WELCOME TO BUD/S
“Drop! One hundred push-ups! NOW!”
Two hundred and twenty-some bodies hit the asphalt and started pumping. We were all in camis—camouflage BDUs, or battle-dress uniforms—with freshly painted green helmets. It was the start of BUD/S training. We were bold, excited, and nervous as hell.
We were about to get beat down, and we were loving it.
The instructor didn’t even bother to come out of his office inside the building a short distance away. His deep voice, slightly sadistic, carried easily out the hall into the courtyard where we were gathered.
“More push-ups! Give me forty! FOUR-TEEE!”
My arms hadn’t quite started to burn yet when I heard a strange hissing noise. I glanced up to see what was going on.
I was rewarded with a blast of water in my face. Some of the other instructors had appeared and were working us over with fire hoses. Anyone stupid enough to look up, got hosed.
Welcome to BUD/S.
“Flutter kicks! GO!”
BUD/S stands for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL and it is the introductory course that all candidates must pass to become SEALs. It’s currently given at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California. It starts with “indoc” or indoctrination, which is designed to introduce candidates to what will be required. Three phases follow: physical training, diving, land warfare.
There have been a number of stories and documentaries over the years about BUD/S and how tough it is. Pretty much everything they’ve said on that score is true. (Or at least mostly true. The Navy and the instructors tone it down a bit for national consumption on TV reality shows and other broadcasts. Still, even the watered-down version is true enough.) Essentially, the instructors beat you down, then beat you down some more. When that’s done, they kick your ass, and beat what’s left down again.
You get the idea.
I loved it. Hated it, loathed it, cursed it . . . but loved it.
LAME AND LAMER
It had taken me the better part of a year to reach that point. I’d joined the Navy and reported for basic training in February 1999. Boot camp was pretty lame. I remember calling my dad at one point and saying that basic was easy compared to ranch work. That wasn’t a good thing. I’d joined the Navy to be a SEAL and challenge myself. Instead I got fat and out of shape.
You see, boot camp is designed to prepare you to sit on a ship. They teach you a lot about the Navy, which is fine, but I wanted something more like the Marines’ basic training—a physical challenge. My brother went into the Marines and came out of boot camp tough and in top condition. I came out and probably would have flunked BUD/S if I’d gone straight in. They have since changed the procedure. There’s now a separate BUD/S boot camp, with more emphasis on getting and staying in shape.
Lasting over a half-year, BUD/S is extremely demanding physically and mentally; as I mentioned earlier, the dropout rate can top 90 percent. The most notorious part of BUD/S is Hell Week, 132 hours straight of exercise and physical activity. A few of the routines have changed and tested over the years, and I imagine they will continue to evolve. Hell Week has pretty much remained the most demanding physical test, and probably will continue to be one of the high points—or low points, depending on your perspective. When I was in, Hell Week came at the end of First Phase. But more about that later.
Fortunately, I didn’t go directly to BUD/S. I had other training to get through first, and a shortage of instructors in the BUD/S classes would keep me (and many others) from being abused for quite a while.
According to Navy regs, I had to choose a specialty (or Military Occupation Specialty, or MOS, as it is known in the service) in case I didn’t make it through BUD/S and qualify for the SEALs. I chose intelligence—I naively thought I’d end up like James Bond. Have your little laugh.
But it was during that training that I started working out more seriously. I spent three months learning the basics of the Navy’s intelligence specialties, and, more importantly, getting my body into better shape. It happened that I saw a bunch of real SEALs on the base, and they inspired me to work out. I would go to the gym and hit every vital part of my body: legs, chest, triceps, biceps, etc. I also started running three times a week, from four to eight miles a day, jumping up two miles every session.
I hated running, but I was beginning to develop the right mind-set: Do whatever it takes.
This was also where I learned how to swim, or at least how to swim better.
The part of Texas I’m from is far from the water. Among other things, I had to master the sidestroke—a critical stroke for a SEAL.
When intel school ended, I was rounding into shape, but probably still not quite ready for BUD/S. Though I didn’t think so at the time, I was lucky that there was a shortage of instructors for BUD/S, which caused a backlog of students. The Navy decided to assign me to help the SEAL detailers for a few weeks until there was an opening. (Detailers are the people in the military who handle various personnel tasks. They’re similar to human resources people in large corporations.)
I’d work about half a day with them, either from eight to noon or noon to four. When I wasn’t working, I trained up with other SEAL candidates. We’d do PT, or physical training—what old-school gym teachers call calisthenics—for two hours. You know the drill: crunches, push-ups, squats.
We stayed away from weight work. The idea was that you didn’t want to get muscle-bound; you wanted to be strong but have maximum flexibility.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we’d do exhaustion swim—swim until you sink, basically. Fridays were long runs of ten and twelve miles. Tough, but in BUD/S you were expected to run a half-marathon.
My parents remember having a conversation with me around this time. I was trying to prepare them for what might lie ahead. They didn’t know that much about SEALs; probably a good thing.
Someone had mentioned that my identity might be erased from official records. When I told them, I could see them grimace a little.
I asked if they were okay with it. Not that they would really have a choice, I suppose.
“It’s okay,” insisted my dad. My mom took it silently. They were both more than a little concerned, but they tried to hide it and never said anything to discourage me from going ahead.
Finally, after six months or so of waiting, working out, and waiting some more, my orders came through: Report to BUD/S.
GETTING MY ASS KICKED
I unfolded myself from the backseat of the cab and straightened my dress uniform. Hoisting my bag out of the taxi, I took a deep breath and started up the path to the quarterdeck, the building where I was supposed to report. I was twenty-four years old, about to live my dream.
And get my ass kicked in the process.
It was dark, but not particularly late—somewhere past five or six in the evening. I half-expected I’d be jumped as soon as I walked in the door. You hear all these rumors about BUD/S and how tough it is, but you never get the full story. Anticipation makes things worse.
