This is Part II of a three-part series. You can read Part I here. Part III will publish tomorrow.
Glen had a typical suburban New England childhood, happily riding bikes and playing soccer in the street. The Doherty family lived on a street named Glen Road (I kid you not), right across the street from a patch of woods called Glen Green. There, they spent a lot of time wandering through the woods in a pack with their friends across the street, Chad, Tim, and Nathaniel Haskell.
The Glen Roadhouse was the social center of the neighborhood. All the kids seemed to congregate there. Part of it was that Glen’s mom, Barbara, was so welcoming and tolerant and didn’t seem to mind kids coming, going, and traipsing through their home. But part of it was some sort of gravitational field that Glen seemed to generate. Kids just wanted to be around him.
When Glen left college to become a professional ski bum in Utah he got an apartment together with a few friends that generated that same social pull. Glen spent his early 20s working at Snowbird (where they’ve since named his favorite off-trail run after him), and for all those years, their little apartment was where everyone hung out.
The same thing happened once again during our 18-month workup after STT. Glen and his girlfriend, Sonja, got a cool little house in Coronado, and people were drawn to hang out there as if it were the only watering hole in an 1880s Western cowboy town.
And now here we were, together in sniper school, camping out in the middle of nowhere, and son of a bitch if Glen’s tent didn’t somehow exert that same damn gravitational pull. For the 26 of us who started that course, putting in those grueling days with hours-long stretches of intense, unbroken concentration, and the threat of failure hanging constantly over our heads, Glen’s tent became the after-hours social hub: the Glen Road of sniper school.
That actually started every day before dawn, when Glen became the focal point of attention in a not so positive way. Here’s how I described the morning scene in “The Red Circle:”
“The range had a nice little grass campground complete with a kitchen and a restrooms/shower area. All the students were instructed to bring a tent and kit. Most of the guys traveled pretty light. I take just what I need, and it all fits in my pack. Guys in the teams had a saying, ‘Pack light and mooch.’ My saying was ‘Don’t pack light — pack right.’ Not Glen, though. As I soon learned, Glen liked to travel in comfort, which meant plenty of extras. He was like a one-man gypsy camp. He must have gone out and bought the biggest tent he could find at the local Kmart; that thing could have slept a family of ten. He had three fuel-burning lanterns, a radio, a coffeemaker, a generator — it was out of control.
We were partners, so my tent was right next to his. I love Glen like a brother, but this was torture. That son of a bitch would be up and about for a solid hour before the rest of us even started thinking about opening our eyes, and once he was up it was nearly impossible to stay asleep because his gypsy encampment lit up the whole side of my tent. First I was awakened by the blinding white glow and steady hum of his Coleman exploration power lanterns. Then the sounds would start: his percolating coffeepot, then some sort of eighties rock music blaring through his earphones, which he thought we couldn’t hear but in fact only made him even more oblivious to the extent of the racket he was making, messing around with all his stuff, clattering around and getting his coffee ready, burping and farting but not hearing himself because he had those earphones on, then followed by his electric toothbrush, endless loud gargle, and the invariable lengthy punctuating spit that made us all groan. After a week or so of this daily routine, the guys began referring to Glen’s morning ablutions as ‘Chernobyl.’
If I had my choice, I would pull myself out of sleep maybe twenty minutes before we had to muster up, giving myself just enough time to brush my teeth, throw some water on my face, and grab my gear. But no. I tried for days, but it was not possible. Finally I succumbed and started letting Glen be my alarm clock.”
In many ways, Glen and I were very different, almost opposites. He was always a popular kid, the kind of guy nobody could dislike, often playing the role of negotiator and peacemaker. I was a fighter, always getting into trouble and taking things to extremes. He was Massachusetts. I was California. He lived in one place his whole childhood; in a stable suburban home in the kind of close New England neighborhood where nobody locks their doors. My family was restless and always on the move, which meant my sister and I were constantly being uprooted and having to start all over again, getting into new fights and making new friends — friends we would eventually lose.
Regardless of those differences, though, Glen and I had clicked immediately, and those things we held in common forged the foundation of a lifelong friendship. We both loved being outdoors. We both had a passion for doing something as well as you can possibly do it. We both had zero tolerance for bullshit.
And we both had deeply troubled relationships with our fathers.
Glen’s parents split up when he was nine, casting a pall over that idyllic childhood, a dark cloud that never dispersed. His older brother, Greg, remembers their parents sitting the kids down on the front steps and breaking the news that they were separating. Glen burst into tears. A few days later their dad pulled up in a truck and parked out front. Greg helped load up their dad’s stuff, but Glen refused; he ran across the street and into the woods even before his dad showed up.
“He held that grudge against Dad forever,” says Greg. “He never entirely let it go.”
