Tour of Duty

This was first published on April 17th, 2007. It was my second blog. Lots has changed since then. Brian Wilson, the subject of this story, returned from Iraq and built Zolve. Like many new ideas launched in ’08, Zolve is hanging in there and trying to make it — Marc

EAST BAGHDAD, Iraq: Forward Operating Base — Night.

Mortar shells splash in the foreground throwing strobes of light that obliterate the darkness. Bullets ping like castanets off a sign post. Soldiers dart for cover as missiles drop through plumes of smoke.

Captain Brian Robert Wilson sits in the corner of his concrete barrack typing on his computer. His mind, elsewhere. Across the room an unannounced rocket penetrates the concrete roof. A beam of moonlight rides piggyback on the shrapnel pushed through a hole drilled into the cinder. Wilson screams out a soldier’s name. Seconds pass. He yells again and she answers as she emerges covered in dust and debris. A few feet to the left and she would have been obliterated.

An Army of One

Farewell at the Wilsons’ Fort Collins, Colo., home was a Kleenex moment. On Oct. 13, 2005, father, husband and real estate broker Brian Wilson received a Western Union telegram. As a West Point Graduate, class of ’98, he’s eligible for recall. The Army doesn’t forget.

Wilson and his wife just learned they were pregnant. Their new house was about to close. He had opened his own real estate brokerage just four months earlier. A young man has been called to serve the country. Separated, he defined an Army of One.

Fort Bragg. Time passed, but it didn’t stop. Three months later, Captain Wilson left this insane world to find himself thrust into another.

Realtor on a tour of duty

Forward Operating Base was once a center for higher learning. Saddam converted it into a military intelligence base — i.e., a prison. There was an entire wing dedicated to children. Miniature chains and torture devices lie about rusted and silent. The imagined wails, however, were deafening.

Wilson’s mission was civil affairs. Part of his task was to survey local businessmen and learn about the economy. During this time Wilson met two Baghdad real estate brokers. His interview revealed several cultural differences between there and here. MLSs don’t exist in Iraq. Pocket listings rule. Brokers represent sellers only and are commissioned 3 percent. They facilitate the closing. All transactions are cash. A process that dates back to the time of Babylon.

Prices are staggering. When Saddam’s regime fell, so did his housing restrictions. A boom ensued. 4-bedroom home with view could become 3-bedroom home with crater overnight and it’d still double or triple in value in a year. As Brian put it, “People will always need a place to live. Real estate will always have value, no matter the micro or macro circumstances.”

Connection to Sanity

The days are bearable, the nights insufferable. Grown men shouldn’t cry themselves to sleep. But then most grown men don’t lose friends with the same frequency that I lose keys. Captain Wilson learned to stay low, especially after a colleague his age in the same duty station with a wife and kids, who was also in real estate, met fate. The two shared the very same water-cooler conversations we do about the industry. Only difference is we don’t dodge bullets and fail.

There’s a computer in the barrack with Internet access. With the day’s events over and the fear of what nighttime horror lay ahead, Captain Wilson dials up and connects to the Web. Here’s an excerpt from an e-mail he sent me:

“Over the past year I discovered blogs and podcasts – two things that changed how I thought about real estate. While in my absence, my company sold $98,000,000 in real estate doing it the traditional way, I learned the scope of changes the industry is now just beginning to realize.”

It fascinated me to learn about the sites he surfs in his bunker: Inman News, ActiveRain, Transparent Real Estate, FBS Blog , and Rain City Real Estate Guide. These are some of his destinations. They served as his muse for developing the next new real estate idea.

When he returns from his tour of duty, a business plan will accompany him.

Beyond the boundaries of imagination.

During the last 15 months, Wilson’s imagination went global. Iraq blue-pilled his perspective.

“Had I not been deployed, I would have never come up with my business plan for an online real estate venture. I would have stayed ‘in the weeds’ running a traditional brokerage on a daily basis. In the heat of the day, I didn’t have or make time for bigger thinking.”

Bigger thinking. Many employing it have come from outside real estate. Others, like Captain Wilson, are pure red, white and blue — Realtor blue. What each have in common is the endless possibilities they see in our industry. Great minds are expanding real estate beyond the boundaries of imagination.

Wilson’s message is powerful. If you’re in the weeds, find your own private Iraq.


Stay low, Captain Wilson. Four more weeks. Come home and introduce yourself to your new babies. One day they’ll thank you for doing your part to ensure that others never see what you’ve seen. You’ve been a great pen pal and I will miss our long-distance missives.

See you at Real Estate Connect in August.