Hours after American aircraft crossed into Iraq to begin the Second Gulf War, four gray Mark V jet boats skimmed across the Persian Gulf toward their target: the Mina- Al- Bakr Oil Terminal, a floating behemoth whose miles of twisting, metal piping carry a vast majority of Iraq’s total oil exports. Almost no other target had greater value and importance for the country’s future and well-being.
On board the Mark Vs, two platoons of elite Navy SEALs endured the constant jarring of waves and rechecked their gear. Their minds focused on their mission. Orders directed them to secure the oil platform and stop Saddam Hussein’s forces from creating an environmental and financial catastrophe by sabotaging miles of pipelines. Blowing the pipes would send thousands of barrels of oil cascading into the Gulf, suffocating marine life and crippling Iraq’s ability to recover economically after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell.
By the time the SEALs neared the terminal, darkness had settled over the sea.
"It was a beautiful night," Petty Officer Robert Sterling remembered. "Awesome night, no moon, and a beautifully lit target."
The night’s beauty did nothing to lessen the seriousness of Rob’s mission or calm his nerves. "Deep down inside, going into combat, everyone is nervous," he confided. "Anyone who isn’t nervous, isn’t really serious. Anyone who tells you they’re not scared has become complacent and forgotten the little things. There’s not an op I’ve been on where the hairs on the back of my neck didn’t stand up. On this op, the war had basically started early. We were supposed to be the first strike, but the air war had already opened. So we’re thinking, ‘Great, they’ll be waiting for us.’ We may get on final approach and get blown out of the water. Or what if the intel was wrong? Or a million other things that could go wrong. Every guy has a scenario running through his head— all different— but every guy is thinking about something."
The SEALs geared up on the Mark Vs, adding more than one hundred pounds to their weight in body armor, gear, and ammunition. Then they transferred to the smaller RHIBs (rigid- hulled inflatable boats) and went quiet. "Once you’re in that boat, there’s silence," Rob said. "There’s no turning back and everybody knows it. You flip the serious switch and rely on training and rehearsals and everything prior to."
Two boats, each carrying a squad of combat-ready frogmen with blackened faces, crept stealthily toward the towering platform, moving from the dark sea into the area illuminated by the rig’s lights. "We motored in, nice and quiet," Rob explained. "We didn’t see anything, and there was a ladder that came down to the water’s surface. I was number-one man, and I stepped onto the ladder, and moved right on up."
Petty Officer Sterling and those behind him remained silent as they pushed their way through the platform’s corridors and rooms, not knowing what lay behind each door. The United States was at war. Her enemies would shoot to kill. The SEALs ascended another flight of stairs, opened a door, and surprised their first Iraqi soldier.
"He immediately put his hands in the air and we told him to get down quietly and he did," said Rob. The SEALs bound the soldier’s hands and feet then moved stealthily into the next room. They found twenty soldiers staring at them. The sight of the battle-ready American soldiers alone proved enough for the Iraqis to throw their hands skyward. The soldiers’ cries and pleas intermingled with the SEALs’ shouts until Rob’s team established calm. They began interrogating the leaders and learned that Saddam Hussein’s government had paid them handsomely to blow up the platform and themselves along with it. Rob noted that the soldiers had carried the money with them, instead of sending it home to their families— a good sign they had little intention of sacrificing themselves. That said, Rob observed crates and crates of TNT and plastic explosives rigged to rip apart the platform. "The charges would have definitely blown all the pipes open," he observed. "Maybe collapsed the whole rig. Disaster."
Rob’s two teams cleared the entire structure, five kilometers of decking in all. Thankfully, neither side sustained casualties. The team secured the platform for the inbound Marines who would soon take over; new missions elsewhere demanded the special abilities of the SEALs.
"All that ties right back to this surf," Rob said as we stood together in La Jolla, California, a coastal village a thousand miles west of Philmont. The sun had just sunk into the Pacific Ocean, dragging the day’s remaining warmth with it. The Pacific surf crashed onto the darkening rocks below and sent a frigid mist up to where we stood.
