Peter Laufer

The Marine Who Saw Too Much

The following text is an excerpt from Peter Laufer's new book, "Mission Rejected: U.S. Soldiers Who Say No to Iraq" (Chelsea Green, 2006).

Recruiters convinced a listless Californian named Daniel to join the Marines. On September 11, 2001, he was taking classes at a junior college near San Jose while holding down two jobs: managing a PurWater store and squeezing fruit at a Jamba Juice stand.

His patriotism combined with the recruiters' sales pitches convinced him to drop out of school two units short of his associate's degree. By the next summer he was in boot camp. When we meet, the 23 year-old ex-Marine asks me to restrict my identification of him to his first name; he's fighting the Veterans Administration for benefits and the Marines for an honorable discharge, and he fears publicity may hurt his case.

Daniel is slouched in his chair when we first start talking. He's wearing a camouflage baseball cap with the image of a Canada goose on its front. His black T-shirt carries the legend POW-MIA you are not forgotten. His forearms are covered with tattoos. His blue jeans are well faded and his black cowboy boots well worn.

"I decided my country needed me and I was pretty fit," he says about his decision to join the Marines after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "I decided to go do my part. I wasn't sure what branch until I walked into the recruiting office and a Marine Corps office was before all the other ones. They kind of pulled me in, told me all their jarhead jargon, and filled my head with a whole bunch of good stuff. I was sold quickly."

Daniel speaks fast, with a slight twang and the hint of a stutter. He says his childhood stutter returned as a symptom of his combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder.

By February 2003, Daniel was trained as a radio operator and was the proud owner of a brand new Dodge Ram 1500 truck. A week after he bought the truck, he was told he was being deployed to the Middle East. "There goes my truck payments," he remembers thinking. But he parked the pickup and managed to keep the payments current while he saw the other side of the world. "It was a pretty scary time," Daniel says about his three months on a ship, patrolling Kuwaiti waters during the initial U.S. assault on Iraq.

Rotated back to the States, Daniel hopped back into the Dodge and unwound. "Came back over stateside, happy to be back. Spent all my money and had a good time. Early in 2004 we was back in the desert. This time I went directly into Iraq." He found himself on an assault boat, patrolling for "insurgents." His unit saw action in the toughest neighborhoods throughout much of 2004, often beaching the boat and joining forces with land-based troops in hot spots like Fallujah. "Pretty scary, that's all I've got to say about that," Daniel says regarding Fallujah, his speech turning percussive. "You never know when it's your time to go. Explosions from mortars going off all around you. Shots fired. You try to keep your head up. Trust the guy next to you. That's about it."

Fighting in the war flipped Daniel's political beliefs. "I came back very anti-Bush. I used to be a Republican before I joined the military. Not any more." His experiences on the ground, he says, convinced him he'd been lied to. The Iraqis "are a defeated people," he says, not a threat to America. "It's a third-world country. These people walk around with no shoes, nothing. These guys are working for a dollar a day. The military would pay the village people to come on base and build sandbags so that they can be more comfortable in their tents and pay them a dollar a day, and these guys will work making seven dollars a week just to feed their family."

Watching the construction of permanent barracks on bases in Iraq convinced Daniel that the real goal of the war was control. "Iraq is the center of the Middle East. If you control the center, you control the whole Middle East. You control all the profits that you get from there," he says about the oil reserves.

Back from leave, Daniel, who was awarded eight decorations for valor, was in for some surprises. "We go back to Camp Lejeune and we get a new CO [commanding officer] who's never been to Iraq, who doesn't have nearly as many ribbons as I do," says Daniel. "He goes, 'Get prepared to go back to Iraq in January!' This was October. We just got back. All of our jaws just dropped. He goes, 'But go home and have fun for about three weeks.'" As Daniel recounts this announcement of a third tour of duty in the Middle East in as many years, his stutter becomes much more pronounced. "I felt like a weight just got put on my chest. I couldn't breathe. Panic attacks. I can't believe this is going to happen. Everybody felt the same way. A couple of people didn't come back from leave. They decided to stay home."

