Over the years I have had some outstanding adventures, in some interesting parts of the world. Since it is currently pouring down rain outside I decided I would forgo the outdoors for a day and maybe bring out an
old, I mean classic Adventure Journal report from those long ago days before the whole digital blog-a-sphere became so popular. Here, from September 2001, is one of my favorites…
It was Friday morning and the last day of the 5 day SWAT school we were teaching in Sao Leopoldo, Brazil. Realizing that we were running very short on time, we loaded up the half of the students that had just finished Bus Assault training onto the bus. At that point we noticed the bus driver was missing. From the middle of the huge parking area it was easy to see he was no where around. No problem, Roberto, a student from Rio de Janeiro, jumped in behind the wheel and announced he would drive the bus. Earlier in the week we had assigned Roberto the nickname “Big Kahuna” for his ability to always be the center of attention. Rick began to question this move as Big Kahuna fired up the motor. Roberto presented his documents to Rick for his inspection. Rick examined the Portuguese writing on the Brazilian driving documents. He could not read them and of course he had no authority to take any type of enforcement action but Big Kahunna was determined that Rick give him his blessing.
As the bus rolled out of the parking lot, I yelled up to Rick from the back seat, “We’re 8000 miles from home. We’ve had about 6 hours of sleep in the last week. We can speak about 10 words of the native language. And now we’re stealing a bus”. “I bet you’ve never done that before”. A phrase we had repeated like a Buddhist chant over the last week.
This adventure started coming to life on September 4th when Eduardo Jany asked me if I had a passport, and would I like to go to Brazil to teach a SWAT school. I thought it over for about 4 seconds and then agreed to go. My training partner Rick Dunn (Eduardo’s Commander) took a little more time to weight the proposition, but also agreed.
Rick would need to get a rush-job passport and we both needed Visas. Our employer, Charles Saba, from U.S. Police Instructor Team, needed to ship us the training outlines and 30 sets of soft body armor. I had 16 days to study the history, culture, language, politics, and customs of a country on the bottom side of the world.
A few days later a bunch of assholes would hijack some airplanes and crash them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That would put a serious time crunch on the preparations. Somehow everything got accomplished with a few hours to spare.
Saturday morning Susan dropped me off at the airport. Snafu #1; the 4 boxes of ballistic vests would cost me $100.00 each to send down as extra baggage. The very helpful ticket agent suggested I repack them into 3 boxes, to save $100.00. So there I was, using my Clip-it brand fighting knife to cut open boxes of body armor in a crowded airport under the tightest airport security our country had ever known.
With that done I sat down to wait for Rick. After an hour of waiting, the ticket agent asked, “Is your partner the kind of guy that usually runs a little late?” I told him I’d known Rick for 20 years and couldn’t recall a single time when he had ever arrived early for something. I went on to the gate.
About 30 minutes before boarding I hear my name on the intercom. “Jeff Katzer, return to the Continental Ticket Counter”. Snafu #2; Rick arrived to find that he had no ticket. That little “heart-check” was eventually cleared up and we took off for what was to become the airline trip from hell. For the next 24 hours we slept in chairs, waited around airports, humped around hundreds of pounds of gear, and survived on food that would make Easy Bake Oven dishes look tasty.
When we cleared through Brazilian Customs in Sao Paulo the inspector wanted to take a look in our bags. The 3 boxes of vests didn’t raise an eyebrow. When he opened Rick’s duffel bag and saw his silver metal training gun he pulled it out and then just stuck it right back in the bag. “You Police?, You FBI?”, he asked. Before we could complete our explanation he was telling us to move along and returned to his chair.
For the last leg of the journey Rick and I found seats in the last row of the plane. We were now deep enough into the county that even the limited English we heard over the intercom on the plane sounded like a foreign language to us. I soon noticed that the other passengers and the flight attendants were scrutinizing every move that Rick made. Every time Rick would reach down on the floor to his bag the guy across the aisle would tense up in his seat and lean over to try to look in the bag. It was very, very weird.
After the plane had landed and all the passengers were filing off, the flight attendant tried to explain that one of the passengers coming through customs behind us had seen the training gun. Thinking it was real he reported it to the flight attendant and most of the other passengers. It seemed that the 100 something people on the plane had been living in stark terror for the last 1-½ hours wondering if their last meal was going to be airplane food.
Finally we were there. 30 degrees south latitude, the bottom of the planet. We were met by Col. Sergio Ruiz and Lise Bauermann. Sergio was the training coordinator and Lise would be our translator, den mother, driver, and baby-sitter.