"That story happened on the other side of the world, but it all relates to our training here in San Diego," the thirty-one-ear-old Eagle Scout observed, unfazed by the spray. "Sitting around in Kuwait waiting to go, people get sick of each other. That’s going to happen with a bunch of alpha males like us. But what’s funny is that when it’s time to work, we revert right back to training. It’s like being back in BUD/S—that’s our SEAL training program.
"When you’re on a mission, everything you went through in training—paddling, Hell Week, running with a boat on your head—it all comes back to you. You put differences aside. Everybody is there for each other. Whatever disagreements were, they’re put aside and once the task is done and over with, you don’t even remember what those issues were."
Rob smiled, noticing my reaction to the chill. "In BUD/S we got real used to this," he recalled, surveying the rocks below the low bluff where we stood. "We’d be in camies, and they’d run us out into the surf and we’d tread water until we were about frozen. Then, being merciful, our instructors would call us out of the water . . . and then tell us to roll around in the sand! We’d be shivering, exhausted, and entirely caked with grit and sand. We basically spent an entire month like that. It definitely changes your impression of Imperial Beach!"
Later, I arrived at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, which borders Imperial Beach, California, and houses active SEAL Teams One, Three, Five, and Seven. It also hosts hundreds of confident SEAL candidates each year. Of the hundreds that report for training, however, only one out of every three successfully endures the notorious thirty- week program. Along the Grinder, the bleak courtyard that serves as the center of SEAL candidates’ regimented training, a line of helmets confirmed the statistic. Nearly forty green helmets lined the pavement’s edge, each placed there by a sailor who had left the current class of candidates. Near the helmets hung an unassuming silver bell, rung by each candidate who withdrew.
On the morning I arrived, I found the Grinder empty and quiet. If I hadn’t known the feats of endurance it saw daily, I might have considered it peaceful. But for much of the year, exhausted SEAL candidates fill the air with chants as they exercise and pour sweat for hours on end. White flippers mark the asphalt at regular intervals, outlining the spots where candidates pound out push-ups and perform other creative varieties of PT (physical training) until their arms and legs can perform no more. When that happens, instructors order them into the sea. Trust me, the ocean offers them no quarter.
Less than one hundred yards from the Grinder, I reached the soft, white sand that belongs to Imperial Beach. I crested a large sand berm, and saw the broad beach and blue Pacific stretch out to the north and south. The rhythmic sound of waves replaced the industrial hum of the base. It seemed relaxing and peaceful, but I would hear quite a different perspective of Imperial that evening.
Chief Petty Officer Tom Campbell, a SEAL instructor who reminded me of Tom Selleck’s character on Magnum, P.I. drove fellow instructor Aaron Reed, two SEAL candidates, and me to dinner at a local Mexican restaurant. As the five of us hustled down Coronado’s main thoroughfare in Tom’s Land Rover, candidate Lieutenant William Thomas explained, "I love the water and skydiving, so this is just where I wanted to go."
I knew what challenges face SEAL candidates in the Pacific surf. "Still love the water?" I asked William.
"Yes," he answered over the laughter of everyone else in the car, "but maybe in different ways now."
Because of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S), SEALs will never view Imperial Beach the way I do. I see it as a vacation spot. They don’t. BUD/S training lasts six months, during which SEAL candidates undergo a training program designed to ensure the mental and physical fitness of everyone who graduates and becomes a member of the Navy’s vaunted special forces group. When SEALs see action overseas, they are ready. The notorious first phase, Basic Conditioning, lasts seven weeks. Candidates spend about two months training furiously on the base, on the beach, and in the water. They endure long runs wearing boots and full backpacks, two-mile swims in the open ocean, and a ceaseless regimen of calisthenics. Demanding obstacle courses and small boat maneuvers in the crashing surf add important skills to the basic physical conditioning.
