“The cornerstone of any COIN effort is establishing security for the civilian populace. Without a secure environment, no permanent reforms can be implemented and disorder spreads.”—U. S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual No. 3-24
Somewhere in Silicon Valley . . .
You’re not sure how life took you here. A few years back, you walked point on combat patrols through the gnarliest, darkest shadows of the war, always with a sleek, black rifle pressed tight against your shoulder. Thirty golden rounds of ammunition just a trigger squeeze away. Platoon mates at your back ready to carry out foreign policy through sheer force. Seventy-five or so pounds of equipment packed on your body, holding water and extra ammo and that medical kit you never wanted to use but did, because the moment came for you and you did what you’d been trained for.
That was then. Now? “Go,” you instruct the techies, in their plaid shirts and pastel Converses. It’s a bright autumn day in California. The traffic light has changed; the cars have stopped. “Cross the street.”
They’re not techies, you correct yourself. Most of them are software engineers. More than anything, they’re clients. They’re customers. You’re glad to be here, not on crosswalk duty, exactly, but at the job in general. It’s good, honest work, and it pays well. You have benefits and steady hours. You know how hard it is to find such a gig after the military. Turns out American employers tend not to value skills like walking point on combat patrols in the most dangerous parts of the world. You don’t take this for granted. Even today.
“Stop,” you tell the next batch of engineers approaching from the parking lot, toward the headquarters of their employer, Big Tech Firm. The light has changed, and the cars are moving.
One company lost an employee several months back. Hit by a bus, was sent straight into the far beyond. That’s why you’re here. To protect the clients, even when it’s from themselves. They’re fine, you know. Just people. But . . . different. They carry themselves differently from what you’re used to. They’re more into what’s going on in their heads than what’s going on around them. Some are probably geniuses, though it’s hard to believe that right now, when half seem to be studying the concrete and the other half are buried in their phone screens. “Go,” you say. The light has changed. The cars have stopped. “Cross the street.”
At times, it resembles your former life. No rifle now, of course. Equipment’s mostly just a cell and a handheld radio. A medical kit with Band-Aids instead of burn dressing. But the feel of it. The structure. The camaraderie, especially. The team—they get you. You get them. That fucking matters. You didn’t know how much you missed it until you had it again.
Still, there’s no such thing as a half soldier.
Out of the corner of your eye, you see movement. A squat shape, an engineer with his face deep in a tablet. He steps off the curb. Five, six feet away, you estimate. It’s too late to shout. There’s only one choice. That choice is action.
“Whoa!” says a voice from behind. You spin around and see another engineer, mouth agape, staring at your hand, which is clutching the squat engineer’s shirt collar. You grabbed him just in time. A large truck rolls by, a strident honk filling the space between. The squat engineer turns around and looks at you, eyes blinking. “Thanks,” he mumbles. Then he’s gone, because the light has changed, and the cars have stopped, and the crosswalk once more belongs to the clients.
Adrenaline’s juicing your veins. There it is, you think. The old rush. You take a deep breath and check your watch. Lunch is three hours away.
On April 3, 2018, in the quiet city of San Bruno, California, a thirty-eight-year-old woman named Nasim Najafi Aghdam entered the headquarters of YouTube and opened fire with a 9mm Smith & Wesson, emptying a full magazine of rounds. Then she turned the weapon on herself, dying via a gunshot to the chest. As far as shootings go in twenty-first-century America, the one at YouTube scored low in terms of victim body count: four injured—three by gunfire, one hurt fleeing the scene—and zero deaths. Some of the techno-utopians of Silicon Valley, who so often position themselves as humanity’s best hope, used the moment to call attention to gun regulation or mental-health initiatives. But mostly the incident accelerated in the tech sector a process that’s been taking hold of many American industries with deep pockets in this mass-shooting era, from pro sports to casinos to Wall Street: the professionalization—some would call it the militarization—of the security business. “YouTube opened up their eyes,” one security specialist told me. “Showed them there’s actual evil in the world.”
