From Deployment to Summit: Michele's Mountain Conquering Journey

All Michele wanted to do after graduating law school was to get out of Pennsylvania.

Serving in the military wasn't on the top of her mind after passing the Bar Exam and graduating law school in a small Pennsylvania town. First she thought about becoming a prosecutor, then she considered applying to the FBI. But the idea of military service germinated in her mind, and she eyed the Judge Advocate General's Corps with interest, growing increasingly attracted to recruiting buzzwords that suggested the opportunity to see the world.

"I never traveled much. I've got a blue collar background, and my dad's a steel worker. We never traveled much as a family, and I didn't do the euro trip that so many college kids do these days. When I looked at the Air Force I thought, 'I could actually leave Pennsylvania? No way!' It sounded a lot better than the career paths of most of my classmates."

She took to her military career immediately, and went on to serve 13 years as a JAG officer with the Air Force. Michele base hopped all around the country, picking up new outdoor hobbies at each duty station. At Eglin AFB in Florida, she kayaked the waters of Choctawhatchee Bay and its tributaries. Stationed at Travis in California gave her the chance to pick up mountain biking.

But it was at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, near the Chugach Mountains, where she picked up her passion for mountaineering.

"In Alaska, any time I was stressed, I would get out," she said. "The peace you can found out there is amazing. The noise is quiet, but the noise in your brain is quiet too. Especially at higher altitudes, when all you’re thinking about is controlling your breathing."

But a USAF officer can't spend all her time on mountain trails. It was 2007, and the War on Terror was rumbling along, and Iraq was inflamed with full-on sectarian violence. She deployed to Baghdad where she provided legal support to the Joint Area Support Group out of the Green Zone.

The mission in Iraq was an especially complicated one in 07, and Michele was never without a task to keep her busy. She provided day-to-day advising on legal contracts dealing with the myriad of personnel making up the many arms of the American and Coalition machine. Security contracting, civil engineering, financial elements, mission details … as the go-to expert, Michele tackled every legal nuance under the Iraqi sun.

Others relied on her for more personal matters. "Soldiers would come back in from one of the outposts after weeks or months, and they'd return to things like divorce papers or emails from spouses telling them they'd taken the kids and moved out of state. But no sooner had they read them were they back over the wire to fight." She'd call stateside on the soldiers' behalves, putting her legal prowess to work, sorting out emotionally difficult odds and ends.

"There was this one kid who was a classic car buff. He'd bought about 850 bucks of parts from some guy who ended up stiffing him when the order went bad. He's 20 years old, and he had to go on patrol every day, and he didn't have the time or the energy to deal with this. And $850 is a lot of money to a soldier of his paygrade. So I sent a couple letters and managed to get him a refund."

Though she was in the International Zone, often working out of an air-conditioned office, Michele wasn't exactly out of harm's way. 2007 was as volatile a year in the country as many that preceded it. Insurgent mortar and rocket attacks occasionally claimed a life or caused injuries to both civilians and military personnel. Sirens would blare at random hours, signaling incoming fire. Once, while touring the IZ with an advance team, her group was targeted by mortar fire, and intel later suggested someone nearby was reporting their positions. The constant need for "head-on-a-swivel" situational awareness was enough to put anyone on edge.

When Michele's deployment was up, the edginess followed her back home.

Certain smartphone ringtones reminded her of the rocket sirens. Being out in public made her nervous. A crowded hockey game she attended made her squirm in her seat.

Her first instinct to her condition was doubt. She questioned the severity of her trauma. "You say to yourself, 'well my Humvee didn't get hit by an IED, and my trailer didn’t get shredded by shrapnel, and I didn't ever fire my weapon … so why am I as angry and scared as the guy who did have those things happen?' But I learned that the comparison—'other people have it worse than me, I can figure this out on my own'—becomes an obstacle to seeking help."

