I owe my career as a Navy SEAL to a girl. I’m not the first, and I doubt I’ll be the last.
She was younger than I was, a brunette with the face of a supermodel, great dance moves, and—key to my heart—a quick sense of humor. The first time I tried to kiss her, I closed my eyes too soon and I heard her say, “Uh, what are you doing?”
“I’m gonna kiss you.”
“Not before you ask me out, you’re not,” she said.
“Will you go out with me tomorrow then?”
“Pick me up at seven o’clock,” she said, then gave me a better kiss than I deserved and went home.
The next evening I picked her up at 7:00 sharp and, big spender that I was, drove her to Taco Bell. She ate a large order of Nachos Bellgrande and three soft Tacos Supreme.
Gorgeous girl, perfect figure, and the appetite of a lumberjack. I knew nothing about life, but I thought I was in love.
When I graduated high school in Butte, Montana—the same school my grandfather and father had graduated from—and enrolled at Montana Tech, the local college, this girl was still a junior. It’s just one of those things; you’re not going to date a high school girl when you’re in college. So I stayed away, but I couldn’t keep my mind off her. She went on doing her high school thing, dating and going to dances, which she damn well should have been doing. But I wanted it both ways, me having my fun and her staying on hold. I simmered miserably for weeks, then finally snapped when I heard she’d spent the day with some high school boy. With a couple drinks in me I went to her house to find out what was going on, and promptly made a complete ass out of myself.
Her father, a massive Italian with black hair, a burly mustache, and a square jaw, was famous around Butte for being tough. He owned a company that jacked up entire houses and moved them whole. I was certain he would have no problem moving me. But he took pity. Instead of knocking me flat, which would have been more than justified, he gently but firmly escorted me out the door.
That kindness provoked something of an out-of-body experience. After he released his iron grip from my elbow and sent me reeling into the night, I glimpsed myself as if from a distance. It wasn’t an attractive sight. I realized that if I was acting like this now, it would only get worse. I’d end up as one of those guys who hang around Butte forever, whining about the good old days.
So I knew. I had to go.
In my very limited experience, the way people got out of Butte was by joining the military. Though I’d never really considered it before, in that instant I was committed. The future, or fate, or whatever, kicked into high gear.
* * *
THESE DAYS SOME PEOPLE MIGHT call my childhood “free range.” Saturday mornings I was out the door after breakfast and back only when the streetlights amped up. Kids ran in packs in my neighborhood. We ambushed each other with toy guns and played ninja warriors, leaping off rooftops and doing a bunch of other harebrained stuff I’d kill my kids for doing. We all went to see Rambo at the Butte Plaza Mall. That was pretty cool. Everybody wanted to be that guy blowing away evildoers with his M60. But to me, it was all fantasy, no more real than the increasingly sophisticated shooter video games that competed for our attention. The actual military was never huge in my life. I was never going to be in it, so I didn’t think much about it. I just wanted to play, put on camouflage, and pretend to shoot my friends.
At first glance, Butte might not seem like an idyllic place to grow up. It’s a mining town whose best years were in the early twentieth century, when every bullet in every rifle sent Over There during World War I was made of copper—most of it mined in Butte. The population hit a peak of 100,000 in 1920 and by the time I came along had dipped by about two-thirds. The residential areas mingled with pit mines, and the entire town was built on a plateau next to the biggest pit of all, Berkeley Pit, an immense, defunct, open-pit copper mine a mile wide and a third of a mile deep. Between the time it opened in 1955 and its closure on Earth Day 1982, a billion tons of ore and waste rock had been wrenched out of its depths. When the sump pumps shut off for the last time, ground water began a slow rise, leaching acids and heavy metals from the gaping wound in the earth. The water that filled the pit was toxic enough to kill any geese that possessed the poor judgment to splash down there. Eventually, the Berkeley Pit was declared the largest Superfund toxic waste site in the country.
But I was more focused on other features of Butte, specifically metal hoops that hung ten feet above gymnasium floors, and the deer, elk, and antelope that sprinted through the wild Rockies, which rose up like a frozen tsunami on the other side of town.
