While I was on the dive boat, Peace, I have learned a lot that eventually became helpful when I was in the Navy. In this excerpt from The Red Circle: My Life in the Navy SEAL Sniper Corps and How I Trained America’s Deadliest Marksmen, I will share with you how I got on the Peace, the people I learned from, and the first time I’ve seen death up close.
When we finally pulled into Coos Bay, Oregon, a crowd of locals had gathered on the docks to hear about the family that had been out there on the ocean’s angry face and survived the storm. Everyone loves a good sea story.
I was ten when we arrived in Ventura, and California has been my home ever since. My father’s great passion in life was sailing, and the next few years involved plenty of it. We continued to live on the Agio for the better part of the next six years, and while we each had our own stateroom, it was still tight quarters, and I looked for every opportunity to escape. A few times, I tried to run away from home.
Life in California revolved around the water. All my new friends surfed, and I soon joined them. I also started getting into trouble again. My mom, who went to work for a few years on California’s offshore oil platforms, never knew what to expect when she would come home. Once, she found a few friends and me hunting down squirrels with homemade blowguns. Another time she saw the boat’s mast swaying as she approached. She broke into a run, and when she reached the boat, she saw that my friends and I were taking turns pushing off and swinging around the mast high above the deck on a harness I’d rigged.
During most of this time, my father and I might as well have been living on separate planets. He was working his tail off. He would leave early in the morning and come back at five o’clock—briefly—for dinner. My mom was pretty good about corralling us inside for family dinner together, but as soon as we pushed back our plates, we would all head off to do our own thing.
My Knee Problem
There was a period there, in eighth grade, when my dad made an extra effort to get me into ice hockey. The closest rink was in Thousand Oaks, nearly an hour’s drive away. During hockey season, he would get up every Saturday at 5:30 A.M. to drive me out to Thousand Oaks for practice. He even helped coach our team. Throughout that hockey season, the two of us had an opportunity to bond again, just as we had when we were back in Kimberley. But that soon came abruptly to an end, and my sports career with it.
I’d noticed that my knees were starting to ache, and toward the end of that hockey season, it got pretty severe. I could play through it, but after practice, I would have two swollen bumps on my knees, and if you tapped it in just the right spot, it felt like someone was jamming an ice pick into my knee.
My folks took me to the doctor, and he knew what it was right away.
“Your boy has Osgood-Schlatter syndrome. He’s been so involved in sports, so constantly and for so long, his knees haven’t had the chance to develop properly.”
In rare cases, he told us, surgery was indicated. He didn’t think that would be necessary for me, but I would have to wear a brace for a while.
“And of course,” he added, “he’ll have to cut out the sports.”
My mom nearly gasped. “What do you mean, cut out the sports?” She was terrified: without sports, she knew it would be no time at all before I was getting into worse and worse trouble.
They tried putting my legs in braces, but as soon as the braces were on, I was off skateboarding around the harbor. Finally, they realized they had no choice but to put me in casts. As much as I hated them, those casts probably saved my life, or at least my knees. With my knees confined to plaster casts, my joints were finally able to grow properly, and I’ve never had any knee problems since.
At the time, it was also a catastrophe of sorts. I was a freshman in high school, and I desperately wanted to wrestle and play baseball. No dice. I spent my ninth-grade year with casts on my legs. As soon as they were off, so was I—off getting into trouble again.
Without athletics to absorb my time and energy, my mother hit on a new tack: getting me a job. Soon before my thirteenth birthday, she introduced me to a man named Bill Magee, who owned a charter dive boat in Ventura Harbor, the Peace. Bill offered to let me work on his boat.
I worked on the Peace all summer, every summer, for the next few years. Everything about being on that dive boat, with the tantalizing possibility of adventure outside the harbor and west to the Channel Islands, completely captivated me. It’s no exaggeration to say that going to work on the Peace changed the course of my life.
Bill Magee was one of the nicest men I’ve ever known. He and the boat’s captain, Michael Roach, were like second fathers to me. They watched out for me and entrusted me with a lot of responsibility. I had not really had that experience before. They showed me a whole new side to the concept of respect and instilled in me the belief that I could be somebody and do something special with my life.
