As much fun as we were having at Sniper Cell, there was one dark cloud over those months in late 2002. Shortly after I arrived, it became painfully clear that something was up with Senior Chief Seth Carver.
I knew Senior Chief Carver from sniper school in 2000 when he took over the course from his predecessor, Master Chief Jordan. Now, in addition to being master chief of the West Coast sniper school, he was also department head of the West Coast TRADET Sniper Cell. Chief Gardner was in charge of the day-to-day operation of the cell, but it was ultimately Seth’s command, and it was he who interacted with the rest of TRADET and the Navy command structure — and this was becoming a problem.
TRADET would hold morning meetings that Chief Carver attended, representing our cell. I started seeing him roll in barely five minutes before that day’s meeting, his hair all messed up, and grab a scrap of paper out of the trash can to jot some hasty notes before dashing into the meeting. What the hell’s going on with Chief Carver? I thought. He’s a mess!
None of this behavior computed. I remembered Chief Carver as a 100 percent hardcore professional back at sniper school just a few years earlier. Now he seemed a complete train wreck. What was the deal?
A few of the guys pulled me aside and told me what was happening.
In the few years that had elapsed since I’d gone through Chief Carver’s sniper course, he’d had a rough time of it. Some thorny family problems had spiraled out of control, and Chief Carver ended up in an acrimonious divorce contest that was tearing him apart. Soon he was drinking heavily and God knows what else.
By that winter it got so bad that something was going to blow. Chief Gardner was doing his best to keep this all under wraps, but Chief Carver was teetering close to the edge of being thrown out of the Navy. Finally, Chief Gardner got us all together and we staged a full-blown intervention, after which the Navy put him through rehab — and he managed to pull it out and get himself back on track.
Chief Carver had 19 years in at that point, one year from retirement. If he’d been in the regular Navy and this whole drama had gone down, he would almost certainly have been tossed out with a “Sorry, hate to see ya go” and maybe some kind of rehab at the VA if he was lucky, but no retirement: screwed, 19 years down the tubes. But with the help of his SEAL buddies, he was able to put in one more functional year and salvage his retirement.
That’s how it is with our community. SEALs take care of their own. If you had an attitude, if you were a persistent screwup who threatened to pull the standards down for the rest of us, they were merciless. But if you were a good guy who had the misfortune to go through some adversity or other, they wouldn’t just toss you aside. If you had earned some respect and proven yourself as a good operator, they would do everything they could to take care of you and keep your career alive. And that’s exactly what we did with Chief Carver.
In the summer of 2003, after I’d been at TRADET for a little over a year, Chief Gardner came to Eric and me one day and told us that the guys who ran the basic SEAL sniper school had come to him for some help.
“They’re completely redoing the course,” he said, “and they need a few experienced guys to go through a pilot version with them, decide which parts of the curriculum to lockdown. I thought we could loan you two out for a few months.”
Eric and I both felt honored to be asked and were psyched at the prospect. Rewriting the basic sniper school course, from the ground up? Talk about having an impact on the future of the U.S. military!
The year before, soon after I arrived at Sniper Cell, I’d been selected by WARCOM, the parent command for all the SEAL teams, to represent the entire SEAL community at Spec Ops Command in a review-and-selection process for the new SOPMOD kit’s weapon upgrade. SOPMOD stands for Special Operations Peculiar Weapons Modification; the SOPMOD kit consists of everything that goes with the M-4, our basic assault rifle — flashlight, laser (visible and infrared), hand grips, scope, night sight, some 10 items in all. I flew out to the East Coast, to Virginia and North Carolina, sat on a board with my corresponding representatives from the Army and the Air Force, reviewed vendors’ presentations (i.e., pitches), tested out all sorts of weapons and other equipment, and determined what equipment the next generation would be using. The SOPMOD kit we put together there was what all our Special Ops guys used in Iraq and are still using today in Afghanistan. It was a huge responsibility — and an incredible honor.
