The first time Chris came home, he was really disgusted with everything. With America, especially.
In the car on the way back to our house, we listened to the radio. People weren’t talking about the war; life went on as if nothing was happening in Iraq.
“People are talking about bullshit,” he said. “We’re fighting for the country, and no one gives a shit.”
He’d been really disappointed when the war began. He was back in Kuwait and had seen something on television that was negative about the troops. He called and said, “You know what? If that’s what they think, fuck them. I’m out here ready to give my life and they’re doing bullshit.”
I had to tell him there were a lot of people who cared, not just for the troops in general, but for him. He had me, he had friends in San Diego and Texas, and family.
But the adjustment to being home was hard. He’d wake up punching. He’d always been jumpy, but now, when I got up in the middle of the night, I’d stop and say his name before I got back into bed. I had to wake him up before coming back to bed to ensure I wasn’t hit with his basic reflex.
One time I woke up to him grabbing my arm with both of his hands. One hand was on the forearm and one just slightly above my elbow. He was sound asleep and appeared to be ready to snap my arm in half. I stayed as still as possible and kept repeating his name, getting louder each time so as not to startle him, but also to stop the impending damage to my arm. Finally, he woke and let go.
Slowly, we settled into some new habits, and adjusted.
I didn’t quit the SEALs.
I might have, if my contract hadn’t still had a lot of time to run. Maybe I would have gone to the Marines. But it wasn’t an option.
I had some reason for hope. When you come home and the Team returns from a deployment, there’s a reshuffling at the top and you get new leadership. There was always a chance our new head shed would be better.
I talked to Taya and told her how pissed off I was. Of course, she had a different perspective: she was just happy that I was alive and home in one piece. Meanwhile, the brass got huge promotions and congratulations for their part in the war. They got the glory.
Bullshit glory for a war they didn’t fight and the cowardly stance they took. Their cowardice ended lives we could have saved if they would have let us do our jobs. But that’s politics for you: a bunch of game-players sitting around congratulating each other in safety while real lives are getting screwed up.
Every time I returned home from deployment, starting then, I wouldn’t leave the house for about a week. I’d just stay there. Generally, we’d get about a month off after unloading and sorting our gear and stuff. That first week I’d always stay home with Taya and keep to myself. Only after that would I start seeing family and friends.
I didn’t have flashbacks of battle or anything dramatic like that; I just needed to be alone.
I do remember once, after the first deployment, when I had something like a flashback, though it only lasted a few seconds. I was sitting in the room we used as an office in our house in Alpine near San Diego. We had a burglar alarm system, and for some reason, Taya set it off accidentally when she came home.
It scared the ever-living shit out of me. I just immediately went right back to Kuwait. I dove under the desk. I thought it was a Scud attack.
We laugh about it now—but for those few seconds I was truly scared, more scared even than I had been in Kuwait when the Scuds actually did fly over.
I’ve had more fun with burglar alarms than I can recount. One day I woke up after Taya had left for work. As soon as I got out of bed, the alarm went off. This one was in voice mode, so it alerted me with a computerized voice:
“Intruder alert! Intruder in the house! Intruder alert!”
I grabbed my pistol and went to confront the criminal. No son of a bitch was breaking into my house and living to tell about it.
“Intruder: living room!”
I carefully proceeded to the living room and used all of my SEAL skills to clear the living room.
Vacant. Smart criminal.
I moved down the hall.
The kitchen was also clear. The son of a bitch was running from me.
I can’t tell you how long it took before I realized I was the intruder: the system was tracking me. Taya had set the alarm to a setting that assumed the house was vacant, turning on the motion detectors.
Y’all feel free to laugh. With me, not at me, right?
I always seemed more vulnerable at home. After every deployment, something would happen to me, usually during training. I broke a toe, a finger, all sorts of little injuries. Overseas, on deployment, in the war, I seemed invincible.
“You take your superhero cape off every time you come home from deployment,” Taya used to joke.
After a while, I figured it was true.
My parents had been nervous the entire time I was away. They wanted to see me as soon as I got home, and I think my need to keep to myself at first probably hurt them more than they’ll say. When we finally did get together, though, it was a pretty happy day.
My dad took my deployment especially hard, outwardly showing his anxiousness a lot more than my mother. It’s funny—sometimes the strongest individuals feel the worst when events are out of their control, and they can’t really be there for the people they love. I’ve felt it myself.
