For an expert military marksman -- indeed, a man who trained Special Forces for years -- you'd think James "Bo" Gritz would be able to shoot straight when it counted. Fortunately for Gritz, though, when he turned his gun on himself last week, his aim wasn't true.
The strangest twist in Gritz's tortuous saga -- from war hero to pop cultural icon to notorious fringe figure -- came last Monday at a bend in the road not far from the Clearwater River in northern Idaho, where an early-morning deer hunter happened upon a bleeding Gritz, lying by the side of a gravel road near his pickup. He had been shot once in the chest, but he was alive and breathing.
An ambulance whisked him to the nearby hospital in Orofino. The local sheriff told reporters the wound had been self-inflicted -- and it was not life-threatening. Family members who lived at Gritz's Patriot settlement (named "Almost Heaven"), 30 miles away, rushed to his side.
Why would a robust, gregarious man like Gritz -- a onetime presidential candidate and the object of widespread right-wing adulation -- try to kill himself? Naturally, as word spread of the incident, speculation began circulating on the Patriot Internet lines that he had been attacked by government agents. The family quickly stamped out such talk, posting a message on Gritz's Web site assuring his followers: "Please help quell the rumors already abounding that this was not done by Bo's own hand, it was -- Claudia and others were at the scene within minutes of the sad event. People need to expend their energy praying for Bo -- not spreading rumors."
The answer, then, was something much simpler than a conspiracy: simple, old-fashioned heartbreak. Only 10 days before, Claudia Gritz had filed for divorce from the colonel, ending a 24-year marriage. She had the papers waiting when he came home to Kamiah from his latest headline-grabbing rescue mission: an expedition to find suspected abortion-clinic bomber Eric Rudolph and persuade him to end his months-long cat-and-mouse game with federal agents hunting him in the woods of North Carolina. She evidently had warned Gritz that she would leave him if he made the trip, and she'd meant it.
Gritz had spoken on his shortwave radio program about facing the shock of divorce. He told his listeners shortly after the papers were filed that he'd begun seeing a psychological counselor, who told him his compulsion to rescue others -- from MIAs in Vietnam to Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge to the Freemen in Montana -- was an expression of a subconscious effort to find and rescue his own father, who had died in combat in World War II. He said he planned to check himself in to a Nevada veterans hospital for psychotherapy, adding: "I am sick."
He also spoke about his problems at length with a presumably less sympathetic audience -- the editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report. Indeed, he talked frankly about suicide: "I've thought about looking at the other end of my pistol a few times," he told Mark Potok. "Because what kind of life do I have without my bride?"
Four days later, he took a look and pulled the trigger.
What is perhaps most startling about the suicide attempt is that it reminds everyone that Gritz is, after all, only human. He's worn so many highly public guises over the years that it's been easy to mistake him for the caricatures: decorated Green Beret; Special Forces colonel; the model for "Rambo"; right-wing presidential candidate; and leader of the militia movement. It's easy to forget that this barrel-chested boy from Oklahoma once had all the makings of a great American.
Gritz was, in the words of Gen. William Westmoreland, "The American Soldier." Noted for his bravery and cunning, Gritz was the most decorated Green Beret of the Vietnam War, earning some 62 decorations for valor. After the war ended, he kept at it, commanding Special Forces in Latin America and performing intelligence duties in the Pentagon.
He made his first big splash on the national scene when he headed up an expedition of mercenaries -- financed by H. Ross Perot -- to return to the jungles of Cambodia and Vietnam in an effort to locate American POWs held there, according to some reports, in secret camps long after the war's end. Gritz's exploits captured the public fancy in a big way: "The A-Team" popped up on TV shortly thereafter, featuring a cigar-chomping George Peppard as a character closely modeled on Gritz -- Col. "Hannibal" Smith, leader of a motley collection of mercenaries who performed daring deeds beyond official purview. A few years later, Sylvester Stallone likewise led a cinematic expedition in search of American soldiers in "Rambo," which in its heyday was the undisputed king of the box office and cemented Stallone's rep as an action star. Chuck Norris chimed in with some cheap imitations.
