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Calendar >  Benevolent Dictator – Thomas Calabrese

Benevolent Dictator – Thomas Calabrese

By   /  September 3, 2023  /  11 Comments


Being Kind Doesn’t Mean Being Weak

Thomas Calabrese – Marine Lance Corporal Anthony Costello was assigned to 1st Battalion 26th Marines during his first tour in Vietnam and was part of the US forces defending Khe Sanh Combat Base. Two regiments of Marines were supported by elements from the Army and Air Force, as well as a small number of Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops. They were pitted against three battle hardened divisional-size elements of the North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN).

Tony never expected to survive the months of relentless bombardment, numerous patrols in enemy territory and snipers regularly taking potshots into the base so he was equally surprised and grateful when the evacuation of Khe Sanh began on 19 June 1968 called ‘Operation Charlie’ and he was still among the walking wounded.

Tony experienced severe restlessness and irritability while he was home on leave so when he reported to Camp Pendleton, he felt compelled to sign up for another tour in Vietnam. He could not provide a suitable explanation to his parents other than, “A lot of work still left to do,” but he knew it was a lot more than that.  

During his second tour, Tony was assigned to a unit at Marble Mountain patrolling the ‘Rocket Bell’ the arc that swung around Danang at the extreme range of the enemy’s 122- mm and 140-mm rockets. The Marines ran into their share of firefights and ambushes, but in Tony’s mind, it was still better than being at Khe Sanh.

Upon returning home this time, Tony wasted no time informing his parents that he re-enlisted for two more years in the Marines so he could go back for his third tour. Upon hearing this they had serious concerns about their son’s mental health and his ability to make rational decisions. Since it was a done deal, his family saw no reason to express their concerns or voice their disapproval.

Upon his return to the war torn Southeast Asian country this time, Tony volunteered for a special unit that was comprised of combat hardened Green Berets and Marines and supported by CIA operatives along the Vietnam Laos border. The enemy this time was not the North Vietnamese regulars or the Viet Cong guerillas, but the ruthless Pathet Lao, a communist group allied with North Vietnam and the Soviet Union. It was brutal fighting and Tony came close to death more than once while on patrols deep into the jungle.

While the Vietnam War received most of the news coverage, many people didn’t realize that from 1964 to 1973, the US dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laos – about as many as there were people in the tiny Southeast Asian nation. More bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War than on Germany and Japan combined during World War II.

During his first R&R in Sydney, Australia, Tony spent most of his time on Bondi Beach or socializing with locals away from the Kings Cross area of bars and clubs. During his second R&R in Taipei, Taiwan. Tony stayed at the Beitou Hot Springs for the entire five days nursing his body back to health. When it came time to take his third R&R, Tony chose Singapore.

Singapore is a nature-lover’s paradise and home to some of the world’s most diverse and unique wildlife. Its natural wonders include lush rainforests, stunning beaches and waterfalls. Tony was enjoying the splendor of Jurong Falls and the mesmerizing cascade of water located in the Jurong Bird Park. It reaches a height of 98 feet and freely falls from the top of a cliff into a lagoon that provides a habitat for birds, plants and fish. Tony noticed a young woman taking photos of the scenery and wildlife and watched for several minutes until she noticed him and he said. “Good morning.”

The woman flashed a friendly smile, “I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

            “No, not at all,” Tony replied, “I’m enjoying watching you at work.”

            “I like this time of day, the lighting is perfect for nature photography,” The woman asked, “Are you American?”

            “Yes ma’am.”

            “Military?” The woman asked.

            “Yes ma’am,”


            “Marines,” Tony replied.

            “Then you must be on R&R,” The woman said.

            “Right again.”

            “Why aren’t you at the bars getting drunk?” The woman asked.

            “Because I’d rather get intoxicated by nature.”

The woman looked away for a second and Tony mistook that as a hint to leave so he said, “I’ll be on my way, I don’t want to get in your way.”

            “I could use a little help if you don’t have any place to go?” The woman asked.

Tony smiled, “It just happens that my schedule is completely empty,”

For the next three hours Tony helped the woman set up camera shots around the rainforest. She didn’t ask him anything about the war or his background and Tony did inquire anything about her life. This was one of those unique times when two people were destined to cross paths and did not want to spoil the magic of the moment with small talk.