Some eighteen months later, a piece of that acceleration walks the sun-splashed, tranquil campus of Big Tech Firm, waving, smiling, observing. Combat veteran Mike Rios, thirty-four, proud south Texas native and formerly of the United States Army infantry, is making the rounds, checking on his teams. He seems to know everyone—the software engineers, the sales managers, the vendors. Most smile and wave back in recognition. All part around Rios’s stocky frame like shadows under a flashlight. “What can I say?” he says, grinning. “Winning hearts and minds.” Rios works for Surefox Consulting, a physical-risk-management firm—protection for hire—that’s part of Big Tech Firm’s multilayered security apparatus. There’s in-house security and other private security firms, all tasked with different roles and responsibilities. This is standard fare in a world shaped by Darwinian hypercompetition and mass contracting. Surefox’s niche is “incident command,” a nice way of saying it handles the emergencies. Its pitch is straightforward and convincing: Of the 271 people in the company’s full- or part-time employ, approximately 90 percent are military veterans. At a time when suicide and unemployment numbers among veterans remain stubbornly high, especially among those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Surefox holds particular appeal to a community that worships disruption. (Big Tech Firm did not want to be identified in this story. I was granted access to Surefox’s operations in part because I served in the same infantry battalion as its director of operations in Iraq in 2008. Rios belonged to that battalion as well.)
Founded in 2016 in Texas, Surefox is an up-and-comer, a lean mako shark in a sea of whales. One of the industry’s mainstays, Security Industry Specialists, has operated in Silicon Valley for years. So has another, AS Solution, which recently got caught up in an investigation by the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office involving concealed-carry permits that, allegedly, may have been given out by the county sheriff in exchange for campaign donations. (AS Solution, in a press statement, said it is cooperating fully with the investigation as well as launching an internal one.) The techno-utopians pride themselves on valuing new ideas and approaches. Enter Surefox.
While the older security firms and others hire veterans and run veteran-transition programs, going veteran heavy was, as they say, a white space—an unfilled niche, an opportunity. Contracted security can summon thoughts of overseas firms like Blackwater, accused of massacring Iraqi citizens in 2007, or the private contractors fighting in Yemen’s brutal, ongoing civil war. That’s not Surefox. Its CEO, Josh Szott, thirty-six, and its director of operations, Brian Sweigart, forty-two, served together sixteen years ago in the 10th Cavalry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division, which deployed to Iraq in 2003. Both men are decorated for valor—Szott with a Silver Star for actions taken during an ambush near Tikrit. Their firm caught a break in 2017, when it was brought in to help manage security at South by Southwest, the music festival in Austin. Tech contacts—and tech contracts—came after, and Surefox moved its headquarters to San Francisco the next year.
Unlike in his past life, Rios isn’t armed at Big Tech Firm. Still, he and his teams stick out on campus because of their erect postures and small but noticeable earpieces. They tend to dress more crisply than their security competition, with shirts tucked and tattoos covered. You can take the soldier out of the mil, but you can’t take the mil out of the soldier.
Rios’s teams include both stationary posts and roaming patrols and occasionally encounter people who don’t belong—demonstrators, angry ex-employees, vagrants. Mostly they spend their days checking IDs and giving visitors directions. When I ask one Surefox employee, an Army Reservist who deployed twice to Guantánamo Bay as a correctional-facility guard, what it’s like to keep watch at Big Tech Firm, he smiles. “Compared to how the detainees at Guantánamo treated us,” he says, “this is fine.”
Not everything translates. “I had to tone down the alpha-male stuff when I got here,” Rios says. Less yelling, less swearing. The golden rule: Talk about anything—anything at all—except politics and religion. “That’s something we help our new hires with,” he says with a knowing wink. “How to find the balance between the mil and Disneyland.”
Many of Big Tech Firm’s employees look like college kids staggering to an early-morning class, with rumpled T-shirts and bed head that’s never seen a comb. Each and every Surefox employee speaks well of these clients, but it’s hard to ignore the class disparity on display. In general, the engineers and other employees, the latter of whom are identified in the tech ecosystem by the semi-derogatory title of “non-eng,” attended a very specific set of schools, studied a very specific set of subjects, and maintain a very specific worldview that blends liberal values and libertarian ideals. When it comes to issues of national security, they tend to focus on high-tech, macro questions such as the ethics of using armed drones and robot soldiers. They don’t spend much time considering the professional hurdles of former infantry grunts.
As Rios and I walk the campus of Big Tech Firm, one of his guards reports a medical situation he tended to. “Guy cut his finger cutting open a box. I stopped the bleeding easy enough.” Rios looks at me. “Sometimes people freak out about things you and I would consider normal,” he says. “A lot of smoke,” forty-one-year-old Navy veteran Donnie Tengco says. “Not a lot of fires.”
