Photos by Q Concepts
Unapologetic for his views on survivalism and television executives alike, former U.S. Army Green Beret Mykel Hawke has cut a unique and wide-ranging path through life. He first became famous for his work on the TV show Man, Woman, Wild, which featured him and his wife, Ruth England, being dropped into various real-deal (and at times too real) survival scenarios. He's also taught survival classes for more than 20 years, earned the Combat Infantry Badge in Afghanistan following Sept. 11, was rated by the Army to speak seven different languages, and has somehow managed to stay humble about all of it.
“For me, the Green Berets was the poor man's passport to the world,” he says. “Some people join because it's a calling for them. For a lot of people the military is a way out of poverty. But people have to remember that it's all of America that makes America great — it's every teacher, every trash guy, everybody.”
We spoke with him in person at ALTAIR Training Solutions, an all-hazards tactical training compound located on the fringes of the Florida Everglades. We discussed how to introduce kids to survival skills, his thoughts on the recent Las Vegas shooting, and why one night a year spent camping in Ft. Living Room can make all the difference.
RECOIL OFFGRID: What was your childhood like?
Mykel Hawke: Sh*tty. You gotta remember, it's the Vietnam era. My father was a soldier, and my mother was a waitress. My dad went off to Vietnam, decided he liked it, stayed there for two more tours. My mom and dad split up, he married a Panamanian lady to give us some sort of mother, but she was evil as hell. She beat us all the time.
You mean like … all the time?
MH: Oh yeah. It was a turning point in my life. One Sunday morning, I was starving. She didn't feed us much. But she did beat us with boards she had cut holes into and then rub salt into our wounds. One Sunday I got up, went into the cabinet, and saw a package of Twinkies. I took one of those and I ate it. Well, of course, she found it — she must have had a Twinkie count or something. When I admitted it to her, she beat me, locked me in a closet, and said, “You're not gonna eat anything for 24 hours.”
So I'm locked in the closet; I'm crying because I got beat. Finally, in the evening I'm starving, saying please give me some food. So she knew I hated peas, and this … pleasant lady … opens up the closet. She says, “If you're really hungry you'll eat these peas.”
I looked at her, and in my mind I told myself that you will find my skeleton bones in this closet in the morning before I eat those peas. And I didn't. When she opened up the door in the morning I could see the shock on her face. I took a pride in that and from that point on I knew. I said to myself, I don't understand what she's doing to me, but I know it's wrong, and when I grow up I'm going to help other people who can't help themselves.
How did that influence you going forward?
MH: Two things. First, that pea incident means that to this day I don't eat peas, just as a personal political protest. Second, when I first learned about the Green Berets, I found out that their whole motto is De oppresso liber, “To free the oppressed.” And I decided, that's who I am, that's what I fight for. We fight bullies.
And that situation is what got me into survival. When I got to about 14 years old she tried to beat me again. By this time I was bigger, so I grabbed the belt and took it from her, and I told her, “No more.” So she threw me out. I ended up spending a whole winter as a teenager sleeping on the streets. Sleeping in stairwells, in dumpsters. I figured out that I could go behind grocery stores and sleep behind HVAC vents to get some heat. I learned they throw away a lot of good food in grocery stores every day. I learned all of this survival stuff because I had to.
Talk to us about your military background.
MH: I served for four years in the U.S. Army as an active duty soldier. After that I served in the reserves while putting myself through college. I served in Afghanistan, worked as a country manager for special operations medics in Iraq, and got shot at on deployment in El Salvador, Turkey, and Thailand. Eventually I became a private military contractor where I worked in Colombia, Haiti, Sierra Leone, and Azerbaijan. That's four more contracts, and all of them I got shot at and people were trying to kill me.
What's the difference between a soldier and a contractor?
MH: It's like comparing a security guard to a police officer. A contractor can pick what they want to do. They have a choice to quit. A contractor might have worked in a war zone — like they have Pizza Hut and Starbucks there now, but a soldier serves in combat by fighting. So for a military contractor to say he's a combat veteran like a soldier is, they can kiss my d*ck. I call myself a combat veteran only because of my combat experience serving as a soldier in Afghanistan — not because of my military contracting I did in other places, even though I got shot at.
How did you get into the military and survival?
MH: Well, I got shot and stabbed before I ever joined the army. I was an honor roll student, and I was in the chess club. But because I was so poor, no one would hang out with me, so I started hanging out with the gangsters. And I didn't do drugs, so it was real easy for me to just say, “Guys, if you just organize a little here and a little here, we can sell better here. So we started turning a profit, and we started kicking the other gang's butts because we were unified. So the stuff that we did, I hate to say it, but we did some pretty cool stuff.
