This is Part I of a three-part series by Brandon Webb. Read Part II here.
The first time I saw Glen Doherty, he was relaxing in a parked Humvee reading a book and I was on the edge of physical collapse.
I remember the moment like a snapshot because it struck me right then how ironic it was. Here we were, the toughest of the tough, baddest of the bad, strapping young specimens on our way to becoming Navy SEALs, and what was this guy doing? Sitting there reading some piece of classical literature like a third-year English lit student. And here was the ironic part: My first thought was, “Hey, another one.” Because reading was one of my great loves, too –classic novels, popular page-turners, memoirs, business books, you name it. Being a voracious reader was something Glen and I had in common — as I would soon learn, it was just one of the many things we had in common. Maybe we both sensed that.
In any case, there we were: him perched in his comfortable Humvee, me on my last legs, one of the few men still standing in the final stretch of a brutal 14-mile forced run in full gear in the scorching midsummer California desert, which on a cool day was close to 100 degrees. And this wasn’t a cool day. Out of a class of 72 guys, barely a dozen of us were still vertical.
Actually, I wasn’t exactly vertical either. Both my legs had just seized up and I had dropped like a sack of cement.
Glen glanced up from his book and grinned at me. “How ya doin’? Ya look like shit.”
I didn’t just look like shit. I felt like shit.
It was the summer of 1998 and toward the end of our STT session at post-apocalyptic Niland. This was that same 14-mile ordeal that Mike Bearden breezed through and that just about killed the rest of us. Of course, our instructors didn’t want it to literally kill us. They just wanted to take us as close to that brink as they could without any of us actually tipping over the edge. Which was why Glen was there. Glen was a Navy medic, or corpsman, about to go through STT himself, and right then attached to our class as support staff, on hand to make sure we didn’t die from heatstroke or dehydration in the inhuman conditions at Niland.
I didn’t know this guy, but something about him stood out. For one thing, he seemed like he was in a perpetual great mood, his face always wearing an easy smile. Not an evil grin or a fuck-you sneer (we had plenty of those in the group), just a genuine, good-natured smile. Which stood out even more for a corpsman.
Most corpsmen tended to have a pretty pissed-off attitude at that point, stemming from the fact that they were stuck in a sort of built-in career rut. Their path to earning their SEAL Trident was at least six months longer than it was for the rest of us. While we went directly to STT right out of BUD/S, corpsmen first had to go through a six-month training course out at Fort Bragg: the Special Operations medical course, also known as 18 Delta. Glen had actually gone through BUD/S well before the rest of us — but here we were plowing on through STT, which Glen hadn’t even started yet. Like all corpsmen, he was anxious to get started. Still, it didn’t seem to have put a chip on his shoulder.
Even in the midst of the excruciating pain, as I tried to get my seized-up leg muscles working again, I could see that he was a genuine guy, someone you could get to know and trust right away. There’s a great line from “The Shawshank Redemption,” when Red (Morgan Freeman) first meets Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in prison:
“He had a quiet way about him, a walk and a talk that just wasn’t normal around here. He strolled like a man in a park without a care or worry in the world, like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place. Yeah, I think it would be fair to say… I liked Andy from the start.”
This guy was like that. Like Andy Dufresne. He had a quiet smile on his face like he was mostly here but a part of him was somewhere else, listening to the punch line of a joke the rest of us hadn’t heard yet. It was just a fleeting impression, though, and in the remaining days of STT I barely got to know him, let alone to sense that he would become one of the most influential people in my life. I was too busy getting my ass kicked.
Glen helped me to my feet, got some water in me, and watched me take off again to make those last few miles before collapsing for the night.
A few months later, STT now behind me, I was out surfing off the San Diego coast. This beautiful tube opened up in front of me. I pulled into it, and in the next moment it collapsed around me — in surfer’s terms, it “closed out.” My board flew up out of control and I took a rail in the head, banged myself up pretty bad.
I got myself back onto the beach to assess the situation. My face was covered in blood. Probably no more than an inch-and-a-half gash, but head wounds bleed like a son of a bitch.
I had a few choices. I could go in to the naval hospital, the Navy’s version of the ER. But as SEALs we had our own medical clinic and each team had its own medical station. Much easier: faster service, less paperwork. Hell, all I needed was a few off-the-record stitches. Most SEALs I know have very few entries in their medical records — as few as possible, in fact. I climbed into my car and drove myself over to Team Three medical, parked, and walked in bleeding all over the place.
There were two medics on call: a guy I didn’t know, and Glen.
