Every once in a great while, you encounter a person who makes you realize that art imitates life. And simplistic catchphrases—much as you may try to avoid them—exist because they are essentially true.
Meet Bazzel Baz—former U.S. Marine, long-time CIA officer, erstwhile reality TV star, sometime Hollywood producer and life-long Christian.
There aren't a lot of guys in the world like Baz, literally. He's one of only 12 current and former intelligence officers known as life guarantors.
"If you get shot, I can do surgery," he explains. "And then I can get you out of the area, because I know how to fly a plane." He can also drive a truck, captain a boat, hotwire a car, resuscitate an injured person—basically, anything that needs to be done to make sure the person under his protection gets out of a life-threatening situation intact.
And over the last 24 years, 60 children have been able to thank him personally for doing just that.
That's because Baz is the founder of the Association for the Recovery of Children (ARC)—an elite group of half a dozen former military servicemen with a very special set of skills whose sole purpose is to find kidnapped American children throughout the world and return them to their parents.
To date, ARC's recovery rate is 100 percent. Not even the fictional A-Team of the 1980s could boast that kind of success. Neither could any number of characters Liam Neeson has played on the big screen over the last few years.
"I'd love for it to be like a movie, where we're all great and fancy-schmancy, but we're not that good," says Baz, 58. "It's not about us. It's all about Him. It would blow your mind to hear the kind of miracles it takes for us to find a kid."
And that's why truth is better than fiction. Read on.
"Would you like to do God's work?"
The words took 28-year-old U.S. Marine Capt. Bazzel Baz by surprise. He turned to see who was speaking to him.
With five generations of his family preceding him in military service and seven years as an officer in the Marines already behind him, Baz thought he'd seen—or at least heard—most things by then. But this was new: A recruiter from the Central Intelligence Agency was asking him to join the ranks.
"I was shocked," Baz tells Citizen, "but also thrilled."
Two days later, he followed the directions from a note left on his desk to a derelict building in Washington, D.C., where an officer wanted to meet him. "Most Marine bases are very spit-and-polish, but this building was all overgrown, with peeling paint," he recalls. "I walked around it two or three times before I knocked on the door."
When he finally did, a woman opened the door to an immaculate, comfortable office and told him the colonel was waiting.
Two weeks later, Bazzel Baz ceased to exist—at least on paper. The Agency facilitated a quick and quiet honorable discharge from the Marines, and suddenly, "I was working with the most amazing people in the world. From that point on, it was just like somebody injecting you with something superhuman."
Though the next 10 years would be shrouded in secrecy and his Georgia roots would be buried underneath the dust of clandestine operations on five continents, Baz's essence would remain unchanged: The grandson of a Muslim immigrant from Lebanon, who came to faith in Jesus after the death of his wife, a Catholic who became a Pentecostal. The son of Sharkey—a Green Beret who served in Vietnam—and May, who read the Bible to her two children and spent two hours on her knees praying for them every night. The kid who had embarked on his own journey with Jesus by the age of 5, and would sometimes spend hours conversing with Him in the trees.
"God has always made himself known to me in the most amazing, miraculous ways," Baz says now. "So I just threw it all out there and said, 'God guards my life.'
"I believed—and because of that, things happened."
At the age of 35, Baz stumbled upon the calling that would mark the rest of his life.
It was 1991, and he was in Mogadishu, keeping tabs on the Somali civil war, which would get America's full attention two years later when rebels would shoot down a pair of Black Hawk helicopters and take the lives of 18 U.S. servicemen.
One day, Baz saw two mulatto girls wearing jeans and green T-shirts hiding outside the French Foreign Legion building. He went back to his base, but couldn't shake the image from his mind.
"It just tugged at my heart," he explains. "I know there's a lot of collateral damage in war. I mentioned it to my team, and they said, 'It's not the mission you're here for. If you go rescue kids, there's no place to take them.' "
That was true—but it still bothered him, deeply.
"So I was on the roof one night kind of praying about it, and said, 'God, what do You want me to do?' And I didn't hear anything from God. But two hours later, I was in a team intelligence meeting, and as we were breaking up, one of our guys said in passing, 'You know, there's a lady from New York City who is starting an orphanage here. It's the strangest thing.' "
That was the answer Baz had been listening for. Two days later, he and his team had found the two girls—the daughters of an American engineer who had abandoned them and gone back to the U.S. when the fighting got heavy—and taken them to the orphanage.