Second Phase develops SEAL candidates into combat swimmers and divers, building their stamina and navigation abilities until they can master long-distance underwater operations. The final nine- week Land Warfare phase includes marksmanship, demoli tion, rappelling, and small- unit tactics. When they graduate and become SEALs, their skills and physical condition are unmatched. Many consider BUD/S the toughest training program in the world, and the general respect non-SEALs hold for SEALs would help confirm that.
The arsenal of tales SEALs use to trump any civilian’s stories come from enduring BUD/S and going on covert operations around the globe, like Rob Sterling’s attack on the oil platform in Iraq. The civilian’s one advantage: most of a SEAL’s missions are classified. As the U.S. Navy’s special operations group, the SEALs strike first. They typically attack from and return to the sea, but they are also trained HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) parachutists and generally seem willing to ride into a fight by what ever means will take them. Their performance in combat is legendary, but that stems from their training, an arduous ordeal for which many in the public have difficulty believing soldiers actually volunteer.
"The atmosphere is pretty intense," admitted Lieutenant Thomas from the backseat of the Land Rover, "but the people you meet in BUD/S, you stay friends with forever. I’ve never laughed as much, and I’ve never endured as much pain— particularly going through Hell Week. But the camaraderie is something you can’t experience anywhere else. It’s the best training around, and there’s not a better proving ground for yourself and your team. It challenges you in every way possible. I knew this was what I wanted to do."
"I just saw forty helmets worn by guys who also thought this was what they wanted to do," I said. "How did you survive?"
"A big part of it is maturity," he answered. "In our class, a good number of guys have quit at one point and come back; this is their second time through BUD/S. If I were eighteen coming through this straight out of high school, I don’t know if I’d have had the maturity to do it. But going through school and working your mentality up to accepting that you’ll be running four miles with a pack on a regular basis really develops your capacity."
The loaded four-mile runs are only a small part of the training, which has components that test every aspect of a soldier’s abilities—and limits. The instructors found their greatest resource is the nearby surf. SEAL candidates hit the cold salt water often, and it’s known by all as "getting wet and sandy." Depending on whether the perspective belongs to a candidate or an instructor, this drill adds to their misery or toughens them so they can survive the worst in combat. After drills, before long runs, after long runs, in the middle of the night, and just at an instructor’s whim, the aspiring SEALs get ordered into the water. When they’re exhausted, near drowning, and nearly frozen, they’re ordered out and onto the beach where they cake themselves with sand. They pound out pushups. Repeat the cycle until utter exhaustion and then do it all again.
The hardest challenge William and each of his comrades face during training is Hell Week, a brutal, five-day training ordeal in First Phase that washes out many candidates. It’s a mental and physical marathon where instructors show neither mercy nor compassion. The candidates are constantly moving through the surf, along the beach, around the base, across the bay—anything but sitting still. For five days, they get neither rest nor sleep. For five days, their fatigues remain wet and covered in grit. Their clothes chafe them so much that hitting the salty Pacific electrifies their raw skin like alcohol on a fresh cut. A five-and-a-half mile swim proves the end for many. Those who survive it can count on getting wet and sandy the second they flop exhausted onto Imperial Beach.
"Hell Week was the toughest thing I’ve ever finished," William said without hesitation. Everyone agreed.
It almost sounds masochistic, but in their own eyes, these young men are proving their mettle. They’re proving they’re equal to any challenge. In their instructors’ eyes, all this prepares them to wear the Trident pin that signifies them as a member of the world’s arguably most elite combat force.
We arrived at the restaurant, bailed out of the Rover, and found an empty patio table. Any wariness these Eagle Scouts had about me had disappeared en route to the restaurant, and their individual personalities began to show as their sunglasses came off and their guards came down over dinner. Aaron Reed warmed up faster than most. Aaron was a thirty- year- old Kentucky- born marksman visiting Coronado from his base in Kodiak, Alaska, where he was a SEAL weapons and survival instructor. He viewed enduring any ordeal, and surviving it with style, as a direct personal challenge. His Hell Week offered a perfect example. Every twelve hours, the team would have a medical check to allow candidates to clean their cuts. The process began with a cold shower.
