My First Customer: Karl Beilby
Karl Beilby in the Pech River Valley, Afghanistan (2010)
The feeling of the first sale is pretty incredible.
In the startup of any business, however, there are a mountain of tasks to accomplish before you get that first coveted purchase. Countless late nights spent fine-tuning your product, learning everything at a rapid pace, and moving forward despite a never ending supply of gnawing little setbacks.
Ups and downs, enthusiasm and anxiety, and pep talks in the mirror. It all characterizes those first several months.
My company is ChummyVet Apparel. I create custom designs celebrating the experiences of the military community, mostly the 9/11 generation.
If ChummyVet Apparel has a mission statement it is:
My designs are funny (at least I think they are) and are intended to allow veterans the opportunity to recognize each other "out in the wild" even if others don’t quite get the punchline.
These products allow veterans the opportunity to strike up a conversation, one that starts with a jovial, as opposed to somber or overly reverent, pretext.
I launched the company from my garage on a hot Texas night in August. The new normal of COVID had me climbing the walls and ChummyVet was my outlet. I clicked a single button on the laptop and my store was live - the digital doors were open. A single social media post went out to friends on Facebook announcing my store’s presence.
I brought the laptop into my house and sat on the couch where my wife was waiting for me.
“I am up on the site, babe.”
Atta boys and high fives ensued. Let’s be real folks, a small business is a family affair and my wife has been my biggest and most fervent supporter.
And then, rather anti-climatically, we waited, and waited some more.
But then, I got my first real SALE!
"KARL BEILBY - 1 Shirt, 1 Mug. Smokin the Hindu Kush with Willie Pete"
My wife tilted her head back and wheezed with laughter. I stood up and started fist pumping the air! Dancing in the living room ensued.
Now Karl is a true friend, and I will introduce you to him, my first customer, in a moment, but what I found so ironic about the order was the product design Karl chose.
I thought no one would ever buy a product with this particular design. It was my very first design, my first stab at a creative effort.
The dual meaning of Hindu Kush is an inside joke to anyone that has deployed to Eastern Afghanistan. The design is referring to the beautiful Hindu Kush Mountain Range - not a marijuana strain someone might initially think. “Willie Pete” is military euphemism for White Phosphorous, a munition type known for its intense incendiary qualities.
The design features a mortarman holding a 120 millimeter round on his shoulder, a smoking mortar tube and mountain silhouette are in the background. If you were a soldier or marine that lived on an outpost in the Hindu Kush Mountains, a mortar crew conducting a fire mission was a daily, evenly hourly occurrence. With limited air support, it was mortarmen who kept a determined Taliban enemy at bay.
Karl’s purchase was a heart-warming validation of what I was doing. And, of course, it had to be Karl, who in so many ways personifies the “Chumminess” of ChummyVet Apparel who made this first order.
Please let me introduce you to my first customer.
I assure you, that this was in no way orchestrated. The irony of all of this, is perhaps as unique as Karl himself.
At 17 years old, Karl Beilby left Manchester, England and immigrated to the United States. It was the Spring of 1982.
Karl had stereotypical immigrant characteristics, including a mere $200 in his pocket and a cardboard suitcase. Of all the places to go, Karl wound up in Big Bear Lake, California.
It was the idyllic setting for a teenager to pursue his version of the American dream. He was a stone’s throw from Hollywood, and he was surrounded by beauty in the form of ski-able mountains and American girls.
But Karl also came to the United States to work.
The teenager from Northern England hustled seven days a week bagging groceries, landing construction gigs, and washing dishes every night at a restaurant where Los Angeles tourists spent their vacation dollars.
At 19, Karl-the-Ski-instructor met his future wife, a nice American girl Christine, and they fell in love.
Karl and Christine at Big Bear (1984)
Karl soon traveled “down the mountain” into Orange County, taking a job in retail at a Nordstroms Department store. Entering his 20s, he married, and within a few years the father-to-be found himself making a career move - into Law Enforcement.
