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Six AR-15 semi-automatic rifles are loaded with paint bullets. The Kevlar vests are 25 pounds of light body armor. And the nondescript industrial park in New Hope sits 6,900 miles from Osama bin Laden's former compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
But the mixture of fear, adrenaline and smell of gunpowder was real enough to jump-start the heart rates of five mock Navy SEALs who cashed in Groupons for this simulated adventure that has transformed a firearms studio north of Minneapolis into a gung-ho war-game night out.
Eighteen months after a team of SEALs killed the world's most-wanted terrorist, everyday folks like these guys can plunk down $150 for their own vicarious shot at Operation Geronimo.
One by one, they lose their way in a dark hallway before blasting a cardboard cutout of one of Bin Laden's unarmed wives on their way through a pretend bedroom door.
That's where retired Minneapolis police sniper-turned-instructor Craig Nordby, disguised behind a phony beard and Middle East garb, falls in a flurry of fake fire.
"That was surprisingly intense," said Ryan Marvin, 29, who came with three co-workers at a rental agency.
Retired Vikings linebacker Ben Leber, there on a Father's Day gift certificate from his wife, sprawled down on the floor next to the paint-splattered Bin Laden look-a-like for a photo so the CIA folks back in Langley, Va., could get an approximation of his target's height.
"I thought the wife's water bottle might be filled with kerosene," Leber said. "But, hell yes, I shot her."
Some of the participants were so wired after the three-hour SEAL act, they would have trouble falling asleep.
Looking for common folks
Navy SEAL Adventure, staged once or twice a week since August, is the latest brainchild of husband-and-wife team Larry and Anne Yatch, owners of the Sealed Mindset firearms studio that opened in New Hope earlier this year.
He's a square-jawed retired Navy SEAL from Pittsburgh who helped secure the oil refineries Saddam Hussein threatened to blow up before the war in Iraq. She is a foreign service grad from Georgetown who worked in private security and came up with the idea of simulating experiences to broaden their clientele.
They'd been training people how to enhance their personal safety for a few years, teaching private firearms and fighting classes, but mostly to gun and martial arts enthusiasts.
"It was hard to attract everyday people," said Larry, 36. "If we just concentrate on firearms proficiency and personal safety classes, people don't show up."
Enter Bin Laden. To expand their base, they began offering events such as Spy Date Night and Navy SEAL Adventure. All of a sudden, professional couples, pacifists and novices started flocking to their studio for the simulations that include classroom instruction, skills training and real shooting experience on their firing range.
The climax of the evening, the simulated shootouts, show people how adrenaline and fear can paralyze the bravado they expect to display. That dose of realism, the Yatches insist, enhances community safety.
"If I'm put in a scenario as close to reality as possible," Anne said, "then I know how I will react."
Larry said most the their clients have never shot a gun.
"Maybe they hunted some deer," he said. "But they weren't comfortable coming to a normal shooting range or a dojo to take martial arts classes."
The Yatches' Sealed Mindset facility offers personal safety classes that stress avoiding conflicts as well as hands-on fighting and firearms education. About 80 people come through their classes and simulated events each month. Nearly 100 members have access to the private firing range, which has custom-made rubberized, bullet-absorbing walls that eliminate the risk of ricochets. That allows people to practice shooting from 270 degrees with darkened lighting that imitates realistic circumstances of a potential attack.
The facility first drew the eye of New Hope Police Chief Tim Fournier during the early city licensing stages.
"When I learned they wanted to add a live gun range to our city, I checked it out," said Fournier, a 14-year veteran of the West Metro SWAT team who liked what he saw.
"He's not rushing out and saying, 'You need a gun to keep yourself safe,'" Fournier said. "They have a unique business approach and any time you can offer good training and enhanced awareness to people who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with ways to protect themselves, that adds tools to the toolbox that helps keep our community safe."
Not everyone is as pleased. Lori Saroya, co-founder of the Minnesota branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said her office has fielded several complaints from the Muslim community about the mock Bin Laden shootouts.
"We all agree Bin Laden was a terrible person," Saroya said. "I've seen the pictures and the issue is the character they have looks like a typical Afghani or Arab individual with a turban, a beard and robe -- so it promotes stereotypes and furthers racism."
Larry Yatch insists his intentions are rooted in trying to stage a realistic scenario, not racism.
"We're not celebrating the shooting of another human being," he said. "We do this as the eventual outcome of a SEAL operation."
With most SEAL missions based in the Middle East the past 15 years, he said it was hard to avoid some Arab details.
"To be semi-realistic, we needed some sort of Middle Eastern target," he said. "We didn't want to pick some random Muslim and send the wrong message because we were concerned about offending people or giving any indication of being anti-Islam."
The only safe target he could think of was Bin Laden - "who is generally accepted as not being a good person."
In the debriefing that followed the event, participants shared stories of forgetting which door to go through and freezing up when the cutout of Bin Laden's wife appeared."The biggest gift we can offer is showing you how you'd react in the real world under stress," Larry Yatch said. "When the adrenaline starts going, the cognitive brain shuts off and that's why a lot of you guys looked like deer in the headlights and couldn't say anything when you ran into his unarmed wife."
One benefit of the simulations, he said, is a heightened appreciation for the Marines, SEALs and local SWAT team members who are standing outside a doorway right now.
"I don't care how many books you read or movies or TV shows you watch," he said. "Odds are you'll never experience that fear you feel standing outside a door, knowing that there might be someone on the other side who means you harm. We try to get you as close as we can to that feeling."
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767
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