I spotted a guy sitting behind a desk. I walked over and introduced myself. He checked me in and got me squared away with a room and the other administrative BS that needed to be handled.
All the time, I was thinking: “This isn’t too hard.”
And: “I’m going to get attacked any second.”
Naturally, I had trouble getting to sleep. I kept thinking the instructors were going to burst in and start whipping my ass. I was excited, and a little worried at the same time.
Morning came without the slightest disturbance. It was only then that I found out I wasn’t really in BUD/S; not yet, not officially. I was in what is known as Indoc—or Indoctrination. Indoc is meant to prepare you for BUD/S. It’s kind of like BUD/S with training wheels. If SEALs did training wheels.
Indoc lasted a month. They did yell at us some, but it was nothing like BUD/S. We spent a bit of time learning the basics of what would be expected of us, like how to run the obstacle course. The idea was that by the time things got serious, we’d have our safety down. We also spent a lot of time helping out in small ways as other classes went through the actual training.
Indoc was fun. I loved the physical aspect, pushing my body and honing my physical skills. At the same time, I saw how the candidates were being treated in BUD/S, and I thought, Oh shit, I better get serious and work out more.
And then, before I knew it, First Phase started. Now the training was for real, and my butt was being kicked. Regularly and with a great deal of feeling.
Which brings us up to the point where we started this chapter, with me getting hosed in the face while working out. I had been doing PT for months, and yet this was far harder. The funny thing is, even though I knew more or less what was going to happen, I didn’t completely understand how difficult it was going to be. Until you actually experience something, you just don’t know.
At some point that morning, I thought, Holy shit, these guys are going to kill me. My arms are going to fall off and I’m going to disintegrate right into the pavement.
Somehow I kept going.
The first time the water hit me, I turned my face away. That earned me a lot of attention—bad attention.
“Don’t turn away!” shouted the instructor, adding a few choice words relating to my lack of character and ability. “Turn back and take it.”
So I did. I don’t know how many hundreds of push-ups or other exercises we did. I do know that I felt I was going to fail. That drove me—I did not want to fail.
I kept facing that fear, and coming to the same conclusion, every day, sometimes several times.
People ask about how tough the exercises were, how many push-ups we had to do, how many sit-ups. To answer the first question, the number was a hundred each, but the numbers themselves were almost beside the point. As I recall, everyone could do a hundred push-ups or whatever. It was the repetition and constant stress, the abuse that came with the exercises, that made BUD/S so tough. I guess it’s hard to explain if you haven’t lived through it.
There’s a common misunderstanding that SEALs are all huge guys in top physical condition. That last part is generally true—every SEAL in the Teams is in excellent shape. But SEALs come in all sizes. I was in the area of six foot two and 175 pounds; others who would serve with me ranged from five foot seven on up to six foot six. The thing we all had in common wasn’t muscle; it was the will to do whatever it takes.
Getting through BUD/S and being a SEAL is more about mental toughness than anything else. Being stubborn and refusing to give in is the key to success. Somehow I’d stumbled onto the winning formula.
UNDER THE RADAR
That first week I tried to be as far under the radar as possible. Being noticed was a bad thing. Whether it was during PT or an exercise, or even just standing in line, the least little thing could make you the focus of attention. If you were slouching while in line, they fixed on you right away. If an instructor said to do something, I tried to be the first one to do it. If I did it right—and I sure tried to—they ignored me and went on to someone else.
I couldn’t completely escape notice. Despite all my exercise, despite all the PT and everything else, I had a lot of trouble with pull-ups.
I’m sure you know the routine—you put your arms up on the bar and pull yourself up. Then you lower yourself. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
In BUD/S, we had to hang from the bar and wait there until the instructor told us to start. Well, the first time the class set up, he happened to be standing right close to me.
“Go!” he said.
“Ugghhhh,” I moaned, pulling myself northward.
Big mistake. Right away I got tagged as being weak.
I couldn’t do all that many pull-ups to begin with, maybe a half-dozen (which was actually the requirement). But now, with all the attention, I couldn’t just slip by. I had to do perfect pull-ups. And many of them. The instructors singled me out, and started making me do more, and giving me a lot of extra exercise.
It had an effect. Pull-ups became one of my better exercises. I could top thirty without trouble. I didn’t end up the best in the class, but I wasn’t an embarrassment, either.
And swimming? All the work I’d done before getting to BUD/S paid off. Swimming actually became my best exercise. I was one of, if not the fastest, swimmers in the class
Again, minimum distances don’t really tell the story. To qualify, you have to swim a thousand yards in the ocean. By the time you’re done with BUD/S, a thousand yards is nothing. You swim all the time. Two-mile swims were routine. And then there was the time where we were taken out in boats and dropped off seven nautical miles from the beach.
“There’s one way home, boys,” said the instructors. “Start swimming.”
MEAL TO MEAL
Probably everyone who’s heard of SEALs has heard of Hell Week. It’s five and a half days of continuous beat-down designed to see if you have the endurance and the will to become the ultimate warrior.
Every SEAL has a different Hell Week story. Mine actually begins a day or two before Hell Week, out in the surf, on some rocks. A group of us were in an IBS—“inflatable boat, small,” your basic six-man rubber dinghy—and we had to bring it ashore past those rocks. I was point man, which meant it was my job to clamber out and hold the IBS tight while everyone else got off and picked it up.
Well, just as I was getting set, a huge wave came up in the surf and took the boat and put it down on my foot. It hurt like hell, and immediately got numb.
I ignored it as much as I could, and eventually wrapped it up. Later on, when we were finished for the day, I went with a buddy whose dad happened to be a doctor and had him check it out. He did an X-ray and found it was fractured.
Naturally, he wanted to put it in a cast, but I refused to let him. Showing up at BUD/S with a cast would mean I would have to put my training on hold. And if I did that before Hell Week, I’d have to go back to the very beginning—and no way I was going through everything I’d just been through again.
