He Wanted To Be A Soldier But Became A Bank Robber

Sep 10, 2017
Originally published on September 11, 2017 2:45 pm
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Here's a book about a young man who grew up wanting to be a soldier - more than a soldier - a ranger, a member of an elite army infantry unit. The book is called "Ranger Games." And it's about a good kid named Alex Blum who signed up right out of high school - one of the very few who survived the difficult training and hazing that makes a ranger - and then went out with his buddies and robbed a bank. The book about Alex Blum and what happened to him was written by Ben Blum, his first cousin, a close cousin.

Ben Blum joins us from our studios in New York City. Thank you for coming in.

BEN BLUM: Thanks for having me, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now, I just offered a four-line summary of your book. Suppose you try a four-line summary.

BLUM: Sure. Yeah. Let me give that a shot. My cousin Alex had always dreamed of being an Army Ranger and achieved that dream around his 19th birthday. He met a charismatic superior named Luke Elliott Sommer in the Ranger regiment - and four months later, participate in a bank robbery under Sommer's leadership. His explanation to me and to the family was that Sommer had deceived him, presented the bank robbery as a legitimate thought exercise, a kind of training game on the way to the building takedowns that would be their job once they deployed in Iraq.

He even told us that once he was arrested and brought into federal detention, he continued to believe for months in prison that this had to have been some kind of legitimate military training exercise. He was waiting every day for superiors from the Rangers to come spring him out of jail and say, OK. We see what went on. Let's get you back with your unit and deploy you to Iraq where you belong. But over the years that I spent researching this story, I came to see what really happened as a little bit more complex than that.

WERTHEIMER: Your cousin drove the getaway car.

BLUM: He did.

WERTHEIMER: Now, he was arrested. He was tried and imprisoned. Your family members reacted in different ways, trying to make sense of this thing. Didn't some members of the family start from the premise that this couldn't be true, and so therefore, we're going to prove that it isn't true?

BLUM: Yeah. I think the reaction was uniform disbelief from all of us. Alex was the goody-two-shoes of the family, a completely straight-laced kid who'd never been in trouble before, who had always stood up for bullied kids in high school and behaved almost cartoonishly virtuously through the time that we knew him. And, suddenly, he's in federal detention for robbing a bank.

WERTHEIMER: You sort of started - correct me here if I'm wrong - with the possibility that it was the army training that Alex Blum went through that might have been responsible for this super patriotic, handsome, sweet boy just taking such a terribly wrong turn.

BLUM: Yeah. About nine months into his detention, Alex wrote an account of his training and his induction into the Rangers in the so-called Ranger Indoctrination Program. I read it while I was a graduate student and was just stunned both by the reflectiveness of his writing and by the violence of what he went through, the violence and the misery. So it felt to me the extremity of his experience and training had to have some relation to the drastic change in his character that we observed and the drastic change in his behavior that the bank robber represented. And I pursued that angle for some years.

WERTHEIMER: Another angle that you pursued was that a character in his life might have been responsible, Alex's team leader. You hung up on him for quite a while.

BLUM: Well, I first started speaking to Sommer because I was beginning to have doubts about the story that Alex was telling me. And Sommer was the only other one who might be able to give a firsthand account of the nature of their relationship. According to Alex, Sommer had manipulated him into becoming involved in this thing that he didn't understand the nature of. Sommer had presented it as a game or an exercise and got Alex involved, thinking that he was just picking up skills he would need on deployment in Iraq.

According to Sommer, Alex had simply agreed, had participated knowingly and willingly and even helped him recruit other soldiers into the crime. So I found Sommer, in some ways, more reliable than Alex as a witness and as a source. And he was also oddly compelling personally. He's a very intelligent guy, became interested in mathematics in prison, which was the subject that fascinated me while I was growing up. So he managed to connect to me on a personal level.

WERTHEIMER: My impression is that you were almost right in your initial idea that Ranger training changed your cousin - and not in a good way. But I must say I also get the impression that writing this book might have changed you.

BLUM: Absolutely. I would say it transformed me. I was a very dedicated scientist at the time that I started researching Alex's story. I'd managed to avoid nearly all education in the humanities through finagling various counselors to get me out of requirements. I just knew very little about the world and thought that I knew everything, as is unfortunately common among the science-minded. And it became more and more clear as I engaged more and more deeply with Alex's story how inadequate my education was to wrestle with the human mysteries that I was encountering.

One of the big revelations from Alex's story is the immense inertia that a preconceived narrative instills in the mind. It's so hard to overcome our understanding of an event or a phenomenon when it's crystallized already. And it's one of the great challenges of moral life to break out of those crystallized stories. And it's also one of the great challenges of science to break out of the crystallized paradigms of understanding and formulate genuinely new theories about what's going on. So I'm interested in dramatizing that in my next work.

WERTHEIMER: Ben Blum's book is called "Ranger Games: A Story Of Soldiers, Family And An Inexplicable Crime." Thank you very much.

BLUM: Well, thanks so much for having me. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.