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ONE FC 21: Chinese commentator Gene Yu recalls daring rescue to save family friend from Abu Sayyaf (Pt. 1)

Few can share a story as unique as Gene Yu. The former Green Beret is the Chinese commentator for ONE FC and founder of the FLOW apparel line. In the first of a three-part series, Yu discussed how he spearheaded a daring rescue mission to free a kidnapped family friend from the clutches of one of the most notorious insurgency outfits in the world.


There are many paths and avenues that lead to individual success. Hard work, passion, and smarts all play a role, no matter the person. Another big part of that are the choices that you make along the way. When you look back at almost every successful career story, there will usually be a "If I had chose to do this, than I might not have made it" moment somewhere in the narrative. Being in the right place at the right time is usually a key ingredient in the recipe, and you can throw in kismet, fate and a bit of chance as well.

For Gene Yu, it is an extremely rare and unique story that goes back to one of the choices he made during his time in S.E.R.E. (survival, evasion, resistance, escape) training for the U.S. Special Forces that sent him on his way to a successful run in the military. But unbeknownst to him at the time he was sent to the Southern Philippines for his first tour, the experience he was gaining would eventually lead to him being able to save a family friend named Evelyn Chang's life, after she was kidnapped off the Island of Pom Pom in Eastern Malaysia and taken back to the jungle camps inside the Islands of Sulu in the Philippines.

ONE FC will be heading to Malaysia in a couple of weeks for ONE Fighting Championship (ONE FC) at ONE FC 21: "Roar of Tigers," which takes place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia at Stadium Putra and features a featherweight clash between Marat Gafurov and Rob Lisita. "K.L." -- as it is often abbreviated -- is the federal capital and less than an hour flight from where Yu's friend was taken.

If you were to hear the story of how he saved Chang from Abu Sayyaf, one of the most notorious insurgency outfits on the planet, you would think it was a script for an action movie, or perhaps a treatment for the next Expendables or Taken sequel, because the odds of someone even attempting a mission like it are probably higher than they are for actually pulling it off successfully. The story is in fact very much true, and Hollywood is also currently interested in turning it into a film.

Yu, 34, the nephew of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou enlisted into West Point in 1997 and graduated in 2001. There were times he thought about getting out after graduation, but 9/11 happened and that changed everything for him. After graduation he was an armor officer and served as a tank platoon leader along the DMZ of Korea before donning the green beret early on in 2006. There were days serving in the Special Forces where he felt inspired to make it a lifelong career, especially after saving lives in other countries. But after spending 12 years in total in the military, and his last three in continuous combat, his mindset reverted back to when he was 17 and wanting to experience and explore different things in life and get back to who he thought he was at that time. So he ventured out on a journey away from wearing a uniform on a daily basis. Little did he know, it wouldn't be long before he would return to that realm.

After hanging up his uniform, Yu has worked in finance as a trader at Credit Suisse in Hong Kong, became director of channels for Perx Technologies, a Singapore-based mobile application company, and launched the FLOW apparel line. Now he serves as vice president of corporate development for Migme, which is similar to Twitter, but for third-world countries.

One of his first endeavors after leaving the military was becoming an author. Yu wrote a series of semi-fictional books about his experiences in the military called "Yellow-Green Beret: Stories of an Asian-American stumbling around U.S. Special Forces." The first book has gone on to be a No. 1 best seller in Taiwan. When the books were translated into Chinese, and he was on a press tour to promote them in Taiwan, is when he first found out about Chang's abduction and the unfortunate news that her longtime partner, Hsu Li-Min, was shot and killed. After he caught word of the situation he knew by using the skills he inherited from being in the U.S. Special Forces, and having the knowledge and first-hand combat experience of the Southern Philippines, that he was the best option to bring Chang back to safety.

