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Biography of a SEAL Team Six Operator Chapter Eleven

April 6th, 2014 mjaco No comments

A single ribbon of yellow light slipped over the rock strewn mountains east of Coronado, California and cast a glowing beam of light on the tallest Italian Renaissance tower of the hotel Del Coronado. A long streamer of a flag mounted on top of the tower came to life and ruffled and snapped in a light breeze.

“You F…ing new guys better be up front,” came a shout far in the rear as my running shoes tread quickly over the pavement. Fresh out of BUD/S we were expected to excel in all areas of physical training by the old timers in the team.

The early morning streets of the scenic town of Coronado had not yet awoken. There were four of us new guys and all of us were excellent runners. We were in the lead as we ran along the golf course within the edge of the quaint city. On a good day for me and a bad day for my platoon mates I would lead but today, a Friday, I was in my usual position of pushing myself as hard as I could to just keep them in sight. We hit the turn around point and headed back to the beach passing by the dozens of other UDT-12 teammates that were racing against themselves.

We breathlessly reached the truck that had our mask and fins that was parked down the beach from the Hotel Del on shore drive. It was a race and mad scramble for the lead guys to slip off their shoes, grab their swim gear and race to the shoreline. The brilliant sun now rising higher in the sky was warming the trillions of delicate sand crystals on the long stretch of beach to the shoreline. The only sound was of our black neoprene dive booties crunching and compressing the sand as we raced to the waters edge.

Run, swim runs were typical Friday events that would be followed by beer kegs on the beach. I loved my new life in the Teams!

On the last day of the week we typically had a monster mash which usually consisted of a six to eight mile run through the streets of Coronado, a one mile swim along the shore, get out and run another mile, swim for one more mile and then get out and run the last stretch to the UDT-12 compound on the beachfront. We typically got rewarmed and cleaned up in the interior open stall showers and then walked outside nude to the locker rooms. It would be a couple more years before we could no longer walk around like wild savage men in the prime of life. It gave us a feeling of complete freedom and was awesome. Jokes and laughter were typically in the air.

After we cleaned up our spaces and the team area then the Executive Officer and the Master at Arms conducted an inspection. If they were satisfied then over the 1MC or load speaker system the Quarterdeck would pass liberty call and that the drinking lamp was lit with a keg of beer on ice on the beach. This was usually around noontime and the party didn’t end but just kept moving from place to place until Sunday afternoon.

There was a house that Team guys rented and was called the Animal House after the movie of the same name. At night we would dance on the floor until it started to wobble to the point it was going to collapse. Someone would turn off the music, and then we would stop dancing until the floor stopped bobbing like a boat in rough seas. When the flooring grew calm we’d slowly crank the music up again. As it grew later in the night the police would come and tell us to settle down because we were disturbing the neighbors. We would tone it down for awhile but somehow the music and the noise would increase again and the cops showed up and we got quiet until we weren’t and so on until late at night they shut us down for good.

Somewhere down the coast on Saturday night would be a huge Toga party where all the teams guys and their girlfriends or wives would party. These parties rivaled anything I’d seen in the movies. Imagine all the perfectly toned women walking around with barely a sheet covering them. They all seemed to be trying to out do each other with how skimpy they could dress. It was like floating in heaven. Usually Imperial Beach had several dozen Team guys living in different houses and the parties would rotate around to different houses weekend to weekend.

I was usually glad Monday morning rolled around because then I could recover from the weekend. We had trained for a couple of months and it was our last week in town before we deployed for six months overseas. My barracks roommate and former classmate Rick and I had the late afternoon off so we went to the base and grabbed a paper out of a machine to check the movie times. Some of our former classmates in another team just happened to stroll by and we talked about going to a movie together. I laid out the paper on the sidewalk, which happened to be in front of the building that housed the Naval Amphibious Base Headquarters. We looked at times and all planed to meet for a movie at the theatre in Coronado.

After the movie Rick and I pulled into our barracks parking lot and as we were heading up to our room Rick heard someone in a white base pickup truck call out to him. I headed towards the barracks but paused as I heard Rick get into a heated discussion with the driver. Rick walked away and said something to the effect of whatever. When I asked what happened he said that the driver was the acting base command duty officer. Usually an actual officer or an enlisted chief petty officer this had been a senior first class petty officer filling the position. Rick told me he had accused us of stealing papers out of the machine that was in front of the command quarterdeck. “He said he saw us stealing the papers, so I told him he was full of sh_ _,” Rick said.

I watched as the base security truck sped away as if the driver was pissed off. I had a bad feeling about this. Rick had come right to BUD/S and therefore was not savvy to the ways of the regular military. I had experience as an elite diver working with the regular Navy where less than stellar service members look for the opportunity to make others look bad so that they can further their own careers. I wished that I had been involved in the conversation.

The next morning as Rick was walking to change for morning Physical Training the Commanding Officer saw him and shouted at him that he was going to burn the two of us for stealing papers. Over the next several days we struggled to prove our innocence. We were just three days away from deploying on our first adventure that every SEAL dreams of and it was about to get squashed.

Fortunately I had been doing several triathlons, which are swim, bike and run events with the top officers and enlisted in our command. We had all gotten to know each other and built a great rapport. I had even been invited to the Horny Toad invitational, which was half the equivalent of the Ironman the mother of all triathlons. I even got my picture taken before the event started and was featured in Triathlon Magazine as one of the best bods in the sport. It was but for this camaraderie that I saved Ricks and my career in the Teams.

I remember I was the last to speak at the Executive Officers screening where they would decide if Rick and I would go on to get hammered by our Commanding Officer as he had promised. I had spoken just prior “man to man” as he called it at the time to the officer in charge of our case. He just happened to be a triathlon mate who was prior enlisted and a Viet Nam veteran. We had looked each other in the eye and I told him I guessed this petty officer was tasked with watching for people stealing papers and had failed and was looking for someone to pass the blame to. We had been in front of the one way glass that was mirrored on our side for several minutes so if he had seen us steal the papers like he claimed why hadn’t he walked out and said so during that timeframe. We had two other witnesses that would collaborate our story.

After I gave my statement the officer in charge of our case stood up and said in his deep southern accent “That Dog Don’t Bark!” meaning it was a bunch of crap that was trying to be dished on us. I was asked to leave the room. I went outside and sat by the obviously nervous and sweating Rick. I didn’t know what would happen. It is times like these that you find out who your true friends are. Some of the guys in our platoon had been overheard saying they believed we were guilty and had brought disgrace to the team and we deserved to burn. Others had been with us all along and recognized what was happening and offered their support.

After several minutes of sheer agony of awaiting our fate we were called back into the XO’s office. We both stood at attention side by side as the charges were read off to us. The XO told us what the potential consequences were for our supposed actions.

“You are both facing loss of pay, loss of rank, restriction to base and extra duty,” he said while sitting behind his massive oak desk and eyeing us for any sign of guilt.

I couldn’t believe I was in this position. I’d had an exemplary career, loved the Navy, my job, had worked for nearly four years for the opportunity to deploy as a SEAL and had dreamed of being a SEAL for nearly twenty years of my nearly twenty two years on earth. It was all about to be ruined by someone’s ridiculous lie.

I had also completed triathlons with the XO. Earlier he had also looked me in the eye when I told him without the slightest flutter in my eyes that I didn’t steal the papers.

After a pause for effect the XO said,  “After review of the evidence and your testimonies I have decided to dismiss the case.”

A weight lifted from my shoulders and my heart felt like it had wings. We were dismissed and went outside and slapped each other on the backs and laughed with relief.

A few days later as Rick and I arrived at the Command Party for our platoon deployment the Commanding Officer walked past us and asked if we had any papers for sell. Lots of laughs rang out from everyone within earshot. For years afterwards it was known as “The Paper Caper.”

Love that humor when I’m not on the receiving end of it but not so much when I’m the object of it. Rick and I said nothing or showed any emotion. To do so would have shown weakness and then the taunts would have gone off the charts.

The weekend came and we boarded the ship that would be our home base for the next six months. The USS, United States Ship, Ogden LPD-5 an amphibious transport ship with 24 officers, 396 enlisted, 900 Marines and 21 SEAL/S. We had two officers, one chief, and nineteen enlisted. Only the four of us new guys had never participated in an overseas UDT cruise before. Some guys like Ivan, a Hawaiian surfer with a famous dad that was a surfing legend had several cruises under their belts.

After many days at sea for trials to make sure we were sea worthy and could work with the other ships in our amphibious group we headed to Hawaii. It was even more beautiful than I had ever imagined. Sun rises and sunsets are out of this world and I have heard it is attributable to the volcanic ash that is in the air. The Hawaiian Islands are still forming and the Big Island has molten lava flowing into the sea quite frequently. The volcanic soil is a paradise for exotic plants, palm trees, flowers and orchids of every color, lusciously delicious fruits like pineapple and passion fruit are all incredible.

We finished up in paradise and headed out to sea again for the first of two three-week stops in Subic Bay in the Philippines. Our at sea life was pretty casual with two hour conditioning exercises as a group every morning. During the afternoon we had authorized sun conditioning hours. We laid out on steel beach in nothing but our UDT shorts. I had this art down to a science with a collapsible lounge chair and towel. It was great lying out on what I imagined was our cruise ship, the sun, the breeze, the jokes and laughter. Sun hours were necessary because we were out on every landing for days at a time all day long in the sun. I had the best tan of my life on that six-month cruise.

We did have one guy that we called the pink frog because he never got out in the sun because his skin was so fair. He wore long sleeved camouflage tops and pants and a big floppy hat when we were all on the beach in nothing but UDT shorts during marine landings. Red haired, freckled and Irish stubborn. It’s amazing he survived our cruise because he seemed to mouth off to everyone. Our Hawaiian platoon mate nicknamed him Fi Fi after the cartoon with the pink poodle because he never tanned he just got pink skin.

Every time we came near a port or landing site we were off the ship on helicopters living on the beach in remote areas or staying in barracks or hotels while the ship was offshore during the landings or docked in port.

When we finally pulled into Subic Bay we offloaded most of our operational gear for training and drove it over to our forward in theatre of operations base. The Teams had our own compound with storage and buildings for all of our gear and a warehouse with an open bay area for preparing gear for training missions or real world operations. It was September 27, 1982 and the guys snuck up on my on a pier where we were staging our rubber boats and through me into the water for my birthday. I was twenty-two. One year ago had been the start of my BUD/S class Hell Week. I had come a long way in a short period of time.

At the time the teams were really small. We had one SEAL platoon of sixteen guys deployed and stationed in Subic Bay and one UDT platoon cruising with the amphibious fleet. That was it. The Teams have grown many times over from these numbers.

S

Subic Bay was definitely in the tropics with thick jungle surrounding the base. The broad blue waters of the bay leading out to the South China Sea were calm and serene. It was the first time I’d been in the tropics other than Hawaii, which was actually cool with the sea breezes gently blowing so that you never felt too hot. Subic Bay was different than anything I had experienced so far. I grew up in the south and the heat and humidity can be oppressive in the summer time. This humidity and heat was even more intense. It was great when we went out in our boats on the bay and did dives but on shore you were instantly covered in sweat. The body adapts after awhile to anything and within a few days it wasn’t so bad.

My first trip across the bridge leading off base and into the city of Olongapo was surreal. Shit River as it was called carried the raw effluent of the city of tens of thousands of people. It moved past our SEAL compound on base and spilled into the vast Subic Bay, which swallowed it up as if it never existed. As you crossed the bridge at night women on long slender Bonka boats wearing contrasting white dresses to the filth they floated in. They held large mouthed catch tubes and would yell “Peso’s, Peso’s,” to passersby on the bridge from their bobbing seats in the skinny boats. Little boys held onto the sides of the boats in case the girls didn’t catch the coins that were tossed. They would dive into the dark, filthy, stinking water and grab the coins off the bottom.

Those are the “Shit River Queens” I was informed by my savvy teammates as they escorted us FNG’s out into the loud teaming city. The smell of roasting meat was in the air as vendors waved palm fronds over coals in vending carts. “Monkey meat on a stick” my friends said pointing as we walked up the street. I had some later and it tasted like chicken. I enjoyed the food of the Philippines. The fruit was amazing especially the mango daiquiris and margaritas.

Rock and roll music poured out of bars as we walked up the street. Giant two story speakers in some of the clubs rivaled rock concerts in the US. Every night local rock groups jammed in several clubs up and down the long street. The Teams had our favorite bar we called our own named Fillmore East. Women ran the bars and restaurants throughout town. They were better at business than the men and were completely accepted in that capacity throughout their society. They were called Ma Ma san.

One of my platoon mates named Steve had a brother named Bobby who sang on stage at one of the bars. You could name any popular rock song at the time and he could belt it out like he originally wrote it and recorded it. He had a Pilipino Rock group that he sang for when he was deployed. It was awesome fun. I fell in love with ice-cold San Miguel beers. If you got out early enough in the late afternoon you cold get some that were slushy. Perfect for the tropical weather. After several weeks of partying with our SEAL Team One friends virtually every night we headed out to several more ports.

We visited Hong Kong, which has to be one of the best places in the world to shop. I had the best Peking duck of my life there.

We traveled to the land down under and visited Perth, Australia.We trained with the Aussie Special Boat Service in the outback and I saw huge herds of hundreds of Kangaroo and giant Emu and Ostrich birds that are over six foot tall running around wild. We feasted every night on fresh ground Roo Burgers and Roo Spaghetti, easily some of the best wild meat I’ve ever eaten.

Perth had some of the best music at the time with Duran Duran ‘Girls on Film’ and ‘Hungry like the Wolf’ playing in all the clubs. Huge video screens were playing the latest craze that had yet to hit the US, Music Video’s.

Next we cruised to the island of Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We dove there and the visibility was well over one hundred feet. My dive buddy Jim and I were down at 120 feet diving along a rare black Coral wall. I looked up and could see some of the other guys in platoon swimming on the surface next to the boat clear as if we were in a swimming pool.

I heard Jim grunt loudly over and over again in alert to get my attention. The first thing I thought was he had seen a great white shark that was coming in to eat us. I spun around and there not ten feet from us was a giant Manta Ray cruising by checking us out. The wingspan on it was well over twenty feet tip to tip. It was one of the most beautiful and majestic sights I’ve ever seen.

Our next adventure was Somalia, which in late 1982, was friendly towards the US.  We would do a Marine Beach landing south of Mogadishu.