However, unlike his better-scripted counterparts, Gritz's rescue efforts came up empty-handed; not a single POW nor even one of the legendary camps was ever found. That failure was only another turn in the road, though. While rooting around in Southeast Asia, Gritz had some brushes with the region's notorious drug kingpins in Burma -- and came away convinced that American officials (particularly in the CIA) worked hand in glove with these criminals.
When he returned stateside, Gritz tried to grab more headlines by revealing what he'd uncovered -- but the public, long gorged on tales of CIA drug connections, paid little attention. However, Gritz soon enough found his audience: the conspiracy-mongers of the radical right, who revel in fresh revelations of government perfidy at seemingly every chance. He fell in with Willis Carto's anti-Semitic Populist Party, and shortly found himself the party's vice presidential candidate in the 1988 elections. His running mate: David Duke.
Gritz parlayed that shot into the party's outright presidential candidacy in 1992. But the Populists are a fringe party at best, and his campaign gained traction in only a few locales, mostly some pockets of ultra-right activity in rural states like Idaho. When a white supremacist named Randy Weaver got into an armed standoff with federal agents that August in the state's Panhandle, it provided Gritz with his greatest opportunity ever. By negotiating an end to the Ruby Ridge siege after two days on the scene, Gritz once again attained pop-hero status.
At Ruby Ridge, though, Gritz reminded everyone that his heroism had a troubling shadow: As he left the scene and went out to talk to the crowd, he relayed a message from Weaver to the skinheads and neo-Nazis gathered nearby by offering them a stiff-armed Nazi salute.
That shadow has never left Gritz. During his presidential campaign, he promoted the idea of average citizens forming "unorganized militias." This concept became the centerpiece of the 1992 Christian Identity gathering in Estes Park, Colo., that is widely credited with giving birth to the militia movement. (Gritz himself did not attend. His long association with the gathering's organizer, Identity pastor Pete Peters, had erupted earlier that year in a nasty feud sparked by Peters' insistence that homosexuals should be put to death.) The next year, he again embarked on a speaking tour touting the militia concept but carrying it a step further: Gritz began offering his SPIKE ("Specially Prepared Individuals for Key Events") training sessions, essentially providing a Special Forces background for any militiaman who wanted to learn.
And the rescues never abated either. He tried to negotiate an end to the 1996 Freemen standoff in Brusett, Mont., but gave up after a week in frustration. When a Connecticut housewife named Linda Wiegand approached him last year with a tale of her children being legally hijacked by a sexually (and satanically) abusive ex-husband, he leapt into action again. This time, though, he crossed the line: Gritz and his son, Jim, were arrested outside the school that the Wiegand boys attended -- officers found pictures of the boys, their school schedules, two-way radios, some of the lock-picking tools Gritz sells for "defense against restrictive entry" and a modified switchblade -- and charged both men with planning to kidnap the boys.
Gritz's trial in the Wiegand case has been pushed back several times and was scheduled to finally get under way this fall. Now, it appears, there may be yet another reason to delay.
Gritz's most recent rescue attempt -- trying to lure another white supremacist, bomber Rudolph, out of the North Carolina woods -- turned into a fiasco. He set out to organize an army of 100 searchers to convince Rudolph to turn himself in under Gritz's watchful auspices (with the $1 million reward money being parlayed to Rudolph's legal defense), but could only muster about 40 people or so.
When three of his searchers stumbled into some hornets and had to be treated at the hospital, the locals -- already snickering about Gritz's self-aggrandizement -- dubbed the entourage "Bo's Hornet Hunters." After a week looking for the former Army veteran, Gritz packed his bags and returned home -- and the personal disaster awaiting him there.
Gritz had frequently told tales about his fear of Claudia's wrath over the years. But this time around, the reality caught up with his anecdotes. Unless, of course, shooting himself turns out to have been just another carefully staged, highly dramatic public-relations ploy -- for an audience of one.