(Even during BUD/S, you’re allowed to leave base with permission during your off time. And, obviously, I didn’t go to a Navy doctor to get the foot checked out, because he would have sent me back—known as “roll back”—immediately.)
The night Hell Week was supposed to start, we were taken to a large room, fed pizza, and treated to a movie marathon—Black Hawk Down, We Were Soldiers, Braveheart. We were all relaxing in a non-relaxing kind of way, since we knew Hell Week was about to begin. It was like a party on the Titanic. The movies got us all psyched up, but we knew that iceberg was out there, looming in the dark.
Once more, my imagination got me nervous. I knew at some point an instructor was going to bust through that door with an M-60 machine gun shooting blanks, and I was going to have to run outside and form up on the grinder (asphalt workout area). But when?
Every minute that passed added to the churning in my stomach. I was sitting there saying to myself, “God.” Over and over. Very eloquent and deep.
I tried to take a nap but I couldn’t sleep. Finally, someone burst in and started shooting.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to be abused in my life. I ran outside. The instructors were throwing flash-crashes and had the hoses going full-blast. (Flash-crashes and flash-bang grenades give off an intense flash and make a very loud noise when they explode, but won’t injure you. Technically, the terms are applied to different grenades used by the Army and Navy, but we generally use the names interchangeably.
I was excited, ready for what some people think is the ultimate test for SEAL trainees. But at the same time, I was thinking, What the hell is going on? Because even though I knew all about Hell Week—or thought I did—never having experienced it, I really didn’t understand it in my bones.
We were split up. They sent us to different stations and we began doing push-ups, flutter kicks, star jumpers . . .
After that, everything ran together. My foot? That was the least of the pain. We swam, we did PT, we took the boats out. Mostly, we just kept moving. One of the guys was so exhausted at one point, he thought a kayak coming to check on us in the boats was a shark and started yelling a warning. (It was actually our commander. I’m not sure if he took that as a compliment or not.)
Before BUD/S began, someone told me the best way to deal with it is to go meal-to-meal. Go as hard as you can until you get fed. They feed you every six hours, like clockwork. So I focused on that. Salvation was always no further than five hours and fifty-nine minutes away.
Still, there were several times I thought I wouldn’t make it. I was tempted to get up and run over to the bell that would end my torture—if you ring this bell, you’re taken in for coffee and a doughnut. And good-byes, since ringing the bell (or even standing up and saying “I quit”) means the end of the program for you.
Believe it or not, my fractured foot gradually started to feel better as the week went on. Maybe I just became so used to the feeling that it became normal. What I couldn’t stand was being cold. Lying out on the beach in the surf, stripped down, freezing my ass off—that was the worst. I’d lock arms with the guys on either side of me and “jackhammer,” my body vibrating crazily with the chills. I prayed for someone to pee on me.
Everybody did, I’m sure. Urine was about the only warm thing available at that point. If you happen to look out on the surf during a BUD/S class and see a bunch of guys huddled together, it’s because somebody out there is pissing and everybody is taking advantage of it.
If that bell was a little closer, I might have stood up and gone and rung it, gotten my warm coffee and doughnut. But I didn’t.
Either I was too stubborn to quit, or just too lazy to get up. Take your pick.
I had all sorts of motivation to keep me going. I remembered every person who told me I’d flunk out of BUD/S. Sticking in was the same as sticking it to them. And seeing all the ships out off the coast was another incentive: I asked myself if I wanted to wind up out there.
Hell Week started on Sunday night. Come about Wednesday, I started feeling I was going to make it. By that point, my main goal was mostly to stay awake. (I got about two hours of sleep that whole time, and they weren’t together.) A lot of the beating had gone away and it was more a mental challenge than anything else. Many instructors say Hell Week is 90 percent mental, and they’re right. You need to show that you have the mental toughness to continue on with a mission even when you’re exhausted. That’s really what the idea is behind the test.
It’s definitely an effective way of weeding out guys. I didn’t see it at the time, to be honest. In combat, though, I understood. You can’t just walk over and ring a bell to go home when you’re being fired at. There’s no saying, “Give me that cup of coffee and the doughnut you promised.” If you quit, you die and some of your boys die.
My instructors in BUD/S were always saying things like, “You think this is bad? It’s going to suck more once you get to the Teams. You’ll be colder and more tired once you get there.”
Lying in the surf, I thought they were full of shit. Little did I know that in a few years, I’d think Hell Week was a cakewalk.
Being cold became my nightmare.
I mean that literally. After Hell Week, I would wake up shivering all the time. I could be under all sorts of blankets and still be cold, because I was going through it all again in my mind.
So many books and videos have been done on Hell Week that I won’t waste more of your time describing it. I will say one thing: going through it is far worse than reading about it.
The week after Hell Week is a brief recovery phase called walk week. By then they’ve beaten you so bad your body feels permanently bruised and swollen. You wear tennis shoes and don’t run—you just fast-walk everywhere. It’s a concession that doesn’t last for very long; after a few days, they start beating the hell out of you again.
“Okay, suck it up,” the instructors yell. “You’re over it.”
They tell you when you’re hurt and when you’re not.
Having survived Hell Week, I thought I was home free. I traded my white shirt for brown and began part two of BUD/S, the dive phase. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way I’d gotten an infection. Not long after second phase started, I was in a dive tower, a special training apparatus that simulates a dive. In this particular exercise, I had to practice with a dive bell, making what is called a buoyant ascent while keeping the pressure in my inner and outer ears equalized. There are a few methods for doing that; one common one is to close your mouth, pinch your nostrils closed, and gently blow through your nose. If you don’t or can’t clear properly, there will be trouble . . .