We would soon learn that these two kindhearted individuals were just the models for all the Brazilian people we would meet.
Our week began with introductions and an orientation to SWAT tactics. All the students were assembled in a classroom at the Municipal building. The group was made up from Brigada Militar (the military police handle most of the daily patrol duties), Civil Police, Federal Police, and Federal Police of the Legislature. The officers, sergeants, lieutenant, and a colonel were from 5 different states.
The first thing we were to realize is the Brazilian people are obsessed with everything SWAT. Although they pronounced it as SWATCH. U.S. SWAT stuff ranks just below World Cup Soccer in their frenzied devotion and uncontrollable curiosity. Charles had told us, ”You’ll be treated like rock stars”. I don’t think either of us believed how true that was until we got in country.
So we began our week. I learned to speak for a few sentences, then pause for Lise to translate, then talk some more. I had to remind myself to always use the most direct and simple method to explain any subject. Colorful examples and descriptive adjectives didn’t always translate into Portuguese. Of course as the week went on we were constantly pushing the envelope of what things would translate and what things wouldn’t. “No flies on you”. “Show me, don’t tell me”. “The only easy day was yesterday”. “It’s all good, baby”. By the end of the week all the students had their own favorite American sayings to take home with them.
One of the first things Rick did was give them all an outline and a practical test on SWAT hand signals. That allowed us to communicate with everybody in a universal language and in retrospect turned out to be a brilliant move. Even with the class split in half and only one translator, we could have two different evolutions going on at the same time. Whoever was teaching the more complex techniques would take Lise with them. The other would just use hand signals and demonstrations. It worked far better that I would have ever expected.
Our student’s experience levels ranged from “never fired a gun before” to some pretty “stract” teams that always arrived together, dressed the same and ready to go with all their equipment. On the average most of the equipment was old, worn out, barely serviceable, and the type of stuff most U.S. operators wouldn’t even bother to steal if it was left out on the locker room floor. We had a shining example of guys just making do the best they can with whatever they can get.
Rick and I both packed down a suitcase full of SWAG (that’s the free stuff that’s given away at bike races). Everyday some lucky pair of operators or an individual would receive a prize for outstanding behavior. For all of them it was Christmas in Sao Leopoldo. In addition to that we were passing out patches and pins to anybody that gave a little extra effort or tried a little harder. Needless to say, whenever we asked for a volunteer we were swamped with eager helpers.
Monday afternoon was wrapped up with a short little two-man buddy run. During the timed event a two-person team had to round a course while maintaining contact with each other. They crawled under a bench, stacked some traffic cones into an “X”, walked a balance beam, and had to memorize several items in a box.
When you add that SWAT competitive spirit to that Latin Machismo you get guys that will walk across broken glass in their bare feet just so they can be the first to run through the bed of burning hot coals. We had some scraped elbows and a small cut eyebrow. It could have been a lot worse, we found out later that one of the participants had already had his 5th heart attack.
As the day wrapped up we returned to the hotel for showers, then we got dressed up for dinner. Our nightly dining experience was a continuous “can you top this” contest every evening. We were in the land of the Gaucho, where meat in king. Every meal included plate after plate of deliciously prepared meat dishes. In addition to that coffee was the fuel that made the Brazilian’s motor run. We had coffee at every meal, and all through the day and night, every day, day after day. For a tea drinker like me it was a challenge.
Another challenge for me was the time difference. The 4 time zones left my body telling me to wake up at about 0130 every morning. This city doesn’t get going until about 2300 hours and it was not uncommon for the clubs to be jamming until 0600. I averaged about 3 hours of sleep a night.
Tuesday our class assembled at an abandoned elementary school. We covered downed officer rescues and scouting techniques. This was one of those locations with 100 different places to get injured. The broken glass, rotten flooring and human biohazards didn’t claim any of our team members that day.
Rick and I were starting to get to know some of our new teammates. We gave them nicknames. The memories of Piazan, Stevie Wonder, Mon Colonel, Little Potato, Chihuahua, Gucci SWAT, and many, many more, will stay with us forever. Lise gave one fella a name. “Mala” was assigned to this guy because he was kind of high maintenance and complained a lot. The translation was “a suitcase without a handle”. We got the idea.