"Unless," Aaron explained, "you figured out how to go around the back of the building and turn on the hot water." His plan succeeded brilliantly until the instructors noticed steam billowing from the shower room. "They’d run in there and yell," he said, "but really, what were they going to do? Run you or give you PT? That’s all they do the whole week anyway, so big deal!" Even though he was back in the freezing surf soon, his small victories helped him muscle through the week.
Those examples of spirited creativity and resourcefulness reminded me that these men were not just SEALs, but fellow Scouts. The skills they learned years ago had helped them complete not just Hell Week, but the entire BUD/S ordeal. And they knew those skills would continue to help them throughout their lives. Eric Ramirez, a SEAL candidate from Ohio, explained, "Scouting led me here by giving me the confidence to go out and do something on my own. One par tic u lar time, I was hiking in Georgia on a forty- mile trip with some of my old friends from college. One guy got hurt out there and I had to figure out what to do with him and how to get us to where we needed to be. It fortunately went well and I just liked that feeling of being in control, being in the outdoors, taking care of my guys, and functioning on the fly. Everything I did in that situation was based on things I learned in Scouts. That stayed in my mind for years and eventually led me to the military and it’ll be with me after I leave it, as well. It’s thinking on your feet, being outdoors, being adventurous, doing different things, and not being in an office."
"Yeah," Tom interjected, "wait until you get some more rank, then talk with me about offices!"
After a laugh, Eric continued and observed that he had found relatively little practical application for many things he learned in school, whereas in Scouting, he learned skills that he could directly apply. He studied camping and survival techniques at meetings and before trips, then he’d utilize those skills in a real setting where he’d develop confidence in his capabilities, like his trip to Georgia. When he’d leave for a weekend expedition, he’d consider what he needed to carry in a backpack to survive. For most American teenagers, that is not a typical thought process. Later, Eric had found a unique opportunity in the navy to continue applying those skills in real situations. He spent a month in SEAL survival school in Kodiak, Alaska: fires, shelters, minimalist camping in freezing weather. It was everything he’d done as a Scout.
Eric called his father shortly after returning to base: "Dad, thanks for putting me through Scouting— it actually works!"
"For me," William volunteered, "Scouting was about getting you out of your comfort zone. Early on, any time we’d have a rappelling trip, I’d be terrified to look over the side of the cliff or start down or trust that the rope would hold me. Going whitewater rafting as a ten- or thirteen- year- old kid, those waves can look pretty big and it takes you out of your comfort zone and gets you used to working outside that zone. It’s the difference between being afraid of something and not being afraid and being able to face it. Then I’m going to college and getting my skydiving license! That’s something Scouting definitely does for you. With backpacking, I enjoyed having everything I needed to survive on my back. I remember walking in the woods on my first trip and thinking what if something goes wrong? Then I realized that I had water purifiers, food, a tent, sleeping bag; I had everything I needed to survive actually on my back— that’s a cool feeling."
Aaron was ready to share another story from his Kentucky adolescence. "Richard Walker was my Scoutmaster, an absolutely great guy; a bunch of us still keep up with him," he began.
Then he caught our attention: "He loved me but had to kick me out twice!"
The first time Scoutmaster Walker bounced him, Aaron had brought a climbing rope with him on a backpacking trip and took a group of young Scouts rappelling without informing any of the adult leaders. Aaron was out for a month until he begged his way back into the troop. Not long after returning, he found himself kicked out again. "We had a rival Scout troop in town and they had a campout," his story began, and I knew right away where it was leading. Aaron and his brother, also an Eagle Scout, planned a raid. Their mistake, Aaron admitted, was inviting two guys who were not Scouts.
"Our plan was to raid their camp in the middle of the night and tie their zippers together and do stupid things like that," Aaron explained. "Well, these other two knuckleheads who weren’t Scouts thought it was an actual raid and they’d basically cut their way through a tent and sliced their way back out. So, that didn’t look good on me and I took the rap and got kicked out again. I had to go to all the families and apologize for their sons’ gear being trashed. I had to answer to all of that in my Eagle Scout board of review."
