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Calendar >  Stolen Valor – Thomas Calabrese

Stolen Valor – Thomas Calabrese

By   /  February 19, 2023  /  12 Comments


Shrouded in Secrecy

Thomas Calabrese -Pete Sinclair and Mike Toriano first met while serving in the 75th Ranger Regiment of the United States Army. Mike came from San Clemente, California and was an avid surfer and scuba diver. He was laid back and easygoing, kind of like a gentle wave flowing toward shore. He was the essence of cool on the outside, but a patriotic fire simmered inside him.  Some men made the mistake of assuming that his quiet demeanor was an indication that he was weak, but nothing could be further from the truth, Pete never went looking for trouble, but if it came looking for him, he was prepared to face it head on. He could have been the poster boy for the saying, ‘still waters run deep.’

Mike Toriano was from Conroe, Texas and like the wild wind that came whipping across the open prairie of his home state, he was a force of nature. He participated in bull riding events and was an accomplished mixed martial arts fighter. When Mike came into the room, he didn’t have to say a word, people could feel the positive energy he projected. He was gregarious, charismatic and had a self-deprecating sense of humor. Mike walked on the edge of impending doom, spit in the face of the grim reaper and pushed himself to the limit, then took it one step beyond.

You might think that Pete and Mike’s personalities would clash like the immovable object against the irresistible force, but that was not the case. No two men could be closer friends.  They were professional warriors and their friendship was forged in the searing heat of combat and strengthened by a code of conduct that few men have the courage to follow.

It had been a rough month for the Special Operators of Delta Force, Bravo Team. They engaged in three firefights against Chinese mercenaries in the West African country of Mali who were seeking to expand their influence on to the continent. The Americans endured harsh desert conditions of hot days and freezing nights. The lack of sleep and nourishment took a physical toll on them as they hiked through sand that was so deep that they sank up to their knees in some locations. The resolve of the American warriors was more than enough for the dangerous environment.  

The United States had recently shot down four slow flying balloons inside United States air space and China vowed revenge for the over-reaction. They accused America of sparking a new crisis in bilateral relations and instigating a confrontation. When an American surveillance satellite that was orbiting the earth was targeted by a Chinese Communist laser beam, it crashed into the area called the Tenere Desert. This area covers 154,000 square miles in the countries of Niger and Chad and is one of the most unforgiving regions in the Sahara.  It is also one of the most remote areas in the world.

Bravo Team had hoped to be airlifted to their home base after their last firefight for some much needed rest and recuperation, but that was not to be. They were informed of the urgency of the situation and given the following orders: ‘Retrieve the hard drive if possible and destroy the satellite.’ In order to do this, the team had to beat a Chinese retrieval team to the crash site. A  UH-60 Blackhawk landed and Bravo Team boarded. The men ate some hot chow, refilled their canteens and got more rations and ammunition while in-route to the landing zone. Pete put on his headphones and listened the Beach Boys greatest hits and Mike chose George Strait for his in-flight entertainment.

One of the crewmen opened a cooler and passed out ice cream bars to the Delta Force team. For a brief moment, they were like little kids. Simple pleasures are sometimes the best. The Blackhawk began taking incoming fire from Chinese mercenaries on the ground and the pilots took evasive maneuvers to get out of harms’ way. They dropped off the Special Operators on the other side of a massive sand dune and quickly took off.

Pete accessed navigational Intel on his forearm mounted tablet and turned to his comrades, “Three clicks at a Northwest heading…I’ll take point.”

Mike assumed rear guard and the team moved out at double-time. After 45 minutes of hard hiking, Pete noticed the crash site up ahead and called the team together to develop their plan. Bill Westmore noticed Chinese mercenaries moving in the same direction, “We got bogeys on the left flank.”

Frank Shannon got down on the ground and removed his sniper rifle from its scabbard. He made some calculations of wind and distance, took aim and fired off five shots. Five men went down in rapid succession, “That should slow them down a little.”

            “Let’s move,” Pete said.

When Bravo Team was within 50 yards of the downed satellite, the Chinese unleashed a barrage of mortars to stop the American’s advance to their objective. Pete and two other members of the team were wounded by shrapnel and could not proceed. Medic Dan Russell proceeded to render emergency medical treatment. Pete was also disoriented from the concussion of the blast.

Mike put his hand on his buddy’s shoulder and reassured him, “I got this…you just relax. I’ll be back.”

