It seemed like every dog in Sadr City was barking.
I scanned the darkness through my night vision, tense as we made our way down one of the nastiest streets in Sadr City. We walked past a row of what might have been condos in a normal city. Here they were little better than rat-infested slums. It was past midnight in early April 2008, and, against all common sense but under direct orders, we were walking into the center of an insurgent hellhole.
Like a lot of the other drab-brown buildings on the street, the house we were heading to had a metal grate in front of the door. We lined up to breach it. Just then, someone appeared from behind the grate at the door and said something in Arabic.
Our interpreter stepped over and told him to open up.
The man inside said he didn’t have a key.
One of the other SEALs told him to go get it. The man disappeared, running up the stairs somewhere.
“Go!” I yelled. “Break the grate the fuck in.”
We rushed in and started clearing the house. The two bottom levels were empty.
I raced up the stairs to the third floor and moved to the doorway of a room facing the street, leaning back against the wall as the rest of my guys stacked to follow. As I started to take a step, the whole room blew up.
By some miracle, I hadn’t been hit, though I sure felt the force of the blast.
“Who the fuck just threw a frag!” I yelled.
Nobody. And the room itself was empty. Someone had just fired an RPG into the house.
Gunfire followed. We regrouped. The Iraqi who’d been inside had clearly escaped to alert the nearby insurgents where we were. Worse, the walls in the house proved pretty flimsy, unable to stand up to the rocket grenades that were being fired at us. If we stayed here, we were going to get fried.
Out of the house! Now!
The last of my guys had just cleared out of the building when the street shook with a huge force: the insurgents had set off an IED down the street. The blast was so powerful it knocked a few of us off our feet. Ears ringing, we ran to another building nearby. But as we were fixing to enter it, all hell broke loose. We got gunfire from every direction, including above.
A shot flew into my helmet. The night went black. I was blind.
It was my first night in Sadr City, and it looked like it was soon going to be my last on earth.
Until that point, I had spent an uneventful, even boring fourth deployment in Iraq.
Delta Platoon had arrived roughly a month before, traveling out to al-Qa’im in western Iraq, near the Syrian border. Our mission was supposed to involve long-range desert patrols, but we’d spent our time building a base camp with the help of a few Seabees. Not only was there no action to speak of, but the Marines who owned the base were in the process of shutting it down, meaning that we’d have to move out soon after we set it up. I have no idea what the logic was.
Morale had hit rock bottom when my chief risked his life early one morning—by that I mean he entered my room and shook me awake.
“What the hell?” I yelled, jumping up.
“Easy,” said my chief. “You need to get dressed and come with me.”
“I just got to sleep.”
“You’ll want to come with me. They’re putting together a task unit over in Baghdad.”
A task unit? All right!
It was like something out of the movie Groundhog Day, but in a good way. The last time this had happened to me, I was in Baghdad heading west. Now I was west, and heading east.
Why exactly, I wasn’t sure.
According to the chief, I had been chosen for the unit partly because I was qualified to be an LPO, but mostly because I was a sniper. They were pulling snipers from all over the country for the operation, though he had no details of what was being planned. He didn’t even know whether I was going to a rural or urban environment.
Shit, I thought, we’re going to Iran.
It was an open secret that the Iranians were arming and training insurgents and in some cases even attacking Western troops themselves. There were rumors that a force was being formed to stop the infiltrators on the border.
I was convoyed over to al-Asad, the big airbase in al-Anbar Province, where our top head shed was located. There, I found out we weren’t going to the border, but a place much worse: Sadr City.
Located on the outskirts of Baghdad, Sadr City had become even more of a snake pit since the last time I’d been with the GROMs a few years before. Two million Shiites lived there. The rabidly anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (the city had been named for his father) had been steadily building his militia, the Mahdi Army (known in Arabic as the Jaish al-Mahdi). There were other insurgents operating in the area, but the Mahdi Army was by far the biggest and most powerful.