The first time I hear Rios say “winning hearts and minds,” I think it’s a joke. Then I hear another Surefox employee use the phrase. Then a third. Then I notice the acronyms they toss around—BOLO and POI and SOP and TTP. It takes me a couple days, but eventually it dawns on me: The emphasis on being one with their clients, on knowing the terrain, on knowing what right looks like so they can know what wrong looks like, too—Surefox is implementing counterinsurgency tactics in Silicon Valley.
(Re)introduced to the U. S. military a decade ago by General David Petraeus, COIN was heralded at the time as the magic solution to ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was built on the idea that protecting local populations from a common foe would flush out those enemy insurgents. It’s like Newton’s third law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. De-escalation is a guiding principle. Don’t lead with blunt force, but be prepared to finish with it. COIN failed outright in Afghanistan. In Iraq, the strategy succeeded for a time, thanks to a massive economic stimulus and earnest attempts at reconciliation with Sunni tribal leaders. The billion-dollar question was whether the stability COIN brought would remain when there weren’t American soldiers posted at every corner. It didn’t. Among the many things required for COIN to succeed, the most important are near-endless supplies of soldiers and money. Turns out that wasn’t feasible for the U. S. military. Silicon Valley is a different story. Shareholders don’t ask the same questions as the general public. And with more billionaires per capita than anywhere else in the world, the Bay Area is primed to fund all sorts of pie-in-the-sky ventures, especially those that focus on protecting the well-being of said money. Here, the sense of exceptionalism is as thick as the San Francisco fog.
COIN is dead. Long live customer service.
Surefox’s military mentality extends beyond operations. It’s baked into its org chart. “We intentionally mirrored the officer/NCO dynamic in the Army,” Sweigart tells me, by which he means the distinction between big-picture planning and practical execution. “[Szott’s] great at what he does. I’ve been trained for some of these things I do.” It’s even baked into the company’s name: Szott was a 13-Fox in the Army, a fire-support artilleryman. They added the “Sure” because, as Szott says, “we wanted to convey certainty, security. It clicked.” Such considerations were as much about recruiting employees as they were about attracting potential clients. He says one of the company’s primary goals is to establish a “secondary military community” for fellow vets. “You hear from the employees sometimes, ‘I feel useful again,’ ” Szott says. “That’s no small thing.”
One of Surefox’s medics thinks the company benefits in Silicon Valley from modern veterans’ work with foreign militaries. “We all learned, at young ages, how to deal with different cultures and different people,” he says. “It’s all about picking up those differences quickly and being adaptable to them.”
A late-afternoon conversation with Big Tech Firm employees at a bar near campus also conjures some parallels to my experiences with COIN. The employees tell me they’re grateful for security firms like Surefox. But: Why do they get to determine where the line is in situations? The employees want them present but not conspicuous, active but not overbearing. Which was a complaint many an Iraqi citizen expressed to my scout platoon in 2008. And like many of those Iraqis—and like Big Tech Firm itself—these employees stress anonymity. (Even with that, our conversation stays innocuous, barely surface level.)
It’s impressive, all this security. Professional. Elite. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think: The local elementary school remains a soft target. So does the retirement community. And that Catholic church off the highway with the yoga studio across from it. There are men and women in Silicon Valley who wield the power to change the national conversation about gun violence. Who better to disrupt the status quo? All this money, all this influence—how could they not? Yet the techno-utopians haven’t worked to better protect their community; they’ve worked to better protect themselves.
That’s their choice. Still, it’s a choice most of us don’t get to make.
This past spring, Eric Gonzalez, thirty-one, spent one month planted in front of Salesforce Tower, San Francisco’s tallest building, to protect smartphones. Samsung was promoting its latest models, and to drum up excitement, it set up product displays on the sidewalk.
During the day, Gonzalez was charged with keeping the peace between the Samsung hawkers and the overeager passersby hoping to score extra swag or even another phone. At night, though—that’s when Gonzalez was most reminded of Iraq. Salesforce Tower is built over a former landfill in one of San Francisco’s fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods. Remnants of the area’s seedy past remain: trash-strewn lots, human shit staining the sidewalks. When darkness came, the Samsung equipment was moved inside, and Gonzalez and his colleagues’ mission changed to protecting the building and the products therein. Each night, they established a hard perimeter of posted guards and sent out rovers to patrol what lay beyond. During those long, dark hours, Gonzalez had too much time to think, too much time to consider the unknown. It was just like rooftop security at a combat outpost.