But when I had a buddy who got killed, and another one who went to jail for killing someone, I said to myself, this cycle of poverty is a one-way street to death or jail. The only way I'm going to break this cycle is to get an education, and the only way for me to do that was to join the Army. That's why I joined — so I could go to college. So as soon as I turned 17 in 1982, they shipped me off to basic training and that led me to Special Forces.
As I got older in the military, I was really fascinated with all these old Vietnam-era guys who knew all these old survival things. But when I went into SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) School, we only spent three days on survival out of a three-week course. I said to myself, this is all we're going to learn? I realized that this is not enough. So what happens is that even the special ops guys don't know primitive survival skills in a lot of cases. People just don't know this stuff so I started teaching it to people. Long before it was a TV show, long before it was cool. I wasn't a weirdo, and I didn't want to teach weirdos. But things like medicine, first aid, survival — these are things everybody can use and they're applicable to everyday life. So it became my passion. One thing led to another, and I started a business doing it in 1994.
How did you get your start in TV?
MH: When Sept. 11 happened, I was living in L.A., still serving in the National Guard. So we watched those assholes fly the second plane into a building and I told my sons, “Hey, as a single father of two boys, I can get a compassionate reassignment and not go to war, or I can go to war because I'm Special Forces.” And they told me, “Dad, go over there and go kick some ass.”
So I mobilized, and I went to war for two years. When I came back the Green Berets were all in the news, because we went in there on horseback and all that kind of good stuff. All my media friends didn't really know any Green Berets except me. So they would ask me, “Myke, do you mind being a subject-matter expert on this or on that?” I thought sure, what the hell.
Then finally they asked me, if you had your own show what you would end up doing? I said well, I'd take my wife out surviving, and maybe do a special ops competition, and things went on from there. I looked at it like this: I didn't give a rat's ass about TV, but I liked teaching survival skills, and this was a way to reach more people.
Are survival shows education or entertainment? What are your general impressions?
MH: Networks think that people are stupid, and production companies only want money. It comes down to the people they feature and their core character. There are great folks like Ray Mears, Les Stroud, and Cody Lundin who care more about teaching. Then there are folks like Bear (Grylls) who favor entertainment, and then there are some who are just flat frauds and charlatans.
How about your experiences on the TV shows Man, Woman, Wild; One Man Army, and Lost Survivors. Does one stand out to you?
MH: We nearly died a bunch of times on Man, Woman, Wild. People don't realize how tough those shows were and how real they were. For the desert one, I told them, “Let's not film in the day. Let's film at dusk or at night with a full moon when we got better illumination.” But they made us film in the day, and they nearly killed us. My wife ended up getting heat stroke, and I grabbed the cameraman by the neck, looked into the camera because I knew the producers were watching from 1/2 mile away on their little screen, and I said, “If my wife does not leave this desert, none of you will.” That's when they called the medic in.
What do you think sets your shows apart from others?
MH: I feel as a Special Forces guy, I owe it to my brothers and to my people to be real about what I say and what I do. The networks will ask me, “Why don't you be more like Bear Grylls and jump off some cliffs and do backflips into the water?”
I tell them, “I won't do that because it's stupid and it's wrong, and it will get people killed. I will do stuff that is safe and has sound principles. I'm sure it's not as sexy and as cool as you would like it to be, but it's real.”
It's always a balance of trying to give the networks what they want versus doing what you believe is right for your teaching and your principles, and also for your brotherhood and your community. You're always going to have people you can't make happy, so I do what I believe is right. You can judge me all the f*ck you want. I live with myself, and I don't regret sh*t that I do because I do what I believe.
What do you have coming up?
MH: Besides the survival videos for kids we're planning, I just did an episode of ABC's The Bachelor, where my wife and I took them all out on a “survival date.” So Ruth and I taught these girls basic survival so The Bachelor could figure out which of the 12 girls he likes. Ruth and I taught them shelter, food, water, and navigation. Also, I just did an episode of Valor for CW, doing background acting as a mission control officer.
