Most residents of Tacoma do not think of it as an army town. To visitors it presents as the scrappy kid sister city of Seattle, the coffee and arts mecca forty miles to the north with which it shares an airport. The notorious midcentury “Tacoma Aroma” from the paper mills has long since been filtered into submission. In its place are juice bars, outdoor supply stores, international film festivals. Every civic surface that hasn’t been given over to kayaks and totem poles bristles with the spiky, membranous studio glasswork of homegrown sculptor Dale Chihuly. The only sign of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, whose more than 50,000 personnel make it Pierce County’s largest employer by a factor of five, is the occasional Blackhawk helicopter beetling across the silhouette of Mount Rainier. In 2005, while Iraq spiraled into civil war and JBLM (then still divided into Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base) was dropping paratroopers over Afghanistan from its fleet of big-bellied C‑17 Globemaster IIIs, Tacoma’s city council entertained a proposal for a 420-foot “Tower of Peace” to rival Seattle’s iconic Space Needle. No one dared mention the base. “We want this to be really inclusive,” the tower’s leading champion told Tacoma’s News Tribune
. “Let a person form in their own mind what the concept of peace is.”
Five miles down I‑5 toward the giant blank on the map where JBLM nestles into the strip malls of Lakewood, Parkland, and Spanaway, a different America fades in, one that would be instantly familiar to residents of cities with less complicated relations to their servicepeople. Yoga bows down to CrossFit. Puffy North Face jackets disappear under Carhartt work coats and military surplus camo. All those boardroom-ready Dale Chihuly pieces give way to the very different glasswork at Tacoma Pipe and Tobacco. The Patriots Landing retirement home advertises to military personnel: You served us. Now let us serve you!
Halfway down a block of auto dealerships and faded clapboard churches on South Tacoma Way stands a fieldstone-clad Bank of America that is popular with soldiers for its ease of access from I‑5. The facade is glassy and generic. A bed of purplish cinders houses a row of shrubs as boxy as green Legos. In back is a parking lot accessible from the alley, feeding to a bright red drive-through ATM. It is just a dreary little branch like any other, a squat corporate cipher in an unremarkable neighborhood close to base.
At 5:16 on the afternoon of August 7, 2006, three men ran out of its front door screaming that it was being robbed.
Bank robberies come in two essential varieties. In a “nontakeover” robbery, the bandit—still the term used for bank robbers by the FBI, which publicizes monikers like “Snub-Nosed Bandit” and “Surfer Bandit” for as-yet-unidentified repeat offenders—slips a note to a teller explaining in brief that he intends the teller harm and desires cash. Nearby customers may not find out a robbery has occurred until after it is over.
The bank on South Tacoma Way, crowded with the after-work rush, was an example of the much rarer and more profound disruption of a “takeover” robbery. In a matter of seconds the bank left its old function behind. Building security features designed to protect the piles of $100, $50, and $20 bills from theft—thick concrete walls, bulletproof Plexiglas, clear lines of sight throughout the lobby—were now tactical assets for entrenchment and defense. Tellers and managers who had previously spent their days in service to the smooth operation of the bank now found themselves conscripted into its defilement.
Meanwhile, outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, traffic continued to trickle by in the sleepy August sun. Two customers in turn pulled up to the drive-through ATM, inserted their debit cards,
engaged in small transactions, and drove away. Those who had fled the bank had already run down the block and crossed South 60th Street to reconvene in the front office of the Mallon Ford dealership, where employees were calling the police.
Two minutes later, long before the police arrived, a group of men in jeans, dark sweatshirts, and ski masks emerged from the alley that led to the bank’s rear parking lot and started jogging down South 60th Street, in full view of the group at Mallon Ford. They carried a mix of AK‑47 assault rifles with wood stocks and banana clips, pistols, and duffel bags. One witness, who had happened past the bank as the robbery began and pulled her car over so her husband could run into the dealership and report what he’d seen, instinctively started driving after the gunmen, until two of them turned back and made eye contact with her through the holes in their masks. That was when she remembered that her kids were in the backseat.
Though it was not yet in evidence, there was, in fact, a getaway vehicle. A Mallon Ford employee by the name of Don Keegan had been unloading his company truck in the alley two minutes earlier when he noticed a silver Audi A4 turning into the continuation of the alley on the next block. Four men jumped out, pulled on ski masks, and ran toward the bank. The Audi backed out onto South 60th Street and stopped next to a sealed utility shed whose front door bore a warning about tampering with military communications systems. The license plate was unconcealed. In the driver’s seat was a nineteen-year-old kid in a T‑shirt and sunglasses. Keegan got into his truck and drove around the block. On a residential street behind the bank, he happened to pass the same Audi going the other way. The four gunmen suddenly appeared from around the corner, spotted the Audi, and flagged it down as they jogged toward it. The kid in sunglasses stopped to pick them up.
That was my cousin Alex Blum.
It is hard to convey the depth of the shock my family experienced on learning that Alex had robbed a bank. It hit us like news of alien life. Alex was the most squeaky-clean, patriotic, rule-respecting kid we knew. Four months earlier he had achieved the goal he had been striving toward since he was a boy, becoming an elite Special Operations commando in the Seventy-Fifth Ranger Regiment’s Second Battalion at Fort Lewis. In two weeks he was scheduled to deploy overseas to Baghdad, the fulfillment of his life’s greatest ambition. Money had never interested him much. His father, my uncle Norm, a successful commercial real estate broker, had offered him $20,000 if he would delay enlisting in the army for a year. Alex politely declined.
The question that obsessed me for almost a decade after his arrest, the question that obsessed my family too, that obsessed even Alex himself, was simple: Why?
At the time of the robbery I lived in Seattle, a few short miles from Fort Lewis. I had murky, conflicted feelings about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was hard to tell what I felt about Alex’s fate other than a profound and untraceable wrongness. But the deeper I have dug into it over the years, the more it has cracked open everything I used to believe, like a fissure that turns out to go all the way to the heart of the world.
Copyright © 2017 by Ben Blum. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.