When Col. George Bristol retired to Whitefish after 38 years in the United States Marine Corps, including 19 years overseas in some of the most dangerous places on earth, he could have easily kicked back and relaxed.
But that’s not exactly Bristol’s style.
“I’m not the type of guy who just sits around,” he says.
For a few years, he worked as the headmaster at Whitefish Christian Academy. Bristol says he loved the job but it was only temporary, and when another headmaster with more educational experience arrived he gladly stepped aside. But he didn’t sit idle long. For the past six months, Bristol has volunteered as a special deputy with the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office helping find runaway juveniles. For Bristol — who earned the nickname “Man Hunter” overseas for his knack for tracking down wanted terrorists — it is the perfect fit.
“In the military, the mission was to kill or capture,” he says. “But here the mission is to get these kids back home safely. It’s a very different mission outcome, but the techniques (needed to complete) it are similar.”
Bristol is no stranger to the plight of runaway children; in fact, he was one himself in his younger years. Bristol says he had a tough childhood, but that the Marine Corps “saved” him. He spent eight years enlisted and 30 years as an officer. Over the years, he saw combat in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He was also responsible for founding the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.
“From 9/11 until I retired (in 2013), I spent most of my time tracking down bad guys with Al-Qaida and ISIS,” he says. “I’ve been to every bad place on Earth multiple times.”
Last summer, Bristol read a news story about the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force headed up by Det. Jeanne Parker and reached out to offer his services.
Parker was initially hesitant about bringing in a volunteer to the ICAC Task Force, especially considering the sensitive nature of their work. But that changed after she sat down for coffee with Bristol.
“When I left that meeting, I knew I had found the perfect man for the job,” she says.
When a child goes missing, law enforcement tries to determine if a crime has occurred and if the child is in immediate danger. If law enforcement believes the child may have been kidnapped or hurt, a full-fledged investigation is opened. But if it’s apparent that the child is a runaway, Bristol is called in.
Bristol interviews the child’s parents, classmates and friends in an effort to create what he calls “a pattern of life” that reveals where the child usually goes. Since this past summer, Bristol has helped bring more than two-dozen children home. Afterwards, Bristol helps the children and their families connect with services to help resolve, or at least improve, their situations at home.
Parker says Bristol’s work is particularly important because runaways are in danger of becoming human-traffic victims. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in five runaway juveniles became sex-trafficking victims in 2015. The primary reason runaways are at risk to become human-traffic victims is that within a few days of being away from home, they get desperate for food and shelter. If Bristol doesn’t get to them first, there’s a good chance someone with bad intentions will.
“People want to look the other way and pretend that this is not a problem here, but it is,” Bristol says.
Although Bristol’s position is volunteer work, he spends most of his days down at the sheriff’s office or driving around Flathead County looking for missing children. Bristol has also started working with the sheriff’s office on trying to solve a number of cold cases.
Bristol says after serving his country for nearly four decades, he’s excited to now serve his local community. He says his newfound mission is rewarding. Last week, while sitting at the sheriff’s office, he recalled one of the children he helped track down earlier this year.
As Bristol and the child waited for a ride that would bring the child home, the two split a candy bar. They talked about the child’s struggles at home and his hopes for a better life. As they spoke, Bristol saw a bit of himself in the young man: a runaway trying to find his way in the world. The boy looked up at Bristol — a man who perfectly fits the image of a rough-and-tumble Marine — and thanked him.
“Mr. Bristol, you’re kind of scary looking,” the boy said, “but you’re also kind of a nice guy.”