Ben Doherty’s new place wasn’t that far away, and he remained in the Doherty kids’ lives. For years afterward, though, Glen and he had a tough time getting along. The conflict between them simmered to a boiling point in his senior year of high school when they got into a big fight. (Over what, nobody seems to remember.) Glen decided enough was enough: He walked out of the house in protest and moved in with a friend’s family down the street. Which was kind of fascinating to me, when he told me about it — because it was at about that same age that my dad threw me out of the house. (Since we were docked off Tahiti in the South Pacific at the time, it’s more accurate to say he threw me off the boat.) It was one of those things, like our obsession with reading, that we had in common. Which made it even more amazing to me that Glen got along so well with my father. In fact, it was Glen who brought about a completely unexpected reconciliation between the two of us.
In early 2000, a few months before we learned we were going into sniper school, Glen and a buddy of his and I visited my dad’s place in Wyoming to go skiing for a few days.
One day we were sitting at a table in the lodge, after a few hours of skiing, putting back a few beers. Glen was regaling us with tales of his experiences as a medic, and the conversation turned to the topic of life-saving. Glen described how he’d saved a guy in a fancy restaurant in Park City when the guy almost choked to death. Glen had his pocketknife out, ready to cut the guy’s neck open and trache him, though it didn’t quite come to that.
The conversation went on like that for a while, when all of a sudden my dad, who’d hardly spoken the whole time we’d been there, came out with eight words that almost made me spit out my beer.
“Yeah, you know, Brandon saved my life once.”
He and I had never talked about this. I was 17 at the time, working on the dive boat back in California that I’d made my home after being banished from the family boat. My dad had visited to do a little scuba diving. While attempting to surface, he got himself mired in a bed of kelp, then panicked and spit out his regulator. I happened to be on rescue diver duty, so I dived in, swam the three or f0ur hundred yards to where he was, and yanked his ass out of there.
The event had created an uneasy awkwardness between the two of us ever since it happened, an unspoken elephant in the middle of the living room. And now, all of a sudden there he was, my tough taciturn dad, spilling his guts about what had happened and how he’d felt at the time. Jack Webb with tears in his eyes, telling these strangers about how his kid had saved his hide and how he’d never forget it.
I was dumbfounded. I’d never seen my dad so vulnerable. And why? Because he was talking to Glen.
That was how Glen was. Anybody could open up to him, and everybody did.
By the time 9/11 happened, I had been moved to Echo Platoon. Within days of the attack, I was on my way to Afghanistan. When I came back six months and a lifetime later, two big things had changed. Glen had gotten married. And I’d become a father.
Glen had strongly resisted the commitment of marriage. He and Sonja had even broken up over this issue at one point. But after 9/11 it was a crazy, grab-your-loved-ones time. He knew he would be deployed overseas before long, and it just felt like the right thing to do. So he caved in, and off they went to the town hall to get married while I was chasing down bad guys and caches of contraband in the caves of the Hindu Kush.
Glen’s obsession with perfection extended to relationships. In any area of interest or aspiration, from food to skiing to jobs and careers, he had his list of exacting, carefully worked out criteria. That went for women, too. If you asked Glen what he was looking for in a girl, he would reel off a whole inventory of necessary qualities: “She has to be beautiful and, fit, to challenge me, be witty, be natural, not wear a lot of makeup, and be able to run a triathlon, and…”
We’d say, “Glen, give me a freaking break. That human being doesn’t exist.” But he had his standards and wasn’t backing down. The problem was, he had that same impossibly high set of standards for what it meant to be a husband and father. His own dad had flunked that test, in Glen’s eyes, and in time so would Glen. I know he never forgave his dad; I wonder if he ever completely forgave himself.
Still, while he never did have any children of his own, kids took to him the same way animals did, the same way everyone did.
A few days after I got back home from Afghanistan I had Glen over to the house to meet my six-month-old son Jackson. The funny thing was, I’d been home for only a few days and my wife, Gabriele, hadn’t really started trusting me with our son yet. It was as if she were afraid I might drop and break him. She’d go out to the grocery store and take Jackson with her, rather than leave him with me. But she had no problem letting Glen hold him. Jackson crawled all over Uncle Glen like he’d known him all his life.
After a while, Gabriele and Jackson took off somewhere, and I sat down with Glen and told him about my time in Afghanistan. We talked well into the night. I told him everything, stories I’ve never told anyone else. I showed him pictures I’ve never shown anyone else, and never will.
War gets ugly; don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.
The following year it was Glen who was shipped out to the Middle East. He was part of Shock and Awe from stern to bow: The split-second-timing VBSS boarding and dismantling of Saddam’s oil platforms on the eve of the invasion; the rescue of Jessica Lynch (the first successful rescue of an American POW since World War II); the taking of Saddam’s palace and fall of Tikrit that signaled the end of the Battle of Iraq and led to President Bush’s now-infamous “Mission Accomplished” press conference on the USS Abraham Lincoln. Glen was there for all of it.
For me, being part of the post-9/11 operation in Afghanistan had been a hell of an education, and it packed an awful lot of experience into six short months. The invasion of Iraq was that same experience for Glen, and he saw his share of the realities of war. When he returned to the States he came over to my place again, and we did the same kind of debriefing we’d done on my return from Afghanistan, only this time it was him sharing the stories with me.
