After spending eight years in Army Special Operations units, I wrote a book about the kind of mission I had always hoped I would be a part of. In this regard, Reflexive Fire is written to answer the question, what would be the ultimate Special Forces mission? The plot of the book is a modern take on a real life coup attempt that almost took place on American soil before it was exposed by the heroic General Smedley Butler. In my novel, I speculate on what such a coup would look like today. The Wall Street gang tried to get General Butler (a two time Metal of Honor awardee) to lead their coup but if it took place today, what kind of person would they approach? What would happen if, like General Butler, that man decided to turn the tables on his employers?
Tag Archives: interview
Please introduce us to your background, where did you grow up, what were your aspirations as a young man?
I grew up in Singapore, and was fed a steady diet of twigs and leaves, with the odd serving of milk and steroids. This allowed me to reach adult proportions faster than some of my other peers.But seriously, my parents were both graphic designers, and well respected in their field, which I would presume gave me my interest in art and design. As a kid, I was very much inclined like most other kids to be a Police officer ( I liked the look of the uniform) or a Fighter Pilot (Sadly our airspace is very limited)….but alas, they were not to be but I ended up in a career that I love nonetheless as a digital artist.
You served your mandatory national service in the military of Singapore. Were you able to decide which unit you went to or were you “voluntold”?
Yup, thats right: 2 years plus of national service. Unfortunately, no we are not given the choice to choose which unit we go to after Basic Military Training, although we are given the option of showing an interest in a vocation, such as armor, infantry, airforce, etc. In the end, while I was originally selected to go into an MP unit, I ended up in the Guards formation. Our Guardsmen are basically elite infantry/ Heliborne assault troops, and a tier above regular infantry, and one tier below the local Commandos.
Was there was a selection process for your Recce unit, if so what was it like?
Unlike regular elite units in the US Armed forces where one might apply for a selection into a specific unit, our selection is much simpler, if crude: You simply get posted to the vocation, and if you cant make the cut during training, you are dropped. This is a conscript army after all, and I would assume looking for volunteers for a tough and demanding unit may not have the same number of keen participants like in the US, where most see getting into elite units as a form of personal pride and challenge. So, basically after 2 months plus of Basic, I was posted into the Guards formation. This in itself has another further 8 week training course, with phases and tests including weapons handling, squad based tactics, navigation and rappelling and heli-rappelling. And lots of hassling! I had a platoon sergeant ‘C’, who was the devil during our course. He was a compact and rather short dude, about 1.6+ meters of height but could the man go. He would routinely drill us for PT and kit turnouts, nothing that was up to his spec was given a severe dose of PT and hassling. He was often seen training by himself at night past lights out jogging around the camp with his fieldpack filled with sand. That said, he was one of our best commanders and highly respected. Last I heard, he was in the Special Operations Force, our local equivalent of Delta.
Upon successful completion of the Guards Conversion Course (GCC), my unit was then awarded our coveted khaki colored beret, and sent for BRCC (Brigade Reconnaissance Conversion Course). This was another 8 week or so of heavy lessons in bike riding (off road scramblers), terrain navigation, small unit tactics, and other tests like our 72klick navigation exercise. Once this last bit of training was successfully completed, we were awarded a boonie hat with the ‘Recon’ tab, and finally christened as full fledged ‘Recce Troopers’.
What was your unit’s official designation and what was it’s primary mission?
We were simply ‘HQ 7 Singapore Infantry Brigade – BRC’, and our primary role was for behind enemy lines observation and reconnaissance.
What type of training did your unit conduct?
We conducted lots and lots of PT back then, among other stuff like Engineer Recce training (learning to assess soil and terrain for intel), unarmed combat.
Did you unit engage in any live patrols along the border?
Fortunately never! We never have to conduct any border patrols since the country is at peace and an island and thus surrounded by water. Thats the Navy’s problem!
What weapons and equipment were typically carried on patrol?
