If you’d been a betting man and you were around when Chris was going through those early years of training, your money probably would not have been on his being the guy who would go on to become an outstanding operator. His spirit was Teflon, but this SEAL stuff did not come easy for him.
Not long after 9/11, Chris and Randy’s platoon went into a given location in the Middle East to assess possible access points, in case it proved impossible to airdrop forces directly into landlocked Afghanistan. Randy was the platoon’s leading petty officer, so it was his responsibility to make sure everyone had all the right gear. After they finished their surveys and were preparing to pull out, Chris approached him on the beach. “Hey, Randy,” he said. “I, well… I lost my gun.”
“No way,” Randy said. That wasn’t possible. For a SEAL, there are few infractions as catastrophic as losing your gun. We would always, always have our sidearms strapped in, and we would always, always lanyard our guns, especially when we were going in the ocean.
Chris showed Randy his holster. No gun.
“Tell me you lost it somewhere here, right?” said Randy, gesturing up and down the stretch of beach.
Chris hung his head. “No, man. It’s nowhere on the beach. It’s gotta be in the ocean somewhere.”
Even aside from being a SEAL, Chris was an avid outdoorsman who had always loved the ocean. He would spend hours surfing the waves. The ocean was like his home. This was the last guy in the world you’d think would be unprepared for an op in the water. But the gun was gone.
There was nothing Randy could do to help Chris out here. As LPO he had to tell the platoon commander. He did. The commander went ballistic.
They spent the next six hours diving in the surf, trying to find that gun until the sun went down and the boats came in to take them back to their ship.
Chris was on kitchen duty on the ship for the next two weeks. That may sound like light punishment, but let me explain something: SEALs are never on kitchen duty. It just doesn’t happen. There may be several hundred crew members, sailors, Marines, and others on a ship — and a few dozen SEALs, who are regarded as being in a class by themselves. I’ve seen high-ranking officers step aside and let a teams guy through when they see that trident. Kitchen duty? You must be kidding. It was unspeakably humiliating for Chris.
It also became a defining moment for his career. He felt he’d let everyone down — and it drove him to double his effort to become an outstanding performer. Which was exactly what he did. Not long after the lost-gun episode, Chris went on to Green Team, which is to top-tier operations what BUD/S is to the SEALs. It is one ball-busting tryout, and more than half who start don’t make it through.
Including Chris. He failed out of Green Team.
And then something amazing happened: They kept him around.
It’s hard to convey just how rare this is. When you fail out of Green Team, you fail out — emphasis on the word out. In that way Green Team is not like BUD/S: You don’t get a second try. And you don’t stick around, either; you are sent back to your regular SEAL team, where you resume your career. You do not pass Go or move around the board again. Incredibly, though, they let Chris stay. His instructors gave him a temporary billet somewhere at their command, doing boring administrative and support tasks. Basically, being a whipping boy. But still: They let him stay.
Why? Because of that Chris Campbell attitude. They could see he was dead serious and very conscientious and at the same time completely humble, both about himself and his job. They couldn’t help it; they just liked him.
And he worked his ass off. After about a year of this, he went back through Green Team a second time. This time he made it. As an outstanding operator, he became part of incredibly exacting and dangerous missions that you and I have never read about in the papers or heard about on CNN, and never will.
And then there was Heath Robinson.
In the summer of 2001, long after Chris Campbell had joined Team Five and I’d gone to Team Three, after going through sniper school and deployment, and the USS Cole, and home again, I left my friends at Golf Platoon to help resurrect a struggling Echo platoon that was going through a major restructuring. It had a new chief, Chris Dye, who was excellent, and a small handful of solid, squared-away guys who made my job a hell of a lot easier than it might have been. Heath Robinson was one of them.