Daniel looked forward to going home to California, but he realized, "I couldn't enjoy my leave because I knew I was going straight back to that hellhole I just left. "They were trying to train us to go back," he continues. "We were well seasoned. We had to listen to these guys who had never been over there. We all thought, 'These dumb-asses are going to get us killed.' Some of these guys, they didn't know how to tie their shoes. They came back from recruiting duty wanting to get all gung ho. They were like, 'Yeah! We're going to go fight a war!' We had already been over there and seen what's happened."

This veteran of some of the worst fighting in the Iraq War, now a lance corporal and faced with a third tour of duty in the war zone, asked to see a counselor of some type, "because my head was not right." Nothing happened. He told his first sergeant that he was a conscientious objector, and he says the sergeant responded: "Get those words out of your mouth right now." Daniel was trying everything he could think of to avoid shipping out to Iraq again, and couldn't see a way out.

So he made a fateful decision.

"I was pretty frustrated," he explains. "I wanted them to listen to me, so I decided to do something where I would stand out and get everybody's attention. I knew by doing this I would not have to go back to Iraq and harm any more people. I decided to take drugs that Friday, knowing I had a piss test on Monday. I did drugs. I did the urinalysis test on Monday. Went home for a Christmas break on Friday." Back on base after the holidays, Daniel was told he had "popped," failed the drug test.

Daniel picked cocaine as his drug of choice, convinced that if he only smoked marijuana the Marines would just slap his hand and send him packing for Iraq. He says it was the first time he had used cocaine. "I knew that if I did that they would listen to me." He finally was awarded a meeting with the battalion's commanding officer and was told that as long as he trained a replacement radio operator, he would be discharged "in a timely manner."

The day Daniel's unit shipped out to Iraq, the Marines put him on a four-day bus trip back to California, with an Other Than Honorable (OTH) discharge. "I felt really bad. I felt really bad." Other Marines in his unit failed to show up for Iraq duty, he says, and still others followed his example and used drugs in order to fail the mandatory drug test. "None of them wanted to go back, none of them did. But they did not know how to get out. I feel bad for all of them. Sometimes I wish I was with them because they were my family over there. But I have to do what I do for myself."

With three years in the Marines, two tours of duty in the war zone, eight decorations, and one bad drug test, Daniel went to the Veterans Administration in San Jose complaining of post-traumatic stress disorder, seeking help. "I showed them my papers and they said, 'Wow, you're pretty decorated. We need to get you some help.' Then they looked at the OTH and said, 'Can't do nothing for you.'" In addition to being denied help from the VA, Daniel forfeited the $1,200 the Marines took out of his first year's pay as his required contribution to qualify for GI benefits.

"I still have bad dreams every night," he says. "It's like a video that rewinds and every time I go to sleep it plays back and I wake up distraught. It just doesn't go away."

"And what are the images?" I ask him.


"What are you seeing?"

"I'm sure you've seen pictures. I don't have to describe them again. I don't want to."

But Daniel is anxious to analyze the status of affairs in Iraq from his perspective and personal experience. "A lot of innocent people get hurt over there. For the most part, their people are good. They want to raise their families. They're actually very happy that we got rid of Saddam Hussein. We had to dig a potty hole one time and we found a mass child grave. Saddam was just a bad person. These kids over there are walking around with hardly anything, barely able to feed themselves. These people are skinny. A lot of troops are giving them their extra boots. We'll give them a little bit of food. For the most part, these people just want to get on with their lives. They're not terrorists, the Iraqis. It's all the insurgents coming in from other places that misinterpret the Muslim religion. I didn't know much about Islam at the time. But I have a cross, a Catholic cross on my arm," he shows off the massive tattooed cross decorating his right arm. "A lot of them would point it out and say, 'Oh, we believe in Jesus, too. He's a prophet.' I learned a lot from the Iraqi people I got to talk to, so don't be prejudiced if you ever meet one over here. They're not bad people at all."