One night, while his mind drifted, Gonzalez heard a rumbling in the darkness. He called out, asking who was there. No reply came, but the sound came closer. He called out again. Still no reply. The sound came even closer. He braced his body and reached for his flashlight. A figure emerged from the shadows. It wasn’t an IED emplacer or an insurgent strapped with a suicide vest. It was a homeless guy pushing a grocery cart. He went up to Gonzalez and asked for a cigarette. Gonzalez chuckled to himself and obliged.
The greatest concentration of wealth in human history may well be in present-day Silicon Valley. Its per capita GDP outpaces most countries’. Even so, the benefits of trickle-down exceptionalism seem spotty. Housing costs in San Francisco continue to soar, forcing out families who’ve lived there for generations and keeping out all but the wealthiest newcomers. Most of Surefox’s employees live not in the city but in the communities that ring Silicon Valley like a horseshoe: Hayward, Foster City, Santa Cruz. Their long commutes mean that sometimes it’s easier to work out at the campus gym than at the Crunch in their hometown.
Jessica Jasper, thirty-four, a brown belt in Brazilian jujitsu who’s won a world title and a Pan Am title, goes to Big Tech Firm’s gym all the time. She moved to the Bay Area after a stint doing security work for celebrities in Hollywood, where she discovered that the trouble often came from the client’s entourage, not from the client. Thankfully, Silicon Valley does not see a lot of entourages. Jasper appreciates that Big Tech Firm’s gym doesn’t have the same tired meat-market vibe that plagues most gyms, though there are other challenges. She’s learned not to max out on the bench press during busy times so as to avoid the gawks of Big Tech Firm’s male employees. And she’s trained herself not to laugh at the LARPers. (That is, live-action role-players—think Dungeons & Dragons but in real life, with costumed participants sparring.)
Her colleagues aren’t always so restrained. One recalls discovering an armory of foam swords and shields. He and his buddy gave up on lifting weights and instead reenacted Braveheart. Another Surefox colleague swears he once walked in on a Big Tech Firm employee casting a magic spell on a punching bag.
“There’s a lot of prosperity here,” Jasper says diplomatically. “But we worked hard to get here, too. They”—the clients—“thrive in the digital world. We thrive in the physical world.”
Jasper works on one of Surefox’s executive-protection teams, tasked with guarding, transporting, and guiding Silicon Valley bigwigs around the clock. The EPTs are smaller than the campus teams. The more senior the executive, the more qualified those protecting them. Men and women with backgrounds in special ops, SWAT, the CIA, and the U. S. Marshals Service find second careers doing similar work for C-suite tech execs.
EPTs travel as much as the executives they protect, which is to say often. Much of their work is done in advance of an executive’s trip, when EPT members go on dry runs to scout possible pickup and drop-off points, check traffic patterns, and establish various emergency exits and safe havens. One Surefox employee, an Army Reservist, tells me about a large gathering of technology chieftains in Silicon Valley, each of whom brought their own security team. Peacocking and chest-thumping ensued, a testosterone-fueled game of one-upmanship. Eventually, egos were soothed and roles established. But tensions flared once more in the parking lot afterward, when no one could figure out which blacked-out tactical Tahoe belonged to whom.
Josh Tempco, thirty, another EPT member, has been with the company since its early days; he was part of the team that worked security at South by Southwest. He met Surefox CEO Szott years ago overseas, where they both worked as defense contractors. A former scout sniper in the Marines, Tempco possesses a keen midwestern affability and a willingness to share some of his more benign tales—a trait that stands out among these secret keepers. There was the rapper who, it seemed, was on a mission to create as much chaos in the crowd as possible. There was the time at the packed market in India when Tempco handed out cash to kids as a distraction to get his client through to the other side.
Then there was the time, a couple months ago, when Tempco joined a prominent executive from Big Tech Firm on a trip to Washington, D. C. One morning, the two went running along the National Mall. Most execs prefer silence in such situations, but this guy was different. He wanted to know about Tempco’s time in the military, particularly his tour in Afghanistan. So, on a quiet autumn day in America’s capital, Tempco told this very rich, very successful tech exec what war looks like from the front lines, in all its raw ugliness. The exec asked how life in the rural parts of that country contrasted with life in Kabul. Tempco told him. The exec asked about the state of women’s rights there. Tempco told him. The exec asked about Afghanistan’s income disparity. Tempco told him about that, too—how there’s not much of a middle class, how it’s too often an all-or-nothing, zero-sum game.