The first day I met Heath, I had just hopped a C-2 Greyhound COD (carrier on-board delivery) monoplane to meet up with Echo a few hundred miles off the San Diego coast, where they were stationed on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific preparing for some GOPLATs (gas- and oil-platform) boarding work. The next morning I started jocking up with them for a ship-boarding exercise where we’d be fast-roping down from two helos. Right away I saw we were in trouble. These guys had their shit dangling all over the place.
Even with the intense level of training we get in the SEALs, there’s still a substantial chasm between the learning you do in the classroom and the learning you get from real-world experience. These guys didn’t know how to tighten up their straps, cut off the excess, and tape things down where necessary. They had no idea how to position or sling their guns properly. They were so not ready for serious action it wasn’t even funny. It made me realize how much I’d taken our leadership at Golf Platoon for granted. Later that day, while we were on the exercise, one dude (a train wreck of a guy whom we eventually had to shit-can during our Afghanistan deployment) actually dropped his rifle in the middle of a maneuver on one of the helos — an unpardonable sin. Their chief didn’t see it. I did.
After the exercise, the chief took us through a debriefing, then asked if I had any comments. I let loose, giving them chapter and verse on just how fucked up and unprepared they were.
Later on that day one of the team, a guy with intense eyes set in a Hollywood-handsome face, came over to talk to me. “Petty Officer Webb?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I just want to thank you for joining our platoon.”
“No problem,” I told him, “glad to help.”
“Also,” he added, “can you take a few minutes to show me what the hell I’m doing?”
Right then and there I got all I ever needed to know about Heath Robinson: He was fanatical about learning and doing whatever it took to become the best operator possible; he was both outgoing and disarmingly self-deprecating; and he was fucking hilarious. His smile lit up every room he entered.
While he was going through BUD/S, one night Heath and his fellow inmates were lying wet and sandy in the surf, arms linked in a chain of suffering. Where Campbell and Kelley had sung a Baptist hymn to keep their spirits up, Heath went a different way. Suddenly his voice blurted out, “Flintstones, meet the Flintstones…” and everyone in the class burst out laughing.
That was Heath to a T: entertaining, colorful, funny as hell. His sense of humor and perfectly timed one-liners got a lot of guys through those long, dark nights of the soul.
Heath was a born ham and loved to perform. In grade school, he played Scrooge in a school production of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and had a blast doing it. Get a few beers in him and he could do a pitch-perfect rendition of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The other guys called him Hollywood, in part because he was such a good-looking guy and a classy dresser, and in part because he loved the movies and was constantly cracking people up with well-placed film lines. In the fall of 2001, as we were about to put down on a blood-soaked tarmac in war-torn Kandahar in the wake of a Marine invasion: “Six bucks and my right nut say we’re not landing in Chicago” (Planes, Trains and Automobiles). As we were listening to a teammate grunt in pain while being stitched up in the field by an impatient corpsman: “I’ll have what she’s having” (When Harry Met Sally). As we were about to embark on a mission tracking down Taliban forces on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border just before dawn: “Use of unnecessary violence in the apprehension of the Blues Brothers has been approved” (The Blues Brothers). It sure made everyday life easier over there. Heath’s saxophone traveled with him through Afghanistan, too. In later deployments, his priorities shifted, and the sax was replaced by what came to be known as Heath’s Famous Cappuccino Machine.
Heath grew up in Petoskey, on the northern tip of Michigan. Like Matt Axelson, Heath had the Navy in his blood. His grandfather on his mother’s side served in WWII in the Navy, and he and Heath were very close throughout Heath’s childhood and beyond.
Heath told me that when he was 16, he watched on CNN as the bodies of American servicemen were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu while the American flag burned. “That was the moment I knew I wanted to become a Navy SEAL,” he said. “I wanted to stop things like that from happening.”
