Before the United States invaded Iraq, Todd Wilcox led some of the first Americans on the ground as a CIA officer.
In Operation Desert Storm, he earned a Bronze Star Medal after his Army platoon captured more than 250 Iraqi soldiers. From a Japanese base, he led a team of snipers in hostage situations throughout East Asia.
More than a decade later, though, he's struggling to command attention on a new, political battlefield at the Florida Gun Show.
It's a friendly crowd for a guy like Wilcox, a life member of the NRA who's shopping for a new scope for his gun, as well as for voters. But few passersby stop under the "Restoring America's Prominence" banner he set up that May morning to hear his earnest pitch to replace Marco Rubio as the next U.S. senator from Florida.
"That apathy's going to kill us," says Wilcox, 49, one of five Republicans angling for attention in a race full of unknowns and little-knowns. By "us" he doesn't just mean his own campaign; he means the United States.
Apathy is the first step toward the failure of America's 240-year experiment with democracy, he says. Career politicians have turned voters off government, making them complacent and the nation vulnerable.
Wilcox insists he isn't like those politicians.
He says it's time for a change. More specifically: "It's time to elect a warrior."
New to the game
Which party controls the U.S. Senate for the first two years of a Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump presidency likely will hinge on Florida.
Among Republicans, the open race has attracted two congressmen, the lieutenant governor and a millionaire who for years has funneled cash into campaigns including Gov. Rick Scott's.
Then there's Wilcox, who's never run for office before or been active in political circles.
But political inexperience is not a downside, he says. It's how he hopes to stand out. After all, this year, Florida's Republican base rejected two homegrown presidential candidates in favor of political neophyte Trump.
Like Trump, Wilcox is enmeshed in business. Building off a military background, he started three companies that have defense contracts and work with corporations overseas.
He's running for the Senate "out of desperation and frustration" and because he's "fed up" he says. Confidantes say he has been considering a political run for some time.
"I've wanted him to run for public office for years," said Lawson Lamar, the 24-year former state attorney in Orlando and a longtime friend.
A moderate Democrat and Vietnam War veteran, Lamar said Wilcox is well positioned to make foreign policy decisions because he knows what it's like to be deployed.
Michael Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general who has advised Trump, said they have been talking about the problems with the political class for years — and that frustration pushed Wilcox to run.
"There's no airs about this guy," said Flynn, who's also a strategic adviser to one of Wilcox's companies. "He's a humble guy, and he's somebody who likes to roll his sleeves up and work hard."
Already, Wilcox has pumped more than $1 million into his run, making him the biggest contributor to his campaign so far. Outside donations have trickled in, but as of March, he had brought in just $412,797 since his campaign launched last July.
If more donors don't flock to him, Wilcox says he's ready to spend more of his own wealth.
"This is a mission," he said. "I'm dedicated to this. I'll either raise it or write a check for it."
A Kansas native, Wilcox was raised in South Tampa by a single mother.
His record is near-spotless — it had to be for him to have top-secret security clearance in the CIA.
The only red marks came decades ago. One, a skirmish when he was 18 years old, led to a night in Hillsborough County Jail after a baseball bat went through a window.
Wilcox said he didn't throw the bat and that police brought in everyone involved in the fight. Some of the people involved were 17, he said, and they were turned over to their parents.
"My mom left me there to teach me a lesson," he said.
Wilcox was charged with throwing a deadly missile into a dwelling, a felony. The charges were dropped.
Eight years later, he was ticketed in Brevard County for an open beer in his car. It was his underage brother's, Wilcox said. He took the fall to keep his brother out of trouble.
The family didn't have much when Wilcox was young. He started working in the eighth grade, washing dishes in the Tampa Electric Company cafeteria to help his mother, who he says often worked two jobs.
An ROTC scholarship paid his way through the University of Tampa, and after graduating in 1989 with a degree in finance, he joined the Army. In 1990, he was sent to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, at the start of the Gulf War.
He joined the special forces and earned his Green Beret, eventually rising to the rank of major as a reservist.