As for the rest of his life, "Basically I'm starting over from scratch," says Daniel. "I'm not working right now. I'm looking for a job that I'll be happy with. I'm a hard-working stiff. I've just got to find something that I'll love and enjoy. Then I'll start all over again." As for the truck? "The Dodge is gone." Repossessed.

Daniel hopes to convince the Marines to change his discharge classification so that he can be treated by the Veterans Administration for the problems he's suffering as a result of his service in Iraq. But Kit Anderton of the Resource Center for Nonviolence, the caseworker who is helping Daniel with his appeal, is not optimistic. "This is not a good path," he says about Daniel's decision to use cocaine as an exit strategy. "It is particularly not a good path if you do not have evidence that you have tried to get the attention of your commanding officer, that you've done everything you possibly can to get pastoral or psychological help. Daniel did both, but I'm not sure we're going to find evidence that he did. This was a step of desperation for him. If he had called us, we certainly would have told him not to do it." Anderton laughs with frustration. "It's really the worst thing he could have done. He's in much worse shape than he was when he enlisted."

And, I suggest, he is arguably a national hero.

"He's a national hero," Kit agrees. "When we talk about supporting the troops, what are we talking about? We're taking these kids, we're using them up and throwing them out, and not taking responsibility for it. If people knew stories like this, they wouldn't be so cavalier about saying they're supporting the troops, putting stickers on their cars, and feeling like it's done."

When AWOL Is the Only Way Out

The following text is an excerpt from Peter Laufer's new book, "Mission Rejected: U.S. Soldiers Who Say No to Iraq" (Chelsea Green, 2006).

"We was going along the Euphrates River," says Joshua Key, a 27-year-old former U.S. soldier from Oklahoma, detailing a recurring nightmare -- a scene he stumbled on shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. "It's a road right in the city of Ramadi. We turned a real sharp right and all I seen was decapitated bodies. The heads laying over here and the bodies over here and U.S. troops in between them. I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, what in the hell happened here? What's caused this? Why in the hell did this happen?' We get out and somebody was screaming, 'We fucking lost it here!' I'm thinking, 'Oh, yes, somebody definitely lost it here.'"

Joshua says he was ordered to look around for evidence of a firefight, for something to rationalize the beheaded Iraqis. "I look around just for a few seconds and I don't see anything." But then he noticed the sight that now triggers his nightmares. "I see two soldiers kicking the heads around like a soccer ball. I just shut my mouth, walked back, got inside the tank, shut the door, and it was like, I can't be no part of this. This is crazy. I came here to fight and be prepared for war but this is outrageous. Why did it happen? That's just my question: Why did that happen?"

He's convinced there was no firefight that led to the beheading orgy -- there were no spent shells to indicate a battle. "A lot of my friends stayed on the ground, looking to see if there was any shells. There was never no shells, except for what we shot. I'm thinking, Okay, so they just did that because they wanted to do it. They got trigger happy and they did it. That's what made me mad in Iraq. You can take human lives at a fast rate and all you have to say is, say, 'Oh, I thought they threw a grenade. I thought I seen this, I thought I seen that.' You could mow down 20 people each time and nobody's going to ask you, 'Are you sure?' They're going to give you a high five and tell you that you was doing a good job."

He still cannot get the scene out of his head. "You just see heads everywhere," he says. "You wake up, you'll just be sitting there, like you're in a foxhole. I can still see Iraq just as clearly as it was the day I was there. You'll just be on the side of a little river running through the city, trash piled up, filled with dead. Heads and stuff like that. I don't sleep that much, you might say. I don't sleep that much."

His wife, Brandi, nods in agreement and says he cries in his sleep.