I took him under my wing and we quickly became friends. Up to that point the guys in Echo had had no real leadership. With the platoon’s reorganization, Chief Dye, my BUD/S teammate Chris Osman, a few other more experienced guys coming on board, and I managed to quickly bring the platoon up to snuff, but only through serious browbeating and ’round-the-clock abuse. Heath ate it up. Despite being a new guy he soon proved a more valuable asset to the team than some of the more experienced SEALs in the platoon. He was not even two years out of BUD/S, but he was so determined to become a first-rate SEAL and so hungry to do things right that by the time we were in Afghanistan, being with him felt like being with a seasoned operator.
Heath’s work ethic became legendary in the teams. There’s another story about him in BUD/S. It was second phase, which is focused on swimming, and the guys were getting their pool certification, which is a pretty brutal process. Heath was a compact guy, maybe five-eight, built like a wrestler (he wrestled in high school), but the water was not his native element, as it was for those of us who grew up on the coast, like John Zinn or Chris Campbell. He was not doing well. After three attempts, he still had not passed. The pool instructor yelled, “Robinson! Get out; you’re finished!” then yanked him out of the pool and started berating him. Heath stood there listening intently, taking it all in. As soon as the instructor turned his back, assuming that Heath would go ring out and leave, defeated, Heath instead jumped back in the pool.
“You see that?” screamed another instructor. “That’s what we’re looking for!” That night, Heath passed the pool-cert test.
When we were in Afghanistan together in 2001, Heath started talking about going on to a top-tier unit. That was his plan right from the start. After we came back home in the spring of 2002, he went over to Team Seven, where he did one more platoon. Two years after that he was off to nine months of advanced training and then right into that top-tier unit, where he proceeded to rack up a long list of medals and decorations, including four Bronze Star Medals, three of them with the coveted V for Valor and one for extraordinary heroism.
Here’s how that last one happened.
In February 2011, Heath was part of a mission involving East African pirates who had kidnapped and then killed a number of civilian hostages. After the team silently boarded the ship, the lead guy slipped into a seemingly empty cabin. It was tight quarters and piss-poor lighting — and, as it turned out, not empty after all: One of the pirates was crouching hidden in the darkest recess. The SEAL entered slowly. The room remained silent for the span of a second or two. Then the pirate leaped out and jumped him from behind, yanking him off his feet. Heath was the number two guy through the door and instantly saw what was happening, but he couldn’t engage with his primary (rifle) or his secondary (sidearm) without risking injury to his buddy.
Long gone were those painful early days of Echo Platoon with the new guys who had no clue how to sling their weapons. Heath had burned his training into his bones. Reacting faster than the speed of thought, he slung his M4, and in one smooth motion his custom Dan Winkler knife was out and slashing across the man’s throat. Swift as a shark attack and just as deadly. Seconds later the pirate was on the floor without a heartbeat or brainwave, and Heath’s teammate was free and very much alive. I know, I know: You’ve seen moves like this happen in action flicks. But you have to remember: That’s the world of fantasy and make-believe. In real life, it’s a split-second complex of exacting maneuvers that can go wrong in a thousand ways, and often does. Heath’s flawless execution saved his teammate’s life and left Heath with one of the few certified knife kills on record since Vietnam. (Heath’s mom still has that knife.)
Heath had no tolerance for shoddiness, and he became famous in the teams for how intense he got when straightening out a sloppy performance. He could go from calm to raging in seconds, his face reddening and looking like he was about to burst a vessel. His teammates dubbed it “the Heath Stroke.” There are quite a few guys out there who are alive today because they were subjected to the Heath Stroke when lives were not on the line, and who became better operators as a result.
When Heath made chief in 2007 he phoned home to give his mom the news. “Tell Grandpa for me. He’s the only one in the family who will understand what that really means.” Three years later Heath went one better and made senior chief.
Heath would sign his emails with this quote, attributed to George Orwell:
“We sleep peacefully in our beds because rough men stand by to visit violence on those that would do us harm.”
It was more than just a sig line. As sensitive, amiable, and funny a guy as he was, he was more than willing to be one of those rough men when circumstances demanded it. Heath brought more peaceful sleep to our shores than many of us will ever know.