If you’re in a room with Frank Antenori, you’ll definitely know it. The freshman Republican representative from Tucson is loud – no doubt a product of his military days, commanding Special Forces troops in battle. He’s also not one to bite his tongue, a personality trait that got him some unwanted press coverage during last year’s election when he criticized opponents who were running with public campaign money from the Clean Elections system.
Antenori spoke with Arizona Capitol Times about his first session at the Capitol, the mistake of trusting leadership on the state budget, his love of hunting and his time in the military.
What did you think of your first session?
I was disappointed. There are a lot of people up here who were elected by the people of the state to make tough decisions to move this state to the right direction, but didn’t have the guts to do it.
It’s frustrating, because we had an opportunity to turn the direction of the state around and make it a pro-business state and bring in some jobs. We had people whose political ideology and philosophy was so far out there that they just decided to torpedo everything for personal political reasons.
Did you learn anything?
I learned a lot. There were maneuvers that were, early on, rammed down our throat in the first couple weeks we were here. During the (fiscal 2009) budget fix, I got caught flat-footed, and leadership got us because we were rookies and didn’t know the system. But I learned fast, and now we know the system. So that’s not going to happen again.
What did leadership do?
They were constantly updating the budget bills, particularly the BRB list, and they were only circulating it to a handful of people. Then they would only talk to us about major parts of it, and they left a lot of the little things out of the picture.
I had lobbyists coming to me who knew more about the bills than I did.
We told leadership we weren’t voting for it if we didn’t know what was going on, and they kept us in the loop.
For a Special Forces guy, getting caught flat-footed has got to really bother you.
It did. You’ve got to be armed with information to do the job.
On the battlefield, intelligence is what gears what you’re going to do. If you don’t have enough intelligence, you get caught with your pants down and people die.
Here, it’s probably the same thing. There are decisions that are going to be made that are going to affect people in the state. If you make a wrong decision because you weren’t armed with enough information, that’s just wrong.
I know you’re a big hunter. What do you like to hunt?
I hunt all American species of deer. I shot the antelope in that picture in Africa. I hunt quail, I hunt rabbits. I love game. I eat everything I shoot. It’s delicious. My son shot a deer on Saturday, and it’s already been butchered up, and we’ve already eaten five pounds of it. My wife was making deer sausage last night. I think it’s awesome.
Is that your sniper rifle in that picture? Did you hunt the antelope with a sniper rifle?
I was there on military duties, and we had about a week left at the end of the mission. So me and another guy paid $50 for a South African hunting license and went antelope hunting.
How far away was the antelope when you shot it?
Maybe 100 yards – not that far.
So, you didn’t need your spotter to help you with the shot?
No. Anything under 600 yards with that rifle is lunchmeat. After 600 yards, you need your spotter to call winds and range. But inside that, you don’t need much help.
OK, so you’re a trained sniper. What else did you do in Special Forces?
I was a medic, initially. In Special Forces, everybody’s a trigger- puller first – an infantryman – and a specialty second. You get taught all the nifty little weapons stuff and tactics that everybody else does. I was a medic for about 14 years. Then I became an intel sergeant, then I became a command sergeant – the senior enlisted guy for the whole A Team.
I’ve been all over the world: 34 countries, five continents. The only continents I’ve not been on are Antarctica and Australia. I’ve literally been from here to Timbuktu – it’s in Mali. We were on a mission in Africa, and we drove an extra two hours just to say we’d been there. I’ve been to Transylvania. We got to see Dracula’s castle.
I’ve been all over Africa. North Africa is like the armpit of the world.
Did you see combat in the Iraq War?
Yeah, I was part of the initial invasion in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Those are my blood chits up there on the wall.
What are those?
When you go behind enemy lines – usually pilots or Special Forces – you carry those with you with local currency, in case you get captured or you have to evade. It basically just says, “I’m an American. I don’t speak your language. I don’t mean any harm. If you help me get back to friendly lines, you’ll be rewarded handsomely.”
One’s from Iraq and the other’s from Afghanistan. You’re not supposed to save them, but I did.
What do you think of how President Obama is handling the war in Afghanistan?
He’s supposed to be the commander-in-chief. He’s supposed to separate the political from being the senior commander of the military, and he has not been able to do that. He’s been trying to make political decisions, not military decisions.
When your generals come to you and give you information, they don’t want you to say, “I’ll get back to you in a month.” They want an answer. The military climate is really clear on that. Indecisiveness in the military is weakness. They teach you to be decisive in the military. He had all the information. He should have told (Gen. Stanley) McChrystal one way or the other, either we’re giving you the 40,000 troops, or they’re all coming home. That’s his choice.
The shooting at Fort Hood must have hit you hard.
Yeah, it did. I think every one of those (victims) should get a Purple Heart. They were killed by a Muslim terrorist, and we’re at war with those guys. Sugarcoat it any way you want, the guy was a Muslim terrorist. Period.
If they had been shot by that guy in Afghanistan, every one of them would have gotten a Purple Heart. The enemy is within this country, as well. We have Muslim insurgents here in the United States. They were killed by an enemy combatant.
And the two civilians who were killed should get the Presidential Medal of Freedom for dying for their country. That’s just the right thing to do.
What’s it like being shot at in combat? What goes through your mind?
The first time I got shot at was in Desert Storm. We were moving up into Kuwait City. I had always thought about what it would be like, if it was like the movies. But I was sitting in a vehicle, and I saw bullets striking a concrete divider on the road. I saw chunks of concrete flying.
It really never dawned on me. It was like a switch inside my brain, and my training kicked in. I dismounted the vehicle, took cover, took up position and started returning fire. It wasn’t like fear rolled through your body, it was just like we knew what to do.
After it was all over was when the weird stuff started happening. We realized, “Whoa. We just got fired up. That was the first time we’d ever been shot at.”
After one big battle in Iraq, I was just shaking. All that adrenaline was leaving my body. I can’t describe the feeling. I didn’t notice any of it until it was over.
Which theater was more dangerous: Desert Storm, Afghanistan or the Iraq War?
Afghanistan. My hair on the back of my neck was always going up.
Whenever you encountered the enemy in Afghanistan, it was close. We’re talking 50 to 100 meters when they opened (fire) on you.
Right after Operation Anaconda, we had finished doing a mission with a platoon from the 101st Airborne Division. I was walking down this hill – we had just finished doing the mission – and I let my guard down by that much. We’d been out all day and we thought if there was anybody in the area, we’d either killed them or they’d run or been captured.
There were these little scrub Himalayan pines. Me and another Special Forces guy had walked past this pine tree and were about 50 yards past it when I heard this POP! POP! POP! POP! I swung my rifle around and I saw a Taliban fighter fall out of the tree, dead. The lieutenant from the 101st had killed him. We walked right past that tree. That guy was sitting, hiding in that tree.
Had that lieutenant not seen that guy raising his AK-47, we were dead.
I told that lieutenant, you’re going to be able to go home and tell your grandkids that you saved some Green Beret’s ass: “You think they’re bad asses? I had to save a Green Beret’s ass in Afghanistan.”
And he did. He was able to put four shots into him before he could shoot us.
But that was the scary thing about Afghanistan. Those guys could hide in every little nook and cranny and come out of nowhere. It was just a freaky environment over there.