After some counseling—and an official PTSD diagnosis—she learned to avoid the comparison. "I had a JAG friend who rode in convoys or by helicopter to different neighborhoods to talk to people, gather intel, win hearts and minds, all that kind of stuff. She had a lot of close calls. We would have lunch during down time when she was back in the Green Zone, and we agreed it all sucked. We never compared who's experienced sucked more. It just all sucked."

Michele tackled the challenges of returning home from deployment in the way she knew best. She packed up a pair of ice axes, boot crampons, and her trusty jacket—a ten-year-old North Face, with as much character as it had stories to tell—and started scratching mountaintops off her bucket list. In 2008, she joined a group of climbers at Paradise Trailhead at the base of Mount Rainier in Washington state. Starting at 5,400 feet above sea level, she trekked up 5,000 more to Camp Muir.

It was mid-June, but Rainier's weather isn't as easily predictable as a typical summer day. The altitude is susceptible to sudden storms that defy forecasts. Michele and her group prepared for the worst. On summit day, the weather grew foul, fierce winds buffeting the climbers with every step. Whiteout conditions brought visibility down as they climbed, roped together as a team, amid crevasses and hazards.

Over the years, the National Park Service laid out a fixed route to the crater ridge to guide climbers away from crevasses and seracs—dangerous, unstable ridges of ice prone to toppling. After the rim, climbers unrope and hike to the Columbia Crest, Rainier's highest point.

She was paired with a woman who was training to be a guide for the very outfit they were climbing with. But by the time they'd reached the false summit—a flat and relatively safe zone that serves as a staging ground before Columbia Crest—the woman was tapped out.

But Michelle would not be defeated. The crest in the distance promised victory. "The wind was so strong. I was so tired," she said.

"I literally army crawled the final paces to the summit marker."

She made it. At 14,409 feet, encrusted in ice and oxygen deprived, Michele stood on the crater's edge, the summit of Mount Rainier.

"I felt like it was the first true achievement I accomplished since returning home. I overcame what mother nature threw at me, and my negative thoughts, my doubts, and I basically did it all on my own. And though I stood there with other climbers, I felt a solitary victory. I shared these feelings with no one. For that moment, it was just me, the lawyer from Alexandria, on top of that mountain."

Michele at the summit of Mount Rainier, 14,409 feet above sea level.

Michele at the summit of Mount Rainier, 14,409 feet above sea level.

Since her Rainier summit, Michele hasn't slowed down at all. In 2011, she joined a Seattle-based outfitter to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. She's run half marathons, full marathons, including the Marine Corps Marathon in 2012. She continues to play in a local women's hockey league.

And at the time of this article's publication, Michele Forte is likely zipping up her favorite jacket, cinching her backpack straps tight, and breathing the crisp Himalayan air from Kathmandu, Nepal. She's just embarked on a 17-day journey in the Himalayas. There, she'll reach Everest base camp, and trek all around the Khumbu Valley. When asked, as she often is, if she plans to tackle Mount Everest at some point, she shrugs it off as a dangerous impracticality. She's already proven to herself what she's capable of, even while her bucket list remains incomplete.

Next up, she's got her sights set on Machu Picchu. "Maybe I'll do that in 2018. Then afterward I can stick to bicycle wine tasting tours in Tuscany. Or pub crawls in Ireland," she says.

"Places with hotels instead of tents."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why You Should Definitely See 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

This article originally appeared on the GovX.com blog.

You might raise an eyebrow when you learn that Michael Bay of Transformers fame is the director of Hollywood’s take on the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi. War movie buffs may raise the other eyebrow after recalling Bay’s floundering misfire Pearl Harbor.

But if you give the man a chance, he ends up surprising you. As it turns out, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is a respectful and engaging drama of modern combat and valor, and it’s definitely worth a look. It’s still got the signature “Bayhem” style of composition and editing, but it’s notably toned down from his earlier efforts.

This is a film that stands out among other films about the War on Terror, primarily because its protagonists aren’t exactly fighting that war anymore. The men who defended the American diplomatic compound were all ex-military CIA contractors, making this film distinct from American Sniper, The Hurt Locker, and Zero Dark Thirty, all of which included active-duty military to drive the narrative.