And now we would be having a similar input into the SEAL sniper course curriculum. This was the chance of a lifetime.
The only thing we were not entirely thrilled about was the location where this would be happening. At the time there were still two sniper schools, one for the West Coast and one for the East, and this pilot program was happening at the latter. The East coast ran their school at Camp Atterbury, a massive World War II-era training facility. The two of us would have to spend three months far from home smack in the middle of hot, humid, uninteresting Indiana.
Now, if you happen to be from Indiana (or Illinois or Ohio or anywhere around there), please don’t be offended. I’m sure your homeland has much to offer and many wonderful features. But we weren’t from there, and it wasn’t where we wanted to be, especially in the middle of the summer. Still, that’s where the new course was being launched, so off to Indiana we went.
There’s always been a slightly weird dynamic between the East Coast and West Coast teams; not outright hostile, and not exactly competitive. Maybe “suspicious” is the best word. There’s a perception that on the West coast it’s all surfing and suntans, while on the East Coast they really work. If I were to drop in on an East Coast SEAL team they might say something like “Oh hey, what’s up, Hollywood?” Coming into this situation as two guys from the West Coast, there as experts to weigh in on their East Coast course — this could have felt a little strained. But it didn’t, not even slightly, and the main reason for that was Master Chief Manty, the East Coast division officer. A born leader, Master Chief Manty was extremely intelligent and a very solid guy; he brought us in and made us feel right at home. We also met and worked with the West Coast division leader, Senior Chief Nielson. Both had done their last tours with DEVGRU, and both were phenomenal to work with.
It’s incredibly rewarding to be part of a team where you’re valued for your experience and where you’re able to genuinely influence change. That was the atmosphere we encountered out at Camp Atterbury. Eric and I showed up in Indiana in early August and worked our asses off for the next three months. Master Chief Manty had introduced some fascinating and powerful changes to the course (more about that shortly), and we both clicked with his ideas immediately. We worked like crazy to nail down that pilot course, redesigning things on the fly just as we had with the elements of the advanced courses at TRADET a year earlier. It was an all-out 90-day sprint.
When the pilot course finished, we left Atterbury and returned to our posts at TRADET, where we resumed teaching our training blocks there and life returned to normal — but not for long. Shortly after we returned from that stint in Indiana, Chief Gardner came to talk to Eric and me again.
“Okay, guys,” he said, “here’s what’s happening, Senior Chief Nielson wants you down at the sniper school full-time to continue reworking the course.”
Apparently, Senior Chief Nielson had been selling this idea hard to our command. It had taken some finagling because I was supposed to be halfway through a three-year commitment to TRADET, and it was pretty much the same for Eric. But he managed to swing it. Now that he’d sold it to TRADET, he had to sell it to us, too.
In fact, I’d been strongly thinking about trying to transfer over to the Naval Special Warfare Center (NSWC) to work as a BUD/S instructor. After a solid year and a half at Sniper Cell, I figured I’d probably had whatever impact I was going to have there, and BUD/S was an attractive job. I’d be working four days a week, with plenty of time off to be with my family. Our daughter, Madison, had been born that January, so I now had a wife and two kids, and they deserved a dad who was there at least a decent amount of time out of the week. On the other hand, I didn’t see how I could say no. In effect, Senior Chief Nielson was offering us an opportunity to write a bit of military history. How could we resist?
Thus began another intense period of redesign, much like our first few months at TRADET except that now, as we picked up where we’d left off just weeks earlier, we were shaping the basic core training of all future SEAL snipers — shooting, stalking, the whole thing.
It was an incredibly creative time. We would round-table our ideas, make decisions, and implement them the next day. We started going through everything we’d experienced when we went through the course ourselves and addressing whatever weak spots we’d seen. Before long we were completely overhauling the course, updating all the existing classes and adding some new ones.