It was a pattern that would repeat itself every time I went overseas. My mom carried on like the stoic one; my otherwise stoic dad became the family worrier.
I gave up part of my vacation and came back from leave a week early to go to sniper school. I would have given up much more than that for the chance.
Marine snipers have justifiably gotten a lot of attention over the years, and their training program is still regarded as one of the world’s best. In fact, SEAL snipers used to be trained there. But we’ve gone ahead and started our own school, adapting a lot of what the Marines do but adding a number of things to prepare SEAL snipers for our mission. The SEAL school takes a little more than twice as long to complete because of that.
Next to BUD/S, sniper training was the hardest school I ever went through. They were constantly messing with our heads. We had late nights and early mornings. We were always running or being stressed in some way.
That was a key part of the instruction. Since they can’t shoot at you, they put as much pressure on you as they can manage in every other way. From what I’ve heard, only 50 percent of the SEALs who take the school make it through. I can believe it.
The first classes teach SEALs how to use the computers and cameras that are part of our job. SEAL snipers aren’t just shooters. In fact, shooting is only a small part of the job. It’s an important, vital part, but it’s far from everything.
A SEAL sniper is trained to observe. It’s a foundation skill. He may find himself out ahead of a main force, tasked to discover everything he can about the enemy. Even if he’s assigned to get into position to take out a high-value target, the first thing he has to be able to do is observe the area. He needs to be able to use modern navigational skills and tools like GPS, and at the same time present the information he’s gathered. So that’s where we start.
The next part of the course, and in a lot of ways the hardest, is stalking. That’s the part where most guys fall out. Stalking means sneaking into a position without being seen: easier said than done. It’s moving slowly and carefully to the exact right spot for the mission. It’s not patience, or at least that’s not all it is. It’s professional discipline.
I’m not a patient person, but I learned that to succeed as a stalker I need to take my time. If I know I’m going to kill someone, I will wait a day, a week, two weeks.
Make that, I have waited.
I will do whatever it takes. And let’s just say there are no bathroom breaks, either.
For one of the exercises, we had to sneak through a hay field. I took hours arranging the grass and hay in my ghillie suit. The ghillie suit is made of burlap and is a kind of camouflage base for a sniper on a stalking mission. The suit allows you to add hay or grass or whatever, so you can blend in with your surroundings. The burlap adds depth, so it doesn’t look like a guy with hay sticking out of your butt as you cross a field. You look like a bush.
But the suits are hot and sweaty. And they don’t make you invisible. When you come to another piece of terrain, you have to stop and rearrange your camouflage. You have to look like whatever it is you’re crossing.
I remember one time I was making my way s-l-o-w-l-y across a field when I heard the distinct rattle of a snake nearby. A rattler had taken a particular liking to the piece of real estate I had to cross. Willing it away didn’t work. Not wanting to give away my position to the instructor grading me, I crept slowly to the side, altering my course. Some enemies aren’t worth fighting.
During the stalking portion of our training, you’re not graded on your first shot. You’re graded on your second. In other words, once you’ve fired, can you be seen?
Hopefully, no. Because not only is there a good possibility you’ll have to take more shots, but you have to get out of there, too. And it would be nice to do that alive.
It’s important to remember that perfect circles do not exist in nature, and that means you have to do what you can to camouflage your scope and rifle barrel. I would take tape and put it over my barrel, then spray-paint the tape up to camouflage it further. I’d keep some vegetation in front of my scope as well as my barrel—you don’t need to see everything, just your target.
For me, stalking was the hardest part of the course. I nearly failed because of a lack of patience.
It was only after we mastered stalking that we moved on to shooting.
People ask a lot about weapons, what I used as a sniper, what I learned on, what I prefer. In the field, I matched the weapon to the job and the situation. At sniper school, I learned the basics of a range of weapons, so I was prepared not only to use them all, but also to choose the right one for the job.
I used four basic weapons at sniper school. Two were magazine-fed semiautomatics: the Mk-12, a 5.56 sniper rifle; and the Mk-11, a 7.62 sniper rifle. (When I talk about a gun, I often just mention the caliber, so the Mk-12 is the 5.56. Oh, and there’s no “point” in front of the numbers; it’s understood.)