While the rest of the team provided suppressive fire, Mike took two explosive charges, put them in his pack and commented, “It’s time to put a little lightning in my step,” and took off in a full sprint while weaving in a figure eight pattern to make himself a more difficult target to hit.

There was a massive explosion and the satellite was destroyed and all top secret Intel was obliterated in the blast. The mission was only a partial success since Bravo Team was not able to retrieve the hard drive, but the real disaster was that Mike Toriano disappeared on that day. The rest of the team was airlifted out, but the men wanted to go back for Mike. Their request for a rescue operation was denied and the helicopter returned to home base.

This was a Black Ops mission and the members of Bravo Team were told that the operation was designated Top Secret and were ordered never to speak about it again. It has always been common practice for American military personnel to go back for the body of a fallen comrade or at least make an effort. ‘Leave No Man Behind’ was an essential component of Special Operations. Command told Bravo Team that going back to the area was too dangerous. Too dangerous! Aw hell, the men of Bravo would walk through the Valley of Death and give up their own lives to bring back one of their own.

Pete was too badly injured and would only slow down his teammates if he went along, so he reluctantly stayed behind. When the rest of the team was caught on the airfield trying to board a helicopter they were arrested and restricted to quarters. The collective outrage of Bravo Team was off the charts especially after orders came down from the Pentagon to disband the unit. Those who decided to stay in the Army reluctantly accepted the transfers in order to get their full twenty years in, while others decided to leave the service. Pete’s injuries were severe enough that they ended his Special Operations career so he started the process for a medical discharge. What literally destroyed him was how things transpired. If Mike was killed in action, he could accept that because that was a risk that every Special Operator realizes is part of the job, but in this case there was no closure. Was his friend killed by small arms fire or perished in the explosion? Whatever the case, Mike earned the right to come home, alive or dead.

It was amazing how quickly the State Department came up with a false scenario and designated Mike Toriano as Missing in Action while on a routine patrol. Pete felt that the current administration was covering up something, but it was a top secret mission so he couldn’t question anybody about it. To put it mildly, he was between the proverbial rock and a hard place. After a few weeks recovering from his wounds and getting his separation paperwork, Pete decided to visit Mike’s family in Conroe, Texas. While he could not share the details of the last mission, he wanted to pay his respects and offer his support. Pete wasn’t a stranger to the Toriano family, having met them several times over the years.

Mike’s family was strong and relied heavily on their faith and each other to get through the most difficult situations and this was one of those times. Matt Toriano told Pete, “You were like a brother to Mike and that means you’ll also be a part of our family.”

Pete responded, “Thank you, sir. I wish I could have been with him, but I got nicked up a little.”

Mike’s mother, Ellen was an independent woman who was devastated by the news that her son was missing in action.  She did her crying behind closed doors and maintained a strong demeanor in public. Mike’s sister, Tina was three years younger than him and was an oil, gas and natural resource attorney. She was as beautiful intelligent and an overachiever and like her brother. Tina was extremely close to her brother and was devastated by the bad news. It was much emotional therapy for her top share stories and humorous antedotes about Mike’s early years in Texas.

Mike had a small guest cottage on the far end of the Toriano property and that is where Pete stayed during his visit. He had been in Texas for a week and didn’t want to overstay his welcome. While sharing dinner with the family in the main house, Pete said, “I appreciate the hospitality and I love being here, but it’s time for me to move on.”

Tina quickly protested, “You can’t do that…I mean my dad wants to talk to you.”

            “Our family owns some oil and gas leases throughout Texas and Oklahoma and I can use some help with them so I’d like to offer you a job,” Matt said, “No long term commitment, quit whenever you want.”

            “I know next to nothing about the oil business,” Pete said.

Ellen interjected, “Matt and Tina will teach you everything that you need to know. To be honest with you, Pete we need you to stay. You were the last one to see Mike and that is a powerful connection that we can feel. Unless you have some other place better to be, please accept our offer.”

            “I have no place better to be than right here,” Pete said, “If you want me to stay then that is what I’ll do. Show me how to earn my keep, but I need to give you fair warning, I’m a poor substitute for Mike. He was one of a kind.”

            “He definitely was, but so are you,” Tina smiled.

Maybe it was the ambiance of the situation, but Pete became more convinced with each passing day that his buddy was still alive and in trouble. He learned enough about the oil business to be of use and continue to communicate with members of his former team while working with Matt and Tina.

While speaking with Bill ‘Tiger’ Westmore in Columbia City, Indiana, Pete emphasized, “I still believe that Mike is alive and I’m going after him when I find out where he is.”