I’d been told this, but because of the infection I couldn’t seem to get it. Since I was in BUD/S and inexperienced, I decided to just suck it up and take a shot. That was the wrong thing to do: I went on down and ended up perforating my eardrum. I had blood coming out of my ears, nose, and eyes when I surfaced.
They gave me medical attention on the spot and then sent me to have my ears treated. Because of the medical problems, I was rolled back—assigned to join a later class once I healed.
When you’re rolled back, you’re in a sort of limbo. Since I had already made it through Hell Week, I didn’t have to go all the way back to the start—there’s no repeating Hell Week, thank God. I couldn’t just lie on my butt until the next class caught up, though. As soon as I was able, I helped the instructors, did daily PT, and ran with a class of white shirts (first phase) as they got their asses busted.
One thing to know about me is that I love dipping tobacco.
I have since I was a teen. My father caught me with chewing tobacco when I was in high school. He was opposed to it, and decided he’d break me of the habit once and for all. So he made me eat an entire can of wintergreen mint flavored tobacco. To this day, I can’t even use wintergreen toothpaste.
Other kinds of chew are a different story. These days, Copenhagen is my brand of choice.
You’re not allowed to have tobacco as a candidate in BUD/S. But being a rollback, I guess I thought I could get away with it. One day I put some Copenhagen in my mouth and joined the formation for a run. I was deep enough in the pack that no one would be paying attention. Or so I thought.
Wouldn’t you know, but one of the instructors came back and started talking to me. As soon as I answered, he saw I had some dip in my mouth.
I fell out of formation and assumed the push-up position.
“Where’s your can?” he demanded.
“In my sock.”
I, of course, had to stay in my push-up position while I did that, so I reached back with one hand and took it out. He opened the can and put it down in front of me. “Eat it.”
Every time I came down from a push-up, I had to take a big bite of Copenhagen and swallow it. I had been dipping from the time I was fifteen, and I already regularly swallowed my tobacco when I was done, so it wasn’t as bad as you might think. It certainly wasn’t as bad as my instructor wanted. Maybe if it had been wintergreen, it would have been a different story. It pissed him off that I wasn’t throwing up. So he worked me for several hours with all these exercises and such. I did almost puke—not from the Copenhagen but exhaustion.
Finally, he let me be. After that, we got along pretty well. It turned out he was a dipper himself. He and another instructor from Texas took a liking to me toward the end of BUD/S, and I learned a ton from both men as the course went on.
A lot of people are surprised to hear that injuries don’t necessarily disqualify you from becoming a SEAL, unless they are so serious that they end your Navy career. It makes sense, though, since being a SEAL is more about mental toughness than physical prowess—if you have the psychological fortitude to come back from an injury and complete the program, you stand a decent chance of being a good SEAL. I personally know a SEAL who broke his hip so badly during training that it had to be replaced. He had to sit out for a year and a half, but he made it through BUD/S.
You hear guys talking about getting kicked out of BUD/S because they got into a fight with the instructor and beat the crap out of him. They’re lying sacks of shit. No one fights with the instructors. You just don’t. Believe me, if you did, they’d come together and whip your ass so fast you wouldn’t ever walk again.
You get close to the people in BUD/S, but you try not to get too close until after Hell Week. That’s where the heaviest attrition is. We graduated two dozen guys out of our class; less than ten percent the number that started.
I was one of them. I’d started in class 231, but the rollback meant I graduated with 233.
After BUD/S, SEALs go to advance training—officially known as SQT or SEAL Qualifying Training. While I was there, I was reunited with a friend of mine I’d met while at BUD/S—Marcus Luttrell.
Marcus and I got along right away. It was only natural: we were a couple of Texas boys.
I don’t suppose you’ll understand that if you’re not from Texas. There seems to be a special bond between people from the state. I don’t know if it’s shared experiences, or maybe it’s something in the water—or maybe the beer. Texans tend to get on pretty well with each other, and in this case we formed an instant friendship. Maybe it’s not that much of a mystery; after all, we had a lot of experiences in common, from growing up with a love of hunting to joining the Navy to toughing out BUD/S.
Marcus had graduated from BUD/S prior to me, then went off to do special advanced training before returning to SQT. Trained as a corpsman, he happened to check me over when I got my first O2 hit while diving. (In layman’s terms, an “O2 hit” occurs when too much oxygen enters your bloodstream during a dive. It can be caused by a number of different factors and can be extremely serious. My case was very minor.)
Diving again. I always say I’m an “ . . . L,” not a SEAL. I’m a land guy; you can keep air and sea for someone else.
The day my incident occurred, I was swimming with a lieutenant, and we were determined to get the day’s golden fin—an award for the best shit-hot dive of the day. The exercise involved swimming under a ship and planting limpet mines. (A limpet mine is a special charge that is placed against the hull of a ship. Generally, it will have a timed charge.)
We were doing extremely well when suddenly, while I was underneath the hull of the ship, I experienced vertigo and my brain turned into a vegetable. I managed to grab hold of a pylon and hug it. The lieutenant tried handing me a mine, then tried signaling to me when I wouldn’t take it. I stared blankly into the ocean. Finally, my head cleared, and I was able to get out and continue.
No golden fin for us that day. By the time I got back to the surface, I was all right, and both Marcus and the instructors cleared me.
Though we ended up in different Teams, Marcus and I kept in touch as the years went by. It seemed like every time I was coming back from a combat deployment, he was coming in to relieve me. We’d have lunch together and trade informal intel back and forth.
Toward the end of SQT, we got orders telling us which SEAL Team we were about to join. Even though we had graduated BUD/S, we didn’t consider ourselves real SEALs yet; it was only when we joined a Team that we would get our Tridents—and even then we’d have to prove ourselves first. (The SEAL Tridents—also known as a Budweiser—is a metal “device” or badge worn by SEALs. Besides Neptune’s trident, the symbol includes an eagle and an anchor.) At the time, there were six Teams, meaning three choices on each coast, East and West; my top pick was Seal Team 3, which was based out of Coronado, California. I chose it because that team had seen action in the Middle East and was likely to return. I wanted to get into the heat if I could. I think all of us did.
