tv Ben Blum Ranger Games CSPAN March 30, 2018 8:02pm-9:01pm EDT
[inaudible conversations] and now the final author from the satisfy van practice book festival, it's ben blum, on a robber commit by his cousin and other army rangers. >> good afternoon. and welcome to the final author presentation of what i hope has been a very eventful and wonderful day for you so far. at the savannah book festival.
you're at the trinity unite methodist church or venue all day long. we feel very fortunate to have this space for the 11th annual book festival. this venue has been made possible by the generosity of jack and mary romano. i'm roger something i and have the great pleasure of serving as a volunteer here and i i'm delight with your participation. the book city of is presented by george power, by david and nancy cintron, by the chantally foundation and by -- the sheehan family foundation and look to thank our wonderful literatety members and individual donors whose depressions have -- contributions who have in past and continue to make saturday a free and public event. 90% of the revenue for the book festival comes from donors just like you so it's a great pleasure to thank you for your support. before we get started, please allow me to good over a
few housekeeping details for you. first of all, immediately following the presentation, our author, ben blum, will be at the book signing venue for the authors in the square. he will be glad to talk with you further and sign books you have purchased at the savannah book festival. please take a moment right now to make sure that your cell phones and other electronic devices are turned off or at least in the silent mode so we won't have electronic interruptions during the talk. itself it's your intention to take photographs during the presentation, please make sure that the flash on your phone or your camera is turned off. and then during the question and answer portion, after the presentation today, i will ask that you raise your hand, if you have a question, and then give one of our ushers a couple of seconds to get to you. it's very important you're holding a microphone when you ask your question. otherwise viewers on c-span and people in the audience will be
unable to hear your question. also, when yaw have that microphone in your hand please make sure your question is actually a question rather than statement or a story. our author today, ben preliminary, is here -- ben blum's holds a ph.d from the university of california at berkeley, as well as an msa in fiction from new york university, where he was awarded the "new york times" foundation fellowship. his dab buie book and his subject for today's talk is his 2017 book entitled "ranger games." please join me in giving a very warm savannah welcome to ben blum. [applause] >> thank you so much for having me here. i've been strolling around savannah all day with my wife and six-year-old daughter, and i have to say i think every city
should be required to have a nice little monument every two blocks as you're walking around. it's perfect for strolling. but more importantly, it's perfect for hunting pokémon and pokémon go, which is what our daughter is actually most excited about. we have enjoyed the spanish moss and architecture. a portion of "ranger games" takes place four hours west of here at fort benning. you might by french african for thinking this is a -- midnight by french frenchen figuren for thinking this is about war but it's about a lot of things on the periphery of thers anden of war. it's about family, it's about the way that good intentions go wrong, and maybe more importantly than anything, it's about growing up.
it's but the beautiful illusion that propel to us follow our dreams and the way that those illusions can crumble as we get older, often making space for something richer and realer, but sometimes wreaking major havoc along the way. so, ranger games is the story -- the true story of my cousin, alex, whom i grew up with in denver, colorado. we were both kind of weird kids growing up. that ph.d you heard about was not in english or journalism or anything loot that we've hand remotely helpful. it was in computer science. i was a gigantic math in other words when i was a little kid. for halloween i once dress up at ed abe a -- alex was in his own way just as weird. he was just obsessed with the military from a very young age. absolutely fascinated.
