SFC Tim Kennedy (Army Special Operations, OIF, OEF Veteran)
I was sitting up late one night going over some questions that I'd prepared for Tim, and I realized I'd betrayed the heart of the project. I was going to ask one of the most deadly men in the world the same questions every other publication had asked. I realized it then and even more so when talking with a friend about the project. "Whatever you do, ask him the questions that make the project what it is." I sat back down and started at square one. I wanted to get to the heart of SFC Tim Kennedy and see who he was as a veteran, not just a mixed martial artist. Let me be clear in that Tim Kennedy is a personal hero of mine. Unfortunately, due to that, I'd blinded myself and was asking him a lot of the same questions asked by civilians.
I remember first hearing about Tim when I was in Iraq. There was a Green Beret fighting in Strikeforce and apparently he was an absolute "monster." All I needed to hear was that he was a part of the brotherhood of Special Forces, and I was immediately a fan. Watching him fight, I became an even bigger fan. He had this relentless approach that I expected from a Special Forces operator. Fast-forward about five years later and I walk into ONNIT Academy to interview Tim. He immediately made eye contact when I walked in, walked over to me, and shook my hand with a very genuine smile. I knew then that this man was every bit the man I thought he was. I want Tim Kennedy to speak for himself and I think you'll see a very real picture of who he is. Green Beret, Ranger, Sniper, UFC Fighter, family man, and one of the most genuine human beings you will ever meet. He's been called the "real Captain America," and there's really no reason to dispute it. There's nothing wrong with great athletes being role models, if they're doing it right. But personally, I want my kids to look up to men like Tim as a role model. He not only acts with integrity in his sport, but in every other aspect of this life. He's put his own neck on the line countless times so that Americans can sleep safely. That's one of the greatest sacrifices a man can make. I'll let Tim Kennedy do the rest of the talking.
What was that first deployment like?
TK: My first combat deployment was to Iraq, and I was with a counter-terrorism, hostage rescue, extra special unit already within Special Forces. I did not belong there. I was too young. As an 18-Xray, I didn't have the experience I needed. I was a hell of a shot, a remarkable physical specimen as an operator. I grew up hunting, was badass with my field craft but the important things that ultimately dictate whether you or your friends die; I didn't have any knowledge of. Dudes I maybe shouldn't have shot I did shoot, and dudes I didn't shoot I maybe should've shot. It was a really sharp learning curve and a really unforgiving one. One where at the end of it my Team Sergeant was like, "You did a hell of a job in a lot of things but you're too green. You don't belong here. I'm going to send you to Ranger School and if you graduate honor grad you can come back at square one, as a rookie on this team. If you don't then you'll go back to a regular Special Forces line unit."
Why did you join the Army?
TK: So, in 2001, I had a couple of women pregnant. I was a professional fighter, I was working at a bar, I was in grad school, and I was a complete douchebag. I cared more about what pants I was wearing at a party then what was going on in the world. Then I saw some planes crash into the towers. Everyone remembers where they were. I was sitting at a desk at a dot com in commerce before the bubble popped in California. I was working the early shift to answer calls from companies on the East Coast. I was sitting behind my desk watching the live-stream as the second plane flew into the building. There's that moment where I realized that I was a piece of shit. I was a self-serving, narcissistic, ethnocentric fucking piece of shit. I might've had some anger about that, so I walked down to a recruiter's office that day again thinking I was doing something great. I was like the two thousandth person in line, yet again showing what a douchebag I was. I thought I was going to be like the only one there.
How old were you when you joined, what MOS, and how many combat tours?
TK: I was 22 when I went into the recruiter's office as a first year grad student. It took awhile to get the 18-Xray (Special Forces) contract, so I went to all the recruitment offices. I went to the Navy and the Marines because I wanted to either be MARSOC or a SEAL. I wanted to be an Airborne, Special Forces, Sniper but it took awhile to get that worked into my contract.
Once I'd completed all of my training, I went to Iraq and Afghanistan a few times. I was in 7th Special Forces Group, 19th SFG, 20th SFG, and some of the trips were not for your typical deployments. I bounced around once I got to be a level one sniper so I did one tour just as a sniper. I was working with the Czechs and French on a coalition trip. Then I went to South and Central America a dozen times or so. I've been to Africa as well, a handful of times and Europe a couple of times.
Can you talk a bit about the complications of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why is terrorism so complicated to battle against?
TK: To simplify, that ideology of radical Islam has been perpetuated and glorified. We've lost the war of hearts and minds. They've gone in just like the gangsters did in Chicago during prohibition and spread their tentacles like weeds into fertile soil. If you go into a place where people are hurting socio-economically, like people are starving and you give them a little food; you have them. Or, if you come in and give them a little bit of drugs you have them. Basically if you come in and give them a little bit of whatever they don't have then you've hooked them. That's what radicals did. Then we came in and thought that we could muscle them out, but they'd already infused themselves into that culture. And until there's been a paradigm shift and the perception change of who and what they are we are going to be fighting a losing battle. We have to be able to show them for what they really are. Yes, we have to kill them all. We either convert them or kill them. There's no grounds between that, but we can do both. You can convert people before they become radicalized, or you bury them. Those are the only options.
