I originally published this a while back for our Team Room members and also wanted to share this with our regular members. Team Room members get a lot of access to our writers and we often share work in progress with the TR. It’s a great community to belong to, and don’t forget our annual members party! I’ll post at least one other excerpt in the TR before the book is released. Regardless of your participation level on the site, we all appreciate the support.
Among Heroes will be published (NAL Penguin) May of 2015. Meet Mike Bearden. Please remember that I appreciate everyone respecting the copyright – please don’t share outside of SOFREP or you’ll get me in trouble with my editor at Penguin.
Thanks and let me know what you guys think.
A U.S. Navy SEAL’s True Story of Friendship, Heroism, and the Ultimate Sacrifice
Chapter 1: Mike Bearden
It was still early, maybe one o’clock in the afternoon, and already creeping into the low nineties. It would get hotter still, we knew that for certain. Late spring in California’s Central Valley: dry and brown, a clear day, the barometer high and steady, but to us the atmospheric pressure felt like roughly ten thousand pounds per square inch.
My best friend, Glen Doherty, and I were crouched down side by side at the front of a thousand-yard high-power shooting lane on the last day of the marksmanship phase of the Naval Special Warfare Sniper School, arguably the toughest military training program on the planet. We were about to start our final test of this phase, the test that would determine whether we went on through the rest of the school or returned home in defeat. We’d been here for six weeks. A third of the class had already washed out, and we were terrified that we were next.
The idea of sniper school probably sounds romantic, exciting, adventurous. It’s none of those things. It’s fucking miserable. We would come back to our tents at the end of every interminable twelve-hour day dirty as hell, beaten down, exhausted, and already feeling the crushing weight of what loomed ahead of us the next day.
That pressure is mostly mental. Of course you have to be in top physical condition, but we were all SEALs. Physically, we’d already had “normal” redefined for us and the bar set insanely high. But sniper school was not about sheer physical endurance. It was about absorbing complex skill sets and executing them flawlessly, at a machine-gun pace, and under conditions of constantly increasing intensity. Seven days a week, twelve hours a day, we were always on—up at six a.m. to run out onto the range with rifle in hand and a single round, which we had to fire with sleep-stiffened fingers through still-cold rifle barrels at whatever moment they told us, at whatever target they told us, and hit it. Miss that early-morning shot and the rest of the day would feel like one long battle to regain any sense of confidence and morale. It was the most exacting, focused state of concentration any of us in the course had ever experienced. We were the proverbial frog in the pot of water being steadily brought to a boil, and the only way out of the pot was to fail.
Which was exactly what many of our classmates had done. In the weeks leading up to this test, some guys had come unglued under the strain and ended up fighting with their shooting partners. By “fighting” I don’t mean “exchanging heated words”; I mean punching, mashing, and kicking, the kind of brawl you have to wade into and physically pull apart if you don’t want too many broken bones.
What made the pressure worse for Glen and me was that we were both still new guys. In the SEAL teams, “new guys” are SEALs who have made it through BUD/S but have not yet done a full year-plus specialized training work-up and gone on an overseas deployment. A new guy’s job is pretty simple: Shut up and listen. Do what you’re told. Be invisible and act like you don’t know anything, because the truth is, you don’t. Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Sniper School has a global reputation; even within the teams it is the most respected school of them all. The idea of a couple of new guys having the privilege of attending sniper school was more than some could take.
Especially the instructor hovering over Glen and me right now as we inched through the ordeal of our final test. This guy, a genuinely nasty turd named Slattery, hated our guts. He wanted us to fail.
And he happened to be the one grading us today.
As Slattery bitched at us, the day continued creeping forward on its belly toward the hottest part of the afternoon, the rising temperature not only adding to our stress but also physically affecting our test conditions. As metal heats up it expands. That produces an increase in pressure on the bullet as it traverses the interior of the swelling rifle barrel, which in turn increases the round’s speed and alters the arc of its trajectory. As the mercury rose out on the California range, the increasing temperature differentials threading through the bone-dry foothills around us also caused the sporadic gusts of wind to intensify. Which put every critical factor in our environment in flux, increasing the difficulty level of our task to an insane degree.
In the field, your life often depends on making the shot. Out here on the range, it was just our careers on the line.
At this point Glen and I had completed the “snaps and movers” portion of the test. Snaps and movers involves targets that suddenly pop up out of nowhere at unpredictable time intervals (snaps), and others that slide continuously right and left in random and unpredictable patterns and speeds (movers). Now we were in the second portion, called UKD, or unknown distances, which employed targets of variable range and elevation, none of this communicated to us. In snaps and movers we at least knew how far away our targets were. Not in UKD. For this portion of the test the spotter had to employ complex observations and calculations, using the mil dot reticle in his scope (two tiny lines of illuminated dots arranged like crosshairs) to determine exactly how far away that damn thing was. And we weren’t using handheld computers, like we do these days in the field. We had to do all that math by hand, with the seconds ticking away.