To see characters in a war movie with no ranks on their shoulders is interesting. They wear tactical pants and flannel shirts under their plate carriers. One man went to battle in khaki shorts. Most have beards and hairstyles liberated from the constraints of military regulations. They look like guys you’d meet at a bar in Imperial Beach. Seeing these dudes rock full tactical loadouts and “unleash hate” on wave after wave of attackers is a reminder that for some servicemen, the war doesn’t end when the uniform comes off. 

The film also does a great job of showing exactly how dangerous Benghazi is. One early scene involves a tense traffic jam with the barrels of various guns pointed in all directions. It wasn’t done as well as the similar scene in last year’s Sicario, but it still managed to evoke how threatening this city was in 2012.

Either you’re tired of hearing about Benghazi, or you can’t get enough of it. The ferocious controversy the word evokes is on the minds of many Americans, especially as this election year heats up. But here’s the thing: Bay’s film doesn’t particularly care about that, and as a moviegoer, neither did I. The movie dispenses with politics before it even begins. The title card reads simply 13 Hours, ignoring the subtitle The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. It’s not a stretch to conclude that the studio tacked on the second title to sell tickets to politically minded Americans.

While Bay clearly didn’t want to make a movie that pushes the political hot buttons, he does make a point to describe how these men received little support by US forces. The situation in Benghazi was a total logistical nightmare, with ground personnel even less equipped than normal to tell the good guys from the bad, making the need for the full might of American eyes-in-the-sky that much more essential. The film splices in plenty of “what are we waiting for” moments, and government individuals resisting further escalation. There’s one brief shot of a few F-16s sitting idle and awaiting orders that felt particularly heavy.

On the acting front, pretty much everyone puts forth a solid effort. John Krasinski, who plays the most relatable protagonist, has come a long way from the sardonic nice guy in The Office. James Badge Dale is effective as the intense leader of the group, making me want to revisit the HBO miniseries The Pacific where many viewers first discovered him. And there’s a slew of other guys who enjoy inhabiting the role of bearded badass operators laying down fire alongside each other. There’s even a healthy amount of humor injected into the chaos, lending credibility to how these guys would react in such a FUBAR situation.

As any of our regular readers would know by now, we tend to only do reviews of movies GovX members would probably want to see. (That doesn’t mean you get a review of Ride Along 2, though. No way.) This is one of those movies. It’s a restrained effort by a director who’s usually all about fighting robots and explosions. I probably could have done without the Pearl Harbor-style slow-motion incoming mortar shell shot. But, hey, a director has got to have a style he can call his own, right?

Bayhem aside, 13 Hours is an enjoyable and emotional depiction of modern combat, and it’s a surprisingly respectful take on an enigmatic moment of recent history. Be sure to see it and let us know what you think in the comments below. 

The Drug War Thriller “Sicario” Gets the Guns Right (and Everything Else)

The opening sequence of the new drug war thriller Sicario features a raid right out of a Tom Clancy novel. In an Arizona suburb, a TAC team converges on a house, rifles raised and moving with the trained discipline of deadly professionals. The camera moves with a similar purpose, a gracious alternative to the “shaky cam” style so popular with many lesser action movies.

The film that follows cares about details. While I’m no expert in tactical operations, I still felt that the action depicted was evocative of how it’sactually done. The best action movies put their actors through training courses, and you can tell Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro paid attention in class by the way she handles a Glock .40 or the way he aims an MP5 downrange. One scene includes a briefing room packed with don’t-f***-with-me operators — bearded, grizzled, decked out in plate carriers and carbines with rail-mounted foregrips and EOTech sights. Another sequence is shot in an absolutely electrifying combo of thermal imagery, first-person night vision, and God’s-eye satellite shots. The movie is a love-letter to tactical enthusiasts, combat vets, and badasses.