With covert help from Iran, the insurgents had gathered arms and started launching mortars and rockets into Baghdad’s Green Zone. The entire place was a vipers’ nest. Like Fallujah and Ramadi, there were different cliques and varying levels of expertise among the insurgents. The people here were mostly Shiites, whereas my earlier battles in Iraq had been primarily with Sunnis. But otherwise it was a very familiar hellhole.
This was all fine with me.
They pulled snipers and JTACs, along with some officers and chiefs, from Teams 3 and 8 to create a special task unit. There were about thirty of us altogether. In a way it was an all-star team, with some of the best of the best guys in the country. And it was very sniper-heavy, because the idea was to implement some of the tactics we’d used in Fallujah, Ramadi, and elsewhere.
There was a lot of talent, but because we were drawn from all different units, we needed to spend a bit of time getting used to each other. Small differences in the way East Coast and West Coast teams typically operated could make for a big problem in a firefight. We also had a lot of personnel decisions to make, selecting point men and the like.
The Army had decided to create a buffer zone to push the insurgents far enough away that their rockets would reach the Green Zone. One of the keys to this was erecting a wall in Sadr City—basically, a huge cement fence called a “T-wall” that would run down a major thoroughfare about a quarter of the way into the slum. Our job was to protect the guys building that wall—and take down as many bad guys as possible in the process.
The boys building that wall had an insanely dangerous job. A crane would take one of the concrete sections off the back of a flatbed and haul it into place. As it was set down, a private would have to climb up and unhook it.
Under fire, generally. And not just pop shots—the insurgents would use any weapon they had, from AKs to RPGs. Those Army guys had serious balls.
A Special Forces unit had already been operating in Sadr City, and they gave us some pointers and intel. We took about a week getting things all worked out and figuring out how we were going to skin this cat. Once everything was settled, we were dropped off at an Army FOB (forward operating base).
At this point, we were told we were going to foot patrol into Sadr City at night. A few of us argued that it didn’t make much sense—the place was crawling with people who wanted to kill us, and on foot we’d be easy targets.
But someone thought it would be smart if we walked in during the middle of the night. Sneak in, they told us, and there won’t be trouble.
So we did.
SHOT IN THE BACK
They were wrong.
There I was, shot in the head and blind. Blood streamed down my face. I reached up to my scalp. I was surprised—not only was my head still there, but it was intact. But I knew I’d been shot.
Somehow I realized that my helmet, which hadn’t been strapped, had been pushed back. I pulled it forward. Suddenly I could see again. A bullet had struck the helmet, but with incredible luck had ricocheted off my night vision, slamming the helmet backward but otherwise not harming me. When I pulled it forward, I brought the scope back down in front of my eyes, and could see again. I hadn’t been rendered blind at all, but in the confusion I couldn’t tell what was going on.
A few seconds later, I got hit in the back with a heavy round. The bullet pushed me straight to the ground. Fortunately, the round hit one of the plates in my body armor.
Still, it left me dazed. Meanwhile, we were surrounded. We called to each other and organized a retreat to a marketplace we’d passed on the way in. We started laying down fire and moving together.
By this time, the blocks around us looked like the worst scenes in Black Hawk Down. It seemed like every insurgent, maybe every occupant, wanted a piece of the idiot Americans who’d foolishly blundered into Sadr City.
We couldn’t get into the building we retreated to. By now we’d called for QRF—a quick response force, a fancy name for the cavalry. We needed backup and extraction—“HELP” in capital letters.
A group of Army Strykers came in. Strykers are heavily armed personnel carriers, and they were firing everything they had. There were plenty of targets—upward of a hundred insurgents lined the roofs on the surrounding streets, trying to get us. When they saw the Strykers, they changed their aim, trying to take out the Army’s big personnel carriers. There they were overmatched. It started looking like a video game—guys were falling off the rooftops.
