KLEE: With Special Operations vets at Warriors Games, assume nothing

By Paul Klee Updated: May 15, 2013 at 10:13 pm • Published: May 15, 2013 | 8:15 pm 0

After watching the Special Operations team win first place in recurve archery at the Warrior Games, I had the three men pegged.

Charles Claybaker must have an extensive background in shooting a bow and arrow.

Same for Caleb Perkins and Jeff Garew.

That's the only way to explain how the Ranger, Ranger and Green Beret split the target over and over and over until a gold medal dangled from their necks.

Right?

"I've been training in archery for five days," Claybaker said.

Lesson No. 1 when dealing with Special Ops: Assume at your own risk.

The normal-looking human next to you might have endured 62 days of food and sleep deprivation, just in training. He might have survived a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. He might have led 400 missions in war.

"And never lost a man," Claybaker said.

He might have been blown 30 feet into the air after kneeling on an IED.

"My night vision got blown into my eyes," Perkins told me. "My eyes were burned shut."

That gold medal after five days of archery training?

Not a surprise.

***

Hollywood tells us the soldiers in Special Ops have the biceps of Mr. T with Liam Neeson's accent and Bradley Cooper's hair. They ash their cigarette on their wrist.

Hollywood lies.

Except, maybe, for the cigarette part.

Take Claybaker. I swear he once delivered my tater tots in the Sonic drive-thru.

Claybaker is 29 and built like the waterboy. If Charles bumped into you at Starbucks, he would apologize, probably several times, and buy your iced mocha.

And he is one bad dude.

Claybaker spent six years with Special Operations. He had three tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. On a mission in the Zabul province in Afghanistan, the helicopter that carried his team crashed into the desert.

"We hit the ground pretty hard," he said.

The CV-22 Osprey hit the ground at a speed of 160 knots, he said. That's over 180 mph.

"I remember looking at trees at the 30-second call. Then I realized they were bushes," he said.

"I got knocked out. I went blue. Then I woke up, and I remember thinking I looked like Fred Flintstone. My feet were punched out of the aircraft and into the sand."

After a pause, he added, "Yabba-Dabba-do, you know."

Claybaker suffered tremendous injury from the crash, from a broken ankle to a fractured hip to a traumatic brain injury. He walks, and competes, with a cane.

"I'll be off this guy in a few months," he told me, waving the cane into the air. "And I'm swimming tomorrow."

Another member of the gold medal-winning archery team, Perkins turns 29 Friday and grew up in West Virginia.

With a short-sleeve button down, he could double for my phone guy at Verizon.

Instead, he spent eight years as a sniper in Special Operations. He trained more than 200 snipers and lived to tell about one particularly nasty exchange in Afghanistan.

"We took contact from some Taliban forces," Perkins said. "I was the sniper up on the roof."

Their mission, he said, was to clear an "HLZ" - helicopter landing zone.

"I was getting ready to make the call that the area was clear. I always take a knee when I make the call," he said. "Unfortunately, I put my knee down on a pressure-plate IED."

I told Caleb he looks great, that he could be any guy on the street.

"This finger was hanging on by skin, this finger was sticking out," he said. "I didn't lose any limbs. I just took a couple chunks out of my legs."

***

Special operations veterans might look like the barista, or the guy driving the range cart at the local golf course, and nothing like Mr. T or Liam Neeson.

They are wired quite different.

That much was evident in their archery performance Wednesday, the only time I've seen these men in action.

Without an expert archer among them, the three veterans leaned on each other. If one missed the center target, he soon had a teammate whispering in his ear.

"We just said the same thing over and over: Aim small, miss small. Stay strong in the shot. Aim small, miss small. Stay strong in the shot,'" Claybaker said. "If something bad happens, don't even worry about it. The error's already gone.

They all spoke about the "Special Operations mindset," as though it were common knowledge. Having learned from one assumption, I requested the definition.

"Our mindset is team. It's all about the team," Claybaker said. "You're not special. The team is special."

"That's why this medal is special - it's the result of a team," Perkins added.

But there must be something different about an individual to join Special Operations.

This seems a fair assumption.

I wanted to know what drove these men to pursue a career in Special Ops. For Claybaker, that answer was simple.

"Somebody told me I couldn't."

I'm not telling him anything.

Well, one thing.

Thank you for not being normal.

-

Paul Klee is the Denver sports columnist for The Gazette. Reach him via email (paul.klee@gazette.com) or on Twitter (@Klee_Gazette).

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