The term “eco-warrior” conjures up a comical stereotype to many people — A Birkenstock-clad hippie in tie dye who douses himself in patchouli oil and exclusively eats $10 jars of artisanal organic peanut. Someone who spends more time smoking dabs in the parking lot of String Cheese Incident shows than actually trying to save the rainforest.
Matt Griffin and Phillip Wynkoop are actual eco-warriors, but they aren’t your typical treehugging eco-warrior stereotype. One is a former U.S. Navy SEAL and the other a former U.S. Reconnaissance Marine. After they got out of the service, they linked up with Pete Bethune — of Animal Planet Whale Wars fame — to bring justice to those who try to inflict harm on the mother nature. Together, when their powers combine, they are a real-life Captain Planet — except this squad of eco-protecting ex-military badasses is called “The Operatives.”
The Operatives mission statement is blunt: “Expose suspected criminals who are endangering our wildlife and our environment.” They bust polluters. They crack down on illegal exotic pet trading. They fight for endangered species. So far they’ve had two successful campaigns in Africa and Central America. Now they’re working in Asia on the myriad of key environmental issues that plaque the region.
Their various missions around the world are documented on the cable channel Pivot, with episodes of The Operatives airing Sundays at 10 p.m.
I recently got a chance to talk with Matt Griffin and Phillip Wynkoop about their work and why they ultimately decided to work in eco-protection after leaving their military careers. Read our conversation below.
How did you get involved with Pete Bethune?
Matt Griffin: I became involved with Pete on our first campaign to Africa. He had posted a Facebook status looking for former military people with skills I had, so I volunteered to help with his mission.
Phillip Wynkoop: I first met Pete Bethune through a mutual friend and board member for my start-up, Institute for the Management of Conflict, LLC, based in Washington, DC to see if there was any synergies between Earthrace Conservation and my organization.
What was your draw to conservation and eco-action/protection as a post-military career?
Griffin: I wanted to work with Pete and be involved with anti-poaching and environmental conservation because it’s something that I believe in. We have no choice but to take care of our planet. If we don’t, we are at the point where it’s almost too late to “fix it.”
Wynkoop: Conservation was a mission I was never involved in, but I saw the value in protecting and being a good steward of our environment, and this opportunity with The Operatives was a good way to get involved, given my background.
Can you give a bio of your service career?
Griffin: I served in the United States Marine Corps from July 1999 until Oct 2003. Marine Infantry and Security Forces. Served in Bahrain from 2000-2001, Iceland from 2001-2002, then served with 3rd Blt, 8th Mar, I co. 3rd Plt. I was a Sergeant when I got out.
Wynkoop: Service career – Naval Special Warfare Officer, Assigned to SEAL Team TWO
Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to make the decision to serve your country?
Griffin: I decided I wanted to serve my country after high school because I knew if I went to college I would fail out and waste my parents money. I knew that being in the military would give me the opportunity to be part of something bigger than myself. I chose the U.S. Marines because it is the most badass fighting force this planet will ever see. I wanted to be a part of that.
Wynkoop: Growing up in a very patriotic household, since I was about 10 years old I knew I would serve in the military.
How did your military training prepare you for the encounters you have protecting oceans, forests, and wildlife?
Griffin: When I was in the Marines, I was fortunate enough to get a lot of awesome training and experience that I have been able to use as a member of “The Operatives.” Jungle warfare school, SERE school, artic warfare school, urban ops., and I’ve spent time in the sand. I’m happy that what I’ve been trained to do is helpful with what Pete is doing and that I’m part of the team.
Wynkoop: Much of my reconnaissance and maritime training proved very useful in the missions we conducted in Southeast Asia.
Can you go into detail about some of the dicey situations you’ve been in with The Operatives?
Griffin: I’ve been with Pete from the beginning of all this. We really have done some crazy shit. Snuck into diamond minds, got into some gun fights, crossed over 300 miles at sea with a broken engine and contaminated fuel, rescued a dolphin, spent 15 days in the jungle tracking rhino poachers… I just know whatever Pete asks me to do, I’m prepared to do whatever it takes.
Wynkoop: While gathering intel and conducting a SR mission (special reconnaissance) on a warehouse suspected as a hub for illegal wildlife trade, the security guards began pursuing our location. Dogs inside the compound began barking, alerting the security, and they investigated. I fully anticipated a confrontation with the security, who was on the other side of the fence, and could hear them trying to climb over to get a vantage point. Even though the security did not know who or what was in the cover of the vegetation, Stephane and myself had to abort and return to base. It was the closest we came to a bad situation, as we assumed the guards were armed and would protect their illegal operation with force.
The poaching and the illegal pet trade is a huge issue all around the world. Is the biggest issue in stopping it enforcement or the market demand?
Griffin: When it comes to the illegal pet trade, there are so many ways to approach it. From the guy at the bottom, he’s just trying to support his family. If you bust him, there will be someone waiting to take his spot. If you are able to track down the top guy, it’s always dangerous going after him. Drugs, weapons trade and other criminal activities are usually associated with it. When we are able to work with local authorities, that’s when we are able to make the biggest impact.
Wynkoop: The pet trade and illegal wildlife trade can be viewed in economic terms. If you can remove the demand, the supply will no longer be profitable and will be less desirable for the suppliers. Criminals are smart and will always find a way around enforcement, especially in areas where the enforcement agencies are limited on manpower, resources, and training.
What do you think is one of the biggest issues facing our environment? What’s the thing you’re the most passionate about protecting?
Griffin: I think the world’s oceans are at risk the most. Everything we do on this planet makes its way back to the oceans. Over-fishing is on the verge of toppling the ocean’s already fragile ecosystem. Our entire planet, really, is at risk. What I’m most passionate about protecting is everything really. Apes, big cats, rhinos, elephants, turtles, marine wildlife, all of it. I hope I can be involved in this for as long as I’m capable.
Wynkoop: I have always been drawn to the oceans and the amount of pollution into our oceans is disturbing. The oceans support a vast ecosystem, economic capacity, and food supply for millions. We need to more effectively protect and preserve our marine life and their habitat.
What is an eco/environment issue that you think a lot of people do not know enough about?
Griffin: I think one of the biggest issues that people are unaware of is just the demand we place on the planet. We, as a species, have over-fished, over-logged, and taken far too much from the planet. Think of all the animals that have recently become extinct. Far too many, far too recently. The balance is at a critical tipping point.
Wynkoop: Most definitely the issue of the pangolin, the most trafficked mammal in world. I had never heard about the pangolin or the issue prior to working with Pete and The Operatives.
What do you think is one of the biggest issues facing our veterans upon returning to civilian life?
Griffin: I think that one of the biggest challenges military veterans face when returning to civilian life is that they aren’t given the opportunity to continue their rolls as leaders. 2-4 years in the military doesn’t have much carry-over to working a 9-5 job. A lot of us are far more capable of higher-end leadership than most of the people who are in leadership or “boss” positions. Unfortunately, we aren’t given the chance to prove it.
Wynkoop: The biggest issues facing veterans is finding employment utilizing their assets, but also in a job that is rewarding for the veteran. Secondly, would be receiving the medical care and treatment that is needed or wanted. The VA system is a work in progress, but cannot support the level of care that is required for our veterans, and I have experienced that first-hand.
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