My dad, the son of a miner, was a stockbroker and my mom was a math teacher (I took her class three times—in seventh and eighth grades and again in high school). My parents divorced when I was six or seven. To me, having two parents who lived apart seemed almost natural. I don’t remember their living together. My dad was always close by and around whenever we needed him, but the usual setup was to go with him every other weekend. That was fine with my siblings and me; all of our friends were near my mom’s house and we liked to have weekends to play outside: kick the can, war, ninjas, or climbing and roof-jumping. We all played together, except the climbing and jumping. Kris, my elder sister, wanted none of that. But I could force my sister Kelley, younger than me by three years, to come along. She desperately wanted to fit in. So up we went on the roof, and off we jumped. These days I’d give my son an earful if he pulled that shit, but being a kid, I didn’t think about the risk. It was just fun. Kelley was my best friend for years; I even made her sign a contract binding her to being my teammate for two-on-two football on the church lawn. She was a damn good receiver and one hell of an athlete all through college.
My older brother, Tom, was a complete dick up until he was in high school. Then some switch flipped and he became awesome. Or maybe I just stopped being so annoying. Whatever. Some magic happened and he became the funniest person I knew, and All-State in cross-country. He taught himself guitar and his first band was called The Fake ID’s. That’s how young they were. He still plays and has his own morning show on a local radio station.
Kris was always the most levelheaded of us, but my mom will disagree. Maybe they were too much alike, and sometimes sparks flew. Kris was always tolerant of me, easy to talk to, and the best laugher I’ve ever known. She was meticulous, got straight A’s forever, and was gentle—when she wasn’t kicking my ass, which she could do up to my junior year in high school . . . possibly longer.
My mom and dad maintained a cooperative, cordial relationship throughout my childhood. If they had any big problems with each other, they never let my siblings or me see it. The split living was actually good for my parents. My mom worked at the junior high, which was next to the high school so she could get us to school and home. She loved being a mom, but she got every other weekend off to go out on the town with her crazy, fun, and hot friends Lynn and Sue. I remember them sitting at my mom’s kitchen table, sipping daiquiris and talking about what went down on Saturday night. It was too much for my tender junior high ears. I was in the next room and I had to low crawl my ass out the front door because I couldn’t take it. My first mission.
We loved hanging out with Dad on those alternate weekends. He was a total bachelor but we didn’t realize it. We should have guessed because our first stop on Friday was always to Buttreys . . . a local grocery store. We needed food because he had none! He went out for most meals. So we’d go down every aisle and grab stuff we needed, going heavy on the junk food and making sure to grab ingredients for Dad’s “Famous Breakfast.” His scrambled eggs were and still are incredible. Cheese, mayo, butter, basil, and some secret stuff. One time we forgot milk so he added Amaretto Coffee-mate. Don’t try it! We’d always end the weekend at Grampa Tom and Gramma Audrey’s. She cooked like a champ; everything you can imagine. And this is where I learned my dad’s trick: potato mountain and gravy lake!
As I was growing into adolescence, my dad and I developed an unusual father–son relationship, becoming more like best friends. It began when my mom moved us from up on the “hill”—where all my neighborhood buddies lived—to a place downtown, not far from the Berkeley Pit, where I didn’t know anybody. I was looking for something to replace all those ninja hijinks with my friends when I saw a video—Michael Jordan’s first, Come Fly with Me. I was instantly captivated. It begins with Jordan all alone, shooting baskets in a completely empty gym. His voice-over says, “I could never stop working on it. Each day I feel I have to improve.” And then of course there are endless scenes of Air Jordan, defying gravity, cutting through defenders as if they’re no more substantial than the atmosphere itself.
I was awed, inspired. I wasn’t the biggest kid, or the best-looking, or the smartest or most athletic, but something inside me connected with that obsessive drive to keep striving. Looking back, I guess I had that all along. My favorite subject was English, and my favorite book was The Old Man and the Sea. I liked the way Santiago, the old fisherman, is drawn into a titanic battle of wills with the huge fish. His hands are shredded by the fishing line, he’s so hungry he’s eating slices of raw bait, he hasn’t slept, his muscles are cramping there in his crappy little boat, but he’ll die before he quits. That attitude appealed to me.
