Your mission?Get tough. Do you choose to accept it?Countless Americans do. The latest craze: Following in the footsteps of a few good men. Jeff Wise reports for duty
Bobby Fisher

America's drug of choice?Adrenaline. Last year 300,000 Americans went skydiving, 500,000 went bungee jumping, and more than 4 million went white-water rafting. And that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. All told, some 45 million Americans felt compelled to do more than just lie in the hammock. For many, "vacation" now means chasing hair-raising thrills and tackling absurd challenges. All of which leads to a single question: How far out there can you go and still make it back alive?

I found the answer in the Arizona desert. Thirty miles outside Tucson, to be precise, on a former CIA training base. There, in the middle of nowhere, eight semi-retired mercenaries run an outfit called Covert Ops. Here you can spend a three-day weekend discharging deadly weapons, practicing karate chops, and doing the kind of driving that voids your insurance. This planned mayhem isn't for everyone: the $3,795 sessions are limited to 20 clients each, and are held 11 times a year. Tailor-made, it seems to me, for superannuated adolescents with a tenuous grip on reality. I signed up immediately.

It's dark as I stumble out to the parade ground. Chris, our granite-chinned drillmaster, lines up the "operatives," as he prefers to call us. The average age hovers around 40; the average belly about a foot out from the waistband. I expect Chris to start shouting and calling us maggots. But when you're paying four grand for the privilege, boot camp is a little more sensitive. After 20 jumping jacks we head over to a steaming breakfast buffet. I'd expected at least a few hardened-adventurer types, but the group's more King of the Hill than James Bond. There's Mark, a security-systems salesman, and Del, a retired strip-club owner, both from El Paso; Charles, a computer salesman from Palatine, Illinois; Mel, a record executive from Chicago; and Mel's retired father, also Mel. The only ones who look as if they could climb a flight of stairs without a tank of oxygen are Nancy and Steve, 24-year-old Goths from Amarillo who won the trip in a TV promotion. Nancy is a massage therapist, Steve a former checkout clerk looking for a new career.

"I think I'm best suited for the service industry," he muses, "because I'm pretty incompetent, but people like me."

None of the group has done anything like Covert Ops before. That's typical, says the organization's co-founder, Jeff Miller. "The number one profession among our customers is financial services, then medicine," Jeff says. "While they're successful in their jobs, they're not getting much excitement in their daily lives, so when they're on vacation they don't want to sit on a beach."

At the shooting range, Jeff drills us in "close quarters combat," a technique for fighting terrorists that was pioneered by the British SAS. Most shoot-outs take place at extremely short range—just 7 to 21 feet—so there's no time to finesse the aim; just point your gun at your target and pull the trigger twice. Bap bap! If you manage to hit someone twice in the same spot, Jeff informs us, it's like nailing him with a cannon. "That's horribly traumatic," he says. "And that's exactly what you want." Nice.

Next we head to the driving course, where former pro race car driver Gordy Edwards erases everything we ever learned in driver's ed. While black helicopters hover nearby (there's a National Guard training center right next door), we peel around the track practicing bootleg turns—pull the hand brake to spin the car 180 degrees—and J-turns—race backward, then throw the wheel to spin 180. The smell of burning rubber fills the air. "You ought to see these cars when we return them to Avis," Gordy jokes. Nancy's a natural on the track, pulling flawless bootlegs every time. The men cheer her on, but she's modest about her Lara Croft mojo. "I've never tried this before," she says. "I've never even shot a gun before. Well, a pistol, once. And a rifle."

She thinks a moment. "And a shotgun."

After dinner we sit around the base's bar, the Down Time, and get blotto while Jeff and instructor Dennis Hebler regale us with war stories. The two served many tours of combat with the Green Berets, trained hundreds of SWAT teams, and performed private missions overseas. Jeff is perpetually dapper in his pressed khaki uniform and Kenny Rogers beard. Dennis is shorter and stockier, a mischievously elfin man—a sort of homicidal Fred Mertz to Jeff's Ricky Ricardo. "You want results," Dennis advises, tapping his grizzled hair, "you go with the gray."