For example, we began aggressively integrating technology into the training. At the time, sniper students were still being taught to survey their target terrain with binos and then sketch it out by hand — just like we’d been doing since Vietnam. Hey, when the last U.S. helicopter airlifted out after the fall of Saigon, I was not quite one year old! Wasn’t it about time to get with the times? We stopped the hand sketches and started showing our guys how to shoot and crop digital photos with Nikon cameras. We taught them how to use DLT-3500 software (the military version of Photoshop) to adjust levels and enhance a photograph’s readability and clarity, and how to annotate their field intelligence on a laptop, compress and encrypt the data, and send it via satellite back to the base. This turned into a mandatory two-week program called PIC (photographic intelligence course) that new students now went through just prior to starting the regular scout/sniper school.
We also introduced ballistic software programs and focused on making sure these guys had a thorough understanding of external ballistics (what happens from the moment the bullet leaves the barrel until it hits the target). In the old course, we were basically taught to call the wind and shoot well, period. Now we started digging into the subject and turning these guys into ballistics experts.
We used technology to get more exacting with our weapons as well. When I entered the course back in 2000 I had been stuck with a faulty sight that could have gotten me washed out, if I hadn’t insisted on having the rifle tested. Too often, I had seen similar problems tripping up great shooters. Now we had the technology to solve these problems before they happened. We taught our students how to use a chronograph, a device that measures the muzzle velocity in fps (feet per second) of each specific rifle.
Let’s say you have two identical .300 Win Mag bolt action rifles, both from the same manufacturer and even from the same manufacture batch. One could still be as much as several hundred fps slower than the other. For that matter, there are even variances in individual lots of ammunition. Granted, these variances will typically affect accuracy only to a minute degree, but add them all together, especially when you’re shooting at very long ranges, and it can make a critical difference. Perhaps we will eventually reach a level of manufacturing precision where that margin decreases to the point of insignificance. Perhaps. Right now, though, these individual variances are a fact of life, and we decided it was time to deal with it.
A chronograph can also help gauge the condition of the barrel. As I mentioned before, these rifles have a certain barrel life: Put your .300 Win Mag through a few thousand rounds and the barrel will start to go, which means your bullets will become troublingly inaccurate. We shot each student’s rifle through a chronograph to find out quickly whether or not its barrel had gone beyond its useful life.
Eric transformed the KIM (keep in memory) class by pioneering a whole new way of teaching memorization skills. Rather than relying on pure rote memory, with its endless repetition, he employed some impressive techniques that involved linking the objects or numbers you wanted to memorize with a systematic sequence of objects or sounds in your mind.
Eric was a master at this. Just before teaching his first class of a new KIM session, he would look at the student roster and in five or 10 minutes code all their data and store it into his memory. Then he’d walk into class, look at the assembled students, point to one at random, and say, “Okay, you over there, what’s your name?” The guy would tell him his name, and Eric would nod and say, “Right, your Social Security number is …” and rattle off the guy’s social and phone number. Then he’d do the same thing with everyone else in the room. I watched him do this over and over, and it never failed to blow the minds of everyone in the class. Mind you, Eric didn’t have any natural gift of photographic memory. This was trained memory, and he trained all our guys to have that ability, too.
For my part, I pushed hard on shifting the curriculum so that all our students would come out of the course knowing how to deploy independently, as solo operators. The way it was before, you’d have one student who happened to be a little better on the spotting scope, while his partner might be a little weak on ballistics but be a crack shot. To me, that was a recipe for breeding weakness into our graduates. It seemed to me we needed to make sure that every one of these guys we graduated had a complete command of every piece of the picture and could deploy by himself. Practically speaking, in most of the jobs they would be doing out in the field they would be called upon to act as lone gunmen. How could you graduate a competent sniper who didn’t have a complete grasp of spotting?
