This is Part II of a two-part series on American hero Mike Bearden. To read Part I, click here.
As a boy, Mike was a huge fan of comic book superheroes. He had a Superman T-shirt with a big red “S” on it that he loved to wear around the property. Of course, that wasn’t unusual. A lot of kids his age had fantasies about being a superhero when they grew up. But Mike was serious about it. Firefighters captured his imagination. He could think of nothing more exciting than climbing up into a burning building, rescuing someone, and jumping out with them to safety. He was never one to pick a fight or go looking for trouble, and when arguments came up he would play the diplomat and try to persuade everyone to get along. But he didn’t like bullies, and he refused to stand by and let anyone pick on anyone else. Through his school years, his teachers routinely pointed out that little Mike was someone who always stood up for the underdog.
One year, when he was in Scotland on tour with his church choir, Mike’s parents got a transatlantic call from the choir director. “Uh-oh,” they thought when they learned who was calling. “What now?” There was no problem, the choir director hastened to assure them; he just wanted to let them know what had happened. They’d all been walking around town that day as a group, and they happened to witness someone stealing something. Everyone else stood riveted to the spot and stared. As any true superhero would, Mike sprang into action, chased the guy down, and put a hammerlock on him.
When he turned 14, it finally happened: He starting growing… and kept on growing. His parents struggled to keep him in jeans that year, and the next, and the year after that. Before long he was 6.4′, a lean, powerful 220 pounds, and the school’s star athlete.
From Little League on through high school, Mike had gotten into every sport he could, and he excelled in all of them. He was an all-star catcher, a valued linebacker, and a star swimmer. One year his high school football team was running an undefeated season, leading the district with one of the highest scores in the state. In a run-up to the state championship, they lost a coin flip and had to play a preliminary game to qualify. Mike was the starting fullback in that game and scored all his team’s touchdowns. Two games earlier he had injured his knee and it hadn’t fully recovered. Still, he played on. The two teams were neck-and-neck right down to the closing seconds. Then the opposing team kicked a field goal and took the game by a point.
By the time he finished high school, Mike’s knee was pretty bad. For his last four games, he had to stop in at the doctor’s office before each game to have the knee drained. The doc told him he shouldn’t be playing ball at all, but he was determined, and when Mike was determined, that was that. His knee might be suffering, but so what? He was Captain Indestructible.
After graduating from high school, Mike spent a few years working out what exactly he wanted to do with his life. After a year of college, he took a job as an assistant coach at Derenda’s old high school. There he had the chance to accomplish, as a coach, what he had come so close to achieving as a quarterback: That year, his undefeated team went right to the top and took the state championship. But as much as Mike loved coaching and football, he knew that wasn’t what he was here to do with his life. He was here to save people.
He didn’t want to be a coach.
He wanted to be a superhero.
At the high school where he coached there was a picture in the school trophy case of a graduate who had gone on to become a SEAL. Mike was taken with it and started asking around. He talked to anyone and everyone who had known that kid to find out whatever he could about him. One night not long after that his dad got a call.
“Dad,” said Mike as soon as his father picked up. “I know what I want to do.”
After STT, I went on to my 18-month training workup with Team Three. Mike “the Bear” went on to train with Team Five, so we didn’t see each other much for the next two years until we both showed up in Coronado for our initial sniper school briefing in April of 2000. It was in the crucible of sniper school that we became closer friends, right up to the day he beat Glen in their shoot-off for that SKS rifle.
From our six weeks of marksmanship training up in Central Valley we caravanned back downstate to the scorching Martian landscape at Niland Desert to see who would make it through the next portion of the course. Of the original 26, there were now about 18 of us left. By the end of the course, only a dozen would graduate.
Shooting is one thing. Being able to get close enough to take the shot — and with such complete stealth that you can extract again without being captured, blown up, or shot — is a whole other aspect of the sniper’s craft.
In fact, while most people equate sniper with marksmanship, the truth is that the art of stalking — the ability to move about undetected while observing every aspect and detail of an environment — comes into play far more than the ability to place a well-directed kill shot. Make no mistake: When it’s time to take that shot, it has to be perfect. (If you want to know just how crucial that is, just ask Captain Phillips of the Maersk Alabama.) But practically speaking, in the field, we spend a lot more time stalking and reconnoitering than we do shooting.