I wasn’t that well versed in Special Operations yet, but I’d seen enough to know that there were two kinds of medics in the service: One is the guy who is skilled but treats you like a farm animal. He looks you over, punches a needle in your arm, and says, “I gave you a local; now shut the fuck up and hold still while I stitch you up.” They might be great guys otherwise. I’ve had quite a few friends who fall into the brutal-medic category, and I’d trust my life to them on the battlefield (in fact, I have.) I’d just rather not have them sewing me up if I have the luxury of choice.
Even without knowing Glen all that well it was obvious he was the other kind of corpsman: the kind who has a genuine knack for it, who gravitates to the job because he actually wants to take care of people. And animals.
When Glen was a kid and adults would ask him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would answer, “a veterinarian.” From the earliest age, he had a love of animals. He and his siblings were always taking in strays. One day Glen and his sister Kate found a mouse and sneaked it up to the third-floor attic. They named it Speedy and kept it in secret for days until their mom caught them smuggling food upstairs. She let them keep the little guy.
Not long after that, Glen adopted a stray black-and-white cat he named Raisin (for reasons known only to Glen). Raisin was a street cat, mean, and tough as nails. That crazy tom located Speedy without difficulty, and that was the end of Speedy. A few months later the kids got another kitten. Raisin killed it that first night. When Kate would try to pet Raisin, he would bite her. This cat was one bad son of a bitch, the nastiest cat the kids had ever seen. But Glen loved him, and Raisin loved Glen. He was Glen’s cat and nobody else’s.
Glen was the same way with people. There wasn’t anyone he couldn’t relate to and get along with. Of course, I didn’t know any of this until much later, when we got to be good friends. But I knew enough to make sure it was Glen who stitched me up, and not the other guy.
I sat on the table at Team Three medical, and he went to work.
“Okay,” he said, “I’m going to give you a local, and then I’m gonna irrigate this wound.” As he worked he explained what he was doing, step by step. “Okay,” I heard him say, “you’re good to go.” Before I knew it, I was out of there with seven stitches on my head and a new friend.
As I got to know Glen better, I learned more about what his 18 Delta training had been like.
“Imagine being in a dark room,” he told me one day. “Earsplitting rock music blaring over loudspeakers, strobe lights going on and off. Guy on the floor in front of you with a gunshot wound. You have to find his vein in the dark, give him an IV, do it right — and do it fast because his life is ebbing away. Okay, it’s not actually a guy. It’s a goat. But guess what: If that goat dies, you don’t graduate.”
It might be a goat, or a pig, or some other animal. Sometimes it was a gunshot wound, other times a severed limb or some other trauma with equally fatal potential. Not for the faint of heart.
“Also not very popular with the PETA set,” he added. “But it’s damn good training, and it saves guys’ lives in the field.”
After Fort Bragg, they were shipped to New York City for some on-the-job training: riding around in civilian ambulances and working the ER.
“They sent us to the worst neighborhoods,” he told me, “where drug-related violence and gang warfare are an everyday thing. I treated a lot of stabbings and gunshot wounds.”
Glen told me about one 911 call they responded to where a man had called in and said he couldn’t get out of his bed, and it was an emergency. They drove to the address and hoofed it up the five- or six-story walk-up, and once they crashed into the guy’s apartment, they saw why he couldn’t get out of bed.
“Dude,” Glen shook his head and gave an incredulous laugh, “this guy was beyond fat. He was morbidly obese. I mean, he couldn’t move.”
He paused for a second, trying to find the words to describe the scene.
“Stacks of old rotting magazines, delivery boxes, mostly empty food containers all over the place, shit piled everywhere… and this unbelievable stench. It was like that scene out of ‘Se7en‘ — you know, the murdered guy who exemplified the sin of sloth? This was that guy.”
Glen and his teammates had to hoist the obese man out of his bed and carry him down all those flights of stairs.
“I saw a lot of ugly things in 18 Delta,” he said. “That was the worst. But hey, you know? We had to help the guy.”
That fall, a few days before receiving my Trident, I learned I was being assigned to Golf Platoon. Being assigned to a platoon is like the draft-pick process works with a pro sports team. Each platoon had its own reputation, some decidedly better than others. We all had high hopes for which platoon we’d be assigned to.
Golf Platoon was one of the best. Glen was there, and so was my BUD/S classmate Mike Ritland, who was living at the time in that one-bedroom guest house behind the little house I was renting in San Diego.
Mike, who today is a renowned dog trainer and author of “Trident K9 Warriors,” a bestselling book about SEAL dogs, told a story about being — forgive the expression, Mike — sick as a dog in that house.
Understand, when you’re in the SEALs, you don’t call in sick. If you think you’re sick you go in anyway. If the officers in charge say you’re too sick to be there, then you go home. But that one time Mike got so sick that he literally couldn’t go in. He’d gotten food poisoning from some bad clams, and spent days puking continuously and uncontrollably. To make things worse, none of us knew he was sick. He was back there in that little cottage by himself with no phone. He couldn’t go for help. He couldn’t even walk.