The skills and experiences William, Eric, and Aaron had as Scouts have yielded real dividends on missions. Tom Campbell, who’d seen more action than anyone else at our table, explained, "You know, as SEALs, we’re in survival situations in almost any operation and the things you learn from being a Scout, the knowledge you take with you, really helps. One year, we were on an operation in Korea . . ." He explained that his squad had run out of food and water and faced frigid temperatures that they weren’t expecting. They found themselves cut off from their extraction point and so they scaled a nearby peak to secure a safe and commanding position where nobody could approach unseen. Near the summit, they realized they were unprepared to stay overnight in the plunging temperatures, but fortunately the men found abandoned fortifications that offered some relief. The fortifications were just trenches lined with logs, Tom explained, but they at least broke the wind. Tom split his men into two groups and told them to light a small fire for warmth. He started his own fire and then went to check on his companions. He found them trying to light huge logs with matches from their MREs— the SEALs had not yet implemented their now mandatory survival training program. Tom showed them how to build a discreet fire for warmth.
"We survived," he said, "but I was shocked that these guys had no idea how to make a fire! I made two fires that night. That’s where Scouting pays off directly. These were good American kids and you assume they know everything you know, but that’s just not the case sometimes."
Aaron had apparently been quiet too long. "Did any of you go to Ju nior Leader Training?" he asked. He was referring to the renowned leadership course (called National Advanced Youth Leadership Training since 2003) for upcoming Scout leaders run by older Scouts. It reflects Baden- Powell’s goal for Scouting to be "boy- run."
I knew Aaron had asked his question for a reason. "Why? What’d you do, Aaron?"
"Get kicked out of that, too?" Tom asked.
Almost, as it turned out. Aaron and the other JLT participants had spent several days learning skills for communication, problem solving, teaching, leading, and team- building—all things they practiced in the field during the week- long training program. Ultimately, participants would carry these skills back to their troops. Unfortunately, Aaron’s particular instructors happened to go off- book, and the campers had to endure several days of overly strict regimen. Toward the week’s end, the staff pushed too far and ambushed the entire class with water balloons. Everyone was soaked. "We were at war then," Aaron said.
Aaron went to each camp and recruited a leader and together, they organized an elaborate raid on the instructors. He designed a map of the instructors’ campsite and designated points of attack for each squad. The water balloon raid went off and the JLT participants were avenged. Then the staff learned who masterminded it.
"They came after me hard," Aaron said. "They yelled that I didn’t learn anything, that I was an embarrassment to have in the course. But really, I thought I learned more than anyone else there; I was the Junior Leader!"
Then Aaron grew serious. "All the knuckleheaded stuff aside, Scouting is your first step in a life of ser vice, and as SEALs, that’s pretty much what we do. We serve our country."
With those two simple sentences, Aaron drove home a point about Scouting and about the military. For all the enjoyment and challenges associated with those two parts of Aaron’s life, they’d ultimately prepared him for his life and career. He had upheld his country’s values wherever duty took him: Iraq, Af ghan i stan, and other far- flung places he couldn’t reveal. Now, almost like a senior patrol leader in a Scout troop, he was preparing new SEALs to serve overseas and uphold the same virtues and way of life. Aaron and all of the SEALs with me that evening were continuing on a trail they started years ago, serving their country, confident that they were changing the world for the better.
After nightfall I stood behind Tom Campbell on the dock at Coronado. He carefully inspected a long line of divers in black wetsuits. He tugged on gear and checked the oxygen flow for each rig, ensuring everyone was prepared for the upcoming night dive. He gave William Thomas and Eric Ramirez a particularly rigorous shakedown, clearly letting them know that since our dinner had ended, he was once again their instructor. Occasionally, he fired a salvo of questions at a diver to ensure he could manage the complex rebreathing system that would keep him alive and invisible during a dive. All checked out, the candidates walked to the nearby dive ramp, waded into the dark bay two- by- two, and disappeared. Once they were all underwater, the dock fell quiet.