“Motherfucker, thank you,” I said aloud when the vehicles reached our building. I swear I could hear a cavalry horn somewhere in the background.
They dropped their ramps and we ran inside.
“Did you see how many motherfuckers were up there?” said one of the crewmen as the vehicle sped back to the base.
“No,” I answered. “I was too busy shooting.”
“They were all over the place.” The kid was stoked. “We were dropping them and that wasn’t even half of them. We were just laying it down. We thought y’all were fuckin’ done.”
That made more than two of us.
That night scared the shit out of me. That’s when I came to the realization that I’m not superhuman. I can die.
All through everything else, there had been points where I thought, I’m going to die.
But I never did die. Those thoughts were fleeting. They evaporated.
After a while, I started thinking, they can’t kill me. They can’t kill us. We’re fucking undefeatable.
I have a guardian angel and I’m a SEAL and I’m lucky and whatever the hell it is: I cannot die.
Then, all of a sudden, within two minutes I was nailed twice.
Motherfucker, my number is up.
BUILDING THE WALL
We felt happy and grateful to have been rescued. We also felt like total asses.
Trying to sneak into Sadr City was not going to work, and command should have known that from the start. The bad guys would always know we were there. So we would just have to make the most of it.
Two days after getting our butts kicked out of the city, we came back, this time riding in Strykers. We took over a place known as the banana factory. This was a building four or five stories high, filled with fruit lockers and assorted factory gear, most of it wrecked by looters long before we got there. I’m not sure exactly what it had to do with bananas or what the Iraqis might have done there; all I knew at the time was that it was a good place for a sniper hide.
Wanting a little more cover than I would have had on the roof, I set up in the top floor. Around nine o’clock in the morning, I realized the number of civilians walking up and down the street had started to thin. That was always a giveaway—they spotted something and knew they didn’t want to end up in the line of fire.
A few minutes later, with the street now deserted, an Iraqi came out of a partially destroyed building. He was armed with an AK-47. When he reached the street he ducked down, scouting in the direction of the engineers who were working down the road on the wall, apparently trying to pick one out to target. As soon as I was sure what he was up to, I aimed center-mass and fired.
He was forty yards away. He fell, dead.
An hour later, another guy poked his head out from behind a wall on another part of the street. He glanced in the direction of the T-wall, then pulled back.
It may have seemed innocent to someone else—and certainly didn’t meet the ROEs—but I knew to watch more carefully. I’d seen insurgents follow this same pattern now for years. They would peek out, glance around, then disappear. I called them “peekers”—they “peeked” out to see if anyone was watching. I’m sure they knew they couldn’t be shot for glancing around.
I knew it, too. But I also knew that if I was patient, the guy or whoever he was spotting for would most likely reappear. Sure enough, the fellow reappeared a few moments later.
He had an RPG in his hand. He knelt quickly, bringing it up to aim.
I dropped him before he could fire.
Then it became a waiting game. The rocket was valuable to them. Sooner or later, I knew, someone would be sent to get it.
I watched. It seemed like forever. Finally, a figure came down the street and scooped up the grenade launcher.
It was a kid. A child.
I had a clear view in my scope, but I didn’t fire. I wasn’t going to kill a kid, innocent or not. I’d have to wait until the savage who put him up to it showed himself on the street.
I ended up getting seven insurgents that day, and more the next. We were in a target-rich environment.
Because of the way the streets were laid out and the number of insurgents, we were getting close shots—a number were as close as 200 yards. My longest during this time was only about 880; the average was around 400.
The city around us was schizophrenic. You’d have ordinary civilians going about their business, selling things, going to market, whatever. And then you’d have guys with guns trying to sneak up on the side streets and attack the soldiers putting up the wall. After we began engaging the insurgents, we would become the targets ourselves. Everyone would know where we were, and the bad guys would come out of their slug holes and try and take us down.
It got to the point where I had so many kills that I stepped back to let the other guys have a few. I started giving them the best spots in the buildings we took over. Even so, I had plenty of chances to shoot.
