“Wake up. We got a tanker.”
I roused myself from the side of the boat where I’d been catching some rest despite the cold wind and choppy waters. I was soaked from the spray. Despite the fact that I was a new guy on my first deployment, I’d already mastered the art of sleeping in all sorts of conditions—an unheralded but critical SEAL skill.
An oil tanker loomed ahead. A helicopter had spotted it trying to sneak down the Gulf after loading up illegally in Iraq. Our job was to get aboard her, inspect her papers, and if, as suspected, she was violating the U.N. sanctions, turn her over to the Marines or other authorities for processing.
I scrambled to get ready. Our RHIB (rigid hulled inflatable boat, used for a variety of SEAL tasks) looked like a cross between a rubber life raft and an open speedboat with two monster motors in the back. Thirty-six feet long, it held eight SEALs and hit upward of forty-five knots on a calm sea.
The exhaust from the twin motors wafted over the boat, mixing with the spray as we gathered speed. We were hauling at a good pace, riding the wake of the tanker where radar couldn’t pick us up. I went to work, taking a long pole from the deck of the boat. Our speed dropped as our RHIB cut alongside the tanker, until we were just about matching its pace. The Iranian ship’s engines pulsed in the water, so loud our own motors were drowned out.
As we pushed alongside the tanker, I extended the pole upward, trying to angle the grappling hook at the top onto the ship’s rail. Once the hook caught, I jerked the pole down.
A bungee cord connected the hook to the pole. A steel cable ladder was connected to the hook. Someone grabbed hold of the bottom and held it while the lead man began climbing up the side of the ship.
A loaded oil tanker can sit fairly low in the water, so low, in fact, that you sometimes can just grab the rail and hop over. That wasn’t the case here—the railing was quite a bit higher than our little boat. I’m not a fan of heights, but as long as I didn’t think too much about what I was doing, I was fine.
The ladder rocked with the ship and the wind; I pulled myself upward as quickly as I could go, my muscles remembering all those pull-ups in BUD/S. By the time I reached the deck, the lead guys were already headed toward the wheelhouse and bridge of the ship. I ran to catch up.
Suddenly the tanker began gaining speed. The captain, belatedly realizing he was being boarded, was trying to head for Iranian waters. If he reached them, we’d have to jump off—our orders strictly forbade taking any ship outside of international waters.
I caught up to the head of the team just as they reached the door to the bridge. One of the crew got there at roughly the same time, and tried to lock it. He wasn’t fast enough, or strong enough—one of the boarding party threw himself against the door and bashed it open.
I ran through, gun ready.
We’d done dozens of these operations over the past few days, and rarely had anyone even hinted of resistance. But the captain of this ship had some fight in him, and even though he was unarmed, he wasn’t ready to surrender.
He made a run at me.
Pretty stupid. First of all, I’m not only bigger than him, but I was wearing full body armor. Not to mention the fact that I had a submachine gun in my hand.
I took the muzzle of my gun and struck the idiot in his chest. He went right down.
Somehow, I managed to slip as well. My elbow flew out and landed straight on his face.
A couple of times.
That pretty much took the fight out of him. I rolled him over and cuffed him.
Boarding and searching ships—officially known as VBSS, for Visit, Board, Search, Seize—is a standard SEAL mission. While the “regular” Navy has specially trained sailors to handle the job in peacetime, we’re trained to handle the searches in places where resistance is likely. And in the lead-up to war during the winter of 2002–03, that meant the Persian Gulf off Iraq. The U.N. later estimated that, in violation of international sanctions, billions of dollars of oil and other items were smuggled out of Iraq and into the pockets of Saddam’s regime.
Smuggling took all sorts of forms. You’d find oil being carried in wheat carriers, hidden in barrels. More commonly, tankers took on thousands and thousands of gallons in excess of what they were permitted in the U.N. Oil-for-Food program.
It wasn’t just oil. One of the biggest contraband shipments we came across that winter were dates. Apparently they could fetch a decent price on the world market.