"As we were leaving the orphanage, the girls asked if we could find their mom and little brother. So we took a picture of them, took it with us, and went back out. In about three hours we had found their mother and little brother and taken them to the orphanage, too."
It was a good mission. But once back stateside, Baz still couldn't get those girls off his mind. "The government said everything went on (in war) except the protection of children. I just looked in the mirror and said, 'We kill our unborn and we can't keep track of our kids once they learn to walk. This is wrong.' "
So for the next four years, wherever he found himself in the world, Baz would use his off hours and holidays to rescue children.
"I was just driven to start out by going to the local police station and saying, 'Who do you have who's missing?' " he recalls. "I funded it myself and would just go out and find these people."
But as time went by, Baz found he wasn't alone: Four other servicemen with experience in special operations came alongside him as volunteers; being paid wasn't as important as having the opportunity to help. And over the years, word about what they were doing spread through the spy world.
"So we could reach out to anybody in any nation," Baz says. "I had former KGB guys saying, 'If you come to my country and it's about a kid, we will help you.' "
The Association was born.
By 1995, ARC was going strong. Baz had a core team of operators and had safely returned a dozen children to their custodial parents.
But the loss of a close friend on a CIA mission had him rethinking his day job. After 10 years decorated years at the Agency, it was time for a change.
He was in Tucson, Ariz., taking some time to relax by skydiving, when he met Michael Greenburg—cofounder of the Gekko Film Corp. along with Richard Dean Anderson (best known for playing the title character in the 1980s TV show MacGyver). Baz showed him a screenplay he'd written about his time in Somalia. Greenburg invited him to stay in his guesthouse to finish it, and a short time later, Baz found himself living in sunny Southern California, working as a production assistant at Paramount Pictures while learning the finer points of screenwriting.
"It was a really nice opportunity to exercise the creative side of my person. He was kind enough to godfather me through the ranks, and is still a friend to this day," Baz says.
The entertainment industry has been good to him: In 2002, he starred as a contestant on the reality competition show Combat Missions, produced by Mark Burnett. In 2004, he worked with Burnett on the pilot for another reality show, Recovery, which aimed to showcase the kind of work ARC does with missing children. Though it failed to gain traction, Baz's career continued unabated; he has served as a consultant to half a dozen TV shows and often appeared as an analyst on network news. He also has a partnership with Michael W. Watkins, who is co-executive producer of The Blacklist—one of the top-rated dramas on television. Baz and some members of the ARC team have even guest-starred on a couple of recent episodes.
"I've been really blessed," he says simply. "That type of lifestyle is an opportunity to make money, and also flexible because it's not 9 to 5 all the time."
As a result, Baz is able to devote as much time as he needs to ARC. And though it's now a nonprofit organization with several donors, he continues to supply a lot of its financial needs himself, as he did in the beginning. In an industry where perceptions are reality and luxury vehicles are as common as ants at a picnic, he drives a meticulously maintained but no-frills Toyota, with less gadgetry on the dashboard than what you'd find on the average smart phone. (And though he does have a cell phone, it flips open—a fact for which the rest of his team teases him mercilessly.)
"We actually have turned down money in the past," he says. "I've had people offer me $30 million to help out, but they all wanted to know what they get in return.
"They don't get it."
Close Calls and Miracles
Even with the prodigious amount of combined skill Baz and his team members bring to the table, their record would be less immaculate if not for the Holy Spirit.
"Baz has this thing he does, where he turns his palm up and says, 'We're in the hands of God,' " says Thad Turner, 52, a former Navy SEAL who has worked with Baz since the early 1990s, the last six with ARC. Years ago, while on a particularly challenging mission "I recruited one of my SEAL buddies, a salty sailor with colorful language, because we needed a guy that could navigate a boat anywhere in the world. This was an epic trip where a million things went wrong—I have no idea how we survived," Turner says.
"About the fourth time Baz did that, this guy was ready to kill him. But after about 30 things we got out of that we didn't know how, he was saying, 'We really are in the hands of God!' "
Juan Gonzalez, 41, another former SEAL who has been on three rescues with ARC over the last few years, has seen that firsthand.
"I've been on a lot of missions in the military," he says. "There are a lot of moving parts, and a lot of things can go wrong. Baz has got something. He's so experienced that he knows what he's doing, or he's really lucky—he's got some sort of over-watch. He's got something he does different that always works."
For Baz, one of the most memorable rescues was that of Lily Snyder in 2003. Kidnapped by her father—an ex-con just out of prison—when she was 3, Snyder had been held in Costa Rica for two years when her mother called ARC.