One day we took over this house and, after letting my guys choose their places, there were no more windows to fire from. So I took a sledgehammer and broke a hole in the wall. It took me quite a while to get it right.
When I finally set up my place, I had about a three-hundred-yard view. Just as I got on my gun, three insurgents came out right across the street, fifteen yards away.
I killed all of them. I rolled over and said to one of the officers who’d come over, “You want a turn?”
After a few days, we figured out that the attacks were concentrating when the work crews reached an intersection. It made sense: the insurgents wanted to attack from a place where they could easily run off.
We learned to bump up and watch the side streets. Then we started pounding these guys when they showed up.
Fallujah was bad. Ramadi was worse. Sadr City was the worst. The overwatches would last two or three days. We’d leave for a day, recharge, then go back out. It was balls-to-the-wall firefights every time.
The insurgents brought more than just their AKs to a fight. We were getting rocketed every fight. We responded by calling in air cover, Hellfires and what-have-you.
The surveillance network overhead had been greatly improved over the past several years, and the U.S. was able to make pretty good use of it when it came to targeting Predators and other assets. But in our case, the bastards were right out in the open, extremely easy to spot. And very plentiful.
There were claims by the Iraqi government at one point that we were killing civilians. That was pure bullshit. While just about every battle was going down, Army intelligence analysts were intercepting insurgent cell phone communications that were giving a blow-by-blow account.
“They just killed so-and-so,” ran one conversation. “We need more mortarmen and snipers. . . . They killed fifteen today.”
We had only counted thirteen down in that battle—I guess we should have taken two out of the “maybe” column and put them in the “definite” category.
GET MY GUN
As always, there were moments of high anxiety mixed with bizarre events and random comic relief.
One day at the tail end of an op, I hustled back to the Bradley with the rest of the guys. Just as I reached the vehicle, I realized my sniper rifle had been left behind—I’d put it down in one of the rooms, then forgotten to bring it with me when I’d left.
I reversed course. LT, one of my officers, was just running up.
“Hey, we gotta go back,” I said. “My gun’s in the house.”
“Let’s do it,” said LT, following me.
We turned around and raced back to the house. Meanwhile, insurgents were sweeping toward it—so close we could hear them. We cleared the courtyard, sure we would run into them.
Fortunately, there was no one there. I grabbed the rifle and we raced back to the Bradleys, about two seconds ahead of a grenade attack. The ramp shut and the explosions sounded.
“What the hell?” demanded the officer in charge as the vehicle drove off.
“I’ll explain later,” he said.
I’m not sure he ever did.
It took about a month to get the barriers up. As the Army reached its objective, the insurgents started to give up.
It was probably a combination of them realizing the wall was going to be finished whether they liked it or not, and the fact that we had killed so many of the bastards that they couldn’t mount much of an attack. Where thirty or forty insurgents would gather with AKs and RPGs to fire on a single fence crew at the beginning of the op, toward the end the bad guys were putting together attacks with two or three men. Gradually, they faded into the slums around us.
Muqtada al-Sadr, meanwhile, decided it was time for him to try and negotiate a peace with the Iraqi government. He declared a ceasefire and started talking to the government.
People always told me I didn’t really know Chris or what he was doing, because he was a SEAL. I remember going to an accountant one time. He said he knew some SEALs and those guys told him no one ever really knew where they went.
“My husband’s on a training trip,” I said. “I know where he is.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Well, yes I do. I just talked to him.”
“But you don’t know really what they’re doing. They’re SEALs.”
“You can never know.”
“I know my husband.”
“You just can’t know. They’re trained to lie.”
People would say that a lot. It irritated me when it was someone I didn’t know well. The people I did know well respected that I might not know every detail but I knew what I needed to know.