Dennis takes us into the desert to demonstrate the art of tracking: reading boot prints, interpreting broken twigs. He used these skills in Cambodia, where he hunted Vietcong as a Green Beret. We move on to an unarmed self-defense lesson with Dennis's brother, Dave. He shows us how to disable someone with a flick of the wrist and how to counter a knife attack so that you wind up cutting your attacker's throat with his own knife. Dave points out that contrary to what the movies would have you believe, you can't just slice open someone's neck and expect him to fall dead. You have to vigorously saw at his throat. Actually, Dave confesses, "I've never seen a knife-defense technique that's much use. But if worst comes to worst, you might as well try it."

Back on the race track, Gordy tries to knock us off by ramming his front fender into our tails. The trick is to hit the gas and steer into the skid as the tires squeal and smoke. Even more exciting than getting chased by Gordy is driving with him. He cruises along, Glen Miller blaring from the tape player, steering with one hand and holding a Carlton with the other, paying no mind to the sedan careening sideways just inches from his front bumper. Not surprisingly, he soon gets in a big old tangle. Surveying the resulting crater in the side of his car, he says: "That's your four grand. We have to keep building new cars."

At breakfast, a surprise attack: terrorists wearing red T-shirts rush into the cafeteria and abduct two Covert Ops staffers. Now we have to rescue the "hostages." With Jeff's help, we decode an encrypted note and determine that the terrorists are hiding out in an abandoned copper smeltery about 12 miles away. We get maps of the area, plan an assault, gear up with masks and paint-ball guns, then drive out to the site. The old smelting plant is a low concrete building about 60 feet long. We climb out of the van a half-mile away, split into teams, and start scouting the enemy position. Soon everyone's in paint-pellet range of the plant, and a general melee ensues. They say that you never know what a man will be like in combat until he's actually under fire. As it happens, Steve, the incompetent Goth, snaps. He goes berserk, running right into the midst of the enemy, firing like a crazy man. Since no one ever really laid down the rules—such as whether you're supposed to play dead after you're shot—it's chaos. Eventually things quiet down, and we are declared victorious. We pick the paint globs off our skin and drive back to base for lunch.

Afterward Jeff presides over a graduation ceremony in which everyone is awarded a Covert Ops diploma and honorary nom de guerre. (Mine?Roadrunner. Don't ask.) We've all got big goofy grins on our faces. Struggling to distill the essence of the experience, no one can do better than: "That was really, really cool." I ask Dennis if all this make-believe isn't more fun than real military life. He looks at me like I'm nuts. "They paid us to kill people," he says. "You can't do that anymore. They'll put you in jail and throw away the key." Yeah, life's a bitch like that. As for me, the warrior within lives.


Book through Incredible Adventures, 800/644-7382 or 941/346-2603; three-day session, $3,795.

The course taken by the special forces who sprung 72 hostages from the Japanese ambassador's house in Lima in 1997. Highlights: trapping animals and the enemy; building a shelter with a machete as your only tool. Randall's Adventure & Training, 42 Air Force Base, Iquitos, Peru; 256/570-0175; six-day session $2,150.

Be all that you can be, Ukranian-style. On land, pay $350 for the chance to fire a tank's cannon. Or perform 30 minutes' worth of death-defying spins and acrobatic loops in a MiG-29UB fighter jet ($6,380). Alaris, 29 Pavlovskaya St., 6th fl., Kiev, Ukraine; 38-04/4246-9731; three-day program from $2,000.

Any organization whose motto is "Your Pain is Our Pleasure" must be the real thing. Sky-dive from 14,000 feet. Complete the rope course. Run in the sand. Never say never. Odyssey Adventure Racing, 1109 Windsor Rd., Virginia Beach, VA; 757/425-2445; seven-day session $1,800.

Want to be "up there with the best of the best"?Learn the ropes from JOker, Spanky, or Mad Dog, top guns who will put you in a flight suit and behind the controls of an SIAI Marchetti SF260. Your flight videotape shows you everything you did wrong. Air Combat USA, Fullerton Municipal Airport, 230 N. Dale Place, Fullerton, Calif.; 800/522-7590; three-hour program from $895.

—Robert Maniaci