Tuesday night we were dinner guests at Sergio’s house. His family welcomed us with open arms and it was very nice to be so at home, while still so far from home. The subject of what kind of elaborate gifts did I have to buy for my wife came up. Sergio and Lise assumed that I would need to be taken shopping for leather goods and jewelry. I explained that my daughter would just dive into my suitcase and claim first dibs on any patches, pins or shirts. I said my wife would be happy to just have me return home safe with lots of great stories, photos and new friends. Sergio looked at his wife (who didn’t speak English) and said to me, “your wife needs to talk to my wife”.
Wednesday we loaded up on a big tour bus and the whole group traveled to the neighboring city of Novo Hamburgo. We were using the facilities of a private training company. Lise kept referring to it as the “private place”. I know what you’re thinking. Rick and I named it SWAT cop’s Disneyland. The little rabbit’s warren of rooms, hallways, courtyards, and open areas was a place that any team of U.S. operators would have given a kidney to train at. Too bad it was 8000 miles away.
The teams practiced shooting, team movement, raid planning, scouting, and entries. We found that their firearms skills ranged from non-existent to marginal. I quickly realized that the best use of our time would be to demonstrate good shooting skills, have them take some notes, practice the techniques, and then not worry about the thousands of repetitions they would need to become proficient. They would have to get that on their own, somehow.
That afternoon on the bus ride back to the hotel we began to see the true party animals that were hiding just under the surface of our Brazilian teammates. Stevie Wonder, one of the Rio guys, presented me with the song Brazil. He walked up and down the aisle belting out the tune. That opened the floodgates for the rest of the guys to all join in. Before we got home we’d heard just about every song the teams could remember. While all this madness was taking place the bus driver was merrily weaving his way through the snarls of traffic.
And how about that traffic? During all of our travels with Lise driving us we never saw anyone approaching the kind of road rage we would see every day in Everett. All the cars, trucks, motorcycles, bikes, and horse carts just found a way to flow along in harmony. I don’t think I ever saw Lise stop at a PARE (stop) sign. She defended her driving by saying that people don’t expect you to stop if there’s no one coming. Besides if you stop at night they come up to your car and rob you.
By this point in the week the days were beginning to blend together. Thursday morning we had a little free time. Training was going to begin later to allow for some low light firing techniques. Lise came to pick us up with the announcement that they had found the body of a dead woman along the side of the highway. We were invited to become one of the hundreds of looky-lous that were parading down for a peek. The body had been discovered at about 0700 and by 1000 there still hadn’t been anyone on scene to pick her up. As we drove into the area Lise explained the steady stream of cars leaving the location were probably people that had just seen the corpse. We were able to drive right up to the scene. There were a couple of Muldoon’s (policemen) standing around smoking and joking. They did have a little strand of rope in front of the body, but any shred of forensic evidence was long since contaminated.
The next day we read about her in the paper. Her story was right next to the second article about Curso com agentes da SWAT. She was 39 years old and a lawyer. She died from blunt trauma injuries to her face (maybe a rock). The police had no suspects. Really!
That day on the bus ride to the Private Place I had a little song prepared for Stevie Wonder. I had written out the words to “Loves’ Been Linked To The Blues”. After explaining the theme of the song and enlisting the soulful assistance of a bunch of Brazilian Do Wop Brothers, I started wailing. Fingers were popping, heads were bobbing from side to side. Everyone thought they were B.B. King.
The next day Stevie Wonder and Piasan (who could speak just a bit of English) had a little song for us. Piasan fixed Stevie Wonder up with his sunglasses then he hid down under the bus seats. While Piazan sang the words to “I just called to say, I love you”, Stevie Wonder played air piano and swung his head from side to side. It was a wet your pants funny moment. I told Rick I didn’t think I could take another bus ride like that because my head would blow up.
Friday finally arrived and we wrapped up the training with some very special moments. I had asked the students to consider who among their classmates was the one person they would take as their backup on a real nasty call out. I shared with them the story of Rick’s son Callahan and the origin of the Callahan’s Team T-shirt I was wearing. They listened as I explained how when Rick’s young son developed Leukemia, Rick’s team leader, Bill Able designed a T-shirt to sell to SWAT guys. Bill was a very accomplished artist and soon every operator in the state was scrambling to donate to the Callahan fund and we wore the shirt with great pride. I saw 28 people before me that were trying to choke back the tears. I asked them to write that team members name on a piece of paper and give it to Lise. Rick and I had a surprise for him during the graduation ceremony.