with all things army. he always had his nose buried in a book but the books the was reading were the kind if you stacked them up on the shelf next to mine, would have beaten them up and stolen their lunch money. band of burglaries, black hawk down, red badge of courage, anything military drama that he could get his teague into. and so we started hearing from alex when he was kid that he wanted to be a soldier when he grew up, common dream for a young boy, but he really stuck with it. his freshman year in high school, two weeks into the year, september 11th, and i think that's the point when his goal started to get a lot more real, a lot more serious. he enlisted shortly after this 18th birthday. by then his goal was to survive
a really brutally rick selection program called the ranger indoctrination program to make it to the elite special operations ranger regiment. re achieved that shortly after this 19th birthday, posted to fort lewis, washington, and four months later served as the driver in an armed bank robbery organized by a superior in the rangers. he was arrested shortly afterwards, served 16 months in federal prison, and then shortly after his release started talking to me about the crime. so, i spent about seven years al told, trying to get to the bottom of how alex, the goodie two shoes of the family, had been almost cartoonishly patriotic idealistic as a kirked
had back to be involved in this bizarre crime. the big question i grappled with over and over as i went through that process, is how do you support someone who has done something terrible, that caused a lot of harm both to himself and to others? how do you help them reckon with what they've done? so i will open -- i'm going sort of alternate readings with some conversation about the book and open with a passage about what alex and i were like growing up in denver. >> from the time we were asked us alex always had a simple dream, to defend his country from the force offers evil and oppression. none of us took this seriously but him. after school in the suburbs denver, he'd run off in his camouflage t-shirt cargo pants to play vietnam commando in the
candle. laying booby traps and heighting behind cattails to watch joggers jump and yip as the ground and exploded. he represented the every army movie, played every video games. there were not many women in the outback. he heard the diengle, be all you can be in the army. back then alex and i barely spoke. our dream worlds did not overlap. by age seven i was known as the math prodigy. in the fields were alex saw darting comey guerrillas i saw ferns swallows. i'd tell supermarket cashier our ahead worked, give lifeguards introduction to equations. was ill ratessize now, bleats my
insufferable. human relations were not my specialty. too complicated. by 13 i was taking calculus and physic at the university of colorado. the only real common ground i had with alex lay between the tattered street hockey netness his driveway where on summer afternoon he would occasionally dane to securey around my knee -- scurry around my feet and store on me. he was already a budding star. our fathers both made efforts at manly education. alex's father was the assistant coach of alex's hockey team. with the elite littleton hockey association and played adult league with denver's finest, including a smatter of progresses from the nhl during the players string mitchell father was the quarterback coach of george washington high school's football team downtown. both racing bicycles competitivefully brutal front range of the rockie mountains,
played pickup street hockey in a warehouse rink. skied, golfed, climbed, and pumped iron. summers they took us camping in the foothills, hike through the canyons, fishing in the tick infest ranch land of texas relatives. stuck earplugs in our ears, jammed shotgunners against our shoulders, and needle us until we squeeze the trigger. it all took better with alex than me. even when he was still in school, reports of his shining all-americanness ban began to filter in, shoveling snow for an elderly neighbor, coaching sides at hockey came. defending classmates against bullies and like flying to tournaments with the club hockey team and became more and more seriousness army thing. it seemed to me as if he bought himself ready made off a toy city store action toy and he wad a
base county world, world of attachments and product high ends were available to him his would be a live of heroic accomplishment, a blum life, a triumph. so i knew when i published "ranger games" some people would take it as an antiwar book but it's not that either. through talking to alex? a number over other soldiers i gains a huge appreciation for their bravery, their discipline, their integrity, and the deep care they show each other. alex and i were both raid on stories of our grandfather, al sr., who served in the army in world war ii, landed in normandy after d-day, and although those stories men nor alex than to me, i have also come to appreciate the warrior ethos that he passed down through his sons, the deep bond of trust with one's fellow soldiers, and the willingness to just keep on going no matter how
tough and how painful it gets. in the ranger indoctrination program that alec went through after basic training, he and his buddies endured hell together. they at one point had to group up into teams of six and hold tell the phone poles a -- telephone poles alofts for 48 hours, taking shifts. along with extreme physical pain and endurance. most soldiers quit but alec did not. he was posted to fort lewis and began learning what his new job would entail as a cherry private. under the guidance of the tabs, higher ranking soldiers who had seen combat. so this next passage is about the way that formal training spilled over into the more informal set that soldiers visited in off hours.
