Zipper lights his ninth cigarette of the hour and leans back on the couch. He exhales and resumes talking about the demons that have haunted him for the last 30 years.
“I still see their faces, all of their faces. Everyone that I took out.”
Zipper got his nickname from fellow Green Berets in Vietnam because, they said, he could use a knife and open up a man’s belly as easy as unzipping a coat.
Zipper was good with his knife, so good that 41 confirmed kills are noted on his record.
As he talks in the living room of a townhouse in Alexandria’s Old Town section, the others in the room nod. They know the feelings all too well.
There’s Shooter, retired after 30 years in the Corps (as in Marine Corps), 16 of those as a sniper. Shooter could crouch in hiding for hours on end, waiting for the one chance to deliver the killshot. The exact number of targets Shooter took out over the years is locked away in a room in Fort Meade, MD.
And there’s Hillbilly, so named because of his years running moonshine as a teenager in the hills of Southwestern Virginia. Hillbilly was 17 when the Feds nabbed him a second time. The judge offered him an alternative to jail time: enlist in the military. Hillbilly picked the Navy and ended up in Vietnam for three deployments with a top secret outfit called SOG (Strategic Operations Group). Later, they would be known as SEALS. Hillbilly was a solo operator with a knack for eliminating the enemy. He left Vietnam with 57 confirmed kills.
They gather once a week at the townhouse, along with other ex-special forces operatives, to try and deal with the violence that still surfaces all too often in their lives.
Zipper’s fifth wife just left him because he lost his temper and put her in the hospital with a broken jaw and dislocated shoulder.
Shooter left a motorist bleeding on the side of the road after a disagreement over who had the right-of-way at a stop sign.
Hillbilly broke a teenage gang member’s nose and crushed his cheekbone after the kid made the mistake of cutting in front of him at a fast food restaurant.
“Each of these men were trained to be good at one thing: killing people in the fastest, most efficient manner possible,” says Jonathan Muleavey, another former snake eater (special forces operative) who left the service to become a psychiatrist. Muleavey runs the group that meets each week at his home.
“What the military didn’t do was unteach all the skills that made these guys so good,” he adds. “We’re not talking about the kind of nut cases that television and the media usually portrays as the Vietnam vet. We’re talking here about people who have normal jobs now, but still have to deal with an extremely violent past.”
Zipper is talking about the blowup that put his wife in the hospital. He is bald, slightly overweight and wears horn rimmed glasses. He doesn’t look like a man who use to kill for a living.
“I used to think it was the booze that put me over the edge, but I’ve been sober for 29 months now and I still lose it. I swear to God, the last thing I ever thought I’d do was hit my wife. I’d never hit a woman before in my life. I could have killed her.”
Shooter leans forward.
“Yeah man, you could have, but you didn’t. With your training, you should have killed her. That’s how you operate, but you didn’t. That’s what you’ve got to hold on to.”
Shooter is 56, but looks 70. He’s gaunt with hollow cheeks and empty eyes that have seen far too much.
“Yeah, I’m driving down the road and this car shoots through a stop sign. It pissed me off, so I chased him down. He copped an attitude so I put him down. The next day the cops show up and arrest me for assault. The guy doesn’t show for the hearing so the charges are dropped, but the judge suggests this might do me some good.” This, he indicates, is the group.
“But it wasn’t the first time was it?”
“Nah,” Shooter says. “It’s happened before. Somebody gets in my way, they regret it. I don’t put up with shit from nobody.”
Zipper laughs. “You sound like you enjoy it.”
Shooter turns and looks at Zipper. The empty eyes turn black.
“Cross me,” he says, “and you’ll find out.”
Muleavey interrupts again.
“We’ll have none of that here. Here, you’re among friends.”
“Yeah, sure,” Shooter responds. “You’ve walked the walk. How many friends do any of us have.”
Hillbilly shakes his head.
“Your friends are the ones who’ve been there. We understand.”
“Yeah,” Shooter retorts, “but the suits run the world man and people like us scare the hell out of the suits.”
Hillbilly shifts in his seat, trying to find a comfortable position. The cigarette smoke hurts his one remaining lung (he lost the other in Vietnam along with a kidney and spleen). Hip replacement surgery a few years ago now makes sitting for long spells tough, but he doesn’t complain.
“Nobody owes us any more or less respect than we earn,” Hillbilly responds. “All we have to do is lose control once and it can destroy 20 years of good behavior.”
“That what happened to you?” The question came from Zipper.
“In a way. I went for 20 years without losing it, but lately the edge comes up more often and I go over it too often.”
Hillbilly is now on record with the Arlington County police as a violence-prone citizen. Besides the teenage gang member, he put a mugger in the District in the hospital a few years back. Then there was the incident with the President of the Condo board.
“He mouthed off to my wife about some decoration she had on the balcony. I told him that if he ever spoke to her in that tone of voice again the only sound he’d be capable of making would be through a tracheal tube. Son-of-a-bitch reported it to the police.”
“He probably deserved it,” Muleavey says, “but you might have put it differently.”
Hillbilly nods. So do the others. They know what they are. They just want to learn how to live with it.
The conversations go on past midnight, which happens often. Afterwards, Muleavey reflects on his group.
“We have an interesting cross section of society in this room each week. One is a cop, another drives a sewer truck, another is a banker and one is a public relations consultant.”
He opens a folder.
“We also had one Congressional Medal of Honor, one Navy Cross, three Silver Stars and four Bronze Stars in the room tonight. A lot of honor for serving their country, but the medals don’t heal the wounds.”
Part of the problem, Muleavey says, is a society that doesn’t know what to do with the warriors it creates.
“There are approximately 100,000 ex-special forces operatives out in the real word now, trying to cope with a society that doesn’t really want to know what these men did for their country. Most will live normal lives and never use their unique skills to ever harm another human being.”
“But a few will,” he adds. “A few will let go and respond the only way they know how. Our government created a special class of killers for a special job. Then they took the job away.”
Muleavey was part of that special class of killers. Does he consider himself a threat to society?
“Yeah, I do” Muleavey says, “I worry about it every goddamned day.”