Kevin Lacz joined the Navy after 9/11 expressly to become a SEAL and hunt down terrorists. He served in Iraq during the Battle of Ramadi. The city, at the time, was an insurgent stronghold, one of the most dangerous places in Iraq, and the eventual birth place of the awakening movement that turned the tide of the war.
Now he’s written a memoir of his experiences in Ramadi with SEAL Team THREE, which is set for release July 12.
In his new book, “The Last Punisher,” Lacz, his wife Lindsey, and co-author Ethan E. Rocke, recount some of Ramadi’s most dangerous days in the months leading up to Anbar Province’s storied awakening.
Lacz spoke with The Daily Caller News Foundation about some of his battle experiences in Ramadi and how they’ve shaped him up until the present.
The book mentions “killology,” that is, the idea that about 2 percent of men can kill without any psychological repercussions. After your first kill, you said you felt satisfied. Has that feeling remained in the decade since?
The killology theme, which we wanted to be the basis of “The Last Punisher,” is definitely rooted in Dave Grossman. I heard him speak in 2005 before I deployed, and what he said really resonated with me, and I thought: “Wow, there is a category that states what I am, and that makes sense to me now.”
And I saw that theme playing out among the people I worked with, and I think that’s what makes these units so dynamic and so lethal, because there are everyday human beings that present this quality that could do this job.
My time on the team was definitely a Lego block in my life that fit perfectly. Now I’m comfortable with where I’m at: a healthcare provider, a dad, a member of my community and I don’t feel any pain, like I’ve got to go back, or that I haven’t satisfied an appetite from earlier on in life.
Did you ever feel overly constrained by the rules of engagement during your time in Ramadi, especially because al-Qaida, as you noted, didn’t much care for the laws of war? Do you feel like you missed any chances because your target wasn’t carrying an AK-47?
The answer is multi-faceted. Were there missed opportunities? Absolutely. We sort of gunned down the enemy to a certain degree, but there certainly were missed opportunities in that all the rules of engagement did not allow for us to shoot some of the more suspect people we knew were ultimately bad.
The politicians spun all this rhetoric that al-Qaida lived in caves in Afghanistan, or that they lived in the sand and so they don’t know what they’re doing. But they know how to blend in with civilians.
I wanted to show how it is for a brand new guy. If you’re a brand new guy, you don’t know what to expect, but you see that progression when it comes to the mindset of shooting people, and how that changes as you become more comfortable. Looking back, I think there are opportunities that we definitely could have capitalized on, but there’s a fine line between following the rules of engagement versus putting yourself in the cross hairs of prosecution, which is very thin in war, and it’s more complex with politicians meddling in the rules of engagement and dictating how battles should be determined on the battlefield.
You were suspicious of training low-level Iraqi soldiers, known in the book as Jundis. Did you ever get the feeling that any were passing intelligence off to terrorists?
In part of the book, we talk about the Jundis and how we were handed a group of them. There’s a bonding period that has to happen. They can’t just instantly trust us, and we can’t just instantly trust them. So, there are kinks you have to work out, but we did develop a good rapport with them. You see that progression in “The Last Punisher” of how you get these guys that start out jumping over walls with AKs slapping against their chest, and by the end, on August 2nd, they’re a well-oiled machine.
That being said, you are conscious of stories that happen in different theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan of Jundis faithful to al-Qaida who turn on conventional units. I saw it in 2006 and 2008, and there were a couple of Jundis in particular we were suspicious of. We always hedged that by placing them in certain areas.
But for the most part, their leader that we had we trusted, and we had to trust them because we worked with them, but they had been vetted pretty properly. I’ve seen Marine units that suffered a different fate; they had Jundis who blew themselves up in high-level meetings. We’ve seen it in Afghanistan more so than Iraq. There are Afghan forces that have slipped on Americans, and it has been disastrous.
It’s always in the back of your mind, but we worked with these guys to a certain degree where you did trust them. I felt relatively comfortable for that period of time.
More than ever, special operators are expected to deploy in dangerous scenarios and often instead of major conventional ground forces, which is part of the reason they’ve become cultural icons and legendary figures especially over the last decade. What are your thoughts on SEALs using their experiences for commercial purposes? Are there limits?
The reason why I joined was to go down range and shoot terrorists. I can say pretty firmly that the other guys, before and after me, that’s what they wanted to do.
You have units that are ready, every single person is ready to go into the fight and potentially give up their life or their teammates or brothers. You saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, you have a full support group with conventionals and air support, which makes SEALs more effective in their jobs. When you start relying single-handedly on special operations, you miss out on the extra effectiveness you’d have with added conventional units.
So you’re relying quite a bit on smaller special operations groups. The men are definitely capable of carrying out those missions, but at the same time, you have to look at the labors of war–these units that have been constantly fighting for the last 15 years. Eventually, there’s going to be some fatigue, although replenishing ranks, we’re relying heavily on these groups to carry out tasks, especially with what’s going on in the middle of Iraq right now and across the globe.
