Soldiers of Fortune Invade Charlotte, N.C. to Find Adventure, Love and Death

updated 11/08/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/08/1982 01:00AM

In the seven years since Soldier of Fortune magazine first appeared on the newsstands, it has acquired a devoted readership of vicarious thrill seekers, who buy the monthly to read about war. Yet the magazine is not only for armchair adventurers. Under founder and publisher Bob Brown, 50, a lieutenant colonel in the Reserves, who as a captain in the Special Forces was severely wounded in Vietnam, Soldier is a sort of Sears, Roebuck catalog for weapons and military equipment. Whether the reader is in the market for a machine gun or a pocket-knife, the magazine has a dealer who will be glad to oblige. Journalistically, Soldier covers the world. The current issue features on-scene accounts of the fighting in Lebanon, Afghanistan and the Falklands. An unabashed right-winger who likes to keep one jump ahead of the CIA, Brown traveled in to Soviet-controlled Afghanistan himself last May, and is considered a highly astute gatherer of military intelligence. Recently, Soldier held its third annual convention, in Charlotte, N.C., attracting some 1,200 devotees of arms and the man. Richard Woodley filed this communiqué for PEOPLE.

The Holiday Inn has fallen in a bloodless coup. The conquering army carries no firearms, but troops through the lobby in camouflage suits at all hours of the day and night. It's the usual soldier-of-fortune mix of battle veterans with the right stuff, and Walter Mittys whose stuff has been tested only in daydreams. They have come to jump out of airplanes, fire automatic weapons and swap military hardware and stories. In the evenings, they fill the motel lounge with boisterous whoops and low-toned conversations about war and women and where the action was. "We're here," explains host Bob Brown, "to give our readers a chance to meet and interact with staff members."

Brown and his cohorts enjoy living up to their reputations for outrageous behavior. One morning they arrive at a heavy-weapons demonstration on a nearby rifle range in a Mercedes blaring Deutschland Uber Alles, the anthem of Nazi Germany. They plan to open fire with machine guns on a huge pile of pumpkins stacked on a hillside. "Kill Commies, not pumpkins," comes a wry cry from the crowd. Down-range, Special Forces veteran John Donovan is planning a surprise. He is a barrel-chested giant with a bushy beard and a shaved head, which is wrapped for this occasion in an olive-drab kerchief. Donovan carefully places 10 sticks of dynamite under the pumpkins. The machine guns cut loose in a deafening concert of fire. Bullets tear into the hillside. "I swear I get off as much by blowing up pumpkins as blowing up bridges!" bellows Donovan. Whereupon he detonates the charge with a WHOOMP!!! and sends the hillside cascading into the air. As rocks and fragments of pumpkin shower down, the audience bursts into applause.

Out at the Lancaster County Airport, members of a private parachuting outfit billing itself as the "First Airborne Division" are busy licking a group of novice jumpers into shape to "walk in the sky." The rookies have paid $175 for three days of training. Exhausted, they later march into the motel behind a trio of kilted bagpipers. Other conventioneers snicker at the boot-camp dramatics, but the instructors insist that strict military discipline may save someone's life. "The jump master is God," one of them tells the 120 students the next day. "He who hesitates inherits the earth. If there's a malfunction, you've got exactly the rest of your life to figure it out. From 3,000 feet, the rest of your life is 22 to 24 seconds. Are you gonna hesitate?"

"No, Airborne!" they shout in response.

Minutes later, the trainees, including myself, sit huddled on the floor of an old silver-bodied twin-engine Beech C-45, watching the ground fall away. This is an initiation experience: We feel the fear, the rush of adrenaline and our utter dependence on goggled jump master Joe Wachs. He will put us out of the plane correctly; after that we're on our own. "I hope this cures my fear of heights," says one jumper in a shaky voice. "Never cured mine," growls Wachs. Suddenly it is time. "Stand in the door," orders Wachs. His hand is firm on my shoulder. "Go," he yells.

Short seconds of falling are followed by the jolt of the chute opening and the euphoria of looking up at the blossoming canopy. The ground floats up gently, then comes rushing toward me. I hit in a heap among a few scrub pines, and lie on my back laughing up at the sky. It is a revelation, a peek into the camaraderie that knits these good old boys together, the joyous sense of having dared the risk and survived. But the next day the First Airborne is shaken by its first student death ever. Making his second jump, David Bernhardt, 37, a self-employed businessman from Oklahoma City, is killed in a freak accident when he lands in trees and a jagged branch pierces his throat. He is found lying face down, his empty harness still dangling above. Later the convention honors Bernhardt with a moment of silence. The First Airborne passes around one of its maroon berets, raising $409 for his widow.

The banquet on the final night of the gathering is an indirect tribute to Brown and his magazine. The theme is an effort to bring home any Americans still missing in Indochina, and the speakers include Maj. Gen. John Singlaub, who gained fame in 1977 when he criticized Carter Administration plans to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea, Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, and the former commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland. Westmoreland's presence, particularly, lends credibility to a magazine whose natural milieu is the netherworld of arms dealers and war lovers.

No less incongruous is the convention's final event. Big John Donovan is getting married, right there on the podium in front of the big white banner with the crossed black daggers and red beret, and the Soldier of Fortune motto, "Death to Tyrants." Donovan, 40, who runs a demolition company in Peoria, III., is marrying Pam Sullivan, 27, also of Peoria, with the obviously delighted Brown as best man. The minister, secured at the last minute, is Bob Criswell of Rodeo Evangelistic Min., Inc.—"Reaching Cowboys for Christ"—of Gulfport, Miss. His fee is $50 for the service. Donovan, who has been married once before, takes the ceremony very seriously. "It better go absolutely right," he warns, "because this is the most important moment of my life. This one is forever." And so the convention ends on a most unsoldierly note—one of making love and not war.

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