It was during those first months of my first deployment that I became acquainted with the Polish Wojskowa Formacja Specjalna GROM im. Cichociemnych Spadochroniarzy Armii Krajowej—Special Military Formation GROM of the Dark and Silent Parachutists of the Polish Army—better known as GROM. They’re the Polish version of the Special Forces, with an excellent reputation in special operations, and they worked on the takedowns with us.
Generally, we worked off a big ship, which we used as kind of a floating home port for our RHIBs. Half of the platoon would go out for one twenty-four-hour period. We would sail to a designated spot and drift in the night, waiting. With luck, a helo or a ship would radio intel about a ship coming out of Iraq sailing pretty low in the water. Anything that had a cargo would be boarded and inspected. We’d go out and take it down.
A few times we worked with an Mk-V boat. The Mk-V is a special operations craft that some people have compared to World War II–era PT boats. The craft looks like an armored speedboat, and its job is to get SEALs into harm’s way as quickly as possible. Built out of aluminum, it can haul serious ass—the boats are said to hit sixty-five knots. But what we liked about them were their flat decks behind the superstructure. Ordinarily, we would load two Zodiacs back there. But since the Zodiacs weren’t needed, the whole company would board from the RHIBs and stretch out to grab some sleep until ships were spotted. That beat leaning across the seat or twisting yourself around to rest on the gunwale.
Taking down ships in the Gulf quickly became routine. We could take dozens in a night. But our biggest takedown didn’t come off Iraq; it was some fifteen hundred miles away, off the coast of Africa.
In late fall, a SEAL platoon in the Philippines snuck alongside a freighter. From that point on, the North Korean ship was literally a marked vessel.
The 3,500-ton freighter had an interesting history of transporting items to and from North Korea. According to one rumor, she had transported chemicals that could be used to create nerve weapons. In this case, though, the ship’s papers declared that she was carrying cement.
What she was really carrying were Scud missiles.
The ship was tracked around the Horn of Africa while the Bush administration decided what to do about it. Finally, the President ordered that the ship be boarded and searched: just the sort of job SEALs excel at.
We had a platoon in Djibouti, which was a hell of a lot closer to the craft than we were. But because of the way the chain of command and assignments worked—the unit happened to be working for the Marines while we were directly under a Navy command—we were tasked to take down the freighter.
You can imagine how happy our sister platoon was to see us when we landed in Djibouti. Not only had we “stolen” a mission they considered theirs, they had to suffer the indignity of helping us offload and get ready for action.
As soon as I got off the plane, I spotted a buddy.
“Hey!” I shouted.
“Fuck off,” he answered.
That was the extent of his welcome. I couldn’t blame him; in his place, I’d have been pissed myself. He and the others eventually came around—they weren’t mad at us; they were mad at the situation. Grudgingly, they helped us prepare for the mission, then got us aboard a mail-and-resupply helicopter from the USS Nassau, an amphibious assault ship out in the Indian Ocean.
Amphibs, as they’re called, are large assault ships that carry troops and helicopters, and occasionally Marine Harrier attack aircraft. They look like old-fashioned aircraft carriers with a straight-through flight deck. They’re fairly large, and have command and control facilities that can be used as forward planning and command posts during assault operations.
There are several ways to take down a ship, depending on the conditions and the target. While we could have used helicopters to get to the North Korean freighter, looking at photos of the ship we noticed that there were a number of wires running above the deck. Those wires would have to be removed before we could land, which would add time to the operation.
Knowing we’d lose the element of surprise if we went in with helos, we opted to use RHIBs instead. We started doing practice runs off the side of the Nassau with boats that had been brought out there by a Special Boat Unit. (Special Boat Units are the SEALs’ dedicated taxi service. They run the RHIBs, Mk-Vs, and other SEAL-related vessels. Among other things, the units are equipped and trained to make combat insertions, braving fire to get SEALs in and out of trouble.)
The freighter, meanwhile, continued sailing toward us. We geared up as it came within range, preparing to hit it. But before we could board the boats, we got a call telling us to stand by—the Spaniards had moved in.