Then there was my .300 Win Mag. That was magazine-fed, but it was bolt-action. Like the other two, it was suppressed. Which means that it has a device on the end of the barrel that suppresses muzzle flash and reduces the sound of bullet as it leaves the gun, much like a muffler on a car. (It’s not actually a silencer, though some think of it that way. Without getting too technical, the suppressor works by letting gas out of the barrel as the bullet discharges. Generally speaking, there are two types, one that attaches to the barrel of the weapon and another that’s integrated with the barrel itself. Among the practical effects of the suppressor on a sniper rifle is that it tends to reduce the amount of “kick” the shooter experiences. This helps make it more accurate.)
I also had a .50 caliber, which was not suppressed.
Let’s talk about each weapon individually.
Officially, the United States Navy Mk-12 Special Purpose Rifle, this gun has a sixteen-inch barrel, but is otherwise the same platform as an M-4. It fires a 5.56 × 45 mm round from a thirty-round magazine. (It can also be fitted with a twenty-round box.)
Derived from what became known as the .223 cartridge and therefore smaller and lighter than most earlier military rounds, the 5.56 is not a preferred bullet to shoot someone with. It can take a few shots to put someone down, especially the drugged-up crazies we were dealing with in Iraq, unless you hit him in the head. And contrary to what you’re probably thinking, not all sniper shots, certainly not mine, take the bad guys in the head. Usually I went for center mass—a nice fat target somewhere in the middle of the body, giving me plenty of room to work with.
The gun was super-easy to handle, and was virtually interchangeable with the M-4, which, though not a sniper weapon, is still a valuable combat tool. As a matter of fact, when I got back to my platoon, I took the lower receiver off my M-4 and put it on the upper receiver of my Mk-12. That gave me a collapsible stock and allowed me to go full-auto. (I see now that some Mk-12s are being equipped with the collapsible stock.)
On patrol, I like to use a shorter stock. It’s quicker to get up to my shoulder and get a bead on somebody. It’s also better for working inside and in tight quarters.
Another note on my personal configuration: I never used full auto on the rifle. The only time you really want full auto is to keep someone’s head down—spewing bullets doesn’t make for an accurate course of fire. But since there might be a circumstance where it would come in handy, I always wanted to have that option in case I needed it.
Officially called the Mk-11 Mod X Special Purpose Rifle and also known as the SR25, this is an extremely versatile weapon. I particularly like the idea of the Mk-11 because I could patrol with it (in place of an M-4) and still use it as a sniper rifle. It didn’t have a collapsible stock, but that was its only drawback. I would tie the suppressor onto my kit, leaving it off during the start of a patrol. If I needed to take a sniper shot, I would put it on. But if I was on the street or moving on foot, I could shoot back right away. It was semiautomatic, so I could get a lot of bullets on a target, and it fired 7.62 × .51 mm bullets from a twenty-round box. Those had more stopping power than the smaller 5.56 NATO rounds. I could shoot a guy once and put him down.
Our rounds were match-grade ammo bought from Black Hills, which makes probably the best sniper ammo around.
The Mk-11 had a bad reputation in the field because it would often jam. We wouldn’t have jams that much in training, but overseas was a different story. We eventually figured out that something to do with the dust cover on the rifle was causing a double feed; we solved a lot of the problem by leaving the dustcover down. There were other issues with the weapon, however, and personally it was never one of my favorites.
.300 Win Mag
The .300 is in another class entirely.
As I’m sure many readers know, .300 Win Mag (pronounced “three hundred win mag”) refers to the bullet the rifle fires, the .300 Winchester Magnum round (7.62 × 67 mm). It’s an excellent all-around cartridge, whose performance allows for superb accuracy as well as stopping power.
Other services fire the round from different (or slightly different) guns; arguably, the most famous is the Army’s M-24 Sniper Weapon System, which is based on the Remington 700 rifle. (Yes, that is the same rifle civilians can purchase for hunting.) In our case, we started out with MacMillan stocks, customized the barrels, and used 700 action. These were nice rifles.
In my third platoon—the one that went to Ramadi—we got all new .300s. These used Accuracy International stocks, with a brand-new barrel and action. The AI version had a shorter barrel and a folding stock. They were bad-ass.
The .300 is a little heavier gun by design. It shoots like a laser. Anything from a thousand yards and out, you’re just plain nailing it. And on closer targets, you don’t have to worry about too much correction for your come-ups. You can dial in your five-hundred-yard dope and still hit a target from one hundred to seven hundred yards without worrying too much about making minute adjustments.