Over a period of two nights we were in the water for many hours along the shoreline swimming stealthily and undetected, surveying and marking the upcoming landing area for potential obstacles. The last day after the landing was completed, a couple of us decided to surf along the shoreline.

Two of my UDT-12 teammates had brought surfboards and were surfing the large waves while I was the only one in our group that decided to bodysurf.

There was one particularly perfect wave that all three of us were riding at the same time. I thought I was doing really well because I could hear my buddies yelling at me from their surfboards. With the thunder of the crashing waves I couldn’t make out what they were saying but assumed they were cheering me for bodysurfing the wave so well. I continued swimming out and caught several more waves when I noticed my buddies were no longer surfing. I was just riding another wave when I saw all of my UDT team gesturing wildly and jumping up and down. I thought that they were again cheering me and my head swelled proudly thinking my bodysurfing skills were peerless.

The waves were fantastic breaking far off the beach you would get a long ride in the cool refreshing water. The waves had a great face on them that didn’t spill over and break right away. I was flying at high speed in the churning bubble machine, bouncing along in the spray and foam.  I eventually tired and rode a wave all the way back to the beach.

When I got out of the water, my friends asked me accusingly why I had stayed after they were yelling at me to get out. I shrugged my shoulders telling them that I didn’t hear them for the crashing of the waves.

“What’s the problem,” I asked vexed at their anger.

They then proceeded to tell me they had seen a huge shark riding in the wave right next to me, they had yelled to warn me and made sure they stayed on their boards all the way into shore. When they got there, they told everyone else what they had seen, and everyone in my team jumped up to run and see.

For the next several waves they all saw the huge shark riding the waves right next to me again and again as they yelled and gestured for me to get out of the water. Steve my friend on the surfboard closest to me told me he had seen the beady eye of the shark staring at me menacingly. I guess I made a bodysurfing friend of the shark that day or my guardian angels were having a field day keeping me safe.

I got a chill in the blazing heat and looked back out to the crashing waves to see if my stalker was still there. I saw nothing and began to doubt my friends were accurate.

Later that day we got into a helicopter to return to our ship. We flew into the air and started to cruise along the shore. We were riding along when all of a sudden one of our teammates named Joe yelled for us to look down into the water. We saw hundreds of sharks in the water, some of which were well over 12 feet long.

I believe that we were saved by the fact that we were all very comfortable in the water. It was probably a good thing, however, that I didn’t see the shark next to me when I was bodysurfing. Maybe that big fella wanted to play along side me or he may have been probing me to see if I had fear or would act like prey. If I had shown fear or surprise, he and his buddies would have likely come in closer for a taste.

None of us had shown any fear during the nights of our water reconnaissance, you learn not to focus on what you fear as a SEAL. If you did you’d never be able to do anything because everything we do is on the razors edge of complete abandonment or paralyzing fear. To this day, now over seventy years in existence no US Navy UDT/SEAL has ever been attacked by a shark.

As a Navy SEAL, Navy Hard Hat Diver, and PADI scuba diving instructor I have encountered many sharks over the years. On a certain level I believe that most sharks observe us humans as comfortable in the water and not an easy meal and therefore leave us alone. However, although it’s very rare, it sometimes does happen that some of us obviously must seem like inferior prey to them, so they may take a bite to see how we taste.

Personally, I have been very fortunate that I have been viewed as comfortable in the water environment and not an easy meal for over fifty years now. I always felt confident, but I have never knowingly pushed my luck just for the thrill of it when it comes to the underwater environment. I have a healthy respect for marine animals and if I’m aware that sharks are in the vicinity, I simply don’t go into the water or leave the area if I see them.

After our Somalia adventure we cruised over to Oman and trained with the Oman UDT/SEAL equivalents for a couple days. It was along the deserted shoreline that we saw a huge freighter that was washed up close to shore and abandoned. It would be at the top of the freighters mast high above the water that I would climb up and reenlist for four more years. My platoon officer in charge swore me in from the main deck below with the rest of my platoon watching from our rubber boats circling the hulk. I would have many more reenlistments in the years to come but that was my favorite.

We cruised down the straights of Malacca to Singapore for Christmas. Most of the guys in my platoon and I rented out a luxury suite to celebrate in. What a night. We were in a British pub when one of the guys decided to order a cool shot he had heard about for everyone. It was called Gorilla Tits. I have no idea what was in it. I was have a highly intelligent conversation with a local Brit on the subject of politics. Every British person I’ve ever met loves politics and are usually very well versed in teaching us Yanks what makes the world go round. I found it fascinating conversation and had forgotten about my friends. I heard laughter as if they were drunk already. This was impossible in my mind because we had sat down for a pint of beer only half an hour earlier. My conversationalist looked over my shoulder in horror. I turned just in time to see my friend Steve who is the hardiest of alcohol consumers throw his shot back up into his shot glass.

I decided I was going to ignore these hoodlums and tried to continue the conversation. The laughter grew more riotous and I heard my name being called over and over again. Each time was louder.

“Mike, MIKE, MIKE!” All of them were shouting.

I couldn’t ignore them any longer as I had a shot glass thrust into my hands. “What is it?” I asked coolly. Everyone was watching me breathlessly in anticipation through their blurry eyes.

“It’s a Gorilla Tit,” came the slurred words.

To make them leave me alone I took the shot and downed it in one gulp. What can one stupid shot do! I thought. Everyone cheered.

I turned back around to talk to the Brit and my eyes began to water. What the hell, I thought. The next thing I remember because everything became blurry soon after we were heading back to the hotel on escalators up and over the roadways. I remember one of my friends turning them off so that the rest of us behind him had to walk up or down. Of course the other Singaporean people had to do the same thing. Somehow we made it to our hotel a Hilton if I remember correctly. Someone thought it a good idea to open what was thought was the free booze refrigerator. It wasn’t free and in fact it was ridiculously expensive, as we would find out the next day when we got the bill.

During the night I remember the hotel manger and security knocking on our door and asking where the Christmas tree outside the elevator was. “We don’t have it” came the innocent response. Of course there was a trail of Christmas decorations all the way down the hall and into our room. Our normally most mellow and quiet guy CW got pissed when they insisted on checking our closet where someone had hid the tree. He threw an ornamental bulb that crashed over the doorway. It was to say the least a memorable Christmas away from home.

Our next stop was back to the Philippines for three more weeks of nightly partying. I asked my SEAL Team One friend Ron how they partied like this every night for six months.

“We don’t! he said laughing. We look forward to you guys coming because you guys are animals when you pull in and we have a great time. But we also look forward to the day you leave after a couple of weeks so we can dry out.” We both had a good laugh.

This was our last port of call and on the way back home to San Diego we passed by the amphibious fleet replacing us with UDT-11 on board. They would be the last platoon of an era as all UDT Teams would be replaced with SEAL Teams.

I would eventually go into SEAL Team Five as I’ll talk about in the next chapter.

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Biography of a SEAL Team Six Operator Chapter Ten

March 10th, 2014 mjaco 1 comment

After graduating from BUD/S my class was assigned to Ft. Benning, Georgia for Army Airborne static line jump school.

We all looked forward to the excitement and thrill of jumping out of planes.

I drove across country with a classmate named Dave and we met a couple of other classmates in New Orleans for a day and night of partying. Bourbon street was a great relief valve for us and we went from bar to bar until the sun started coming up the next morning. I had never partied all night and we all had an incredible blast. New Orleans Jazz and food was a great treat for ourselves after six months of intense BUD/S training.

My class was assigned to a large group of Army Airborne jump school volunteers that included women. This was an elite school for the Army but it was a joke for us after the toughest training in the world. The hardest runs and group calisthenic Physical Training that we did were not nearly as tough as our first PT in first phase.

It was hilarious to us to see the Army “Legs” as the instructors called the recruits, start to fail after doing a few dozen pushup’s. We were used to doing hundreds of pushup’s during PT’s. When the instructors leading the PT hollered out that they would continue doing exercises until the whimpering legs started sounding off with the correct count most of the guys from my BUD/S class sounding off with the wrong count. We would continue saying “one” over and over again. The Legs around us pleaded with us to please stop so they would be released from their misery.

During runs we got to learn the Airborne shuffle which was barely a run for us. I still remember the songs we sang over and over. “Stand up, hook up, shuffle to the door, jump right out and count to four!” It was a long way from the sultry ballad that I had taught our BUD/S class. It was a joy to me when I returned many years later as the BUD/S first phase leading chief to hear classes still singing “Minnie the Mermaid.” “She was mighty good to me, down at the bottom of the sea” was one of the verses. I was a sailor at heart.

When we were dropped for pushups for various obscure infractions the proper way to recover was to rapidly jump to your feet, slap your hands on the side of your legs and shout “Airborne!” in a loud and thunderous voice. The Navy guys in the class invariably had fun with this and shouted “Airhorn” to the great disgust of any surrounding Legs. Another punishment was to “Beat Your Boots!” We had great fun with this because all it called for was a squat followed by slapping the sides of your boots and then rising back to a standing position. We usually laughed during this “Punishment.” I remember one of my classmates that was ordered to beat his boots faster and he did it so superman fast that the Drill Sergeant actually laughed and told him “That’s enough Navy.”

Typical of an Army school they took what should have been a one week course and turned it into three. After decades of doing the Armies school the SEAL teams now have their own jump school and also teach free fall parachuting or jumping out and then pulling the rip cord to your own chute after falling for a distance of several thousand feet. I would eventually be fortunate to learn how to free fall in my second platoon which was a rarity at the time. Some SEAL’s would go for whole careers without learning free fall.

In our third week we finally got to the jumping out of planes phase after learning how to fall on the ground in what was called a proper Parachute Landing Fall or PLF. The PLF was performed by distributing the shock of the landing over one side of the body. You would land sideways and the impact rolled from your heal to your leg, hip, side and shoulder. If the landing was particularly fast your legs would pivot over your helmeted head and you did a PLF on the opposite side as well. I have actually experienced a couple of static line landings like this and they are not fun. If I had tried to land standing up as I would do in all my free fall jumps I wouldn’t have walked away but would have had two broken legs. So the PLF training was valuable.

The reason for doing static line jumps was that it required the least amount of training. If you were terrified which many of the Army Legs were then you could still survive. Terrified people rarely do anything for themselves so pulling a rip cord to deploy your parachute would be problematic.

Another reason for static line jumps is that planes can fly a mere five hundred feet or less above the ground and deploy hundreds of static line jumpers with low casualty rates. Yes, that’s right they usually calculate a percentage of broken bodies from these mass parachute deployments. Jumpers turn into each other. Parachutes come out tangled and if they are far enough above ground like they were in my class then they could safely deploy their reserve parachute. If it was a low deployment however then there was no room for the inevitable error.

Overall I felt the three weeks were a great experience. The Airborne instructors that I encountered were all professional and although some were miffed at some of our younger guys antics they for the most part regarded us as fellow professionals and gave us a little leeway.

We received a total of five static line jumps. It was incredibly thrilling jumping out of the plane for the first time. Of course the possibility of your chute malfunctioning goes through your mind but after the thrill of being weightless for a few seconds and then the abrupt stop of your deployed parachute the butterflies are gone.

At this point you reach up and pull on one or the other side of your risers or the webbing holding your parachute to your shoulder harness. By pulling on one side you collapse a portion of your parachute and it steers or falls in that direction.

After our last jump we had a pinning ceremony and received silver parachute wings. After receiving five more static line jumps you would receive your coveted gold wings.

I had time before I was required to report back to UDT-12 in San Diego so I drove the short distance to my parents home in Columbia, SC. My parents were proud. I had been part of an elite group as a hard hat diver but this was in a whole different category. My dad even confided in me that he had wanted to be Airborne during his short tour in the Army but circumstances didn’t work in his favor. That was the first time he saw me as a man and I felt a stronger bond with him from that time forward.

It would be a six month probationary period at my new team before I would be eligible for my SEAL trident.

I checked into UDT-12 and most of the team was at San Clemente Island doing requalification dives. I was told that I would be assigned along with one of my classmates named Rick to a platoon that would deploy in a few short months. This was perfect and what every new frogman wants.

It’s funny to me that over the years people think that Underwater Demolition Teams were somehow less than a SEAL team. Every team gets to pick from a graduating class. Many years later I was selected and completed Green team at SEAL Team Six which was the several month long training team before you were chosen for an assault team. I learned from one of my friends that I had been ranked the number three man in my green team. There were three assault teams at the time. RED, BLUE and GOLD. Each of the teams drew numbers from a hat. The numbers gave them the option of choosing based upon the numbers. Red team picked the number one and had the opportunity to pick anyone in the green team. Instead of picking the number one or number two ranked people in my class as luck would have it they decided to choose me.

The reason I bring up this process is that everyone went through the same training and could do any job whether it was SEAL Delivery Vehicle, UDT or SEAL Teams. I have even heard guys currently that are SEAL’s refer to guys that were UDT as “Just UDT!” Personally I’m quite proud of my heritage of having been in UDT-12. After all SEAL’s get their foundation and heritage from UDT during WWII.

Even after UDT went away after my first cruise and all teams were called SEAL teams one team among the SEAL teams still had to provide aUDT type hydrographic team to ride ships and do beach reconnaissance for Marine landings. It would be like me calling the guys in the SEAL teams that weren’t SEAL Team Six as “just SEAL teams.” As a professional it doesn’t and didn’t cross my mind.

When our Team returned from the Island on friday afternoon Rick and I were in formation with our new platoon. It was announced that the team had two new members and we were told to make ourselves known. Rick and I raised our hands and then all hell broke loose.

The entire command turned on us and started ripping off our clothes and dragging us to the already filled and waiting for us cold water dip tank normally used for checking for leaks in our rebreather diving gear. I remember Rick trying to cry out as someone had their fingers in his mouth pulling his lips apart. Rick had permanent scars at the corners of his lips from that day forward. I got off easy with a few bruises.

Welcome to the Teams! We were hazed, which at the time was a long tradition. Eventually hazing would be outlawed but not before some truly amazing hazings happened over the years.

Rick and I would be on a fast and heavy training schedule with our twenty-one man platoon to get all of our pre-deployment requirements met. Diving, Parachute jumping on land and into the water, water cast and recovery from fast boats and Helo’s, weapons shooting and demolition training.

A slot came up one day for Survival Escape and Evasion training. Our platoon Officer In Charge asked for volunteers because we had to have a certain percentage of guys trained. It was not a popular school so everyone looked at me. I was a FNG of F…ing New Guy. I didn’t get it at first. The room was quiet with all eyes on me. “I’ll go” I said when it finally dawned on me that they were waiting for me to “volunteer.”