The Spanish frigate Navarra had confronted the North Korean ship, which had been fooling exactly nobody by sailing without a flag and with her name covered up. According to later reports, Spanish spec-op troops went in after the freighter failed to comply with the frigate’s orders to stop. Of course, they used helicopters, and just as we had thought, were delayed by having to shoot out the wires. From what I’ve heard, that delay would have given the captain aboard the vessel time to get rid of incriminating paperwork and other evidence, that’s what I think happened.
Obviously, there was a lot going on behind the scenes that we weren’t aware of.
Our mission was quickly changed from taking down the ship to going aboard and securing it—and uncovering the Scud missiles.
You wouldn’t think missiles would be hard to find. But in this case, they were nowhere to be seen. The ship’s hold was full of bags of cement—eighty-pound bags. There must have been hundreds of thousands.
There was only one place the Scuds could be. We started moving cement. Bag after bag. That was our job for twenty-four hours. No sleep, just move bags of cement. I must have moved thousands myself. It was miserable. I was covered with dust. God knows what my lungs looked like. Finally, we found shipping containers underneath. Out came our torches and saws.
I worked one of the quickie saws. Also known as a cut-off saw, it looks like a chain saw with a circular blade on the front. It cuts through just about anything, including Scud containers.
Fifteen Scud missiles lay under the cement. I’d never seen a Scud up close before, and to be honest, I thought they were kind of cool-looking. We took pictures, then waved the EOD guys—“explosive ordinance disposal,” or bomb disposal experts—in to make sure they were inert.
By that point, the entire platoon was completely covered with cement dust. A few guys went over the side to clean off. Not me. Given my history with dives, I wasn’t taking any chances. That much cement, who the hell knows what happens when it touches the water?
We handed the freighter over to the Marines and went back aboard the Nassau. Command sent word that we would be pulled out and returned to Kuwait in “the same expedient fashion you were brought in.”
Of course, they were full of shit. We stayed on the Nassau for two weeks. For some reason, the Navy couldn’t figure out how to free up one of the umpteen helicopters they had sitting on the flight deck to get us back to Djibouti. So we played video games and pumped iron, waiting. That and slept.
Unfortunately, the only video game we had with us was Madden Football. I got pretty good at it. Up until that time, I hadn’t been much for playing video games. Now I’m an expert—especially at Madden. That was probably where I got hooked. I think my wife still cusses my two weeks aboard the Nassau to this very day.
A footnote on the Scuds: the missiles were bound for Yemen. Or at least that’s what Yemen said. There have been rumors that they were part of some sort of a deal with Libya involving a payoff to take Saddam Hussein into exile, but I have no idea whether that’s true or not. In any event, the Scuds were released and went on to Yemen, Saddam stayed in Iraq, and we went back to Kuwait to get ready for war.
That December was the first Christmas I’d ever been away from my family, and it felt a little depressing. The day kind of came and went without a memorable celebration.
I do remember the presents Taya’s folks sent that year, though: remote-control Hummers.
They were small, radio-controlled toys that were just a blast to drive around. Some of the Iraqis working on base had apparently never seen anything like them before. I’d drive a vehicle toward them and they would scream and bolt away. I don’t know if they thought it was some sort of guided missile or what. Their high-pitched screams, coupled with sprints in the opposite direction, had me doubled over. Cheap thrills in Iraq were priceless.
Some of the people we had working for us were not exactly the best of the best, nor were all of them particularly fond of Americans.
They caught one jerking off into our food.
He was quickly escorted from the base. The head shed—our commanding officers—knew that as soon as everyone found out what he’d done, someone would probably try and kill him.
We stayed at two different camps in Kuwait: Ali al-Salem and Doha. Our facilities at both were relatively bare-bones.
Doha was a large U.S. Army base, and played important roles in both the First and what would be the Second Gulf War. We were given a warehouse there and framed-out rooms with the help of some Seabees, the Navy combat engineers. We’d come to rely on the Seabees for similar support in the future.
Ali al-Salem was even more primitive, at least for us. There we got a tent and some shelving units; that was about it. I guess the powers-that-be figured SEALs don’t need much.
