This is Part II in a two-part series on Navy SEAL Dave Scott. You can read Part I here.
After the USS Cole was hit, nobody had any idea what attacks might be coming next. So the Navy immediately halted all resupply operations that were underway throughout the region and rerouted everything through a single port, where it could focus all its surveillance and intelligence resources in one place to make sure it was all safe. The guys in charge of making sure it was safe were us.
While nobody came out and said so, it was clear that command was worried about another Cole-style attack on an American vessel. If two idiots in a speedboat could take out a 10,000-ton destroyer, then who knew what else was possible? The security of the entire overseas fleet depended on our ability to get these resupply ships in and out safely.
Since there was a substantial population of ex-pat British and American workers in the Port of Aden, it was relatively easy for us to blend in. We took 12-hour shifts, setting up surveillance in the port either early in the morning or at night, depending on the rotation. Just like on the bridge of the Cole, we spent long hours doing nothing but watching through our optics and binos, watching anything and everything. Why was that truck over there? Trucks weren’t supposed to be there. Who were these guys over here who weren’t here yesterday, and what were they doing here today? Anything remotely suspicious we wrote down in our activity logs, which would later be turned into reports that would go up some unseen chain of intelligence command.
We were not authorized to have weapons outside a certain zone in the port — but authorized or not, we carried concealed sidearms anyway, not just when in our hotel but everywhere around town. This added another layer of tension to the situation.
In this exotic locale, we had a first-hand experience of the incredibly byzantine puzzle that is Middle Eastern culture and politics. There was the constant sense that we were missing huge chunks of the full picture. American forces have gotten somewhat better at this in the years since 9/11, but back then we were relatively unprepared. We knew we were supposed to be functioning in essence as a crew of intelligence operatives, but it was hard not to feel like a bunch of ridiculously conspicuous Caucasian Americans dropped in the middle of what might as well have been a distant planet. There were so many cultures, dialects, religious sects, dynastic families… it was an immense tangle of nuance and history, shifting alliances, and ancient grudges. We felt enveloped by a sense of helplessness: How the hell could we possibly understand what was going on here?
And, of course, Dave absolutely loved it. For him, it was like Christmas morning. Complexity? Cultural ambiguity? Undercurrents of espionage and international intrigue? Risk of discovery and grave danger to one’s person? Yes! The dude was in his element. The only thing missing was high-altitude, high-octane physical danger — and, of course, the opportunity to actually kill bad guys.
With his hair worn long and an earring in one ear, Dave gave the perfect impression of being an eccentric computer geek. (Which, of course, he was.) He would work at the computer for hours, then go to work up on the roof with sniper scopes for hours more.
We spent a month, gathering whatever information we could and passing it on up the channels. We also learned more about the Russian Mafia, the Middle Eastern sex-slave trade, and a whole raft more of other immoral and illegal activities going on under our noses than we would have thought possible.
After completing the mission, we began our homeward trek across the Pacific. In February, on our way to Hawaii, we weighed anchor near the tiny island of Iwo Jima to participate in the 56th anniversary of the American Marine landing there during World War II.
This was, remember, a Marine landing we were commemorating, and the Duluth was full of Marines. The idea was that they would be the ones who would go ashore first. But Dave wasn’t having any of that. Rather than wait around while the Marines boarded their boats and headed in, he jumped ship and swam ashore himself so he could reconnoiter ahead of everyone else. Once on land, he crafted a sign and posted it right at the beach’s edge, facing outward so it would greet the Marines when they arrived:
Welcome to Iwo Jima!
Courtesy of SEAL Team 3
Dave had brought a container with him, which he proceeded to fill with 40 pounds of pure black sand. After smuggling the sand back with him onto the Duluth, he measured it out into dozens of little bottles, then gave one to each Marine on board as a memento of their visit. A little bit of Iwo Jima to take home with them — courtesy of SEAL Team 3, of course.
Back in 1999, when Dave was at the Elliott School in D.C., he had a good friend, an ex-Navy corpsman named Greg Skelton who was now with the Marine Force Reconnaissance. One day Greg challenged Dave to compete in the Marine Corps Marathon, a footrace of more than 26 miles. Dave took the challenge and, Dave being Dave, he also immediately upped the ante and insisted they run it “the Navy SEAL way,” in “boots and utes,” in other words, wearing T-shirt and camouflage pants (utility uniform) and combat boots.
Greg called his bluff. “Let’s do it,” he said.