 Matt sent Pete to the Permian Basin, one of the largest oil producing areas in Texas to meet with the foreman.  When he arrived at the site, Pete asked one of laborers, “I’m looking for Boomer Walton.”

The man responded, “He’s over by the control shack,” and pointed to his left.

It was late Friday afternoon and most of the men were getting off shift. Boomer Walton was a hard man, impatient and demanding and had been in the oil business since he was a teenager.

Pete approached him, “Excuse me, Matt Toriano sent me, I’m…”

Boomer quickly interrupted, “Come back on Monday.”

            “I was planning on going home tonight,” Pete answered.

Boomer scowled, “Then change your damn plans! We get off early on Fridays.”

            “Nobody told me,” Pete said.

            “Are you new? I’ve never seen you before,” Boomer grumbled.

            “I’ve been working for Mr. Toriano for a couple months.”

            “Now you know not to come at this time,” Boomer said.

Pete didn’t see the point of arguing so he walked back to his car. He noticed a group of men walk into a large barn and was curious to see what was going on. Once inside, he noticed a large metal cage around the boxing ring. 

A bunch of raucous oil workers were sitting on wooden bleachers yelling and cheering. Two men entered the cage. They were wearing small six ounce gloves to protect their knuckles. The man in the center of the makeshift ring said to the two fighters, “You know the rules…don’t break ‘em! Let’s fight!”

The two men wasted no time wailing on each other. They had much more enthusiasm than they did skills and by the second round, they were both bloodied and exhausted. Pete noticed Boomer Walton sitting in front and taking bets. After three more fights, Boomer stood up and announced, “Shut the hell up!” The place went quiet, “I’m giving three to one odds for anyone willing to take on Big Jim!” There was no answer. “Oh c’mon, there has to be somebody with some guts!” Still no answer. Boomer added, “Okay, five to one odds.”

There was a long silence before a voice from the back of the barn called out, “I’ll take that bet.”

            “Who said that?” Boomer asked.

Pete walked into the open, “I did.”

            “You’re the guy that works for Toriano, aren’t you?”

            “That would be me,” Pete said.

            “I don’t want Matt coming down here because we sent his boy to the hospital,” Boomer said.

            “I work for him, but I take responsibility for my own decisions,” Pete said.

Boomer said, “You ain’t seen Big Jim, maybe you’ll change your mind once you see him. Big Jim, let this fella’ take a look at you.”

Big Jim walked out from behind a storage container. He stood six foot eight inches tall, weighed 290 pounds. His arms were about the size of most men’s thighs and his legs were like tree trunks. He was bald and heavily tattooed. He was a bear of a man and even though Pete was 6 foot 2 inches tall and weighed 190 pounds, he appeared much smaller when compared to the massive brute.

            “Change your mind?” Boomer asked.

Pete pulled some money from his pocket, “I’ve got $200, but when this over I want the information that I came for and I don’t want you telling me to wait until Monday.”

Boomer laughed, “You probably won’t even wake up until sometime next week, but you got it.”

There was an older man named Vince working the corner and Boomer called to him, “Get this warrior some gloves.”

While Pete stood quietly in his corner, Big Jim strutted around the cage, posing, growling and stirring up the crowd. He got in Pete’s face with a threat, “I’m going to bust you up!”

The crowd’s enthusiasm was at a fevered pitch, wanting blood and action.

Vince warned, “I’ve seen Big Jim do some serious damage to his opponents. He’s a bad dude and once he senses weakness he’s like a hungry predator who has cornered his prey. That’s the least of your problems, he’s bad to the bone and addicted to inflicting pain on others. If he wasn’t a fighter, he’d be in solitary confinement for mass murder.”

Pete smiled, “That’s a hell of a resume. Any suggestions on how to fight him?”

            “Run and hope he doesn’t catch you,” Vince answered.

            “I won’t be doing that,” Pete smiled.

Both men walked to the center of the ring and the referee said, “On my signal gentlemen,” then raised his hand and said, “Fight!”

Before Big Jim could react, Pete unleashed a barrage of punches and kicks and did not stop until Big Jim was lying motionless and unconscious on the floor. The fight lasted all of 52 seconds. Everybody was dumfounded and speechless. They just stared at the massive hunk motionless flesh.

Later, Boomer was getting the information that Pete wanted and after that he counted out ten $100 dollar bills, “I didn’t think I’d ever see anybody go through Big Jim like you did. Where in the hell did you learn to fight?”

            “I’ve picked up a few tricks from some very good men,” Pete shrugged modestly.