We're sitting in the waning summer light on the back porch of the Toronto house where Joshua and his wife and their four little children have been living in exile since Joshua deserted to Canada. They've settled in a rent-free basement apartment, courtesy of a landlord sympathetic to their plight. Joshua smokes cigarettes and drinks coffee while we talk. He's wearing a T-shirt promoting a 2002 peace rally in Raleigh, North Carolina. There's a scraggly beard on his still-boyish face; his eyes look weary.

Sleep deprivation while on duty, first in Kuwait and then in Iraq, was routine, Joshua says, and he thinks exhaustion was generated intentionally by his commanders. "You'll do whatever the hell they say just to get that sleep. That's the way they controlled us. You ain't had no sleep and you got shitty food all the time. I got to call my wife once every month, maybe once every two weeks if I was lucky. Mail, shitty, if it even came." Food and water were inadequate, he says.

"When we first got to Kuwait we were rationed to two bottles of water a day and one MRE [meals ready to eat]. In the middle of the desert, you're supposed to have six bottles of water a day and three MREs. They tell us they don't have it. I'm thinking 'How in the hell can the most powerfullest nation, the most powerfullest military in the world, be in the middle of a damn desert and they don't even have no food to feed us?'"

Joshua rejects the U.S. government line that the Iraqis fighting the occupation are terrorists. "I'm thinking: What the hell? I mean, that's not a terrorist. That's the man's home we killed. That's his son, that's the father, that's the mother, that's the sister. Houses are destroyed. Husbands are detained and wives don't even know where they're at. I mean, them are pissed-off people, and they have a reason to be pissed off. I would never wish this upon myself or my family, so why would I do it upon them?"

Pulling security duty in the Iraqi streets, Joshua found himself talking to the locals. He was surprised by how many spoke English, and he was frustrated by the military regulations that forbade his accepting dinner invitations to join Iraqis for social evenings in their homes. "I'm not your perfect killing machine," he admits. "That's where I broke the rules. I broke the rules by having a conscience."

And the conscience developed further the more time he spent in Iraq. "I was trained to be a total killer. I was trained in booby-traps, explosives, landmines, and how to counterresolve everything." He pauses. "Hell, if you want to get technical about it, I was made to be an American terrorist. I was trained in everything a terrorist is trained to do." In case I might have missed his point, he says it again. "I mean terrorist."

Deserting to Canada seemed the only viable alternative, Joshua says. He did it, he insists, because he was lied to "by my president." Iraq -- it was obvious to him -- was no threat to the United States. He says he followed his orders while he was in Iraq, and so no one can call him a coward for deserting. "I was not a piece of shit. I always did everything I was told and I did it to the highest standards. They can never say, 'Oh, he was a piece of shit soldier.' No bullshit."

Joshua doesn't mind telling his war stories again and again. He readily agrees to talk about the horrors he experienced in Iraq, his life AWOL and underground in the States, and his new life as a deserter in Canada.

Telling the stories helps him deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he says, and he apologizes in advance if his narrative is not linear or if he has trouble expressing himself. In fact, his scattered approach to his timeline and his machine gun-like delivery set the scene for his troubled memories -- there is nothing smooth or simple or easy to understand here.

Let the Workers Come

Our immigrant governor stunned Californians last week by praising the work of the Minutemen, an armed citizens' group patrolling the U.S.- Mexican border in Arizona. "They've done a terrific job," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared during an interview Thursday on a right-wing Los Angeles radio talk show. "They have cut down the crossing of illegal immigrants by a huge percentage."

Those remarks came barely a week after Schwarzenegger bellowed in a policy speech to scores of newspaper publishers at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel: "Close the borders. Close the borders in California, and all across Mexico and the United States."

Even though the governor later modified his statement -- he meant "secure the borders," he explained -- Schwarzenegger is still pursuing a flawed policy, however politically expedient he thinks cracking down on illegal immigration may be. Plenty of Americans openly advocate closing the border. Witness the so-called Minutemen camped out on the Arizona border this month, adventurers (President Bush called them "vigilantes") trying to scare Mexicans from coming north across the desert.