As the sun dropped below the horizon, the woman commented, “That’s all I can do for today…thanks for your help.”

Tony responded, “It has been my pleasure.”

            “May I give you a ride somewhere?” The woman said.

Tony responded, “Thanks anyway…it’s a beautiful evening, I’ll just walk back to my hotel…it’s not far.”

After Tony walked off, the woman stared at him. Unlike many of the military personnel who came to Singapore on R&R with a desperate need to fit a lifetime of living into five days, this man acted as if time had no significance to him. There was also a gentleness and strength in his eyes that captivated her imagination.

As he walked back to his hotel, Tony thought about the beautiful woman and if nothing else happened over the next four days, this would still be his favorite R&R.

Next morning, Tony was awake and sitting on the balcony of his room at the Genting Hotel Jurong when the house phone rang. The desk clerk said, “You have a guest in the lobby.”

Tony responded, “Thank you.”

When Tony reached the lobby, he saw the woman from Jurong Bird Park standing there. She introduced herself, “My name is Stella Rawlins,” and extended her hand.

            “Tony Costello,” and extended his right hand. Stella had a firm and strong grip.

            “Would you like to take a ride?” Stella asked.

            “Anyplace you want to go is fine with me,” Tony said.

The following days were like a blur to Johnny and every minute seemed better than the previous one. When it came time to go back to war, the thought of going AWOL flashed through his mind, but that wasn’t really an option. Tony’s heart was breaking when he asked Stella, “Should I come back or is this one of those things that is supposed to end right here and now.”

Even though their relationship was based more on a deep emotional connection than a whirlwind romance, Tony got the answer he wanted when Stella passionately kissed him as tears fell from her eyes. She sobbed, “Stay safe and come back, I’ll be waiting”

            “The only thing that can stop me is God’s will,” Tony promised.

When Tony returned to Vietnam from his R&R, he fought with a laser focus. When his tour ended this time, the only way for him to get back to Singapore as quickly as possible was to put in for a six month extension in country and take 30 days annual leave. He spent the entire time in Singapore and had the opportunity to meet Stella’s parents. Her father was English and an executive with Shell Oil and her mother was a full blooded Malaysian whose family had been in Singapore for several generations.

By the time this extended period of time had passed, Tony and Stella knew that they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. After three years of combat, Tony requested a transfer from combat to a rear echelon position and it was granted when he got back to Vietnam.

When he completed the six month extension, Tony returned to Vista, California and Stella joined him several days afterward. After he was discharged from the Marines three weeks later the couple had a small wedding ceremony at Tony’s parents’ home in Vista.

Tony and Stella returned to Singapore where Stella’s parents held a more elaborate ceremony and reception for them. John Rawlins was able to get his son-in-law a position with the security enforcement division of Shell Oil. Tony distinguished himself as a trustworthy and hardworking employee while Stella continued to work as freelance photojournalist throughout Southeast Asia.

Their son, Johnny was born on September 11, 1983 in Singapore.  Even though his father rarely spoke of his combat exploits during the Vietnam War, Johnny came to appreciate his sacrifices and patriotism. After 18 years with Shell Oil and working throughout Southeast Asia, Tony was asked to take an assignment in Southern California after the person in charge of military fuel distribution in the Southwest Region unexpectedly passed away. Tony discussed the transfer with his father-in-law and wife and they agreed it was the best thing to do.

            “You’ll be closer to your parents, Johnny will get to experience the American culture on a regular basis and we’ll still keep our house here. There’s a lot for me to do there so don’t worry about me,” Stella said.

John Rawlins reiterated, “This is a good career move for you. The company doesn’t forget sacrifices like this.  I’ll make sure your house is well taken care of while you are away. You still can come back on a regular basis.”

Shell Oil was a very profitable company so they could afford to be extremely generous. They allowed Tony and Stella to choose a house in any location and they would pay for the rent and allow Stella to choose how she wanted it furnished. The company also provided an apartment in downtown San Diego when Tony was working late or needed to be in the city for any reason. Tony and Stella wanted to live near Tony’s parents in Vista so the realtor found them a beautiful five bedroom estate overlooking the ninth hole of the Vista Valley Golf Course. Shell Oil paid the owner the first year’s rent in advance with an option for two more years.