>> those months were transformative for all the cherry privates. at night and on weekends, they ventured into tacoma with new eyes. every door was a potential breach point. every bar country red zone concealing hidden gunmen. every denny's dining room partitioned into lines fire. civilians looked more and more like another species entirely. cherry privates watched in b.b. mussment as men and women puzzle overred menus, smooth nap coins their laps. wiped their children's mouths. one night after raising air plane hangars, alex and his buddies went to see the in the x men movie and all they could talk about, lined up there in the dark among teenage whore flood idea they were surrounds by rangers, was how simple it would be to take down the theater.
they all tried outdo each assessment of the tactical problem, three exits, end zone in the projectionist booth. sheep to herd. a piece of cake. talk of hitting spots around tacoma was a reliable way to show off knowledge and sound hard. a real world application of classroom sessiones, planning raided on satellite photos of al qaeda complexes. when they watched heist movies they laughed. tabs were flute in tactical planning but the sharper privates were already picking this ump. in this pfc blum videos then mentorship of specialist sommer. the specialist popped in once in a while as blum broke down m-16s or shined boots to ask him for a ride into town. he was friendlier to the privates than other tabs were,
taking more than a few of them tout fa sis in tacoma to war game. but blum seemed to be a favorite of his. sommer thought the silver audi his father gave him, nicknaming it the transporter named after his favorite movie. blum tried to hide his nervousness about the stick shift. no matter where sommer wanted to go chilis, starbucks, quiz knows, dairy queen, the super market, porn shop, he made a little lesson out of it. where is our infill? side door by the booth. right. red zone? s by the counter. from the kitchen. behind the soft serve thing. you forgot the bathroom, blum, bang, you're dead. all of weyerhaeuser completely
flabber gasted by alex's arrest and the first question him that came to mind was, why? and gradually the story gain to filter out. alex's father wasn't able to visit him for the first couple of weeks he whats detention. finally talked to him and through him the story came to the rest of us. apparently, alex had believed the plans for the bank robbery were just one more of specialist sommer's little games. a training exercise that suddenly got real. and some further reports began filtering out of very strange stuff going on in alex's head while he was in prison. seemed he was in some kind of weird del losery state we could not wrap our minds around. finally rater the told us that even after his arrest, when he was being told in federal detention, he had been waiting after day for some representative of the second
ranger battalion to appear and tell film had been a giant mixup. it was training exercise and they would send him to iraq to be with his units where he belongs. when i talked to alex in depth about the crime, he seemed toso fragile anded adamant and i flit it was my job to support him. but the more research i did is a started to write the book, the more evidence i found that suggested that things were a little bit more complicated than alex was letting on. it was right in the thick of all the family tension created as i started trying to get to the truth, that dr. phillip sim bardo, the social psychologist famous for the stanford prison experiment who contribute total lex's legal defense, called alex up and asked him to appear on a special episode of "the doctors
fillshow, title when good people do bad things. so, i -- the next passage i'll read it is from the taping in hollywood where i was in the studio audience. and by the time of the taping i was just a total nervous wreck. i had this sort of sense that am alex might be lying and the general sense of the family was that alex was so confusions by his experience that the real story wasn't accessible to him it's all if it existed in the first place. i was just -- dr. phil's big catch phrase is, get real. the idea is just get real but your problem. i was so terrified that dr. phil would call bs on al los angeles and till him to get real about this crazy story and on national television in front of three million americans at this incredibly sensitive moment when
i was trying to support him and get at the truth. this is from the moment in that taping when we got to alex's segment after very cheerful prior segments on the standard prisoner and and imabu grade. lights, action, camera. now i have a world famous psychologist and renowned author who is here with us today and we are discussing his book, the lucifer effect. understanding how good people turn evil. let me tell you something. you need to read this book and you need to read it twice. then you need give it to your kids. he chuckled in a heroic effort at impersonating someone who had not just made tens of thousands of dollars. alex is sitting stiffly in his chair, one shoulder higher than
the other, eyes alternating between mcgraw and the audience. that's dr. phil's last name. he doesn't publicize it much. i mean it really is very, very insightful. today we talk about when good people do bad things. obeying authority is rule number one in the military but i want you to look at what happened when one form ranger says he thing to he was following routine orders. they turned in their chairs to look at the screen of the back of the stage where in place of the swirling dr. phil logo, an eight foot tall alex stood in this tidy basement b., head boys, digging in his closet. the drum beet start at once. what followed was a short series of editing to sentence thursday alec's voice, each 0 which i had heard him saying to me. not one of which was individually untrue, but the only possible unifying