In 1990, Karl Beilby graduated from the Police Academy and began patrolling Santa Ana. For those that reside in LA, you know Santa Ana isn’t exactly the Hamptons. Still in his probationary year, rookie policeman Beilby found himself in one of the most dangerous precincts in the United States. He experienced his first shooting within a year of donning the blue uniform.
One of the least desirable sectors of Orange County, however, offered plenty of overtime opportunities for Karl, the young Dad with a hefty mortgage. Again, Karl found himself working seven days a week. Even when the Beilby family found spare time to vacation in Big Bear, Karl was picking up extra cash as a ski instructor. The family was making it all work, living in Laguna Beach, and working and playing hard to sustain their Southern California lifestyle.
Karl on night patrol duty in Santa Ana, California (mid-90s)
Karl loved police work, and after five years on patrol, he began working in various undercover capacities snuffing out gang activity, narcotics, and weapons crimes throughout Santa Ana.
He found a thrill, an energy, in helping people. He often worked 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., but as Karl would note, rarely did his shift end at 2 a.m. He remained on the scene of a shooting or domestic violence incident many nights til 5 a.m.
He then would drive across the zip codes towards Dana Point, where given what Karl had experienced in those chaotic night shifts, the sunrise and promise of a new day made him appreciate his family and his home all the more. Karl witnessed the stark differences of brutality and blessings nearly every 24 hours.
After 15 years with the Santa Ana PD, a routine medical appointment revealed that Karl had high blood pressure. Karl was forced to take a “less intense” assignment investigating welfare fraud in San Bernardino. After a few years, Karl found himself bored, itching to return to a more fulfilling law enforcement role.
A chance encounter with a fellow police veteran-turned-overseas-contractor in Iraq, got Karl interested in the role of the Law Enforcement Professional (LEP).
It was 2009, and increasingly, the need for Law Enforcement expertise in Iraq and Afghanistan was apparent. The US military was stretched across two continents fighting non-conventional enemies amidst a backdrop of criminality. Karl figured his role as LEP might be a way to not only serve the country that had provided him and his family so much, but also give him a chance to regain a sense of adventure.
Karl signed on the dotted line and traveled to Fort Benning, Georgia. There he was issued US Army uniforms and a firearm. After a short “train up” he got on a plane bound for Afghanistan.
It is important to understand that Karl was a contractor and not officially a member of the United States military. Most contract companies supporting military missions were not allowed to wear US uniforms or carry US Army weapons. The contracting company that Karl worked for, MPRI, was different. Karl was fully embedded in the army unit he was assigned to. With the exception of a burly beard, he looked the part of a soldier.
My Time with Karl
I first met Karl in 2009.
Like most contractors, the 46-year-old retired police officer arrived to Camp Blessing, emerging from the belly of a Chinook helicopter. He dragged his gear up the hill from the Helicopter Landing Zone (HLZ) to our quaint operations center - it used to be an Afghan school - and reported for duty.
Our sector included the infamous Korengal and Pech Valley River Valleys of Kunar Province. Historically this is where envoys of the British Empire, a young Winston Churchill, and before that, Rudyard Kipling, served the Crown.
More recently, it was where SEAL and Lone Survivor Marcus Luttrell evaded capture and where Sebastian Junger embedded with Task Force Rock from the 173rd Airborne. The latter showcased to people back home what life was truly like in combat and from the lens of soldiers defending OP Restrepo.
We were part of an 800 person Task Force, 2-12 Infantry Battalion (Lethal Warriors). We were part of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Mountain Warriors) out of 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado.
Our unit worked with all facets of special operations entities in this beautiful region, including “other” government agencies that make up the US and Coalition intelligence services operating abroad. This, after all, was the cradle of the Jihad, where Arab extremists pumped money and propaganda onto young Taliban fighters, recruiting them to fight Americans.
"The setting is gorgeous...and then you get shot at," was a go-to quote for soldiers explaining this corner of the world to anyone passing through.
