken part in an intercontinental convoy. At that time, there were more people in the cosmonaut training program than there were dudes who crossed Antarctica, because the guys who ran the convoys came back expedition after expedition with a mandatory one-year break in between. I did not realize that at the time, but I was getting better at feeding The Monkey…
My country ceased to exist on December 26, 1991. I had a wife and a little girl and three options – work for money that was almost worthless, work for organized crime, or move. I chose to move to the US.
In the end of the 90s and early 2000s, I spent six years hunting people for a living. It’s funny when I say this and see people cringe. Yes, I was a “bounty hunter”. Yes, I am fully aware of the negative connotations this normally generates. But you don’t have to let a job define you, it is your responsibility to define the job. I achieved something that is very rarely seen in this field – I became an in-house investigator for the third largest bail underwriter in the US. I worked with some of the best crews in the country, found and arrested people in 27 states, and worked with US Marshall Service to bring people back from Canada and with the Mexican Federal Police to bring them back from Mexico.
Bounty hunting fed The Monkey well. We raided meth compounds booby trapped by old Vietnam vets who were the best meth cooks in the business. We splayed ‘roided out neo-Nazis on the floors covered with their pit bulls’ shit and made them lay there while we ripped their stupid flags off of the walls. We raided cartels’ stash houses and made big, bad, One Percenter bikers snitch on each other. I learned one-man and two-man free flow CQB through the necessity of thousands of live repetitions. I had 8-inch screwdrivers miss my neck by an inch and people sitting on loaded guns waiting for me to turn my back. The Monkey got well fed.
But while The Monkey was happy, bounty hunting cost me my marriage, nearly killed my relationship with my daughter, and made me into a pretty bad human being. It takes an animal to hunt an animal and I stopped because I did not like who I became.
There is no free lunch when feeding The Monkey.
I had to find another way. The Iraq and Afghanistan surge was at its peak and the 18X program was in full swing. I figured that even though I was officially too old, I could get a waiver with my languages, more than a thousand jumps out of various aircraft, and some other aspects of my resume. Somebody got me an email for a recruiter from the 20th Group and I emailed him immediately. It was a rather brief exchange. “Too old, don’t need you, nothing can be done, next”. It was pretty crushing. What made it worse is that I knew I would be an asset and I knew I could do it.
The Monkey was getting hungry again and I had to feed it. If I don’t, it starts to eat me instead.
For the last decade, I have been serving as a reserve Deputy with my county’s Sheriff’s Office. I am privileged to work with great dudes and I hope that every day I strap on the gun belt and the armor, I have my brothers’ back and I make my community a little better.
I also co-founded and run a nonprofit organization fighting human trafficking and ritualistic murder (sacrifices, most of which are children) in Eastern Africa. Human trafficking is a massive, overwhelming problem. Human trafficking is now the second highest source of revenue for organized crime groups and individual traffickers, overshadowed only by drugs. It is an accepted opinion among experts that it will inevitably overcome dope. Our efforts started seven years ago in Western Africa, with a commercial project to take down a what was suspected to be a child sex trafficking compound. We are now focused in Eastern Africa, and work with host country police forces and other organizations, conducting investigations, raids, and help with training and anything else we can do to help with these issues.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that poor, less developed countries are by default more susceptible to trafficking. Poverty largely drives trafficking. It not only affects the citizens of a given country, it affects its law enforcement just as equally. And so, it becomes a stacked problem – more poor people are being trafficked and there is less law enforcement capacity to fight it.
I would be lying if I said that the situation is hopeful – it is not. All of the organizations that we see in the field (in a broader sense of the word), who do not work in the actual field, as in side by side with the cops who are dealing with it, like to throw out these catchy slogans such as “We can end human trafficking in our lifetime” and “All victims can be rescued”. Well, sorry, that is just absolute bullshit. We cannot end it in our lifetime. We cannot rescue all the victims.
Human trafficking is a massive, multifaceted, cross-generational problem deeply rooted in poverty, lack of education, ass backwards beliefs, and a host of other issues. An example is the Kafala system. Kafala is legalized slavery. If you read about it, it does not look that bad. It is that bad and worse. Physical and sexual assault, mental abuse, rape, murder – that is the real Kafala, the one with which we deal every day. You can only believe for so long that every African woman in the Middle East who tried to raise her voice against her “sponsor” family abusing her fell victim to an unfortunate car accident. Especially considering that these women can not drive and can not leave the house without permission.
The Monkey has been on my back for 35 years and in those years, I have learned a few things.
Having a monkey on your back is considered to be a negative thing, but it does not have to be if The Monkey works for you, you do not work for The Monkey. Find a way to feed it, because if you don’t – I promise you, it will feed on you. But find a productive way, a way that benefits not only you, but hopefully others as well.
I don’t know what your monkey’s favorite food is. Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s service to others. Maybe it’s pounding dust in the faraway places until your number is up. I don’t know. I do know that dope, whiskey, or a bullet is not the right diet. That much I know.
It’s time to pack my shit and head to the airport.
Time to feed My Monkey.