interpretation was of some kind of bizarre military dilution that none -- delusion that would coot no comprehend the music finished, big pause. okay, says dr. phil. with a kind of a sigh. he leaned forward in his chair and scrutinized alex from underneath skepticalbrows. ing not been in the situation, all of us right now are saying, now, wait, what? alex went through one lives patents full body fidgets. so what you're telling me, phil continued, spreading out all ten of his finger in an unprecedented double let get real hands, emotion somewhat akin to the emperor shooting electricity from his fingertips into the spasming body of luke skywalker. you did not know -- phil began flapping his clenched fists with the palm of his other pan to
punctuate eachword -- you were involved in an armed robbery of a bank? alex lost his job after that episode aired. he had been coaching five-year-olds at a local ice arena, the first job he found after his release from prison. hard to find a job as a felon in america. he was increasing by bitter and hard to talk thank you toe about the robbery. instead i turned to luke elliott sommer, the ringleader of the robbery, very intelligent, charismatic guy who chitted a host of other crimes after the robbery, including stabbing a co-conspirator in prison and putting a hit out on the prosecutor. he was obsessed with math, the same subject i was obsessed with and was working by correspondence waiver professor
at san francisco state university who seemed to think he was a genius at it. sommer admitted directly to me in our conversations about his childhood that morality had always ban mystery to him -- always been a mitt to him but this made him minute ease your talk to but the robbery than alex. alex had such a hard time accepting he had done anything wrong. but so many -- sommer had no sense of wrong at all. i won deciderred my relationship with alex had to do with some kind of unprocessed guilt inside him that he wasn't letting on about. the nest message is from the one in-person interview i cured with sommer as a rural penitentiary in kentucky. seven hours straight, siing in this dismal little visitation room.
as my time with elliott wound down, he goes by elliott -- we talk briefly about the additional sentences he received for the phone too two phones. stabbing nathan dunn and trying to put a hate out on his prosecutor. he corrected my understand it was ten years apiece. he said it was two 20 year sentences serving up consecutively. i asked why the authorities willing to do that. think my prosecutor finally realized i'm bat shit insane hurricane said but he sent me to prison anyway. that's still got me hot. on the last phrase, elliott's voice dropped into a menacing register so cartoonish i couldn't help interpreting as
playful. like a ten-year-old threatening to blow up his school. sounded just the way he had other few hours before when he painted a vivid scene of killing everyone in the room if his son was threatened. jotted a few last notes and trade to massage some life back into any writing hand. elliott asked me how i was planning to represent him in the book. luke elliott sommer, world famous psychopath he offered, grinning. i don't know about that. almost wish i could be a dillinger type character, rough bank robber type. alas, he switched for the last time into his corny sing song voice, rolling his eye up to the ceiling in way that reminded me of the mouth as chucky cheese. it's not be, he said. the guards fell in on either side of us as were escorted to the still empty visitation room.
with a kids playroom in the corner with grinning cartoon characters on the wall, the rough textures of cinder block showing through the faces. he point athlete summary sewn where he had been per plate today kiss mandy when they were married the prefer month, barring a treaty transfer the only entity mass si -- i reached out my my hand and then elliott was being led to the secured door on the far side, carrying on a friendly, jokey, totally one-sided conversation with the guards, and then the concrete buck just swallowed him and he was again. as civilians -- i am myself a civilian. no experience talking to
military folks before i started researching this story. we have been taught to interpret the experiences of soldiers through the lens of trauma, increasingly in the last ten years or so. and unspoken code prohibits us from questioning too deeply into what they'd to do on the battle feel but sommer rally challenged that lens for me. he claimed his traumatic experiences abroad had been at fault nor robbery. for a while after the robbery he -- when he flowed canada where he was born, he actually claimed he had staged the whole thing to gain a platform to protest war crimes he had witnessed in afghanistan and iraq. claimed to have evidence of this that he was sort of were -- were holding -- with holding and never materialized. when i start talking to him he was very adamant that had been his motivation, but when i looked through this google
>> with 3 inches of plexiglas they cannot stop this trust of the barrier and i first heard it in the new york field office. and it shuffles money underneath my first supervisor who told me the only thing that can penetrate just as the thoughts had imagined that scenario. and to find themselves being robbed. like virginia, heather she had been instructed a modern bank robbery a by extreme action and she knew where to find that
the last desk to strike that shoulder blade of the merchant deposits.ea they don piled on top of them. bursting around the corner is this a drill? do they test us on this? i think this is a little extreme for that. if this is a drill that i'm winning. u.s. army field manual the infantry man's guide describes the procedure with a flash bang or a fragmentation grenade reaching the team