I would actually always volunteer for every school or less than desirable course. I was the odd ball that wanted to experience everything. SERE training during this time frame was hard core. We were in the cold war still and they didn’t mess around.

After one week of classroom training my class of Navy Aircraft Pilots and aircrew headed for the deserts and mountains off the coast of California. I learned how to survive in the intense heat of the desert by digging down into the ground and covering my hole with two layers of torn parachute which trapped a layer of heat and made the ground where I rested twenty degrees cooler. It was over one hundred so it felt like I was in an air conditioned environment. I also learned how to make a solar still to make water. How to gather edible plant food and make traps for animals with parachute cord. we survived without real food for several days before being transported to the mountains. We would do a final evasion course by moving through an area that was heavily patrolled by role players acting as Russian troops.

“If you are fortunate to make it to the safe house you will get a peanut butter sandwich” we were told. I made up my mind I was going to make it!

I crawled on hands and knees till I bled. I could hear shouts all around me as fellow evaders were captured. I heard a truck coming up the road and crawled under some heavy brush and laid as still and imobile as possible. I heard footsteps and shouting in English with a Russian accent. “Get those scum under that bush!” I lay still as footsteps came by my head. I held my breath. The boots stopped by my head and then rushed to another bush where they drug out someone hiding. They threw their new prisoner in the back of a truck and drove away. I sighed with relief. I continued to crawl, look, wait and crawl again until I reached the safe house. I knocked the passcode and the door opened. I was escorted inside and told to wait quietly.

I was the first in the house. What seemed like a long time went by and I wondered when I would get my coveted PB&J. It was all I could think about. My mouth watered and I thought about how good it was going to taste. It would probably be very filling I thought after not having any sold food for several days. Another person came and then several more until there were four of us. We talked in whispers about the PB&J’s that we had earned and how delicious they would be.

We heard a truck pull up and then an argument broke out with our safe house owner. Shots rang out and we heard a thump as if a body had hit the ground. Then the door burst open to our wide eyed surprise as troops dressed in Russian uniforms stormed in and began hauling us ruffly outside where our hands were tied behind our backs. We were led to the back of a truck and had black hoods pulled over our heads and forced to sit on the cold metal floor of a flatbed truck. The vehicle pulled out and began rapidly traveling down the dirt road. I thought to myself that they were taking us to where the PB&J’s were.

After several minutes and several turns we suddenly heard the brakes squeal and we came to a rapid stop throwing up a cloud of dust. Out hoods were ripped off our heads and we were led into what seemed like something out of Dante’s Inferno. I could hear blood curdling screams from a man like I had never heard before. These were not Hollywood screams but the real thing. In the distance I could see what I had heard described as a water board. A prisoner was laying on the slanted board with his head down. Several guards were holding him down as another poured water over his mouth and nose. The mans body jerked convulsively as he struggled in vain for air. When the torturer stopped pouring then the screams began again.

“What is your name and number!” a prison guard said to me in a course Russian tone. I had been taught to resist questioning until I was at the point where my life or well being was seriously threatened. I said nothing. I had been through BUD/S training so I knew how to deal with pain. What could this guy do to a tough guy like me? My hands were untied and I was told to grab the sides of my pants and hold tightly. I did as I was told not knowing what was coming.

I was quickly grabbed by the guard and body slammed onto the ground. The air was shocked out of me in one huge gasp. Pain shuddered through my body. What the heck just happened?

I could hear the sound of other bodies being slammed on the ground and whimperers and mewing noises from several other men around me. There was real fear in the air. The screams from a new water board victim pierced through the body slams and gasps. A metal wall was being used to slam a prisoners body against it and the metallic sound of a body hammering into it over and over again reverberated out like the concentric rings caused by a pebble dropped in still water. The metallic sounds mixed with the other sounds in a symphony of horror.

I was snatched to my feet still clutching my pants. “What is your name and number American pig!!!” I still had a little fight in me I thought as I ignored the demand. I could feel myself going weightless as my booted feet seemed to sail through the air. It’s like jumping out of a plane I thought. The dirt puffed up around my body in a cloud as my body slammed with even greater force into the waiting earth. “Jaco, Michael 24……” I gasped.

I was hauled to my feet again and had my hands retied and the hood put on my head. I was led by a hand grasping my tricep to another truck where I was hauled up and laid on the cold metal with several other bodies. The truck started up and moved out for several more twisting turns as the bodies in the back with me bumped and rolled into each other for several minutes. “I wonder if we are now going to where those PB&J’s are I thought.

Another quick dust cloud provoking stop and we were hauled out hoods taken off and led into a building. Several other prisoners were seating in rows. We were told tersely to sit. Were giving a camp brief. We were told that we were prisoners of war. We here baby killers and on and on. It was propaganda and part of a process to break us down mentally, psychologically and physically. Yadda yadda yadda I thought and tuned it out. I looked around the room and wondered when they would bring me my PB&J. Surely they had radioed ahead and knew that I had made it to the safe house and had rightfully earned my reward. I was even the first one their by a long shot so maybe I would get extra.

A speech Jane Fonda had given condeming American servicemen when she visited Viet Nam in support of the North Vietnamese government was being played on loud speakers over and over again. It was annoying and to this day I will not see a Jane Fonda film. I was led along a long line of small wooden boxes until an empty one was found. In the bottom of the box was a small block of wood that I had to sit on. AI could just barely fit inside. A black hood was put over my head and a metal door on hinges was closed down over the entrance leaving me in darkness. “I’m not going to get my PB&J I thought with a sinking feeling.

We were questioned one at a time through the day and into the night. The temperature dropped precipitously. The lack of food, stress and the drastic temperature change from the desert to the mountains left me shivering. I had low body fat to begin with after BUD/S training and now after being starved for almost a week I was a wreck.

We were tortured in many different ways. It was not life threatening but it seemed like it. Many guys completely broke down and cried. Wow! I thought. Some of these guys didn’t handle stress well. I learned to suffer in silence. We were brought out as a group. There was nearly one hundred of us. There was one other SEAL in the group named Steve who had been in my BUD/S class. He was at another team. We were the only non air wing guys in the group. I had a made up story that I was a cook on an aircraft carrier that had gotten blown off the side by prop blast. I had been told that if they learned I was a special forces guy they would cut my head off right away so I had stuck to my story throughout all the questioning.

A big pot of hot soup was being Ladled out to us one by one. Warm coats were also being handed out. I was eagerly waiting my turn for warmth and finally some food when I was singled out by the prison guards. I was led to the water board.

All day and into the night I had listened to the screams of people being water boarded. At one time during the day they had taken our group leader who was a commander of his squadron and water boarded him while we were all made to watch in terror from wooden bleachers. It was one of the scariest things I had ever seen in my life. This once proud and honorable man was reduced to a screaming maniac right in front of eyes in seconds.

Now it was my turn.

As the board was prepared for me and through brought over a bucket of water with a ladle in it I glanced back at everyone with their warm coats on and their bowls of hot soup. They were all frozen with the bowls in both their hands in front of their faces not eating but as if in shock. I would be eating I thought.

I laid down on the inclined wood with my feet strapped in the top portion. My head was situated at the bottom of the wooden plank and my arms were at my sides. two big men situated themselves on either side of me ready to hold me down when I struggled. Another man was squatting at my head and dipped the ladle in the bucket until it was full. I could hear the splash and the dripping sounds of water. All was eerily quite. I only had on my t-shirt and pants and should have been cold by strangely I was not. The interrogator brought the dripping ladle up by my head.

“Who is in charge of the escape committee!” came the Russians demand. The thought quickly passed through my mind that I wish I knew because he should have given me one of the slips of paper that authorized an escape attempt. I’d had several opportunities that day and was pissed because we were told if you escaped you got a PB&J. Dammit I’d thought all day who was the knucklehead that didn’t give one of us SEAL’s the opportunity to escape. If anyone could have we would have done it. You escaped it was a good deal for everyone in camp for morale. You had to come back into the camp to continue with the training but you got rewarded with food!

“I don’t know.”

A piece of cloth was pressed violently down over my mouth and nose by another guard and then the water started pouring. It soaked the cloth. I held my breath. I could hold my breath for a long time. The water stopped. I exhaled forcefully and then instantly sucked back in. Air and water entered my mouth. I held onto the air. Water started pouring again after the guard had refilled his the ladle. I waited. The water stopped. I exhaled and quickly sucked in again. the water gurgled around in my mouth but I still was able to suck air in through the path I had created with my exhale.

As a hard hat diver and while diving as a SEAL I had learned how to breath with leaky dive gear. I learned to breath with a little water in my mouth. It was no big deal. I could keep this game up all night.

The prison guard whispered in my ear that I better start screaming when they removed the cloth or they would make it very difficult for me. I had learned to give them what they wanted as long as it didn’t threaten me. What’s a little screaming I thought. I gave it my best scream and would have made Hollywood actors guild proud of my performance. After a couple more rounds of water, exhale, breath around the water I was let up. I was given a jacket for warmth. Nice! I thought.

Everyone was staring at me in disbelief even the guards looked at me in awe. What? I thought. The soup was gone! What the crap!

Eventually the sun came up and the prison camp was liberated by some of my SEAL buddies. I guess this happened once in a blue moon and was really motivational for everyone. I thought it was cool being rescued by my buddies but the truth of the matter is that in real life no UDT member or SEAL has ever been captured.

We were bussed back to San Diego and were given a debrief on our adventures of the last week. At one point during the debriefing the head instructor stopped and said in earnestness who had beat the water board? The room was silent. He went on to say that once every ten years or so one guy beats the water board. They had only had a couple since they had started the course.

“Who was the guy that beat it?” he repeated. I sat silently in my seat wondering who it might be because I’d like to meet them. Then he said, “it was one of you SEAL’s.” I looked at my buddy Steve and he looked at me with a blank look.

The instructor pointed at me. “It was you,” he said. “Congratulations.” he went on with the debrief. I sat there thinking I had not done anything that I thought was all that important. I had relied on my training that all SEAL’s get. Although many SEAL’s went through the training I have only known one other guy that beat the water board. It was a guy named Dave Billings who was the honor man of my BUD/S class. Coincidentally he was also a deep sea diver having learned his skill as a commercial diver working on oil rig platforms. Regrettably Dave who was a gentle giant of a man died while diving recreationally by himself. It was a way that he relaxed and while diving off the coast of La Jolla, California one sunny day he never came back from his dive. Several SEAL’s from his team (SEAL Team Three) dove for two days until they found him and brought him ashore. A good man and missed still. If anybody deserves credit it should be Big Dave.

I went right out after we ended our debrief and met up with a couple of my former classmates on my way to my favorite buffet. I had jumped on the scale before we left and I was down 20 pounds in one week. It was like Hell Week all over again. The buffet had an all you eat salad bar, soups and muffins. I was in heaven. My friends were in awe of the SERE training stories. Over the next several years pilots and flight crew guys that were in that class would stop me and introduce me like I was a celibrity to their friends, girlfriends or wives and tell them that I was the guy that beat the water board. I was always uncomfortable in these encounters because I still felt I was not so special just lucky.

Many years ago they stopped using the water board to train SERE students because they felt it was too extreme. Glad I got the opportunity to get toughened up on it. To this day I think SERE training was one of the best courses I’ve ever participated in. I wouldn’t volunteer to do it again however.

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Biography of a SEAL Team Six Operator Chapter Nine

February 25th, 2014 mjaco No comments

We were finally in the last phase of BUD/S training. Just two more months left until we all reached our goal. We had learned that nothing is easy in BUD/S and just when you think you have got the system down you get another curve ball. The thing that I remember most about my days as a BUD/S student was the constant struggle to excel. It wasn’t a struggle against my classmates but an inner struggle to learn how to adapt my body and mind to unimaginable difficulties. It was getting to the point where we all expected and relished the difficult. We enjoyed the personal satisfaction of overcoming the impossible several times throughout the day.

Many people are allowed to fail in life and led to believe that’s ok. We were being taught that failure could mean a ruined operation or even death. In our minds an even worse offense would be letting down your teammates. We learned to adapt in the moment and never accept defeat but to persevere to accomplish our mission. Mission success was a SEAL’s attribute we were constantly instructed and we would learn to make that our burning quest in all our training missions in third phase.

My new family and I were getting to know each other well. We could count on each other to dig deeper and overcome ever more demanding challenges. Now the greatest challenges were before us and we hungry for what they would present us.

We spent only a few days on the silver strand in Coronado before we heading west off the coast from San Diego to San Clemente Island. We would end our last seven weeks in isolation and complete emersion training. When we came back to the strand we would graduate after only a few days upon our return.

Our thirty minute plane ride over in a military prop plane from North Island airfield was quiet as we all contemplated our last few weeks together and what the future would be like. It was going to be the coldest months of the year the instructors reminded us to break the silence. “On San Clemente Island,” we were told chearfully by our new instructor cadre, “No one can hear you scream.” The silence was deafening.

Our short flight ended on an airfield on the North West end of the island. We unloaded our gear onto ancient 2 1/2 ton military stake trucks and headed down the road from the airfield to the harbor side camp that would be our home and training base.

The smell of bird shit rock sitting in the middle of the cove assaulted our nostrils as we entered the camp. The gutteral barking of seals vying for part of the rock outcropping with the screeching cry’s of seagulls would be part of the sounds we would listen to throughout the days and nights. During the weekday nights F-14 fighter jets would practice touch and go carrier landing on the airfield. Their afterburners lighting up the sky with their fiery tails and sending thunder like echoes reverberating throughout our camp. We would be so exhausted we wouldn’t be bothered by the smells, sounds or sights however.

We would be tasked to dig ever deeper on a physical level as we had become accustomed to do. The first morning after our arrival we would be up early in the morning to start a 2 1/2 mile swim. All of our swims unto this point had been 2 mile timed swims. Now we would stretched that distance to 5 1/2 miles over the next several weeks. The water was even colder now and we also had to deal with kelp beds.

Kelp beds are wonderful for marine life but can be hazardous and downright dangerous for divers and swimmers. Kelp is one of the fastest growing organisms on earth and like bamboo can grow over a foot of new growth a day. I have many memories over the years of getting caught in kelp. You have to learn to relax and slowly pull yourself free. If you struggle you get even more entangled. If you struggle in kelp it’s as if the entire kelp bed knows and comes to calm you down. Unfortunately that calming process can be the end of you. It seemed like one or two of our swim pairs got caught up in the kelp everyday and one pair in a night swim made the mistake of pulling out their knives to cut themselves free. They ended up cutting themselves. You don’t want to bleed in water that is the breading ground of aggressive Blue and Great whites sharks.