Bill had made some money in construction and eventually sold a successful roofing company up in the Bay area, which had allowed him to fulfill a dream I expect he’d held on to for some time. Sport diving was his hobby. He had put a chunk of the proceeds from his sale into the Peace—cashed in his chips and took them to the sea.
Captain Roach was the perfect complement to Bill, the classic salty Irish sea captain. He taught me how to give a firm handshake and look a man straight in the eye when talking to him.
Bill Magee was also pretty wild—the Hugh Hefner of the high seas. Bill had a new girlfriend every week, usually about half his age, and he was always throwing hot tub parties (I believe the Peace was the first boat to feature a hot tub) with lots of women, alcohol, and God knew what else. Strictly speaking, the Peace was a dive boat, which meant that people were paying to be taken out scuba diving. Unofficially, it was also a hell of a party boat. We’d take our passengers on tours of the Channel Islands off Ventura, taking out groups of divers four at a time—and in between dives, when we were anchored up for the night, we would party. Bill would front me a few hundred dollars so I could sit down and join the interminable poker games. Here I was, at thirteen, drinking Scotch and playing poker with the guys.
At the same time, the diving was no joke. When you weren’t on an anchor watch, it was fine to whoop it up and party, but when you were on, you had to be on. You had to know your limits and capacities. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was great preparation for the Navy SEALs.
As a low man on the totem pole, I often got the chores on the Peace nobody else wanted to do. One of these was diving down to get in there and free the anchor whenever it got stuck. This often happened in the middle of the night. Many were the times I was rousted out of deep sleep to hear, “Wake up, Brandon! We have to move, and the anchor is stuck. Get your wet suit on—you’re going in.”
I’d dive down there with a flashlight, scared shitless. It was a hell of a way to get over one’s fear of sharks, let alone fear of the dark.
Sometimes I would get to a depth to find the anchor wedged under a 1-ton ledge that was being rocked off the ocean floor by the weight of the boat it was attached to and the pull of sea swell on the surface. With a blast of air, I would signal the guy pulling the anchor to let out some slack in the chain and then go to work untangling the mess. A second blast of air to the surface signaled that my work was done, and the crew would haul the anchor up while I stayed below, watching to make sure it had come fully clear of the bottom. Often it would stick again, and I’d have to repeat the entire routine. When it was finally clear, I would blast a final jet of air to signal where I was and alert them to my position and ascent. Once back on board, I would run through a quick hot shower and try to get in some hurried shut-eye before the break of the new day. It was terrifying, and I loved it.
I learned how to scuba dive without any pool sessions; it was all open-water Pacific Ocean dives from the start. Pretty soon, I found I preferred diving without a buoyancy compensator. It was a kind of inflatable vest with an air hose plugged into it that most divers wear. I thought it was a crutch. To me, it was like the difference between swimming in a full suit of clothes and swimming in a Speedo. So I never used one. I also found I liked going down with two tanks instead of the single tank most sport divers prefer. A second tank adds significant weight, so you have to be fit enough to handle it, but you get more bottom time and can swim serious distances. Sport divers typically just drop straight down and goof around for a while. Serious hunters mean business and wear two tanks.
By my second summer on the Peace, I had logged over two hundred dives and was equipped with twin steel 72s (72-cubic-foot-capacity scuba tanks), no buoyancy compensator—just a single- and second-stage scuba regulator and a large speargun.
Captain Mike and James Hrabak, the alternate second captain, taught me how to stalk and hunt in the reefs and open water—skills that would prove enormously helpful later on. Soon, I was an accomplished hunter on tanks or free diving (breath-hold only). It didn’t matter if it was yellowtail, calico bass, halibut, abalone, or lobster—I was all over it, and nothing was safe.
Usually, it would be a pretty mellow thing when we took paying customers out on a dive. There was one group of hardcore divers, though, guys I thought of as the Animals, who would come out with us a few times a year. With the usual passengers, we might dive three times a day. With the Animals, we would do six serious dives every day, hunting for lobster in the winter, halibut, or some other fish in the summer. These guys got the biggest kick out of seeing me surface with no buoyancy compensator, two steel tanks, and a 40-pound halibut in my bag.