Johnny could have attended a private school, but chose Vista High School so that he could engage in the American high school experience.   There was a big problem however, the educational institute that Johnny attended in Singapore was much more advanced than the public school system in America. Tony and Stella didn’t want their son to become complacent so they hired several different tutors to teach him advanced college level courses that would challenge his intellect. Johnny’s favorite subject was American History and he soon became very educated on all aspects of the Vietnam War, mainly because of his father’s involvement in it.

 Johnny competed on the high school swim and track teams and thrived on the competition. He received numerous scholarship offers, but declined them all so he could attend Singapore University, one of the best higher education institutions in Asia.

On September 11, 2001 four coordinated Islamist suicide terrorist attacks were carried out by al-Qaeda against the United States. Their target was the World Trade Center in New York City. This horrific occurrence had a profound effect on John Costello and despite the numerous opportunities available to him, he decided to join the Marine Corps and follow in his father’s footsteps. Tony and Stella waited until Johnny finished his training and deployed overseas before returning to Singapore

Johnny never expected to make the military a career, but like his father’s experiences during the Vietnam War, there is no end in sight for defeating evil around the world. His parents and grandparents worried about his safety, but they respected his decision. Tony met with his father-in-law to discuss taking care of Johnny after he left the military.

John Rawlins was in total agreement, “Absolutely, there will be a job waiting for him and a large trust fund when he leaves the Marines. He earned it with his courage and sacrifice. I love that boy.”

After several combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, John Costello was recruited to join a counter-terrorism unit. A suicide bombing at an Imperial Beach grocery store injured fifteen people. In response, the United States government ordered CIA officer Matt Drury to apply extreme measures to the Aristeo Cartel who was accused of smuggling the terrorists across the U.S.-Mexico border. In reality, they had nothing to do with the attack. An unholy alliance between corrupt American and Mexican politicians created this false flag event. (A false flag operation is an act committed with the intent of disguising the actual source of responsibility and pinning blame on another party.) These politicians were on the payroll of the powerful Allante Cartel and were using the bombing to eliminate the competition and further enrich themselves.

Johnny had a bad feeling about the mission from the beginning. He was an experienced combat veteran and his instincts were honed to a razor’s edge and something just didn’t seem right. It was a joint operation between the Mexican police, civilian contractors and a small team of specially trained Marines and CIA operative Matt Drury was in command. When the team reached the fortified compound in Jalisco, Mexico, Drury ordered the Marines, “Secure the perimeter and hold your position. We’ll handle the breach.”

            “Roger that,” Johnny said.

The Marines neutralized the exterior guards with accurate kill-shots from their sniper rifles.  Drury led the civilian contractors into the building with the Mexicans pulling up the rear. There was the sound of women screaming coming from the inside the structure. Johnny turned to Sergeant Andy McConnell, “I’m going in.”

            “We were ordered to stay here,” McConnell said.

            “I know.”

When Johnny entered the palatial structure, he saw the Mexican police executing the work staff and the wounded cartel soldiers.  When they saw him, they turned their weapons in his direction, but Johnny killed them first. He quickly moved up the upstairs and heard voices in one room. Johnny saw CIA operative Drury and several contractors had cornered two young girls and were prepared to execute them. Johnny called out, “Hey!”

            “Stupid Marine, you should have stayed outside, now you’re going to have to die like the rest of them,” Drury shook his head in disgust and turned to fire, but he wasn’t fast enough.

 Johnny shot the CIA operative in the head and two civilian contractors who were standing next to him. Three men were standing off to the side escaped through a nearby door. Johnny followed and shot another man who tumbled down the stairwell, but the other two escaped out the back door. He went back inside to check on the two girls and sensed they expected the worst from him.  He calmly reassured them, “Come with me if you want to live. I won’t hurt you.”

Johnny was fluent in Spanish so when the older girl said, “I need to get something first.”

            “Make it quick,” Johnny said.

They entered a room and the girl pressed a button hidden behind a desk and a wall slid away to expose a safe. She used the combination to open it, took out a briefcase and handed it to Johnny, “You can use this.”

            “How did you know the combination?”