So to Costa Rica they went. But after several days of fruitless effort to find Snyder, Baz says God directed him to a pastor they'd met on the flight down. " 'Tell him who you are and ask for the faith community's help here,' " Baz recalls. "So the word got out under the radar through the faith community."
But still, there was no sign of Snyder.
"Three days before we were supposed to leave, I just got down on my knees and said, 'Lord, You sent us down here. If You want me to find this little girl, do something!'
"So I'm walking down the street in this really dingy little surf town with drugs and everything else going on, and this girl whose restaurant we'd eaten at says, 'I might know something about this little girl you're looking for, but I want something in return for it—I want to be on Survivor. Can you get me on it?"
Baz had no control over the show's casting—but because of his work on Combat Missions the year before, he was friends with the guy who did. He called executive producer Mark Burnett from a pay phone across the street from the restaurant—and Burnett talked to the woman for 15 minutes.
She gave Baz directions to a house in the jungle where an American couple was living with their three kids, saying they might know more. The team paid them a visit—but the couple said they knew nothing.
"Before we left, God just put it on my heart to pray for them, so I did," Baz says. "We got in our car and we're backing up down this long dirt path. When we get down to where the gate is, we get stuck in a hole. I don't know where it came from, because it wasn't there earlier!
"All of a sudden, I see the guy riding a bicycle down the path toward us and he says, 'I'm so glad I caught you guys. Something changed my heart. I know where she is. Will you come back and talk to us?' I said, 'Sure'—and miraculously, we got out of the hole."
Though the kidnappers had threatened to kill the Americans and their kids if they talked, they told the team exactly where Snyder was.
With an early-morning raid, they rescued her. As they carried her to safety, she said, "I knew you would find me."
Boots on the Ground
About 15 percent of the children ARC rescues have been exploited by sex traffickers. And though it clearly is not the only organization dealing with that issue—the Web site humantrafficking.org has a non-comprehensive list of 62 in the U.S.—it's fair to say it's not one of the favorites in the nation's capital.
"I don't like bureaucracy, and I hate evil," Baz says simply. "I'm grateful for what other organizations do, but kids don't come home until boots are on the ground."
Because ARC isn't a law-enforcement agency, it's a lot more nimble than the government. And that means the crew can work with certain kinds of bad guys—like South American drug cartels—to rescue kids from other kinds of bad guys, like sex traffickers.
"People think it's like Liam Neeson going in and shooting up the whole place," says Turner. "We definitely have the capability to do that, but we go in as soft as possible. Our goal is not to hurt, arrest, or even have any contact with the people who have the child. Our whole mission is to get the kid home."
But the clandestine nature of the job can also make fundraising difficult. There have been times when ARC has pinpointed the exact location of a child, but had to leave him or her with the kidnappers because there simply wasn't enough money to pull an operation together. Baz has 40 of those cases sitting on his desk right now.
"When I look at all the nongovernmental organizations that are out there supposedly doing stuff to fight sex trafficking and they're getting $52 million—I ask them how many kids they've gotten out of prostitution, and it's zero," Baz says.
"Every single case we've had, the parent has gone to a well-known taxpayer-funded advocacy group first. I've asked what they did for them, and every single person said, 'Nothing. They didn't help me find my child.' Sometimes you have to figure out what the distance really is and then go the distance. You need to be able to say, 'Here's the $30,000 in airplane expenses and food, and here's the kid at home.' Not, 'We paid everybody all these salaries and we're still working on it.' That's the wrong answer."
Turner is familiar with the difficulties of fundraising from his day job as the CEO of a YMCA in Pennsylvania.
"When I write a grant for the Y, it's almost down to the dollar for 'here's where the money is going and here's who's doing the job.' A foundation can wrap their heads around that," he explains. "When we talk about an ARC mission, you never know what it's going to entail, and we might have to pay somebody off to get through. There's just no way to put a budget on it. I think that makes it really hard for donors."
So until the funding becomes sustainable, Baz is content to focus on quality over quantity. "If 60 is what we've got, it's 60 with a clean slate, and I'm OK with that," he says.
And if the funding never becomes sustainable? Then he'll just keep doing what he's been doing his whole life—putting himself and his team into the hand of God in the service of others.
"A calling isn't a job. You don't do it to get rewarded," he says. "You're compelled to do it because it's in the DNA of your soul, and you will give your life to do it.
"All our rescues have been in the same vein: God is literally making himself known. His fingerprint is on it, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Nothing is impossible when it comes to a child that God loves and wants to find.
"He's just using us as a tool."