But while you may come for the tactical details, stay for the story. Sicario’s moral compass is a fascinating shade of grey. It’s not a good guys-versus-bad guys film, and it’s not merely American gunslingers at war with Mexican cartel goons. Emily Blunt’s character — protagonist and FBI SWAT officer Kate Macer — is asked to volunteer for an operation shrouded in secrecy, and the audience shares her “WTF is going on” mentality as the black SUVs roll into the violent gangland of Juarez.

Blunt’s incredible performance makes it easy to empathize with Kate. In addition to portraying a totally believable door kicker, Blunt brings out the film’s sub-theme of emotional trauma through the personal moments she gives us. Her straight-shot world of good-vs-evil law enforcement receives a shakedown which takes a toll on her composure. It’s also worth stressing that this has nothing to do with her gender. This would affect anyone. In fact, the film alludes to the possibility that many male characters in the film were once just like her. She’s just now getting thrown into this hell, and her exposure to it will harden her, perhaps just like it hardened Josh Brolin’s maybe/maybe-not CIA character.

Adding to the intrigue is Benicio Del Toro’s character, Alejandro. Where is he from? What’s his role on this mission? Why is he so good at headshots? Del Toro brings magnetism to the screen. I don’t like using the cliché that he steals the show — mostly because it’s impossible to rob from Blunt’s performance — but every one of his scenes commands attention. Whether he’s wearing a suit and tie or a black ski mask, you hang on his every moment. Though I’d still consider Kate the movie’s protagonist, the story also belongs to Alejandro, especially as the layered intrigue around him peels back.

Action scenes accomplish a level of tension that wouldn’t be out of a place in a horror movie. The Atlantic writes, “I’m confident the phrases ‘red Impala, two lanes left’ and ‘green Civic, three lanes left’ have never conveyed such imminent peril.” These scenes are made all the more effective by the level of detail described above. The more real it looks, the more real it feels. By mixing action choreography and detail, Sicario proudly occupies the top tier of what action movies can be, especially for fans who value authenticity.

Sicario joins Traffic (also with Benicio Del Toro) as one of the best films ever made about the drug war. It uses emotionally relatable characters, exceptional shot and sequence construction, and a painstaking attention to detail to explore a complex, international game. Early in the film, Alejandro tells Kate, “Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything you do. But in the end, it will all make sense.”

This statement reaches our ears as well, and it leads the audience into one of the best movies of 2015 so far, which is finally out on wide release this weekend. Go see it.

(FICTION) It's Your Turn to Tell a Story

My brother and I broke into a grocery store when we were kids. I was about 12, think he was around 14 or 15. I was asleep when my brother Sam came into my bedroom and woke me up. Said he wanted to show me something and I got up to follow him. Put a pair of old jeans on over my pajamas ‘cause it got chilly in the wintertime on the coast and went downstairs. His friend was there. Jimmy Waterfield. I didn’t like Jimmy, and I was kind of upset with Sam for not telling me that Jimmy was coming with us, wherever we were gonna go. Thought it was just Sam, you know. Just me and my brother Sam. But no, there’s Jimmy and he’s got that criminal look on his face. Sam was always a good kid and here he was mixed up with a retard like Jimmy Waterfield.

Anyways we get out of the house careful not to wake my folks and we jogged down the hill and out of the neighborhood and got onto the main road. I think Sam knew where to go and I kept asking him and he finally told me we were going to the new grocery store. You guys have Ralph’s in your towns? Well this big new one popped up near Santa Monica. I remember I went with my mother on the grand opening. There were so many mothers there waiting in their pretty dresses for the doors to open up. You could still smell the fresh paint on the building and the newly-paved parking lot. All the sparkling shopping carts, never been used.

When we got to the store I could still smell the new paint and the evening air. Smell of wet grass and coastal mist. I was afraid some policeman might come by with a nightstick and thump our skulls. There were just a few cars, but every one that passed by with their bright headlights frightened me. Now that I think about it, any car out that late would probably be too busy having fun or too tired to care about a bunch of dumb kids.