Threats of overrunning a US outpost of soldiers and marines were very real at this time - the height of the Afghan Surge. COP Keating (just to our north in Kamdesh) had nearly been overrun in October of 2009 just before Karl joined our unit.
We were gearing up for another series of Afghan Elections and tensions were high. Taliban fighters freely moved into and out of our sector, shooting indirect fire at us from naturally fortified positions high above the roadways and villages.
I was the 27 year old Intelligence Officer (the S-2) and I was in over my head every day. I tried to keep my composure, but fighting season was taking its toll. Everyday was a sprint. We had already endured our share of battlefield casualties, including a 19-year-old soldier who was shot and killed on Pech River Road even before we had formally adopted the battlespace from the outgoing unit.
Putting in the Work
As I would soon happily discover, Karl was not a battlefield tourist.
He did not want to just collect a paycheck, snap photos for a magazine article, or otherwise sit on the Camp. Karl was there to work - to assist in training and equipping the local police to do a tough job.
He joined up with a tight knit group of other LEPs that included a retired US Marshal and DEA agent. Karl spent hundreds of hours immersing himself with the Afghan National Police and sanctioned militia forces. He built close friendships among his trainees and shared a perspective of the local Pashtun fabric many of the ‘green suitors’ were too busy to fully recognize.
Karl and I with the Afghan National Police (2010)
Late into the evenings Karl brought that perspective into the intelligence process. He and I studied the insurgency together and broke bread with our Afghan counterparts, drinking hundreds of glasses of chai tea. We ate mounds of stringy fried chicken and mutton ribs (Karl’s favorite).
Our go-to joke with most Afghans, was “I don’t understand how you guys can have 3 or 4 wives, I can only deal with the one!” It always got a laugh. Despite the jokes with our Afghan police and army brothers, we had a deep respect for these men. They had endured the Soviet Occupation and were trying to defend their families against the Taliban.
When you deal with Pasthun people, one thing to appreciate is their fierce sense of loyalty, but you have to earn it. Karl’s fun-loving demeanor and patience did just that. Soon intelligence came pouring into our operations center.
Instead of finding roadside bombs by driving over them, a simple ‘tip line’ phone call to our interpreters provided us pinpoint details of its location. All the technology in the world is no match for basic boots-on-ground police work.
Karl soon embedded with our Human Intelligence Teams and began to augment our organic intelligence with powerful context - actionable information that filled critical gaps. Karl became a mentor to me and others. I was growing more confident, owning the intelligence picture, able to prioritize what was truly critical over the noise. And I learned a lot about Karl that year.
He was a natural storyteller - full of material.
Imagine a bearded cop with a British accent sharing stories about policing the mean streets of Santa Ana to a bunch of 20-something infantrymen. He captivated those who were far from their home, many outside of the US for the first time. They were experiencing trauma, boredom, as well as the highs and lows of combat. He was a father figure to many men that grew up without one.
How does a kid growing up in the pub culture of Manchester, end up a California ski instructor, then a cop, and then a civilian running around Afghanistan with an infantry battalion. How does that happen?
Karl brought levity to our lives. I can only imagine that sense of humor, that perspective, came from years spent immersed in the chaotic nightlife of Santa Ana.
When you are running the gauntlet of Pech River Road, staying up til all hours, and getting shot at, your professional filters tend to fade and outright go away.
And that's when you really get to know people. And I certainly got to know Karl.
Karl had a dog, Chubbs, that liked to chew on his wife and daughter’s underwear. He would erupt with laughter as he described wrestling a pair of sheer panties from the death grip of his Basset Hound.
It’s not easy for a civilian to blend into and become accepted by a group of battle hardened soldiers. But Karl Beilby had that fun-loving personality and an innate set of soft skills to do just that.
Karl spoke often of his wife and three children.
He was incredibly proud to have his eldest son, Jaime, at the US Air Force Academy and another son, Blake, joining the Air Force as an elite pararescueman. Karl’s youngest, Missy, a hard working student athlete, was bound for San Diego University.