Tempco was touched. The executive wasn’t just making small talk; his curiosity was genuine. Which is a rarity in today’s America. When’s the last time you asked a veteran what their service really entailed?
The moment comes for us all at one point or another: Do you act? Many don’t—that’s instinct. Some do, though, which is also instinctual. What’s to make of that divergence?
In early fall, Raul De La Pena, thirty-three, was eating lunch when he heard over his radio that one of the campus buildings had “an unexpected guest.” He rushed over to find guards from another security company gathered out front, talking in a rush about a man threatening to jump from a balcony. De La Pena is stoic and quiet by temperament, but when he arrived on the scene, he knew he needed to take charge, and not just because of Surefox’s incident-command mandate. De La Pena ran into the building and up several flights of stairs. For his efforts, he was greeted with the sight of the man hurling furniture over the rail. The man turned to De La Pena with a vacant stare, and he stared back, doing all he could to stay calm. Time melted. De La Pena struck up a conversation as he racked his brain, trying to recall the training he’d received at the police academy for handling a suicide threat.
They talked about inconsequential things, the things that make up so much of just being alive. It was a sunny day, and De La Pena offered the man some water. The man declined. Then he stepped over the rail that bordered the balcony’s edge, carefully turned around so his back faced the drop, and held on to the rail. De La Pena suggested to the man that he come back over. Instead, the man leaned back. His feet, planted on the narrow space between the rail and the ledge, and his hands, clutching the rail, were all that prevented him from falling.
De La Pena, trying to ignore all the alarms sounding from within his chest, took a deep breath in through his mouth and out through his nose. Stick to the training. He asked the man if he was hungry. Instead of answering, the man let both hands go, and his whole body arced backward. Just as De La Pena was sure it was over, the man swung his hands back and seized the rail once more.
A trace of hope entered the swirl of polluted California air.
The man kept talking. They exchanged names. De La Pena stalled for a few minutes more, making small talk, until the police arrived and took over. They asked De La Pena to stick around and help. Shortly after, the man climbed back over the rail to safe ground.
The moment comes. Do you act?
On my last day in Silicon Valley, I leave Big Tech Firm early to head north, toward San Francisco, to the shiny new Chase Center, home of the Golden State Warriors. They’re playing LeBron James’s Los Angeles Lakers, and Surefox has an extra ticket.
But Surefox doesn’t just have tickets. This season, for the first time, the company purchased an “ultra VIP” club suite. It’s a measure of accomplishment and a status symbol, a way to reward employees and a good place to entertain clients. In Big Tech Firm’s enormous parking lot, I search in vain for my rental—a chrome, eco-friendly car in a sea of chrome, eco-friendly cars. Then I spot it—not my rental but something else. Something bizarre and exceptionally rare in this land of granola and solar panels. I walk to it like it’s an exotic animal.
It’s a large black pickup truck. A Nissan Titan Pro-4X, to be exact, with Oklahoma plates and an extended bed with enough dents to prove it actually gets used to transport heavy equipment. The cab’s rear window is plastered with decals. support your local gunmen, reads one. modern day gunslingers, reads another. A third, affixed to the other end of the window, reads, sua sponte. Latin for “of their own accord.” The motto of the 75th Ranger Regiment. Strange place to find a Ranger, I think. COIN really does take people all over the world.
Surefox’s stadium suite lives up to the hype. There’s catered food, beer and wine, and a silver-haired attendant dressed to the nines. At one point, I step back to take in the scene: Surefox employees, combat veterans all, laughing and joking in the open bowl seats up front. A couple have brought their significant others, who laugh along at what are likely the old war stories they’ve heard countless times. At a table in the center, two members of an executive-protection team chat up a potential new client over drinks. And in the rear of the room, Sweigart leans against a pillar, his arms crossed, watching over it all. I imagine he’s mulling over how far Surefox has come, and how far it might go—thoughts of revenue and scale, of the sort that consume the techno-utopians, too. The company has brought a touch of military culture to Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley may be returning the favor.
Down on the court, Steph Curry drills a long-range jumper. The crowd cheers, and the Surefox employees in the front seats exchange high fives with middle-aged white men one suite over. Another COIN tenet enters my mind: Adapt and overcome.