We were usually on bikes, to get from one area to another, but once in the AO, we stashed the wheels and continued on foot to the OP. My usual loadout as the designated radio dude would be our indigenous SAR-21 assault rifle, signal/radio set with battery, 2x extra batteries, thermal imaging device (bloody thing weighed a ton and we never ever took it out for use!), NVGs, rations and personal equipment like extra uniforms n kit, helmet (although we always wore soft covers) and other personal items. All in all, the pack would weigh about 40 odd kilos (about 88 pounds). Throw in the webbing, and rifle and you were looking at almost 50 kilos of extra weight per man. Oh, and canned food. While we were not allowed to bring them along, we always snuck a can or two out for any overnight exercises into the jungle. The rations, well, were mostly for shit, with green curry rice being the bane of any soldier unlucky enough to have landed it. Granted though, that a small bottle of tobasco sauce did wonders to make certain items edible. Tobasco, the saviour of foods.
What was the average day like as a Recce?
Average day in camp was pretty simple: Wake up, PT till lunch, break, lessons, PT somemore, dinner. Short break, and then usually some night PT. On outfield/jungle excercises, we would kit up, get a briefing and then ride out to a holding area for further mission briefing. When we were finally let loose, we would ride to within 5-7 klicks of the OP and then hoof it on foot, after camouflaging the bikes. Reach the OP, establish security and comms and we were in business.
What duty position(s) did you hold during your military service?
I was a corporal/radioman in my team of 4 men, and that was basically it! Unofficially, I was the company line photoshop guy, so anything to do with graphics or stuff, I was the one fiddling with the computer. Camp pass photo touchups a specialty. Whats that sir? Remove the pimple from the Colonel’s face? No problem. Occasionally, I would remove the mustache from a certain regimental major or warrant officer…this often led to interesting encounters with the individuals who then saw the result.
Any tips or tricks of the trade that you can share with us?
I would think I would have much to learn from the other personnel serving in other armed forces across the world who are faced with much more immediate threats and dangers to their country. Ours is very much a peacetime armed forces, and only the regular career soldiers are sent into combat zones.
When did you begin to take up an interest in art? What are your inspirations?
Probably as a child, my earliest memories were of drawing aeroplanes, and tracing those old transformers box art. A sheet of paper and a pencil, and I was happy. Aeroplanes eventually turned into robots and tanks and superheroes, pencils became markers and brushes. Eventually, with the advent of the digital medium I eventually got into this line of work professionally.
I might actually say it was the other way around: that my interests as an artist is closely intertwined with my background of national service! If you may recall, I was originally aspiring to be a pilot when I was a kid but at some point and I collected and built scale models of planes and helicopters (the F-14 was my favourite!). But one day I thought I would try some soldiers for a change, and i happened upon a kit figures depicting US Special forces during the Somalia ‘Black Hawk Down incident(this was in 1995, 2 years after the event). They really struck a cord in me for some strange reason, and since that time, I have taken a very strong interest in Special Operations units. You will find that I have quite a few pieces of work depicting, or at least related to special ops units. While no longer having to serve full time in the military, I enjoy the occasional game of milsim paintball/woodsball when I can.
Similar to my question about the weapons and equipment you had in the military, what tools to do use as an artist?
Originally, I had started with the traditional pencil, paper, ink, paint etc. And then, with the introduction of computers, Adobe Photoshop and Corel Painter, I started drawing with a mouse, tedious process that it was but it was new to me. That was before I learned of something called a ‘tablet’ which is basically a digital ‘pen and canvas’. Currently, I am using the Wacom Intuous 3 for my illustrations.
Could you describe your process of creation? How does your final art work come into being?
Depending on the requirements of the client and project, generally the process starts with an initial sketch, which is given to the client for preliminary edits and comments. This then moves into a refined sketch or illustration, with constant updates to the client for any edits and changes that maybe required. The constant updates are crucial to prevent any miscommunication and to keep the work accurate to what the client wants. At some point, the work will near its final stages, whereby final touches and edits are made with one last update to the client. Upon approval, the client is then given the final copy of the work, usually a softcopy file. Normal ‘Go to Woah’ time is a week or two, sometimes stretching up to a month.