An immediate step toward solving the tragic chaos on our southern border is just the opposite: Open the border to Mexicans who wish to come north. Trouble is, try as we have -- whether it be with the official Border Patrol or the concerned citizen playing self-appointed soldier -- we can't shut down the economic-driven migration of Mexicans. And we shouldn't try. Almost any determined Mexican who wishes to come north manages to make the trip; the federal government estimates that a million do so annually. Along the way, many are victimized by harsh desert conditions, thieving smugglers and violent bandits. But the U.S. laws against crossing the international border without proper documentation don't stop them. That's because they know they will find work in el Norte. They need the jobs and we need the workers.

Anyone who takes even a casual look at the border crisis quickly realizes our immigration policy regarding Mexicans is a fraud. Because we require workers, we offer them jobs. Laws against employing undocumented workers are barely enforced. A Border Patrol that can't stop the Mexican march north doesn't maintain the troop strength to bust down business doors and inspect green cards, especially businesses owned by generous contributors to Washington politicians. Honest employers are at a disadvantage, too, because of the sophisticated nationwide trade in counterfeit documents.

Even if the policing manpower were available, the government doesn't have the political stomach to use the military to seal the border. The result is an out-of-control no-man's-land, with our cooks and gardeners, our maids and nannies literally running across the desert to their jobs.

The governor is correct: This wide-open border does pose a national security threat. We do not know who is hiding in the shadows of the Mexicans coming north to work. But instead of following Schwarzenegger's call to close the borders, we should regularize the traffic of Mexicans who wish to come north to work. Invite them to pass through border checkpoints with no restrictions other than registering. With this simple change in policy, we will at least know who is coming north legally. And if we know who and how many actually are joining us here, the government can plan for their assimilation. We'll be in an improved position to provide adequate schooling and health care. Ignorant and ill immigrants serve no one.

But more important, with this policy of an open border for Mexicans, we will give the Border Patrol a chance to stop the marauders we do not want in our country: the terrorists and drug traffickers, the known common criminals and people smugglers. Right now, despite record numbers in uniform, the Border Patrol cannot secure our southern border because the sheer number of Mexicans coming north overwhelms them and their sophisticated tracking equipment. If you remove the Mexican workers from the hordes illegally pushing north each night, if those Mexicans are passing unimpeded through official border stations, then the ratio of Border Patrol officers to truly illegal migrants vastly improves in favor of the cops. They will be able to stop the border crossers we do not want in our midst.

With the United States open to those Mexicans that the U.S. economy wants and needs, the Border Patrol will know that the people trying to break into this country -- the ones in the tunnels, running across the desert and jumping fences -- are the real villains.

Of course, this solution isn't perfect. Some Mexicans who are criminals will take advantage of the policy change and migrate with the workers, just as they do now. Central Americans and others who wish to come to the United States to work will be discriminated against by this favorable opportunity for Mexicans. But there is an argument to be made that because of our shared border and history, Mexicans constitute a special immigration category deserving first consideration.

We should, however, forget the fair-play aspect of this solution. For selfish reasons alone, it makes sense: We get the workers we need and we create a more secure post-Sept. 11 border.

This piece originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Growing Vigilante Movement

This is an excerpt from 'Wetback Nation : The Case for Opening the Mexican-American Border' (Ivan R. Dee) by Peter Laufer. Laufer visited Cochise County in 2003 and spoke with Chris Simcox, one of the organizer's of April's Minutemen border patrols.

Tombstone, Arizona is a typical Western tourist mecca. In the late nineteenth century, the mining boomtown's saloons really were full of outlaw gunslingers. Today busloads of tourists come to Tombstone looking for the warm Southwest sun and to cheer the actors who recreate the famous gunfight between Wyatt Earp and the Clanton Gang at the O.K. Corral.

But underneath the veneer of simple, friendly locals catering to out-of-town visitors, Tombstone is a simmering cauldron of conflict. The Mexican border is just a few miles south. Tombstone lies directly in the path of undocumented migrants heading to Tucson, Phoenix, and points farther north.