My next two choices were for Teams based on the East Coast, because I’d been in Virginia, where they are headquartered. I’m not a big fan of Virginia, but I liked it a lot better than California. San Diego—the city near Coronado—has beautiful weather, but Southern California is the land of nuts. I wanted to live somewhere with a little more sanity.
I’d been told by the detailer I worked for that he would make sure I got my top choice. I wasn’t 100 percent sure that was going to happen, but at that point I would have accepted whatever assignment I got—obviously, since I had no real say in the matter.
Getting the actual assignment was the opposite of dramatic. They brought us into a big classroom and handed out paper with our orders. I got my top choice: Team 3.
Something else happened to me that spring that had an enormous impact not just on my military career, but on my life.
I fell in love.
I don’t know if you believe in love at first sight; I don’t think I did before the night in April of 2001 when I saw Taya standing at a bar in a San Diego club, talking with one of my friends. She had a way of making black leather pants look smokin’ hot and classy. The combination suited me fine.
I’d just joined Team 3. We hadn’t started training yet, and I was enjoying what amounted to a week of vacation before getting down to the serious business of becoming a SEAL and earning my place on a Team.
Taya was working for a pharmaceutical company as a drug rep when we met. Originally from Oregon, she’d gone to college in Wisconsin and moved out to the coast a couple years before we met. My first impression was that she was beautiful, even if she looked pissed off about something. When we started talking, I also found out she was smart, and had a good sense of humor. I sensed right away she was someone who could keep up with me.
But maybe she should tell the story; her version sounds better than mine:
I remember the night we met—some of it, at least. I wasn’t going to go out. This was all during a low spot in my life. My days were spent in a job I didn’t like. I was fairly new in town and still looking for some solid female friendships. And I was casually dating guys, with not much success. Over the years I’d had some decent relationships and a couple of bad ones, with a few dates in between. I remember literally praying to God before I met Chris to just send me a nice guy. Nothing else mattered, I thought. I just prayed for someone who was inherently good and nice.
A girlfriend called and wanted to go down to San Diego. I was living in Long Beach at the time, about ninety miles away. I wasn’t going to go but somehow she talked me into it.
We were walking around that night and we passed a bar named Maloney’s. They were blaring “Land Down Under” by Men at Work. My friend wanted to go in but they had an outrageous cover charge, something like ten or fifteen bucks.
“I’m not doing that,” I told her. “Not for a bar that’s playing Men at Work.”
“Oh, shut up,” my girlfriend said. She paid the cover and in we went.
We were at the bar. I was drinking and irritable. This tall, good-looking guy came over and started talking to me. I’d been talking to one of his friends, who seemed like a jerk. My mood was still pretty bad, though he had a certain air about him. He told me his name—Chris—and I told him mine.
“What do you do?” I asked.
“I drive an ice cream truck.”
“You’re full of shit,” I told him. “Obviously you’re military.”
“No, no,” he protested. He told me a bunch of other things. SEALs almost never admit to strangers what they really do, and Chris had some of the best BS stories ever. One of the better ones was dolphin waxer: he claimed that dolphins in captivity need to be waxed so their skin didn’t disintegrate. It’s a pretty convincing story—if you’re a young, naive, and tipsy girl.
Fortunately, he didn’t try that particular one on me—I hope because he could tell I wouldn’t fall for it. He’s also convinced girls that he mans an ATM machine, sitting inside and doling out money when people put their cards in. I wasn’t anywhere near that naive, or drunk, for him to try that story.
One look at him and I could have told he was military. He was ripped and had short hair, and had an accent that said “not from here.”
Finally, he admitted he was in the service.
“So what do you do in the military?” I asked.
He said a bunch of other things and finally I got the truth: “I just graduated from BUD/S.”
I was like, okay, so you’re a SEAL.
“I know all about you guys,” I told him. You see, my sister had just divorced her husband. My brother-in-law had wanted to be a SEAL—he’d gone through some of the training—and so I knew (or thought I did) what SEALs were all about.
So I told Chris.
“You’re arrogant, self-centered, and glory-seeking,” I said. “You lie and think you can do whatever you want.”
Yes, I was at my charming best.
What was intriguing was how he responded. He didn’t smirk or get clever or even act offended. He seemed truly . . . puzzled.
“Why would you say that?” he asked, very innocently and genuine.
I told him about my brother-in-law.
“I would lay down my life for my country,” he answered. “How is that self-centered? That’s the opposite.”
He was so idealistic and romantic about things like patriotism and serving the country that I couldn’t help but believe him.
We talked for a while more, then my friend came over and I turned my attention to her. Chris said something like he was going to go home.
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, you were saying about how you never would date a SEAL or go out with one.”
“Oh no, I said I would never marry one. I didn’t say I wouldn’t go out with one.”
His face lit up.
“In that case,” he said, with that sly little smile he has, “I guess I’ll get your phone number.”
He hung around. I hung around. We were still there at last call. As I got up with the crowd to go, I was pushed against him. He was all hard and muscle-y and smelled good, so I gave him a little kiss on his neck. We went out and he walked us to the parking lot . . . and I started puking my brains out from all the Scotch on the rocks I’d been drinking.
How can you not love a girl who loses it the first time you meet? I knew from the start that this was someone I wanted to spend a lot of time with. But at first, it was impossible to do that. I called her the morning after we met to make sure she was okay. We talked and laughed a bit. After that, I’d call her and leave messages. She didn’t call back.
The other guys on the Team started ribbing me about it. They were betting about whether she’d ever call me on her own. You see, we talked a few times, when she would actually answer the phone—maybe thinking it was someone else. After a while, it was obvious even to me that she never initiated.