As parents, Christine and Karl would soon be empty nesters, but Karl had no intention of slowing down. He enjoyed the thrill of an adventure and the mission in Afghanistan provided him a renewed sense of purpose.
As a civilian contractor, Karl gave our Task Force another special kind of superpower. Restrictive rules of the times meant our unit was not permitted to enter Afghan houses under the Rules of Engagement (ROE).
The optics of US soldiers searching homes was deemed “too counter” to our mission of winning the locals’ hearts and minds. But being a civilian, Karl could search homes with the local Afghan police to “oversee” their actions.
Karl thrived in the grey area - and we regularly exercised him in this capacity. Karl gingerly jumped in and out of gun trucks and buzzed around the sector’s villages, providing his unique brand of services to go where a lot of us couldn’t.
And Karl was having the time of his life.
Karl on patrol in Pech River Valley (2010)
When it was time for 2-12 Infantry to go home in summer of 2010, Karl, being Karl, decided to stay on.
He felt obligated to assist the new unit, 1-327 Infantry out of the 101st Airborne Division (the Screaming Eagles) with a year-long tough mission that was just starting.
Karl would be a trusted guide to a fresh group of soldiers and battalion staff, bridging the knowledge gap and helping them navigate the complex human terrain of the region. As had happened with our battalion, the 101st quickly realized the value of LEP Beilby and heavily involved Karl in all aspects of their operations.
Operation Bulldog Bite
By November 2010, Karl found himself hiking up and down the mountain trails of the Watapur Valley, participating in the final phase of Operation Bulldog Bite. Most of the soldiers Karl embedded with were more than 20 years his junior.
For the multi-phased operation, 1-327 Infantry and soldiers from the 75th Ranger Regiment were to clear Al Qaeda and Taliban training camps in the western part of their sector - a long known waypoint for fighters streaming in from Pakistan.
Karl spent four exhausting days in skirmishes with the Taliban. The enemy owned the high ground. On November 11th, Karl and four other soldiers literally had to bound down the mountain as the Taliban pursued them.
In that instance, Karl watched four Taliban fighters with RPGs on their shoulders, running along a mountain trail across the valley at warp speed. It was surreal to finally see the elusive enemy in the flesh moving so swiftly in those mountains. Karl and the soldiers, bogged down with body armor and assault packs, watched in awe as the Taliban fighters sprinted effortlessly over goat trails. It was like watching an Olympic event.
The US soldiers did find one of the training camps, an abandoned set of Qalats. The enclave of rock homes included a firing range, a room full of weapons and a box full of brand new Korans. The soldiers also uncovered a stockpile of first aid equipment. The Taliban, funded by Arab extremists, used this area as a waypoint to train and plan for attacks on US convoys and outposts in the region.
Over the four days of the operation, Karl and the US soldiers would move with the assistance of close air support. But, as soon as the Apache or Kiowas helicopter would head off to refuel or support other units, the soldiers were immediately shot at from naturally fortified positions high above them.
Amidst the daytime gunfire, soldiers would have to hunker in place, unable to maneuver. The platoon would then have to wait for the sun to go down and under the cover of darkness, and with the aid of night vision, move closer to their objectives. And then in the morning, about 11 a.m., they would be pinned down again by Taliban gunfire, the enemy having discovered the platoon’s new whereabouts.
By mid-day, on day four, November 14th, the men were exhausted and ready to be extracted back to their outposts. Just before 3 p.m., Karl’s element formed a small perimeter on a rock outcropping overlooking the Watapur Valley below them. Karl was resting against a tree with a group of 21 soldiers augmented by Afghan National Army troops.
And then, right at 3 p.m., the first RPG exploded near their position and knocked Karl flat on his side.
Hell Breaks Loose
The platoon was immediately hit from all directions, with plunging PKM and AK-47 fires reigning down on them from multiple Taliban positions. They were pinned down in a cacophony of gunfire and grenades. This was different from the skirmishes of the last few days. This was a coordinated attack with unrelenting, sustained fire. It was as if the enemy knew, this day, after 96 hours of exhausting operations, was the time to strike before they missed their chance.
