Former Navy SEAL Cade Courtley hosts America Unplugged, now showing on Thursdays at 8pm ET on the Sportsman Channel. Each of the eight episodes profiles one of the estimated 400,000 Americans who choose to live off the grid. The show doesn't sensationalize their choices. It's about the mechanics of how these people choose to live more than it is about what motivated the decision in the first place.
Courtley has a fascinating post-service career, first working in Hollywood and then with Blackwater and other security firms after 9/11. More recently, he's been a TV host and authored the 2012 book A Navy SEAL's Secrets to Surviving Any Disaster. Cade talked to us about the series and his career.
You can find out how to watch the Sportsman Channel here. The network doesn't stream anything from an app, do the On Demand thing with cable or put their shows on Hulu or YouTube, so you'll need to either get yourself in front of a TV at 8pm ET or set a DVR or VCR.
You were a SEAL. Tell our readers about your service.
I was an officer for nine years active duty. I was a product of our ROTC unit at the University of San Diego. After spending one year in the fleet on a frigate, I went to SEAL training. And instead of it taking the customary seven months, it took me 19 because of multiple broken legs and a fractured skull. I finally graduated and got the opportunity to be assigned to SEAL Team 2, and then later went to SEAL Team 1, and then did my final year as a senior instructor. So kind of full circle.
What made you decide to get out and how did you end up where you are now?
The great thing about being an officer in the SEALs is also the worst thing about it. The best part about it is we go through everything with enlisted guys and we all do everything together. Honestly, that’s what you need to do for the team to communicate and know each other. That’s the only way that it truly works, as far as I'm concerned, and that’s what I love about it.
The thing that's not so great about being an officer on the SEAL teams is once you hit about the nine year mark, you don’t get to be operational anymore. They don’t let you go into the field. And the reason I joined the SEAL teams was to lead men into combat and it wasn’t to sit behind a desk. So when it kind of became obvious that that’s the direction things were going, I decided to move on and pursue other challenges.
That seems to be a pattern with you guys, that the Navy hasn’t figured out what to do with you after you can't be operational anymore.
It's unfortunate because, right at the nine year mark, I mean I had it figured out. I felt like I was that quarterback that could already see where the receivers were gonna be and was lobbing that pass. And it's too bad because it takes awhile to be able to figure that out and get to the top of your game and then unfortunately when you're at the top of the game they bench you. But that’s just all part of being an officer on the SEAL teams.
So you get out. How do you decide what to do next?
From a weird chain of events; I randomly ended up in Los Angeles. I was doing some stunt work and stunt work kind of turned into, “Hey, this guy, he can actually make complete sentences,” so I did some stuff in front of the camera and also started doing some writing and actually got a screenplay produced. I did the Hollywood thing and was enjoying that until 9/11 happened and after that had a burning desire to get back in the game.
So that’s when I joined Blackwater as an independent contractor. I was off and on doing the independent contracting stuff for about eight years. I was only with Blackwater a couple years. All the guys that started at Blackwater, we all knew each other, all SEALs, first name basis. We all had worked together in the past. It was a really, really tight group. And then as Blackwater got too big too quick, you could sort of see the type of guys that were floating in. They weren't up to it and we all bounced out of there and moved on to the next company, but it was basically taking care of the same contract.
I spent a day at Don Shipley's SEAL camp a few weeks ago.
I was with Don Shipley at SEAL Team 2 and he is just about the funniest guy I've ever met in my life. The guy is nuts.
What’s the name of your screenplay that got produced?
It was called The Shepherd Border Patrol with Jean-Claude Van Damme. That was too bad. We loved the script and we had a whole idea of trying to get sort of the next generation of action heroes in and Sony said, “Yep, that's what we'll do with it.” Once we cashed the checks as writers, it's like, “Why are you calling, why are you bugging us?” I found out that they owed Jean-Claude Van Damme one more film and ours was the one that he got. So it's okay. It went from what could have been really cool to just sort of a kung fu film.
That’s the story of from almost everyone who sells a film pitch to Hollywood. You're in a lot of good company.
Yep. Well, at least the check cleared, so I can't really bitch that much.
So now you're on TV. How did that happen?
When I was doing the stunt work, they decided, “Hey, let's put this guy in front of the camera,” so I was doing some guest star stuff and that kind of turned into appearances on Fox and CNN and that sort of turned into, “Hey, maybe you'd be a good host.”
The biggest thing I did previous to this show was Surviving Disaster. It was a show we did on Spike and I was starting to take the niche of The Survival Guy, the American version. When the opportunity came to be part of America Unplugged it was a perfect fit. The production company was awesome and I’m just very happy with how everything turned out and proud of the final product. Very proud.
The thing I like most about the show is the approach they took. So when you say the word “prepper,” it kind of has a bad connotation. I mean there are some folks out there that seem like they’re doing the “sharpening their knives naked in the basement” kind of thing.
The groups, the people we focused in on with America Unplugged, are very, very intelligent, very compassionate, super smart people. I like that it was a choice that they were making because that’s what they wanted to do. They wanted the ability to be completely self-reliant. It wasn’t “The sky is falling and the Earth is coming to an end.” It was just, “Hey, we choose to live independently and that’s what we're gonna do.” NASA should hire some of these guys because it's amazing some of the stuff they’re doing living completely off the grid.
How many of these folks have TV? Because I think there's a real sense that once people decide to be off the grid, they're not connected to the outside world anymore.
Well, we kind of joked about that. It's the funny thing is we basically did eight episodes for eight different groups of people that will never see themselves on TV because they're unplugged. They all had the potential to create power and stuff like that and some of them did have TV's. I kind of truly appreciated sort of the full off-the-grid non-electronic folks.
There’s one guy who basically uses different forms of gravity for producing water that feeds his seven different types of lettuce in his greenhouse. I thought that was really cool. I mean he was an amazing guy too. He was a lot of fun to talk to and been doing it for 15 years. And, if you didn’t know any better and you're sitting next to him in a coffee shop, you'd just think he was just a normal guy.
Are you guys talking about doing a second run yet?
You’re gonna have to talk to the bosses over at Sportsman Channel about that, but I'd love to do another round on this show. Finding people for the first season was challenging. But, since we went on the air, there have some real characters showing up talking about their off-the-grid experience and how they live life. And I think second season could be even better than the first.
A lot of the folks who make those kind of choices are worried about being treated like they’re a freak show. You're definitely not doing that, so when somebody sees the show and realizes that they're gonna get a fair shake, you're gonna get a lot more people willing to show up.
Like I said earlier, that was the thing that really drew me into this show. It's smart people making a choice, doing this and being represented like the type of people they are. You know, smart, thoughtful, and this is just a choice they’ve made.