A dozen years ago, the Blum family would be forever altered by a single, unthinkable decision made by one of the family's proudest sons.
Alex Blum finished the excruciating and challenging elite United States Army Ranger school in August 2006 in Tacoma, Wash., joining the ranks of some of the most prestigious U.S. Army soldiers.
After graduating Ranger school, Alex was set to fly home to Colorado before deploying to Iraq. Instead, he and four other Army Rangers and two Canadian citizens, armed with assault rifles, robbed the Bank of America in Tacoma, stealing away with more than $50,000 in cash.
Ben Blum was shocked to hear of his cousin's arrest and participation in the robbery. The incident would be a transformative catalyst for Ben, as he ventured deep into the world of the Army Rangers in an attempt to understand why Alex had committed the crime. Eventually, he would transition out of his life as a scientist to focus on writing the story of his cousin.
"I was working at a computation biology lab in Seattle when he was arrested - on my dissertation research," Ben said. "I was just, like the rest of my family, really overwhelmed with shock and concern. I started researching the history of military training and corresponding with Alex in prison with the hopes of helping out with his legal case. The book project kind of spiraled from there.
"I ended up going and getting an MFA in New York at NYU as part of the process to learn the craft that I would need to get the project going."
His book, "Ranger Games," delves into the complicated story of Alex's role in the robbery, and the cult-like initiation the elite soldiers face during their training. While researching the Rangers and during discussions with Alex, he at first came to believe his cousin had been brainwashed by the group's leader.
"I had been talking to Alex about his story for a couple of years," Ben said. "His account of his involvement was that his superior in the Rangers, the ringleader of the robbery, specialist Luke Elliot Summer, that he had led Alex to believe that bank robbing plans were just a training exercise. This was a hypothetical situation they were all thinking through to build tactical awareness for the very similar kinds of missions they would be carrying out abroad.
"About a couple of years into research and writing the story, I uncovered this email that Summer himself had sent to Alex's father while he was hiding out in Canada. Saying, 'How can you be so naive? Your son knew from the start that this was a bank robbery. He was enthusiastic and even helped me recruit. He's not the naive, dumb kid you paint him to be; he's a charismatic, intelligent Ranger.' That just completely shook me. It turned everything upside down.
"Summer is a deeply untrustworthy guy. He's a liar; he's a possible sociopath. He's committed all these other crimes even after the bank robbery. He's a deeply unreliable guy, but that is a pretty compelling thing. I really had to reckon with that."
Ben's investigation, which began as a defense to his cousin's indictment, eventually became the story of himself and his family searching for answers to complicated questions that were tearing them apart. Through the quest, though, Alex and Ben found a route to redemption.
"It's really taboo in the U.S., as a civilian making any kind of judgment about military service, even to inquire too deeply into what they actually are doing on deployment," Ben said. "That taboo had real significant effects on Alex's case. It made it much harder for us and his family to question in those hard-nosed ways that he might have needed to come to grips with what he had done and process it.
"It was a terrifying experience to have this thing published," Ben said. "It ended up being a really difficult process for him, but ultimately a very healing process. He was forced to grapple with it in a way that he never had before. He and I actually appeared together at a book event with a number of people from the family in the audience. It was intense and cathartic for everyone."
Summer was released on bail in September 2006. After two years on house arrest, he pleaded guilty in 2008. He was sentenced to 24 years in prison. Another 20 years was added after he pleaded guilty to stabbing a former friend and planning to have a prosecutor murdered. Alex pleaded guilty and was sentenced to time served, 16 months in prison.
Book: "Ranger Games"
When: 4 p.m. Feb. 17
Where: Trinity United Methodist Church, 225 W. President St.