I developed tests to make sure these guys knew ballistics — that if the shot went high, they knew in a split second how many minutes of angle they’d have to correct to have a center-mass, on-target hit the very next shot. I wanted to put each student through a whole range of scenarios where he would have to make these calculations himself and not rely on a spotter. The idea was to develop the complete package in every single sniper, with the full gamut of skills and no deficiencies. My December ’04 eval, a year after Eric and I started working consistently with the course, referred to this:
“Devised a practical test that evaluates student wind calling and spotting abilities; simple and extremely effective.”
Now we were graduating guys who were going out into the field and being absolutely deadly, whether in pairs or operating on their own.
We also introduced a new structural element that had the effect of raising the student-instructor relationship to a whole new level: We divided the class into pairs and assigned each pair to a specific instructor as their personal mentor. In effect, this created a kind of competition among the instructors. You didn’t want one of your pairs to be the pair who failed the course, because that would reflect poorly on you as an instructor. Suddenly each of us had ownership of these specific students, which created an incentive for all of us to really get in there, spend some extra time with these guys, and make sure they knew what the hell they were doing. When I went through the course in 2000 we had some instructors who didn’t give a shit if we passed or not, and at least one who was almost trying to get us to fail. Now we had built into the system an intrinsic motivation for every instructor to be working with students that they strongly wanted to succeed. In all my time there, I only had one student fail. All the others passed — because I’d be damned if my guys were going to wash out!
Our instructors were teaching better, and our students were learning better. The course standards got harder if anything — but something fascinating happened: Instead of flunking higher numbers of students, we started graduating more. Before we redid the course, SEAL sniper school had an average attrition rate of about 30 percent. By the time we had gone through the bulk of our overhaul, it had plummeted to less than five percent.
In that same December eval, my commanding officer wrote:
“Primary instructor for Sniper COI [course of instruction]. Graduated highest percentage of qualified snipers in Naval Special Warfare Center (NSWC) history.”
For the first few pilot courses, we had constantly changed things around and experimented, designing and implementing improvements and refinements on the fly. By the end of 2004, after we’d been doing this for about a year straight, we settled on a finalized curriculum that we then continued to teach without much change — but we also built into it the idea of continuous improvement from that point on. Today the course goes through an annual review to make sure it continues adapting to changes on the battlefield and to new developments in technology.
Earlier I said that intellectual capacity was the first trait we look for in a sniper: that physical ability, as important as it is, is only 10 percent of the game. Of all the changes we made in the course, the one that felt most significant to me and that I was proudest of was our system for mental management.
When we first encountered the concept of mental management it was being taught exclusively to instructors as a way to help us coach and teach more effectively. In essence, it was all about where we as instructors focused a student’s attention.
Say you’re doing batting practice with a kid and you notice he’s standing with his knees buckled in, shoulders misaligned, hands spread wide apart on the bat. Your impulse might be to start telling the kid everything he’s doing wrong. If you focus his attention on all these wrong things, though, what you’re really doing is imprinting them into the poor kid’s mind, with the result that they start becoming ingrained habits. If you say, “Hey, you’re flinching. Every time the ball comes at you, you’re flinching! Stop flinching,” then what the hell’s that little kid thinking about? He’s thinking about flinching!
If instead you say, “Hey, put your hands closer together, like this. And look: feet apart,” then you’re showing him what to do rather than focusing his attention on what not to do.
A beginner typically starts out very focused on everything that’s going on. He’ll tend to absorb whatever is thrown at him. He is, in other words, highly programmable. The question is, as an instructor, what are you going to feed that rapt attention: bad habits or good habits?
This translated directly to instruction on the sniper course. In the old days, instructors would bark at us for everything we did wrong. “Stop! You’re putting your finger on the trigger wrong! When you pull the trigger, you’re flinching! You’re jerking the barrel! You’re fucking up!” Suddenly we’d be thinking, Holy shit, there’re 20 things I’m doing wrong! Instead, we learned we could give a student three positive commands, three things he could do to correct those errors, and now he’d be developing good habits from day one.