moving toward those points on domination because they are moving and shooting at the time and with total disregard for any obstacles. in the present facility with a promotional display for mortgages standing in the middle of the lobby with the water cooler and carafe of hot coffee a play table with rainbow blocks and polyester belts from a sizable afternoon crowd those men in ski masks and sweatshirts were dissuaded from grenade from the one who
was assured even if he was crazy enough to do this stuff flash bang was completely insane. moving to the points of domination chad to the fall door with his fully automatic ak-47 with his bananap clip held his shoulder. then going to the rear door and then another ak-47 with a duffel bag of spare clips and robertson to the personal banker with those pistols with a flashlight. so according to a breakdown there was no obstacle putting the lobby into two the entrance to the teller pit was the locked reinforced door at the end after breaching that system with a two by two leapfrog pattern the infantrymen were not supposed
to enter without sufficient manpower about the rangers made the way like a graduate student ripe with simple vacation for teachability. the man whose body was sideways and the other holding the glock 19 and then to stop flat on her back and they kept feeling that same urge but then at unreachable heights with those fluorescent lights
her legs were off her chest then they came fast and close all around her the lobby ran with scuffs and cries and shouts then allowed metallic bang which barked a desperate look throughout the pile with a consensus that was not a gunshot. he caught her eye nodding toward the silent alarm button she stared at it all she has to do and then paired turned into the station a black ski mask on his head and his eyes
were blue of such intensity they would glow through the eyeholes. and dancing through their torsos. the image of herself with a armto outstretched reverberated with such insistence she could barely think and had almost donep, it. get up. nobody moved the red bead had a force like a fingertip of the ghost. get up. one by one they scrambled to their feet the man was large and h muscular then his voice went personable he wants a shoulder 5 bag filled no dye packs and no cereal bills. she was not familiar with these concepts before working at the bank and wonder where
he learned them. he sounded cocky she felt sure she knew him. had he come in before? this was not real. he called time. thirty seconds. shouted the hooded figure if this bag is not fall in one minute he emphasize the point with his gun and it was real. reality is a big theme in this bookho the reality of civilians who see through action movies or video games but the reality of it is unrealistic the end we -- the reality of soldiers
who go through such detailed simulations of battlefield condition between rehearsal and show that unreality of reality television to give us that unfiltered glimpse of human drama that the stories are carefully constructed and the unreality of those who are masterful to play in that space of jokes and banter as he slowly brought those many soldiers involved in the scheme into greater contact with the reality of his plan to send the reality of what alex went through and never fully processed. i have come to that as a very
big part what keeps trauma alive inside us a disengagement from the reality of what we have gone through because it is too painful to process.or all these years i tried to figure out how to help him heal i said thinking about how to heal trauma but nowadays we have a better understanding than we used to soldiers have horrible things done to them and do horrible things to others and suffer from it generally given a diagnosis of ptsd. but gradually it is starting to be recognize that some soldiers suffered different that requires a different kindha of treatment the term is moral injury. you suffer a moral injury when you do or witness or endorse a
violation of your morals lying or stealing in a way that you don't believe to participate in a bank robbery that you never wanted to be a part of. i find this a fascinating moment in the progression of therapeutic methods psychologist have not historically been helpful to let the clients atone for their sins. but basically that is what the moral injury framework is. i am very glad today but in some ways i think moral injury is even more important to understand. it is tricky to help your loved ones deal with their trauma but even healthier mom --dash harder to help them
deal with the burdens of moral injury. how do you tell someone that you care for who is hurting and that relies on you to defend and support them that they need to do better? i think if you can do that helpfully lovingly and compassionately that is the highest aspects of love. it took me a long time to come to that dealing of alex's involvement in the end i did confront him with all of the evidence i had amassed in the story into question and i got very personal and direct with him and the hardest thing i have ever done and the results were startling and transformational for him and
me. that is the trajectory of the book in the place where it ends which means i cannot tell you how it went. i don't want to give it all away but i have come through this process with a renewed hope in the possibility for healing in families that are willing to grapple with some of these dark stories no one wants to talk about. thank youy very much for being here. [applause] and i would love to answer any questions you may have a mac i fear that i mispronounced your last name i apologize.