What have you been up to since leaving the military? Are you a full time artist
After I left the army in 2006, I started work at an illustration studio: Imaginary Friends Studios (you may check them out @ www.imaginaryfs.com) for about a year and a half, before I stopped work to pursue my further studies at RMIT in Melbourne Australia. I graduated with a degree in Animation and Interactive Media in end 2009, and stayed for another year (its a beautiful city!), finally returning home in late 2010. I resumed work at my old studio as a full time digital artist, and am now churning out more works of art, hopefully some of which you may soon see at your local comic store or videogame shop. Anyhow, thank you for reading and I hope you guys enjoyed this simple little insight to my memories of military service.
Thank you for a great interview! Marc did the cover of “Reflexive Fire” and definitely knocked it out of the park. I would highly recommend his services to others. You might want to hit him up for some work now, this guy has some talent and I think it’s only a matter of time before he gets picked up to do graphic novels or comic book covers for DC or some other major publisher. You can view more of his art at http://rub-a-duckie.deviantart.com/
I’ve got something special for you today, an interview with former Executive Outcomes man Michael Da Silva as well as some of his pictures from his time in Angola. Executive Outcomes continues to make for a fascinating case study in modern warfare, one that readers of this blog are probably familiar with by now. EO was perhaps the first truly successful commercial venture in what is now known as Private Military Companies. Much vilified by the media, Michael helps us shed some light on what life was really like while working for EO.
Michael was a logistics guy, the type of dude that Hollywood does NOT make movies about, but is none the less of vital importance. Without a constant resupply of ammunition, water, food, and fuel, soldiers on the ground will be fighting the shortest war in history.
Please introduce us to your professional background. Were you in the military and/or police before signing on with EO? What was your employment prospects after the end of apartheid before finding work with Executive Outcomes?
Michael: i was a national serviceman in the south african air force. 1987-1990 i completed two camps in 1991 and 1992 ( i volunteered for these camps to get away from civilian life dreardom and get some serious drinking accomplished) i was trained as an ops clerk and my primary tasks were tasking of aircraft, flight plans, organising casualty evacuation procedures and monitoring of search and rescue operations and monitoring of all aircraft in our sector of operations.
employment prospects were ok i suppose, tons of boring dead end jobs and loads of time to do inane everyday civilian things like coordinate ties with shoes.
How were you recruited into EO? I recall in Eeben Barlow’s (Executive Outcome’s CEO) book that he mentions doing some recruitment drives…
Michael: i was recruited into EO in a bar by Bryan Westwoods stepson gary. he(gary) by the way didnt last very long and left cabo ledo after our first beating by the operators. a very necessary rite of passage in order to define our position within the heirarchy.
What was the nature of the contract you signed with EO? Duty position(s), responsibilities? How long did you work with EO?
Michael: i signed a basic contract with basic waivers and secrecy clauses. i worked for EO for just on 7 months and decided to use the cash to jump start my own very successful private security 1 man business. thanks Eeben. i resigned and am probably one of the only employees who requested a letter to confirm that i was employed by EO. i did this as a proof of employment so i would not be scoffed at as one of the many who suddenly all worked for EO. i got very worked up one evening by a charlatan who was lying to people about working for EO.
When and where were you stationed with EO and in what capacities?
Michael: i was stationed at Cabo Ledo base primarily and detached to the airwing as a refueller and flight line/ runway skivvy. further duties were sentry duty at our boom within the cabo ledo base, weapon store duties( basic maintenance of small arms). hell i even took out the trash! we dumped it in the “veld” adjoining the base in what was known to be mined. when we dumped our rubbish we would await the FAA troops arrival to scramble through it for food. we called it “breakfast at tiffany`s” was transferred to longa to clear a heli pad but we never got round to it. we dug a shit load of long drop toilets! late august 1993 to early january 1994 exact dates elude me i was in cabo ledo for “the new years debacle” booze- operators- koevoet – bats all in one place saying their unit is superior led to a lot of “tension” i slept that night with a chambered round in my RPK.
What airframes did EO operate and how were they used?
Michael: EO in my time had two king air 200`s and used as taxi`s. a pilatus fighter and used as i guess a fighter. mi17 transport helicopter. and just as i left a mi8 hip gunship.
What did your day to day life look like as a EO employee? Both work and recreation!