Picture a sniper stalking, and chances are good that the images that come to mind have to do with a guy snaking along stealthily on his belly or lying motionless for hours. Yes, those things happen. But that’s not really what it’s about. The lion’s share of the skill of stalking, like that of shooting, is mental. The ability to scan an entire environment and identify dead space — the three-dimensional area defined by a visual obstruction that can effectively shield you from an observer’s view — is key.
In a way, the art of stalking comes down to the ability to make yourself invisible — not exactly a Jedi mind trick, but pretty close. And for some reason, getting the knack of this stalking mindset was something that seemed to click for me and one other guy before it did for the rest of our classmates. By the last week of the course, I was far ahead enough in points that graduating was in the bag. I stopped wearing my ghillie suit (a special stalking outfit we would customize with twigs and bits of vegetation) and began going out onto the course in my regular desert cammies just to confound and piss off the instructors.
Now, I am not a tall guy, and you might think being shorter is a major advantage in stalking. But it turns out that size has nothing to do with it, and my proof for that assertion is Mike Bearden — who was the other guy in our class who clicked into the art of stalking right away.
It was an amazing thing to watch this monster of a guy just make himself invisible. I’d be a few hundred yards into a stalk and pause to look around, and there’d be Mike, slipping along nearby like a wraith. And then there were all the other guys back near the start line, inching along frantically on their stomachs.
In our Navy training before BUD/S, we all went through SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) school. Until I got to BUD/S, that school was the toughest damn training I’d ever had. At SERE they wanted to make sure you knew how to survive, whether on your own out in the wilderness or under conditions of hostile captivity. And they didn’t pull any punches in the process.
I heard a story about Mike’s time in SERE school. When it came to the evasion exercise, where students roleplay escaped prisoners and try to avoid recapture, they couldn’t find him. They’d rounded up all the other escapee-students, but even after scouring the entire area, they couldn’t find Bearden.
He had vanished.
Even after the exercise was over, they still couldn’t find him. The Bear, as the expression goes, was out in the woods. Finally, they started combing the region in trucks, calling him in through loudspeakers. It turned out they couldn’t find him because he had stayed hidden underwater, breathing through a reed. He wasn’t coming in till he was ready to come in.
On June 12, 2000, Mike, Glen, and I stood together with nine other classmates to receive our NSW Sniper School certificates. It was my 26 birthday; Mike was exactly 27 years and three months old. His wife, Derenda, was there, along with their son, Holden, who was one day shy of nine months. It was a proud time for all of us.
For most of us, deployment would be coming soon. First, though, Glen and I had a 30-day leave coming, and we both took full advantage of it.
The Bear was moving right on to another school, this one involving one of his favorite activities: jumping from tall places. Mike was using this time to go through military free-fall training right there in California.
Each of us had already been through rigger school, where you learn the basics of parachuting. There we had practiced static line jumping what we call “dope on a rope.” We’d also been through the exercise we call “hop-and-pops,” in which you jump out over water at a few thousand feet and pull immediately, World War II-style, like in the American airborne landings in Normandy.
A telling story from Mike’s rigger school days is when he was at someone’s second-floor apartment party. He was sitting out on the balcony when he looked out and glimpsed a guy snatching a purse from a woman on the street below. He leaped off the balcony, landing on his feet, and went after the guy. Seeing this giant appear out of the air and plowing toward him, the terrified thief took off down the street as fast as he could run, but he didn’t have a chance. Just as he’d done on that high school choir trip in Scotland, Mike caught up with the perp and took him down with a flying tackle, then held him in a lock until the police showed up. That was Mike’s version of basic jump training.
But this school Mike was going through now would take jumping to a whole different level. In military freefall, he’d be jumping out of aircraft at 10,000 to 12,000 feet with full combat equipment. On an earlier visit to Coronado, his parents had seen some guys jumping out of a helicopter, and later that day Michael Senior had asked Mike, “How do you do that? I mean, you just throw yourself out of that thing. You don’t hesitate.”