IN THE VILLAGES
With things relatively calm in Sadr City, we were given a new area to target. IED-makers and other insurgents had set up shop in a series of villages near Baghdad, trying to operate under the radar as they supplied weapons and manpower to fight Americans and the loyal Iraqi forces. The Mahdi army was out there, and the area was a virtual no-go zone for Americans.
We had worked with members of 4-10 Mountain Division during much of the Sadr City battle. They were fighters. They wanted to be in the shit—and they certainly got their wish there. Now as we bumped out into the villages outside the city, we were happy to have a chance to work with them again. They knew the area. Their snipers were especially good, and having them along improved our effectiveness.
Our jobs are the same, but there are a few differences between Army and SEAL snipers. For one thing, Army snipers use spotters, which we don’t, as a general rule. Their weapon set is a bit smaller than ours.
But the bigger difference, at least at first, had to do with tactics and the way they were deployed. Army snipers were more used to going out in three- or four-man groups, which meant they couldn’t stay out for very long, certainly not all night.
The SEAL task unit, on the other hand, moved in heavy and locked down an area, basically looking for a fight and having the enemy provide us with one. It wasn’t so much an overwatch anymore as a dare: Here we are; come and get us.
And they did: village after village, the insurgents would come and try and kill us; we’d take them down. Typically, we’d spend at least one night and usually a few, going in and extracting after sunset.
In this area, we ended up going back to the same village a few times, usually taking a different house each time. We’d repeat the process until all the local bad guys were dead, or at least until they understood that attacking us was not very smart.
It was surprising how many idiots you had to kill before they finally got that point.
COVERED WITH CRAP
There were lighter moments, but even some of those were shitty. Literally.
Our point man, Tommy, was a great guy but, as it turned out, a terrible point in a lot of ways.
Or maybe I should say sometimes he was more of a duck than a point man. If there was a puddle between us and the objective, Tommy took us through it. The deeper the better. He was always having us walk through the worst possible terrain.
It got so ridiculous that finally I told him, “One more time, I’m going to whup your ass, and you’re fired.”
On the very next mission, he found a path to a village that he was sure would be dry. I had my doubts. In fact, I pointed them out to him.
“Oh, no, no,” he insisted, “it’s good, it’s good.”
Once we were out in the field, we followed him across some farmland on a narrow path that led to a pipe across a path of mud. I was at the back at the group, one of the last to come across the pipe. As I stepped off, I sunk right through the mud and into crap up to my knee. The mud was actually just a thin crust atop a deep pool of sewage.
It stunk even worse than Iraq usually stunk.
“Tommy,” I yelled, “I’m going to whip your ass as soon as we get to the house.”
We pushed on to the house. I was still in the rear. We cleared the house and, once all the snipers were deployed, I went to find Tommy and give him the thrashing I’d promised.
Tommy was already paying for his sins: when I found him downstairs, he was hooked up to an IV and puking his brains out. He had fallen into the muck and was completely covered with shit. He was sick for a day, and he smelled for a week.
Every article of clothing he’d been wearing was disposed of, probably by a hazmat unit.
Served him right.
I spent somewhere between two and three months in the villages. I had roughly twenty confirmed kills while I was there. The action on any particular op could be fierce; it could also be slow. There was no predicting.
Most of the houses we took over belonged to families who at least pretended to be neutral; I’d guess that the majority of them hated the insurgents for causing trouble and would have been even happier than we were to have the bad guys leave. But there were exceptions, and we were plenty frustrated when we couldn’t do anything about it.
We went into one house and saw police uniforms. We knew instantly that the owner was muj—the insurgents were stealing uniforms and using them to disguise themselves in attacks.
Of course he gave us a BS line about having just gotten a job as a part-time police officer—something he’d mysteriously forgotten to mention when we first interrogated him.
We called it back to the Army, gave them the information, and asked what to do.
They had no intelligence on the guy. In the end, they decided the uniforms weren’t evidence of anything.
We were told to turn him loose. So we did.
It gave us something to think about every time we heard of an attack by insurgents dressed as policemen, over the next few weeks.