Several months before my first trip to Tombstone, an out-of-work California schoolteacher drifted into town and took a job washing dishes in the O.K. Café. Before long, Chris Simcox hung up his dishtowel and went to work as assistant editor at the weekly newspaper, the Tombstone Tumbleweed.

Soon after Simcox went to work for the paper, he bought it. Local gossip says the capital came from his new girlfriend, the owner of the O.K. Café. "The paper was failing horribly," he tells me. "We were selling maybe four hundred copies a week. It wasn't making it. You know, no advertising."

His takeover of the Tombstone Tumbleweed is a story Chris Simcox tells often. His office phone rings incessantly. Reporters worldwide want to hear him complain about illegal immigration into Cochise County, and about how he founded the vigilante group he calls the Civil Homeland Defense Corps. Since he bought the paper, Simcox has turned the weekly into a propaganda sheet for his group's border activities. It's a change he's proud to report. "It's been nonstop. I mean I've done hundreds and hundreds of interviews. It's working."

What's working? I ask him. What are you accomplishing?

"Getting everyone across this country to understand what's going on down here in this border. That it's ridiculous. We've been at war since 9/11 basically. We were attacked by people who came in, and then you watch what goes on in this border and you think, my God, it's a free for all. There is no real national security when you have an open border like this one here. Our government will not protect our borders. That's my number one concern."

This concern fills the 16-page paper each week. The January 30, 2003 issue is typical. The editorial complains that a couple of tourists from Oregon were unable to get the county sheriff or the Border Patrol to respond when they called after they "spotted a group of eight suspected illegals walking just off the road. . ."

Frustrated, reports Simcox, the couple came to the newspaper's office because they had heard about the Civil Homeland Defense Corps. "There are so many illegals everwhere we go," he quotes them as telling him. "We can't even take a hike anymore without running into a group. We think this will be the last time we winter here in the south near the border. Our government had better do something!"

Simcox ends his editorial with his call to action. "Sounds like it is up to us, friends, the citizens. If you don't like it or it scares you? You can hide, or run, or you can join us as the eyes and ears of the citizens who can make a difference. Civil Homeland Defense is the only immediate solution." In a following editorial he charges that five thousand "illegals" came through Cochise County while Border Patrol officers watched the Super Bowl. "Hasta la vista," he writes, "welcome to the United States. Hope you enjoyed the game."

Forty-two years old when we talk in 2003, Chris Simcox looks much younger. His office is cluttered, dominated by his computer terminal and his electronic drum set. He wears the Tombstone uniform: work shirt, blue jeans, cowboy boots.

Simcox warms to his new passion as he tells me about his "work" on the border, he's wide-eyed and excited. "I mean, granted it's, you know, the little boy with his thumb in the dike basically. But we go down to the border when we can and with however many numbers we can put together and we help patrol that border. Using the same tactics and the same procedures and the same humane interaction that the Border Patrol uses. We work shoulder to shoulder with Border Patrol. We're on Border Road, which you'll see when you go out with us. We're in our vehicles. We drive back and forth. We create a presence that says, 'There's activity here, don't come across.' " He expresses some compassion for the Mexicans he's looking for during his patrols. "They're human beings. I mean, there's a reason why they're coming across, and that's because Mexico's not taking care of their needs, their own government. I've seen people out there in bad shape. But I've also been shot at by, you know, drug dealers. There's been so many drug busts, it's incredible. Something's not right."

It's impossible to determine if Simcox has slowed migration from Mexico, but he has managed to disrupt life in Tombstone. I'm staying at Curley Bill's Bed & Breakfast ("The Best and the BADDEST in Tombstone! Wyatt Earp Slept Here -- You Can Too!!!"), a few blocks across town from the Tombstone Tumbleweed offices. I get in late in the evening, but Larry "Curley Bill" Alves is still up, offers me a glass of wine (red or white) from the two boxes lined up on the top shelf of the refrigerator, and wants to talk as soon as he hears why I've come to town.