“I would crawl slowly from my bed to my bathroom,” he says, “where I would collapse on the floor for an hour or two before I could manage to crawl back to my bed. After a few days of this, I was so dehydrated, I knew I was going to die.”
And then, like an angel of mercy appearing out of nowhere, Glen came bursting in through the door with two 500ml bags of IV fluids and a satchel of meds. He got some fluids into Mike, got him cleaned up a little and put together. Over the next few days, he came back a few more times to check up on Mike and make sure he was okay.
To this day Mike says he has no idea how Glen knew he was at home dying. “Maybe he noticed I hadn’t shown up for quarters for a few days and figured it out. All I know is, he saved my life.”
As I got to know Glen a little better I learned something about him I hadn’t seen at first: Beneath that affable, unflappable exterior beat the heart of a freaking perfectionist.
Glen, or “Bub,” as we all called him, excelled at everything he put his mind and body to. It wasn’t that he was a naturally gifted athlete. He was a slender guy, not built especially like a born jock. But he was driven. His childhood pal, Sean, explains it perfectly: “Glen was the one who was willing to put in the work.”
In those years between STT and deploying overseas we did a lot of surfing off the Coronado coast. I was practically born in the water and spent most of my teenage years working on a dive boat. Not Glen. He was a gifted skier — as Sean puts it, “watching Glen on skis was seeing poetry in motion” — but he was no natural-born surfer. In fact, he honestly wasn’t that good at it. But he had more damn fun surfing than anyone else I’ve ever known, and he poured himself into it hard enough to get himself to the point of competence.
Glen never seemed to need much sleep. He was always the last one to crash at night and the first to get up in the morning. If he wasn’t heading out for a run, he was in the kitchen cooking everyone breakfast — or getting everyone else up to run. He would be up at dawn after a night of major partying, when everyone was still hungover, calling out, “Okay everybody, we’re goin’ on a six-mile run and then gonna lift some weights!” Everyone else would be groaning, “Jesus, no — c’mon, Glen…” but off he’d go. He called it “sweating the demons out.” You work hard, you play hard, and then you get back to work on yourself again — hard. That was not only Glen’s modus operandi, it was also his working definition of life as a SEAL.
Guys enlist in the service and join the teams for all sorts of reasons. For some, like Matt Axelson or Heath Robinson, it’s in their bloodline. Dave Scott wanted to jump out of planes and blow things up. Chris Campbell wanted to see the world. But Glen? According to his friends and family, for him, the idea of becoming a SEAL was more or less a bolt from the blue. Glen’s sister, Kate, says she was talking with Glen one day and he told her something that surprised her. “If nothing else comes up by the time I’m 25, I’ll become a Navy SEAL.” “A Navy SEAL?“ she thought. “Where did that come from?“
In fact, it had come from Costa Rica. That summer he and a buddy had spent some time there, and they happened to meet a group of SEALs who were doing the same thing they were: hanging out and surfing. Back home Glen had been having a tough time carving out a career as a skier. His buddy Sean had by now become a sponsored pro snowboarder, but while pro snowboarding was on the rise in the mid-90s, skiing was at an ebb, and as good as Glen was, he still didn’t see any prospects of getting serious sponsorship.
“Fine,” he thought. “If this doesn’t happen in the next year, I’ll become a Navy SEAL.”
Sure enough, when he turned 25, he enlisted. But it wasn’t that “nothing else had come up.” Everything else had come up. He’d hitchhiked across the country (following the Grateful Dead, no less), worked in a microbrewery, hung out in boxing gyms… it seemed there was nothing Glen hadn’t done. Not only was he an expert skier, but by that time he was also a skilled whitewater raft instructor, an accomplished triathlete, an experienced chef, and an excellent writer. He had also become such a skillful medic that a top brain surgeon had offered to pay his way through Physician’s Assistant (PA) school if Glen would come work for him. An A student throughout his school years, he excelled at everything he did. He could have done almost anything. But being the best wasn’t enough for him. He had to be the best of the best.
And he was. In BUD/S, we had a designation for the top graduate in the class: Honor Man. Over time the idea spread to most other courses as well. In practically every class we went through together, Glen was Honor Man.
It was in sniper school that Glen and I became inseparable. Since we were paired up as shooter-spotter partners, we spent the next three months training together, eating together, drinking together, shooting, sweating, stressing, and cursing together. Our fates in the course were tied to each other. In those three months, the two of us forged a bond of trust and friendship that went deeper than bone marrow. Over a lot of late-night campfire hours, we also learned a lot about each other’s childhoods and backgrounds.
This is Part I of a three-part series by Brandon Webb. Read Part II here.