One night we entered another village and took over a house at the edge of some large open fields, including one used for soccer. We set up without a problem, surveying the village and preparing for any trouble we might face in the morning.
The tempo of the ops had slowed quite a bit over the past week or two; it looked as if things were slacking down, at least for us. I started thinking about going back west and rejoining my platoon.
I set up in a room on the second floor with LT. We had an Army sniper and his spotter in the room next to us, and a bunch of guys on the roof. I’d taken the .338 Lapua with me, figuring that most of my shots would be on the long side, since we were on the edge of the village. With the area around us quiet, I started scanning out farther, to the next village, a little more than a mile away.
At some point I saw a one-story house with someone moving on the roof. It was about 2,100 yards away, and even with a twenty-five power scope I couldn’t make out much more than an outline. I studied the person, but at that point he didn’t seem to have a weapon, or at least he wasn’t showing it. His back was to me, so I could watch him, but he couldn’t see me. I thought he was suspicious, but he wasn’t doing anything dangerous, so I let him be.
A little while later an Army convoy came down the road beyond the other village, heading in the direction of the COP we had staged out of. As it got closer, the man on the roof raised a weapon to his shoulder. Now the outline was clear: he had a rocket launcher, and he was aiming it at Americans.
We had no way of calling the convoy directly—to this day I don’t know exactly who they were, except that they were Army. But I put my scope on him and fired, hoping to at least scare him off with the shot or maybe warn the convoy.
At 2,100 yards, plus a little change, it would take a lot of luck to hit him.
A lot of luck.
Maybe the way I jerked the trigger to the right adjusted for the wind. Maybe gravity shifted and put that bullet right where it had to be. Maybe I was just the luckiest son of a bitch in Iraq. Whatever—I watched through my scope as the shot hit the Iraqi, who tumbled over the wall to the ground.
“Wow,” I muttered.
“You dumb lucky fucker,” said LT.
Twenty-one hundred yards. The shot amazes me even now. It was a straight-up luck shot; no way one shot should have gotten him.
But it did. It was my longest confirmed kill in Iraq, even longer than that shot in Fallujah.
The convoy started reacting, probably unaware of how close they’d come to getting lit up. I went back to scanning for bad guys.
As the day went on, we started taking fire from AKs and rocket-propelled grenades. The conflict ratcheted up quickly. The RPGs began tearing holes in the loose concrete or adobe walls, breaking through and starting fires.
We decided it was time to leave and called for extraction:
Send the RG-33s! (RG-33s are big bulletproof vehicles designed to withstand IEDs and equipped with a machine-gun turret on the top.)
We waited, continuing the firefight and ducking the insurgents’ growing spray of bullets. Finally, the relief force reported that it was five hundred yards away, on the other side of the soccer field.
That was as close as they were getting.
A pair of Army Hummers blew through the village and appeared at the doors, but they couldn’t take all of us. The rest of us started to run for the RG-33s.
Someone threw a smoke grenade, I guess with the thought that it would cover our retreat. All it really did was make it impossible for us to see. (The grenades should be used to screen movement; you run behind the smoke. In this case, we had to run through it.) We ran from the house, through the cloud of smoke, ducking bullets and dodging into the open field.
It was like a scene from a movie. Bullets sprayed and plinked into the dirt.
The guy next to me fell. I thought he’d been hit. I stopped, but before I could grab him, he jumped to his feet—he’d only tripped.
“I’m good! I’m good!” he yelled.
Together we continued toward the trucks, bullets and turf flying everywhere. Finally, we reached the trucks. I jumped into the back of one of the RG-33s. As I caught my breath, bullets splashed against one of the bulletproof windows on the side, spiderwebbing the glass.
A few days later, I was westward-bound, back to Delta Platoon. The transfer I’d asked for earlier was granted.
The timing was good. Things were starting to get to me. The stress had been building. Little did I know it was going to get a lot worse, even as the fighting got a lot less.
