One morning in 1984, famed firearms instructor Jeff Cooper called, suggesting that I talk to Robert Brown, publisher of Soldier of Fortune Magazine (SOF) about a semiautomatic pistol, the Bren Ten, that Jeff was promoting. Since I had contributed to SOF and participated in its matches, I ventured that I’d like to hear more.
The mission: I would go to El Salvador with an SOF team to introduce the Bren Ten to combat, then return to write an article about it. But this was SOP for SOF.
Brown later admitted, however, "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."
Much as I appreciated Jeff and Bob’s confidence, it never happened. The gun was plagued with problems that were only solved after the El Salvador option lapsed.
Nonetheless, that nascent episode represented Soldier of Fortune in microcosm: a hands-on approach to innovative, front-line journalism.
The magazine burst onto the scene in July 1975 with a format that set the trend for the next three decades. 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, Colo., Brown perceived an unfilled market and presold 4,000 subscriptions that paid for the printing of the first issue.
Billed as “The Journal of Professional Adventurers,” SOF caught on almost immediately.
The magazine recruited a network of freelance 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. SOF provided the U.S. government with its first AK-74, obtained in Afghanistan, with 5,000 rounds of ammo to boot.
A few SOFers like to portray themselves as knuckle-dragging mercs, but that’s for show. Some are deceptively accomplished individuals: One earned 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. It includes weapons maintenance, sound discipline on ambush, field medicine and sanitation. But it wasn’t all guns and gear.
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.”
In a 1986 editorial, Briown wrote, “For the last decade, I’ve hunted terrorists with the Rhodesian African rifles and fired up a Russian fort in Afghanistan with the mujahideen . . . Between firefights, takeovers and insurgencies, I manage to put out a magazine.’
He added, “We are not content to just tell the story. To the best of our ability, we also help equip, aid, and train the world’s anticommunist freedom fighters. We make no apologies about this or for our virulent anti-tyrant, anti-communist editorial stance.”
Many SOFers pursue juicy stories regardless of risk. In 1983 contributor Jim Coyne approached a notorious KGB agent known as an assassin in Thailand.
The Russian was known as “Jaws” for good reason: The U.S. embassy predicted dire consequences, especially since SOF was investigating Soviet chemical-biological weapons provided to Vietnam. Jaws glibly denied the accusation — with wink and a nod — but agreed to meet for lunch. The KGB and SOF were mutually drawn to one another.
At first Brown refused to dine with a KGB agent. But finally he went along and conducted his little corner of the Cold War in a Bangkok coffee house.
When SOF published a story about the meeting, three days later “Jaws” was recalled to Moscow. Brown subsequently got a threatening letter from him stating that he looked forward to a meeting in Central America.
Some SOF correspondents were fearless, and some paid the ultimate price.
In the first 25 years, four of the bold men who braved the most dangerous missions died in the line of duty, whether as freelance journalists or freelance 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 $25,000 in gold to a defector from Cuban intelligence, to a $1,000,000 reward for the defection of a Nicaraguan MI-24 helicopter. All the while training the Contras and Salvadorian army.
Behind the front-line reportage and splashy news coverage, SOF did something more: It supported Vietnam veterans as no other publication ever has.
That may seem natural since Brown and so many staffers are former Vietnam 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, two U.S. senators, Charlton Heston, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, among others.
Now, 35 years later, SOF and Brown 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.”
Visit Soldier of Fortune Magazine's website: http://www.sofmag.com/
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