"I went down there because I looked at this family and realized that out of all these shitty options, I was still the best out of all the worst options," said Yu. "I was still a horrible option. I was one guy to go out there. I couldn't look at myself in the mirror every day knowing that I had the ability to help the Chang family at least more than what was happening, which was nothing. After I sacrificed my life, my friends, my family for all those years fighting in wars that I still to this day don't even understand why we were there for strangers in communities and cultures I had never encountered and putting it all on the line for these people and now our family had some friends that we knew and I couldn't turn my back from helping them out."

"I had done two tours in the Philippines with green berets. I was very familiar with the situation with Abu Sayyaf. I was very familiar with Philippine security forces, both on the military and police side. It was almost a happenstance situation that a family friend was kidnapped by a group that I had such inside knowledge on and also the network and connections to do something. If she had been kidnapped in Nigeria, there was nothing I could've done to begin to start to approach it, other than reaching out inside the network and maybe trying to jump start something on my own."

Yu gained valuable experience while being a a counter-terrorist commander in Bagdad, conducting four such hostage-rescue missions there. He modestly stated that any green beret from his organization could have most likely pulled off the rescue of Chang successfully. The only difference, Yu claimed, was "going in without the support of the U.S. military," which made things much more difficult since he would have to enlist the help of Filipino soldiers as well as assistance from mercenaries.

"Every mission that I had done before was -- I realize now -- ready-made with limitless resources and all these trustworthy and capable people," said Yu, who also mentioned he believes Chang's rescue was one of the fastest a hostage has been recovered by Abu Sayyaf. "When you deploy in Iraq with your team, your A-team of 12 special forces guys, support crew of intelligence guys and logistics, you don't have to question whether or not they are going to do their job or whether or not they are trustworthy."

"Going in by myself into the Philippines, I had to resource via mercenaries. I was taking meetings with drug smugglers, gun smugglers, other people who have the wherewithal, resources and willingness to help you out in this realm of anti-kidnapping and willing to do it behind the government's back. These are typically not the most upstanding citizens of the country, so to speak. I think that was the most challenging part was just figuring out who to trust, who I wanted to resource and use, how I could get them to work with me without paying them any money because the family was not a wealthy family at all. So, figuring out ways and cutting deals here and there to get shit done, basically was the most challenging thing. Once all the resources came into play, honestly, it pretty run of the mill. Nothing different from hundreds of operations I had done in Iraq or the Philippines."

The majority of the details of the mission are still confidential due to signing non-disclosure agreements because Yu submitted for medical valor for three of the Filipino special operatives that he was able to recruit for "bravery during the actions of their objective." According to reports from the Philippine media, Yu said there were supposedly six confirmed deaths and six wounded when all was said and done.

While the rescue mission was successful, that doesn't mean the former Green Beret was free from worry. Yu discussed two very nerve-wracking moments that took place during the 30-day mission. The first was a direct phone call he made to Chang while she was in captivity because he was scared she was developing Stockholm Syndrome. Yu had pretended to be a Taiwanese physician.

"When we got on the phone I explained to her who I was," said Yu, who used a Philippine intermediary because the captors spoke only in Tausug. "I didn't give her any names, I said 'I can't tell you exactly who I am right now. You should know that I have extensive years background in counter terrorism. I am a close friend of your families and I am working 24/7 to get you out. So don't forget who the enemy is. Don't forget who the enemy is.' I said that three times to her. This whole time her captors in the background are yelling at her to tell me to speak in English. I was speaking in Chinese the whole time. I said 'I can't speak in English' and I just continued to talk to her. The problem was I spoke to her in too calm of a voice."

"The only people that the captors had heard her really talking to before that were her family directly on the phone and they were of course, hysterical on the phone. They are not professionally trained. Most of their conversations that their having is very high tense. There would be Evelyn sometimes on the phone to illicit emotional reaction. There was a lot of hysteria on the phone when they were talking. They were talking to me and this guy was like 'way too calm' and one of the captors interrupts at a certain point and says to me in English 'you are a Taiwanese spy and we are cutting her head off' and hangs the phone up on me. That was probably the most stressful time for me. I thought that I was in over my head. I thought I had completely overstepped my bounds in terms of helping the Chang family. I was not able to open up another line of communication to them for two days."

