Lone survivor: the eyewitness account of Operation Redwing and the lost heroes of SEAL team 10 (7 page)

He taught us how to survive out there. What you could eat and what you couldn’t. He showed us how to build a shelter, taught us how to fish. He even taught us how to rope and kill a wild boar: drop a couple of long loops around his neck and pull, then hope to hell he doesn’t charge straight at you! I still know how to butcher and roast one.

At home, on any of the ranches, Dad showed us how to plant and grow corn and potatoes, vegetables and carrots. A lot of times when we were really poor we just about lived on that. Looking back, it was important training for a couple of farm boys.

But perhaps most important of all, he taught us to swim. Dad himself was an all-American swimmer and this really mattered to him. He was superb in the water and he made me that good. In almost everything, Morgan is naturally better than I am. He’s very gifted as a runner, a fighter, a marksman, a navigator on land or water. He always sails through his exams, whereas I have to slog it out, studying, practicing, trying to be first man in and last man out. Morgan does not have to strive.

He was honor man after his SEAL BUD/S class, voted for by his peers. I knew he would be before he even started. There’s only one discipline at which he can’t beat me. I’m faster in the water, and I have the edge underwater. He knows it, though he might not admit it.

There was a huge lake near where we lived, and that’s where Dad trained us. All through the long Texas summers we were out there, swimming, racing, diving, practicing. We were just like fish, the way Dad wanted it.

He spent months teaching us to dive, deep, first on our own, then with our scuba gear on. We were good, and people would pay us to try and retrieve keys and valuables thrown into deep water. Of course, Dad considered this might be too easy, and he stipulated we only got paid if we found the correct object.

During this time we had the occasional brush with passing alligators, but one of my great Texas friends, Tray Baker, showed us how to deal with them. I wrestled with one once and was pretty glad when that sucker decided he’d had enough and took off for calmer waters. But to this day my brother loves to wrestle alligators, just for fun. He is, of course, crazy. But we sometimes take an old flat-bottomed boat fishing in the lake, and one of those big ole gators will come sliding up alongside the boat.

Morgan makes a quick assessment —
Nostrils about eight or nine inches from his eyes, so he’s eight or nine feet long.
Morgan executes a ramrod-straight low-angled dive right on top of the gator, clamping its jaws shut with his fists, then he twists it and turns it, gets on its back, all the while holding those huge jaws tight shut and laughing at the panic-stricken beast of the deep.

After a few minutes they both get fed up with it, and Morgan lets it go. I always think this is the most dangerous part. But I never saw a gator who felt like having another go at Morgan. They always just turn around and swim away from the area. He only misjudged it once, and his hand bears a line of alligator-teeth scars.

You know, I think Dad always wanted us to be Navy SEALs. He was forever telling us about those elite warriors, the stuff they did and what they stood for. In his opinion they were all that is best in the American male — courage, patriotism, strength, determination, refusal to accept defeat, brains, expertise in all that they did. All through our young lives he told us about those guys. And over the years, it sunk in, I suppose. Morgan and I both made it.

I was about twelve when I realized beyond doubt that I was going to become a Navy SEAL. And I knew a lot more about it than most kids of my age. I understood the brutality of the training, the level of fitness required, and the need for super skills in the water. I thought I would be able to handle that. Dad had told us of the importance of marksmanship, and I knew I could do that.

SEALs need to be at home in rough country, able to survive, live in the jungle if necessary. We were already good at that. By the age of twelve, Morgan and I were like a couple of wild animals, at home in the great outdoors, at home with a fishing pole and gun, easily able to live off the land.

But deep down I knew there was something more required to make it into the world’s top combat teams. And that was a level of fitness and strength that could only be attained by those who actively sought it. Nothing just happens. You always have to strive.

In our part of East Texas, there are a lot of past and present special forces guys, quiet, understated iron men, most of them unsung heroes except among their families. But they don’t serve in the U.S. Armed Forces for personal recognition or glory.

They do it because deep in their granite souls they feel a slight shiver when they see Old Glory fluttering above them on the parade square. The hairs on the backs of their necks stand up when these men hear the national anthem of the United States. When the president walks out to the strains of a U.S. military band’s “Hail to the Chief,” there’s a moment of solemnity for each and every one of them — for our president, our country, and what our country has meant to the world and the many people who never had a chance without America.

These men of the special forces have had other options in their lives, other paths, easier paths they could have taken. But they took the hardest path, that narrow causeway that is not for the sunshine patriot. They took the one for the supreme patriot, the one that may require them to lay down their lives for the United States of America. The one that is suitable only for those who want to serve their country so bad, nothing else matters.

That’s probably not fashionable in our celebrity-obsessed modern world. But special forces guys don’t give a damn about that either. I guess you have to know them to understand them. And even then it’s not easy, because most of them are shy, rather than taciturn, and getting any of them to say anything self-congratulatory is close to impossible. They are of course aware of a higher calling, because they are sworn to defend this country and to fight its battles. And when the drum sounds, they’re going to come out fighting.

And when it does sound, the hearts of a thousand loved ones miss a beat, and the guys know this as well as anyone. But for them, duty and commitment are stronger than anyone’s aching heart. And those highly trained warriors automatically pick up their rifles and ammunition and go forward to obey the wishes of their commander in chief.

General Douglas MacArthur once warned the cadets of West Point that if they should become the first to allow the Long Gray Line to fail, “a million ghosts in olive drab, brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses thundering those magic words,
Duty, Honor, and Country.
” No need for ghosts in the U.S. Navy SEALs. Those words are engraved upon our hearts.

And many such men way down there in East Texas were willing to give up their time for absolutely no reward to show kids what it takes to become a SEAL, a Ranger, or a Green Beret. The one we all knew about was a former Green Beret sergeant who lived close by. His name was Billy Shelton, and if he ever sees this, he’ll probably die of embarrassment, seeing his name in print on the subject of valor.