As he was leaving the jobsite, everybody stopped working and gave Pete a standing ovation.

 Boomer yelled out, “Next time you come, you won’t have to wait for anything, you got my word on that!”

While watching cable news one evening, Pete saw a story about a former State Department employee, who was running for a Senate seat. Felix Shifton was speaking at the San Antonio VFW Post about his covert assignment with Delta Force. ‘We were in the Sahara Desert and I was walking point when we came under fire from Chinese mercenaries. We were outnumbered and the only thing I could think of to do was attack the enemy and divert their attention away from my fellow patriots. Time was of critical importance so I took some explosive charges and raced to a downed surveillance satellite while bullets nipped at my heels and whizzed by my ears. I was only one step away from certain death. When the mission was successfully completed, the men of Bravo Team came up to me with tears in their eyes and told me that what I did was one of the bravest things that they ever saw.  You know how I replied to them?  I said that nothing is too much, no danger or sacrifice is too great when it comes to protecting the country I love. In conclusion, if you elect me to the Senate, I swear to bring the same kind of bravery and courage to the Capitol that I showed in the Sahara Desert.”

The Veterans burst into applause and Shifton walked around the room shaking hands. He told one veteran, “I informed the State Department that doing my job was all the reward I wanted, but they still recommended me for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest award that an American civilian can receive.”

The Saint Anthony is the most beloved of all San Antonio’s luxury hotels. It is opulent and a favorite of the wealthy, politicians and A-list celebrities. After a night of socializing in the hotel bar where he fabricated more stories about his heroic exploits, an inebriated Felix Shifton made his way to his suite on the seventh floor. Just after he used his key-card, a person came up from behind, pushed Shifton inside and choked the aspiring politician into unconsciousness.

When Shifton awakened, he was duct-taped to a chair and a piece of tape was over his mouth. Facing him was a man with a mask over his face. The man warned, “I am going to remove the tap off your mouth. You do not want to yell…understand?”

Shifton nodded and the man ripped off the gag.

Shifton feared for his life and blurted out, “Are you going to kill me? I’m begging you, don’t kill me.”

            “That depends on you,” The man waved a large bladed knife in front of Shifton’s face.

            “Take anything you want,” Shifton stammered.

            “I know about that mission in Africa, I want to know how you know.”

Shifton cried, “I knew this was a mistake, but they told me that since it was a secret mission, nobody would come forward to dispute the claims.”

            “Who’s they?” The man asked then added, “I want details.”

            “Some people in the administration approached me about running for office. I was just a senior analyst with the State Department with a top security clearance and zero political aspirations before all this started. They offered me an enormous cash bonus and promised to fund my campaign if I just said what they told me,” Shifton sobbed, “I figured I had nothing to lose, if I win, I’ll go to Congress and get rich and if I lose, I’ll still be living it up on the campaign trail. I’m just a government flunky, just one of millions of sheep who does what he’s told. ”

            “The next question is very very important and will determine your life expectancy so be extremely thoughtful and completely honest before answering. Am I clear?”

Shifton swallowed hard, “Yeah…yeah, I understand.”

            “What do you know about Sergeant First Class Michael Toriano? If you lie to me, I’ll cut your heart out.”

Shifton quickly volunteered the information, “He’s being held by the Chinese at a secure location in Ambaca, Angola. Beijing has been trying to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the State Department, but they’re asking too much in return for Toriano.”

Pete cut the restraints off Shifton’s ankles and wrists and gave him a warning, “I’d keep this meeting private. If you tell your handlers, you’ll become a disposable liability.”

            “Are you going to do anything to me for lying about the mission?” Shifton asked fearfully.

Pete responded, “There’s always a price to pay for stolen valor, but I’ll leave that up to someone else to collect. I’ve got other things to do. You won’t see me again if you gave me correct Intel otherwise I’ll find you. Close your eyes and count slowly to 25.”

By the time Shifton finished counting, Pete was long gone. The bureaucrat was trembling in fear perspiring heavily and could barely stand up. Shifton staggered to the bathroom and threw up.

Joe ‘Doc’ Dockery and Paul Kendall flew with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. They were now partners in an air transport company based in San Angelo, Texas. Most of their business was contracted by the federal government to transport military equipment all over the world. Pete had flown with both men on missions in the past so he met with the pilots at the airfield and got right to the point, “One of our men is in trouble and I need your help.”

Doc replied, “You got it.”

            “We’re listening,” Paul said.