The 101st soldiers struggled to return fire after the first concussive blast. As they did begin engaging enemy positions in the high ground above, they immediately began sustaining injuries. Soldiers were clipped by rounds left and right.
A soldier next to Karl groaned in pain when his trigger finger was shot off in the melee. Without much choice, the injured soldier switched his machine gun over to the other side of his body and began firing with the opposite hand.
For twenty minutes, with no air support, the soldiers defended their small outcropping, bullets continuing to reign down on them. Karl was providing suppressive fire from behind a small tree about 12” wide. There were too many targets and Karl was quickly going "black" on ammo, using up his ten 30 round magazines.
Karl, noticing a soldier near him shot in the shoulder, moved quickly from his covered position to render aid.
As Karl unpacked a field dressing to apply to the wounded trooper, a bullet tore into Karl’s lower back, traversed his intestines, fractured his left hip, and exited his lower stomach. The power of the AK round twisted Karl forward with cyclical momentum and knocked him to the ground.
Specialist Jessie Snow watched Karl lurch forward into the ground.
Jessie, exposing himself to enemy fire, quickly crawled to Karl and the other wounded soldier’s position. Jessie moved to Karl with complete disregard for his own safety.
The young soldier immediately packed Karl’s gunshot wounds, curtailing the bleeding. Then an enemy round struck 25 year old Jessie in the head. The soldier from Ohio instantly went instantly limp on top of Karl, the life leaving the young man’s body.
Karl and Jessie Snow (sitting) during Bulldog Bite (November 13th, 2010)
Karl, in a state of shock, began to gather his bearings. Realizing they had no choice but to move from their now exposed position, Karl and the soldier who had been shot through his shoulder, frantically crawled 20 feet to a defilade position, rounds kicking up the soil all around them.
Other members of the platoon were laying flat in this 1 foot deep hole, attempting to stay covered. Karl lay on his back as bullets whizzed by his nose clipping the rock faces and dirt around his head. He could feel the blood from his exit wound seeping into his pant leg, pooling around his groin.
Karl realized within the first few minutes of being shot, that the round had not hit the femoral artery. But as the minutes turned into hours, Karl felt himself going in and out of consciousness from loss of blood. Had Jessie not packed his wound, he would certainly be dead.
It had been three and half hours since Karl was shot. The husband and father of three felt his luck - his life - leaving him in those moments. Karl was facing his mortality. "This is it," he thought to himself.
As the sun set, I have to wonder if Karl’s mind went back to his Southern California backyard and the serenity of the days ending on Laguna Beach.
Hallelujah, the Air Force Shows Up.
As the day turned to night, the evacuation helicopters arrived, the Alaska Air National Guard to be precise!
How fitting that the Air Force crew wore the same service uniform as Karl’s two sons. A couple of pararescuemen, PJs, amid continued enemy gunfire, risked life and limb to hoist over 30 wounded soldiers into the sky.
Second in priority, Karl was strapped into a flat gurney attached to a hovering Blackhawk. As the PJ tied him into the flat board, the enemy began firing at both the hovering helicopter and the dangling Karl Beilby.
As his weight caught the hoist, Karl was immediately flipped over. He was facing the ground hoping he had been tied in sufficiently.
And then Karl began to spin.
Karl watched the valley in a nauseating blur below him.
The rock faces and valley crevasses gradually got further and further away as he was hoisted several hundred feet into the air. It felt like an eternity as Karl's body pressed hard against the straps of basket gurney.
All gravitational forces wanted to push Karl back towards the earth.
Finally, the PJs pulled Karl into the aircraft and flew him to Asadabad, the first surgical facility in vicinity of the US outposts. He then endured the process of leap-frogging to larger and larger medical facilities all the way to Bagram Air Base. There he was put into a medically induced coma and rushed into surgery.
