An Odd Question
A while back, I was asked a somewhat unusual question on Quora, the quasi-social media question-and-answer site. It was, “Have any former crack addicts ever been on SEAL Team Six?” There was just one that I’m aware of, and his story is nothing short of amazing. When you hear this man’s story, at some points, you are proud of him, and at other times you are in disbelief at how self-destructive he once was and how much it hurt those who loved him. You’re in awe of the enormous obstacles he overcame to be one of the most elite warriors in the world when 99.9999% of others would have quit and felt sorry for themselves. You hear his story, and you laugh because he was a funny man, a big goofy kid at heart who wasn’t afraid to be himself in front of anyone. But, on the other hand, you feel pathos mixed with anger when you learn what happened when his demons would get the better part of him. Waves of sentimentality sweep over you as you read the heartfelt journal he wrote to his young children during his deployment to war zones.
Had I not known that he was a true story, I never would have believed it. I probably would have laughed at the implausibility of all of it. But the story is accurate, and so is the pain and pride people feel when they remember the life of a man named Adam Brown.
I never had the honor of meeting Adam Brown, but after learning about what kind of a man he was, I feel that this photograph conveys a good image of what he was like. There were many images to choose from, but I kept returning to this one. Adam Brown was a walking contradiction: an incredibly loving husband and father who used to help teach his kids Sunday school class by pretending to be animals from Noah’s Ark, a battle-hardened Navy DEVGRU (aka SEAL Team Six) warrior and veteran of multiple deployments…and he was also a recovering crack cocaine addict.
It was Adam’s wish that someone would share his story with the world if he were killed in action. He wanted to be sure that his story would include (along with his heroic actions and successes) his multiple failures and his battle with addiction.
Adam was a pleasant young man who always respected his elders and would go out of his way to help other kids his age who were being bullied, even though he was on the small side. He was a nearly straight-A student in high school and a star player on his Hot Springs, Arkansas, champion football team. As one of his coaches said, “Brown wasn’t the biggest player, but he always had the most heart.”
He was a “please and thank you, yes sir, no sir” kind of adolescent that his parents could trust not to get too out of control while others his age were out doing stupid things that could have gotten them hurt or in trouble the law. That’s not to say Adam was quiet and reserved. His peers said he could be a “madman.” The climax of his daredevil days as a youth in Hot Springs was when he jumped out of the back of a moving truck as it sped across a bridge. Adam fell about 50 feet until he hit the dark river below. He mimicked a scene from the Charlie Sheen movie, “Navy SEALs.” Adam Brown, much unlike the rest of us, had no fear.
Down the Wrong Path
Sometime after beginning college, he became re-acquainted with an old girlfriend, Cindy, who had since gone on to develop an unfortunate drug habit. Adam, who up until that time counted southern whiskey as his strongest inebriant, through the prodding of his girlfriend, agreed to try crack cocaine. He later recounted that one time was all it took to get him hooked. Before long, it was all he wanted and all he could think about. He dropped out of college and spent all his time hanging out in crack houses with his newfound loves.
After a while of being high all day, every day, he switched from smoking the drug to injecting it directly into his veins. He began to add meth to the mix. When he attempted to quit, he would tell those trying to help him that the drug “called to him.” For the longest time, he could not, or would not, resist the call.
Then, as all addicts eventually do, he hits bottom. Cindy, his constant companion, left him. He became so discouraged that one New Year’s Eve, high out of his mind on crack, he began repeatedly stabbing himself in the neck with a knife. Finally, a friend found him passed out in a pool of his own blood and called 911. The police arrived along with emergency personnel and discovered that Adam had active felony warrants for his arrest due to drug-related charges. Before long, he was in jail, facing 11 felony charges. One was for the theft of a handgun.
Previously his father would bail him out and pay hefty fines when Adam wound up in jail. Not this time. He was left to face up to what he had become. During his hearing, the judge must have seen something positive in young Adam because he let him choose between a jail sentence or a year-long stint in drug rehab at a highly regimented Christian-based drug treatment program by the name of Teen Challenge. Adam decided against going to jail. At the program, he had a spiritual awakening that would last the remainder of his days. He turned his life over to God and asked Him to point to the path he was supposed to take.
