What Is A Military Intelligence Expert Really Like? – A Spin On The Spook Side

Joseph Courtemanche

Joseph Courtemanche

I’d like to welcome my friend and experienced Military Intelligence Expert, Joe Courtemanche. Today he is going to give us a sneak peak at the world of a Spook, something I’m always curious about myself.

Joseph Courtemanche is a former Police Officer and certified Middle East, North Africa analyst. He is a distinguished veteran of the Naval Security Group of the United States Navy and is an Arabic linguist with training at The University of Minnesota and The Defense Language Institute (Honors Graduate.) His linguistic and intelligence experience include multiple deployments to surface, submarine, and land based intelligence collection platforms. Joseph holds several military awards including two flag letters of commendation for his work in providing real-time intelligence support to commanders in the field. His experience provides the background that’s crucial to his writing in the Thriller genre. He is a graduate of The University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and holds degrees from two other colleges.

Joseph writes his novels from a Christian perspective with the gritty realism that modern readers demand. His as-yet-unpublished Assault on Saint Agnes won Second Place in the prestigious Athanatos Christian Ministries 2013 Christian Novel Contest, and was a 2013 Final Five Finalist in the Christian Writers Guild’s Operation First Novel.


There’s an old joke that describes military intelligence as an oxymoron. I always thought that was a bit unfair and my time working in that world (1984-1989) brought home to me the incredible dedication and brilliance of many of the members of the community. There were, to be sure, some members of the club who had a more likely role in a Three Stooges movie than a Tom Clancy book, but they were the minority.

By the very nature of the work, the participants are low profile. Very few people actively engaged in the business will have a bumper sticker that says, “Spooks Know How You’re Doing It” on the back of their minivan. Nor will they be the loud guy at the bar bragging about how they broke the tactical code that resulted in…

Who are these people? Some of them are accurately portrayed in popular fiction such as – well, David Meadows got it right in his

Photo by elementa1

Photo by elementa1

Sixth Fleet series. They’re the quiet professionals in the background. Most of us didn’t (during my day) hang out with the SEALS or Delta. Some I knew were with Force Recon in the Marine Corps. A couple of them were Airborne. A few were Green Berets. In addition, a very small group of the truly crazy were my friends. We did the stuff that nobody talks about to this day. Not so much because we’re not proud, but it was all very highly classified.

As an author, that presents some challenges. I’m inclined to tell the good stories but have to weed out the classified stuff. The oath we took was pretty specific about non-disclosure. It simply means that if you blab classified stuff you go to jail.

So what if you’re not writing a book, or a blog, or acting in a movie about the world of intelligence? What if you’re just one of the people either doing the job or out of the business and working in a nursing home, collecting on overdue invoices for your company, building homes, or administering a computer data base? How does that secret world you were immersed in impact you on a daily basis.

For many it is the trigger for depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and suicide. There were an astounding number of suicide attempts among my colleagues during my enlistment. It starts early in the training process when you’re called in for a briefing about operational security. You are cautioned to be circumspect in your correspondence and conversations with family members, including your spouse.

In the case of my training, we were given nicknames that we were to use during school. It had a purpose – we were legitimately intelligence targets for foreign nations. By the nature of our training, we would have access to classified information. They would be interested in us. If we couldn’t remember the names of our classmates under duress, it meant that we would be protecting them.

Photo by bewinca

Photo by bewinca

Normal methods of blowing off steam were not available to us. We couldn’t just go to the bar and shoot the breeze. Every word, every discussion, every place we went had to be evaluated. We couldn’t tell our families where we were going or how long we’d be gone. Our orders often read, “Proceed as directed.” That’s it. No destination, no unit, no nothing. That was another straw on the camel’s back.

Once you’re out of the military you’re restricted in what you can say on a resume. While it might dazzle your prospective employer to say that you often engaged in covert activities that risked your life, you must instead indicate that you were a translator assigned to a unit in Afghanistan. Your family just knows that you can’t talk about what you did, and that it makes you uncomfortable to discuss your days in uniform.

The relief isn’t there for your bad days. You don’t want to talk about it with anyone (common to most veterans) and you know that most won’t understand.

That’s who the intelligence professionals are in real life. Not the exciting characters in books who run around with exploding pens in their pocket. Not the guys on television (Sorry, Jack,) but the slightly nerdy character in the next cube that you don’t know all that well. And me. But I’ve always been a bit strange.

Did you ever dream of being a spy? Do you think you have the personality for the job?