Then, something changed. I remember the first time she called me. We were on the East Coast, training.
When we were done talking, I ran inside and started jumping on my teammates’ beds. I took the call as a sign she was really interested. I was happy to share that fact with all the naysayers.
Chris was always very aware of my feelings. He is extremely observant in general and it is the same with his awareness of my emotions. He doesn’t have to say much. A simple question or easy way of bringing something to light reveals that he is 100 percent aware of my feelings. He doesn’t necessarily enjoy talking about feelings, but he has a sense of when it is appropriate or necessary to bring things out that I may have been intent on keeping in.
I noticed it early on in our relationship. We would be talking on the phone and he was very caring.
We are, in many ways, opposites. Still, we seemed to click. One day on the phone he was asking what I thought made us compatible. I decided to tell him some of the things that drew me to him.
“I think you’re a really good guy,” I told him, “really nice. And sensitive.”
“Sensitive?!?” He was shocked, and sounded offended. “What do you mean?”
“You don’t know what sensitive means?”
“You mean like I go around crying at movies and stuff?”
I laughed. I explained that I meant that he seemed to pick up on how I was feeling, sometimes before I did. And he let me express that emotion, and, importantly, gave me space.
I don’t think that’s the image most people have of SEALs, but it was and is accurate, at least of this one.
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
As our relationship got closer and closer, Taya and I started spending more time with each other. Finally, we’d spend nights at each other’s apartment, either in Long Beach or San Diego.
I woke up one morning to her yelling. “Chris! Chris! Wake up! You’ve got to see this!”
I stumbled into the living room. Taya had turned on the television and jacked the volume. I saw smoke pouring out of the World Trade Center in New York.
I didn’t understand what-all was happening. Part of me was still sleeping.
Then as we watched, an airplane flew right into the side of the second tower.
“Motherfuckers!” I muttered.
I stared at the screen, angry and confused, not entirely sure it was real.
Suddenly I remembered that I left my cell phone off. I grabbed it, and saw I’d missed a bunch of messages. The sum total of them was this:
Kyle, get your ass back to base. Now!
I grabbed Taya’s SUV—it had plenty of gas and my truck didn’t—and hauled down to base. I don’t know exactly how fast I was going—it might have been three digits—but it was certainly a high rate of speed.
Down around San Juan Capistrano, I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw a set of red lights flashing.
I pulled over. The cop who came up to the truck was pissed.
“Is there any reason you’re going so fast?” he demanded.
“Yes, sir,” I told him. “I apologize. I’m in the military and I just got recalled. I understand you got to write me a ticket. I know I was in the wrong but with all due respect can you just hurry and give me the ticket so I can get back to base?”
“What branch are you in?”
Motherfucker, I thought. I just told you I have to report. Can’t you just give me the damn ticket? But I kept my cool.
“I’m in the Navy,” I told him.
“What do you do in the Navy?” he asked.
By now I was pretty annoyed. “I’m a SEAL.”
He closed his ticket book.
“I’ll take you to the city line,” he told me. “Go get some fuckin’ payback.”
He put his lights on and pulled in front of me. We went a bit slower than I’d been going when he nabbed me, but it was still well past the limit. He took me as far as his jurisdiction went, maybe a little farther, then waved me on.
We were put on immediate standby, but it would turn out that we weren’t needed in Afghanistan or anywhere else at that moment. My platoon would have to wait roughly a year before we got into action, and when we did, it would be against Saddam Hussein, not Osama bin Laden.
There’s a lot of confusion in the civilian world about SEALs and our mission. Most people think we’re strictly sea-based commandos, meaning that we always operate off ships, and hit targets on the water or the immediate coastline.
Admittedly, a fair amount of our work involves things at sea we are in the Navy, after all. And from a historical perspective, as briefly mentioned earlier, SEALs trace their origins to the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams, or UDTs. Established during World War II, UDT frogmen were responsible for reconning beaches before they were hit, and they trained for a variety of other waterborne tasks, such as infiltrating harbors and planting limpet mines on enemy ships. They were the mean, bad-ass combat divers of World War II and the postwar era, and SEALs are proud to carry on in their wake.
But as the UDT mission expanded, the Navy recognized that the need for special operations didn’t end at the beach line. As new units called SEALs were formed and trained for this expanded mission, they came to replace the older UDT units.
While “land” may be the final word in the SEAL acronym, it’s hardly the last thing we do. Every special operations unit in the U.S. military has its own specialty. There’s a lot of overlap in our training, and the range of our missions is similar in many respects. But each branch has its own expertise. Army Special Forces—also known as SF—does an excellent job training foreign forces, both in conventional and unconventional warfare. Army Rangers are a big assault force—if you want a large target, say an airfield, taken down, that’s their thing. Air Force special operators—parajumpers—excel at pulling people out of the shit.
Among our specialties are DAs.
DA stands for “direct action.” A direct-action mission is a very short, quick strike against a small but high-value target. You might think of it as a surgical strike against the enemy. In a practical sense, it could range from anything like an attack on a key bridge behind enemy lines to a raid on a terrorist hideout to arrest a bomb maker—a “snatch and grab,” as some call it. While those are very different missions, the idea is the same: strike hard and fast before the enemy knows what’s going on.
After 9/11, SEALs began training to deal with the places Islamic terrorists were most likely to be located—Afghanistan number one, and then the Middle East and Africa. We still did all the things a SEAL is supposed to do—diving, jumping out of planes, taking down ships, etc. But there was more emphasis on land warfare during our workup than there traditionally had been in the past.
There was debate about this shift far above my pay grade. Some people wanted to limit SEALs to ten miles inland. Nobody asked my opinion, but as far as I’m concerned, there shouldn’t be any limits. Personally, I’m just as happy to stay out of the water, but that’s beside the point. Let me do what I’m trained to do wherever it needs to be done.