Tom and I watched a long line of green buoys slowly crawl across the black surface of the harbor. Beneath each buoy were two divers with an attack board consisting of a compass, depth gauge, and a watch. For many, to night’s dive was their first at night in many months and their first that relied entirely on underwater orienteering. With their oxygen rebreathers functioning, no telltale bubbles broke the glassy surface. SEALs rely on stealth and surprise, and I imagined the many docks and harbors around the world, where on moonless nights like this, SEALs had suddenly broken the surface without warning.
Half an hour into the dive, Tom went to walk along the pier and observe his trainees from another angle. Someone turned on a stereo in the nearby hangar, and its speakers began blaring "Sweet Child O’ Mine," by Guns N’ Roses, breaking the silence on the dock and providing me with some company. I met the culprit when Jake Baker walked onto the dock carry ing a hot calzone and wearing a big grin.
Earlier in the day, Aaron Reed had pointed out Baker as he sat in one of the rubber boats floating by the docks. He was wearing combat boots, camouflage pants, a flop hat and was completely soaked. Baker—nobody seemed to call him Jake— looked back at us with an understandably puzzled expression. Aaron grinned broadly and made the three- fingered Scout sign with his right hand. Then he pointed again at Baker with his left. Jake grinned back, then shook his head and pulled his hat over his eyes. Aaron and I laughed. I’d quickly learned that the fast- talking Eagle Scout had a reputation as a character. He had an ever- present smirk that I imagined had infuriated more than a few instructors during his training. His excuse for missing our dinner was a trip to the local tattoo artist, famous among SEALs, who had added a flying turtle to Baker’s side. Despite his slightly contagious carefree attitude, however, Jake had become an expert and dedicated sailor.
We sat down at a wooden table, watching the line of green buoys snake out and back and begin to scatter as the divers struggled with the finer points of nocturnal submarine navigation. Baker had yet to tackle dive qualification, and had three months left until he would receive his Trident. Honoring a superstitious tradition among SEALs, he noted, "That is, in the unlikely event I graduate." Now, however, graduation looked significantly more likely than it did during BUD/S. Several months after we met, Baker would be wearing his own gold Trident.
"I’m not as excited as I thought I’d be," he confessed. "I’ve been thinking about how much I still have to do. You train to wear the Trident then spend the next fifteen years trying to keep it. The hard work is just starting, and I’m looking forward to training with SEAL Team Two and doing a mission. It’s like being a marathon runner: you spend an entire year training and you want to go out and do it."
When he first joined the military he sought out the most difficult assignment, where he’d have to try his hardest every day. He certainly found that challenge. The training took its toll. Baker encountered several setbacks during BUD/S, breaking an ankle, breaking a foot, and tearing a knee. Either he was particularly fragile under his formidable exterior or training was just that tough. I gathered it was the latter case, although he suffered plenty of ribbing for his injuries.
After thoughtfully chewing a mouthful of calzone, Baker gestured at the water and the base behind us. "All this shows you how much you can do," he said. "You’re sore every morning and your boots are still wet when you put them on. You’ll wake up for a four- mile run and your legs are creaking and aching from the day before and you think, ‘I can’t do this.’ Next thing you know, you’re out there doing it.
"You kinda forget why you’re doing it while you’re in BUD/S. You just know you want it more than anything— this is the one thing in life that you want to finish. We may start it to prove ourselves, but ask a guy who’s a couple of weeks into it and he’ll say ‘I’m just trying to finish this run right now.’ You start focusing on the little things that get you through the day.
"You also learn what you can actually do as a team," he continued after another bite of calzone. "Nobody makes it through this program alone. One day someone is pushing and pulling you through the program; the next day you’re pushing or pulling someone else."