The team presented Rick and I with flags that were signed by all the students. They explained that they were honored to present us with the actual flags that had flown over their Brigade Headquarters and had been defended by many brave soldiers with their lives. We were overwhelmed with patches, pins, shirts, and all sorts of mementos from our class.
By the end of the week we had transformed them from 28 individuals into one unified team. Looking back I remembered the first time I assigned one of them to “give me 10 push-ups” for being late. When that guy started knocking them out I dropped right down beside him and did 10 with him. When we finished I explained to the 27 puzzled faces that the man was one of my teammates, and no teammate of mine was ever going to do push-ups alone. That was the last time anyone did push-ups alone.
The final graduation, or Formatura Do Curso Da SWAT, was held at the Factory Beer Restaurant. It had all the pomp and ceremony of a coronation of royalty. Rick and I were dressed in our class A uniforms. We passed out diplomas and certificates. The student’s choice for a back up officer was tallied. The winner was an agent named Marcus from the Federal Police, assigned to the Porto Alegre Airport. Rick presented him with a very cool Bill Able art print of a group of tactical operators. I presented him with my Callahan Shirt and announce to the class, “Seu novo nome e’ Callahan”. (Your new name is Callahan).
After about 2000 photographs, introductions to every important person in the town, and having completed the mandatory 3 kisses on the cheek for every woman in the establishment we finally wrapped things up. Our teammates would be hanging around for many more hours but Rick and I had some dinner and made our way back to the hotel. I tucked in for my customary 3 hours of sleep. Rick was battling a little flu bug and he slept the sleep of the dead.
Saturday morning was bright and sunny. Sergio and Lise picked us up and we did a little sightseeing on our way to the airport. One of the places we visited was an old factory that had been converted into hundreds of little booths. The shopkeepers were from all over South America. I found some beautiful woven woolen scarves from Equator. I negotiated with the little lady in Portuguese, English (briefly) and then Spanish. I bought a negro one for doce reals. After having been immersed in the culture for a week I was finding I could read the newspaper, understand the TV, and get a bit of an idea of what people were saying just by listening for some key words and watching their body language. But just when I started thinking that I was pretty hot shit, someone would rattle off a line of questions at me that would leave me completely confused. I’d give them one of those “last puppy in the pet store looks” and then Sergio or Lise would come to my rescue.
When we arrived at the Porto Alegre Airport we were met by Marcus (AKA Callahan) who gave us the VIP treatment. We said goodbye to Sergio and Lise. Marcus escorted us personally through the scanners announcing to the security personnel that we were the SWATCH Agentes da EUA. I was starting to think I was Elvis.
Our flight home was not without its share of adventure. After landing at Sao Paulo we had to re-check our bags at the Continental counter. The security agents asked us what was in our suitcases. I gave a careful rundown of what type of equipment I was checking and what the nature of our trip had been. I got the feeling that the lady asking the questions just knew how to recite the questions. She did not appear to understand any of my answers. Oh well, away went the bags.
Rick and I then stepped in to the back of the longest immigration line I had ever seen. People of all nations, speaking in many languages, and moving forward at a glacial pace, surrounded us. Just in front of us was a tour group of British subjects. After having just spent a week in a country renowned for its strikingly beautiful women, the ladies ahead looked like a cross between Austin Powers and the Queen Mum. It was frightful.
Finally we cleared immigration and were directed to a bus that would take us to our plane. It looked like we would make the flight with about 30 seconds to spare. Then we had a little visit from Murphy (Murphy’s Law). One of the security agents called out, “Mr. Dunn”. “You will come with me”. Apparently the x-ray machine had picked up the zinc training gun Rick had in his check through luggage. She stated, “You lied to us, I cannot let this bag go on the plane”. Rick responded with his version of “the last puppy in the pet store look”. He realized that also not getting on the plane would be his $900.00 ballistic vest and several other treasures. I started an immediate counter attack telling her that I explained completely what was in the bags but the lady didn’t understand. (I actually never spoke to the woman that checked Rick’s bag, but I thought the best defense was a strong offense). They searched Rick’s bag and found the dummy gun. Rick cautioned them to not just pull it out of the bag for all to see. No sense freaking out every one in the airport. Eventually the security woman’s face softened into a slight smile and we were allowed to proceed.
After another 24 hours of sleeping in chairs we finally stumbled off the plane at Sea-Tac. Our heads were spinning and we needed some time to decompress. Our suitcases and hearts were packed full of treasures that we will keep forever. I had learned far more than I had taught, and the spirit of my new teammates will inspire me for years to come.