Wounded Warrior Preaches the Importance of Intelligence
October 30, 2020
The night before a roadside bomb detonated against his Humvee, Ryan McCallum knew something was amiss.
The Illinois Army National Guard soldier had an uneasy feeling that night and didn’t sleep well. The standard intelligence briefing he and his crew received about the route to and from the airbase in the middle of Iraq was not helpful.
But when he got on the road that morning in Iraq in June 2007, his anxiety deepened. A sandstorm was kicking up. Tires on the side of the road were burning. Something just wasn’t right; none of this was “normal.”
He would later learn, long after the bomb exploded – after several surgeries to remove shrapnel from his hand, head, and neck, and to repair a nerve in his hand - that a more complete intelligence report would have led him down a much different path.
Today, as a domestic representative for the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), it’s his mission to make sure accurate and timely intelligence flows freely to those who need it most.
IC Wounded Warriors
McCallum’s journey from that roadside bomb to his position today at NCTC in South Florida would not have been possible without the Operation Warfighter Program.
That program, as well as the related IC Wounded Warrior Internship Program, are designed to give wounded warriors, like McCallum, an opportunity to extend their service to their country, something that had attracted McCallum since he was a kid watching reruns of The Dirty Dozen, The Green Berets, Patton, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, Kelly’s Heroes, and TAPS, to name a few.
“My grandfather served in Korea, my father in the first Gulf War, and I didn’t see anyone picking up the torch after 9/11,” he says. “I knew I was going to serve in some capacity.”
Despite a full-academic scholarship, that time came in his freshman year of college in 2003 when he enlisted in the Illinois Army National Guard. For the first couple years, he served the National Guard’s standard one weekend a month, two weeks a year, while continuing his college studies. But when things flared up in Iraq, he knew it was time for a change.
“I did everything possible to go overseas with an infantry unit from Illinois,” he says.
Not long after is when he found himself making that fateful road trip to the airbase, something he and his fellow soldiers did every Friday for weeks.
They made the four-hour trip to the airbase, completed their mission, and began the trip back to their forward operating base. They stopped for fuel and returned to the road, McCallum taking his position as the gunner.
When the bomb detonated, McCallum was knocked unconscious. He regained consciousness as the vehicle was filling with smoke. Once the other passengers regained consciousness, the driver pulled him out and away from the burning vehicle. A distress signal was sent and alerted the Blackhawk helicopter team to be dispatched to their location.
For McCallum, his time seeing the Iraq landscape was drawing to a close. Twenty minutes later, he was being hoisted into the Blackhawk and said his well-wishes to his friends – and brothers – from Illinois whose new task it was to remain with the vehicle.
At the hospital in Baghdad, McCallum received the Purple Heart medal during a bedside ceremony. He would later pass through Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Andrews Air Force Base in Washington DC, and finally arrive at Womack Army Medical Center in North Carolina. When doctors examined his hand, they found a severed tendon and signs of gangrene. The only surgeon available was one who specialized in knee surgery, but they went ahead with the surgery anyway in an attempt to save his hand. That would not be his last surgery.
McCallum eventually ended up at the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC for an extended stay. While recuperating, he worked to finish his bachelor’s degree that he had delayed to serve in Iraq. He was then offered a job as the Army National Guard Bureau’s in-patient liaison. He was tasked with helping fellow Army National Guard soldiers and their families at the hospital navigate the unfamiliar waters.
It was at Walter Reed where McCallum learned about the Operation Warfighter Program. After filling out a bit of paperwork, McCallum was offered an internship within ODNI.
Still unfamiliar with ODNI, McCallum accepted the opportunity to learn. During this time he became acutely aware of the value of intelligence integration and believed that a more complete intelligence briefing that night two years ago in Iraq may have changed his story.
The ODNI internship, in the Office of Public Sector Partnerships, opened McCallum’s eyes to the business of intelligence. His official duties took him to the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department. The intelligence profession thrived in all corners of the federal government, he learned, and it even reached out to state, local, tribal and territorial levels, as well as the private sector, colleges and universities.
And that sense of intelligence integration is what drives McCallum today.
The Eyes and Ears of the Field
McCallum is now a full-time NCTC employee who describes himself as “the eyes and ears for NCTC - and my field-based partners - in my corner of the domestic field.” He helps coordinate intelligence between NCTC, other federal partners, state and local law enforcement, fusion centers, academic institutions, and private sector officials. He believes it’s vitally important that intelligence information reaches those at all levels.
“The intelligence community briefs the president and his senior advisors, but I want the partners in the domestic field – fellow policy makers in their respective positions – to understand what’s going on from NCTC’s perspective,” he says. “We should be briefing firefighters, who have a need-to-know that violent extremists subscribe to using fire as a weapon. School bus drivers and colleges and universities have a need-to-know what we believe are indicators of violent extremist mobilization. The information needs to get out to more than the upmost senior policy makers and advisors within our federal government. It’s been my personal goal is to make sure that our intelligence analysts are also thinking about broader partners in the domestic field.”
His job, as he sees it, is to get the word out and share information, as appropriate, to help the FBI, DHS, and other federal partners, state and local officials, and private sector partners, keep America safe.
“When it comes to terrorism, we are all working towards the common goal…to keep America safe from all enemies, foreign and domestic. I still believe that and it is why I continue to serve, just in a different – and sometimes better – way than I did while I was in the military.”
Learn more about the IC Wounded Warrior Internship Program.