By lex, on August 6th, 2011
I don’t believe I ever met any of the fallen heroes from DevGru. I don’t know their names, have not seen their faces. They shun recognition from anyone not of their tribe, knowing that no one not of them can appreciate what they have gone through, what they have accomplished, what they have been forced to do. But I have met them, or men like them.
I also know fighter pilots, know them well. They give pride of place to few, their arrogance is legendary, even if overblown by those who envy their accomplishments. I’ve known fighter pilots who can make an airplane sing, who can turn the turbulent world of air combat into an operatic ballet, with themselves as the conductor. Knowing every beat and stanza, placidly certain of the denouement. But I never knew a fighter pilot who in his most private self would not tip his head to those few, those noble few, who are qualified to bring death to our nation’s foes by sea, air and land.
I never knew an admiral I respected more as a man than a second class petty officer SEAL.
I believed that if I had played the game the way it was meant to be played, and caught a few lucky breaks, I might have made flag rank. I know that I do not have now, and never did have, what it takes to be a Navy SEAL.
The selection process is rigorous, the training syllabus withering. You may think you have what it takes to be a member of the teams. But if the instructional staff has doubts about your intelligence, your dedication, your ability to work as a member of a team, your physical stamina and endurance, you are done. There is no court of secondary appeal. And when they have decided that you do not have what it takes to make the grade, to fight alongside their beloved brothers in arms, you will leave thinking it was your decision. You will ring the bell and be grateful.
For those few who make the cut, those who get to wear the Budweiser, the real challenges are yet to come. The challenge now is not to make the cut, it is not to grasp the intricacies of advanced training. The challenge is to go to places so utterly foreign, and fight foes so thoroughly implacable that to take the mission is to willingly part with all that you have, and all that you love, and place everything in the balance in a desperate gamble.
You will be expensively and thoroughly trained, of course. You will have practiced until your motions seem involuntary. You will have in your company men who know, trust and love you in their own rough way. You will have certain knowledge of the justice of your cause, and the depravity of your enemy. But you will also know that fate plays its own games as you feel the beat of your own heart in your breast, knowing – as young men should never have to know – that when you’re on a mission, the next beat is not promised. Knowing that the fog of war is ineluctable, no matter your training, experience and skill.
Knowing that things can and will go wrong.
And you go anyway. Night after night, week after week, taunting fate.
You go knowing that it is not merely your own life that trembles in the balance, but the lives of those you love, and who depend upon you. You go knowing that there is something more important even than those things: It is the idea we as a nation represent, whose best exemplification is those you fight alongside. You do not dwell on it, nor do you wear it on your sleeve. But it is there nonetheless.
I know this because I have met them.
They are as humble in their public presentation as fighter pilots are ostentatiously obnoxious. A fighter pilot may feel that he has something to prove, a SEAL knows that he does not. At least not before mere mortals. The only beings that a SEAL feels obligated to prove himself to are his God and his teammates. And in the places that they insert themselves, God is rarely in the room.
Privation instead, and hardship. Monastic devotion to fitness, warrior prowess and to each other. Long days of preparation and rehearsal. Slow, creeping hours of approach to contact and moments of fierce combat. Expecting no quarter, and giving little. Living in each moment while knowing that each could be the last. Buttressed by the man to your left or right. Face forward to the foe.
Fight and win, or fight and die. No ejection seats.
We had a tradition at TOPGUN of instructor staff leaving something for those they leave behind. One officer left a plaque which read, “For those who know, no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t, no explanation is possible.”