I used a .300 Win Mag for most of my kills.
The fifty is huge, extremely heavy, and I just don’t like it. I never used one in Iraq.
There’s a certain amount of hype and even romance for these weapons, which shoot a 12.7 × 99 mm round. There are a few different specific rifles and variations in service with the U.S. military and other armies around the world. You’ve probably heard of the Barrett M-82 or the M-107, developed by Barrett Firearms Manufacturing. They have enormous ranges and in the right application are certainly good weapons. I just didn’t like them all that much. (The one .50 I do like is the Accuracy International model, which has a more compact, collapsible stock and a little more accuracy; it wasn’t available to us at the time.)
Everyone says that the .50 is a perfect anti-vehicle gun. But the truth is that if you shoot the .50 through a vehicle’s engine block, you’re not actually going to stop the vehicle. Not right away. The fluids will leak out and eventually it will stop moving. But it’s not instant by any means. A .338 and even a .300 will do the same thing. No, the best way to stop a vehicle is to shoot the driver. And that you can do with a number of weapons.
We didn’t have .338s in training; we started getting them later on during the war. Again, the name refers to the bullet; there are a number of different manufacturers, including MacMillan and Accuracy International. The bullet shoots farther and flatter than a .50 caliber, weighs less, costs less, and will do just as much damage. They are awesome weapons.
I used a .338 on my last deployment. I would have used it more if I’d had it. The only drawback for me was my model’s lack of a suppressor. When you’re shooting inside a building, the concussion is strong enough that it’s a pain—literally. My ears would hurt after a few shots.
Since I’m talking about guns, I’ll mention that my current favorites are the weapons systems made by GA Precision, a very small company started in 1999 by George Gardner. He and his staff pay close attention to every detail, and his weapons are just awesome. I didn’t get a chance to try one until I got out of the service, but now they’re what I use.
Scopes are an important part of the weapon system. Overseas, I used a 32-power scope. (The powers on a scope refer to the magnification of the focal length. Without getting too technical, the higher the power, the better a shooter can see at a distance. But there are tradeoffs, depending on the situation and the scope. Scopes should be chosen with a mind toward the situation they’ll be used in; to give an obvious example, a 32-power scope would be wildly inappropriate on a shotgun.) Additionally, depending on the circumstances, I had an infrared and visible red laser, as well as night vision for the scope.
As a SEAL, I used Nightforce scopes. They have very clear glass, and they’re extremely durable under terrible conditions. They always held their zero for me. On deployments, I used a Leica range finder to determine how far I was from a target.
Most of the stocks on my guns used adjustable cheek-pieces. Sometimes called a comb (technically, the comb is the top piece of the stock, but the terms are sometimes interchanged), the extension let me keep my eye in position when sighting through the scope. On older weapons, we would adapt a piece of hard-packed foam and raise the stock to the right height. (As scope rings have gotten larger and more varied in size, the ability to change the stock height has become more important.)
I used a two-pound trigger on my rifles. That’s a fairly light pull. I want the trigger to surprise me every time; I don’t want to jerk the gun as I fire. I want no resistance:
Get set, get ready, put my finger and gently start squeezing, and it goes off.
As a hunter, I knew how to shoot, how to make the bullet go from point A to point B. Sniper school taught me the science behind it all. One of the more interesting facts is that the barrel of a rifle cannot touch any part of the stock: they need to be free-floating to increase accuracy. (The barrel will “float” in the stock, due to the way the stock is cut out. It attaches only to the main body of the rifle.) When you shoot a round, a vibration comes through the barrel, known as barrel whip. Anything touching the barrel will affect that vibration, and, in turn, affect the accuracy. Then there are things like the Coriolis effect, which has to do with the rotation of the earth and the effect it has on a rifle bullet. (This comes into play only at extremely long distances.)
You live all of this technical data in sniper school. You learn about how far to lead someone when they’re moving—if they’re walking, if they’re running, depending on the distance. You keep doing it until the understanding is embedded not just in your brain but in your arms and hands and fingers.
In most shooting situations, I adjust for elevation, but not for windage. (Simply put, adjusting for elevation means adjusting my aim to compensate for the drop of my bullet over the distance it travels; windage means compensating for the effect of the wind.) The wind is constantly changing. So about the time I adjust for wind, the wind changes. Elevation is a different story—though if you’re in a combat situation, a lot of times you don’t have the luxury of making a fine adjustment. You have to shoot or be shot.