After he finished his year at Teen Challenge (despite the name Adam was now in his early 20s), he met a beautiful young woman who would eventually become his wife. Her name was Kelley Trippy. Kelley shared Adam’s strong Christian beliefs, and their time together was bliss for a while. However, she had known about his past and always kept it in the back of her mind. One day it was moved to the front when Adam didn’t show up for a date. Adam had never been late before. Kelley began looking for Adam and found him, foul smelling and disheveled, sitting on the floor in a local crack house.
Adam promised never to do it again….but he did…over and over. Finally, Brown needed direction, and it was fast, or Kelley vowed to leave him for good. His search for direction led him to a US Navy recruiting office. The father of one of Brown’s very best friends growing up was a high-ranking Naval officer. His buddy was going into the Navy as an aviator, so Adam thought he might also give the Navy a shot.
A Fortunate Navy Connection
Everything at the recruiter’s office went well until they got to the part of the interview where Adam was asked if he ever did drugs and if he had ever been arrested. Brown was very candid with the recruiter, who was taken aback and asked him if this was some joke. Surely a recovering crack addict who had been arrested on 11 felony charges didn’t think the Navy would accept him.
The story would have ended there, but Adam noticed a photo of his childhood friend’s father hanging in the office. It turns out he was the highest-ranking officer in that recruiting district. Brown pointed to the picture, “Give him a call; he’ll vouch for me.” After a lot of convincing, the recruiter grudgingly made the call. The officer, remembering the well-mannered, level-headed Brown of his youth, said he would vouch for him. “Treat him as if he were my own son,” he said. The required waivers were signed, and Adam Brown was in the Navy.
Adam and Kelley were secretly married in a civil ceremony before he left for boot camp. He was allowed to report with only the clothes on his back and five dollars cash. Kelley wouldn’t let him take the cash because she felt he might be tempted to look for drugs if he had money.
Not being the kind to want to be stuck on a ship out to sea for months at a time, Brown looked for a more adventurous assignment. He thought about a movie he watched in high school, Navy SEALs, and said, “I’ll do that.” From then on, Adam Brown achieved almost everything he put his mind to. He was one of the few to remain in the SEAL candidate training that ran concurrently with his boot camp.
He was accepted into BUD/S and completed the tortuous training and Hell Week with no trouble. In the dive phase of his SEAL training, he found problems he couldn’t immediately overcome, so he was recycled into the next class. He made it past the dive phase with no issues on the second go around.
Always Cut Away From Yourself
He was assigned to SEAL Team FOUR at Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, right outside Virginia Beach. This is where he earned the nickname “Blade.” Immediately before a training mission, he used his knife to cut away a zip tie binding some gear together. He pulled towards himself with all his might; the zip tie gave way, and the blade stuck him right between the eyes. Bleeding profusely and most definitely in need of medical attention, the new SEAL covered his wound with a cloth and insisted he was fine and that there was no need to hold up the mission. Hours later, after participating fully in the successful training mission, Brown was taken to the Emergency Room due to his lost blood volume. He received a few stitches. Adam Brown never was one to put his own needs before that of the mission. Ever. His superiors realized this, and he was always considered to be at the top of the heap when evaluations of new SEALs were performed.
Brown certainly had his share of obstacles to overcome. One of them was just plain bad luck. During a room-clearing exercise when his Team was using simulation rounds tipped with red paint, one of the rounds impacted Adam’s face and caught him right in the corner of the eye just as he turned his head. Unfortunately, it completely missed his safety glasses. Despite numerous surgeries, his mangled eye eventually had to be removed.
With this type of injury, he could have chosen to ask for a medical discharge, where he would have received money from the government for the rest of his life. Did he choose that road? Hell no, Adam Brown instead applied to SEAL sniper school. Keep in mind this was his dominant eye that he lost. He now had to retrain himself to shoot left-handed using his off-eye. In a school where everyone else has two eyes and half still washed out, one-eyed Adam Brown not only passed but ended up second in his class.
Some of the instructors for the East coast based SEAL Teams were members of DEVGRU, better known as SEAL Team Six (or just STS). One of these elite Operators was to become Adam’s mentor. Always wanting to push himself further, Adam decided that he too wanted to be a DEVGRU Operator. Why? Because they are the best of the best, joining their ranks would be a huge challenge.