I was shooting first, Glen reading the conditions, calling wind and elevation, and keeping track of our time. We had to move through a course with multiple lanes and multiple shots per lane within a precise given time frame. Which meant a hell of a lot of calculation, preparation, and execution had to happen every sixty seconds without fail. We’d cleared two lanes and were setting up for the final shot on our third. As I focused on the image in my scope, time slowed to a crawl. Glen was taking it slow and careful, working to read the shifting wind currents.
Something felt wrong. We were taking too long. “How much time?” I muttered.
“We’re good,” I heard him murmur back. “Plenty of time.”
I felt my breath flow out and waited for that moment of complete neutrality that hangs motionless between exhale and inhale, the instant of maximum focus and minimum body interference, gently increasing my finger pressure on the trigger pull—
I whipped a look over toward that asswipe Slattery and saw a triumphant leer on his ugly puss. He was holding up his timepiece in one hand, like he’d just picked an especially big booger he was proud of and wanted to show his ma.
“Time, gentlemen,” he repeated, savoring the moment.
My heart stopped. What the fucking hell?
Not only had I not taken the shot, but we still had two more lanes and eight rounds to go. Something had gone wrong with Glen’s timepiece. We had fucked up.
“You guys are screwed,” Slattery crowed. “Good luck coming back from that one. You dipshits are going home.”
He was right: Coming back from this disaster would be close to impossible. In order to make up for all the shots I’d just failed to take and survive the test, Glen would now have to score no less than a 95 on his five lanes. Out of twenty shots, in other words, he could a miss a maximum of one. Any more than that and I’d be going home, and Glen might be, too, because in those days shooter-spotter teams were graded together.
And shooting a 95 on this range was an extremely rare occurrence.
I could see that Glen was much worse off than me. I was only freaked out. He didn’t utter a word, but he was obviously devastated. Oh my God, his expression said, I just fucked you over.
“Look, dude.” I spoke quickly and quietly so Slattery wouldn’t hear. “It’s behind us. Forget it. We have to clean this thing’s clock. Let’s just shoot a hundred and move on.”
This was something sniper school taught me: No regrets. You can’t focus on the shot you just took. Once it’s out of the barrel, you’ll never get it back. And it’s not true just on the rifle. It’s true in any situation—every action, every word, every thought. It’s over. Move on. Assess, adjust, improve, and make the next one count.
We got to work, me calculating and calling every shot and Glen nailing it. In the first lane, the one with the closest targets, I heard four pings in succession as Glen aced four shots out of four. We moved on to lane two and he did the same thing, and again in lane three, and yet again in lane four. Now we were in lane five, shooting out to unknown distances up to a thousand yards on the big bolt-action .300 Winchester Magnum. The .300 Win Mag bullet doesn’t go subsonic until somewhere between 1,350 and 1,400 yards, which meant it would be traveling at well beyond the speed of sound all the way from the instant of ignition to the instant of impact. I called the shot, and Glen took it. The lead slug flew out to meet the steel silhouette—and I heard no ping. Nothing. The round had harmlessly passed the target by.
There it was: our one miss. One more and I was out.
Slattery audibly snickered and muttered something we both willed ourselves not to hear. We were busy.
Calculating your round’s flight path before the shot is only the first part of the spotter’s job. The next task is to follow the vapor trail the round leaves in its wake as it pierces the air, called its trace. I had followed that bullet’s trace the way a hawk tracks the path of a chipmunk dashing across a field for the safety of the forest. I’d seen exactly where it went, and I murmured an instantaneous course correction in Glen’s ear.
Ping … ping … ping—he hit the remaining three shots with clean precision. We were finished. I was safe.
We all stood around as they read off everyone’s scores. Glen’s implausible nineteen out of twenty had given him a personal tally of 95, which not only had saved my ass but also was the highest score for the day. 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 these guys would each be on their own, no shooter-spotter teams. Each shooter would have just a few minutes to do all 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 a thousand yards.
The rest of us huddled around, cheering on our favorite horse, me the loudest voice in the Glen camp.
In the first lane, both shooters nailed their targets. And the second, and the third, and the fourth. It was an electric experience, quietly watching the execution of perfection. These guys were both phenomenal shots.
On the fifth and final target, Glen sighted the thousand-yard distance and got himself ready, slowly squeezed the trigger … and missed. A groan went up in the crowd.
The other guy got down in the dirt, went through his preparations, squeezed—and also missed. Another groan went up, laced with laughter, cat-calls, and the usual volley of insults and obscenities. SEALs are not known to be overly tender with one another’s feelings.
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 just to 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, it was impossible to feel anything but happy that he’d won.
His name was Mike Bearden. They called him the Bear.