I was not the best sniper in my class. In fact, I failed the practice test. That meant potentially washing out of the class.
Unlike the Marines, in the field we don’t work with spotters. The SEAL philosophy is, basically, if you have a fellow warrior with you, he ought to be shooting, not watching. That said, we did use spotters in training.
After I failed the test, the instructor went through everything with me and my spotter, trying to figure out where I’d gone wrong. My scope was perfect, my dope was set, there was nothing mechanically wrong with the rifle . . .
Suddenly, he looked up at me.
“Dip?” he said, more a statement than a question.
“Oh . . .”
I hadn’t put any chewing tobacco in my mouth during the test. It was the only thing I’d done differently . . . and it turned out to be the key. I passed the exam with flying colors—and a wad of tobacco in my cheek
Snipers as a breed tend to be superstitious. We’re like baseball players with our little rituals and must-dos. Watch a baseball game, and you’ll see a batter always does the same thing as he steps to the plate—he’ll make the sign of the cross, kick the dirt, wave the bat. Snipers are the same way.
During training and even afterward, I kept my guns a certain way, wore the same clothes, had everything arranged precisely the same. It’s all a matter of controlling everything on my end. I know the gun is going to do its job. I need to make sure I do mine.
There’s a lot more to being a SEAL sniper than shooting. As training progressed, I was taught to study the terrain and the surroundings. I learned to see things with a sniper’s eye.
If I were trying to kill me, where would I set up?
That roof. I could take the whole squad from there.
Once I identified those spots, I’d spend more time looking at them. I had excellent vision going into the course, but it wasn’t so much seeing as learning to perceive—knowing what sort of movement should get your attention, discerning subtle shapes that can tip off a waiting ambush.
I had to practice to stay sharp. Observation is hard work. I’d go outside and just train myself to spot things in the distance. I always tried to hone my craft, even on leave. On a ranch in Texas, you see animals, birds—you learn to look in the distance and spot movement, shapes, little inconsistencies in the landscape.
For a while, it seemed like everything I did helped train me, even video games. I had a little handheld mahjongg game that a friend of mine had given us as a wedding present. I don’t know if it was exactly appropriate as a wedding present—it’s a handheld, one-person game—but as a training tool it was invaluable. In mahjongg, you scan different tiles, looking for matches. I would play timed sessions against the computer, working to sharpen my observation skills.
I said it before and I’ll keep saying it: I’m not the best shot in the world. There were plenty of guys better than me, even in that class. I only graduated about middle of the pack.
As it happened, the guy who was the honor man or best in our class was part of our platoon. He never had as many kills as I did, though, at least partly because he was sent to the Philippines for a few months while I spent my time in Iraq. You need skill to be a sniper, but you also need opportunity. And luck.
BEATEN BY DOLPHINS, EATEN BY SHARKS
After spending the entire summer at sniper school, I returned to my platoon and got busy with the rest of our workup, going through the different training sessions as we prepared to deploy in a year. As usual, I had some of my hardest times in the water.
Everyone gets all warm and fuzzy about marine animals, but I’ve had close and personal encounters that were anything but.
While the Navy was testing a program using dolphins for harbor defense, they used us as targets, in a few cases without warning. The dolphins would come out and beat the shit out of us. They were trained to hit in the sides, and they could crack ribs. And if you hadn’t been warned in advance of the exercise, you didn’t know what was going on—your first reaction, or at least mine, was to think you were being attacked by sharks.
One time we were out and the dolphins were taking it to us. Getting beaten bad, I headed toward shore to dodge the bastards. Spotting some piers, I ducked underneath—I knew they wouldn’t follow me.
All of a sudden, something clamped hard on my leg. Hard.
It was a sea lion. They were being trained to guard the piers.
I went back out into open water. I’d rather be beaten by a dolphin than eaten by a sea lion.
But sharks were, by far, the worst.
One evening, we were supposed to swim across the bay off San Diego, in the dark, and plant a limpet mine on a particular ship. Simple, standard SEAL operation.
Not every SEAL hates the water like I do. In fact, a lot of them like it so much they’ll swim around and play tricks on the others in the exercise. You might have a guy plant his mine, then sink to the bottom and wsait for the next guy to come over with his. There’s usually enough light from above that the second diver is silhouetted and easy to see. So when the victim—I mean, diver—comes to plant his mine, the first diver comes up, grabs his fin, and jerks it.
