- Associated Press - Sunday, January 3, 2016

MARQUETTE, Mich. (AP) - Two men roared up in a truck, slammed on the brakes, kicked opened the doors and started firing their guns until they were empty.

When the shooting stopped, the man training them headed past the wood-and-paper targets they were shredding, over to the truck. You wouldn’t know from his walk that his knee had been injured while parachuting into battle, or that his spine was damaged by an explosion.

His assessment was blunt. “That is way, way too lackadaisical,” 32-year-old Louis Cote told them.

He was standing at the edge of a shallow pit at a clearing in the forest, according to the Detroit Free Press ( https://on.freep.com/1QooLBU ). Hundreds of bullet casings and spent shotgun shells were scattered in the dirt around him. “And be aggressive about getting out of there,” he hollered. The trainees got back in the truck to run through the drill again.

This was a typical meeting of the War Club, a small, exclusive group that gathers regularly at a secret location in the woods outside Marquette to train in hand-to-hand combat, perform extreme physical drills, practice emergency medical treatment and fire hundreds of rounds at crude targets. They do this, they say, to stay prepared, to keep sharp, to be ready for the day when all hell breaks loose.

“It’s even more important now because of the kinds of things that are happening now with the active shooters and terrorist attacks,” said Jason Hubble, the group’s 40-year-old public affairs officer. “People probably thought we were a little crazy thinking about that stuff, training for things like this. But it’s very relevant now. And I want to train because I know the evil that’s out there, and I want to be prepared for when that happens.”

For some people, a group doing paramilitary training in the woods might conjure images of the militias that sprang up in Michigan during the 1990s, usually with an ideology based on a devotion to gun rights and a fear of the federal government.

But despite the outward impression, War Club is not a militia, its members stress. They’re not anti-government. They aren’t against the authorities.

In fact, they are the authorities.

Almost all of them are cops. Nearly all are military veterans. Three earned Purple Hearts fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. And for many of them just back from fighting overseas, War Club fills a need.

“There’s a huge camaraderie when you’re in the military with other military people,” said Hubble, a veteran and former cop who’s now an officer with the Michigan Department of Corrections. “You don’t really understand it until you leave and come back to civilian life, and you realize what you’ve lost. And it’s hard to get that back.”

They think they’ve come close to recreating that in War Club. Now they’re working to spread the group to other states. And there are a lot of guys who ask to join.

“This is the closest thing to a brotherhood that I have experienced since leaving the military, and the other members have told me the same thing,” Cote said, as the truck came roaring around again in a shower of gravel and dirt and gunfire.

“We are not a rod and gun club. We are not some silly militia. We’re a brotherhood.”

The first rule of War Club is: you probably can’t join War Club.

The membership rules are strict. Applicants can join only by invitation. They must be cops or veterans, with rare exceptions. They must be licensed to carry a concealed weapon. They must undergo a number of background checks. Then they train for months with no guarantee of membership until the entire board of the club votes on letting them join. And that vote must be unanimous.

Even then, members can be kicked out for a number of reasons at any time.

“We have extremely high standards of conduct 24-7-365,” Cote said. “So if you were to misbehave in public you’d be kicked out of the club immediately. Like if you got a DUI, even if you got arrested for it and weren’t convicted. Or if you were running around downtown with your shirt off, or if you did something in public that, let’s say, your mom wouldn’t be proud of.”

Those standards have kept the group under the radar. Blake Reiboldt, the chief of the Marquette Police Department, hadn’t heard of them and didn’t know if any of his officers might be in the group. But he noted that groups of men getting together to shoot guns in the woods is hardly unusual in the U.P.

“Some guys like to ride dirt bikes, there’s guys who like to carve wood ducks. Guys have a lot of different hobbies,” Reiboldt said. “A lot of people enjoy the shooting sports. And we have a lot of vets coming home and they still enjoy that aspect of their training and experience. If they enjoy doing it on the weekends I don’t see it as a big issue.”