I wasn’t going to hook any giant marlins in Butte, Montana, but I could aspire to be like Mike. There was a school right next to my new house, Greeley Elementary, with an outdoor basketball hoop. So I asked my mom to get me a basketball and she did. I would go over there every day and play by myself, hours at a time, just seeing how many free throws in a row I could make, working on my jump shot, driving left, driving right. My dad, who was about forty then, had played some at the University of Montana. He was a damn good basketball player. He found out what I was doing and he said, “Hey, do you want to start playing?”
We played at a sports club in downtown Butte. I’d still shoot by myself at the elementary school, and then he’d pick me up and we’d hit the club. I was spending four hours a day, seven days a week with a basketball in—or flying out of—my hands. When I made the school team I practiced with my teammates during the season, and when it ended, Dad’s and my private season began. Dad picked me up after school and took me to the indoor court. We’d practice two or three hours; dribbling, layup drills, one on one, wildly raucous pickup games. He tried to teach me everything he’d learned, head fakes, little tricks he’d picked up on how to beat your man.
When we were finally exhausted, my dad would say, “We can’t leave until one of us sinks twenty free throws in a row.” He would feed me—I’d get pissed if he made me move my feet even an inch off the line—and I’d shoot till I missed. Then he’d take over. The first time it took about twenty minutes for one of us to make twenty in a row. Then we went out for a steak dinner to celebrate. The next day my dad said, “We can leave when one of us gets twenty, but we need twenty-five for the steak.” Once we hit twenty-five, it went up to thirty, then thirty-five, forty. We got to where we had to make seventy free throws in a row for a dinner, and we almost always did it. I think my dad’s record was ninety in a row. Mine is still 105. We were making a lot of free throws.
When I was twelve, my dad got divorced from his second wife, and my uncle Jack, his brother, persuaded him to give hunting a try on weekends to get his mind off failed marriages. There was no question I’d come with him. We went driving up the mountain in Jack’s Nissan. We didn’t know what we were doing at first. There are vast plains up there with magnificent animals sprinting all over at warp speed—antelope are pretty much the fastest animal in North America. Guys in trucks and four-wheelers chase them and people shoot in every direction. If I were to see it today from the perspective of a range officer at Naval Special Warfare Development Group, I’d recognize how insanely unsafe it is. But it was thrilling, and eventually we got good at it, climbing on foot to a place no trucks could go, a place where we knew the animals would retreat at the end of the night. You take up a position out of the wind and let them come to you, take them by surprise. The animals expect to be chased, not ambushed.
My first kill was a mule deer, a big buck. I remember driving up these terrible dirt roads in the dark, climbing the edge of a valley as far as we could, then walking steeply uphill as the sun rose. After about an hour, we hit the summit, which descended into a hay-colored bowl. That’s where we hoped to run into the deer. There weren’t any. We hung out for a while and the disappointment of not finding anything to shoot at faded. It was late fall, chilly but not bone-numbing, patches of snow here and there, and I thought: Not bad to be sitting up on this mountaintop at the break of day, just me and my dad, as if this amazing place had been waiting for us to arrive.
Eventually we got hungry. As we were walking back down the hill for lunch, a doe and a buck burst out of the trees into a clearing a hundred yards to our right. We were shuffling along, making a sound the buck didn’t recognize. He froze right in the middle of the clearing. My dad was in front of me, right in the line of fire. He dropped to the ground and said, “Take it!” I was fortunate I didn’t have time to think about it. I knew I needed to take the shot now or he was gone. The adrenaline took over. Still standing, I raised my .300 Winchester Magnum to my shoulder and barely glimpsed the buck in my scope before I pulled the trigger. My father had told me to aim for his chest, right behind his shoulder. You want to try to hit him in the lungs for a quick kill. I missed high, a lucky shot. The bullet severed his spine. That worked. The buck dropped right where he stood. We approached carefully. These big bucks can play dead. You don’t want them to hop up and trample you. I stuck out my foot and gave him a nudge. The flesh of his haunch quivered, but otherwise he stayed put. I took another step toward his big antlered head, and raised the muzzle of my rifle—the same kind of rifle I’d eventually use as a SEAL sniper—to his big staring eyeball. Dead all right.