Eventually, I became a rescue diver and an accomplished deckhand. I was often trusted at the boat’s helm from midnight to 2:00 A.M. on a night transit to the islands. As a teenager, manning the helm of a 70-foot dive boat with thirty-two sleeping passengers while transiting through one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, I knew this was a huge responsibility. I took it very seriously and never had an incident. By the time I approached my sixteenth birthday, I had made more than a thousand dives and had enough hours and knowledge to take the Coast Guard 100-ton Master Captain license.
As wild a lifestyle as Bill Magee lived, with his hot tub and girlfriends and poker parties, I believe it was Bill and Captain Mike who set my ethical rudder toward true north. The phrase “they ran a tight ship” was never more apt: Bill and Captain Mike set a standard of excellence that I would often be reminded of during my time with the Navy SEALs. The guys I worked with on that boat were really good at what they did and took their jobs seriously.
I wish that had been true of everyone we encountered; unfortunately, it wasn’t.
When Carelessness Cost A Life
There was one guy we especially hated because of his slipshod ways and sloppy attitude. George Borden owned a dive shop in the area. You could tell the dive shop owners and instructors who were genuinely professional, like my friend Mike Dahan, who ran a good class and really taught the fundamentals. Not George. It was all a numbers game to him: It doesn’t matter if these people really know how to dive or not, just push ’em through. Every time George chartered the Peace, it would be a mess and create more work for us.
One time he brought a group out to do an advanced certification class. One of the students was an Iranian girl named Mahvash, which means “beauty of the moon”—and she was indeed absolutely beautiful. I was completely smitten with her.
Mahvash was just eighteen and had done only six dives, which was the bare minimum to be certified. We couldn’t believe George was allowing her in this advanced class, which included making a few deep dives, deep enough to require decompression stops on the way up. When they boarded the boat, her mother was clearly against it. “I don’t know if you’re ready for this,” she argued, but Mahvash joined the class anyway.
We took the boat out to Catalina Island, a fantastic place with its own little resort town on the southern end. We left that night and anchored at Catalina, then dove the next day. The following day we went out to a deep-diving spot off the backside of Catalina. This area is a preserve; the reefs start at 100 feet out, and the visibility goes on forever. I was not on duty that morning, so I made a dive on my own, just for fun. It was amazing, as it always is.
As I came back up, pausing to do a decompression stop on the anchor chain, I looked down and noticed a whole cluster of George’s students down there on a deep dive. Oh man, I thought, what a mess. I went all the way up, got on the boat, took off my gear, then started helping other people with theirs.
A few minutes later, George surfaced with his students and his “assistant.” (By regulation, he was required to have a certified divemaster with him, but this guy was only a dive master-in-training. As I said, George always cut corners.)
As they helped the students up onto the boat one by one, someone suddenly said, “Hey, where’s Mahvash?”
George was only a few feet away from me, and when I saw the look in his eyes, I said, “Oh, shit.” Mahvash wasn’t with them. None of them had a clue where she was. They panicked—but there was nothing they could do. None of them could go back down for her because when you dive that deep, you can’t go back down again for at least twelve hours.
I had just come up from my own dive, so I couldn’t go either.
Our divemaster, Ivan Fuentes, whipped on his tanks, jumped over the side of the boat, and went down. We waited. A very long five minutes later, he surfaced, a couple hundred yards from the boat, and waved for me. I swam a rescue line out to him. When I got close, I saw that he had Mahvash with him. She wasn’t moving. As I got even closer, I saw that the girl with the beauty of the moon was dead.
For a moment, my own heart stopped. It was the first time I had ever seen death up close. I wanted to cry and scream at the same time. I wanted to swim back and choke the life out of that idiot George. By his carelessness and disregard for safety, he had caused this girl’s death as far as I was concerned.
Ivan told me he had found Mahvash about 100 feet down, hovering 10 feet off the ocean floor. Apparently, she had gotten separated from the group, panicked, spit her regulator out, and drowned. We tried doing rescue breathing with her, but it was too late. She had embolized coming up: That is, her lungs had burst.
That night I tried to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come—they were choked off by fury. It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten: how precious life is, and at the same time, how fragile.
The family wanted to press charges, and I gave a deposition for them, but nothing came of it, and George was never prosecuted. It wasn’t the last time I would see innocence and beauty crushed with impunity by what I considered to be arrogance and crass thoughtlessness.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting our Veteran Editorial by becoming a SOFREP subscriber. Click here to join SOFREP now for just $0.50/week.