ASHLAND, Ky. (KT) – You could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium of Rose Hill Baptist Church on Monday.
And if it had, the guest speaker would likely not only have been the first to hear it but know exactly where it landed and the angle it was sitting.
Being observant is what has literally kept counter terrorism expert Steve Gar alive. Seconds can mean lives in his world.
Gar, who has trained agencies worldwide including the U.S. military and the New York City Police Department, spoke with a highly engaged audience that included two dozen northeastern Kentucky first responders and a group of students from a Christian school.
Officers from the Ashland Police Department, Boyd County Sheriff’s Department and Kentucky State Police made up an audience that also included students at Rose Hill Christian School.
The students listened intently to the South African-born soldier who is married with five children. However, he’s much more than a counterterrorism expert. For the past nine years, he has had a school program for special needs children, which he said is what he does in the mornings.
“When we heard counter terrorism training and SWAT, that whets our appetite a little bit,” said Ashland Police Chief Todd Kelley. “The culture diversity is quite different, especially how our governments are set up. (But) He’s on the front line there, and we’re on the front line here, and we can learn from each other.”
Rose Hill Baptist Church Pastor Matt Shamblin was introduced to Gar on a recent trip to Israel with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. “I thought it was a natural fit for him to speak to our police force and give them a chance to ask questions,” Shamblin said.
Gar, who is studying to become a Rabbi, is a devout Orthodox Jew who observes the Sabbath and has a kosher diet. Rose Hill even made provisions for his lunch on Monday, ordering food from a New York deli that he could prepare.
“We wanted to be a blessing to him in any way we could,” Shamblin said.
If you Google his name, Gar is referred to as Israel’s Jack Bauer, the name of the fictional character from the popular television “24” series that dealt with counter terrorism. He had never heard of the show but decided to watch an episode after having his name linked with it. Gar said the show and what he does couldn’t be farther from reality.
Gar lives in real world terrorism and too often has had to use lethal force to stop an attack. He said terrorism is an attack that focuses on civilians and the vulnerable in places like schools, airports and malls.
It’s Gar’s goal for people to live in peace, but it’s the counter terrorism unit’s goal to protect the innocent citizens at all costs.
Gar and his wife, a Canadian born psychologist, have five children. “My kids don’t know who I am without a gun,” he said. Even during the sacred Sabbath, he must keep his radio active. He has had to leave in the middle of blessing his children during the Sabbath because seconds can literally mean lost lives. His shoes are at the door with laces on the outside, ready for him to step into for a fast getaway. “If it takes three extra seconds, that could mean three lives,” he said.
When a call comes in and her husband leaves, Gar’s wife begins praying for his safety and doesn’t stop until he returns home. He will either be back safe or an officer will be coming with bad news. Those are the only scenarios for those who battle terrorism, he said.
The Israelis are good at what they do when it comes to fighting terrorism and other nations, including the U.S., have taken advantage of their experience.
“Israel is a tiny country, not even the size of New York,” he said. “We should be proud to come in and train a superpower, the New York Police Department, SWAT and others. But I’m not proud of having to combat terrorism.”
Gar has been to the U.S. on several occasions and finds some stark cultural differences, including gun laws that change from state to state. He said the gun laws are much different here too in another way – guns aren’t available for citizens to purchase in Israel.
Safety is paramount when it comes to handling guns, he said. “I never leave a bullet in the chamber of a weapon,” he said. “There’s at least five times more deaths from accidents than terrorism. Why take that chance?”
Gar said American law enforcement is impressive and he doesn’t understand the disrespect they receive from a minority of citizens. “It’s a challenge I wasn’t aware of,” he said. “It’s not a problem in Israel.”
He is also puzzled by those who don’t respect their own country in the United States. Gar was humbled with the U.S. support shown to Israel during a recent conference with Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.
“Something I have a low tolerance for is when I see these athletes taking a knee during the singing of the American national anthem,” he said. “We went to Wrigley Field on a trip to Chicago and actually got worried. I was thinking I don’t know how I’m going to react to seeing people kneeling. Fortunately, it didn’t happen. People were holding their hands over the hearts and everything.”
Gar encouraged students at the Rose Hill chapel service to treat their brains as muscle. “The more you train it, the better it gets,” he said. “It starts with the kids being proactive and using their brains to keep a community safe. If you see something that doesn’t look right, act on it; tell somebody.”
His other message was a pro-Israel one in helping them to understand better who the Israeli soldiers are.
“Our military and police have the same standardized rules of opening fire, and we have stringent laws of using lethal force,” he said. “It’s not the perception you read in the newspapers or see on CNN or the BBC. I want to change that perception. We do believe in God. We do have morality. And we do believe we have a higher power. It’s not how our enemies want to portray us.”