After explaining the situation, Doc responded, “I’ll put a flight plan together.”

Pete made two dozen phone calls and by the next night, former members of Delta Force began arriving at Mathis Field in San Angelo. Soon after that, thirty-five highly trained weapons of destruction were on a transport plane bound for Angola.

The Chinese compound was well fortified, but nothing that Pete and his comrades couldn’t handle. A dozen explosive charges were planted around the perimeter to create chaos and numerous diversions. A dozen snipers armed with Barrett .50 caliber rifles found strategic locations to provide cover fire. Pete was leading the insertion team and said, “We know the drill, Mike’s in there, let go get him!”

The explosions were staggered to confuse the Chinese and the snipers began picking off sentries as the team began searching for Mike. Pete shot several armed guards then went down a hallway followed by three men.  They saw Mike locked in a cell and he smiled broadly when he saw his best friend and comrades, “It’s good to see you.”

            “I was in the neighborhood, you ready to go home?” Pete joked.

            “You don’t have to ask me twice.”

One of the former Delta Force Operators placed two small explosive shape charges on the hinges of the steel door and blew it open. Upon reaching the perimeter, Pete handed Mike a javelin missile launcher, “Care to do the honors?”

            “Don’t mind if I do,” Mike took aim at a large fuel tank, fired and turned the entire compound into a blazing inferno.

Upon his return to the United States, the Pentagon and State Department demanded to know who performed the rescue and inflicted so much damage on the Chinese worksite. Mike shrugged, “I wish I could help you, but to the best of my recollection, I don’t recollect.”

The administration did not want the publicity of a court martial because they had too many issues that they were trying to hide from the American public so they quietly discharged Mike Toriano with full benefits.

Felix Shipton easily won his election to the Senate, having hitched his horse to the political bandwagon of lies and deceit. Most Special Operators choose to remain unknown because they don’t like publicity. They also make a lot of enemies in their line of business so they don’t want to make themselves a target any more than they have to.

The newly elected Senator did not consider this when he made a deal with the devil. He was casually walking down Olive Street in Dallas on his way to the upscale eatery, Perry’s Steakhouse and Grill. An Asian woman walked up behind him and pulled a .22 caliber pistol equipped with a noise suppressor from her pocket. She pushed the barrel of the weapon to the back of Shifton’s skull and put a bullet in his brain. He was dead before he hit the pavement.

Here’s two statements of warning to consider, you can either take them to heart or drop them by the wayside. If you want Stolen Valor then be prepared to take the risks. The other one is, the special operations world is shrouded in secrecy so be careful what you want to know…it just might get you killed.                               

The End


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  1. Tom says:

    Very well done and very believable. There are a lot of armchair stolen valor heroes in the world and for them to get their just desserts like Shifton got just warms my heart! Big Jim obviously had a glass jaw! Cheers.

  2. john michels says:

    The story kept me riveted. Very enjoyable

  3. wolf says:

    Great story. I like the way Tom describes the Harsh conditions of the Mali desert.

    When I was serving as the Marine Corps Liaison officer at Picatinny Arsenal in dover N.J I got involved with the Marine Corps League.

    There was a heavily decorated Viet Nam Colonel That was a league member. He turned out to be a fraud and if I Rember correctly Committed suicide.

  4. Robert says:

    I enjoyed reading today’s story. Very well done.

  5. Clyde says:

    Everything that I like and expect from Tom’s stories. Heroes, patriots and bad guys…don’t forget the happy ending.

  6. Bart says:

    Liked the story and research to make it real.

  7. Tony says:

    Many people think we are in a peaceful mode at this time, not true. We have special warfare operations ongoing just as Mr. Thomas Calabrese wrote about in this Sundays Vista Press.These highly trained men are conducting special operations around the world and Africa is a place that many of these operations are taking place. Mr. Calabrese’s story is right on and many Special Operations are taking place as we sleep safely they are risking their lives attempting to avoid another war. Mr. Calabrese was also correct about some politicians selling themselves instead of acting for the people that voted for them as their representative. It is truly sad that people will sell their souls for fame and money. Glad this story had a good ending and the good guys won over the bad guys. Graet story and an “Eye” opener”.

  8. David says:

    Great descriptive story of friendship, duty and and honor. I loved how the story evolved.

  9. Guy says:

    Very entertaining. I liked the way you mixed in the shooting down of the balloons and Chinese incursion into Africa…great mix of truth and fiction.

  10. Skip says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed the story

  11. Bart says:

    Fun storyline.

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