Of course the guys that cut themselves were our two fastest swimmers that were trying to decrease their time by cutting through the kelp beds. One of the guys had been on the Olympic swim team that was cancelled by president Carter. The Olympics was being held in Russia at the time and Carter protested Russia’s recent invasion of Afghanistan by canceling the dreams of America’s Olympic team. Carter was a Navy submarine officer by the way.

The instructor staff kept our motivation to perform at a high level by having us perform helicopter flights. If we had performed at a subpar level we would be tasked as a class and on occasion as an individual to grab a wooden pallet and run with it held over our heads up a hill overlooking the camp. The hill had a ceramic frog sculpture on it and we were required to run around it and back down the hill. We requested through gasps for air to land from an instructor standing at the bottom of the hill. If authorized to land we would drop our pallets and fall exhausted to the ground. The ever creative instructors would sometimes have us get wet and sandy before our flights. There were also a few metal pallets weighing twice as much as the wooden ones for the guys that were designated for extra special attention.

One of my classmates on a dare had left a sandwich stuffed in his shirt pocket for over a month and one of the instructors got a whiff of it and he ended up doing two metal pallet flights. The quote from John Wayne comes to mind where he said: “Life is tough. It’s tougher if you’re stupid.”

Nothing was given freely in third phase. We even had to work for our meals. Before our three meals in the chow hall we had to do pull-ups. When we first got to the island we had an easy ten to do before each meal. By the end of the last week we were doing twenty. Sixty pull-ups on top of the morning PT’s got to be a little tough but we all did it.

If an instructor dropped you for any reason you had to do fifty pushup’s. The most of any phase. We had finished  a 14 mile soft sand run in boots and long pants back on the strand. It was not timed and after we were finished we had the weekend off to recover. On the island we would do eight, ten, twelve miles runs after an hour of PT and then work the rest of the day and into the night. I had lost twenty pounds by the end of Hell Week from my average lean weight of 185 pounds. I had gained it all back and then some in lean muscle mass. This trend would continue for the rest of my career as a SEAL and even today I’m as fit as most men half my age. I’m always thankful for having this great way of life disciplined into me to be in excellent shape and to never settle for less.

We started learning how to patrol silently with weapons and loaded down with gear. How to set up ambushes with demolition and improvised shaped charges. We learned to move silently in any environment. All the skills that we had learned in the first two phases we integrated into the third. We would do a live demolition shot on submerged obstacles. In first phase we had learned to find the obstacles in a beach survey and now we would learn to destroy them.

We breath held down into dark water one early morning before the sun rose. We tied in haversacks loaded with demolitions onto concrete Japanese skully obstacles designed to rip out the bottom of landing craft. A long explosive trunk line linked all the obstacles together so that they all blew in unison. dozens of water geysers shot into the early morning light of a clear blue sky and was followed by a deifying thunderclap that ripped over the water. The earth beneath our feet rumbled as if in an earthquake.

We would do one of the scariest rubber boat beach landings one night that I have ever done since then. The waves were particularly huge one night so the instructors decided it was a good opportunity to learn beach landings on a rocky shore. If you missed the exact landing point you would smash into sheer cliffs and a boulders on either side of the safe landing zone. The way you approached the landing point was to line up two separate lights. The one in front when lined up with the one on higher ground behind it would bring you into the perfect point. If you didn’t line up the lights you would be in danger. Everyone in my boat had serious misgivings as we heard the thunder of the waves crashing onto the boulders. The waves had been big as we paddled out from our harbor and now on the west side of the island they were just stunningly massive. My boat crew and I watched as boats went in ahead of us. We assumed that everything was good or else they would have taken away the lights. Our turn came and we began to paddle in keeping the two lights lined up.

As we neared the landing point the waves crashing on the rocks grew louder. Our rubber boat seemed like an insignificant bobbing cork to the mighty power of the Pacific Ocean waves passing beneath us. We rose on the crests and sank deep into the troughs of the waves as we drew nearer still. I shivered in the freezing cold as water splashed over us. Then one of the waves grabbed us and sent us hurling towards the shore at an incredible rate of speed. We all paddled together quickly staying with the waves tremendous force so that it didn’t peak and crest on top of us. The thought crossed my mind that if we didn’t stay centered with the wave it could turn us sideways and throw us all into the freezing water and smash us onto the unseen boulders. Miraculously it seemed to me, we were flung perfectly up on the shore of a small pebble beach as waves smashed ferociously into the towering boulders around us. We quickly leaped out of our boat, tuned it over to drain out the water as we had done a hundred times before and carried our boat up the hill to the other boat crews. It was all perfectly ordered and not one boat crew had an issue. My confidence in the professionalism and knowledge of the instructor staff was always high but it just leaped several pegs higher after that night. I knew that I had joined the right group and felt giddily proud and jubilant all at once. The thrill and adrenaline of cheating death has a way of thrilling like nothing else. I have been in far hairier situations that make that beach landing seem like child’s play but it still thrills me to think of it.

Over the next several weeks we would do many simulated missions that mimicked similar missions performed by the SEAL Teams over the last several years of combat action in Viet Nam. It was an exciting time and what most of us had signed up for. Some of our instructors and many of the men I would work with in the teams were combat veterans bringing their real life combat experience with them into training. It is no different now in training and the teams in fact have far more combat experienced operators in far greater numbers.

When we finished our time at the island we were overjoyed to get back to the strand to find out which teams we were going to. Graduation for me was bitter sweet. I’d had the experience I had dreamed of for all my life. Now it was on to greater adventures. I was sure this was just the beginning but now it was on to the unknown as it would be for the rest of my life as a SEAL. Even now I love the thrill of the unknown challenge. Unfortunately no one came to my graduation which was one of the proudest days of my life. All of my family was on the East coast in South Carolina. But actually I now had the family I’d always wanted but never had so it was cool. After graduation we would all go as a class to Fort Benning, Georgia for three weeks of Army Static Line Jump School.

I learned that I was to stay on the West Coast to be assigned to UDT-Twelve. At that time there were only two SEAL teams with one on each coast. There were two UDT teams on each coast and one SDV (SEAL Delivery Vehicle) Team on each coast. A SEAL that was around for a few years at a team always had the option of rotating to another team to experience another coasts area of operations. This is something I would enjoy doing my entire career. Eventually UDT teams were phased out and all teams were labeled SEAL teams. This happened after my first cruise as a UDT SEAL. I went right into a UDT Platoon after Jump school training and after just a couple of months was deployed overseas. At the time I first became a SEAL the SEAL community was very small.  Shortly after I returned from my UDT deployment six months later my UDT -12 team was converted to SEAL Team Five.

Next up is the exciting life as a young man in the SEAL Teams.

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Recent Interview with Combative Mind Website

February 1st, 2014 mjaco No comments

This is a recent interview I did for: http://www.combativemind.com

Hi Michael and thanks for agreeing to this interview. If we could start by you’re telling us a little bit about your martial arts background.

I dabbled as a kid in martial arts with friends that had skills. When I went into SEAL training and later into the SEAL Teams I expected I’d get lots of formal training. However, there was no formal system at all. We received a little bit of informal training from an instructor at BUD/S in our last phase of training that had a black belt in a Filipino martial art but that was all. When I got into the teams there were several guys that were trained in civilian martial arts schools but still no formal training. They would teach those of us that were interested but the groups were small and we met inconsistently. Overall there was not much interest in martial arts training. Most guys believed that their gun skills were all that was necessary to be a warrior.

As a SEAL you saw a need for specialist unarmed combat training, yet your efforts to implement any kind of program at the time were met with resistance by many. Why were you so keen to make unarmed combat a part of SEAL training, beyond the obvious reason of self-defence? Did you feel that martial arts had something else to offer recruits?

I was in the Panama invasion with SEAL Team 6 after many years of being in the SEAL community. We did a combat ship boarding on suspected gun running ships anchored in the harbour. One of the sailors on board surrendered to me and I used the skills that I had been taught to control, search and cuff him. I remember at the time thinking what if this guy had resisted when he was close to me and we got into a close in fight. I’d had a few techniques shown to me over the years but nothing that made me feel perfectly confident. I felt it was a severe lack that the SEAL Teams and most of the military as a whole were lacking in basic fighting skills. Most commanders thought it was a risk to their careers to have guys trained up in deadly martial arts.

Later at SEAL Team Six we contracted out for formal training in Jeet Kune Do, JKD to Paul Vunak. I loved it and was there for every session until I left six months later to take over the First Phase Training at BUD/S as the senior enlisted officer. It would be at BUD/S training that I would encounter the life changing training that I had always desired. I was able to get the training department to contract out a month long training course for myself and one other guy. We worked in a system called SCARS, Special Combat Aggressive Reactionary System, designed by a former Viet Nam Vet and Kung Fu San Su Black Belt instructor named Jerry Peterson. The system was brutal, highly effective and easy to learn. We learned how to fight in any environment including the water with and without all of our operational gear.

It would be a challenge to get the community to accept my idea that this was training that we could all benefit from. Eventually the right people saw me teach and perform the system and I got the green light. I got several more instructors to go through the program and then from that group we picked the top guys and had another more advanced course. We were ready to teach what we had to the rest of the SEAL community.

I became excited about this program because we had begun to contract out to all the best martial arts instructors in the world in their particular field at the time. All of the martial arts masters in the teams that had any abilities to offer were also coming in and teaching us their information to roll into the course. It was becoming a unique and purposeful martial art that was being accepted by all of the teams. The most exciting part and the one that I loved to teach the most was how the mind was easily trained to become more efficient and that the benefits could carry over into every aspect of our training and personal lives.

I felt it was imperative that we get this out to the SEAL Teams and any other Special Forces community that wanted to get involved. In fact we had Army and Air Force Special operators come through our thirty-day course after I and my group gave a demonstration to the Secretary of Defence. All of the other top enlisted leaders of the different branches were there and wanted to send their guys to become instructors in our course.

The program you eventually created for the SEALS required that students train ten hours a day for a full thirty days. How did the results of such an intense training schedule compare against a regular training schedule over a number of years? Were retention and skill levels still high?

The system we designed was modelled after what we had learned and determined was most effective. We had all been through two different thirty-day courses. We were all master training specialists so we knew how to teach and design course curriculum. We had all trained everyday for ten hours every day and we would demand our students do the same. The idea for such intensive and long training was manifold.

Whenever you build a habit it normally takes twenty-one days of repetition doing the same thing over and over again. You build a neuron grove in your brain that will fire instantly without conscious decision making to slow the process. If you are in combat situations this can be critical and the difference between life and death.

The other aspect we were looking for was the exhaustion factor. As former Hell Week participants and now Hell Week instructors we knew that once the conscious mind becomes exhausted the deeper levels of consciousness begin to activate. At this point super learning and other aspects of physical abilities that most of us would consider impossible begin to materialize. We were pushing these guys that already knew how to allow these levels to come through on an unconscious level to connect with them on a conscious level. It was still a challenge because the analytical side of the brain is very resistant to being pushed out of the picture. Some guys would get it on a very deep level and some would just allow a surface level of amazing abilities to come through.

As an instructor in these courses, what were your main goals when it came to training students? How did you measure results to make sure the training had worked the way you wanted it too?

I wanted them to go beyond fear. Fear is a constrictor and inhibits action and thinking abilities. We were seeing, in ourselves, and the guys we taught the ability overcome situations that were normally overwhelming. We were not suppressing fear or letting it motivate us. We were going beyond fear. It was activating us to go to a higher state of consciousness and thus we were able to perform at levels that were amazing even to us. We were already trained to do amazing and now we were blowing that level out of the water with this training of the mind, body and soul.

The students had to perform at an instructional level fifty different techniques we had taught them. They also had to teach the entire group the classroom lessons we had taught them. They had to personalize these lesson plans to fit their own unique experiences.

What methods did you use to make the training as realistic as possible?

In the beginning we taught them at a slow pace of about 25% speed and intensity. Towards the end the attackers would come at 75 to 90% speed. We practiced in many different scenarios from taking out sentries at night to fighting in the surf zone, Close Quarter Combat room clearance using our techniques, compliant and noncompliant prisoner handling, weapon disarmament, use of knives, sticks, improvised weapons and much more with and without full operational gear.

In the book you talk a lot about different levels of mind, one of which is the alpha brain wave state. You placed a lot of importance on this particular brain state in your combatives classes. Why was this?

We had learned how to tap into the creative side of the brain while in a full out brutal combat fight. We taught our students how to access and manifest the creative alpha brain wave patterns of the brain. Most of us go through life with a predominance of Beta brain activity. Watching TV, doing a math problem, looking at a computer screen, driving a car, brushing our teeth etc. Tapping into Alpha brain waves can take us to the place of creativity or where we can come up with answers to problems we’ve never encountered. Teaching guys to do this under stress would be difficult in most circumstances but we were seeing this happen quite often with our instruction and techniques. I could see an individual the moment when he clicked into what we called the “Alpha Zone.” They would move fluidly and flowed in their fighting. Difficult and overwhelming situations were working through as if they had rehearsed them for days rather than being surprised by them for the first time.

You also taught your students how to access this alpha state at will, especially when under extreme pressure. How exactly did you go about this? What was the fundamental procedure involved?

If a student could fight a room full of twenty to thirty guys non-stop, meaning once you killed or maimed a guy he would wait a few seconds then get up and fight you again, for three minutes we knew we were getting a level of fighter that was proficient in what we had taught. No one could fight even a couple of guys at once unless they were using our techniques and accessing the alpha state. Our attackers would come in constantly at up to 90% speed with and without weapons.

In the training course, did you use any drills or exercises that were designed specifically to develop the more mental skills? If so, can you give some examples?

Sentry removal was a mental game. When you snuck up on someone if you were thinking about what you were going to do and how you were going to take that person out then they would 99% of the time pick it up and turn on you before you got there. We taught them to have in their minds what they were going to do and then go empty mind as they stalked up. It took a lot of rehearsing but most guys got it.

The predominant theme of your book is really awareness and the many different levels of awareness that exist, right up to the spiritual. Do you believe it is possible for the average person to reach the advanced levels of awareness you talk about in the book, without having the benefit of high-level training and experience?