"His military training was in the Boy Scouts," Alves is disgusted with Simcox's talk about guns and shooting. "I'm a conservative Republican, but I'm an ex-senior non-com in Vietnam. He's a little kid who never got to play soldier as a kid." Alves sees a direct relationship between his bed and breakfast business and Simcox's ability to draw national news coverage. "This militia stuff hurts tourism. People in this town don't like this at all."

At breakfast the next morning Alves's wife, Sally, continues the assault on the new guy in town and his antics. "Local people are sick of listening to all that crap," she says about Simcox's tirades in his newspaper. "If you could still run people out of town on a rail, he'd be run out of town on a rail. I've had a couple of people cancel reservations, afraid Simcox and his group were walking around with assault rifles and camouflage. It's too bad when a guy doing something bad owns the town's newspaper."

"Are you a hero?" I ask Simcox the next day. "Are you a villain? Is the town divided? Are they behind you?"

"Oh, I'd say there's a division," he admits. "The people along Allen Street, the business owners, certainly are unsure because this town survives on tourism. They don't want to do anything that's going to rock the boat or potentially hurt tourism." But he's convinced Sally's cancellations are not his fault. "This does not hurt tourism," he says about his Civil Homeland Defense Corps. "This has not changed this town at all. In fact, with the amount of people that come in that door wanting to meet me, from other places, we're attracting tourists." He laughs. "So we've helped the town."

No question Simcox is generating attention. The day he and I talk there is a reporter from Newsday in town looking for him and he's waiting anxiously for a camera crew from HBO that he's expecting wants to film him for a documentary about the border.

"We do nothing but identify where they're coming across," Simcox is now explaining his tactics. Days before we talk he and one of his troopers were arrested by a National Park Ranger for straying onto federal land at the border. The specific charges were carrying a loaded weapon inside a National Park and interfering with law enforcement. Rangers confiscated Simcox's patrolling gear: a pistol, two-way radios, a police radio scanner, a mobile telephone and a camera.

"Why were you armed?" I ask him.

"I'm always armed."


"Why? Because it's my Second Amendment right. The US Constitution and the Arizona State Constitution give us rights to keep and bear arms. I have a concealed weapons permit. I refuse to be a victim. I've had now eight death threats since I've started this. So, you know, I'm not going to be a victim." He laughs.

"It's my right, and that's enough said right there. I have a right to be armed. We, the people who volunteer, choose to be armed or not." He says all the volunteers carrying weapons along the border pass a proper gun safety class and hold a concealed weapons permit. They know the law. They're responsible citizens. We're not out there threatening people, which is why we conceal our weapons. We're not out there looking for trouble."

Simcox claims he stumbled onto the National Park land by accident during one of his routine patrols.

"If we see any crossings we let the Border Patrol know right away. We just do nothing but report the crossings and the illegal activity, at the encouragement of President Bush. That's what he's encouraged Americans to do for a year now, to report suspicious illegal activity. And you can't find anything more suspicious and illegal than coming across our border. That's all we do. We're neighborhood watch volunteers."

The Border Patrol is less enthusiastic. "As long as they don't impede our duties in the field, we don't really deal with them," is the official response from the US Border Patrol's Tucson sector spokesman Frank Amarillas.

Chris Simcox has no military experience and no police background. It's a lapse he regrets. "I do come from a family that always gave its service to its country, okay? We love our country, we're willing to fight for it. I've lived in New York most of my adult life. I have seen so much crime and so many people who come here from other parts of the world who commit crimes." As he quickly skips through his biography, Simcox highlights an event that may well explain his fixation about Mexicans coming across the border.

"I've been a victim of crime by a guy who didn't speak English in New York City. I was mugged."

I point out the fact that just because the guy didn't speak English doesn't mean he wasn't born in Manhattan.