The Road Home
Sitting in my house - far from Kunar Province - the phone range.
It was Cadet Jaime Beilby, Karl’s son just up the road at the Air Force Academy.
I had lunch with Jaime some weeks before in Colorado Springs. Karl had helped construct our introduction over email and it was endearing to link up with a young officer-in-training. Jaime was a spitting image of his Dad. Over a burger, I could not help but chuckle at how much he looked like Karl.
On the other end of the phone, Jaime was frantic.
“I am not sure who else to call! My Dad’s been shot in Afghanistan. Ryan, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know who else to call.”
It was one of those moments where your heart sinks, where time stops.
I began calling anyone I knew at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky where the 101st is headquartered.
And despite being in the comforts of my own home, I was the Battalion S-2 again. I was in full intel-gathering mode.
The 101st had endured one of its worst days in the Global War on Terror, and rightly so, the rear echelon was worried about revealing the wrong information about the status of a soldier to their loved ones.
The fog of war was stretching across the ocean. Six soldiers were dead, and over 30 were wounded as a result of Operation Bulldog Bite. Despite the rules against it, a rear detachment soldier revealed Karl’s injuries to me and that he was stabilized. At least I could relay that news to Jaime. His Dad was going to be okay.
When he woke up in Germany at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, several of the 101st soldiers who had been out there on the mission with Karl, also wounded, congregated in his hospital room. There was a heartwarming exchange of laughter.
Karl in Bagram Air Base Hospital (November 2010)
The meeting was one only men who endure the realities of combat, and the surrealness of being MEDEVAC’d out of a war zone, can truly appreciate. They had been through hell together, lost friends, and in the process were happy to have survived.
Within a couple weeks, in a wheelchair, Karl was reunited with his family at a California airport. There was fanfare and tears among the Beilby family, happy to have a husband and father safe and at home.
After a month of in-home nurse care, Karl endured his own version of recovery. He spent another 60 days working up his stamina, and then, went back to work.
Against doctor’s orders, Karl went to Fort Irwin, California where he prepared both LEPs and Army units-enroute-to-Afghanistan for their upcoming deployments. Every month, a Brigade Combat Team would rotate through the national training center gleaning lessons-learned from Karl and a team of trainers.
For months, Karl battled recurring infections from his injuries, and admittedly, he finally acknowledged he was overdoing it.
After working so many ‘night-shift’ years in law-enforcement, a year away in Afghanistan, and then months on end in Fort Irwin, Karl decided to spend more time at home with his family.
Karl and his family. Hall of Heroes in the Pentagon (2015)
A year after Karl was shot on a mountainside in Afghanistan, he sat in a tattoo parlor in California. The 47-year-old watched with a mix of emotions as the artist etched a soldier's memorial to Jessie Snow onto Karl's back, above the bullet entry scar. A pair of empty boots and a rifle stuck in the ground with Jessie Snow's name across the top.
To this day, I have never heard Karl talk about the young man from Ohio who saved his life, without also talking about Jessie’s parents. He is quick to remind me of their sacrifices as a family and the gift of their son, Army Specialist Jessie Adam Snow.
Jessie in the Pech River Valley (2010)
Reconnecting with Karl
Through this little retail shop, I have had an opportunity to reconnect with Karl. We unpacked our deployment history together, caught up on our families and plans for the future. It’s a bond that feels familial, full of ribbing and laughter.
When Karl asked me what my goal was with my business, my response was simple:
“I want to connect and talk with people like you.”
I’m not sure that would make ‘bottom-dollar’ sense to a business school professor, but for me - and I believe for Karl - it seems to make perfect sense.
So many people I served with in the military are "ordinarily extraordinary" human beings. They have incredible stories, families, and an enduring sense of humor that belies an intense sense of honor.
Karl Beilby, my first customer, is no exception.
A day after a long phone call with Karl, where he described to me his worst day, I was ruminating on his experience and some of my own.
Frankly, I was feeling a little down. And then Karl sent me this photo.
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