We all stood around as they read off everyone’s score. Glen Doherty’s implausible 19 out of 20 had given him a personal tally of 95, which not only saved my ass but was also the day’s highest score. Except for one thing: As far-fetched as it sounded, another new guy in the class had shot a 95, too.
Which meant the day’s shooting was not over yet.
Someone had donated a beautiful SKS 7.62 semi-automatic rifle to the class. This thing was a work of art. A classic Soviet-made carbine (this was the service rifle that preceded the AK-47), and a piece any gun owner would be proud to have in his collection. Before our test that day the instructors had told us that whoever came out with the highest score would go home with that rifle. But you can’t exactly saw an SKS in half, so now Glen and the other guy were going to stage a shoot-off.
This time they would be on their own, no shooter-spotter teams. Each would have just a few minutes to do his own spotting, calculations, wind call, and the rest, then get one shot — and only one shot — at that lane’s target. They would take turns, starting at the closest distance and ending at 1,000 yards.
Glen lay down in the lane again, took his second shot… and missed once more. The other guy hit it square.
Predictably, a roar went up and we all grabbed the guy and started pounding on him in congratulation. The SKS was his, but victory belonged to all of us, as we stampeded off the range in a raucous mass to go track down adult beverages in large quantities.
It was a heady moment. The shooting portion of the class was over, and we’d survived it. Even though my best friend had lost the contest, I really didn’t care, and neither did Glen. For one thing, we were both so relieved to just have passed the damn course.
But there was another reason we didn’t care. If anyone else had beaten Glen, we probably would have been at least a little ticked off. SEALs are over-the-top competitive and Glen even more so than most. But it happened that the shooter who had edged Glen out and taken possession of that SKS was such a likable guy, so universally loved and respected that it was impossible to feel anything but happy that he’d won.
His name was Mike Bearden. They called him the Bear.
I had first met Mike Bearden two years earlier, in the summer of 1998. At the time, we were both fresh from BUD/S, the legendary seven-month training program that all SEAL candidates undergo and only a fraction complete. Except that’s a misnomer: BUD/S isn’t really training; it’s more like a seven-month entrance exam.
What we were doing in the summer of ’98, that was training. SEAL tactical training, or STT, was what happened to those who made it through BUD/S and came out the other end still standing (these days it’s called SEAL qualification training, or SQT).
Over the three months of STT, we had drilled into us weapons skills, close-quarters battle tactics, coordinated room-to-room takedown, advanced land navigation and survival, extended dives and underwater demolition, and desert warfare. For desert warfare training, they took us to the Niland Desert, one of the strangest places I’ve ever seen.
The Niland Desert is a vast stretch of lunar landscape in the wishfully named Imperial Valley, where the central Californian desert bleeds out to the Mexican border. It is situated along the edge of the Salton Sea, a huge, strongly alkaline runoff lake that lurks well below sea level at roughly the same elevation as Death Valley.
Niland makes an excellent surrogate Middle Eastern battleground. Most of Jarhead and the sand dune sequences in Independence Day and Star Wars were filmed there. It’s a great place to prepare for war in Iraq or Afghanistan — although we were still a few years away from knowing that was where we would be going.
Toward the end of our time at Niland, one of our instructors decided that because the 75th Ranger Regiment were doing a 12-mile forced march as part of their course, we needed to do that, too. “Hell, we’re frogmen,” went the thinking. “If they can do it, we sure as shit can do it better.” Instead of 12 miles, he figured, we’d make it 14.
Which was fine, except for two things. First, the Rangers didn’t just wake up one day and do a 12-mile loaded march. They built up to it throughout their training. Also, there was no room in our existing schedule to slip in an exercise like that. No worries: The instructor figured they would just tack it onto the end of a full day of training. Like a postscript in a letter. A really long and heavy postscript.
So there we were on a 14-mile forced run with full gear (including 50-pound rucks), on an evening after we’d already done a five-hour land navigation course from noon till 17:00. In the middle of the desert. In July. And we had to do it in three hours.
Out of 72 guys, only four made it under the three-hour gun. Barely another dozen of us made it back at all. The rest of the guys were strewn over the 14-mile course, and corpsmen (medics) had to haul them in. Some of them plain passed out. We used every IV in the camp that night.
And Bearden? He just crushed it. It hadn’t even taken him that much effort.
All 72 of us knew what perseverance and focus were all about. We were SEALs, after all, which meant we were maniacs to some degree. But the Bear was in a class by himself. As I watched Bearden saunter into quarters that evening, while dozens of our teammates were still getting IVs or were draped near-comatose over their beds, I thought:
“This guy is indestructible.”
This article was originally published in December 2020.