The training, most of it anyway, was fun, even when it was a kick in the balls. We dove, we went into the desert, we worked in the mountains. We even got water-boarded and gassed.
Everybody gets water-boarded during training. The idea is to prepare you in case you’re captured. The instructors tortured us as hard as they could, tying us up and pounding on us, just short of permanently damaging us. They say each of us has a breaking point, and that prisoners eventually give in. But I would have done my best to make them kill me before I gave up secrets.
Gas training was another kick. Basically, you get hit with CS gas and have to fight through it. CS gas is “captor spray” or tear gas—the active ingredient is 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile, for all of you chemistry majors. We thought of it as “cough and spit,” because that’s the best way to deal with it. You learn during training to let your eyes run; the worst thing to do is rub them. You’re going to get snotty and you’re going to be coughing and crying, but you can still shoot your weapon and fight through it. That’s the point of the exercise.
We went up to Kodiak, Alaska, where we did a land navigation course. It wasn’t the height of winter, but there was still so much snow on the ground that we had to put on snowshoes. We started with basic instruction on keeping warm—layering up, etc.—and learned about things like snow shelters. One of the important points of this training, which applied everywhere, was learning how to conserve weight in the field. You have to figure out whether it’s more important to be lighter and more mobile, or to have more ammunition and body armor.
I prefer lightness and speed. I count ounces when we go out, not pounds. The lighter you are, the more mobile you become. The little bastards out there are faster than hell; you need every advantage you can get on them.
The training was pretty competitive. We found out at one point that the best platoon in the Team would be shipped out to Afghanistan. Training picked up from that point on. It was a fierce competition, and not just out on the training range. The officers were backstabbing each other. They’d go to the CO and dime each other out:
Did you see what those guys did on the range? They’re no good. . .
The competition came down to us and one other platoon. We came in second. They went to war; we stayed home.
That’s about the worst fate a SEAL can imagine.
With the conflict in Iraq looming on the horizon, our emphasis shifted. We practiced fighting in the desert; we practiced fighting in cities. We worked hard, but there were always lighter moments.
I remember one time when we were on a RUT (real urban training). Our command would find a municipality that was willing to have us come in and take down an actual building—an empty warehouse, say, or a house—something a little more authentic than you would find on a base. On this one exercise, we were working at a house. Everything had been carefully arranged with the local police department. A few “actors” had been recruited to play parts during the exercise.
My role was to pull security outside. I blocked out traffic, waving vehicles away as some of the local cops watched from the sidelines.
While I was standing there, gun out, not looking particularly friendly, this guy walked down the block toward me.
I started going through the drill. First I waved him off; he kept coming. Then I shined my light on him; he kept coming. I put my laser dot on him; he kept coming.
Of course, the closer he got, the more convinced I was that he was a role-player, sent to test me. I mentally reviewed my ROEs (“rules of engagement”), which covered how I was supposed to act.
“What are you, the popo?” he asked, sticking his face out toward mine.
“Popo” (a thug’s term for police) wasn’t in the ROEs, but I figured he was ad-libbing. The next thing on my list was to throw him down. So I did. He started to resist, and reached under his jacket for what I assumed was a weapon, which is exactly what a SEAL playing a bad guy would do. So I reacted in kind, giving a good SEAL response as I wrestled him into the dirt and busted him up a bit.
Whatever was under his jacket broke and liquid went everywhere. He was cussing and carrying on, but I didn’t take the time to think about all that just then. As the fight ran out of him, I cuffed him and looked around.
The cops, seated in their patrol car nearby, were just about doubled over laughing. I went over to see what was up.
“That’s so-and-so,” they told me. “One of the biggest drug dealers in the city. We wish we could have beat him like you just did.”
Apparently, Mr. Popo ignored all the signs and wandered into the training exercise figuring he’d carry on business as usual. There are idiots everywhere—but I guess that explains how he got into that line of work in the first place.
HAZED AND HITCHED
For months, the United Nations Security Council pressured Iraq to comply fully with U.N. resolutions, especially those requiring inspections of suspected weapons of mass destruction and related sites. War wasn’t a foregone conclusion—Saddam Hussein could have complied and shown inspectors everything they wanted to see. But most of us knew he wouldn’t. So when we got the word that we were shipping out to Kuwait, we were excited. We figured we were going to war.
One way or the other, there was plenty to do out there. Besides watching Iraq’s borders and protecting the Kurdish minority, who Saddam had gassed and massacred in the past, U.S. troops were enforcing no-fly zones in the north and south. Saddam was smuggling oil and other items both into and out of his country, in violation of the U.N. sanctions. The U.S. and other allies were stepping up operations to stop that.
Before we deployed, Taya and I chose to get married. The decision surprised both of us. One day we started talking in the car, and we both came to the conclusion that we should get married.
The decision stunned me, even as I made it. I agreed with it. It was completely logical. We were definitely in love. I knew she was the woman I wanted to spend my life with. And yet, for some reason, I didn’t think the marriage would last.
We both knew that there is an extremely high divorce rate in the SEALs. As a matter of fact, I’ve heard marriage counselors claim that it is close to 95 percent, and I believe it. So maybe that was what worried me. Perhaps part of me wasn’t really ready to think about a lifetime commitment. And of course I understood how demanding my job was going to be once we went to war. I can’t explain the contradictions.
But I do know that I was absolutely in love, and that she loved me. And so, for better or worse, make that peace or war, marriage was our next step together. Happily, we’ve survived it all.
One thing you ought to know about SEALs: when you’re new to the Teams, you get hazed. The platoons are very tight-knit groups. Newcomers—always called “new guys”—are treated like hell until they prove they belong. That usually doesn’t happen until well into their first deployment, if then. New guys get the shit jobs. They’re constantly tested. They’re always beat on.