Nearly a year before the U.S. military invaded Iraq in 2003, Wilcox was there. He led one of the CIA's intelligence teams as a case officer. His job: to recruit and train spies to provide the earliest classified information needed to develop the wartime strategy.
"You're responsible for the agency mission and the lives of everyone that's assigned to you," said John Maguire, who trained Wilcox when he joined the CIA. "You're inside of a hostile country before the U.S. military gets in."
He returned to Florida in 2003 to be closer to his mother, who was diagnosed with cancer. She died within three months, Wilcox said.
Instead of going back overseas, he stayed in Orlando at the Joint Terrorism Task Force. It allowed Wilcox, then a single father, to raise his two daughters from his first two marriages.
Thirteen years ago, he began dating Christine York, who was also a CIA officer. The two were married in 2005 in a ceremony officiated by Lamar, and in 2008, they had another daughter.
Information about CIA missions and employees are mostly confidential, so details about Wilcox's work are hard to find. The CIA declined to comment on his time with the agency.
But Maguire said Wilcox was a natural leader.
"I don't have any doubt that had he stayed in the agency, he would have been a senior executive officer," Maguire said.
Making his millions
Mail and packages reach Army troops in Afghanistan in part because of a company called Innovative Logistics, which Wilcox started in 2009.
The company has a contract that has so far paid about $35 million, and that Wilcox expects to finish under its $50 million budget, to drive truckloads of love letters and birthday cards and care packages to Army installations around the country.
It's dangerous work. Four of the company's workers have been killed and a dozen injured in the last three- and- a- half years, Wilcox said.
After leaving the CIA, he started Patriot Defense Group, a contractor that conducts training for military special operations, the CIA and FBI.
He later created SRM, which does international cyber security, background investigation and foreign corrupt practices work for corporate clients.
Together, the three companies founded by Wilcox employ about 180 full-time workers, many of who are veterans, he said, and have brought in $65 million in gross revenue in the last 10 years.
Along the way, they turned Wilcox into a millionaire.
He estimates his current net worth at about $50 million.
Based on documents filed with the Senate, most of his wealth is in the value of his three companies, which he said have grown faster since he relinquished day-to-day control to run for office.
If he loses this election, Wilcox will turn to his plan to grow his businesses by merging with and buying other firms.
"I'm not doing this because I need a job," he said.
Seven minutes into his appearance on Joe Whitehead's conservative, Saturday morning talk radio show, Wilcox is tired of talking about which restroom transgender people should use.
He states his position matter of factly: "If you're a man, you're a man. If you're a woman, you're a woman. You use the bathroom of your gender. If you can't figure it out, I'm not sure I can help you."
It's just not the kind of thing he talks about very often.
Social issues are a distraction, he says — one that could cost Republicans the election. He views national security and the economy as more important.
"You have a candidate running for the second-highest office in the land, and we're talking about bathrooms?" Wilcox asked Whitehead. "Let's move back to the issues that matter most about getting America back on track."
Federal regulations and the tax code have been a "wet blanket" to innovation, he says. He believes the government needs to find a way to protect the country against terrorism while still protecting people's privacy and that loose immigration laws would pose a national security threat.
If they focus on national security and the economy, Wilcox says, Republicans have a chance to win elections.
Bathrooms, gay marriage and abortion, he said, are not "existential threats" to the country.
Electoral politics are a world away from combat. But that's why Wilcox's allies in military and intelligence circles think he's the best candidate.
"The U.S. government on the legislative level is certainly in need of some adult supervision," Maguire said. "He's somebody who's earned his way, not some political golden boy who's been selected by the party."
Still, there are things Wilcox is getting used to, like being subject to media attention.
At a Republican event last year in Tampa, he told the room that, "I have faced our enemy — and sent some of them to our maker." The line became the beginning of a Times story about his candidacy months later.
That surprised Wilcox. He didn't realize there was a reporter in the room.
But what annoys him most are those who don't seem at all interested in who their next senator is.
"They don't have to do what I'm doing: open themselves up, spend six nights a week on the road," he said. "All they have to do is vote."
Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Michael Auslen at [email protected] Follow @MichaelAuslen.