They’re ready, but you can only ask them to do it for so long until they are going to suffer some real fatigue.
Is tribal engagement a good counterinsurgency tactic for SEAL teams, or has it not produced desired results?
It’s a leap to say it’s a one-to-one comparison: Iraq then and Iraq now. In “The Last Punisher,” we talked about tribal engagements as the models for winning western Iraq. Why that worked was because we had a robust military presence.
What was not carried out was long-term commitment in the region. Tribal engagement works because men and women are willing to sacrifice to allow stability in that region, going into these communities, building/creating common ground, developing bonds for lasting peace. That worked up until the current administration uprooted everything we had worked for and said, “Iraq is on their own, we’re just going to leave a couple of security forces in the Baghdad area.”
After you destroy that trust, rapport, blood, sweat and tear equity that you create in that region, you destroy everything that you’ve worked for. Where tribal engagements work effectively, like they did in 2006 and 2007, you have to commit long-term. And you have to commit with a larger military force.
I don’t know if the current administration is willing to do that.
You have a recurring phrase of “I hope it will always be like this” when talking about your brothers. If you got the chance to serve again now, would you take it?
We wanted “The Last Punisher” to be written not like a 34-year-old man looking back at his experience from when he was 24. I wanted to go back to that day and write it as if I was going through it in the present. I think we accomplished that. When I was there, and you get into the prologue, you can see that everything that mattered to me in life was on that rooftop and the people who I worked with.
That is such an awesome feeling and I feel like the readers will feel that when they read the book.
This is all that matters in combat: your rifle and the people right next to you. That’s it, as well as being effective when it comes to killing, targeting terrorists and doing your job. That’s all that should matter. That’s what made us lethal and the most effective killers in the world, because we had that in mind all the time. To be good at your job, this is what you need to focus on.
The decision to open all combat roles to women was opposed in particular by special operators. What’s your take?
I went into the Navy post-9/11, and I spent eight years in service. The time I spent, and the description in the book, show the team as a unit that was fighting prior to all of these changes. Changes are happening constantly in the military. To go back and say “This is how they should run it”–I don’t have a frame of reference for that because everything’s changed so much since I left, and I really wouldn’t be able to do that question justice. We describe our unit in Ramadi as being effective and the metrics stand for themselves. The changes that we helped facilitate in Ramadi helped start the domino effect of winning western Iraq. On the ground, what mattered to me was my gun and the buddies next to me. That was a long time before what’s been going on recently.
Let’s talk about life after combat. Many vets struggle trying to find the same camaraderie and the same purpose they had while in service to a clear mission. How do you bring this feeling back in the civilian world?
I didn’t feel that same, tight-knit group when I got out as when I was in the service. Your friend group shrinks the longer that you’ve been out of the military.
I found a lot of comfort with my wife. When I was in the military, she became the strongest force in my life. My communication with her has obviously grown since I got out of the military. I have seen struggles with other military guys; the military is great because it develops you to be able to work on a team, but it doesn’t develop you to be a loner.
When you get out of the military, like when I went to college, I felt like a loner because my buddies weren’t in school with me, and I was driving 40 miles to go to class with a bunch of 18 year olds. But I realized that my purpose was not to be a college student for the rest of my life. My purpose was to check this box in life, the same way I checked the box of becoming a SEAL. My end goal was to be a physician assistant. Going back to college was simply a step in that process. I had to have my mission to carry that on.
I said, “This sucks now but there’s eventually a light at the end of the tunnel and I’ve got to get there.” I think a lot of veterans don’t look at life as a mission anymore. They get out of the military, and they say, “this is my life,” and they don’t have that mission-oriented mindset that they had in the platoons, companies and teams, and so they falter or fall in a rut. I wanted “The Last Punisher” and my story to be about how I was able to go into Ramadi and complete the mission, and then transition into civilian life.
When you tell your story and find like-minded people, it’s easier to hit the goals in your mission.
What kind of role did Lindsey, your wife, play in writing “The Last Punisher”?
Everyone says you know when you find the right one. Well, when I met Lindsey, I spent a four-day weekend with her and within two-and-a-half weeks, I flew one way to Jacksonville, Fla., to pick her up and move her to San Diego.
So when it came time, not even to write the book, but thinking about the book, she kind of got the ball rolling. She said you’ve got a pretty good story and we should tell it.
She breathed some life into the book because it came across as your typical SEAL book, but she added the personality and drew out more emotion than I guess I was willing to give, not because I didn’t want to, but because I wasn’t asking the right questions or thinking about it from the right angle. So having her as part of the book I think was instrumental in getting the story out and also tailoring it in such a way that it wasn’t your conventional military memoir. I personally would say the book would not be as close to as good as it was had it not been for her.
It’s like when you’re in a writing course and somebody blocks off a paragraph and writes, “more.” She would say, “More details. What do you feel here?” I’m kind of a perfectionist and that sucks when writing a book, and she just said to write how you feel, just write everything down.
It gave me the confidence to go all in while talking about and writing down those experiences and feelings.
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