It’s a kind of an extended hazing that takes many forms. For example: on a training exercise, you work hard. The instructors kick your ass all day long. Then, when you’re done, the platoon will go out and party. When we’re out on a training mission, we usually drive around in large, twelve-passenger vans. A new guy always drives. Which, of course, means he can’t drink when we hit the bars, at least not to SEAL standards.
That’s the mildest form of hazing. In fact, it’s so mild it’s not really hazing.
Choking him out while he’s driving—that’s hazing.
One night soon after I joined my platoon, we were out partying after a training mission. When we left the bar, all the older guys piled into the back. I wasn’t driving, but I had no problem with that—I like to sit up front. We were speeding along for a while and all of a sudden I heard, “One-two-three-four, I declare a van war.”
The next thing I knew, I was pummeled. “Van war” meant it was open season on the new guys. I came out of that one with bruised ribs and a black eye, maybe two. I must have gotten my lip busted a dozen times during hazing.
I should say that van wars are separate from bar fights, another SEAL staple. SEALs are pretty notorious for getting into bar scrapes, and I was no exception. I’ve been arrested more than once through the years, though as a general rule the charges were either never filed or quickly dismissed.
Why do SEALs fight so much?
I haven’t made a scientific study of it, but I think a lot is owed to pent-up aggression. We’re trained to go out and kill people. And then, at the same time, we’re also being taught to think of ourselves as invincible bad-asses. That’s a pretty potent combination.
When you go into a bar, you’ll always have someone who will poke a shoulder into you or otherwise imply you should fuck off. Happens in every bar across the world. Most people just ignore things like that.
If someone does that to a SEAL, we’re going to turn and knock you out.
But at the same time, I have to say that while SEALs end a lot of fights, we usually don’t start many. In a lot of cases, the fights are the result of some sort of stupid jealousy or the need for a dumbass to test his own manhood and earn bragging rights for fighting a SEAL.
When we go into bars, we don’t just cower down in the corner or lay low. We go in extremely confident. Maybe we’re loud. And, with us being mostly young and in great shape, people take notice. Girls gravitate toward a group of SEALs, and maybe that makes their boyfriends jealous. Or guys want to prove something for some other reason. Either way, things escalate and fights happen.
But I wasn’t talking about bar fights; I was talking about hazing. And my wedding.
We were in the Nevada mountains; it was cold—so cold that it was snowing. I had gotten a few days leave to get married; I was due to take off in the morning. The rest of the platoon still had some work to do.
We got back that night to our temporary base and went inside to the mission-planning room. The chief told everybody that we’d relax and have a few beers while we mapped out the next day’s operation. Then he turned to me.
“Hey, new guy,” he told me. “Go grab the beer and the booze out of the van and bring it in here.”
I hopped to.
When I came back in, everyone was sitting in chairs. There was only one left, and it was kind of in the middle of a circle of the others. I didn’t think too much about it as I sat down.
“All right, this is what we’re going to do,” my chief said, standing in front of dry-erase board at the front of the room. “The operation will be an ambush. The target will be in the center. We will completely encircle it.”
That doesn’t sound too smart, I thought. If we come in from every direction, we’ll be shooting each other. Usually our ambushes are planned in an L-shape to avoid that.
I looked at the chief. The chief looked at me. Suddenly, his serious expression gave way to a shit-ass grin.
With that, the rest of the platoon bum-rushed me.
I hit the floor a second later. They cuffed me to a chair, and then began my kangaroo court.
There were a lot of charges against me. The first was the fact that I had let it be known that I wanted to become a sniper.
“This new guy is ungrateful!” thundered the prosecutor. “He does not want to do his job. He thinks he is better than the rest of us.”
I tried to protest, but the judge—none other than the chief himself—quickly ruled me out of order. I turned to my defense attorney.
“What do you expect?” he said. “He’s only got a third-grade edu-Kay-shun.”
“Guilty!” declared the judge. “Next charge!”
“Your Honor, the defendant is disrespectful,” said the prosecutor. “He told the CO to fuck off.”
“Objection!” said my lawyer. “He told the OIC to fuck off.”
The CO is the commanding officer of the Team; the OIC is the officer in charge of the platoon. A pretty big difference, except in this case.
“Guilty! Next charge!”
For every offense I was found guilty of—which meant anything and everything they could make up—I had to take a drink of Jack Daniels and Coke, followed by a shooter of Jack.
They got me pretty wasted before we even got to the felonies. At some point, they stripped me down and put ice down my drawers. Finally I passed out.
Then they spray-painted me, and for good measure, drew Playboy bunnies on my chest and back with a marker. Just the sort of body art you want for your honeymoon.
At some point, my friends apparently became concerned about my health. So they taped me to a spine board completely naked, took me outside, and stood me up in the snow. They left me for a while until I regained some amount of consciousness. By then I was jackhammering hard enough to put a hole through a bunker roof. They gave me an IV—the saline helps cut down the alcohol in your system—and finally took me back to the hotel, still taped to the spine board.
All I remember from the rest of the night is being lifted up a bunch of stairs, apparently to my motel room. There must have been a few spectators, because the boys were yelling, “Nothing to see here, nothing to see!” as they carried me in.
Taya washed off most of the paint and the bunnies when I met up with her the next day. But a few were still visible under my shirt. I kept my jacket tightly buttoned for the ceremony.
By then, the swelling in my face was almost completely gone. The stitches in my eyebrow (from a friendly fight among teammates a few weeks early) were healing nicely. The cut on my lip (from a training exercise) was also healing pretty well. It’s probably not every bride’s dream to have a spray-painted, beat-up groom, but Taya seemed happy enough.
The amount of time we had for our honeymoon, though, was a sore point. The Team was gracious enough to give me three days to get hitched and honeymoon. As a new guy, I was appreciative of the brief leave. My new wife wasn’t quite as understanding, and made that clear. Nonetheless, we married and honeymooned quickly. Then I got back to work.