Throughout our years in the service, Glen and I hung out every chance we got. We drank together, went surfing together, and stayed up late into the night talking together. More than anything else, we pursued our lifelong passion for flying together.
With all the ocean training and “frogman” thing, it’s easy to forget that the “A” in SEAL stands for air. All my life I’d wanted to be a pilot, and so had Glen. Fresh out of high school he had enrolled in Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona and earned a bachelor’s in aeronautics.
In early 2005 I bought a little 1981 Cessna 172 over the internet. The guy I was buying it from lived out in Illinois, so I asked Glen to fly there with me and help me bring it home. This was February and a bad snowstorm was moving in, so we had limited time to get this sucker out of there.
By this time Glen was out of the service (though I was still in), and he had just finished his instrument qual; I was about to finish mine. We were flying a lot, so we were both pretty current. We were also cocky and over-confident as SEALs tend to be.
Arriving at the airport in the evening, we decided we’d collect the plane right away and get the hell out of there. It was dark and cloudy out, with the storm system on its way in, but we figured we were charged up and ready to go. Just as we were about to leave the pilot’s lounge and head to the plane, this old-timer walks over to our table and says, “Hey, you two fellas the ones just bought old Bob’s Cessna?”
Yeah, we said, that was us.
“You fellas really think it’s a good idea to take that plane out tonight? Having never flown it before? In this kinda weather?”
We looked at each other. The old guy had a point. After he left I turned to Glen and said, “What the fuck were we thinking?” He grinned and didn’t say anything. There’s a saying in aviation: “There are bold pilots and old pilots, but no old bold pilots.” We stayed in Illinois that night.
The next morning we got up at dawn. We filed our flight plan for our first leg to Oklahoma, grabbed some coffee, hopped into the plane, and took off. From 800 feet up it was IMC (instrument meteorological conditions), pilot-speak for “too overcast to see,” but we knew once we got high enough we would break out of the cloud layer.
As we started climbing, we discovered that our radio didn’t work. We were hearing the tower okay, but they weren’t hearing us; we’d somehow lost the ability to transmit.
Okay: no visibility and no communications.
At about 5,000 feet I glanced out my window and said, “Hey Glen, I don’t know how to tell you this, but look.” He looked over past me, out my window. Rime icing — the frosty white ice that forms when water vapor freezes to the surface of cold objects — was starting to form on the wing struts. Flying in ice in a plane that isn’t certified to fly in ice: not good. If we descended back through the cloud layer we would just keep picking up more ice. If we kept climbing and broke out, the ice would probably burn off. We had to keep climbing.
No visibility, no communications, and a plane that was icing up.
“Shit,” I exclaimed.
We looked at each other and laughed. Glen said, “Hey, at least we’ve got each other. If we’re gonna go, we go together.”
At about 7,000 feet the cloud cover broke. The instrument flight rules (IFR) for clean traffic separation are that when you fly east you fly at odd altitudes, and when you fly west you fly at even ones. At VFR (visual flight rules) it’s even plus 500 feet, but this was an IFR plane. We flew at 8,000 feet all the way to Oklahoma, the whole way trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with our radio. We happened to have a little Garmin aviation GPS with us. That damn thing probably saved our lives.
As we were flying into Tulsa and settling into our precision instrument approach, we made another fun discovery: Our glide scope didn’t work. Oh cool. Now we were executing a precision instrument landing without precision instruments. And no radio. And it was still cloudy. I pulled out a little hand-held radio I’d happened to bring along. That would have to serve.
Nothing to do but just fly the damn thing in.
We broke out of the clouds in the center of the runway, midfield, right smack over the tower. A voice came over the radio: “Hey, you’ve only got about 200 feet of runway left, you want to circle around and then land?”
I looked at Glen with a question on my face. He looked back and said, “Dude, I am so stressed, I’m puttin’ this fucking thing down right now.”
And we did: just planted it on the deck like an aircraft-carrier landing, which is to say, like a dog taking a dump. Thump! there it is. Stopped short with less than 50 feet of runway in front of us — and taxied in with just enough reserve gas to make it.
Once we were on the ground the radio worked perfectly. It wasn’t till we eventually got back to San Diego that we figured out what had happened: The antennae weren’t grounded properly, so as long as we were on the ground everything worked fine, but once we were in the air, no dice. Good to know. Would have been even better to have known that before flying halfway across the country.
We refueled and took off again. After a total of 16.5 hours in the air, and an overnight stay in New Mexico, we reached home.
Glen and I did a lot of flying over the years, but what we really wanted to do was fly a single-engine plane clear around the world. The speed record for that particular feat was still quite breakable, and we knew we could crush it. But we never got the chance. I’d still love to do it. I just don’t know whether there’s anyone I’d trust enough as a flying partner — anyone other than Glen.
This is Part II of a three-part series. You can read Part I here. Part III will publish tomorrow.
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