TACOMA, Wash. — I was "dead" in 15 seconds. The Ranger got me with a clean shot to the gut. The next time, I did better, taking a couple of gunrunners down before taking a burst to the knee and crumpling to the floor.
Yeah, I thought I'd do better, but it wasn't just my pride that was suffering. A week later, deep red welts would still pepper my body like chicken pox. The retired first sergeant who also participated in the fight had it worse, with a good flow of blood oozing from a round he took in the neck.
Only days before, I had been talking to a friend about just how ridiculous Airsoft seemed. BB guns for grown-ups? Dressing up and playing soldier? Really?!
Sounded like a nerdfest for military wannabes. Thing is — and this is just undeniable — it was a blast.
The place: Tacoma Tactical. It just opened a few weeks ago; the old brick warehouse in one of the scratchier parts of town has been converted into an 8,000-square-foot urban war house complete with an indoor neighborhood, a mocked-up bank and a maze of corridors.
Depending on the scenario offered, speakers pipe in anything from ambient street sounds to a full-on raging battle soundtrack.
The place is the brainchild of Jason Daniel, a former information technology guru, and former 1st Sgt. Darryl Swift, a 27-year Army veteran who retired two years ago.
"We're trying to make this an immersive experience," Daniel said. "We're shooting for amusement-park quality where we can suspend your disbelief and hopefully transport you somewhere else."
Daniel, a legend in the Greater Seattle Airsoft universe, has been running outdoor Airsoft battle simulations and selling the gear and equipment for years.
He's worked with former and current special-operations troops, Rangers and British commandos — and a slew of other veterans — to hone his small-unit tactical and training skills.
Indeed, as he runs squads of Airsofters through scenarios, he could easily pass for any military training-center leader, offering detailed pre-combat briefings — artfully quizzing participants from his whiteboard — and then providing thorough after-action reviews once the smoke clears.
Guys and gals with guns
On this day, I'm on a four-person team with a former special forces counterintelligence agent now in college, a young private first class with a fresh "U.S. Army" tattoo on her right arm and on her way to Germany, and a college student armed only with a pistol and a patch sporting the letters GWAG.
"Guy with a gun," he explained with a smile.
The former Ranger is Keith Shores. He jumped into Panama during the U.S. invasion there to capture then-president and druglord-in-chief Manuel Noriega, and unfortunately, today he's playing on the other side.
"This is a blast, and it's great for keeping the skills sharp," he said during a lull in killing me a few times.
He uses his cell phone's camera to peer around corners and litter the floor with our BB-riddled bodies.
"I wish I had this when I was teaching ROTC at Ohio University," Swift said of the Airsoft arsenal. "It's a great tool for the decision-making process. We could have trained a whole lot more.
"That was the problem: We had to go all the way to Fort Knox, Ky., to sign out M16s and blanks or just use rubber ducks," Swift said. "If we had these, it would have made summer camp a whole lot more interesting."
He and Daniel see part of their job as a mission to train up-and-coming soldiers.
They've offered one- to four-day boot camps, teaching everything from basic movement skills to squad-level tactics and leadership, that are often filled with young recruits waiting to ship to basic training.
"We've had several kids call us saying basic was a piece of cake," Swift said, "because of everything we taught them."