My cameraman, Ed Ricker, and I are in a blacked-out Chevy Tahoe blazing through North Carolina cornfields toward the Range Complex, a 1,900-acre training facility outside Fort Bragg. Our driver, name redacted, is an active Delta operative, one of the U.S. Army elite specializing in counterterrorism operations. Such as, say, hostage extraction. At night. Usually in countries that the U.S. might not actually be at war with, and thus bereft of available military vehicles. Those criteria make said Chevrolet particularly useful to Delta Force, a relationship Ed and I are here to document. And when it’s time for me to learn to drive like these guys, I’ll be glad the camera is here. It will serve as a sort of bionic external memory so I can concentrate on hustling these mall-crawler SUVs through the corners.
A few days earlier, at a Little League game, I asked a Special Forces friend where the Tahoe and Suburban fit in the military toolbox. “We use them in permissive environments,” he said. “Places like Colombia or Saudi Arabia, where you don’t need an up-armored Humvee.” But you might need to pay someone a surprise visit.
To demonstrate: I grab the passenger seat next to a Delta guy, name redacted, in a Tahoe equipped with an infrared light bar on the roof. It’s nighttime, and from the outside, the light bar doesn’t look like it’s doing anything. But when I flip down the IR monocle on my helmet, the road ahead of us bursts into view as if our headlights were on. And I guess they are, but only for us. Invisible headlights? That’s so awesome.
As the driver blitzes the farm roads, my perspective is like peering through the keyhole on the front door to Dorothy’s house as it flies up into the tornado. Road! Corn! Tractor! It all rushes forward without context. I can feel our driver left-foot-braking into turns, smoothly pitching the Tahoe’s weight onto the front axle and coaxing some rear-end rotation on the dirt.
We pull back into the parking lot. My turn to drive. I swap my monocle for a set of binoculars, adding all-important depth perception to my night-vision experience. Through the goggles, the terrain is an eerie green, the periphery blurred but the center sharp. I’m not trying to replicate a Delta Force pace, but I quickly acclimate to this view of the world. Who needs the visible spectrum?
But from the backseat, the dark is an issue for our video. Ed’s Panasonic AG-DVX200 can shoot in infrared, but the result doesn’t replicate my green-tinged perspective. Still, we get the shot, his ghostly view documenting that, yes, you can in fact drive at night with no headlights.
But even the unusable footage helps me. When I sit down later to write this story, I won’t remember whether it was a tractor or an excavator on the side of the road, or which rally school Name Redacted said he went to. The video will know. It’s different than if I were shooting myself. Whenever I see someone shooting a first-person video of, say, a roller-coaster ride, I feel bad for them because they’re not really immersing themselves in the experience. But if someone else is holding the camera, you can immerse yourself even deeper. Instead of mentally cataloging every moment I want to write about, I focus on the exhilaration of the green night flying at the windshield.
And because we have video, I don’t have to carefully describe everything I saw from that Tahoe. It’s all out there if you want to see it. I’ll write it the best I can—and here it is!—but with Ed here, I don’t need to be a camera.
It all works because our subject has a special place in video. We’ve all seen enough TV, both of the reality and scripted kind, to know that a fleet of Tahoes signifies something’s going down. Sure, maybe it’s just the lieutenant governor en route to a meeting with the Cheese Enzyme Council. But maybe it’s not. Maybe somebody’s about to get a ride in one of those big Chevys, but they just don’t know it yet.
Our video, particularly the Bourne-movie drone footage of Tahoes kicking up dust, will show that. For me, though, writing this story means looking into someone else’s job. I live near here and a lot of these guys are my neighbors, yet I don’t really know what they do. And what they do is secretive and dangerous, honorable and exciting. Driving on dirt at 60 mph with no headlights is just a fraction of it. If you don’t believe me, there’s video.
This story appears in the October 2017 issue.