So Jimmy and Sam went up to the front door and there was a chain and a lock on the handles. I didn’t get to do this kind of thing every day, I was too busy being a good, harmless kid. Jimmy rattled the handles on the doors like somehow his investigation would turn up the key and magically unlock the doors. I searched in a planter by the door and found a sizeable rock and threw it hard without really thinking about it. The glass cracked but didn’t break so I picked up the rock again and threw it harder and it shattered and the sound echoed across the parking lot. Every piece of falling glass made one more loud shatter followed by another and another until finally it was silent and I let the air out of my chest.

Sam looked at me astonished and Jimmy looked disappointed, like he wanted to be the one to break the glass. He scowled at me and ducked under the chains and went through the frame of the door and we followed him, our shoes crunching the glass. I wondered if the glass would stick in my shoe. I tried to remind myself to check my shoes later so my parents wouldn’t know that I’d been involved.

The store was so dark it took a while for our eyes to adjust. Sam had this dumb little smile on his face but soon I was smiling too. We got some candy bars in the stands by the checkout counter and ate them. I raced Sam up and down the aisles, even though I knew he would beat me. I was always trying to run faster than him whenever we played football. The chocolate in my stomach didn’t help. By my fourth candy bar I didn’t feel like running anymore but I was sweating and laughing those quiet, whispered laughs, the ones where you’re having fun but you’re too scared to really bust out loud laughing. Made no sense why I was trying to stifle my laughter ‘cause we were making so much damn noise otherwise. Jimmy tripped and knocked a bunch of cereal boxes off the shelves. He picked up one of the boxes and opened it and started munching away.

I think Sam wanted to leave but he still smiled. It was one of those nervous smiles, the kind I could understand. I wasn’t quite sure why we were there other than to have some stupid fun and do something we could brag about later to our friends at school. They’d say “that was YOU?” and their mouths would be all wide and astonished. We’d grin smugly and I’d trudge off to class with my brother and we’d hold our book bags over our right shoulders like we always did. Even the southpaws held their bags over their right shoulders. It was just what you did.

But now I wanted to leave. We had had our fun and it was time to leave but Jimmy didn’t want to go just yet. He said he wanted to climb on the bread aisle and he flung loaves off the shelves to clear room for his feet and he got up and started to climb. Sam and I watched him. I thought Sam was gonna go help him or give him a boost when the third shelf snapped and Jimmy fell backward on his ass and I heard the thump of his tailbone hitting the floor.

I started to laugh. Maybe it was all the pent-up anxiety of breaking the glass, of being somewhere I wasn’t supposed to, or maybe it was ‘cause I just didn’t like Jimmy, but I just started cracking up and I couldn’t stop. Jimmy was crying; he looked like he was really hurt. He screamed “shut up!” at me but I just laughed harder. Sam went to help him up and when Jimmy stood he punched me in the side of the head and I fell to the floor. I remember my eyes couldn’t focus right after he did that but when they finally focused I saw Jimmy above me, his face red — even in the darkness I could see his face was all blushed — and his eyes were crying mad tears. He was clenching his fists and I thought he was going to kick me but that’s when Sam put his hand over Jimmy’s mouth and pulled him down to where I was on the ground and said “shhhh…” real quiet and careful.

