Ben Blum explores his cousin’s change from soldier to criminal
Author Ben Blum visited Savannah as part of the 2018 Savannah Book Festival to discuss his book, “Ranger Games,” about the story of his cousin, Alex.
From a young age, Alex was obsessed with the military. He wanted to be a soldier, an aspiration that never wavered as he grew up and only solidified when 9/11 happened during his freshmen year in high school. Enlisting shortly after his 18th birthday, he survived a brutal selection program, made it into the Ranger Indoctrination Program and was posted to Fort Lewis in Washington.
Four months later, he was arrested for acting as the driver in an armed bank robbery organized by a superior in the rangers. He served 16 months in federal prison.
“I spent about seven years trying to get to the bottom of how Alex…had come to be involved in this bizarre crime,” Blum said. “The big question I grappled with was how do you support someone who has done something terrible that caused a lot of harm to both himself and others? How do you help them reckon with what they have done?”
Blum discovered more about the extreme intensity of the Ranger Indoctrination Program. “They had to group up in teams of six and hold telephone poles for 48 hours taking brief shifts,” Blum said. “That was just two days out of a month-long process of extreme physical pain and endurance.”
After Alex posted as a cherry private, the formal army training slowly began to spill into his informal life. The rangers would play “games,” attempts to outdo each other by explaining how they would take down a movie theater, a casino, a bank, even.
When Alex’s father first talked to his son after the arrest, he discovered that Alex believed the plans for the bank robbery were just another game, a training exercise that suddenly got real. While he was held in detention, he waited everyday for a representative from the Second Ranger Battalion to appear and say there had been a mix up and he would be sent to Iraq to be with his unit where he belonged.
Around this time, Alex was asked to appear on a special episode of “The Doctor Phil Show” entitled “When Good People Do Bad Things,” where his story was contorted into a exemplary case for something called “The Lucifer Effect.” The since-debunked theory posited by Dr. Philip Zimbardo argues that pressure from institutional organizations can transform normal people into men and women capable of evil.
After the show aired Alex lost his job coaching five-year-olds at a local ice arena, the first job he was actually passionate about after his release. He became increasingly bitter and hard to talk to so, in his process to try to break down the story, Blum turned to Luke Elliot Sommer, the ring leader of the robbery.
Sommer committed a host of other crimes after the robbery including stabbing a co-conspirator and attempting to put a hit on his prosecutor. During a seven-hour conversation in the visitation room of a rural penitentiary in Kentucky, Sommer told Blum that morality had always been a mystery to him. “Paradoxically, this made him much easier to talk to about the robbery than Alex,” Blum said. “Alex had such a hard time accepting that he had done anything wrong, but Sommer didn’t have any sense of wrong at all.”
Hearing Sommer talk cavalierly about the people in the bank made Blum realize that sometimes holding someone accountable means rejecting their own account. “Memory is notoriously unreliable when it comes to things we are ashamed of and what we don’t want to remember,” Blum said.
Blum slowly realized that the story of the robbery also belonged to those people in the bank who were traumatized by the horrible experience. The 19-year-old teller in charge that day began to talk to Blum about her account and how unreal the incident had felt to her.
“Unreality is a big theme in this book,” Blum said. “Soldiers in training go through such detailed simulation of battlefield conditions that the distinctions between reality and show start to blur.”
As Blum tried to figure out how to help Alex heal, he spent a lot of time thinking about trauma and about PTSD in soldiers. “It’s gradually starting to be recognized that some soldiers are suffering from something a little different that requires a different treatment. The term that’s come into use is moral injury,” Blum said. A person suffers moral injury when he or she does, witnesses, endorses or becomes complicit in a violation of his or her morals.
Blum came away from the book with a renewed hope in the possibility of healing families grappling with dark stories. His next book will focus on ways for families to heal each other in times of trauma.
“It’s very tricky,” Blum said. “How do you tell someone you care for who is hurting and who is attacked from all sides and relying on you to love and support them, that they’ve really screwed up, that they need to do better, that they need to change? I think if you can do that helpfully, lovingly, compassionately, it’s one of the highest acts of love.”
By Elena Burnett.