"True. True. It's just a crime. Crime is out of control. Drugs are out of control." Simcox quickly changes his target and blames the Federal government for failing to secure the borders, "so it's just my basic patriotic duty to do what's necessary."

Not that Simcox and his followers believe they can secure the US border with Mexico, not even just the Cochise County border with Mexico. They hope their efforts force Washington to militarize the border.

"Troops on our border," is the solution he says. Troops would create "a true sense of national security. When you talk to the folks out there that's the only thing that will deter them from coming across. We've talked to them. I talk to them all the time. The only thing, they're not afraid of us. They're not afraid of the Border Patrol. They're not afraid of anything. They're going to come in to America because we leave it wide open and it's so easy. Troops on the border would force Mexico to deal with their own people, to start spending some of its money to support the citizens of that country. Build infrastructure. Improve their cities, improve their schools, improve their education. That's why they come here, because they admire our system. Well if they admire it why the hell aren't they doing it themselves? Okay? That's frustrating. It's not our job to take care of that."

"Chris Simcox's principal malady is that he is an incurable racist," writes Miroslava Flores on the Website La Voz de Aztlan. Another La Voz de Aztlan writer identifies Simcox as a "vigilante thug calling for anti-Mexican armed militia."

Not so, Simcox protests to me. "Since when do your nationalistic views and your patriotism and your wanting to provide security for your neighbors and fighting crime make you a racist? Okay?"

He insists he's not a vigilante. "A vigilante is someone who is judge, jury and executioner basically. Someone who certainly takes the law into his own hands. We don't. We report illegal activity, that's it. That's all we do. And we create a deterrent to anyone who would break the laws of coming across that border."

Despite his protestations, when I first called his office to arrange a meeting with Simcox, his assistant said he couldn't come to the phone because he was keeping Mexicans he suspected of being in the US illegally in place under a Tombstone tree while a colleague tried to summon the Border Patrol.

"We do not apprehend." It's obviously a matter of definition. "We locate. We don't hold 'em. We just follow 'em. We give the Border Patrol the coordinates of where these people are, whoever they may be." He insists he doesn't discriminate against Mexicans. "We have turned in people from Poland, from Germany, from Spain, from China, from all over the world. I don't care who's on the other side of that border, if they're coming in to America illegally. Okay? ."

Chris Simcox tells me he knows what to look for when he patrols the border. "People who've entered this country illegally, it's quite obvious, most of the time." Of course even trained Border Patrol officers make identification mistakes. The mayor of a Los Angeles suburb - Latino, but a native US citizen -- was famously picked up in an INS raid and Cheech Marin starred in a tragic comedy about such a false arrest, Born in East L.A. Doesn't he risk making an embarrassing mistake: tracking a US citizen -- maybe even a loyal Tombstone Tumbleweed subscriber -- and calling the Border Patrol out to deport him or her.

"I don't risk anything," he insists.

"You risk fingering some guy who's your neighbor and a potential advertiser and subscriber."

"So what? So what? They get their feelings hurt, they can go see their therapist. We're at a time of war. I sat atop those World Trade Center buildings. People come back and forth across that border all the time."

I remind Simcox that the 9/11 hijackers all came into the US legally. They flew into US airports, they didn't cross the Arizona desert by foot.

"Yes, the INS should be cleaned out. But we seal our borders first. And maybe a little bit of isolationism is okay for awhile."

"Or not possible in this world today," I suggest.

"No, it's possible. If we can send two hundred thousand troops across the world, it's possible to shut down those borders, I'm sorry. I don't accept that at all. I've said that many times. For my government to tell me that with all of the equipment and all of the troops we have that they can't do anything about this border? I don't accept that."

Chris Simcox walks out of his office with me into the bright Arizona sun. He poses for a photograph in front of the paper's sign ("The official newspaper of the Town Too Tough To Die!"), crossing his arms and looking severe and concerned. "You're giving your patriotic self-important look, huh?" I suggest. He just looked at the camera.