Billy had a glittering army career in combat with the Green Berets in Vietnam and, later, serving on a government SWAT team. He was one of the toughest men I ever met, and one afternoon just before my fifteenth birthday, I plucked up my courage and went to his house to ask if he could train me to become a Navy SEAL. He was eating his lunch at the time, came to the door still chewing. He was a bull of a man, rippling muscles, fair skin, not carrying one ounce of fat. To my eyes he looked like he could have choke slammed a rhino.

I made my hesitant request. And he just looked me up and down and said, “Right here. Four, tomorrow afternoon.” Then he shut the door in my face. I was a bit young at the time, but the phrase I was groping for was
No bullshit, right?

Now, everyone in the area knew that Billy trained kids for the special forces. And when he had a group of us running down the street, cars driving by would blow their horns and cheer us on.

He always ignored that, and he showed us no mercy. Our program included running with heavy concrete blocks on our shoulders. When Billy thought we were strong enough, we stepped up the pace, running with rubber tires, which felt like they’d just come off the space shuttle or at least that big ole tractor out back.

Billy did not hold an exercise class; he operated a full pre-SEAL training program for teenagers. Over the years he had us in the gym pumping iron, hauling the torture machine, the ergometer, pounding the roads, driving our bodies, sweating and straining.

Morgan and I were terrified of him. I used to have nightmares when we were due to report to him the next morning, because he drove us without mercy, never mind our extreme youth. We were in a class of maybe a dozen guys, all midteens.

“I’m gonna break you down, mentally and physically,” he yelled at us. “Break you down, hear me? Then I’m gonna build you right back up, as one fighting unit — so your mind and body are one. Understand me? I’m gonna put you through more pain than you’ve ever been in.”

Right about then, half the class ran for their lives rather than face this bulldog, this ex–Texas Tech tailback who could run like a Mack truck going downhill. He had the support of a local high school, which allowed him to use their gym free of charge to train future special forces from our part of the world.

“I’m not your friend,” he’d shout. “Not right here in this gym. I’m here to get you right — fit, trained, and ready for the SEALs, or the Berets, or the Rangers. I’m not getting one dime from anyone to do this. And that’s why you’re gonna do it right, just so you don’t waste my time.

“Because if any one of you fails to make the grade in the special forces, it will not be because you were too weak. Because that would mean I’d failed, and I’m gonna make sure that cannot happen, because right here, failure’s not an option. I’m gonna get you right. All of you. Understand?”

He’d take us on twelve-mile runs, hauling the concrete blocks till we nearly collapsed. Guys would have blood on the backs of their heads from the chafing. And he never took his eyes off us, never tolerated idleness or lack of concentration. He just made us grind it out, taking it to the limit. Every time.

That’s what built my strength, gave me my basis. That’s how I learned the fitness creed of the SEALs. Billy was extremely proud of that; proud to pass on his knowledge.

And he asked only for undying devotion to the cause, the discipline of a samurai warrior, and lungs like a pair of bagpipes. He was absolutely relentless, and he really loved Morgan and me, two of only six survivors in the class.

Once, when I came back from a tour of duty in Iraq, I went to see him after a couple of weeks’ easy living and Mom’s cooking, and he threw me out of the gym!

“You’re a goddamned fat, pitiful excuse for a SEAL, and I can’t stand to look at you!” he yelled. “Get out of my sight!” Holy shit! I was out of there, ran down the stairs, and didn’t dare go back until I’d dropped eight pounds. No one around here argues with Billy Shelton.

The other skill I needed was still to come. No Navy SEAL can operate without a high level of expertise in unarmed combat. Billy told me I’d need to take martial-arts classes as soon as possible. And so I found a teacher to work with. All through my grade school and college career, I studied and learned that strange, rather mystical Asian skill. I worked at it for many years instead of becoming involved in other sports. And I attained all of my goals.

Morgan says the real truth is I don’t know my own strength and should be avoided at all times.

By any standards, I had a head start in becoming a Navy SEAL. I was made aware of the task at a young age, and I had two strong engines driving me forward: my dad and Billy Shelton. Everything I learned beyond the schoolroom, down from my early years, seems to have directed me to Coronado. At least, looking back now it seems that way.

Everyone understands why there’s a huge rate of dropouts among applicants for the SEALs. And when I think of what I went through in the years before I got there, I can’t even imagine what it must be like for guys who try out with no prior training. Morgan and I were groomed to be SEALs, but it was never easy. The work is brutally hard, the fitness regimes are as harsh and uncompromising as any program in the free world. The examinations are searching and difficult. Nothing but the highest possible standard is acceptable in the SEAL teams.

And perhaps above all, your character is under a microscope at all times; instructors, teachers, senior chiefs, and officers are always watching for the character flaw, the weakness which may one day lead to the compromise of your teammates. We can’t stand that. We can stand damn near anything, except that.

When someone tells you he is in the SEAL teams, it means he has passed every test, been accepted by some of the hardest taskmasters in the military. And a short nod of respect is in order, because it’s harder to become a Navy SEAL than it is to get into Harvard Law School. Different, but harder.

When someone tells you he’s in a SEAL team, you know you are in the presence of a very special cat. Myself, I was just born lucky, somehow fluked my way in with a work ethic bequeathed to me by my dad. The rest of those guys are the gods of the U.S. Armed Forces. And in faraway foreign fields, they serve their nation as required, on demand, and mostly without any recognition whatsoever.

They would have it no other way, because they understand no other way. Accolades just wash off them, they shy away from the spotlight, but in the end they have one precious reward — when their days of combat are over, they know precisely who they are and what they stand for. That’s rare. And no one can buy it.

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