On April 7, Ryan Payne, a 30-year-old Iraq War veteran, packed his '93 Jeep Cherokee with two sleeping bags, two cots, the rucksack he'd more or less lived out of during his five years in the military and a Rock River Arms Operator LAR-15. He was on his way to the southern Nevada desert to defend the oppressed from the tyrannical force of the federal government, and he knew he might have to fight.
Payne was leaving his family and his home south of Anaconda to support Cliven Bundy, an elderly Nevada rancher engaged in a tense conflict with the Bureau of Land Management, which was rounding up cattle Bundy had been illegally grazing on federal land for some 20 years. When the roundup started on April 5, Payne followed the action from afar. He saw images that seemed to show BLM snipers aiming guns at the Bundy family to prevent them from interfering in the impounding process. He read online that Bundy's son Davey was arrested on April 6 for "refusing to disperse" while protesting the agency's actions. He read that BLM agents had allegedly roughed up Davey Bundy while he was in their custody.
Ryan Payne watched what was happening, and he saw a striking example of what he observed more and more throughout the country: the U.S. government acting far outside its constitutional authority to control and confine the American people. As he watched, Payne felt not merely compelled but obliged to respond, to uphold the oath he'd taken at 17 when he joined the U.S. Army: "I, Ryan Payne, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic...." He'd fought foreign enemies before. Now, he believed, the enemy was domestic.
So on April 6, Payne called Cliven Bundy and offered his help.
"I told him what OMA was," Payne says, "and that, if he requested assistance, I would be calling in militia from all over the country and individuals to come, armed, to protect his family and his community from whoever it was that was trying to harm them."
OMA is Operation Mutual Aid, a loose coalition of militias and sympathetic individuals from across the United States. Payne started the organization in 2013 with Pennsylvania resident Jerry Bruckhart. They designed OMA as a mechanism for using the power of the nation's hundreds of disparate militias to defend all oppressed Americans. If anyone made a request for OMA's aid, the organization would alert its members, who would, if they desired, act together to defend that individual's rights. No such request had ever come, so OMA started to solicit them. Cliven Bundy was the first to accept OMA's offer of support.
When he did, Payne and Bruckhart spread the word online and over the phone. Jim Lardy, who lives in Philipsburg and belongs to the West Mountain Rangers, a local militia Payne founded in 2012, immediately said he wanted to go, too. Payne agreed to give Lardy a ride.
After he'd packed his Jeep, Payne said goodbye to his wife, their two young children and his grandparents, who live with them. Not wanting to leave his family without a means of defense, he left behind his FN FAL, an assault rifle used by so many NATO militaries during the Cold War that it got the nickname "the Right Arm of the Free World." Then Payne and Lardy drove to Nevada through the night.
"It started when ... I saw that movie Sniper," Payne says, "and I go, 'I want to be a sniper.'"
After finishing high school in Southern California, Payne went to a Military Entrance Processing Station in 2001 to act on that desire. He went to join the Marines first, but the Marines recruiter couldn't guarantee that he would end up becoming a sniper.
"So, I went over to talk to the Army people," Payne says, "and they said, 'Well, we can give you a Ranger contract and, most likely, if you go into that type of unit then you'll get to go to school and be a sniper.'"
He ended up becoming not quite a sniper and not quite a Ranger, though he has claimed in online forums and elsewhere that he was. In fact, he served in the 18th Airborne Corps' Long Range Surveillance Company. He learned sniper techniques such as stalking and concealment, and he foresaw a long career in military intelligence. "[A]t that point I devoted my life to the cause of liberty and freedom and the pursuit of it for the rest of my life," he says. His goal was to become an agent for the CIA or a non-official cover. "I believed that that would be the pinnacle of patriotism."
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Payne was part of the initial push as a member of a six-man team that moved far behind enemy lines and far from friendly support. They moved only at night, under the cover of darkness. It was dangerous and difficult work, but Payne excelled. He rose to the rank of sergeant and became an assistant team leader of his LRS unit. According to Ben Fisher, who served with Payne during two tours in Iraq, "Everyone that worked with his group and his team, they had good things to say about him."
Then, one night in 2005, Payne's military experience took a turn while his team was pursuing an unspecified intelligence target south of the Sinjar Mountains and west of the city of Tal Afar, in a flat landscape of unfamiliar wheat fields. They'd been informed ahead of time, Payne says, that the estimated strength of the enemy was 77. His six-man team would be outmatched, but that wasn't supposed to matter. Their mission was to avoid detection—and if they were identified and attacked, a plan was in place for AH-64 Apaches and other air support to come rapidly to the team's aid.
But things didn't go as planned. First, the target wasn't where they thought it would be. "So we kept moving closer and closer," Payne says. His team came to a Bedouin encampment and dogs there began to bark. "Eventually, the dogs compromised us and people came out of their tents and started shooting, and it went silly," he says.
Payne says his team suddenly faced 26 combatants. As the situation worsened, Payne's team tried to call in the air support that had been arranged—but it didn't come.
"For some reason, the rear, who was our ops center, was canceling all of our requests for gun runs," Payne says. "You know, we're staring at 26 guys in front of us that are shooting at us and stuff, and we're requesting strafing runs—denied, denied." The air support never came, and Payne says his team was in "a very bad spot for very many hours, fighting for our lives."
All six men survived, but Payne was furious. "I lost it, man," he says.
At a debriefing afterward, Payne went off on those who he felt had failed him.
"I'm cussing these guys out," he says. "They are officers—captains and things—and I am a sergeant. And, you know, 'Why did it go this way?' And, 'The reason it went this way is because you didn't your job. And people almost died because of it.'"
In the aftermath of the botched mission, Payne became convinced the lack of support wasn't a matter of negligence but of a deliberate decision. "We all came back," he says. "I don't think that was the plan."
Though he won't speculate about what his superiors' plan might have been, his experience that night catalyzed a change in Payne. He became suspicious of the military and came to question its intentions.
"I discovered that I was working for the wrong team if I were in the pursuit of liberty and freedom," he says, "because we're the great oppressors of the world right now, unfortunately. We're the ones who are pushing oppression upon a lot of the world. And I have found that out, especially once I got out and I can look in and I can see what we're doing. It just isn't right."
Payne and Lardy arrived at the Bundy ranch early on April 8. They were among the first supporters to show up. The Bundys were impressed that Payne had delivered on his commitment to come from so far away and were relieved to see help arrive. The BLM, fearful for the safety of its own agents, had brought in armed law enforcement for protection and was using helicopters to assist with the roundup.