Adam applied for and was eventually granted a training spot at Green Team (the DEVGRU selection process). However, there was one issue; at this point, Brown was still undergoing procedures on his eye to regain some vision. Because of this, his superiors wanted him to wait a year before joining Green Team. In the meantime, Adam was deployed to Afghanistan.
While in Afghanistan, he was involved in a freak accident when two US military convoys, traveling in different directions at a high rate of speed on a narrow road, collided with one another. There was a ton of dust being kicked up in both directions. This disoriented one of the drivers who accidentally clipped the front end of the Humvee in which Adam was riding. Brown had his right hand on the window frame at the time, and as his vehicle rolled over three times, it smashed his fingers, leaving them hanging on by only a few tendons. Ignoring his injuries, he helped tend to others injured more seriously than he was. His fingers, now wrapped in a lump of bloody gauze, insisted on pulling security until every other man was aboard the CASEVAC helicopter.
He called Kelley and casually told her he had an accident and would be coming home a bit early. After a flight to Germany for emergency surgery, he was on his way back to Little Creek. When it came time for more surgery, Adam insisted on a local anesthetic so he could remain awake and watch the entire procedure.
This was in December 2006, and Green Team was scheduled to begin in June. Now both his dominant eye and his dominant hand were messed up. A month after surgery, Adam started to retrain himself to fire both his carbine and his pistol with his left hand. Adam’s biggest concern at this point was how he would handle CQB (Close Quarters Battle) drills, where lightning-fast reactions are needed to successfully clear rooms and react to threats.
The Green Team instructors understandably had great skepticism about whether a man with one eye and recently surgically reattached fingers (on his dominant hand, no less) could pass a course where only the top 2% of SEALs were accepted and half of them failed. In addition, there was concern that Brown might pose a safety hazard because so much live ammunition was used in training. Still, after reviewing his exemplary record once more, the leaders of DEVGRU decided to give him a chance.
To compensate for his diminished peripheral vision due to his missing right eye, Adam had to “keep his head on a swivel” and constantly move it from side to side. Even though his right hand had been crushed and his fingers reattached only months earlier, Brown shot flawlessly.
Adam Brown had accomplished what nearly everyone thought was impossible; he passed Green Team and became a DEVGRU Operator. He was shortly after that assigned to the Gold Squadron (one of DEVGRU’s four assault squadrons), nicknamed the Knights.
On February 5th, 2010, Chief Special Warfare Operator Adam Brown celebrated his 36th birthday at home with his wife and two elementary school-aged kids (Nathan and Savannah), enjoying his favorite birthday cake flavor, cookies and cream. The children were excited to give their daddy his present, and Adam unwrapped it carefully. He smiled broadly when he opened the box to see an adult-sized pair of Batman underwear. Their dad was their superhero, and this was their way of proving that to him. “I love them!” he exclaimed. Then, he took a knee so he could get down to their level, and he made a promise to his children.
“I promise these are going to be my undercover underwear. I’m going to wear them on every op I go on”.
He lowered his voice to a dramatic whisper and continued, “Nobody will ever know of my superhero capabilities.” Overhearing this, Kelley called him a dork, and the kids cracked up laughing.
February 26th was Adam’s day to report for his deployment to Afghanistan. Early that evening, the family shared dinner at Chili’s. Immediately after dinner, it was off to the base, where they would say their goodbyes. Leaving your wife and children, knowing there is a fair chance you will never see them again, is an unspeakable mixture of sadness and pain. The kids tried to be brave, but inevitably the tears started streaming down their little faces. Finally, Adam turned to his 10-year-old son and told him, “This is the last time, buddy, last time.” He picked up his daughter, gave her a big hug, and told her, “Bye, little baby; it’s all fine.” Then, putting Savannah down, he turned to Kelley, “You come home,” she said. “I promise,” Adam replied. They shared a final kiss, and Kelley felt strongly compelled to have the gate guard snap a quick family photo. It is shown below.
Late in the afternoon of March 17th, Chief Brown attended that evening’s mission briefing. It was a typical DEVGRU mission, a high-value target in an extremely dangerous remote environment. The mission aimed to kill or capture a high-ranking Taliban leader code-named Objective Lake James. James and his men had been responsible for the deaths of several American soldiers who manned a nearby Forward Operating Base.
While in the meeting, Kelley tried to contact Adam via Skype. “Hi, Sweetie,” she wrote. She waited for a while for a reply, but there was none. Unfortunately, this was not uncommon, as Adam and his Team remained quite busy. So Kelley went about her business.