It was a bit surreal for me. He looked the same as he had just a moment ago when he was alive: pretty colors and noble antlers. But he was dead, and I’d killed him. I felt a tug of remorse. He was a beautiful animal, gone now thanks to me. But I was also proud. This was Montana. Deer were for shooting. Everybody did it. Now I was part of the club.
In the hunting seasons that followed, any residual remorse fell away. Soon it was a competition at junior high every Monday. “So and so got a buck.” The real prize was the bull elk. It always seemed that someone’s mythical uncle, or a miraculous shot from someone’s dad, had brought down a “six point” elk. (We score different out West—you count one side of the antlers, not both. A “six point” bull has twelve points total.) That’s an immense, swift, and elusive creature. They can stand five-feet high at the shoulder, and weigh almost nine hundred pounds. None of us had been good enough to kill such a bull. Some hunters had never even seen one.
When I was lucky enough to see one and shoot one before I turned eighteen, I felt only pride.
* * *
IN THE FALL OF 1994, the year I turned eighteen, my dad introduced me to the first Navy SEAL I ever met. His name was Jim and I was impressed with him the moment I saw him. He wasn’t as big as I thought a Navy SEAL would be—an observation people make about SEALs all the time—but he was obviously in great shape. He had a clean haircut and a military bearing. What I noticed first, though, was his positive confidence. The second thing I noticed was that he always put on his seat belt. Here was this tough Navy SEAL who wasn’t afraid of anything, but safety always came first. He’d never been to Montana before but figured: Guns, mountains, how hard can it be? He embraced the challenge in typical SEAL fashion—got someone to drop him off in the outback, then stayed there for three days. He walked all over hell, never seeing so much as a mule deer. I found out about that and told him, “That’s not the way to do it. I got a spot.”
The hike was only a little under a mile, but it was pretty much straight uphill and still pitch dark. Normally I’d take it slow, pause for a couple of breathers. Toward the top, every breath felt like sandpaper rasping my lungs, but I was thinking, This guy’s a SEAL. I can’t be a pussy. I need to walk, no breaks.
He was on my heels the whole way.
We got up there and got right into the elk—about forty of them right where I’d said they’d be. We didn’t get any, but when we got back down the mountain Jim said, “You ought to consider becoming a SEAL, the way you climbed that hill in the dark.”
I was flattered, but I didn’t seriously consider it.
Until my ex-girlfriend’s dad sent me not so gently into the night.
* * *
THE SUMMER AFTER I GRADUATED from high school I spent twelve hours a day, four days a week, shoveling crushed rock onto a huge conveyor belt in a copper mine facility, the almost total darkness relieved only by the beams of two little lamps on my helmet. I thought that would be good work for building my somewhat scrawny upper body, and I was right. But I hadn’t counted on breathing in metric tons of rock dust, or scaring the crap out of myself thinking of all the workers before me who’d slipped into the conveyor belt and been converted to human pulp. My night job delivering pizzas was like a vacation by comparison.
I did think, briefly, about going out of town to college, though my idea of out of town was the University of Montana in Missoula, less than two hours down the highway. When it came to it, I just didn’t have the desire. Or maybe I didn’t have the courage. When you’re a small-town kid from Montana, there’s this sense that venturing into the big, scary outside world might pulp you as surely as that conveyor belt. Montana Tech was the safe alternative. I also had a better chance of making the basketball team there. I was a good high school player, but at 6'1" I wasn’t high enough off the floor to impress at the college level. I figured I’d play my ass off on the practice team and work my way in. It went well. I had a great time, got in great shape. Physically. Mentally, well there was the girl.
I know now it wasn’t just that. I’d just finished my first year of college basketball and was feeling burned-out. Not with playing but with the concept of practice, practice, school, and practice. The grind probably wouldn’t have gotten to me if it hadn’t been for the girl. I couldn’t seem to get over her, and she was still in town—I could bump into her anywhere. I knew I didn’t want to find myself on a barstool at Maloney’s every night drinking to forget. I could already imagine the rut I could dig. It was time to do something.