War Club actively recruits, but membership here in Michigan remains in the low dozens. Many applicants can’t make it through the rigorous training needed to join. Some vomit during the exercises. Others have passed out from fatigue. It’s a tough winnowing process that keeps membership numbers low.

“I’d like to have a chapter in every state,” Cote said. “But we are not going to lower our standards to accept new members just to build the club.”

Will Kooy really wants to join. A few years ago, the 38-year-old Navy vet was in Afghanistan, a guard at a prisoner detention camp. “Just like Gitmo, but in the middle of a war zone, with people trying to break in to get their buddies out, rockets and mortars coming in all the time,” he said matter-of-factly.

He’s medically retired from service now and lives in nearby Skandia. Before the war, he said, he’d always thought soldiers with PTSD were weak. “Didn’t believe in it, to be honest with you,” he said. “I was like, ‘The guy just wasn’t strong enough mentally.’ “

But after training to be always alert, to notice every suspicious flinch of a bystander, he found when he came home that it was impossible to dial down those heightened senses.

“If I were to go into a Target or a Walmart or anything like that I couldn’t figure it out at first, but I would throw up on the floor,” he said. “We’re trained to watch every little movement, so I’m watching some mom, seeing what’s in her hands. And all she’s got is a freaking shopping cart. I don’t need to be doing that, I know I don’t need to be doing that, but the brain, you go from a normal level of excitement to a long extended period of time you set a new level, and it just stays. You just get used to being that alert and then you can’t turn it off when you get home.”

Nobody back at home understood what this was like. But in War Club, Kooy found the company of others who know. And those shared scars draw a lot of military veterans like him to the group.

“We have a couple members that suffer from PTSD significantly,” Cote said, who met Kooy while playing in an underwater hockey league and invited him to try out for War Club. “The difference is in the civilian world they’re treated like a victim. And I’m not saying that in a negative way. But these guys from our perspective need to be treated like champions and warriors. We don’t baby them. If they need emotional support we’ll provide that. But this is a tough love they can’t get anywhere else.”

A small lawn chair sat at the edge of the shallow pit.

Cote stood next to it and explained why it was there. “You’re going to be sitting in the chair, you’re going to get pushed down from the chair, you’re going to stand up and guys are going to start pummeling you,” he said. “You’re going to have to fight back and then you’re going to have to turn around and shoot after getting the crap beat out of you.”

He spent six years in the Army as an infantryman with the 82nd Airborne and was wounded both in a parachute jump and by shrapnel in the first battle of Fallujah in Iraq. Later he served in Afghanistan, stalking the Taliban crossing into Afghanistan from Pakistan, before being medically discharged for the injuries that were piling up. Everything about Cote - his shaved head and moustache, his demeanor, his voice - says cop.

After the war, back in southern Arizona working as a cop along the Mexican border, he gathered a handful of fellow officers and veterans and started something he called the Gunfighter Games, a club where the men would practice the hard-core techniques they’d learned in war but found were becoming dulled in civilian life. The kind of things you can’t learn in the Border Patrol, for instance.

“It was a great organization with an important mission, but it had very significant lacking in regular training and consistent training,” he said. “So I started training with other agents and officers from other departments, and it bloomed from there into a full-time regular training group.”

He moved to Michigan, went to work as a cop for a couple law enforcement agencies in the Upper Peninsula and started a similar group here. This time he called it War Club, a name signifying that its purpose was not just to train, but also to recreate at home the kind of tight bonds formed in war.

“The training that we do is different in that it’s very intense, it’s very unpleasant,” Cote said. “You learn things about each other that you cannot learn in any other environment. We’re cold, we’re hungry, we’re tired, we’re wet, we’re sick. Sometimes we’re beating the crap out of each other. You don’t learn personal qualities or develop trust for people to the level that we have for one another unless you’re experiencing those things.”

___

Information from: Detroit Free Press, https://www.freep.com

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