The girl’s eyes blazed with rage, “I’ve been here two years and I knew that if I lived, I needed to remember everything.  When I saw them open it, I remembered the numbers.”

When Johnny and the two girls walked outside, Sergeant McConnell approached, “You want to tell me what’s going on? Two contractors ran out of here like their pants were on fire.”

Johnny warned his fellow Marine, “You don’t want to know. You’ll need plausible deniability during the de-briefing. Remember, this is on me…all on me. This is the last time we’ll see each other…Semper fi.” then turned to the girl and asked, “Since you know so much…We need a car”

The girl smiled, “Follow me,” and led Johnny to the garage where a dozen high end vehicles were parked, “Take your pick.”

Johnny took a keyless remote off the hook hanging on the wall and pressed it. When it beeped, they walked over to a black Cadillac Escalade, got in and drove off. By this time, a caravan of Aristeo Cartel soldiers were racing toward the compound. The Marines engaged them as Johnny and the girls made their escape. As he drove passed one of the vehicles, Johnny fired out his window and shot the driver in the face. He lost control and his truck rolled over and exploded.

Three hours later, The CIA and the Mexican authorities were in a warehouse in Tijuana screaming in both languages at the Marines…demanding answers and hurling insults.

Sergeant McConnell responded calmly, “Costello didn’t tell us anything. We don’t know what his plans are or where he’s going.”

The American and Mexican authorities put out a BOLO alert and an international fugitive warrant for John Costello. The paperwork emphasized that the Marine was extremely dangerous and should be terminated with extreme prejudice.

While driving Johnny decided to stop at a hotel and made an international phone call to his father in Singapore and tell him of his predicament. Tony responded, “I’ll contact your grandfather and we’ll get the corporate jet and fly to Loreto International Airport. It’s about 9500 miles so I suggest you get there then find a place to hide out. How will I contact you?”

Johnny said, “I’ll pick-up a pre-paid phone and text you the number.”

“After we refuel for the return trip, we’ll find a way for you to get aboard. Stay safe son,”

            “Roger that…thanks Dad.” Johnny said.

While waiting for his father and grandfather to FLY to Mexico, Johnny had time to find out about the two girls. They were sisters and their families were killed by the Aristeo Cartel and taken hostage.

Johnny texted his father his cellphone number then parked in a secluded area near the Loreto Airport. From his vantage point he could see Mexican law enforcement personnel arriving at the terminal to reinforce security and check passengers before boarding,

The corporate jet landed and taxied to the executive terminal. It took several hours to refuel and do a pre-flight check of all systems. When it was ready for take-off, Tony called his son, “We’ll meet you at the end of the runway.”  

            “Affirmative.” Johnny said.

 The pilot taxied to the end of the runway and radioed the control tower, “I’m having trouble with engine one. I need a few minutes to restart.”

Suddenly Johnny raced across the open field to the runway and skidded to a stop next to the plane. The girls jumped out and were helped through the open door. Johnny put the vehicle in neutral and stuck his large knife in the accelerator to hold it halfway down to raise the RPM’s.  He got out, reached through the open window and put the SUV in drive and sent it careening down the runway toward the approaching police cars. Johnny dived through the door and the pilot gave the aircraft maximum power and it skimmed the tops of the police cars as it took off.

When they got back to Singapore, Richard Rawlins and his wife who was a cousin of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew requested an emergency meeting with the country’s leader. The entire family including the two rescued girls went to the Istana, the office of the prime minister of Singapore. One thing that residents of Singapore quickly learn is that you don’t break the law and you don’t bring trouble from the outside to the small island nation.

Johnny explained the situation to the Prime Minister Yew and he was in total agreement with Johnny’s actions especially after he met the two rescued girls and they told him about their horrendous experiences at the hands of the evil human traffickers.

The United States strongly demanded the extradition of John Costello and the two girls back to America and that request was even more strongly denied by Prime Minister Yew.

One week later, Johnny and the elite Singapore Special Forces were waiting at a private airport when a plane landed and a group of Mexican Cartel soldiers exited. Their mission was to bring John Costello back to Mexico or kill him. Singapore has no patience or mercy for lawbreakers and the mercenaries were only given one opportunity to surrender. When they chose to decline the offer, they were killed. Their dead bodies were loaded back on the plane and it was refueled. The pilot was ordered to fly back to Mexico and was the aircraft was escorted out of Singapore airspace by three fighter jets.