So they did. It wasn’t until 18 miles into the race that Dave glanced over at Greg as they ran and said, “Hey… I don’t know if… you realize this but… I was just kidding about… the boots and utes.” They huffed another 20 yards or so, then Dave added, “But what the hell we’ve… come this far let’s… finish this fucker.” And they did — the only runners among the 30,000 participants who ran the competition, let alone finished it, in heavy boots.
In October 2003, exactly one year after Dave’s death, Greg ran the Marine Corps Marathon again, once again with a Scott by his side — Dave’s dad, Jack, standing in for his absent son. When they reached the finish line Jack didn’t stop running. After another half-mile, he finally slowed and came to a standstill at Arlington National Cemetery, where he draped his finisher’s medal over Dave’s gravesite.
The following year Greg couldn’t make it, but Dave’s younger brother, Mike, kept the tradition going and ran the race himself. Like his father the year before, Mike continued on to Arlington to leave his Marine Corps Marathon finisher’s medal on his brother’s grave.
The year after that Greg was determined not to miss the event: He drove in uniform nonstop from Georgia to D.C. to run the race one more time — in boots and utes. Leaving the finish line behind he followed in Jack’s and Mike’s footsteps until he had reached Dave’s final resting place, where he added a third medal to his friend’s growing collection.
Dave was the embodiment of the expression larger than life. Everything he did, he took to a level beyond what anyone else would think possible. He was more hilarious, more outrageous, more audacious. As his mom, Maggie, put it, “Dave lived more in his 29 and a half years than others could live in a hundred.”
Because he was so quick, he could pick up on anything that anyone was talking about and find a way to reference it to something he knew about or had experience with. That high-speed intelligence, combined with his basic good nature and sense of humor, gave him an amazing gift for conversation and for striking up new friendships. Kat, Dave’s wife, describes him as a chameleon: He could throw wild parties filled with sophomoric stunts (like the time he convinced a group of starstruck freshmen to prove their mettle by sweating it out in a bathroom with an ignited tear-gas grenade Dave just happened to have hung onto from an earlier SEAL deployment). And the next day we could walk into any posh D.C. eating or drinking establishment and chat up the worldly professionals you’d find there as if he were one of them. Dave could talk to anybody and make anyone laugh.
In many ways, Dave was like a big kid. There was absolutely no situation where he would not let loose with his crazy grin, booming laugh, and insane antics, if he was so moved. His Elliott School roommate, DeVere Crooks, remembers being in the shower at the end of a long day of study when suddenly a giant gorilla arm shot in from around the shower curtain and turned off the hot water. DeVere almost had a Janet Leigh – style heart attack. Classic Dave.
“He had the most tender of hearts, a boyish imagination, and a bold vision of where he wanted to be,” says Kat. “I often wonder if I mistakenly caught a bolt of lightning. After so many years, it still saddens me to think of that light as not being there anymore.”
For me, Dave’s life stands both as an inspiration and as a cautionary tale. I’ve always been drawn to extreme sports. There’s nothing I love quite so much (my early qualms notwithstanding) as throwing myself out of a perfectly good airplane. All my life I’ve taken things to the edge. All SEALs do; it’s our job description. But Dave took things right to the edge and then well past it. In a way, it was amazing that he lived as long as he did. That insatiable appetite for what lay beyond the edge is no doubt what killed him. Yet it was also what made him so brilliant. Dave understood the 21st century when most of us still thought we were living in the 20th. And his intelligence was infectious. Just being around him made me more curious about how things worked — and even more important, how they could work.
About a year after Dave died, my friend and BUD/S classmate Eric Davis and I were recruited to take on the complete revamping and redesign of the Naval Special Warfare sniper course. It was an enormous task and an even greater responsibility (and one we’ll look at more in the next chapter). The world had changed dramatically since the bombing of the Cole, and so had the nature of warfare — and even more, the role that SEAL snipers played. We needed a new course, one that left behind the past and addressed the future. We needed a course that incorporated the latest in technological wizardry, that fully developed its trainees intellectually as well as physically, a course that would be designed for continuous improvement so that it would always be 10 steps ahead. A course that pushed the envelope to the edge of the possible, and then pushed it even further.
We needed a course, in other words, that thought like Dave Scott.
I can never hope to be as smart as Dave. But in the years since I knew him, I’ve made it a practice to examine the world around me through his eyes. The Dionysus in Dave still taunts me today, daring me to look past my limits — and the Apollo in Dave is always there to help me grasp what I see.
In Brandon Webb’s and John Mann’s book “Among Heroes,” Brandon provides his personal account of the life of Glen Doherty and of seven other of his fallen SEAL comrades. Brandon’s and John’s forthcoming novel “Steel Fear” releases next year.