What was your most memorable moment on a deployment where you felt like you made a difference?
TK: I was on the task force that killed Al-Zarqawi in 2006. That was pretty cool. Also had some douchebags throw some acid on girls while they were walking to school. Killed them. That was pretty cool too. In Afghanistan we got into this really big gunfight, it ended up lasting three days and we lived. That was also cool.
What's the hardest part about being away from home?
TK: I live my life in contrast, highs and lows, colds and hots, lights and darks, sweet and sour, the violence and love. When you're deployed you get a lot of one of those, and I have amazing kids, a beautiful wife, an amazing home, motorcycle, my guns, and my hunting. What's normal to me here when I'm gone, I don't have any of that in a combat zone. I get to wrestle with my kids every day, work out with my daughters, or swim with them. Being away from that on deployment, the contrast is very stark.
On the other side of that, what's the toughest thing about coming home?
TK: Sleeping is rough. Communication. On deployments, you communicate in a very clear, concise, consolidated way and people communicate to you that way in turn. It's like, "Alright, this is what I need, when I need it, and how I need it." You get home and your wife doesn't ever communicate with you that way. Neither do your teenage daughters. Neither does your one year old son, who at that point can't even use words. They're communicating in ways that you haven't practiced in a long time. The subtleties of insinuation and you being able to read between the lines of what your wife wants. While those are like every day things a guy usually deals with, I haven't dealt with those in months and months when I get back. I'm not practiced or rehearsed and there's major frustration there. I tell people what to do as a Senior NCO when I'm deployed and they just do it. Then I come home and I can't do that. I have to learn again how to communicate on their level, even if it's something that's beneficial to them, but I have to do it in a way that won't hurt their feelings. So that all being said, communication is probably the toughest part of coming home.
Do you feel stigmatized of detached from society when you first come back from a deployment?
TK: No, I throw myself right back into the fray when I get back. I go get a good meal, get naked with my wife, have a good workout, and go out and do something; immediately. That whole week of detox; I think that just exaggerates problems that are already there. There's nothing you can do about feelings. If they're going to pop up, they're going to pop up whether you like it or not. Community, interaction, and relationships are what bring on healing. Healing won't happen with you locked in a room by yourself.
If you could tell a civilian one thing in their perception of you as a soldier, what would that be?
TK: Ya know, life is made up of different colors and flavors. When you are talking to somebody that comes from a completely different background there are going to be major differences in perception. A white 40 year old talking to a black 20 year old; those are vastly different perspectives on life. If you're talking to a soldier and they just got back from fighting in a war, there is a vastly different perspective there. While you don't need to necessarily treat us differently, you just need to appreciate and respect that I have experience in my life that you don't know and will most likely never know. I'm not asking for extra respect, but just take that with a grain of salt in our interactions. I'm a cat of a different color and you're just going to have to deal with that.
What does it mean to be a soldier?
TK: It's an opportunity to do good and to affect change. It's a chance to serve justice.
When do you decide that the country has betrayed its democratic values so much so that you hang it up and get out of the Army?
TK: People give me this all the time. "How can you deploy and do this work when you're against what our government is doing?" While I'm against the government currently and what we've been doing for the past 12 years, when I go and deploy and do these things; while they might be leveraging what I'm doing for their benefit, what I'm doing in the micro-sense is significant and right and moral and ethical. The dudes that I kill are bad, period. The guys that I put in the ground are evil. They kill kids, rape women, throw acid on girls, strap bombs to retarded kids, and send them into schools. These are fucking evil human beings. So I don't care what the government does to leverage that for their benefit. Yeah, it's wrong. Yes, I hate the government. I'm a libertarian and I'm against pretty much everything they do. I'm a constitutionalist, but I'm putting bad dudes in the ground. And if I had the opportunity sitting here right now, I would do it. I'm just looking for a better opportunity to do it and they're giving it to me. Nobody else is going to put me in Syria with a gun.
What about mixed martial arts and fighting is therapeutic for you?
TK: I don't fight for the therapy. I fight because it's fun and I'm good at it. It's the same reason that while it feels good to deploy and be a force for good, it also feels good to do things you're good at. I'm fucking good at war. If I was good at golf, I'd play golf (laughs). If I could grab a baseball bat and hit 100 home runs a season, I would swing a bat but I sure as shit can't. If I could basket weave under water, I would do it if I was good at it. You do what you're good at, and I'm good at war. Maybe unfortunately, but that's just the way it is.
Veterans taking their own lives has been a major issue. What do you think that problem stems from and what do you think we can do as a society to change that?
TK: Yes, it's absolutely a huge issue. There are two big problems. One is how we are presented to society by, ironically, our own government. Our government is painting this picture that we are a cause for concern, like veterans are the ones that everyone should worry about. Questions are being brought up like, "Should the VA take veteran's guns?" PTSD and TBI are not treated as the injuries they are. It's a freaking battle injury. Us getting blown up a bunch of times and watching women and children get burned alive in some instances, or shot or having to deal with things that happened; those are injuries. It's not some psychotic issue like use of too much drugs. I got shucked out of a humvee after we were blown up by a RPG. That's not good for the brain, ya know? We need to treat it like it is, as an injury. But that's not how it's projected or presented. I think the way the government presents us is by design. They're don't want us as this huge population of people, that knows how wrong they are to show them for what they are. So, they paint us as crazies, these unstable people that like guns and violence.