That scares the shit out of the second diver. Usually he thinks there’s a shark in the water and screws up the rest of the exercise. And his gear may need a special cleaning.
On this particular day, I was beneath the ship and had just planted my mine when something grabbed my fin.
Then I put my heart back in my chest, remembering all the stories and warnings about my brethren SEALs.
Just one of the guys messing with my head, I told myself. I turned around to flip him off.
And found myself giving the finger to a shark who’d taken a particular liking to my flipper. He had it in his jaw.
He wasn’t a huge shark, but what he lacked in size he made up for in pure orneriness. I grabbed my knife and cut off my fin—no sense keeping it now that it was all chewed up, right?
While he was munching on what remained of it, I swam up to the surface and flagged down the security boat. I grabbed onto the side and explained that they were taking me in RIGHT NOW!! because there was a SHARK!! out here, and he was one hungry mother.
During another training exercise—this one was before my first deployment—four of us were inserted on the California coast from a submarine. We came ashore in two Zodiacs, built a hide, and did some reconnaissance. When the time came, we all got in our Zodiacs and headed back out to meet the sub and go home.
Unfortunately, my officer had given the submarine the wrong grid coordinates for the rendezvous. In fact, they were so far off that there was an island between us and the sub.
Of course, we didn’t know that at the time. We just circled around, trying to make radio coms with a vessel that was too far away to hear us. At some point, either our radio got wet or the battery drained, and all hope of connection was lost.
We spent just about the entire night out on the water in the Zodiacs. Finally, as dawn approached, our fuel was nearly gone. My raft was starting to go flat. We all decided we’d just go back ashore and wait. At least we would get some sleep.
As we were coming in, a sea lion swam up, all friendly-like. Being from Texas, I had never really had much of a chance to look at sea lions, so naturally I was curious and started watching this one. He was a pretty interesting, if ugly, critter.
All of a sudden—splop—he disappeared below the surface.
The next thing I knew, he—and we—were surrounded by large, pointy fins. Apparently, a number of sharks had decided to make breakfast of him.
Sea lions are big, but there were way too many sharks to be satisfied with just him. They started circling closer and closer to the sides of my raft, which looked increasingly thin and perilously close to the water.
I glanced toward shore. It was very far off.
Holy shit, I thought. I’m going to get eaten.
My companion in the raft was a rather round fellow, at least for a SEAL.
“If we go down,” I warned him, “I’m shooting you. You’ll be something for the sharks to munch on while I swim to shore.”
He just cursed at me. I think he thought I was kidding.
We did finally make shore without getting eaten. But meanwhile, the entire Navy was looking for us. The news media started carrying the story: FOUR SEALS LOST AT SEA.
Not exactly what we wanted to be famous for.
It took a while, but a patrol plane finally spotted us and an Mk-V was dispatched to pick us up. The commander of the assault boat took care of us and got us home.
That was one of the few times when I was really glad to get aboard a boat or ship. Generally, when I’ve been out at sea I’ve been bored. Worrying about being assigned to sea duty was a big motivator during BUD/S.
Submarines are the worst. Even the largest feel cramped. The last time I was aboard one, we weren’t even allowed to work out. The gym was located on the other side of the nuclear reactor from our quarters, and we weren’t authorized to pass through the reactor area to get there.
Aircraft carriers are a hell of a lot larger, but they can be just as boring. At least they have lounges where you can play video games and there are no restrictions on getting to the gym to blow off steam.
In fact, on one occasion, we were specifically requested to go to the gym by the CO.
We were on the Kitty Hawk when they were having a problem with gangs. Apparently, some punk sailors who were gang members were causing quite a discipline problem aboard ship. The CO of the boat pulled us over and told us when the gang used the gym.
So we went down to work out, locked the door behind us, and fixed the gang problem.
During this workup, I missed a dive session because I got sick. It was as if a light went off in my head. From that point on, just about every time diving turned up on our practice schedule, I came down with a very bad disease. Or I found a sniper-training trip that just had to be taken at that point.
The rest of the guys teased me that I had better ninja smoke than anybody.
And who am I to argue?