CHIEF PETTY OFFICER KYLE
By now, my guys had left al-Qa’im and were at a place called Rawah, also out west near the Syrian border. Once again they’d been put to work building barracks and the rest.
I got lucky; I missed the construction work. But there wasn’t much going on when I arrived, either.
I was just in time for a long-range desert patrol out on the border. We drove out there for a few days hardly seeing a person, let alone insurgents. There had been reports of smuggling across the desert, but if it was going on, it wasn’t going on where we were.
Meanwhile, it was hot. It was 120 degrees at least, and we were driving in Hummers that had no air-conditioning. I grew up in Texas, so I know warm; this was worse. And it was constant; you couldn’t get away from it. It hardly cooled off at night—it might fall to 115. Rolling down the windows meant taking a risk if there was an IED. Almost worse was the sand, which would just blow right in and cover you.
I decided I preferred the sand and IED danger to the heat. I rolled down the windows.
Driving, all you saw was desert. Occasionally, there would be a nomad settlement or a tiny village.
We linked up with our sister platoon, then the next day we stopped at a Marine base. My chief went in and did some business; a little while later he came out and found me.
“Hey,” he told me, grinning. “Guess what—you just made chief.”
I had taken the chief’s exam back in the States before we deployed.
In the Navy, you usually have to take a written test to get promoted. But I’d lucked out. I got a field promotion to E5 during my second deployment and made E6 thanks to a special merit program before my third deployment. Both came without taking written tests.
(In both cases I had been doing a lot of extra work within the Team, and had made a reputation on the battlefield. Those were the important factors in awarding the new ranks.)
That didn’t fly for the chief’s exam. I took the written test and barely passed.
I should explain a bit more about written tests and promotions. I’m not unusually adverse or allergic to tests, at least no more than anyone else. But the tests for SEALs added an extra burden.
At the time, in order to get promoted, you had to take an exam in your job area—not as a SEAL, but in whatever area you had selected before being a SEAL. In my case, that would have meant being evaluated in the intelligence area.
Obviously, I wasn’t in a position to know anything about that area. I was a SEAL, not an intelligence analyst. I didn’t have a clue what sort of equipment and procedures intel used to get their jobs done.
Considering the accuracy of the intel we usually got, I would have guessed dartboard, maybe. Or just a fine pair of dice.
In order to get promoted, I would have had to study for the test, which would have involved going to a secure reading area, a special room where top-secret material can be reviewed. Of course, I would have had to do this in my spare time.
There weren’t any secure reading areas in Fallujah or Ramadi where I fought. And the literature in the latrines and heads wouldn’t have cut it.
(The tests are now in the area of special operations, and pertain to things SEALs actually do. The exams are incredibly detailed, but at least it has to do with our job.)
Becoming a chief was a little different. This test was on things SEALs should know.
That hurdle cleared, my case had to be reviewed by a board and then go through further administrative review by the upper echelon. The board review process included all these chief petty officers and master chiefs sitting down and reviewing a package of my accomplishments. The package is supposed to be a long dossier of everything you’ve done as a SEAL. (Minus the bar fights.)
The only thing in my package was my service record. But that had not been updated since I graduated BUD/S. My Silver Stars and Bronze Medals weren’t even in there.
I wasn’t crazy about becoming a chief. I was happy where I was. As chief, I would have all sorts of administrative duties, and I wouldn’t get as much action. Yes, it was more money for our family, but I wasn’t thinking about that.
Chief Primo was on the review board back at our base in the States. He was sitting next to one of the chiefs when they began reviewing my case.
“Who the hell is this dipshit?” said the other chief when he saw my thin folder. “Who does he think he is?”
“Why don’t you and I go to lunch?” said Primo.
He agreed. The other chief came back with a different attitude.
“You owe me a Subway sandwich, fucker,” Primo told me when I saw him later on. Then he told me the story.