My first thought was of Ben and Jim, two somewhat older guys I’d known my entire life. They’d joined the Marines and gone to boot camp together when I was still in high school. Coming home on leave, they were confidence-radiating supernovas, showing off spit-shined boots and uniforms so crisp the creases could slice cheese. I remember thinking, These guys could kick anybody’s ass in town.
I wanted to be just like that.
I didn’t even think about the possibility of combat, much less getting killed. As a freshman in high school, I saw guys who’d graduated and joined the military come back to say goodbye to their teachers before going off to fight in Desert Storm. As a fourteen-year-old, I didn’t know any better so I thought the war would be a high-casualty conflict like Vietnam and they’d all die. Then I watched the war on CNN . . . piece of cake. Besides, as I weighed the idea of signing up, we weren’t at war, and there wasn’t one looming. I thought it would be cool to wear the uniform and sing the cadences.
Plus, I’d only be gone for a few years . . . and then I’d be back at Maloney’s with a few war stories to impress the regulars.
One day in April 1995, I went to the Marine recruitment office, but the recruiter wasn’t there. I remembered a funny line my Marine friends told me: “The Marine Corps is actually part of the Department of the Navy. The men’s department.” Which is why I thought of walking into the Navy office. I reasoned that if anyone would know where this missing Marine was, this Navy recruiter would.
He was nothing special physically, but he was very clever. Had it been years later, I would have recognized why immediately: He was wearing khakis and had anchors on his collar. He was a Navy Chief. No matter what anyone says, Chiefs make the Navy work. They do this with intelligence, loyalty, and experience. They can also be mean as hell. This Chief had quotas to fill and that is not an easy task in Butte, Montana. Especially when your office is right next to the Marines.
He looked me over skeptically and said, “Why do you want to be a Marine?”
I said, “Because Marines have the best snipers in the world. I want to be a sniper because I grew up hunting.” He just nodded and said, “Look no further. We have snipers in the Navy. All you need to do is become a Navy SEAL.”
I didn’t even know how to swim. But the way I thought about it was, “Hey, I’m kind of naïve, but this guy’s a professional recruiter. Why’s he going to lie to me?”
And it wasn’t a lie. Exactly. Just a rather large omission. A kid off a hick-town street had about the same chance of making it as a SEAL as this recruiter had of becoming an admiral. So in almost complete ignorance, I signed on the dotted line. It was a deferred enrollment, which meant that I had six months before I went to boot camp.
Which was a good thing. I could keep myself alive in the water but not swim. I’d never attempted a pull-up. A brochure that had been thoughtfully provided in the recruitment paperwork revealed that to even qualify for a SEAL tryout you had to be able to do a minimum of eight pull-ups. And that’s after you swim five hundred yards, and do forty-two push-ups and fifty sit-ups. And before you run.
Right then I decided to quit my job shoveling crushed rock and devote myself full-time to getting in shape for the SEAL screening test.
I’d been shoveling that rock for months, building my strength. How hard could this be? Full of can-do fervor, I ran down to a park near my mom’s house that had a rusted old pull-up bar to see how many pull-ups beyond the eight minimum I could do. I sprang easily from the dirt depression beneath, grabbed the pull-up bar with confidence, and heaved. One!
Gravity rudely yanked my arms back to full extension. It took all my will to keep my grip on the bar from releasing. My brain frantically signaled my biceps to fire and pull me back up. My biceps replied, “Fuck you.”
Words formed so clearly in my mind that I may have said them out loud. “Oh, my God, these are hard. I need to get better at pull-ups!”
Still, my optimism wasn’t entirely crushed. Yet. Next I went up to the college pool—fortunately, I still had my student ID. I figured I’d start with a quick 1,000 meters, which is forty lengths of the pool. By the end of the second length my arms ached and my legs felt like they were about to cramp. I could barely lift myself out of the pool.
Okay, I was pathetic. But I wasn’t defeated. Every day I worked at getting better. One day at the pool, I was lucky enough to run into a friend from high school who was getting ready to swim at Notre Dame for four years. When he saw me struggling through the water he said, “What are you doing in here?”