I also got my first tattoo around this time. I wanted to honor the SEALs, and yet I didn’t feel as if I’d earned a Trident tattoo. (The official SEAL emblem had an eagle perched in an overwatch position on a trident that forms the crossbar of an anchor; a flintlock pistol sits in front of it. The insignia is known as the trident or, unofficially, a “Budweiser,” the reference being to BUD/S . . . or the beer, depending on who you ask.)
So, instead, I got a “frog bone,” a tattoo that looks like a frog skeleton. This, too, is a traditional SEAL and UDT symbol—in this case, honoring our dead comrades. I have the tattoo on my back, peeking over my shoulder—as if those who came before me were looking after me, offering some protection.
Besides being a SEAL, I was also a husband. And after I came home, Taya and I decided to try and start a family.
Things went pretty well. She got pregnant about the first time we kissed without protection. And her pregnancy was near-perfect. It was the childbirth that got complicated.
For some reason, my wife had a problem with a low platelet count. Unfortunately, the problem wasn’t discovered until too late, and because of that she couldn’t get an epidural or other painkiller when it came time to give birth. So, she had to give birth naturally, without any training or preparation.
Our son was eight pounds, not a particularly small kid.
You learn a lot about a woman when she’s under duress. I got bitched to high heaven. (She claims she didn’t, but I know better. And who are you going to believe, a SEAL? Or a SEAL’s wife?)
Taya was in labor for sixteen hours. Toward the end, they decided they could give her laughing gas to ease the pain. But before they did, they warned me of everything that could happen to my son, no matter how distant the possibility.
I didn’t feel I had much of a choice. She was in tremendous pain. She needed relief. I told them to go ahead, though in the back of my mind I was worried that my boy would come out messed up.
Then the doctor told me my son was so big, he couldn’t quite squeeze through the birth canal. They wanted to put a suction thing on his head to help him get out. Meanwhile, Taya was passing out cold between contractions.
“Okay,” I said, not really understanding.
The doctor looked at me. “He may come out like a Conehead.”
Oh great, I thought. My child is not only going to be fucked up from the gas but he’s going to be a Conehead.
“Goddamnit, just get him out of there,” I told him. “You’re killing my wife. Do it!”
My boy came out just fine. But I have to say, I was a case the whole time. It was the most hopeless feeling in the world, seeing my wife in excruciating pain, without anything I could do.
I was a hell of a lot more nervous watching her give birth than I ever was in combat.
It was a very emotional time, with tremendous highs and lows. Both of our families were in town for the birth. We were all very happy, and yet, at the same time, we knew Chris would be leaving soon for Iraq.
That part sucked.
Chris had trouble handling the baby’s crying at first, and that stressed me as well—you can handle war but you can’t handle a few days of crying?
Most people don’t deal too well with that. Chris certainly wasn’t one of the exceptions.
I knew taking care of our son was all going to be on me for the next several months while he was away. More importantly, I knew that all the newness and magic was also going to be with me. I was nervous about how I would handle it, and sad that all the memories of our beautiful son would be mine alone as opposed to shared memories we could look back on together.
At the same time, I was angry he was leaving and terrified he wouldn’t make it back. I also loved him like crazy.
Besides sniper school, I had been “volunteered” for nav school by my chief. I went reluctantly.
Navigating is an important skill in combat—without a navigator, you don’t know how to get to the battle, let alone how to get away when you’re done. In a DA (direct action) scenario, the navigator figures out the best way to the target, comes up with alternatives, and guides the fire team to safety when you’re done.
The problem is, SEAL navigators often don’t get a chance to actually fight in the DA they navigate to. The way we set things up, the navigator is usually assigned to stay in the vehicle while the rest of the unit breaks into the house or whatever. That’s so he can be ready in case we need to get out fast.
Sitting in the passenger seat plugging numbers into a computer was not exactly where I wanted to be. But my chief wanted someone he could count on planning the routes, and when your chief asks you to do something, you do it.
I spent the whole first week of nav school frowning at a desk in front of a Toughbook laptop computer, learning the computer’s functions, how to hook up to a GPS and manipulate the satellite imagery and maps. I also learned how to take the images and paste them onto PowerPoint for briefings and the like.
Yes, even SEALs use PowerPoint.
The second week was a little more interesting. We drove around the city—we were in San Diego—plotting and following different routes. I’m not pretending it was cool, though—important, yes, but not very exciting.
As it happened, though, it was my skills as a navigator that got me to Iraq ahead of everyone else.