Lt. Col. James "Bo" Gritz
A Warrior Brought Down By Love

Text And Photos By
Anthony DeBartolo

SANDY VALLEY, Nev. - On Sept. 11, Claudia Jean Gritz, 40, filed for divorce from her husband of 24 years, James "Bo" Gritz, 59, an ex-Special Forces commander who, with 62 citations for valor, was our most decorated Vietnam War hero. The divorce petition cited "irreconcilable differences."

Nine days later, after one last attempt to reconcile those differences, retired Col. Gritz parked his GMC pickup truck along a gravel Idaho roadway, buried the barrel of a Colt .45 into the military ribbons that festooned his uniformed chest, said to himself, "Well, this is it," then pulled the trigger.

Fortunately for Gritz, a master marksman, he missed the heart that he said "hurt so much." He survived instead with a sizable hole in his chest, partially because of the flesh-shredding ammunition this real-life Rambo said he used: "Hydra-shok. It has a liquid core," he says. "The bullet splays out."

This was not the first time that Gritz, whom Gen. William Westmoreland once called, "The American Soldier," missed his mark.

He first came to prominence in the early 1980s for staging several unsuccessful commando-style forays into Southeast Asia to retrieve putative American POWs. Billionaire H. Ross Perot initially financed the effort, but Gritz's activities were eventually curbed after U.S. authorities charged him with using a passport under a false name. Gritz countered by charging CIA and Defense Department officials with heroin trafficking.

During the 1990s, he has become a right-wing celebrity of sorts within the so-called Patriot Movement, which is composed of independent militia and   survivalist groups. Collectively, they generally decry a U.N.-led "New  World Order," and accuse the U.S. government of violence and corruption.  As for Gritz's own political position, Time magazine once called him, "on
the moderate fringe."

Still recuperating from his suicide attempt, Gritz recently consented to  an interview at his home office in Sky Ranch Estates, located on the  remote edge of secluded Sandy Valley, Nevada -- a cluster of manufactured homes and rusted mining equipment set in the barren mountain foothills along the California border, not far from Death Valley.

Sky Ranch Estates itself resembles a handful of three-bedroom Skokie ranch houses. Most have a small plane parked on their driveway. Gritz's twin engine 1966 Riley Rocket (a souped-up Cessna 310) sits next to his house, near the common runway.

Standing around are 20 or so early arrivals for a three-day desert training camp Gritz is getting ready to convene the next day for about 100 survivalists. The sight of an approaching stranger bearing a briefcase seems to scatter them. The FBI, they later explain, is always expected,
but never welcomed.

Sitting at his desk, Gritz, who ran as a Populist Party presidential candidate in 1992 (slogan: "God, guns and Gritz") but is best known for his role that year as the successful negotiator in the FBI/Randy Weaver standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, was simply asked, "What happened?"

"I couldn't understand what I did that was so terrible that my bride would leave me," began Gritz, who has called Claudia "my bride" for the last 24 years.

The day he returned after calling off his well-publicized search in North Carolina last August for abortion clinic bombing suspect Eric Rudolph, his wife announced she was leaving, he said.

"She blasted me with it."

The only clue she offered as to why, Gritz said, was: " `You might want to re-evaluate your options with the Rudolph thing.' "

The `Rudolph thing,' Gritz says, was apparently a "lunchmeat sandwich" -- pilot talk for "the straw that broke the camel's back."

"My plane out there will fly anything," he said, explaining the phrase. "But the point will come when you pack one more lunchmeat sandwich on board, and the plane will crash."

His apparently did. He says he was emotionally shattered by the confusion and frustration that accompanied the loss of his wife. "I always thought Claudia was my strength," he said. "I adored her. But I saw a person I didn't recognize. She spoke with no sensitivity. No emotion. She was a
stranger to me."

Of his attempt on his own life, he said: "I never felt so close to death in my life. I've seen many people killed. I've killed many people. But I've never felt closer to death."

This was not the first time, said Gritz, that he had contemplated suicide.

"When I came home from Vietnam (in 1969) I was going to kill myself. I felt crazy. I didn't know who I was when I got home," he said. "Like a lot of guys who came back then, I thought, there's nothing here for me.

"So, I took my Browning (9mm automatic pistol) with one bullet in it up to the mountains of Northern Mexico. . . I threw it in my bag. I also threw a Bible in the bag as an afterthought. I had never read it. I went up there thinking, if I couldn't justify my life somehow, I was going to end it."

After reading his Gideon "cover to cover," and doing "a lot of personal prayer, I made a deal with God," said Gritz. "I figured he spared me in Vietnam for some reason. . . I had bullet holes in my clothes, got hit once in the back of my head. . . So, I decided the rest of my life would
be in his service, according to his will. I made a deal to be an eternal warrior."

Shortly after coming down the mountain, Gritz met his soon-to-be third wife, Claudia, then a 16-year-old enrolled in his karate class.

"I was smitten the first time I saw her," he said. "I thought this girl, this creature, was sent to me by God. I thought she was sent to help me."

After submitting what he admits were forged documents to age his bride 10 years, he and Claudia were married in 1974. "I didn't deserve her," said Gritz. "She was very beautiful then. I'd make love to her with my eyes open because I didn't want to miss how beautiful she was."

"I now think I began to idolize my bride. Maybe too much," he says.

On Sept. 20, it was do-or-die. "I decided I would either win her back or option two -- you know, it's always been said a warrior can pick the time and place of his death."

As for option one, "A friend said, `Bo, just be the man Claudia fell in love with.' So, I got all groomed up, put on my uniform and went to see her at the trailer we owned, and said, `Claudia, here I am, the man that you married. Is there any way we can reconcile?' She just said, `No,' in a
cold, uncaring voice.

"I got back in my pickup truck thinking that God must be finished with me. But then I thought, I'd just get another job."

Gritz laughed as he said this, explaining that he thought death would simply bring him a different job in paradise. "I do very well behind the lines," he says. "I thought I could do his bidding behind the spiritual lines."

The suicide attempt quickly followed. "I remember, I first parked by a farmhouse, but moved because I didn't want to scare them." Farther down the road, said Gritz, while standing next to his truck, he shot himself.

"The next thing I heard," said Gritz, "was someone crying--a family friend. I also remember hearing the surgeons say, `Cut deeper, cut deeper' (because) the metal backing of some ribbons was driven in; you know,  shrapnel."


"In the hospital, I felt ashamed," added Gritz. "I never wanted to cause anybody pain or trouble, but I did. I didn't think anybody would care. I really felt my deal (with God) was over. My job was done."

What do you think now?

"I think you can't quit on God without a proper order," he said. "I still think I have a mission to do."

Uncertain what that mission might be, his present plans are "to get back in shape, hone my skills, get my muscles hard, then stand by."

"That may make some people nervous -- because of who I am and what I've done, now that I'm still here, still alive," Gritz said. "But I've never been violent. I don't shoot nothing that don't shoot back."

Gritz left unexplained his remark about making "some people nervous." The interview was called to an abrupt close because his dinner was ready (Part of his recuperation is not missing meals).

But in a recent newsletter that Gritz publishes for his organization, the Center For Action, he penned some curious statements.

"Husbands and wives don't permit flirting with others," he wrote. "What might have been innocent before opens the way for destruction today."

"Before and after my departure (to search for Rudolph), I pled for a 'friend' to stay away from my wife. Three times he gave his word, which wasn't honored," Gritz continued.

At length, he charges his unnamed pal in print with "taking advantage of my willing wife."

Given Gritz's background, such a person might be nervous indeed.


This article first appeared in the Chicago Tribune on January 1, 1999
© 1999 Hyde Park Media