After that happened, Yu, through a former professor at West Point and fellow Special Forces officer named Joe Felter, was put in touch with Dennis V. Eclariin, a retired Lt. Colonel in the Philippine Army, who was also a West Point graduate. Eclarin happened to have the resources and a team in place to help and was more than willing to do so for a fellow West Point graduate. "This happened to emerge after a week in the Philippines of me pulling my hair out," Yu said. "Dennis was able to convince the captors that we were a second group of Chinese/Filipino family friends and we opened up a second secret line of negotiation communication to the captors."

Once they recovered Chang, the biggest concern, Yu said, was getting her out of the Philippines and back to Taiwan since they had operated behind the back of the Philippine police. While Yu, and his crew of mercenaries and Filipino soldiers had the backing of certain military and special operations elements and intelligence units, the police and military "don't really collaborate or trust each other," he said, and the police were the ones who were mandated to handle the case. This made matters extremely tense and the timing of the escape became crucial and imperative for the success of the mission.

"The biggest vulnerability I had in terms of my safety was never really with Abu Sayyaf, but rather with the actual Philippine police because I was concerned about being essentially detained by the Philippine police on the way out for interfering," Yu explained. "Whatever other reasons you could think of: interfering with police operations, colluding with criminal elements and all these different things. So leaving the Philippines was my biggest concern after we had gotten Evelyn."

"There were also Malaysian operatives that were operating in the area because they were trying to come in to conduct some type of recovery operation as well so they could claim credit for taking care of the problem that happened in Malaysia on their grounds. Malaysia is very concerned with their tourist industry and how that was going to impact everything. The Malaysians were heavily involved as well."

They were on Jolo Island and had to get to Zamboanga, then Manila, before flying to the finish line in Taiwan. Aside from the time needed for travel, they would have to outsmart the Philippine police and Malaysian operatives to make it out unscathed. The stress and tension would be increasingly heightened in the last hours of the rescue.

"At one point we basically had to release a false statement to everybody that was in the area that we were going to be taking a helicopter from Jolo Island back to Zamboanga," Yu explained. "Instead we snuck out and jumped on a ferry, and took a ferry eight hours through the night and got back to Zamboanga about 6 a.m., immediately rolled over to the airport -- and through various resources and connections -- we were able to get on the next flight up to Manila. After Manila we were received by the Taiwanese diplomats and got on to the next plane to Taiwan."

"On the plane at like 11 a.m. I get a text from the operatives that were working with me down on the helipad in Zamboanga saying that the Malaysians are looking for you, the Philippine police, the group that were assigned to the case, the kidnapping group were all looking for you. We were on the plane taxiing to take off back to Taiwan. That was the most nerve wracking part for me because that's the time I had the most exposure. Everybody had known that we had recovered her and we were trying to get out of the country without being interdicted by the Philippine security forces."

Many things in Yu's life have changed since the 30-day mission ended and Chang was returned to safety in Taiwan. He has been able to further promote his FLOW apparel line and become a commentator for a surging Asian MMA promotion, but the biggest reward he says, is when he sees Chang in Taipei every month, the first thing she tells him each time is "thank you for saving my life."

"That's an amazing feeling," Yu said. "I've never had a continued relationship with anybody I've helped while in the U.S. military. The Changs are family friends officially, but I've never met them before. After such a stressful and unique experience, we are very close now."

*Note: This is the first of a three-part series on Gene Yu. The next installment will take you back to his days of training in the U.S. Special Forces and the decision he made that almost got him thrown out of the military for good, before it led him on a path to the Philippines, where he would gain the necessary knowledge to one day save Evelyn Chang's life.

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