I was in Kuwait when I saw my first desert sandstorm. The day suddenly became night. Sand swirled everywhere. From the distance, you can see a vast orange-brown cloud moving toward you. Then, suddenly, it’s black and you feel like you’re in the middle of swirling mineshaft, or maybe the rinse cycle in a bizarre washing machine that uses sand instead of water.
I remember being in an airplane hangar, and even though the doors were closed, the amount of dust in the air was unbelievable. The sand was a fine grit that you never wanted to get in your eyes, because it would never come out. We quickly learned to wear goggles to protect them; sunglasses wouldn’t do.
Being a new guy, I was the 60 gunner.
As I’m sure many of you know, “60” refers to the M-60 general-purpose machine gun, a belt-fed weapon that has served the U.S. military in a number of versions for several decades.
The M-60 was developed in the 1950s. It fires 7.62-mm bullets; the design is so flexible that it can be used as the basis for a coaxial machine gun in armored vehicles and helicopters, and a light, man-carried squad-level weapon. It was a workhorse in the Vietnam War, where grunts called it “the Pig” and occasionally cursed over the hot barrel, which required an asbestos glove to change after firing a few hundred rounds—not particularly convenient in combat.
The Navy made substantial improvements to the weapon over the years, and it remains a potent gun. The newest version is so improved, in fact, that it rates a different designation: the Navy calls it an Mk-43 Mod 0. (Some contend it should be considered a completely separate weapon; I’m not going to wade into that debate.) It’s comparatively light—in the area of twenty-three pounds—and has a relatively short barrel. It also has a rail system, which allows scopes and the like to be attached.
Also currently in service are M-240s, M-249s, and the Mk-46, a variant of the M-249.
As a general rule, the machine guns carried by shooters in my platoons were always called 60s, even when they were actually something else, like the Mk-48. We used more Mk-48s as time went on during my days in Iraq, but unless it’s significant for some reason, I refer to any squad-level machine gun as a 60 and leave others to sort out the fine print.
The old “Pig” nickname for the 60 survives, which leads a lot of 60 gunners to be called Pigs, or a creative variation; in our platoon, a friend of mine named Bob got tagged with it.
It never applied to me. My nickname was “Tex,” which was one of the more socially acceptable things people called me.
With war becoming inevitable, we began patrolling the border across Kuwait, making sure that the Iraqis weren’t going to try and sneak across in a preemptory strike. We also began training for a role in the upcoming fight.
That meant spending quality time in DPVs, also known as SEAL dune buggies.
DPVs (“Desert Patrol Vehicles”) look extremely cool from the distance, and they are far better equipped than your average ATV. There’s a .50-caliber machine gun and an Mk-19 grenade launcher on the front, and an M-60 on the back. Then there are the LAW rockets, one-shot anti-tank weapons that are the spiritual descendants of World War II bazookas and Panzerfausts. The rockets are mounted in special brackets on the tubular upper frame. Adding to the coolness factor is the sat radio antenna on the very top of the vehicle, with a donkey-dick radio antenna next to it.
Practically every picture you see of a DPV has the sucker flying over a sand dune and popping a wheelie. It is an exceedingly bad-ass image.
Unfortunately, it is just that—an image. Not a reality.
From what I understand, the DPVs were based on a design that had been used in the Baja races. Stripped down, they were undoubtedly mean mothers. The problem is, we didn’t drive them stripped down. All that ordnance we carried added considerable weight. Then there were our rucks, and the water and food you need to survive in a desert for a few days. Extra gas. Not to mention three fully equipped SEALs—driver, navigator, and Pig gunner.
And, in our case, a Texas flag flying off the rear. Both my chief and I were Texans, which made that a mandatory accessory.
The load added up quickly. The DPVs used a small Volkswagen engine that was, in my experience, a piece of junk. It was probably fine in a car, or maybe a dune buggy that didn’t see combat. But if we took the vehicle out for two or three days, we’d almost always end up working on it for the same amount of time when we got back. Inevitably, there was some sort of bearing or bushing failing. We had to do our own maintenance. Luckily for us, my platoon included an ASCE-certified mechanic, and he took charge of keeping the vehicles running.