We're also creating an adventure race that incorporates not only obstacles, but also live-fire weapons and primitive weapons. So you're gonna get to shoot a pistol, rifle, shotgun, a sniper rifle, an automatic weapon, but also get to throw a spear, an atlatl, a blowdart, slingshot, hatchet, and a knife. So you're gonna run, do an obstacle, then do a target with a modern weapon, then use a primitive weapon. And it's for families as well as elite guys. We're doing it all at the main ALTAIR Training Solutions facility in Immokalee [Florida]. We'll break ground on the obstacle course in February and we hope to have it up and running by next fall.
But the coolest thing coming up right away is an eight-hour special for The History Channel called Frontiersmen. It's made by Leonardo DiCaprio's production company who made The Revenant. I think it will reinstall in America not only who we are, learning about our roots, but hopefully showing everyone that survival is in all of us. It's from our forefathers so get back to it. The more self-reliant you are, the better everybody is because there's one less body to be taken care of.
Do you think that survivalism is a skillset or a mindset?
MH: Mindset is important; you can't do it without the mindset. But the mindset without the skillset will not serve you. Unless you practice survival you are not a survival guy. For example, I can carry a gun because I have the mindset to shoot it. But if I don't practice with the gun, I can't depend on hope and luck to see me through a firefight. Sorry, but that's poor planning. That's asking mostly to get killed with your own gun still in your hand, and how embarrassing is that?
The mindset is a crucial component, because if you don't have the will to live you're not going to make it. I get people in my survival classes all the time who want to quit. It usually happens in my Kill Class. We take a cute little bunny rabbit that sounds like a little baby when you kill it. It's horrible. But I tell them, you have to learn to kill it because you might have to eat it someday. You can get more energy and sustenance off this rabbit than off three days of foraging out there. It's easier to get your energy from animals than from plants, plain and simple.
So I tell these people, you've got to go through this once in your life, and hopefully never have to do it again. And people always want to say, “I'm not going to do it, I'm not going to kill anything.”
And I respond, “OK, here's a pen and paper. Think of who you love the most in this world. Write to them that, “I love you with all my heart, but I love this little bunny rabbit more than you, so I'm going to lay down and die so that this bunny rabbit can live, and I'm never going to see you again.” Usually at that point they say, “Give me the rabbit.”
What about teaching survival to kids?
MH: With my first boys I'd wake them up at 3 in the morning and do fire drills, make them crawl blindfolded on the floor to find the phone and dial 911, and get out to the middle of the yard. They hated me for it, but I taught them everything I could about survival. I was maybe too aggressive with them as a younger man, and I didn't make it fun. And now, I try to make it fun so I take my boy out camping once a year with a sole mission: to learn survival stuff. If you can bring in humor, that's where people's minds are open. That's why I don't bust people's asses in my class. I make it real easy and relaxed, and let them have fun.
So actually what I'm doing with my younger third son, because the internet is so different now, we plan to start making home videos where the wife and I are gonna teach him, and then he's gonna teach kids. That way he can explain how he's learned it from us and how thinks it would be better for kids to learn from him.
Are there any specific survival skills that are good to teach kids?
MH: Yeah, train your kids how to start a fire. It's not just as easy as lighting a match. You've gotta know how to make the tinder ball and then how to build it. I've seen people with fireplaces that don't know how to get a fire going because they don't know how to build it up from the base. If you can make it fun for your kids they will learn it, and they'll be so proud and confident. And then as a parent you'll be confident too. You don't have to be a weirdo prepper living in your basement and drinking your pee. The fact is that sh*t's gonna happen, and the government can't do everything for you, and it's gonna take them a while to get there and help you.
How can readers plan to take care of themselves before help arrives?
MH: You should carry 24 hours' worth of survival supplies on your body at all times. Carry three days' of survival stuff in your car or on your little pack, and keep seven days' worth in your office, in your plane, or your little log cabin. Last you need to have a 30-day supply of everything you need in your home.
I always tell people that, once a year, they should have an indoor campout using just their survival gear. Turn off your power. Don't run any water. Don't use any gas. Live in Ft. Living Room without any of those things. Then, open your sh*t. Play with it — let your family see where it's stored and how it works. You'll find that some stuff doesn't work! Some stuff breaks, erodes, or corrodes. Do you have a way to wash clothes for a month? Do you have a way to cook food, or get rid of your trash for a month? When you do your indoor campout, you'll figure lots of these things out.
Compared to the mental and physical aspects of preparedness, how important is your gear while you're out adventuring?
MH: I will kid you not, gear is key. The better it is, the better everything is. It's no substitute for skills, but without gear, skills can make substitutes! But too much gear can be as bad as too little — carrying too much can wear you down, and if you don't know how to use it all, it can cause you grief in a critical moment of need. Like they say, balance is the key in all things.