That’s when I saw the flashlight. There was this beam of light shining over the tops of the aisles in an arc and it was all lit up with the dust in the air like a ray of sunshine through the clouds. We didn’t hear any footsteps at first but then I heard the crunch of broken glass and I knew that the policeman had come into the store. I remember my heart was pounding so hard I thought that he’d hear it and come straight for us and grab us and take us to jail. Sam put his hand on my shoulder and looked me right in the eyes and said “follow me” all quiet and dramatic. We got into crouches and moved slowly back down the bread aisle and we turned left and headed down another aisle, which had the jelly jars there. For some reason I thought about the unopened jar of apple butter in the kitchen back home. My mother always made her own apple butter and we put it on toast in the mornings. Don’t know why I thought of that. But then I came back to the moment and thought that I wanted to retreat and get to the back of the store, just wanting to get away from that flashlight. But Sam was the smart one and knew we needed to escape instead of hide, and he was right. We got down to the edge of the jelly jar aisle and we saw the policeman. I saw the butt of his revolver in the holster. I think they all carried .22s, but at the time I was so scared it could have been a goddamn machine gun. He was looking down the aisles one by one, checking to see if there was any damage. I didn’t think he knew we were still in the store. Who could blame him? Proper thieves don’t stick around the scene of the crime, do they? They break in, take some shit, and then leave, right?

When the policeman’s back was turned Jimmy bolted for the fruit stand right next to the door with the broken glass. I watched him take cover behind it and he motioned for us to come over. Sam took another look at the policeman and turned back and said “follow me” again and took off for the fruit stand. He mouthed “come on.”

Of course I was the one who messed it all up. Of course I slipped and my sneaker squeaked on the floor as I started for the fruit stand. And the policeman turned around and I saw his flashlight shine right in my eyes and he said “HEY!” and came straight for us. Jimmy ran and Sam lunged forward and grabbed me and we both got up and started running at full sprints out the door, ducking under the chains and through the door frame.

Jimmy was almost out of sight. It was probably stupid to follow him but I got the sense that he would know where to hide. I remember I was running so fast, I’ve never run so fast in my life. Well, other than here, you know. Got a damn good reason to run like the devil’s chasing us over here, don’t we? We went down an alley and Sam lifted up the lid on a dumpster and I didn’t even wait for a second, I climbed on up and jumped into the garbage.

We were breathing hard from running but we sucked in and held our breath and waited and listened. The dumpster smelled awful but I didn’t care. We listened for footsteps.

We must have stayed there for a half hour. Eventually Sam lifted up the lid and the cold air came in and I started to relax. We climbed out and went to the edge of the alley and didn’t see the policeman.

Jimmy left. He just started down the aisle and didn’t say anything to us, just headed down back to his house. I was glad for it. Glad to be alone with Sam. We headed back up the road and got to the hill before our neighborhood. Got to our house and we went around the side and Sam turned on the water spigot and got the garden hose. We stripped down and we washed ourselves off ‘cause we smelled terrible and stashed our clothes in the bushes out back. We went naked and wet and freezing through the door on the back porch and snuck upstairs and got into bed and let the bedsheets dry us off. I’d kill for some bedsheets right about now, wouldn’t you? I’d pull off these boots and dry my feet and then just slip away and sleep for the whole day.

I think my folks knew what we’d done. They’d heard in the newspaper later that week that the store was “vandalized” and I kept thinking that any day my father would lay into us with the questions but he never did. Sam and I never talked about it either. I remember the morning after we both walked to school and we talked about baseball or something pointless to distract us. And I remember I saw Jimmy that day too, but he didn’t come near me, just went to hang out with Sam and their friends. Everyone had their own group of friends, you know how it was. You couldn’t hang out with your own brother, or all his friends would just tease you. At least, that’s how it was for me.

The last I heard from Sam was that he was heading home. I’m not sure how bad he was injured. I’m afraid it is bad ‘cause he didn’t specify in his letter. Just told me he was heading home to his wife — she’s a great girl.

I’m afraid he’s missing an arm or a leg or something. Though whatever it is, I know they’d probably try to give him a Purple Heart and he’d just say, “The hell is that for?”

I’d like to go home too but I know we’re not finished here. I’m on this horrible island in the middle of the Pacific roasting human beings alive with this flamethrower. No man should die like that.

You know what the funny thing is though? Every time I fire this baby up I think of that garden hose out on the back porch. Anyone who’s ever watered a lawn can use a flamethrower; there really isn’t much to it. Same principle really, you just point and spray.

Anyone else want to tell a story?