Friday, October 29, 2010


I’ve written about 550 articles for more than 60 publications worldwide, but one magazine stands out. Let me tell you about it.

One morning in 1984 firearms guru Jeff Cooper called, suggesting that I talk to Bob Brown of Soldier of Fortune about the Bren Ten pistol that Jeff was promoting. Since I had contributed to SOF and participated in its shooting matches, I ventured that I’d like to hear more.

Next thing I knew, that Yosemite Sam voice was in my ear. “Tillman? Brown. I guess you heard from Cooper. Are you interested?”

The details were, um, intriguing. I would go to El Salvador with an SOF team to initiate the Bren Ten to combat, then return (!) to write an article about it. As Bob later admitted, "Cooper and I had three criteria: we needed a good enough shooter, we needed a good enough writer--and we needed somebody dumb enough to do it. So we said, LET'S CALL TILLMAN!"

Much as I appreciated Jeff and Bob’s confidence (I was less certain of their rationale!), it never happened. The Bren was plagued with 10mm ammo and magazine problems which were only solved after the El Sal option lapsed.

Nonetheless, that nascent episode represented Soldier of Fortune in microcosm: a hands-on approach to innovative, front-line journalism.

SOF popped its first literary cap in July 1975 with a format that set the trend for the next three decades. Robert K. Brown is a former Special Forces captain and Vietnam vet with a master’s in political science and jump wings from half a dozen nations. He’s also a natural entrepreneur who saw a niche and moved to fill the void.

The magazine began on little more than a shoestring and a hunch. Living in Boulder, Brown perceived an unfilled market and presold 4,000 subscriptions which paid for the printing of the first issue. Billed as “The Journal of Professional Adventurers,” SOF caught on almost immediately.

SOF recruited a network of free lance correspondents who provided on-the-ground coverage of conflicts from Rhodesia to El Salvador to Afghanistan to Burma and many intermediate stops. Consequently, military intelligence operatives began subscribing (or taking home copies in plain brown wrappers) because Bob’s boys in the bush covered events that the mainstream media overlooked.

Bob Brown believes in participatory journalism—the kind that Geraldo can only dream about. SOF provided the U.S. Government with its first AK-74, obtained in Afghanistan, and fetched home with 5,000 rounds of 5.45mm ammo to boot.

A few SOFers like to portray themselves as knuckle-dragging mercs, but that’s for show. Some are deceptively accomplished: one owns a law degree from Harvard; another used more C4 explosive than anyone outside the U.S. government. The byword is professionalism. For instance, a 1983 report describing the work of a 12-man SOF team in El Salvador covers 47 pages including weapons maintenance, ambush doctrine, and field medicine. But one of the salient recommendations was geopolitical: “It is suggested that the Government of El Salvador would gain more support in North America if more publicity were given to the fact that in a nation of 5 million people, one province has had 90,000 individuals who have fled communist areas. Aid given to these and other displaced persons by the government should also be publicized.”

The ultimate authority on RKB is, of course, RKB himself. He never expressed it better than in a 1986 editiorial: “For the last decade, I’ve been humping a rifle and a camera around the world’s combat zones. I’ve hunted terrorists with the Rhodesian African Rifles and fired up a Russian fort in Afghanistan with the mujahadeen. I’ve searched for POWs in Southeast Asia and survived a Sandinista rocket barrage alongside Nicaraguan contras. Between firefights, takeovers and insurgencies, I manage to put out a magazine.’

With a wealth of military experience, SOF staffers essentially became the bow wave of today’s “private military contractors” but frequently worked for expenses--or less. Often as not, Bob’s teams were up front, alongside the host-country nationals, rifles in Condition One and grenade pins straightened. Training “local indigenous personnel” was a big part of what Brown did in Special Forces, and he pursued that goal with relentless determination.

Some SOF correspondents appeared fearless, and some paid the ultimate price. In the first 25 years, four who braved the most dangerous missions died in the line of duty, whether as free-lance journalists or free-lance mercs: George Bacon, III, in Angola; Michael Echanis in Nicaragua; Lance Motley in Thailand; and Colonel Robert MacKenzie in Sierra Leone.

Certainly the magazine has drawn its share of controversy. It has consistently outraged the left by publishing Rhodesian Army recruiting posters, to offering a $25,000 in gold to a defector from Cuban intelligence, to a $1,000,000 reward for the defection of a Nicaraguan MI-24. All the while training the Contras and Salvadorian Army.

In the 1980s SOF was sued for running ads from individuals linked to criminal activities. Most of the suits were dismissed and one was settled out of court, leading to a suspension of work-for-hire advertising.

Behind the front-line reportage and splashy news coverage, SOF did something more: it supported Vietnam veterans as no other publications ever have. That may seem natural since Brown and so many staffers are former Nam vets, but the thread is deeply woven into the magazine’s fabric. The 25th anniversary issue said in part, “Overnight, SOF offered Vietnam vets the recognition they deserved, a home in a sense, a meeting place for like souls. Like a banner, it acknowledged their sacrifices and continues to do so, loudly and loyally.”

The sense of camaraderie was evident in the first SOF convention I attended in the 1980s. Seated beside me was a former Green Beret officer who confided, “Being with these guys is the best I’ve felt about myself since Vietnam.”

In 1985 the magazine’s 10th anniversary drew congratulatory messages from a wide spectrum: Fleet Marine Force Atlantic, the USAF media office, Vietnam Veterans Coalition, U.S. senators, Charlton Heston, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, among others.

Now, 25 years later, SOF and RKB are still going strong, headed for a fourth decade of reporting from the world’s hot spots, with a style and all its own. Bob Brown sums up his philosophy with the motto: “Slay dragons, do noble deeds and never, never, never, give up.”