What would you say is the biggest mistake you see rookie survivalists make?
MH: Thinking that they can make a fire quickly or build a shelter easily, underestimating the need for water, and overestimating their physical abilities.
What lessons, if any, did you personally draw from the Las Vegas mass shooting?
MH: Man, that is just a sad tragedy with no just reason for it. But that aside, in my time as a military contractor as well as my service as a soldier, I've encountered many coups and rebel attacks. So, how I live and operate applies here too and maybe some can benefit from this.
First, I try to always pack heat and stay close to cover and an egress/exit whenever I go to public venues. I also try not to be in the middle or right on the edges — just close enough to escape, but not take the rounds if it comes from the edges. But in this case, my pistol would not have done anything to stop that guy from so high with long guns, so the best you can do is be calm, be brave, try to help others, and pray that God doesn't wanna call you home just yet.
I've saved so many lives under fire, at times I just knew my brains were gonna get popped any second. But it never came, and I just focused on saving one man at a time. We're all gonna die, so go out doing good, and if you survive, you survive with honor. Either way, you win, in my book anyway.
How can you tell when an individual you come in contact with is going to be a threat?
MH: Most threats are conveying their intentions long before they get to you. They are out hunting and targeting, so if you're alert, chances are you'll sense it and then gear up your guard a notch or two. Situational awareness is vital, and it sure helps to always be ready as you can't always sense it. Often we're so busy with other things in the moment that we might miss the vital clues, but they are usually there unless you have been pre-targeted.
And in that case, things are going either too well or too many odd things at once should cue you up. I'm the kinda guy who when I hear gun fire, I take a second to look for the immediate threat, but then instantly look around to see if that is only the distraction for an actual larger operation or the start of an ambush. Bottom line: train yourself to respond, and stay in response-on-tap mode with situational awareness as your trigger mechanism.
What threats do you prepare for?
MH: On a daily basis I prepare for the threats of robbery, travel breakdowns, and security and safety on air, land, and sea. Then in the bigger picture, I prepare for natural disasters, as those also cover warfare both large and small, and even terrorism.
I don't prepare for NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) attack for a reason. With nuclear either you're dead or not, ASAP from the blast or shortly after if you're in the gamma ray zone. The fallout zone can be minimized and, to a degree, avoided.
The idea of preparing for the biological and chemical is funny to me. I went to the chemical warfare school. I know that most of the things man can make to kill his fellow man, we have no protections against. The NBC/MOPP suits and gas masks only stop about 3 percent of all the hateful things out there so they're really just providing a false sense of comfort and confidence. If you are where they pop the canister, if it's the bad stuff — and that is cheap and easy to make — then you're nailed.
The hopeful part is this: Those things are hard to disperse on a wide scale, and we have amazing folks fighting to stop those buttheads from doing it every day. What we can't ever predict or stop, sadly, is the rare radical homegrown monster like the Las Vegas killer. Humans are humans and as such, some things will always be unpredictable. But that doesn't mean we should give up our rights or give up hope. The best way to win is live well and keep fighting.
|Hometown: Louisville, KY|
|Base of Operations: Tropical Southern Florida|
|Family: Wife, three sons, two grandkids|
|Education: Master's Degree in Psychology for Family Counseling, Bachelor's Degree in Pre-Med Biology|
|Favorite Quote: “I may have been on the losing side, but I am not convinced it was the wrong side.” — Captain Reynolds in Myke's favorite TV series Firefly|
|Favorite TV Show: Firefly|
|Favorite Film: Serenity|
|Last Book Read: A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge|
|Scars: Knife (left shoulder), bullet (right lower back), appendectomy scar|
|Favorite Knife: Sparrow Hawke|
|Favorite Firearm: Glock 26 and AK-47|
|Military Background: U.S. Army Special Forces, Green Beret Combat Commander|
|Martial Arts Background: Blackbelt in Judo and Aikido|
Food: Breakfast bar, beef jerky, and vitamin pack
Water Storage: condom, Ziplock bag with purification tablets
Fire: Lighter and magnesium bar
Shelter: Trash bag
Signal: Dakota Watch Green Angler II Ana-Digi Clip Watch, phone
First Aid: Cravat bandage and medications
Multitools: Swiss Army SwissChamp Multi-tool (city), Leatherman Multi-tool (field), and Hawke Knives Tacti-Tool for EDC.