>> is a common mistake. >> with families and participants with the notion of moral injury that is not a new thing at least it was only a bank robbery but is there any support within the service or the virginia? or people who support the virginia and military to live in that area is there any support? >> yes. there is some very encouraging steps actually the veterans association has a pilot program that does seem very
promising with treatment methodology for moral injury that involves finding reasonable restitution and there are a few programs out there that bring together the iraqis and afghans and the family members of the conflict in those who may not know but some of those can be powerful. >> do you think the family members understand they'll be dealing with this? >> not yet. i think we have seen a lot of trauma stories i think in part
because the failure to distinguish between trauma and moral injury that was problematic for a lot of soldiers trying to reintegrate into society and to get jobs and be accepted by their community. i think there is some stigma around ptsd with soldiers flipping out or committing crimes that is very unproductive and damaging. i would love to see more support services for families i don't think there is enough. >> how is your cousin doing today and what is he doing? >> he is doing amazingly well.
this secret was eating him up for years he didn't even think of it as a secret he was just clenched so tight around this version he thought it exonerated him and he retreated further and further from friends and family as he held to that. so any surprising way confronting him led to a dramatic reconciliation with the family and he stopped drinking and started to train again he is doing really well. he is a good job and he has a pitbull that shows a level of affection and he is doing well and we have become very close
the public hash -- the publication of the book was very scary but it ended up being cathartic we showed up at a book event together in colorado which a number of family members were in attendance a very intense back and forth question and answer i have ever seen at a book event but it went really well. >> this is such a personal event for you with this whole process, as an author where you go from here? >> hopefully no more bank robberies by close family members occasionally he offers if i'm stuck he will rob another one if i really need
him to. [laughter] but i do come from a science background and i love science i have gotten very interested in trauma and psychology and therapy so my next book is a little bit about what you are talking about state-of-the-art ways for close families to heal each other from their trauma to hold each other accountable where appropriate to move past these things that stick with us for years. >> are you familiar with the group out of fort steward that started off with active-duty soldiers and went from just guy stuff to a plot to overthrow the u.s. government?
and one testified in court they cannot believe how we got out of hand to the point they killed one of their co-conspirators and his girlfriend in an effort to tie up loose end. that is one of those things starting out shooting in the woods at night getting out of control. >> i'm not y familiar with that. it is fascinating. what year? be my 2012. >> the fear group i will look into that. it is incredible the way the small group dynamics can evolve almost beyond anyone in the group especially the elite warrior cultures where it is a huge taboo against backing downak if one guy jokes taking
out a bank and you joke about taking out a casino there is the escalation and if you cannot rise to that level then you are. as week it is very hard once you start on that path. others? >> you mentioned your relationship with alex is healed but is that true with your family and his father? >> yes. he is still with us. very much kicking doing his 200 push-ups every morning since he was eight years old. the family has been incredibly supportive through the process.an
so i began this book in 2008? with the idea to clear his name i just felt it was so unjust he would spend his life as a convicted violent felon beingle tricked into robbing a bank while pursuing extracurricular training while onra deployment in iraq so the family wasn't behind the project we are all trying to help them out that then came the really complicated years when my story started to come out of alignment withd the families and those werebu difficult times but at the same time there was an amazing amount of tolerance to keep pursuing this because by then
i was alex's closest friend and it was so clear he needed that and somebody to work through this with him. i was worried about publishing the book but my relationship with norm actually the things that end up kissing people off are not the ones that you expec expect. what will everybody think about the way i portray alex? will they hate the fact i quoted their jokes? nope. everythinge with except what i wrote about my grandfather a world war ii veteran who had inspired alex was a source of so much mythology --dash ecology of family lore i discovered his
war memoir and learned through reading that a lot of what he had gone through a broad was much darker than what was passed down to us i think this is common for a lot of families and that began to make clear this legacy of trauma and moral injury much more trauma played a significant role to make alex susceptible to the influence and i think that deep reckoning with family culture with intergenerational culture going back to several wars, that is something our family is still processing to this day. [applause] thank you.