by Mick Mulroy
Several years ago, after serving most of my career in warzones, I lived and worked in Uganda. One of the missions we had was to support what the United States called Operation Observant Compass, the joint effort between the U.S. and the Ugandan military to end the Lord’s Resistance Army or LRA.
The LRA is an insurgency group against the government of Uganda that was founded in 1987 by Joseph Kony, one of the most wanted persons in the world. The group is known for its widespread use of abducted children forced to be soldiers and commit atrocities such as murder and rape and would be killed for refusing to obey. Estimates vary, but 10 to 20 thousand children were forced into the LRA as soldiers.
While serving in Uganda and working on this operation, I first met Anthony Opoka at a remote Base in the jungle of Central Africa. He was a ‘cultural advisor’ to the operation. I told Anthony that I had spent almost my whole career fighting alongside local militaries and militias in conflict areas. I was also very much a student and a practitioner of irregular warfare, including insurgencies and counterinsurgencies.
We became friends almost immediately, something that from my perspective usually takes more time. I asked him if he had an injury to his arm as I had noticed him holding his wrist. He said that he did have ‘big injury’ where he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. I asked whether that happened while fighting the LRA, and he responded ‘No, I was LRA.’
Anthony single handedly talked dozens of child soldiers into defecting and leaving the fight, likely saving their lives. It was Anthony that positively identified Dominic Ongwen, the deputy of Joseph Kony, 2014 who was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, rape, torture, and enslavement at the International Criminal Courts in 2021.
One thing that most people recognize about Anthony is how easy it is to talk to him and how he puts you at ease almost immediately. He truly exhibits the ‘Stoic Calm’ that all of us Stoics seek in ourselves. He does it without effort. I started trying to emulate him. In addition to the counter-LRA mission, we had a significant counter-terrorism mission with the Al Qaeda affiliate Al Shabab from Somalia, posing a significant threat to Uganda and the Americans there. Including an attempt that we thwarted at the last minute.
I started to see that everything that made a Stoic a true Stoic was right there in a person who had never even heard of the concept or the philosophy. The Cardinal Virtues that Stoics derived from Plato’s Republic of Courage, Justice, Wisdom, and Temperance. That and living in conjunction with nature were how to achieve eudaimonia.
Anthony was well known for his Courage. I began to interview many of them while researching the counter-insurgency efforts before the U.S. participation in the academic journal Center for the Studies of Intelligence. Everyone that served with him had stories of his bravery in combat (although in the LRA, the soldiers had an unusual bond to one another far above and apart from their allegiance to Joseph Kony).
There were no awards for this, no accolades; he risked his life to save his friends because that is who he was. When Anthony asked his friend to smuggle his wife Florence and children out of the bush, he did so, thinking that he would undoubtedly be executed for that act. When I asked him if the decision at least gave him pause before deciding it, he simply said ‘no.’
Justice was something that was never afforded to Anthony. He was from a very rural village of mud huts with no running water or electricity. The government of Uganda treated the Acholi (the tribe of Anthony) as second-class citizens. They were brutal in their treatment, leading to multiple uprisings, including the establishment of the LRA. The same group ostensibly established to protect the people of northern Uganda soon turned on them, essentially enslaving them as a child army.
In the LRA justice was swift, brutal, and at the whims of Joseph Kony, who could, with one decision, kill an entire village or turn on his own soldiers ordering their execution. Anthony was often on the receiving end of this brutality. When he finally escaped and had the opportunity to leave this horrible part of his life behind him, he didn’t. He became the leading person talking other LRA soldiers into escaping as well.
After their escape, he and his wife were often the only support they had as many of their villages refused to take them back. Anthony became an integral part of the program to help them get accepted. A process that still exists today and is run by a organization called Grassroots Reconciliation Group, of which Anthony and Florence are still a part. They fought for justice for those who had never had it in a community that refused to provide it at first. Justice for Anthony was fairness tied to compassion.
Wisdom in the Stoic sense is beyond just knowledge of a subject; it is also genuine intellectual curiosity, ingenuity, and the ability to develop a position based on where the facts lead and not just where you want them to lead. Anthony had an uncommon wisdom. It did not come from former extended schooling, as that was limited and cut short with his childhood abduction. Anthony is the most clever person I have ever met. It likely saved his life many times over.
When he was injured severely, he no longer could fully be a soldier. Something the LRA leadership may have considered a liability. He could have quickly been shot and discarded as not worth keeping around, but Anthony had a skill they needed more than ever. He could navigate by using the stars, a skill his father had taught him and one that the LRA required as they could only travel at nights as the Ugandan Army had begun indiscriminately targeting the LRA with helicopter gunships during the day, likely saving many of his fellow soldiers.
After this, Anthony was chosen to be a radio operator and code-talker for the leadership to, include Joseph Kony because of his ability to learn new skills. These skills made Anthony valuable in assisting the mission to end the LRA as a viable insurgency and save countless future child soldiers that would have been forced into that organization.
Temperance can often elude someone who has seen even a fraction of what Anthony had seen. Often, former child soldiers become the most violent of militia leaders and perpetuate the abuse that was inflicted upon them. Anthony somehow managed to avoid any of these problems..
Like others of my CIA generation, I had many friends killed in the Afghanistan, Iraq, and others wars. After leaving Uganda, more friends were killed, and my wife and I was part of the notification of the family. Families that were essentially our own. It was my conversations with Anthony that helped me get through this. Someone who knew what I was talking about, but also someone that had already become the rock for many, and now me.
My interest in exploring the pre-U.S. counter-insurgency effort soon became a fascination with Anthony and Florence’s personal story. I believe a story could inspire former child soldiers around the world or anyone who thought they faced overwhelming odds that were not worth fighting. Their story proved that it was always worth the fight.
I started an amateur documentary and recruited my friends to assist as I was required to have other Americans with me to travel to this area of Uganda due to the remoteness and potential hazards. Matt Sullivan, Brina Bunt, Cara Dana and my future business partner Eric Oehlerich who along with Mark Rausenberger put the eventual documentary together with me.
At the time, it would take us six hours to drive to Anthony and Florence village. It was as remote as it was when they were there as children. After filming the documentary (eventually called My Star in the Sky) every day with the villagers as the actors, we would sit around the fire and eat. Very basic food cooked over the fire, and watch people tell stories or sing. No TV, no iPads, no nothing but people and a camp fire. People laughing, talking, and just being there in that moment.
I don’t want to overly romantize it. Its was a tough life, but everytime when were driving back to Kampala and the urban diplomat life, the American with me would comment on how surprised they were at how happy they all were. How they would love to sit around the dinner table and just talk with their kids without the distractions of modernity. It was the last in the pillars, living in harmony with nature. It showed me that what really matters in not what you own, its who you are.
Anthony was by all accounts a ‘Stoic and didn’t know it.’
The story of Anthony and Florence will soon be available for all to know as award winning New York Times best-selling author Mark Sullivan is in the final stages of a book on their life. A portion of the proceeds will go to the charity End Child Soldiering, founded by Eric Oehlerich and the author.
About the author:
Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy, is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, a retired CIA paramilitary operations officer from their Special Activities Center and U.S. Marine, an ABC News national security and defense analyst, a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute, a co-founder of the Lobo Institute and End Child Soldiering, on the board of advisors for Grassroots Reconciliation Group and on the board of advisors for Plato’s Academy Centre. He is also the godfather of two of Anthony’s son’s.