But by far their biggest drawback was the fact that they were two-wheel drive. This was a huge problem if the ground was in the least bit soft. As long as we kept going we were usually okay, but if we stopped we ended up in trouble. We were constantly digging them out of the sand in Kuwait.
They were a blast when they worked. Being the gunner, I had the elevated seat behind the driver and navigator, who sat side by side below me. Geared up with tactical ballistic goggles and a helicopter-type helmet, I strapped myself in with a five-point restraint and held on as we raced across the desert. We’d do seventy miles an hour. I’d let off a few bursts with the .50-cal, then pull the lever up on the side of the seat and swivel around toward the back. There I’d grab the M-60 and shoot some more. If we were simulating an attack from the side while we were moving, I could grab the M-4 I was carrying and shoot in that direction.
Shooting the big machine gun was fun!
Aiming that sucker while the vehicle was bounding up and down across the desert was something else again. You can move the gun up and down to keep it on target, but you’re never going to be particularly precise—at best, you lay down enough fire so you can get the hell out of there.
Besides our four three-seat DPVs, we had two six-seaters. The six-seater was the plain-vanilla version—three rows of two seats, with the only weapon the 60 on the front. We used it as the command-and-control wagon. Very boring ride. It was kind of like riding in a station wagon with Mom when Dad’s got the sports car.
We practiced for a few weeks. We did a lot of land navigation, built hide sights, and did SR (“surveillance and reconnaissance”) along the border. We’d dig in, cover the vehicles with netting, and try and make them disappear in the middle of the desert. Not easy for a DPV: usually it ended up looking like a DPV trying to hide in the middle of the desert. We also practiced deploying the DPVs out of helicopters, riding out the back when they touched down: a rodeo on wheels.
As January neared its end, we started getting worried, not that the war was going to break out, but that it would start without us. The usual SEAL deployment at the time was six months. We’d shipped out in September, and were due to rotate back to the States within a few weeks.
I wanted to fight. I wanted to do what I’d been trained for. American taxpayers had invested considerable dollars in my education as a SEAL. I wanted to defend my country, do my duty, and do my job.
I wanted, more than anything, to experience the thrill of battle.
Taya saw things a lot differently.
I was terrified the whole time as the buildup continued toward war. Even though the war hadn’t officially started, I knew they were working dangerous ops. When SEALs work, there’s always some risk involved. Chris tried to play things down to me so I wouldn’t worry, but I wasn’t oblivious and I could read between the lines. My anxiety came out in different ways. I was jumpy. I’d see things out of the corner of my eye that weren’t there. I couldn’t sleep without all the lights on; I’d read every night until my eyes closed involuntarily. I did everything I could to avoid being alone or having too much time to think.
Chris called twice with stories about helicopter accidents that he’d been in. Both were extremely minor, but he was worried that they would be reported and that I would hear about them and worry.
“I just want you to know, in case you hear it on the news,” he’d say. “The helo was in a minor bang-up and I’m okay.”
One day he told me he had to go out on another helicopter exercise. The next morning, I was watching the news and they reported that a helicopter had gone down near the border and everyone had died. The newscaster said it had been filled with special-forces soldiers.
In the military, “Special Forces” refers to Army special-operations troops, but the newscasters had a tendency to use the term for SEALs. Immediately, I jumped to conclusions.
I didn’t hear from him that day, even though he had promised he’d call.
I told myself, I’m not going to panic. It wasn’t him.
I poured myself into my work. That night, with still no call, I started to feel a little more anxious. . . . Then a little freaked out. I couldn’t sleep, though I was exhausted from working and holding back the tears that kept threatening to overtake any sense of calm I was faking.
Finally, around one o’clock, I was starting to crack.
The phone rang. I jumped to answer it.
“Hey, babe!” he said, as cheerful as ever.
I started bawling.
Chris kept asking what was wrong. I couldn’t even choke out the words to explain. My fear and relief came out as unintelligible sobs.
After that, I vowed to stop watching the news.