When night fell, Adam and his fellow SEALs boarded MH-47 Chinook helicopters operated by the Army’s 160th SOAR for their commute to work. The mountains of the Hindu Kush can be pretty treacherous, and it wasn’t a surprise to the Operators when they heard the choppers would not be able to land. Instead, the SEALs would have to fast rope in and walk a few kilometers to their accurate intel told them they were holed up in a small village.
After reaching the village, everything went according to the book until a Taliban sentry must have heard a noise that caused him to raise his weapon and place his finger on the trigger. Feeling he was about to be fired upon, a SEAL only thirty feet away from the enemy soldier took him out with a suppressed weapon. Then, seeing the man next to him suddenly drop dead, another Taliban sentry began spraying bullets into the darkness. The fight was on.
Before long, the SEALs found the building that recent intel told them housed Objective Lake James. Shots were coming from one of the structure’s windows, but no one could tell immediately precisely where they were coming from. Adam caught a glimpse of the shooter and relayed that info back to his Team. Wanting to eliminate the threat as soon as possible, a fellow SEAL asked over the radio, “Can anyone get a grenade in there?”. “I got it,” came the reply from Adam Brown. Adam could always be counted on to step up and take care of business. The window was beyond throwing distance, so Adam decided a 40 mm grenade launcher was in order.
Unfortunately, positioning himself to get the grenade to its intended target meant he would have to leave his cover position. Only 10 minutes had passed since the assault began. As he moved forward to get a good angle, shots rang out from his left flank. Adam cried out in pain. He had been shot through both legs. Adam gestured to where he heard the images and told his teammates, “They’re over there.” Again, he winced in pain, pointing towards a barn. “In there.” Realizing they were spotted, the men in the barn rained down bullets in Adam’s direction. He was hit several times on his left side. Some rounds made their way between the plates of Adam’s body armor. Only then he conveyed to his Team the code word signifying that an American was down. Two of Adam’s brothers rushed to his aid, one being shot through the wrist. Once they got to his position, they lifted their badly wounded Teammate, all 250 pounds of him, including his gear and weapons, and dragged him to safety.
A Corpsman was summoned, and he found Adam bleeding profusely. He had been shot multiple times under his left arm and through his abdomen. Surveying him for other possible wounds, the Corpsman cut off Adam’s pants. His Teammates stopped in their tracks for a second; there they were, the Batman underwear his kids had bought him for his birthday, in place just as promised. By this time, two fellow SEALs were keeping pressure on Adam’s wounds the best they could. “Hang in there, buddy!” they implored. “I’m okay, I’m okay,” Adam replied as he closed his eyes. Adam Brown had died.
Chief Special Warfare Operator Adam Lee Brown was buried in Cunningham Cemetery in Garland County in his beloved Arkansas. Kelley and the children moved back to Hot Springs, and the kids were enrolled in Lake Hamilton Elementary School, walking the same hallways Adam did when he was a child, according to his final wishes.
A few weeks after settling into their new home in Hot Springs, Kelley was up at night unable to sleep. So she began looking through a box of old papers when she spotted something she had never seen before. It had been handwritten by Adam at least nine years earlier.
I’m lying here about to sleep, and all I can think about is how awesome my life is with you and Nathan, and I was thinking, what if something happened to me this week and you never really knew how much I love you, and how I love being married to you, how much I love my life and how awesome it is to be NaNa’s father. You are the greatest, purest, sweetest, and most beautiful woman I have ever met, much less I get to be your husband…Nathan holds a place in my heart that is unexplainable and that I did not know existed until he came into our lives…May he always know that the greatest man on Earth is Jesus Christ, may we always show him that. I am so blessed; it makes my blood burn with a completeness and happiness I have never had. You are so precious. Although I miss you so deeply, the Word says, ‘This is the day the Lord made; let us rejoice and be glad’…
With Love Through Eternity,
This is Adam and Kelley’s daughter, Savannah, at her 2020 graduation. With the help of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, she’s attending the University of Arkansas. He would be so proud.
In other news, Jason Hall, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of American Sniper, has signed on to write the screenplay for a film based on Adam Brown’s life. It will be an adaptation of Eric Blehm’s bestselling book, Fearless. Andrew Erwin is set to direct.