MUSCATATUCK URBAN TRAINING CENTER, Ind. -- When Mike "Caveman" Spina was a teenager growing up in the late 1960s, the resident of Seymour, Ind., wanted to join the military and serve his country. However, after being classified "unfit for military service," he thought his dream was dead.
Now, 40 years later, his dream has finally come true: he is finally able to serve his country. This time, by helping the military train for their missions, which has been his calling for the past six years as Caveman, as he is known to his colleagues, has traveled throughout the country as a civilian role player for military training exercises.
His road to providing his valued service is one that helped him overcome the loss of his beloved wife.
"My wife passed away from cancer seven years ago," said Spina. "After her death, I stayed in the house for about six months and didn't leave until my children urged me to get out of my cave and start living again. My daughter bought me a cell phone, and since I am technically challenged, she set it up for me -- and the phone says, "Caveman Daddy's phone."
Armed with a new philosophy in life, his role-playing role commenced.
"My first role-playing job was six years ago at Camp Edwards, Mass.," he said. "When I showed up, the supervisor said: 'We have four guys named Mike; do you have another name?' So I showed him my "caveman daddy" phone and said 'what about this?' He said, 'I am older than you, so I am not calling you caveman daddy but caveman will do.'"
Spina has traveled all over the country assisting the military in exercises. Initially, his roles were to help prepare the Soldiers for their deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan where he would dress up as a mullah, or other Iraqi or Afghan leaders, to try to draw the Soldiers to him.
"The Soldiers called me 'Little Osama' because, with the turban and my beard, I looked like a shorter version of Osama bin Laden. Before the training mission started, I would watch videos of bin Laden and other terrorists. I would study how they walk, their gestures and their facial expressions, so I could make it more realistic for the Soldiers."
He said he put his heart and soul into the role playing because he know the training could help save the Soldiers lives or the lives of others.
"Caveman has been a very good role player," said Maj. Shawn Morton, U.S. Army North's displaced civilians manager for Vibrant Response 13. "I worked with him during Vibrant Response 11 and 12 as a role player -- and he was always spot on. I could give him a script and he would fall into the role very well."
Vibrant Response 13 is a major incident exercise conducted by U.S. Northern Command and led by U.S. Army North.
He said he remembered one exercise in particular that highlighted the need for training and the roles the "role players" play. During a training scenario at Camp Atterbury, Ind., Soldiers were tasked with entering an unknown village where suspected "bad guys" were operating out of. They didn't know who or where they were among the populace.
"My job was to start walking around the village and stare at them," he explained. "Not say anything, just look at them. Pretty soon, they were all looking at me and not at anything else. They didn't see the car bomb or the bad guys. Ninety percent of them got "killed" because they forgot to remain aware of their surroundings."
Once the exercise was over, the depth of what had occurred affected him profoundly -- and he started crying.
"These men and women were going to a foreign country to help the people over there and root out the bad guys. We need to train our troops in such a way to keep them alive and also keep the good people alive."
That, he explained, is why it is so important for him, and his fellow roles players, to help them succeed in their training missions
"We help train the Soldiers to make the right decisions so they can come back alive."
With the cessation of military activities in Iraq and a changing role of the military in Afghanistan, Spina now finds himself participating in more Homeland Security and Defense Support of Civil Authorities missions.
The missions differ greatly from those of the traditional war-fighter roles and there is a great variety of scenarios. Instead of terrorists, car bombs, Ak-47s and improvised-explosive devices, he now plays roles themed in man-made or natural disasters.
"I have assisted in tornado response training and earthquake rescue training here," he said, "and others like this one -- revolved around an attack inside America."
The role players for Vibrant Response 13 are contracted from a company based at El Cajon, Calif., and Caveman was selected as a team leader due to his knowledge and experience, said Tom Latshaw, vice president of Lexicon Consulting Inc.
"We hired "Caveman" a few months ago because of his experience as both a role player and a team leader," he said. "We hired him as a team leader during VR13 because of his knowledge of this type of exercise. He has done an excellent job keeping the role players in check and making sure every mission is conducted to our high standards. The military is fortunate to have "Caveman" here to help train them.
Although he was never able to serve his nation in "uniform," he said he is proud to help serve his nation's "uniformed" personnel.
It always bothered me that I was never able to serve my country in the military, but now I am serving my country by helping the military prepare to help the American people or fight overseas.
"I love doing this, and I will keep doing it as long as I can," said Spina.