John Zinn was a teammate of Brandon’s in SEAL Team Three. They were both California surfers with a love of entrepreneurialism, and they hit it off. After getting out of the service, John did an incredibly dangerous stint in Iraq as contract security early in the war, and the close calls he witnessed and experienced led him to design a brand new armored vehicle and, eventually, to found the hugely successful company Indigen Armor. Brandon, meanwhile, started his own venture, poured five years into it, beating off competitors and barriers on the outside and subversion from within his company—only to finally be nuisance-lawsuited out of business by the local Sierra Club rep.
Chapter 4 of Among Heroes tells the story of their friendship, their entrepreneurial struggles, and how it was John’s example that pulled Brandon through the most difficult time of his life — a few years after John’s death in Jordan in 2010.
I called the shareholders and let them know it was over. I had beaten Blackwater at their own game—and in return been beaten myself by a lady from the Sierra Club. It would have been funny if it weren’t so crushing. I had dedicated five years of my life to this idea, bolstered with the majority of my modest net worth along with a ton of money from friends and family members—and it was all gone in the blink of a court filing.
Shortly after which, my wife asked me for a divorce.
As I said, life in the teams can be brutal on relationships. Despite my having left the service five years beforehand specifically in order to be at home more and strengthen my family life, it had been too late. My marriage had become another casualty of war.
And I had to admit, it wasn’t just life as a SEAL. The fact was, I didn’t know how to make a long-term relationship work. My own parents’ marriage had become irretrievably fractured by the time I enlisted in the Navy. I thought I would be better at this than my dad, but now my own marriage hadn’t lasted even past my oldest son’s tenth birthday.
I had not succeeded in following in John’s footsteps or honoring his example … in more ways than one.
As dedicated as he was to his work, John was never the classic workaholic, sacrificing his family on the altar of his entrepreneurial dreams. I’d seen others do that. Not John. His business was always his driving passion, yet what he was most proud of and most in love with was his family, and he never let business get in the way.
But me? Here I was: savings blown; business dream up in smoke; marriage irrevocably on the rocks. Compared to this, the reign of Harvey had been a picnic. Because here, now, there was no Harvey to blame. Yes, there were villains in the picture, and I could point and say my plans had been sabotaged, both from without and within. But denial and evasion of responsibility are not part of a SEAL’s makeup. I had to face the facts: I’d brought this all on myself.
It was the lowest point of my life.
After Wind Zero died, I had no idea how to pick up the pieces and go on. There were days when the idea of packing it all in, moving to Mexico, and living the simple life on my veterans benefits sounded more tempting than I wanted it to. But I had kids here. There was no way I could walk away. Besides, giving up is something I’m just not wired to do.
And then there was John Zinn’s example to honor.
Yes, I’d just experienced a massive failure. But John had tried dozens of ideas before Indigen Armor took off. If he could keep going, so could I. …
I saw that there was no single website that served the whole Special Operations community. So I decided to start my own. I invited a few friends from different branches of the service to write for the site as well. I scraped together about ten thousand dollars and launched SOFREP.com (for Special Operations Forces Situation Report) in January 2012.
By the end of the year we had more than a million people per month hitting our site.
All the success that had failed to materialize with Wind Zero happened with SOFREP. Within a year after launch I found myself running the largest Internet site in the world devoted to Special Operations. Soon we had acquired or created more than half a dozen related web sites. We created an umbrella entity called Force12 Media to bring SOFREP and all the other properties together into one unified digital network. In just two years, Force12 Media went from a concept to a full-fledged digital-media empire.
It’s a lot of work, and it keeps me extremely busy. But not so busy that it runs my life or makes me miserable. Over the past few years, even with the craziness of Force12, I’ve also made it my business to take the time to build an excellent relationship with my ex-wife and her family, and to be there, consistently and in a big way, for our children.
That was another lesson I learned from John Zinn. Maybe the most important one of all.
After all the struggle and heartache of my failed first project, the success of Force12 Media has been a gratifying experience. There is a bittersweet note to it, though. Because I would have so loved to share the story of it all with John. I owed him that.
Photo: John Zinn as a lifeguard in high school.