Joe’s Facebook fans find him at https://www.facebook.com/josephcourtemancheauthor  and he blogs several times a week at http://www.commotioninthepews.com. You can follow him on Twitter @joecourtemanche


About Michelle Lim

Author Michelle Lim is the Brainstorming/Huddle Coach with My Book Therapy Press and the Midwest Zone Director for American Christian Fiction Writers. Michelle’s romantic suspense is represented by Karen Solem of Spencillhill Associates and has gained contest recognition in the Frasier, the Genesis, and the Phoenix Rattler, winning the Genesis in 2015 for her genre. Michelle writes devotionals for The Christian Pulse Online Magazine and Putting On The New. Since her nonfiction book release, Idea Sparking: How To Brainstorm Conflict In Your Novel, through public speaking and online chats Michelle helps writers discover the revolutionary power of brainstorming to bring new life to their stories.

23 thoughts on “What Is A Military Intelligence Expert Really Like? – A Spin On The Spook Side

  1. Janet B says:

    What surprises me is all the books and media interviews from people involved in operations, that I would think are supposed to be kept confidential. Is a non-disclosure clause part of serving in these operations anymore? It doesn’t seem like it. When something happens, there seems to be a race to be the first one to be interviewed, give their side of the story, or write a book.

    • Michelle Lim says:

      I hear you, Janet. That is a great question. I wonder if it is because intelligence is so time driven that it can be obsolete fast. Hmm…Joe?

      • H L Wegley says:

        To answer your question about the time element — for several years I served in USAF intelligence and another related field where I worked closely with NSA. When I left that line of work I was warned I couldn’t talk about what I did, or mention certain other specified things, for 7 years. After that time, a person still had to use good judgment about what they revealed. After I left the highly classified world in 1974, I didn’t talk about what I did for 25 years. Later, when I was sure something was completely outdated, I sometimes talked about the gist of my work, but without giving specific details.

      • Michelle Lim says:

        WOW! Great information! Thank you so much for sharing your insight. I can’t imagine having to keep that many secrets. I’m impressed every day by those who serve our country. Thank you, Harry.

  2. LeAnne says:

    Joe, what is your technique for making the “nerd” in the next cube into an interesting character? Dwell on the internal tensions? That sounds like a women’s book. Come to think of it, Jack Ryan started out as an analyst afraid to fly.

    • Michelle Lim says:

      Ooooh, great question, LeAnne!

      • My main character stumbles into a terrorist attack and puts paid to the terrorists. He’s still a bad person to cross even after all those years, but everyone in the civilian world thinks of him as a fine friend and peaceful man. Lots of truth in that one. But the training and potential explosive reaction remain years later. I wouldn’t want to try and sneak up on most of my friends that served for more than a short time, it might cause bruising.

      • Michelle Lim says:

        I definitely need to read this!

  3. Brenda Anderson says:

    Did I ever think of being a spy? No way! Not even on my radar to write about spies. But I love reading novels about spooks & spec ops.

    Thanks for the insight, Joe!

    And thank you, Michelle, for this fascinating post!

  4. rpatchen says:

    Interesting insights. Thanks!

  5. I never knew Santa was a spy. Very interesting!

    • Michelle Lim says:

      LOL! That reminds me of Arthur’s Christmas with the spies coming down from the Santa Sleigh Space Ship….that’s what happens when we have kids. Animation is sparked by the slightest idea.

  6. Harry Wegley says:

    Thanks for reminding me about the “good old days,” Joe! The cold war days were intriguing … sometimes scary, like the night we went to DEFCON 2, but the intelligence wires all went silent. Then the rumors started flying. Those days did provide fodder for a lot of stories. I’m finishing one now.

    • Harry: You’re right – some nights the cold sweats return. One time… well, that’s another deal. As to the NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) I signed (several times) it was lifetime in the 1989 period, just after the Walker scandal/traitorous swine. NSA has it on their website, it’s looser now, but it’s still DECL: OADR (declassiy: originating agency determines requirement (I think)) and good for life. I stick to the rules even to this day – I hate talking anything that’s real. Good thing I have an imagination.

      We’re friends on facebook now, give me a shout and we’ll chat about the fun – I’m guessing you were ESA or one of it’s children.

  7. Loved this post. My hubby works on projects he can’t talk about, but he’s not a spook. I’ve always been fascinated by this line of work, but I don’t think I could handle the pressure of that job. I love reading about them, though!
    Thanks for the dose of reality, Joe. Michelle, thanks for sharing this post. I love the inside look!

  8. dtopliff says:

    What an excellent, fascinating blog. Good ‘ol, Joe, a spook and not Santa? My discerner bells weren’t working. I love thrillers, will look for his. And I love history. Would I have liked to be a spook? Sure, but my face gives me away every time, so I’ll simply pull some of that into my historical writing instead. Thanks, Michelle & Joe! Wishing you both much success.

  9. While I’ve never been a spy, I have lived a double life. Maybe that’s why I write suspense…Great post, Michelle!

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