"You work within a group and learn what you can do," he added. "It’s like in Scouts. Not everyone can lead. Someone comes up with a plan and you may not agree with that plan, but you have to go along with it; it may be the best thing you have going. That definitely came in handy in Alaska during survival training. Some of these guys had never spent the night out in the woods in a tent before or started a fire. Knots were also a big help. Some guys didn’t know how to tie a square knot or bowline, basic stuff to us after you’ve done it so long in Scouts."
"Seems a lot like summer camp," I observed, before I snatched a piece of calzone for myself. "Maybe I missed out on something."
"Yeah, it may seem fun," Baker said, "but I promise you, our instructors can take anything cool and make it absolutely miserable— going to a tropical island, skydiving, what ever. You name it and they can ruin it with a heavy pack and PT!"
After Baker turned in, I walked onto the pier where Tom stood observing the divers’ progress. Axl Rose had stopped belting "Sweet Child O’ Mine." An absolute still hung over the docks. Tom watched the candidates’ lights, finding out how well he had prepared his men. He pointed out that even if divers were off course, the telltale buoys moved at the same pace, SEAL pace. All SEALs learn to swim at a constant rate, which allows them to precisely plan missions— one hundred yards will always take three minutes for any SEAL to swim underwater.
"It’s been a lot of years since I was doing this for the first time," Tom reflected, looking over the dark harbor. "I probably like being a regular SEAL a little bit better, but instructor is a satisfying job and it’s one you generally get as you get older—more experienced is the nice way to say it. I get to put my mark on guys who are the future of the SEALs. I hope I’m doing a good job in molding good SEALs and good citizens as well. They’ll be out there representing who we are to the public and to foreign counterparts.
"And that’s what we need to be doing for our country: serving and representing America well. I came into the military because of the way I felt about this country— and I’m here today because of the way I still feel. This job lets me do directly what needs to be done with regard to our foreign policy and the way we’re perceived overseas.
"Look at these guys," he said, pointing to two black figures emerging from the harbor. Water dripped from their black wetsuits. They held their flippers in their hands, and their masks were pulled down to their necks. It was Eric Ramirez and William Thomas. They had completed the dive first, and judging by the glowing buoys scattered around the harbor, many of their classmates would be a long time in joining them on land.
"Both those guys are sharp and will be the leaders in this class," Tom continued, watching them walk up the boat ramp below us. "Yeah, probably in part because they’re Eagles, but really because they’re still focused and know how to work. What we all learned in Scouts stays with you if you keep working on those skills.
"I’m surprised I’m attributing anything to Baker," Tom said with a wry smile, "but he made a good point to you earlier. Earning Eagle is like earning our Trident. That really just represents the first step... and you can’t rest there."
The SEAL training program demands incredible sacrifices from the hundreds of fresh candidates who arrive in Coronado each year. Aspiring SEALs commit their entire selves to the goal of wearing the Trident. Beyond earning the coveted gold pin bearing an Eagle, pistol, anchor, and trident, SEALs endure hell to achieve a goal both very personal and, at the same time, very selfless. A genuine duty to others motivates these young men, just as the same ideals drive Eagle Scouts. As Eagles, we want to help others, just as SEALs hope to serve their country and defend millions of people they’ll never meet and who might never appreciate or even know about their sacrifice. The goals of Eagles and SEALs are not entirely altruistic, however. We both want to discover if we have what it takes to overcome a challenge and reach a goal. We chose the biggest challenge and toughest test available, but we also recognized a higher purpose in our aspirations. Making sacrifices and passing those tests— completing the trail to Eagle or enduring BUD/S— is a beginning for us, not an end.
I was reminded of another type of sacrifice shortly after parting ways with Tom Campbell that night. I received news from Coronado about another SEAL I had hoped to meet, but never would. Chief Special Warfare Operator Mark T. Carter of Fallbrook, California, a twenty- seven-year- old Eagle Scout and Navy SEAL, had been killed in combat in Iraq, serving his country.
Excerpted from Spirit of adventure by Alvin Townley.
Copyright © 2009 by Alvin Townley.
Published in May 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.