No, even a Buddhist monk must undergo an extreme level of training to achieve self-mastery. It is part of the human condition. You must overcome the restraints of the lower physical and mental states to reach the higher more advanced levels where intuition and advanced spiritual levels exist. I have seen a few Special Forces operators with combat experience over the years that have exhibited self-mastery but it is not all that common. I have seen more martial artists that display master levels of physical control and mental abilities that I talk about in The Intuitive Warrior. Anyone can achieve these levels because I have seen people with no martial training at all that have these abilities. They are rare however.

For most of us it is through hard work and a desire to excel to higher states of consciousness that we actually do attain them. Martial arts practitioners have the greatest chance of attaining these levels because of the East West mind combining that is necessary. The Eastern mind is creative and fluid. The Western mind is analytical and problem solving. Combining the two creates a synergy that activates the higher mind states that we have talked about.

What’s the one thing a person could do to develop their intuition and awareness skills?

A desire to achieve advanced levels will attract to you what you desire. The first step in gaining intuition and awareness is being able to allow yourself to be drawn to what will most benefit you at your unique level of development. Most people want a canned answer and want someone to point to the one thing that will be perfect for them. I’m not that kind of teacher because I would be telling you an untruth if I said one thing would work for everyone. You will desire what you want with all your heart and it will come to you. When you have mastered and experienced what you desired you could repeat the process and attract to you the next thing you as a perfectly unique entity need for further advancement. You will never arrive, at least while you are still living. Life is a journey.

Thank you for your time, Michael and for sharing your knowledge. Is there anything you would like to add?

Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts. I thoroughly enjoyed answering your thought provoking questions and hope they are of benefit. If your readers are interested in learning more then they can read The Intuitive Warrior: Lessons from a Navy SEAL on Unleashing Your Hidden Potential. I also have a blog at www.michaeljaco.com

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Biography of a SEAL Team Six Operator Chapter Eight

January 28th, 2014 mjaco No comments

Most stories of BUD/S brush over the second and third phases of training. The toughness of first phase and in particular Hell Week are mesmerizing but this is simply the building of individual toughness and team building. The rest of training is equally responsible in shaping and moulding the ethos of the ultimate warrior. Ethos is a Greek word meaning “character” that is used to describe the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize a community, nation, or ideology. Training or character building is never over as long as you remain a SEAL and as many of us that have since left the community will attest it becomes a way of life that last until your last breath.

We had the entire weekend to prepare internally for dive phase. We cleaned all of our gear, which included sharpening and oiling our Ka-Bar knives. Before every swim and or now before every dive part of our gear inspection was a clean and sharpened Ka-Bar. 

We readied our wet suit tops, we would never get wetsuit bottoms for our legs and had to adapt by swimming hard with our fins to keep warm in the cold Pacific waters along the California coast. First phase was a distant memory by the time we mustered up in the early morning hours of Monday morning. We began with a taste of second phase PT which was tough after having had the last couple of weeks with easy PT’s as first phase let our bodies recover from Hell Week.

After our PT we had a barracks inspection which went extremely well. No one failed. We had learned early on in first phase that if you spend hours of your free time cleaning and polishing your room it makes a difference in how your day and week goes. So far so good. Our spirits were up. We filed into the second phase classroom where we would meet the first phase instructors. The Second phase senior enlisted was an intimidating senior chief with combat experience in Viet Nam. He shear presence invoked respect and made you want to perform at your best level to prevent his wrath from becoming unleashed. Interestingly when I reflect back on my time as an instructor in first phase I realize that each of my different phase chiefs in training made a deep impression on me. I emulated many of the qualities and attributes that I found from each of them was most effective in shaping students and used them in my own ideal instructor persona. Many of the instructors in second phase were more focused on guiding us in becoming quality combat divers. They were not as focused on hammering us for the slightest infraction as we had experienced in first phase.

We began our instruction in dive physics which involved a lot of classroom time. I had already learned this as a hard hat diver so it was a breeze for me. I ended up helping several of my classmates and even took a new swim buddy who wanted me to help him overcome his anxieties about diving. I was extremely comfortable in the water and agreed to show him some tricks that would come in handy for him when we did pool competency. Pool comp as we called it was a series of underwater tests you had to perform with scuba gear on. We used twin heavy steel tanks with compressed air, outdated collapsible double hoses that were used because they could be tied in knots and twisted around your gear in unimaginable and creative ways, a mask, fins and UDT shorts.

We would have to perform our dive comp alone. The instructor assigned to you would come down and turn your air valve off, rip off your mask, undo your bottle straps, twist and tie up your inhalation and exhalation hoses and spin you around a few times for good measure and then leave you to figure it all out. They routinely hit you after you exhaled so you had to stay calm or you would burn up your cellular O2 quicker. Many guys freak and rocket to the top when they can’t figure out the spaghetti mess of their straps and hoses. I had worked with my partner stealing his air and cutting off his air when we practiced budding breathing. We swam over the top of our partner and passed the hose up or down to them after taking a couple of breaths. I secretly added a little extra to my partner after letting him know and he built up his confidence and poise under pressure. That’s what training teaches you over and over again. How to work through difficult situations under the most challenging of circumstances. Combat is like that. Nothing ever works out as you plan it and those that can work through tough challenges will prevail.

I thought my pool comp was actually easier in SEAL training than what I had experienced as a Hard Hat diver. As a hard hat student I had not only the challenge to take care of my own gear but to also work with and maintain contact with my dive partner. We could never be separated and I remember several instructors trying to pull my partner and I apart. Then after the struggle to maintain contact we had to untangle our gear and find air. Sometimes we only had one set of tanks and mouthpiece that we had to share. We lost our masks early on in the pool comp and the pool had been hyper chlorinated so it was painful to open your eyes but you did of course. We also had to swim around the entire pool from the shallow to the deep end in one continuous circuit. Once during the test my partner and I were swimming over a buddy team that was being mauled by the instructors. They looked like sharks in a feeding frenzy.

I could hear grunts from the divers as the instructors tried to pull them apart. Steel tanks clanked against each other as my dive buddy and I looked down in fascination and horror as we swam over them. Bubbles erupted from below as an exhaust hose disgorged and we were immersed in tickling bubbles. Just then another group of instructors tore into us and ripped at us. I held onto my buddy as if my life depended on it and I could feel his grip tighten on my arm as the instructors spun us and pulled harder to tear us apart. if we lost each other it was a fail. My air was cut off and the mouth piece was ripped violently from my mouth. We began to sink and I could feel us bumping into the other team we had just been watching. We had thought we were safe going over the other pair one second and in the next we were tangled up in their gear. I could see the silver glint of their steel tanks and then my own tanks clanked against theirs as my partner and I sank down to the bottom of the pool.

We all began to work to untangle with each other and then the instructors left us to figure it out. I quickly pulled in my bottle that I had held onto with one shoulder strap and turned on the air. I traced the hoses, untangled them rapidly and put the mouthpiece in my mouth. I blew out what little air I had in my lungs to clear the mouthpiece of water and took in a breath through my teeth so I wouldn’t inhale water. I passed the mouthpiece to my patiently waiting partner who was completely stripped of all gear. He took a breath and passed it back. I noticed the other dive team didn’t have an air source yet so I offered them mine. The four of us buddy breathed on one air source for several rounds of breaths. By the time you got the mouthpiece again you were starving for air but could only take one full breath. Finally the other team got their only air source figured out and we all moved on.

I still had one fin so I propelled us along as my buddy and I shared my air supply. I looked back on my hard hat diving experience and was thankful for the relative ease which I completed the first couple of weeks of second phase. Don’t get me wrong though. Training was still difficult. All of the times required to pass the physical evolutions had decreased. The four mile timed runs, O-course, two mile swims all had to be done faster. The PT’s were getting more challenging as well. There was less time for chow so that we were literally sprinting to the chow hall, eating through the line and sprinting back. We had more responsibilities. We had boats to prepare, diving gear to set up for several dives a day and into the night and knowledge tests to pass with passing grades. “The only easy day was yesterday” is a famous SEAL saying and it really began to hit home. We were learning to perform at a feverish pace and the demands would only increase. If you didn’t meet the next standard you got to walk the sand dunes with heavy steel tanks on your back. The thin nylon straps dug into your shoulders and no matter how much you pulled at them with your thumbs underneath the straps to release the pressure they seemed to dig deeper rubbing a perfect strap pattern grooved into your flesh.

After we completed pool comp and dive physics we moved onto the Draeger LAR V rebreather.

This was what combat diving was all about. No bubbles as the exhaled co2 was absorbed by small white pellets called SodaSorb. It was a technology that was first used in submarines.

Our combat dives were simple at first. A boat took us about a mile from the shore in San Diego Bay and we would swim to a designated spot on the silver strand beach on the bay side. A group of instructors began to set up a slowly collapsing zone over time that you had to hit within. If you were outside of the cones on either side you walked back in Bataan death march style to the dive locker. One night our whole class missed the mark and we all swore they moved the target after we started. It also meant that we would all have to come in and paint the dive locker and class room on our normal time off on the weekend. Ha Ha the joke was on us. Sucks to be a loser the dive cadre laughed at us.

We eventually learned how to calculate underwater currents and plot out long underwater dives in and out of a target area. All done at night with a compass board and depth gauge to stare at the whole time. Pure Oxygen has a nasty effect on the human body at depth and becomes toxic. You can go into a grand mal seizure if you go too deep for too long. Another effect of O2 under pressure is irritability. Ask any SEAL and they will have several funny stories of underwater episodes of irritability. I have had a few shouting matches underwater over the years. Hard to do with a mouthpiece but somehow each diver gets frustrated that the other diver can’t understand what they are saying and that they are right. Often you come up and laugh it off once the effects wear off.

Ask many guys that have gone through SEAL training and they will tell they couldn’t wait for it to end. While I was anxious to achieve the goal and always fretted over completing training without being washed out I actually enjoyed my time at BUD/S. Not all of it of course was pleasurable but I enjoyed the time of camaraderie and developing a team spirit. It often seemed like it was us against the instructors but as I would learn when I came back as an instructor myself there is a method and a reason for the madness.

We had been hammered into an even more cohesive unit. Whatever challenge we had been presented with we had accepted with spirit and overcome. Our professionalism had been developed even further and our ability to get the job done had exceeded many of our own expectations. Now it was time for the final challenge and one of the ones we had all been looking forward to. In third phase we would learn small unit tactics, weapons and demolitions. We felt we were ready but after being humbled in second phase we knew that we had to keep our focus and not come in with bravado or it would come back to bite us. We thought we were unpretentious going into third phase but we were in for a lot more humble pie.

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Biography of a SEAL Team Six Operator Chapter Seven

January 4th, 2014 mjaco No comments

After Hell Week is secured by the commanding officer, CO, of BUD/S in the late afternoon of Friday you go through an emotional and physical release. You are congratulated by the instructor staff and CO and then go through your last physical inspection by the doctor.

Here’s aYoutube link to watch class 272’s Hell Week being secured: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsO7AJKVwfw

At this point you are given the luxury of being driven to the chow hall for dinner. It will be the only time in the six months of BUD/S that this will happen. Usually you run the mile one way to the chow hall, eat as you go through the chow line, stand at your table till everyone makes it through the line then go outside and run in formation the mile back to the BUD/S compound. This adds four, six miles if you have to do dinner, of running a day to an already busy physical schedule. Guys in the beginning would puke their food up as we ran back from chow. I fortunately never did but I was close a few times. You wanted to keep the food down because you burn an extraordinary amount of calories a day.

When we got off the bus for the evening meal most of us were starting to cramp and swell up at the joints so we limped and moved slowly. We helped each other though and felt exuberant and the camaraderie was high for having survived through such a dramatic event together. I half remember eating and when we got back to our barracks rooms we slept the sleep of the dead. After a good fifteen hours of sleep we were in the weekend where you have off so I drove with some friends to breakfast then we came back and went back to sleep again. I remember doing this all weekend. Getting up to eat, then coming back and going to bed again. I actually felt pretty good other than having the skin between my legs look like hamburger from the chaffing. Imagine having sand and salt water poured into a raw area of your body and rubbed over and over again by a strap. Today just the thought of wrapping those red Kapok lifejacket straps around my thighs and cinching them down makes me cringe.

This sandpaper effect is what happens to your inner thighs every time you fasten your lifejacket crotch straps while going in the water for an ocean or bay paddle. Getting wet and sandy then going for a long paddle was Hell enough for me. It was excruciating at first but I became numb to the pain after awhile. Everyone had dings and injuries they had to work through throughout BUD/S training. I had a problem with the jungle boots we had to wear at the time. My feet are wide and jungle boots at the heal are narrow. I lived with blisters upon blisters and raw heals throughout BUD/S. Running for timed four mile runs with constant blisters was just one of my many personal challenges. Everyone learns to deal with some issue and this is one of the many things that makes a SEAL gut through impossible missions and operations throughout their career.

One of the privileges you earn after completing Hell Week is to switch from wearing a white t-shirt to wearing a brown one. Amazing how a different colored t-shirt can means so much but you wear as a badge of honor. Napoleon Bonaparte once said: I have made the most wonderful discovery… men will risk their lives, even die, for ribbons!” BUD/S students have taken it to the ridiculous level and opted for colored t-shirts instead of ribbons. My heart still wells up with passion and pride as I remember the thrill of wearing my brown t-shirt. Another one time benefit was to wear tennis shoes for the week after Hell Week. Even though we shuffled along at a slow trot back and forth to chow during the week we still felt immense pride at wearing our brown shirts. Our class t-shirt that I was in charge of procuring as the class treasurer would have a winged angel holding an m-16 across his chest with the motto: “To Hell and Back and Beyond.” I’m sure one of my classmates still has one somewhere.

We were fortunate that during the week after Hell Week we had many classroom sessions learning about beach hydro reconnaissance and making hydrographic charts. the following two weeks would be filled with learning how to properly conduct water surveys of costliness for marine beach landings like happened during WWII. The most famous of which was the Normandy France landings during D-Day of the allied invasion to defeat the German army. It wouldn’t be until the third phase of training before we would actually place live demolitions on underwater obstacles and blow them up.

So what is it about Hell Week, HW, that is so important to put guys through this level of extreme training? After having the time to reflect back over my career as a participant and instructor of Hell Week I can offer you many insights.

