In 1991, Frank Smyth didn’t know if he would live or die.
Thirty years old, the respected freelance war reporter was traveling with Kurdish rebels in Iraq when Iraqi soldiers killed Gad Gross, a photographer working with Smyth, and a Kurdish armed guerrilla Gross had befriended. An hour later, they captured Smyth and a French photographer at gunpoint and locked them in Abu Ghraib prison. The two journalists witnessed tortures, endured hostile interrogations and were accused of spying.
Panic Attacks and Pot-Smoking
Captivity came to an end 18 days later with an unforeseen release, but Smyth’s struggles continued for years. Panic attacks, anger, pot-smoking and alcohol plagued Smyth as he processed the events of Iraq. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and haunting memories often left him in a cold sweat.
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These days, however, Smyth, 54, has come out on top, in no small part due to the second act he created for himself.
You can still find him globetrotting in the world’s roughest spots — such as Uganda, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo — but now he does so as Executive Director of the innovative hostile-environment training company he founded 3 ½ years ago: Global Journalist Security (GJS).
“I wanted something with meaning. I wanted something for myself and I didn’t want a handout,” he said.
Helping Keep Journalists Safe
Smyth, who lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife, daughter, a dog and a cat, developed the business to offer journalists and others working in repressive, violent environments ways that would empower them to make informed decisions for their own security.
The program’s courses last three or five days and cost $1,000 to $3,000. Smyth brings in a collection of experts from different fields to cross-train journalists in a skills ranging from self-defense to first aid to digital information safety to personal safety. By contrast, most hostile environment companies have featured an ex-military staff and focused solely on battlefield security and emergency first aid training.
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Smyth’s idea grew out of his post-Iraq work, when he became Security Adviser for the Committee to Protect Journalists and served on the board of the Europe-based International News Safety Institute. It wasn’t long before he was recognized as an international expert on press freedom. Over the years, Smyth identified key components missing in journalist-targeted training, such as sexual-assault avoidance, pre- and post-trauma self-care and digital safety. He also saw a need to teach journalists how to assume responsibility for their own security.
The Call He Couldn't Ignore
This new approach tumbled around in his head over the years as circumstances gradually pushed him closer to forming his own company. He married in 2010 and felt the need for a higher income, which he could see this business eventually generating. In 2011, the call became impossible to ignore.
“I realized it was time to just do this and stop talking about it,” he recalls. “And so I did it.”
Smyth makes launching his second act sound simple, but readily admits that it was anything but.
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He had no capital and no staff. His mother was ailing. His wife, an attorney, was trying to start her own business, and the couple had a young daughter. Smyth felt a keen pressure to succeed, psychologically and financially.
While getting his business off the ground, he kept his job at Committee to Protect Journalists and took on a commentator job with MSNBC for a trickle of income. But the 16- and 17-hour days took their toll.
Strains on His Family
“It was so much work in the beginning, it puts strains on the family,” says Smyth. “Especially when we had no money. If you have no money, you can’t hire anyone to help you. If you can’t hire anyone to help you, you’ve got to do it all yourself. If you have to do it all yourself, you lose your mind,” he explained.
The first three years were difficult, culminating in a “miserable” 2013, said Smyth. But by 2014, the company was gaining traction as its brand grew, with over 150 clients. In 2015, GJS started turning a profit; Smyth expects to have about 250 clients by year’s end.
Smyth says his persistent efforts to encourage NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and news organizations to try out his business have finally started paying off. At the same time, reports of the ISIS beheadings and other brutal treatment of NGO workers and journalists have spurred organizations to focus on security.
Grit, determination and an unrivaled doggedness got Smyth through those first years. A fierce drive for autonomy — which drove his successful freelance career — also helped.
Persistence and the Right Team
“I never give up. There’s almost something wrong with me on that front,” he said, adding, “I didn’t know if the company was going to work, but I was determined I wasn’t going to give up until I had to give up.”
Smyth also points to the nine-person core training team he assembled as crucial to GJS’ success. The experts include military special forces, press freedom advocates, EMTs, experienced journalists, digital safety experts and self-defense trainers.
“I cultivated a team of people. People who believe in me. People who made themselves available when I needed them,” he said.
Smyth's 3 Tips for Midlife Career Changers
For other 50- and 60-somethings thinking about launching a business, Smyth has three pieces of advice:
1. Trust your instincts. “When you override your instincts, that’s always a mistake,” he says.
2. Be prepared to fail. “There are always things you can do as a back-up. At least you know, you’ve got a skillset. There are other things you can do and you might have to do them,” he notes.
3. When you manage, you have to manage everybody. “And you have to make sure everybody is happy, and that’s tricky. You have to be honest with people, and honest with the clients especially. And sometimes things don’t go well and you have to take responsibility,” says Smyth.
It’s been almost 25 years since Smyth’s days in that abominable Iraqi prison cell. More than two decades of digging in, and persevering in ways that have defined his foray into the business world and his company’s success. It’s been a new kind of battle for Smyth, but one he’s shown can be won.
Kristin Neubauer is a producer on the Latin America desk for Reuters Television in Washington D.C. She has reported from Colombia, Venezuela and Haiti and spent a year in Central America on a Fulbright.