I sat down with retired Lieutenant Commander Mark Kaufmann in New England Sports Academy’s Birthday Party room with two murals of smiling children playing games and blowing out candles on either side of us. Certainly not the images you would expect to see when talking to a Navy man directly involved with the War on Drugs. Mark Kaufman, however, is not your typical Navy man.
Mark spent a good portion of his childhood years in Oceanside, California, which is just north of San Diego. Mark is a very modest, humorous, and compassionate man. He describes the area he grew up in as diverse. What he really means is this is not an area you want to be caught alone in at night.
He recalls vividly his first experience with learning how to defend himself. “I was walking the halls of school and I guess some guys decided I would be a good Jew to use for initiation for the Aryan Brotherhood Gang.” He was attacked with a knife, which he instinctively dodged, and managed to disarm the hostile gangbanger. No initiation for this guy. “I felt bad for him”, Mark said, “not only did he fail against a tiny freshmen, but then he had to deal with the cops and a beat down from the family gang.” That’s Mark for you. Leave it to him to feel bad for a guy who just tried to kill him.
Mark always knew that he wanted to be a Navy man. His father was a doctor in the military for 23 years and was a great role model for Mark. At the time his father enlisted, he did not have a choice. He was just finishing up his fellowship at the Lehey Clinic when a military recruit came into the hospital, looked around, pointed to four different doctors, and informed them they had just been drafted into World War II. While military life was not his first choice, he enjoyed working with the large number of soldiers he came in contact with. Mark mentioned that his father looked at the military as a “huge private practice, but not.” He retired as a Lieutent Commander, as all doctors do, and moved to the Northeast with his family.
When Mark decided that he wanted to enlist and mentioned it to his father, he responded with “you have a distinct lack of creativity in career choices.” This type of humor was another characteristic he passed down to his son, as well as the desire to be a frogman. His mother was very supportive of both her men. She knew it would be hard for Mark, but was “happy that he had a job. There was no sense in trying to talk him out of it, just like his father, he was headstrong and would not listen.” Mark attended college before entering the Navy and was involved in the Department of Naval Sciences where he was a member of the NROTC program. As part of the program, all of the guys would go through boot camp every summer so that they would be prepared right out of college to join the ranks of the Navy. That is also the time when Mark began his SEAL training. Mark attended Hofstra University in New York where he majored in Political Science and graduated with honors.
His first mission was in Central America in 1981 for six months. This is where he first became involved in the War on Drugs. As a kid he had been down there a million times on the weekends with his buddies. Since he lived so close, and didn’t need a passport, it was easy to just run down for the weekend and have some fun. Being down there was slightly different with the military, however. “That is when I really got a taste of what it meant to live a military life versus a civilian life. You give up your liberty when you enter the military; not being able to run wild like I did with my buddies was interesting.” When I asked him what his most vivid memory of his time in Central America was, he replied very frankly, “the smell of shit everywhere.” I was surprised by his response as he could tell. He told me, “You have to understand there is a very different standard of living down there. They don’t have the plumbing and luxuries we have here, so you would literally be bombarded with the smell of shit everywhere.”
Even though Mark was a Navy SEAL, during his time in the Navy he was only involved in one underwater mission. The bulk of his time there was spent above water involved with maritime interdiction. He would spend months on one boat just searching for other boats. They would board a ship, inspect its cargo, take inventory on the types of materials they had on board, and if they found drugs, hold the ship until the coast guard arrived. “Most of what I did was pretty boring. I wasn’t involved in any battles really. It was scary the first few moments boarding another country's ship, not knowing what you would find, but that’s about it.” Even though he stopped large amounts of drugs from entering different countries, he does not view anything he did as heroic. “They said we were stopping terrorists, but really the only people they terrorized were themselves.”
After awhile Mark decided that he’d rather be the one driving the boat instead of getting off the boat. He became a skipper of a 50-foot long, 17 and half foot wide boat that was capable of reaching 45 knots in a matter of seconds. The ship was powered by water jets instead of propellers, which gave it that extra kick. He fell in love. “It was a little guy, but fast,” according to Mark, “it was the best gig in the world and I got to do it for 10 years. I was promoted to Lieutenant Commander while on board, but that didn’t matter much to me. I was just a dumb squid doing what I was told.” Mark retired in 2001 from this position.
Mark’s son is about to graduate from the University of California, San Diego, with plans on being a Navy man just like his father and grandfather. When he told Mark that he wanted to join the Navy, Mark told him the same thing his father told him. “He had a distinct lack of creativity in career choices.” His son has gone through two summers of NROTC and when he graduates he will be a midshipman. Just like Mark at that age, his son has the mentality that he wants to run all over the world killing terrorists to make it a better place. While Mark knows better now, he resists the urge to correct his son on how the world really works. He knows that with all the exposure his son has had with swimming, diving and surfing, no matter what the motivation, he will do just fine. His ex-wife, and mother to his son, encourages their son’s participation in the Navy. “I just want him to live his dream. He’s done it so far by getting into the college that he wanted, now he achieved another by being a Navy man like his father.”
Mark now spends his time coaching kids in a form of marital arts known as Krav Maga. He first learned this type of self-defense during his training for the Navy from the Israeli Army. He has continued to practice it ever since. While he loved being in the Navy, he truly enjoys civilian life. “Now I can grow this thing on my face”, he tells me as he rubs his beard. “I can watch stupid TV shows, mess around in the gym, teach kids something I love to do. If I were 21 would I still want to be in the navy? Sure, but not now.” I asked him if it was hard at first to get used to civilian life and being able to do anything he wanted. He told me that the Navy always taught him to “adapt and overcome,” so that is what he does. That is what he will always do in life, whether he decides to teach Krav Maga for many years to come, or change it up and do something else he loves. “Everyone has to realize that you are always going to be more then one thing. Whether you are in uniform and have to be serious, or whether you are in civilian skivvies and get to be yourself. Just adapt and overcome to your surroundings and you will be fine.”