HW transforms every individual that makes it out the other side. You are able to handle physical, mental, emotional, psychological and teamwork on levels that is incomprehensible to the average human being. This will remain with you for the rest of your life. For some the transformation is immediately visible on an external level. The confidence and poise in some of my classmates was shocking. Guys that had been like little boys to me were now confident men before my eyes.

On other levels you are able to overcome extreme obstacles in the future. I have been in life or death situations repeatedly over my lifetime and the experiential foundation that was set into my psyche during HW allowed me to workout a solution that saved my life. You are able to work on a nonphysical level where you can access information that everyone can learn to access. Because of the extreme level of hardship we were subjected to repeatedly over a long period of time we were able to tap into this area of human consciousness. It is a warrior calm and I had experienced moments of it in athletic competition.

It’s a moment when everything seems to slow down and you can understand things on a level that would be impossible without going into this state of awareness.

If you want a visual example think of the Movie with Tome Cruise staring called: “The Last Samurai.” There are a couple scenes where everything slows down for him and he is able to move as if in slow motion.

Youtube link:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k52LRSrNYTI

Other examples are the movies “Sherlock Holmes” starring Robert Downing Jr. wherein he see’s things in slow motion and analyzes his movements and responses to find the perfect solution.

Youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltFyEcoGnbQ

I have worked with all of our Special Forces in the US and many throughout the world and though they all have their unique gifts and talents none push the level of training that happens in Hell Week. It is a unique level of training that has been mastered over many decades. I could see when people entered this altered level when I was an instructor and it was as amazing as actually going through the experience. Any Hell Week instructor will tell you the same. What the human body and mind can accomplish is unbelievable to behold.

Can anyone achieve this level outside the SEAL teams? I would later develop the SEAL’s first hand to hand course taught throughout the teams. It was during this course that I personally learned how to tap this state at will. I was able to teach others how to do this as well and again I could see the transformation happen right before my eyes when guys got it. Not everyone did but just like everyone has it within them achieve amazing levels of performance it was there just not available to be drawn upon at will. I will talk more about starting the hand-to-hand program in a future chapter.

So who can draw upon these abilities without participating in extreme SEAL like training? Martial artists, a mother who’s child is in danger, a business man who has determined the perfect business strategy, a scientist who has come across a monumental new discovery, an athlete etc. In other words everyone is capable of amazing abilities.

First we have to believe in ourselves to even come close to amazing abilities.

Second we can not hesitate in the moment and doubt.

Third we have to strive for perfection.

Fourth never give in. Adapt and continue until you reach amazing.

Fifth we can’t beat ourselves up for failure but consider it another lesson towards perfection.

The SEAL Hell Week experience should be studied for it can inform every aspect of society.

Once first phase was over it was time to enter the second phase or dive training phase. We had formed ourselves into a well oiled machine and had earned the respect, although it was silent, of the first phase staff. We felt confident and believed that second phase would see us as the professionals that we had become and go easy on us. We were in for a big surprise.

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Biography of a SEAL Team Six Operator Chapter Six

December 11th, 2013 mjaco No comments

I arrived at BUD/S  four weeks before we classed up.  All we really did for the month was an early morning PT starting at around 0530. It was led by a senior chief that was twice as old as most of the guys in our class. It was a tough workout and was a teaser for what lay ahead and many of us knew it. I remember wearing my white t-shirt and UDT shorts. UDT’s are very short, tight and tan colored. At the top of the shorts are two metal d-rings that you pass a belt like strap through and use to cinch down your shorts.

I was lean and muscular at the time our class up party started and weighed in at around 185 and stood at 5′10″. That height would be significant in a few days when we were sized up into boat crews. Carrying an IBS, Inflatable Boat Small, on your head as a seven man group of equal height would be crucial especially in Hell Week where you carry your boat everywhere.  I was relatively the same size as I had been while playing high school football and soccer. Little did I know that I would be loosing twenty pounds over the next several weeks through Hell Week as I smoked through calories faster than I could put them back on. How many of us would like that diet plan today? Everyone buzzes all their hair really short at the class up party. A few of us hard core types shaved our heads and my beach blond hair went bye bye.

Our initial first phase PT was a blowout for many of the guys that had come right from the fleet a couple days before class up. The hardcore group that had done early morning PT with enthusiasm and cheering was now replaced with cries and moans of pain. I have never been a fan of whiners. I believe in gutting through difficulties and digging deeper internally to find the strength to do so. I personnaly find people that don’t have the fortitude, willpower and common sense to do so an iritating distraction. All of the first phase instructors were all over the guys that were whining with shouting and screaming at them to put out. They were like sharks in a pool awash with the blood of helpless wounded fish. The master chief of the phase was leading PT and he was more than twice as old as anyone in my class included myself at twenty years old. It seemed like mayhem with all the whining and shouting but I felt an inner calm that soon the whiners would be gone. One guy that showed up barely made it to the top of our first suspended rope climb and then to everyone’s horror slid at high speed down the rope ripping the flesh from his hands. One down. Over the next five weeks we would loose what seemed like one or two guys a day on average. Everyday would get harder and the PT’s got steadily harder, the swims and runs longer. The O-courses and other timed evolutions had to be performed faster and faster.

Drown proofing was a breeze after having spent most of my life in and around the water. Being in the water has always been like a moving meditation for me. Then came the swimming part with our limbs tied with rope. Hands tied no problem. Feet tied no problem. Hands and feet tied was a challenge for me because at this point several weeks into training I sunk like a rock because of hardly any body fat. Those guys with some meat on them and decent technique had little difficulty. Fat is less dense than lean muscle so if you have a lot you actually need weight to get down. Even twelve years later as an instructor if  I got into the pool while students were conducting drown proofing with a wetsuit on I still would sink. A wet suit makes you more buoyant and you have to usually put on a weight belt. I didn’t need one even more than a decade later. I could get in the water to be a safety observer watching the students perform the same evolution I had difficulty with and still sink even with rubber on.

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I had to learn really good technique and time my breaths correctly. Every time you take a big breath into your lungs while in the water it is like filling a balloon with air. Imagine pushing a balloon full of air underwater. Difficult. Now let the air completely out and you easily take the deflated balloon underwater. Your lungs are similar so when you take in a big breath you are buoyant. I needed that. When you kick and stroke correctly you can also stay afloat. Dolphin kicking your tied legs is a technique that can keep you afloat when you are tied. Coordinating my kick and inhale/float and exhale/sink was challenging and I barely was able to refine my technique in the time we had to practice. It would be the same throughout BUD/S and the SEAL teams. You rarely have time to master something before you have to perform it in a make or break performance. Such is life and such is combat. Those that can perform at a high level with minimal preparation are usually the ones that succeed in life and live through combat.

Lifesaving was easy for me after all my training and after being a lifeguard where I had literally saved peoples lives. The problem was that none of us had any practice saving people that struggled on the level that the instructors would.

One of our instructors was a world class arm wrestler that had biceps bigger than most peoples thighs. Another one of our instructors was a master at the choke out. We had a guy in our class named Bob Kershner that asked the dumbest questions. He put no thought into his nonstop questions to the point where you just rolled your eyes when he raised his hand. Bob was a super nice guy and we would be friends later in the teams but he had to know all the little details about everything. There is a point when questions become annoying. We had a 1st phase chief that taught many of our important classes throughout the weeks leading upto Heel Week. One day before lifesaving practical Kershner asked one of his dumb questions. The chief without stopping his lecture monolog motioned Bob to come unto the stage of the classroom. Bob walked up a little hesitantly and we all thought, now he’s going to get it! The chief kept talking and motioned for Bob to turn around and face us. This particular chief was every trainees nightmare. He was big, powerful and could destroy your world without raising his voice, He had hammered our class more than once without breaking a sweat or loosing his cool. While still talking about how we would conduct ourselves when paddling our IBS’s he wrapped his anaconda arms around Kershner’s neck and squeezed almost imperceptibly. Bob passed out and the chief let him slide gently down unconscious to the floor. We all stared wide mouthed. Bob’s body jerked and flopped on the floor and then he came back to the world of the living.

The chief never missed a beat in his lecture and as Kershner walked back dazed to his seat chief Hopkins asked, “Did that answer your question Kershner?” Bob nodded dumbly and sat down. He never did ask anymore questions.

I learned during lifesaving that if you conducted your save correctly and with determination you were passed. I watched several guys thrashing and screaming for their lives as they failed to correctly save instructors and had the tables turned on them. It was not a pretty sight and as you went in for your particular save the thought of failure could not enter your mind. I had learned this mind game early on. Think of failure and it will hunt you down unmercifully. You had an even chance of success if you believed in yourself but if you thought you couldn’t if only for a split second you were doomed.

By far one of the toughest physical evolutions that we did was Log PT. No matter how tough or physically fit you were or how well your boat crew worked together you experienced incredibly deep levels of pain and muscular failure over and over again until you became numb to it. One good thing that came out of log pt was that you were forced to work as a team on a level that cemented forever in your psyche that teamwork is one of the most amazing things when it works well. When teamwork fails during log pt, which it will on some level for everyone then you know it on a deep level and don’t want to repeat it. I remember that log pt seemed to go on forever. The heat was incredible. Dry mouthed and breathing heavy I inhaled dust from the sand which made it worse. The fine sand dust stuck to sweating skin and acted like sand paper until your sweat began to burn your neck and face where the log rubbed.  Every movement had to be coordinated as a group or you ended up working twice or three times as hard to correct your mistakes. The sweat stung my eyes so bad I did most of the exercises with my eyes closed. I was in a world of pain. I was surrounded by people groaning as if they were dying of pain. With my eyes closed it also helped to focus on the instructors commands over the whining coming from even the previously hard core in shape guys that were now struggling mightily past their limits. I was learning how to focus my mind to tell my body to do the impossible. This was to be an all day occurrence for a whole week during Hell Week. We were getting only a couple of hours taste.

We learned how to work tighter as a team rowing our boats out through the surf and running with the boats on our heads. One of the most thrilling and dangerous of all first phase events was night rock portage in front of the Hotel Del Coronado.

The night we did rock portage was epic. The waves were unusually huge and just getting through the surf zone without having your boat flip end over end was challenging. I was the bow man on the front right side of the boat and called the rhythmic stroke count that would determine when everyone dug their paddle into the water and pulled. We had an officer named Mr Padrone from Ecuador that was excellent at steering our IBS at the stern of the boat. Because their was a language barrier I would sometimes help him by calling out the commands. It was a good working relationship and we would all do well together. The now quiet Bob Kershner was in my boat crew and knew how and when to dig his paddle when needed. I learned up forward in the bow to drive my paddle into the face of a big wave that was about to flip us and drive us through or up and over the top of a massive wave about to destroy us. We’d had our share of having the boat flip and send wooden paddles crashing around dangerously. The challenge was to hold onto your paddle when you were flipped by a wave. Otherwise the paddle was a dangerous torpedo and or by the time you washed ignominiously back up on shore you had to hunt for your paddle up and down the shore causing the instructors to hammer you while you waited. Some guys had gotten stitches in their faces and heads from loose paddles slamming into them. Timing was everything when it came to judging the waves.

If you caught the waves just right coming in then you could ride it all the way in without much effort. A good coxswain steering the boat was crucial coming in because if he let the boat drift one way or the other to the side then you would be flipped and rolled. Getting flipped at night when you can’t see as you come into large rocks can be devastating and demoralizing. Mr. Padrone was perfect as a coxswain and we rode many waves into the beach and rocks without much problem.

The next challenge was to get your boats over the rocks as waves crashed onto you. You had to flip the boat over and then inch by inch move the boat and your people safely over the rocks as your freezing from the cold water and getting slammed around by monster waves. These days the BUD/S students wear helmets for rock portage in my day we just had our hats and the injuries were nasty. One of our top guys got rolled back to the next class because he had a huge gash in his head. The helmet idea came from one of my SEAL Team Six Red Man squadron buddies when we both left to become instructors. Train smarter.

Hell Week would start on a night I will never forget. September 27, 1981 was my twenty first birthday and it was the greatest present I’d ever received before or since. I had been looking forward to this night and this experience for most of my life and it was way beyond my wildest imaginings. When I think of my Hell Week breakout night I think of a scene out of Dante’s Hell where Dante descends into the underworld. He encounters horror, chaos and shock on the faces of the people he encounters in Hell. Automatic machine gun fire and grenade simulator explosions rage out for almost tow hours. We were sent back and forth to our beachside tents to change our clothes, get wet in the freezing surf zone, come back to purple haze from smoke grenades and instructors screaming through bullhorns every obscenity known to man. One instructor had a laughing box that played through his megaphone and echoed off buildings as we ran around in confusion at the different commands from every instructor. Fires burned in barrels positioned throughout a beach obstacle course we had to crawl though that had preplanned explosions rigged. Artillery simulators went off after a long whistle during which we were told to get down flat, cross our legs and bring our hands over our ears as we opened our mouths to keep from having our eardrums shattered from bomb blast shock waves.

During our many crazy changes of clothes I left my UDT shorts on and threw my long pants on over them in a mad dash to get back out or suffer greater punishment for being late. I never got a chance to take them off again until we came back thirty hours later and rubbed raw inner thighs from the sand and salt water. I had hidden some women’s nylons in the sand near my tent that I’d been told would reduce the incidence of raw legs that plagued many students. I thought I would put them on now to prevent any further chaffing. Big mistake because when we came back for our first doctors check and first rest another thirty hours later my chaffed thighs had oozed scab material that had formed on the outside of the nylon mesh. Because nylons were obviously not part of the uniform and we would all be naked when we had our inspection I would have to rip the nylon scabs off my tender thighs. Talk about Hell! I would carry scars on my thighs for decades before they finally faded. Two other guys had chaffing worse than I did and one of them got rolled back into the next class. Today the trainees wear nylon biking shorts throughout Hell Week and rarely is there a severe chaffing issue. Train smarter.

One of my least favorite drills during the week was whistle drills. One whistle meant drop to the ground no matter where you were and cross your legs, cover your ears and slightly open your mouth. Two whistles meant you were to crawl on your belly to the whistle. Three whistles was for springing to your feet as fast as possible. Sounds harmless and innocent but add wet and sandy clothes and body from head to toe. Never do you get down or up fast enough. If you crawl fast enough to the whistle your reward is you get to lay there. Wonderful stillness. If you are first then everyone else coming in crawls on top of you. Warmth. Usually shattered by someone else blowing the whistle in the distance. Now you have to wait till everyone gets off you and now you are last. Never! be last because you will get extra punishment. 