Michael: pt in the morning, dreadful breakfast, off to the flight line and conduct a quick runway inspection. check jet a1 fuel for impurities, marshall aircraft onto the apron, refuel, search luggage and interior of plane to make sure “contraband” such as weapons werent being smuggled into south africa by staff going on leave. we went to the beach and drank. real military style.
What did EO’s logistics infrastructure look like? How were troops on the ground supplied with ammunition, water, food, and fuel?
Michael: at first we had no weapons, and food was shit. that however changed very fast and we were reasonably armed and real food was flown up to us by EO. life was good. power was always an issue due to diesel shortage.
Who flew EO’s air bridge from SA to your Area of Operation? Were the aircraft purchased or chartered?
Michael: ask Eeben. i just refuelled and minded my business. i was just a skivvy.
As an aviation specialist, what were the unique challenges you faced operating the austere conditions encountered in African war zones? Any tips and ticks of the trade you would like to share?
Michael: dont try and put in electric powered runway lights. electricity is erratic at best. dont bother with battery operated runway lights. they were constantly being stolen and nearly every FAA soldier had either a green or red landing light in his tent or bivvy. take a healthy sense of humour with you.
What was the security situation like on the ground? How did you and your co-workers protect yourselves? What weaponry was made available to you?
Michael: we were issued bulgarian ak47`s and russian manufactured RPK`s. if you wanted something more exotic you simply purchased it from the FAA soldiers. one dude bought a spanish version of an uzi? my buddy bought a couple rgd 5 fragmentation grenades and fully loaded ak magazines. simple, cash is king.
As a former Special Forces soldier myself, I know that some countries attempt to limit what type of weaponry we could bring in to train with when working with indigenous forces. For example, I know of one SF team who trained forces in a Middle Eastern country who were prevented from bringing 7.62 ammunition and weapons chambered for the same caliber into that country. Did EO operate with any such restrictions? Were any items required for your mission flown in “under the radar” to your knowledge?
Michael: ask Eeben. i didnt partake in actual battlefield readiness training. the closest i came to training was simple weapon stripping to a few FAA soldiers who had never field stripped their weapons. these soldiers stood beat with us at the guard hut at our boom.
What was your opinion of the locals in your AO? Were they hostile, supportive, indifferent? What was EO’s relationship with them like?
Michael: EO had a fantastic attitude toward the locals. we definately practised the hearts and mind approach. we were NOT thugs.
Eeben had a frikkin good group together.
Was EO’s resupply air bridge interfered with in anyway? Did neighboring countries refuse to open their airspace? Did intelligence services attempt to subvert your supply lines in anyway? If so, how did EO attempt to circumvent this?
Michael: not that i know of. if there were objections we certainly didnt know about it. we landed and refuelled in Rundu namibia when i flew for the first time in country. no one came to check on us, no one gave a shit.
I notice that you also pulled double duty as something of a unit armorer. What weapons did EO posses at this time? Were they procured locally or brought from South Africa? Please give a basic summery of what the arms room looked like and what it contained.
Michael: NO weapons came from south africa! we received our weaponry from the FAA via bulgaria or wherever. we had pkm`s ak 47`s , rpk`s ` grenades , rpg`s, 60mm mortars, dragunov sniper rifles. etc. basic weaponry. oh and in that picture, the most deadly weapon of them all cases of J&B whisky.
In one of your pictures I noticed a mortar system that is sometimes refereed to as a Portuguese commando mortar. Could you elaborate on this weapon? Is this an actual weapon system or merely a “sawed off” Russian 60mm mortar? How did you come across this weapon and it what manner was it employed?
Michael: i beleive it was a russian 60mm mortar. the operators used it and i havent the foggiest where it came from.
How did you part ways with EO and what has life been like since? Have your worked elsewhere as a private security contractor?
Michael: i parted ways by resigning and requesting a letter to confirm my employ. i worked in south africa for myself sub contracting in the security field. i drove the rolling stones and did hotel and vip lounge security for bon jovi. more of that is on my c.v online www.michaelbdasilva.20m.com
Any final thoughts you would like to share with us?
Michael: EO was a life changing experience for the better. loved it. i was always a militaristic person and working for EO was an honour. thanks once again Eeben.
Thanks for doing this Michael! In addition, Michael’s mind melting blog can be found at The Da Silva Code.