I owe him all that and more. The promotion came through, and, to be honest, being chief wasn’t near as bad as I thought it would be.
Truth is, I never cared all that much about rank. I never tried to be one of the highest-ranking guys. Or even, back in high school, to be one of the students with the highest average.
I’d do my homework in the truck in the morning. When they stuck me in the Honor Society, I made sure my grades dipped just enough the next semester to get kicked out. Then I brought them up again so my parents wouldn’t get on me.
Maybe the rank thing had to do with the fact that I preferred being a leader on the ground, rather than an administrator in a back room. I didn’t want to have to sit at a computer, plan everything, then tell everyone about it. I wanted to do my thing, which was being a sniper—get into combat, kill the enemy. I wanted to be the best at what I wanted to do.
I think a lot of people had trouble with that attitude. They naturally thought that anyone who was good should have a very high rank. I guess I’d seen enough people with high rank who weren’t good not to be swayed.
TOO MUCH THINKING
“On the road again . . .”
Willie Nelson cranked through the speaker system of our Hummer as we set out for our base the next day. Music was about the only diversion we had out here, outside of the occasional stop in a village to talk to the locals. Besides the old-school country my buddy behind the wheel preferred, I listened to a bit of Toby Keith and Slipknot, country and heavy metal vying for attention.
I’m a big believer in the psychological impact of music. I’ve seen it work on the battlefield. If you’re going into combat, you want to be pumped up. You don’t want to be stupid crazy, but you do want to be psyched. Music can help take the fear away. We’d listen to Papa Roach, Dope, Drowning Pool—anything that amped us up. (They’re all in heavy rotation on my workout mix now.)
But nothing could amp me up on the way back to base. It was a long, hot ride. Even though I’d just gotten some good news about my promotion, I was in a dark mood, bored on the one hand, and tense on the other.
Back at base, things were incredibly slow. Nothing was going on. And it started to get to me.
As long as I had been in action, the idea of my being vulnerable, being mortal, had been something I could push away. There was too much going on to worry about it. Or rather, I had so much else to do, I didn’t really focus on it.
But now, it was practically all I could think of.
I had time to relax, but I couldn’t. Instead, I’d lie on my bed thinking about everything I’d been through—getting shot especially.
I relived the gunshot every time I lay down to rest. My heart thumped hard in my chest, probably a lot harder than it had that night in Sadr City.
Things seemed to go downhill in the few days after we got back from our border patrol. I couldn’t sleep. I felt very jumpy. Extremely jumpy. And my blood pressure shot up again, even higher than before.
I felt like I was going to explode.
Physically, I was beat up. Four long combat deployments had taken their toll. My knees felt better, but my back hurt, my ankle hurt, my hearing was screwed up. My ears rang. My neck had been injured, my ribs cracked. My fingers and knuckles had been broken. I had floaters and decreased vision in my right eye. There were dozens of deep bruises and an assortment of aches and pains. I was a doctor’s wet dream.
But the thing that really bothered me was my blood pressure. I sweated buckets and my hands would even shake. My face, pretty white to begin with, became pale.
The more I tried to relax, the worse things got. It was as if my body had started to vibrate, and thinking about it only made it buzz more.
Imagine climbing a tall ladder out over a river, a thousand miles up, and there you’re struck by lightning. Your body becomes electric, but you’re still alive. In fact, you’re not only aware of everything that’s happening, but you know you can deal with it. You know what you have to do to get down.
So you do. You climb down. But when you’re back on the ground, the electricity won’t go away. You try to find a way to discharge the electricity, to ground yourself, but you can’t find the damn lightning rod to take the electricity away.
Unable to eat or sleep, I finally went to the docs and told them to check me out. They took a look at me, and asked if I wanted medication.
Not really, I told them. But I did take the meds.
They also suggested that, since the mission tempo was practically nonexistent and we were only a few weeks from going home anyway, it made sense for me to go home.
Not knowing what else to do, I agreed.