All week you will hear the monotonous “It pays to be a winner.” It did actually if you were fortunate to be a winner. The winners were usually the big guy boat crew. Guys that were six foot or taller. I was in the second to the tallest boat crew and sometimes we won on short sprints but on the long races the big guys would power past us to our dismay. I would damn their longer arms and legs as they stroked past us in the boats or strode past us on runs. Sometimes if we got a big enough head start we could beat them but towards the end of Hell Week we started gauging the reward to cost level and opted for coming in second or less a few times. I remember on one of our races towards the end of the week we were in last place. We had lost a couple of guys that had quit from our boat crew. Two of the guys that we’d gotten to replace them from another boat crew of quiters were some of the cocky guys that had bragged about how well they were going to do in Hell Week. I believed them because they had crushed every PT, four mile timed run, O-course and swim that we’d had up to this point. Now however they were whining because their legs hurt. As an instructor I learned that I could never determine what was inside someone. I picked guys that I was sure would make it in Hell Week and they would sometimes be the first to quit.

We had a former Green Beret officer in our class “116″, that I thought would probably make a great SEAL. He quit before Hell Week. I have seen professional athletes from every sport that have quit training while I was an instructor. The one thing that I can tell you that makes a difference is your determination to do whatever it takes no matter what. You can’t see if a guy or a gal has made that quintessential internal choice. I stopped trying to predetermine potential SEAL’s long ago. Performance is the true judge.

So here are these two top performers that are put in our top performing boat crew. They were instructor favorites because they had actually been allowed to cut up with the instructors. They were instructor darlings and I thought they would add to our performance. I was sadly mistaken because they turned out to be whiners. I hate whiners. We were in last place for the first time and it was because our two new additions were crying every time we tried to step up our pace. So we lagged as the other boat crews passed us one by one.

It was dark and just prior to our race one of the new guys had an hallucination and said that they saw a dinosaur.  Bob Kershner would later see dolphins jumping into our boat and freaked out so bad we put him into the center of the boat to sleep because he was banging his paddle around trying to keep the dolphins from jumping in our boat. Sometimes you carry each other because you never know when you will be the one needing it. Other times like in a race where the instructors come up alongside you in a truck and whisper in a malevolent voice that they are going to make you pay big time if you loose then you all have to dig deep and put out.

This was one of those times. The front of the boat is the toughest place to be. The bow of the boat curves up and adds the most weight of anywhere else. I took over the front position from one of our whiners.  I began to run. I leaned forward and powered my legs pulling the boat forward ever faster. The two new additions were crying and screaming. They even were pulling back on the boat to slow me down. We began to pass boats again. Our boat pounded onto the top of our heads as we ran causing the IBS to bounce. The jamming of the boat onto your head is like a jackhammer on sore muscles, joints and ligaments throughout your body every time the boat comes down. The faster you run the harder it sends shock waves of pain through your body. Like electric jolts of hot pain. I pushed through the pain barrier. I was a machine.

We were passing every boat crew that had passed us. First one then another until we were back near the front and we were racing the big guys. They started stepping out. We would have won if the new guys had not actually fought our progress. Because we were second we got a few boat pushups and then were allowed to curl up underneath the boat and sleep. It payed to be a winner even second place. Pity the poor last place finishers. We were probably asleep for only ten minutes but it felt like an hour. I would learn during this week to sleep anywhere at anytime on demand. It’s one of those things that SEAL’s can do and must do. I’ve slept on a bouncing rubber tube of a raiding craft as cold salt spray washed over me. I’d just done a four hour dive after being up all day prepping for it. I was in my rubber and still had my dragger dive rig strapped to my chest but could still go right to sleep like a baby. I could also wake in an instant and fight for my life if needed.

BUD/S was BASIC training. I’ve been far colder, tired and miserable than I ever was in BUD/S. Many people think that BUD/S is the toughest thing there is but SEAL’s do far harder and tougher challenges throughout their career. BUD/S teaches you how to dig ever deeper to accomplish the impossible missions over and over again. Like one of my friends told me that went through before me, “you cannot fathom how tough BUD/S is until you experience it first hand.” His words hauntingly still ring in my head.

Imagine something ten times greater than you have ever physically done. You can’t. All you can do is think to yourself that is something incredibly tough. Now think of something ten times greater than what you have experienced that is ten times greater than that. That would be the level of what you are going to experience as a SEAL I would tell BUD/S classes this when I was the phase chief many years later. I would do it when things were really intense. I could feel like a sixth sense when a class was close to the edge and people were ready to quit. That would be when I would give them the line about ten times harder in the teams. Lots of guys walked away from BUD/S when faced with that stark reality. “Better walk away now than when the going gets tough!” I would always follow up with that next line as a trail of people headed for the bell to ring it three times to drop out of training. Your helmet would be laid down on the pavement before the bell after you rang out and would become no longer yours but a statistic in a long line of others. I can’t remember any of the guys that quit in my class but I can remember all of the winners. I’ll never forget them.

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Biography of a SEAL Team Six Operator Chapter Five

November 20th, 2013 mjaco No comments

The last few months on my ship the Florican were some of the best in the year and a half that I was on her.  I’d made rank to Petty officer third class rapidly and I took the test for a higher rank to 2nd class Boswains Mate. I would be a rate grabber for the first half of my career which meant I made rate when I was eligible first time up. I was on fire. Everything was going my way. Normally you would be required to do a minimum of two years as a 2nd class diver before going to BUD/S. The chiefs and several of the officers on my ship got behind me because of my motivation and hard work and made it happen for me. One of the senior officers on my ship was Gung Ho for me to become an officer. Something I would encounter my entire career all the way unto my last year in the Navy after 24 years. This particular officer on my ship had lined it up so that I could go to the Naval Academy but I politely declined. He was disappointed but knew of my passion for SEAL training because he had some friends that were SEAL Officers. I was told officers only got to be an active SEAL for a few years before they took up leadership positions and never operated again. That has drastically changed now especially if an officer is fortunate enough to go to SEAL Team Six. A good hard charging officer now a days can get 10 -12 years as an active operator. Not so in my day so I wanted no part of being an officer. I saw myself doing twenty years or more if I could remain an operator in the front lines. I knew exactly what I wanted now I would never let myself be persuaded otherwise again.

One of the last things I would do with my ship before I checked out of my ship for good was to go to Portland, Oregon for the yearly Rose festival. Several small Naval Ships like mine would cruise up the Columbia River from it’s confluence on the Pacific Ocean several miles upstream to the city of Portland. We docked right on the city piers and opened our ships up to thousands of visitors a day.

Because our ship was unusual with our giant dive buoys, submersible chamber and Diving gear displayed on deck we had the lion share of visitors. I enjoyed talking with people about our ship and its capabilities and after well over a year on board I could talk easily about what we did. Liberty in town was great and the locals really loved us. A big difference from California where the the anti Viet Nam movement had been very prominent. In the late 1970’s it was hard to get a date. After my divorce I had been nursing a wounded heart for a year so I didn’t care much. But Portland women loved the military man in uniform so I fell for a beauty named Kelly who was half native American and half German Irish. One of the sweetest girls I’d ever met and we hit it off right away after I gave her and her friends a tour of the ship.

We dated several times while the fleet was in port until the fated time for us to head back to San Diego. I didn’t want to go and fervently desired to stay so I could get to know Kelly better. Nature answered my prayer. Mt St. Helens had already suffered a major eruption and would now have another on May 1980 when she blew her top and spread ash far and wide. I remember being in a micro brew pub with Kelly and several of the divers from my ship and everyone running outside to see the ash falling like snow. I have a little jar of that ash I’ve carried around for over thirty years now to commemorate that night.  The ash threatened to block the 20 ships visiting the festival. Fortunately we would stay as the other Naval vessels departed for fear of being trapped from ash clogging the river as had already happened on a previous eruption. Because we had towing capabilities and a higher draft in the water than the other ships we stayed an extra few days until the rest of the fleet cleared the Columbia river. During this time Kelly and I made plans that I would come back and visit her for the month that I had to transfer from my ship to BUD/S training. It would be a great break for me and I would get to recharge my batteries for the coming six months of training that I would endure.

I checked off my ship and everyone of my friends and the rest of the crew wished me luck. I would find out later that only two of my friends actually believed that I would make it through BUD/S. I was dumfounded but most people even the elite Hard Hat Divers thought being a SEAL was an unobtainable distant dream. When I was in the teams I would sometimes wear my Hard Hat dive pin under my SEAL Trident on my dress uniform instead of my jump wings because no one else had one and it’s cool to be different and have the bragging rights. I never saw or heard of another hard hat diver making it into the teams in my over twenty-four year career.

Kelly showed me all over Portland and the surrounding area. The Columbia river gorge is one of natures marvels with it’s beautiful waterfalls and hiking trail into the luxuriant forests.

It was bitter sweet leaving Kelly behind. I had met her family and friends and we had all hit it off great. I had felt like part of a family but it was time to fulfill a dream and I was antse to make it happen. I had trained every day running and doing thousands of calisthenics.

When I checked into BUD/S in July my class didn’t start up for another month. I’m glad I showed up early because the physical training was more intense than I had ever experienced. I had some friends that had made it through BUD/S that I had met back in Philadelphia going through Hull Technician training.

They had tried to tell me that the physical training intensity and Hell Week itself was indescribable and its magnitude could only be realized when experienced first hand. I had tried my best to imagine it and had pushed myself more than I thought possible and it was still not even close. I was a muscular and fit 190 pounds but would lean down to 160 by the time Hell Week was over. The weight would gradually come back over time and I would be far more muscular and fit than I had ever been in my life when I would come back nearly ten years later as an BUD/S instructor myself. Effortlessly running the Physical Training, PT, evolutions that I would now be struggling through. I started making friends with my future classmates. We had a tough group of young men. Their were a hand full of us that had fleet experience. In the next phase of training which was dive phase I would be one of the first people advanced during BUD/S. I would be a 2nd class and have more responsibility. I was the third most senior enlisted in my class and we had one fleet officer that would survive through Hell Week. By the time we graduated we were one of the largest classes to ever make it through BUD/S at thirty eight people. Leadership as I would find when I returned as an instructor makes a huge difference in how well a class does.

We even had an olympic swimmer in our class which was BUD/S class 116. Unfortunately President Carter had cancelled Americans participating in the Olympics in Russia because they invaded Afghanistan. So Chuck had not participated in the Olympics and decided to try something even more challenging having to do with the water and swimming. Chuck would be a great inspiration to our entire class as he feet new records in the Obstacle course. Out class even set a record as a class having the fastest combined time. We were doing the old “O” course and after flooding rearranged the old one a new one was built that was even tougher. I remember how had training was and when I came back as an instructor it was even tougher. I was pushing students to far greater levels than I had endured and the standards are even greeter now. Training as a lot of old timers like to brag was tougher in their day but that is not the case for the SEAL teams. The standards for entry and the training across the entire spectrum is tougher than ever.

I remember the first several weeks of training as if it was yesterday. We were nonstop from early in the morning before the sun came up in mid August until after the sun went down on most days. Classroom sessions were interspersed between physical activities. It seemed like everyday more people quit. If they didn’t quit they failed some evolution like drown proofing where I feet and legs were tied and we had to swim that way. Lifesaving where we eventually had to save the instructors. Log PT that seemed to get more intense every time we did it. I remember we used to have creosote covered telephone poles that got inside the pores of your neck where the log rested as you raced around. It would burn like the skin of your neck and face were literally on fire in the hot August sun. Runs and swim times decreased every couple of weeks so that you had to put out at a faster and faster pace. Many people failed and our class dwindled from over one hundred to half that number by the time Hell Week was to start. At the time 95% of the quitters and drops happened by the middle of Hell Week. If you made it through the third night of Hell Week you were pretty much going to wear a trident of Budweiser as we used to call them. That number has dropped to 75% now. There are lots of hurdles once you complete Hell Week now. Even in the teams I have seen guys loose their tridents that have been around for years because of poor performance. The Teams are far more professional than the almost 35 years ago that I started training. That is because of the dedication and perservierance of men from across the entire spectrum. When many of us started to filter back into the teams from SEAL Team Six the standards really started to accelerate.

I know many of you have heard and seen the Hell Week stories. I will give you my professional evaluation of Hell Week as I went through it and from my perspective as a leading phase chief in the next chapter.

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Biography of a SEAL Team Six Operator Chapter Four

November 15th, 2013 mjaco No comments

I’ll never forget the day I arrived in sunny California. It was January 1980 and after the winter weather of the East coast for the last 19 years of my life it was amazingly mild in comparison. I would become a sun worshiper. I loved the feel of the warm sun on my skin and would head to the beaches whenever I had free time. I had always loved the summer weather in the South East growing up and would wear nothing but shorts unless I went somewhere that required a shirt and shoes like going to a restaurant or church.

California has some of the most beautiful beaches of anywhere else in the world. My favorite is Coronado where BUD/S training and the SEAL teams are located. Just recently in 2012 Coronado was voted the most beautiful beach in the USA.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/travelnews/2012/06/pictures/120604-best-beaches-2012-summer/

Coronado Beach picture: one of the ten best U.S. beaches of 2012

When I arrived and checked onto my ship and my home for the next year and a half the weather was sunny and 70 degrees. Winter nights are chilly in SoCal and after a sunny day on the beach in shorts you better have a sweater handy or you’ll freeze, which I did on a few occasions. Remember I learn the hard way but when I finally get it I’m a great sharer. My ship was conducting training dives over the side of the ship and I gleefully got right to work. I couldn’t believe my luck when I was standing on deck the next day after arriving and looked out across the beautiful San Diego Bay on sunny day after sunny day. Right across the bay was my dream destination, BUD/S, and I would look over at it everyday wee were in port and dream.  San Diego was paradise to me. Within a week after our training dives we went to sea to test our ability to conduct submarine rescue operations near San Clemente Island which was within sight of the San Diego coast on a clear day. I was a second class diver doing one of things I had always loved most since a kid and that was being in the water.

My ship the USS Florican ASR-9 was a converted ocean going tug outfitted with four large orange buoys two of them were fitted on the port and starboard sides of the ship. They could be dropped and anchored to the bottom of the ocean near the four corners of a sunken submarine. The rescue ship would then use mooring lines to hold position over the sub and use a large orange and ship grey submersible chamber that would be lowered and attached to the submarines escape chamber. We would then elevator the submersible up and down plucking a few survivors at a time from what would otherwise be a watery grave for the anxious submariners.