Mike shrugged. “Hey, somebody’s got to do it.”
“But seriously,” his dad persisted, “have you thought about how dangerous this all is?”
Mike said, “You know, Dad, I don’t think about that. You can’t think about that. This is our job. This is what we do. There are people out there who can’t help themselves. Somebody’s got to help them.”
One day shortly after graduating from sniper school, Mike passed by the SEAL quarterdeck in Coronado on his way to get himself set up for jump school. A BUD/S instructor was finishing up with a group of fresh recruits, taking them through their punishing paces on the broiling-hot asphalt grinder. The instructor glanced up and spotted Mike walking by, recognizing him instantly. Reputation is everything in the SEAL teams, and everyone on the teams knew how well the new guys had done at sniper school, especially Mike.
“Hey, Bearden,” the instructor called out. “Now that you’ve finished sniper school, what’s next?”
Mike reached a fist up behind his neck and yanked, miming the action of opening a parachute. He grinned.
“I’m gonna be a sky god,” he said.
A few weeks later, towards the end of jump school, Mike drove his family the 1,500 miles home to eastern Texas to attend a cousin’s wedding. The day after the wedding, he saddled the family up to head straight back out west so he could rejoin the class.
“Man,” his dad said as Mike packed their bags, “I sure wish you could stay through the weekend. We could spend some time together.”
“I can’t, Daddy,” said Mike. “We’ve got a jump coming up.”
His dad nodded, said so long, and saw them off.
A few days later, on Tuesday evening, Mike called home to check in with his folks, as he was in the habit of doing. He told his dad he’d made a jump that day, and said his back was really sore. When you watch SEALs go through their paces in documentaries, it’s easy to get the impression that we’re invulnerable and nothing fazes us. The truth is, all that training takes its toll. Mike’s knees had been dicey ever since high school, and while he never said a word about it to the other guys, his knees would hurt after jumping.
“Well,” his dad replied, “maybe you can skip tomorrow.”
“Dad, you don’t skip,” Mike explained. “Besides, we’re just about finished up here.” There was a pause in the conversation, then his dad said, “So, what are you going to do next, Mike?”
“What do you mean, what am I going to do next?” Mike replied.
“Your four years are fixing to be up. Have you thought about what comes after this?” Mike was silent for a moment before answering.
“Dad,” he said, “I’ve found something worthwhile here. Yeah, I’ve had offers to go work for a few companies. And I’ve thought about working for the U.S. Marshals at some point. But for right now, I’m doing something I’m really good at.”
Michael Senior digested that, then said, “So, what are you saying?”
“I’m going to re-up, Dad,” Mike replied. “What we’re doing here makes a difference. People need us.”
“Okay,” his dad said, and they said their goodbyes.
It was the last time the two men spoke.
Michael Senior was at school teaching the next day, Wednesday, July 12, when someone came into the classroom and said he was needed at home right away. When he arrived home the news was waiting for him. That day the Bear had run smack into any military trainer’s worst nightmare: His main chute had a rare malfunction and got tangled up in his secondary or backup chute, preventing the secondary from deploying.
He fought to the last second to get the canopy open — fought it all the way to the ground.
They held a funeral service for Mike Bearden on Wednesday, July 19, exactly one week after the freefall accident, at the First Baptist Church in Justin, Texas, the town where his wife’s family lived. About 20 of Mike’s teammates were there, flown out from the coast so they could be present.
After the formal part of the service was over, little Holden looked over at my buddy Ed, who was a member of our sniper class, and pointed at his chest. Ed looked down. The boy’s finger was pointing at the gold SEAL Trident pinned to Ed’s lapel. Holden recognized it because his dad had one just like it. He looked up at Ed and said, “Hey, mister. Do you know where my dad is?”
Barely keeping his composure, Ed bent down and said, “He’s in a better place, son.” And then immediately felt like an ass. But what else could he say?
There were a lot of tears shed by some very tough SEALs that day. Ed later told me it was the hardest thing he’d ever done, standing there in his dress blues as Mike’s little boy kept asking the SEALs in uniform where his daddy was. “It was a fucking tear factory,” is how he put it.
RIP Bear. — Brandon