The country of Singapore is considered a military powerhouse with the best air force and navy in Southeast Asia. Prime Minister Yew had already shown he was prepared to use force if necessary, but wasn’t averse to using diplomatic channels as well. His ambassadors in Mexico City and Washington DC delivered this message to the leaders of both countries. Any attempts by your country to capture, injure or kill John Costello or his family will be considered a hostile act against the country of Singapore and will met with the strongest possible response.

The information in the briefcase was enough to indict dozen of people in the United States government and business sector for their involvement in drug and human trafficking. Unlike the mainstream media in America that is often complacent and criminally negligent when it comes to stories of corruption in the government, the Singapore media was ordered by the Prime Minister to do a complete investigation of the information in the briefcase. When the investigators found it to be credible, it was published worldwide. The international outrage left the politicized Department of Justice in Washington no other choice but to arrest, prosecute and imprison dozens of Americans and Mexicans.

John Costello was honorably discharged from the Marines and he moved on to the next chapter of his life. He could have started a lucrative career as a troubleshooter for Shell Oil, but decided to work for Prime Minister Yew as his personal liaison to the Singapore Anti-Trafficking Unit.

The two Mexican girls were given a new life in Singapore, a country where they would could feel safe and protected. Their days of being at the mercy of predators were over for them, thanks to the courage of former Marine Johnny Costello.

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore has often been called the Benevolent Dictator and like Johnny Costellothey both knew that, being kind doesn’t mean being weak.

The End


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  1. Tom says:

    Happy Sunday, Tom! A pleasant day here on the East Coast and you share a great story for us to enjoy. It has all the ingredients for a blockbuster saga: USMC, a beautiful woman and a slew of corrupt politicians and crooks. Add to that a slice of Paradise: Singapore….a bastion of beauty and civility in the Far East. Thanks for making this Sunday so enjoyable.

  2. wolf says:

    another good one. too bad it is not a true story.

    we are not doing too well in this country. bringing our corrupt politicians to justice,

  3. John michels says:

    another great story Tom.

  4. Chip says:

    Fantastic story, great writing.

  5. Skip says:

    Another nail-biter of a story! Intrigue, corruption, heroism, rescue by the Marines and an international cooperative. Good job!

  6. Tony says:

    Wow, an action packed adventure story in this Sunday’s Vista Press by Mr. Thomas Calabrese that crosses all barriers, governments, military, international borders, the drug cartels, and a coveted government agency that works in mysterious ways. Taking one facet of the this story “Drugs” one has to wonder “why” with the concentrated efforts of so many agencies and governments why have we seen an increase in drug activity? It appears to me drugs are more prevalent today than ever before and the cities, state’s & federal government aiding the drug addicts by supplying them drug paraphernalia and safe places to use drugs?. Mr. Calabrese writes with so much truth it is difficult to believe this story is fiction. His research is uncanny and at times I wonder if he is not the “Fly on the Wall” in government’s office listening to a conversation that is not meant for public consumption? I have read and heard a lot about “Human Trafficking” recently. Again, not new, but no one bothered to do much about it. The local police have always taken and filed reports but a concentrated or coordinated effort by the government and other agencies have not received much attention. Mr. Calabrese injects some great heroes into his story that take action regardless of the consequences. True hero’s that act out of patriotism and because it is the right thing to do. We could use some real hero’s starting on a local level that will get involved and do the right thing to make a better and safer place to live. Thank you Mr. Calabrese for another “eye opening” story and hope people take heed to what is occurring around them in their local city.

  7. Mona says:

    Thanks for the very entertaining story! Another good one.

  8. Clyde says:

    Another great story to add to the list. From Vietnam to Singapore, Mexico and America. This story covered years and thousands of miles. A true epic.

  9. Jeremy says:

    A great mix of history and fiction. I always learn something that I didn’t know when I read one of Tom’s stories.

  10. Janet says:

    Thanks for another interesting story

  11. Jon Gregory Nielsen says:

    Thanks a lot for another exciting story and for the history and reality of life in Singapore.

    Tom, to you and your faithful reading associates, here’s hoping you all have a most enjoyable Labor Day weekend.

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