After we conducted our sea trials for successfully anchoring over a simulated stranded sub we cruised over to San Clemente and conducted diving operations in our old Mark Five, MK-V, Diving rig. The Island was solely for the Navy’s use. Ships guns could be fired at the Islands Southern end and on the Northern end was a landing strip where fighter pilots practiced simulated touch and go aircraft carrier landings. At night the f-14’s afterburners kicking in could be seen for miles across the open waters. I always wondered what it was like to feel the power as you were thrust back into your pilot seat when those jet engines kicked into full power. I liked to watch the F-14’s shooting long columns of flame out the tail at night. It was like something out of a Star Wars movie.

Just below the runway on the Northern end of the island was a small cove and sandy beach where the SEAL training compound that I was hoping to see on our trip. We passed close by before we anchored on the Eastern side to begin our deep dives down to 190 feet. The Island was mostly desolate with waist high shrubs and leaping cactus that would jump painfully into your legs as you passed near them at night as I would eventually learn in  couple of years. We began our dives with coastal cliffs almost within reach because the water dropped so fast next to our mountain in the sea. If our ship had been a spacecraft it would have been like anchoring in the air next to Mt Everest  without the water. Our senior diving officer, who was an old sving officer, was crawling along the bottom looking for sea shells for his daughter after we had been diving in the cold crystal clear water. The sea was full of life here undisturbed by man. The bombing and shelling kept all fishing vessels far away and the undersea world was vibrant and alive.  Our senior diving officer, who was an old school inflexible by the book officer, was crawling along the bottom looking for sea shells for his daughter on our last dive day after a full week of diving. Suddenly his air control valve attached to his breast plate struck a rock. The valve jammed wide open dumping air into his canvas suit.

This is the worst case scenario for a MK-V surface supplied air diver and one they had warned us about repeatedly at dive school. Here it was happening on my first dive trip. Air circulated into the spun copper helmet and into the dive suit itself. If air came in to rapidly the suit would begin to expand and your arms and legs would be forced out rigidly making it impossible to bend them and tighten down your control valve to restrict the air coming in. In your helmet was a dump valve you pulled open with your lips but it was inadequite for large volumes of air and mainly used to dump circulated air in your helmet so you didn’t build up to much carbon dioxide from your exhaled breath.

I was actually tending his dive hose when he made the call on the communications that he was in free ascent. What can happen in this situation is that as the diver starts to rise rapidly to the surface they can burst their lungs if they don’t exhale all the way up. The air in the suit can also burst the suit and cause the diver to descend rapidly again after sky rocketing to the surface like a balistic missile released from a submarine. We had all heavily trained for this scenario and one of the most important things to do was to haul in the dive hose as fast as possible. You had to get them to the decompression chamber fast and press them down several atmospheres so they wouldn’t get a severe reaction from the expanding gas in the blood and tissues of the body. Death can come quickly and excruciatingly painful if treatment is not administered within less than a few minutes. Time was critical now!

I hauled on the heavy wet dive hose like I was superman and several divers raced over to back me up and pulled on the hose behind me. “Haul on that hose Jaco!” shouted the on scene diving officer, senior chief Boswains Mate Scalpy. A salty sailor that was my first sea daddy and taught me how to be a good sailor and an even better diver. We heard a loud thump on the bottom of the ship within seconds of hearing the rapid ascent called out. Another text book occurrence as the divers helmet had slammed into the bottom of the ships hull. I hauled him in with a mighty effort over to side of the ship as we lowered the metal dive platform and hauled him onto it. We then brought him up to the ships main deck. We literally cut him out of the dive suit and several men worked the locking bolts on his chest plate and rapidly pulled his helmet and breast plate over his head. We stood him up and raced him to the decompression chamber that had air already hissing from valves. It was ready in anticipation of pressing him down to depth to prevent dangerous air bubbles clogging blood flow to the brain. The diving medical officer who was also a senior chief was in the chamber waiting and after escorting the concerned diver to the chamber I pulled the heavy metal doors closed and spun the locking mechanism wheel to create an airtight seal. I then ran over and helped run the valves for the chamber. From the time he left the bottom of the ocean 190 feet down to the time we hauled him up on deck and pressed him back down to depth was an amazing one minute and fifty three seconds. Fortunately the diving officer had no complications. A bruised ego and a little humbleness suited him very well afterwards but would unfortunately would not last long. He was always somewhat partial to me however after that day and even gave me a piece of the canvas suit that we had cut him out of. He personally signed it and stated his gratitude for the professionalism we had all shown that day. He would not be so generous later when he found out I wanted to leave and become a SEAL. Delaying my requests to attend BUD/S until he transferred from the ship. He even refused to buy me a wetsuit that every new diver got after several months on board because he said I was going to leave the hard hat community and the SEAL’s could buy me one. Regardless of my personal beef with the guy he was a professional and I respected him.

When we weren’t diving which was often much to my chagrin, we would do the normal shipboard life routine. Maintenance of gear was a constant drudgery and standing watches came every few days when we were in port because we were a small ship with only a little over one hundred personnel. Underway was even worse because we were often undermanned. It was the President Carter years and the military was being drawn down after the Viet Nam war. Quality of life and morale in the military for most service personnel would reach new lows in the late 1970 and early 1980’s. Life was tough but I still had my dream of being a SEAL and I could care less how tough life got. In fact I was trying to make life tough by working out constantly and living a Spartan lifestyle. I remember after being on board for a little over a year that the chiefs got together and made me take a break because I worked so hard. They all knew of my dream to be a SEAL and thankfully supported me. “We all got together and decided you would get the day off while we got underway. Go over to the beach in Coronado and be among your SEAL buddies,” Senior Chief Scalpy teased good naturedly.

I watched from the pier as the mooring lines were cast off and didn’t quite know what to do with myself. The shipboard life had been my complete focus as I had tried to forget the pain I felt from a recent divorce. I had met a mysterious and beautiful South Carolina girl when I had been a lifeguard. We had dated, gotten serious and she followed me to Washington, DC where we eventually got married. Lauren Martin had left college where she was studying to be a radiological technician to be with me and eventually regretted it. Married life is a challenge for mature couples and even harder for young adults depending on a junior enlisted pay. She had liked being around the elite diving community with it’s camaraderie and she had felt drawn to go into the Navy herself. She was guaranteed a spot  where she had left off in the radiological medical field.

I was crushed when I called her one night after I returned from a month long cruise to Alaska to lay a grid of undersea cable to listen for submerged Russian subs during the cold war. Our ship had almost capsized in a huge storm we sailed through. It had been an exciting and dangerous trip. Lauren had just visited me in San Diego a month before I left on the then secret deployment and we’d had a wonderful time. She told me coldly she wanted a divorce. “It’s all your fault!” was all I could remember from the conversation and it was the last time I ever talked to her. I was sent the papers, signed them and that was it. I had won and lost at love. It was painful but on hindsight a great experience. I would rather try and fail at love than never experience love at all. I would just be a lot more wary in the future. Remember I learn the hard way.

Now it was just me and the lifelong dream to be a SEAL. The emotions of sorrow and pain can be catalysts to greatness if you focus your energy correctly. Within a few months I would have orders to attend BUD/S. It was the summer of 1981. I was confident, focused, a little wiser and incredibly passionate to fulfill the dream of a lifetime. To be a Navy SEAL. BUD/S UDT, Basic Underwater Demolition/Sea Air & Land Underwater Demotion Training, would become the challenge of a lifetime!

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Biography of a SEAL Team Six Operator Chapter Three

November 3rd, 2013 mjaco No comments

I arrived at the Washington Navy Yard for 2nd class diver training in January of 1979. The diving school was to be relocated to Panama City, Florida but it would not happen until after I completed my twelve weeks of training. It was a cold winters night when I stepped up to the quarterdeck of the old brick school building and checked in. Most of the buildings at that time had been constructed at the turn of the century or slightly before. They looked old and many of them were not being used. Like many new commands I would go to over my twenty fours years in the Navy I knew no one but would quickly make new friends.

Navy divers trace their history back to just before the Civil War in the mid 1800’s when they were primarily employed in the salvage and repair of ships, construction work, and military operations. After WWI the Navy had stopped training for salvage divers. For awhile there were only a couple dozen divers and most of them were qualified to dive no deeper than 60 feet. During the early to mid 1920’s several submarine accidents happened that could have been salvaged but were not because the personnel were unavailable. In one instance the men aboard one sunken submarine could be heard knocking on the hull by divers. They could have been rescued if the training and personnel qualifications had not been discontinued. It was decided in 1927 that the Washington Navy Yard would be the place to restart that training. During WWII just a little over a decade later all the effort at restarting and expanding the salvage dive program would pay off.

Navy divers were plunged into the war effort after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. The raid began at 0755, 7 December 1941; only a little over an hour later by 0915 the first salvage teams were cutting through the hull of the overturned battleship USS Oklahoma to rescue trapped sailors. Teams of divers were scrambled and put to work while while bombs exploded nearby. Burning and exploding ships creaked and groined underwater as their dying hulls sank to the muddy bottom of Honolulu Harbor. The sound of men tapping desperately in trapped hulls alerted the divers who worked feverishly to save them from a slow suffocating death. The divers also focused on recovering ammunition from the magazines of sunken ships, in case of a second attack.

The immense salvage effort that followed Pearl Harbor was highly successful in restoring most of the lost fleet. A critical need for ships was met and a possible Japanese invasion force thwarted. There were 101 ships in the harbor at the time of the attack and most sustained damage. The hardest hit were the battleships, being one of the primary targets of the raid. Six battleships were sunk and one was heavily damaged. Four of these were salvaged and returned to the fleet for combat duty. The USS Oklahoma was righted but sank en route to a shipyard on the mainland of the US. Only the USS Arizona, which I have visited the memorial above it’s watery grave, and the USS Utah could not be salvaged. 

The Navy divers worked for over 16,000 hours underwater and salvaged destroyers, supply ships and other badly needed vessels. They had earned their spot in history and still to this day serve a valuable function in US Navy fleets all over the world.

A crusty old chief who was a 1st class diver told me that I would be working for him cleaning the school everyday and standing fire and security watches for the next four months until my class started up. The military system would collapse if it didn’t have a junior work force to clean, stand watches and do the menial day to day tasks that they never show you in the romanticized action commercials. Join the Navy and see the world! after you are a slave for several years of course because only the senior personnel actually get much liberty.

I wasn’t dismayed however because I had a burning dream and a goal. With every push of a broom and every swab of a mop and long lonely night watches I was one day closer to realizing it. I would come to learn over the next several months that after I completed my dive training I would owe the Navy for my instruction. That debt would come in the form of of service in the fleet as a Hard Hat Diver!

“But I thought I could go to BUD/S after this training,” I asked my chief one day.

“You don’t want to be a deep sea diver!” he said in his raspy salty voice. His grey eyes pierced into my soul. “You don’t want to live a life of sex and danger?” he asked accusingly using words from a song we would sing while running during physical training.

I didn’t see how I was in a position to argue. I had unwittingly committed myself to 2nd class dive training and I wouldn’t be able to go straight to BUD/S after I finished dive training like I had been mistakenly led to believe. I had also heard in quiet confidence that if I didn’t make it through training I would be sent to the regular fleet which everyone said was a fate worse than death for a motivated young man of eighteen. I quickly decided I would go along for the ride as a Deep Sea Diver and when I had done my time after two years I would go to BUD/S.

“Yes, a life of sex and danger sounds perfect!” I said enthusiastically. Although I thought the SEAL’s probably got far more of that I would have to wait until the time was right.

The Navy Yard was close to the DC capital. The school itself sat right on the muddy brown waters of Anacostia River. The river flows from Prince George’s county in Maryland through DC where it joins with the Washington Channel and then empties into the Potomac River at Buzzards Point. A large white three story working dive barge sat in front of the school’s steps separated by a black top road that the entire school mustered on every bright and early weekday morning at 0730.

I remember a Dive officer class that was going through training in late march. The dive officers went through a different class structure than the enlisted. Completely different from SEAL training where the officers and enlisted work side by side and learn to work together. One of the dive officers was a former enlisted SEAL that had gone officer and was now becoming a Diving Officer. I remember my dive class in waiting was mustered up and we saw the guy walking up the steps of the dive school. He was a big man at least 6′3″ and probably 235 pounds of pure muscle. He had on biege UDT swim shorts and a green shirt and running shoes in the cold morning air and didn’t seem to be the least bit affected by it. The backs of his massive legs and calves looked like they were riddled by shrapnel scars and we were told that it had been wounded from a hand grenade in Viet Nam. He walked like a black panther, quiet and graceful. I was deeply impressed and every time I saw him I observed him and dreamed of how I would be like him some day.

There was a female officer in the class that he was friends with. They would always stand next to each other and talk and laugh together. She was the first female officer to make it through training and I have always wondered if the SEAL’s friendship may have supported her effort and helped in her success.

My own class would also have the first enlisted female that would try mightily to complete training. At the time we had to learn to dive in the old spun copper helmet, heavy breast plate and heavy lead boots so you wouldn’t tip over from the weight. It all weighed just under two hundred pounds and one of the qualifying tests was to walk up a ladder from a water tank in the dive school building up several ladder rungs to the surface deck. I thought Petty Officer Markel was great at everything and she was. She was a great runner, did the Physical Training tests with no problem, past all the rigorous academic test with flying colors. I struggled with the academic test personally but was able to gut through them. Most of the failures came from the academic test because you had to learn a lot of diving physics and gas laws. I was a straight A student in school in science and especially physics but still struggled with the tests. Markel aced them. She was also a great team player and personally I was said when I watched her for the third and last try to make it all the way up the ladder. We had several guys that couldn’t do it either. Each boot weighed in at thirty five pounds and with the added weight of almost one hundred and thirty pounds pressing down on your shoulders it’s tuff. She was only able to get two steps from the top on her last try.

We lost perhaps half our class to academics and diving qualifications. I had grown attached to my classmates and liked the camaraderie so it was sad to see them go. Some of them of course needed to go because they just didn’t have what it takes to be in an elite unit. The scuba diving qualifications in the pool was much harder than the quals that I would go through at BUD/S. At BUD/S I had to undergo pool competency by myself. In 2nd class dive school I had not one but two partners I had to hold onto and buddy breath with. The diving physics, dive chamber operation and the intensive physical training that I underwent was tougher than any sports practice I had undergone in high school. I learned a lot and would indeed be more successful in BUD/S because of it.