The second part of that, is that society is just being bitches about it all. They see it as, "These guys have seen this or done this so they can't be around our kids or their kids can't be around our kids. After he's seen those things is it really okay for that person to be around Tim? Is he normal? He can't be normal after war." So we are battling that perception. Society just needs to stop being pussies. It wasn't that long ago that we had dudes drinking out of the skulls of the enemies that they'd conquered. Now we are in a society of the millennial where it's like, "I want my coffee made with a Chemex, a little bit of butter, and you need to stir it counter-clockwise," while they're wearing their tom toms and their tapered sweat pants. We are a nation that climbed mountains, landed on the moon, built the Golden Gate Bridge, we survived the depression, we won WWI and WWII. We won them. Not anybody else. The whole fucking world would be speaking German if it wasn't for us. That was 75 years ago and now in one generation we are completely different.
That leads into my next question. How do you currently see the culture and what would you do to fix the issues in our society?
TK: It's sad to me that we had an enemy that could've united us, instead of driving us a part like they have. The administration has capitalized on our enemy to gain power in the name of security. Terrorism has become an excuse to take away our liberties, guns, our rights to search and seizure. They've limited what free speech means, where it should be the inverse. It should've been that we all see a common enemy that everyone hates, in terrorism. What makes us different from those radicals? It's our liberties and freedoms. It's the Constitution. That's the difference between our law and Sharia law. The attacks on us don't mean we erode the freedoms we have to make it more in line with their viewpoint. We need to stand by who we are and what we are, and whatever it's going to take to for us to remember that that's what made us different and that's what made us great... and no, I'm not looking back like that's what we need to be. This is the foundation, the tenants, the pillars of a society that became the superpower of the planet. Let's hold on to those values and tell everyone else to go fuck themselves.
What made you decide to go the Special Forces route?
TK: Special Forces, unlike anyone else, can affect the largest amount of change. I wanted to be challenged, to be around the best and brightest, to be with dudes that ran towards gunfire, to be with dudes that could fight. I wanted to be around thinkers, philosophers, economists. There's nothing worse then a knuckle-dragging gorilla with a gun and Special Forces couldn't be further from that. I was a college graduate, a college athlete, that had been a competitive shooter, and I got to the team room and I was nothing special. Eleven other dudes were better at almost everything than me. Welcome to a Special Forces ODA.
I've heard about your training motor, and that relentless approach. What gives you that drive?
TK: My version of PTSD is a fear of failing my brothers or my family. I'm in a building that's falling down or burning and I can't pickup my kids and wife and carry them out. I'm with my 280 lb Team Sergeant and I can't carry and run with him a mile. Whatever that fear is, I have it.
What's it like to be a part of a Special Forces team?
TK: Unlike most selection processes, where you have two weeks of hell or whatever our selection is like 28 days. After selection we go to the Q Course and the Q Course is anywhere from a year to two years. It depends on what MOS you have and how fast you get into the various phases but the emphasis in every single phase is ultimately about how you function in and with your team. I believe that the Green Beret is the most remarkable special operator that there is because of the diversity of what they can do, how amazing they are at shooting, how physical they are, how understanding they are of the socioeconomic implications in everything they do. They're not just shooters, they're not just door kickers, they're not just snipers. They're all of those things at the highest level. They also understand the geo-political atmosphere and how it affects everything they do. And while that individual is so remarkable, the thing that is absolutely unbreakable is the team. You get to an ODA, that twelve man team, and there is nothing that is stronger than that. Everything about the individual jobs and the cross-training that they are capable of doing effectively makes them capable of ruling a country.
Who are the people that lift you up on your bad days? Who's your support team?
TK: The same people I fear failing. I've surround myself with people that are sometimes better at the thing I'm doing. Like in the gym today, Juan or Shane yelling at me, "You've got one more!" They're always pushing me a little bit further and that works on the emotional side as well. When I'm hurting, I'm going to have them be able to recognize and keep me honest.
I would like to thank SFC Tim Kennedy for being a part of the project. His graciousness and humility are a welcome respite from a world full of egomaniacal athletes. One thing I noticed most of all in my dealings with Tim is that he was always looking to help others. If someone had a question, he answered it. If someone wanted help with a certain movement he assisted them with that movement. Another thing that impressed me was his openness in speaking of his time in combat. He is everything I would imagine an operator to be. Pulling the trigger is his job and although he might have regrets, America depends on him as the frontline of defense and he's perfectly okay with that. Kennedy is a first-class warrior who leads by example. I shouldn't have been surprised though. Green Berets are the best training force in the world, bar none. I would also like to thank the good folks over at ONNIT Labs for letting me photograph Tim while he worked out, Gracie Humaitá Austin and the brilliant Paulo Brandao.