“I just joined the Navy,” I said. “I’m going to SEAL school. You know they swim like a mile a day there.”
He looked at me and shook his head. “Dude, you have no idea what you’re getting into. There’s a thousand percent chance you’re not going to make it. Get back into the pool.”
He showed me some basic swimming techniques and I worked hard to master them. My stepfather built me a pull-up bar in the basement of my mom’s house. I would go down there, queue up Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and II, crank the volume to “liquefy,” then just do pull-up after pull-up.
I didn’t realize how appropriate that title was until later, but I was definitely using my illusion that I could become a SEAL to motivate myself. I began to understand something important: If you want to get better at pull-ups, do more pull-ups. That’s it. And that’s what I did.
One thing I had going for me was that I’d always been a good runner. I had a route that I ran, a straight shot down the street from my mom’s house, past my best friend’s house and my cousin’s house, to a stoplight that was exactly a mile away. I always wanted to run it in no more than six minutes. At the light I’d take a thirty-second breather, then run back.
Every single morning, seven days a week, I’d get up and go down to the pool to swim for a few hours, come home, chill out and eat breakfast, knock out pull-ups, go for the run. For six months, this was my full-time job. At night I delivered pizzas.
I was really enjoying myself. And I got a lot stronger.
* * *
ON SUNDAY, JANUARY 28, 1996, I arrived at the Butte military enlistment processing center to officially join up. There was a Problem.
It had been some time since I’d signed my papers to enlist, and I’d nearly forgotten that in the initial flurry of paperwork I’d elected to tell the US Navy that I’d experimented with marijuana. It’s true that I only tried it a handful of times, and, to be honest, I didn’t even like it, but, man, did they make me feel like a sinner who needed to repent. If the me from today could give the me from nineteen years ago advice it would be, “Relax, kid. It’s been about a year since you tried it; you’re good. Tell them nothing. It’s gonna save us all a bunch of time and nonsense. Pee in the cup, sign the fucking papers, and let’s get on with the adventure.”
But I hadn’t been given that advice, so I found myself having a long and painful conversation with a man identified as “The Commander,” promising that I would cut out my liver and eat it raw before I ever smoked the devil weed again. I’m sure he had better things to do, too, than talk to some eighteen-year-old punk from Butte. Like go and smoke a bowl of his own. Anyway, we both got through the day and I was allowed to join this man’s Navy.
I still have a picture of me swearing to defend this nation against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I was wearing a red T-shirt, very classy for an official event.
For some reason the Navy had booked me a hotel room near the processing center. They were going to drive me to the airport the next day. Possibly, they wanted to keep an eye on me, make sure I wasn’t going to get cold feet. It was the first time I’d ever been in a hotel room by myself. I was sitting alone in this tiny, bleak little room, my duffel bag tossed across the bed, thinking, Why would I stay here my last night in town when I could just go down to my mom’s house?
So that night, with my family and my best friend beside me, I watched the Steelers lose to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX. The next morning the entire crew came out to Butte’s Bert Mooney Airport to wave me off. I was relieved to discover another recruit on the same flight, a fellow by the name of Tracy Longmire. He’d played football at the same college where I’d played basketball, and he was one of those badasses who played both offense and defense. He looked the part, too: big and mean-looking with a bald head and piercing eyes. But he was far from mean. He was a calm, reassuring presence from the moment I saw him. Even though he was only two years older, he seemed like a wise elder, humble when he could have lorded his cool over a naïve kid like me, and generous with good advice. It seemed as if he’d been there, done that already, and I was very happy he was around. As we walked out to the plane together I looked back at my family. No one said anything, they just watched me leave. Finally, I saw my brother, Tom, lean his head out and yell, “Good luck, Rob!!” I’ll never forget it. He was thinking, Good luck leaving this town and going away on your own.
None of us could have imagined, dreamed, or even hallucinated then that fifteen years later I would confront a madman, the world’s most wanted man, on the third floor of an ultrasecret compound in a country I’d yet to hear of, and that as a result people would fill the streets of D.C. and New York City to cheer.
Good luck, Rob, indeed. Good luck.