I have to admit, I was not completely on board with the whole concept of mental management when I first bumped into it, and I had to overcome my own skepticism. Shortly after Eric and I checked into NSWC to start working with the basic sniper course, we and a handful of other instructors were brought out to Scottsdale, Arizona, for a one-week course taught by a champion marksman named Lanny Bassham, one of the pioneers of mental management. I was pretty skeptical. Mental management? What, like some positive-thinking guru? Oh boy. “Great,” I said to Eric, “when is Tony Robbins gonna come in and blow smoke up our asses?”
My attitude didn’t last long. Bassham is such an amazing, down-to-earth guy — and what he taught us was nothing short of incredible.
“I wasn’t good at sports,” Lanny told us. “I was kind of this weak, goofy kid. My dad said, ‘Hang in there, we’re going to find something for you. Everyone has a talent.'”
Lanny found his talent when he got into competitive shooting. After college, he joined the Army and was assigned to their marksmanship unit, which is comprised of the best match shooters in the world. By the time he went to shoot in the 1972 Olympics in Munich at the age of 25, Lanny was famous, the youngest world champion in the sport, and everyone expected him to shoot gold.
“I was on the bus with a bunch of competitors from different countries,” he said. “I heard some Russians in the seat behind me talking about how much pressure I must be under, with the entire reputation of the United States on my shoulders, and how they were glad they weren’t me — and they started getting in my head.”
By the time he stepped off the bus, Lanny was completely rattled. “I shot the worst match of my life,” he said. This being Lanny, the worst match of his life meant he came in second — but he was devastated. He came back to the States and visited with a handful of sports psychologists to see if he could understand what had happened to him, and they all said the same thing: “Hey, it’s okay to be number two. Olympic silver is a great achievement, Lanny. You should be satisfied with that.”
Lanny said, “Screw that. I don’t think so!”
He spent the next few years interviewing dozens of gold-medal champions and recording all the specific traits he could identify in his interviews. They gave him an earful; you don’t get to be a gold medalist without doing an awful lot of self-examination and studying best practices and key practice/performance tactics and strategies. Out of everything he heard, he found there were two specific traits they all shared in common.
The first was complete and total confidence. Not arrogance or cockiness, but an absolute, unshakable confidence in their ability to perform regardless of adversity. Here’s how Lanny described this trait:
If I’m a champion tennis player, playing a championship game, it doesn’t matter if the strings start popping off, or my favorite racket breaks in the middle of the game. I’ll pick up a piece of plywood, tape it to a stick, and I’ll still beat you on the tennis court.
It’s an attitude that says, I will win no matter what. These people didn’t just want to win; they expected to win. When they went out to compete, they had already won in their minds.
We’ve all seen people who have the talent and skill to win, but at the last minute something goes wrong: their favorite bat breaks, or a golf swing misses, or something in their environment distracts them — the way Lanny was psyched out by the Russians’ taunts — and their game just unravels. It didn’t unravel because the bat broke, Lanny was saying, or because the pitch went wild, or because of the other teams’ taunts. It unraveled because it was vulnerable.
For champions that doesn’t happen. Their game is invulnerable. That’s the kind of confidence Lanny was talking about — and that was the kind of confidence we wanted to instill in our sniper course graduates.
The other common trait was that they all did some kind of mental rehearsal — closing their eyes and practicing their winning game in their heads, over and over again.
Lanny told us about a Navy pilot he had met in the 70s named Captain Jack Sands. Captain Sands was shot down while serving in Vietnam and spent seven years in a prison camp in Hanoi, confined in isolation with no physical activity. In order to preserve his sanity, he decided to practice his golf game. Of course, he couldn’t physically play golf — but the 5′ x 5′ cage he was in couldn’t prevent him from creating a course in his mind. In his imagination, he evoked an image of a beautiful country club course, placed himself there, and let himself experience it all in great detail. He saw himself dressed in golfing clothes, smelled the trees and grass, and felt himself making each stroke as he played. Every day, for seven years, Captain Sands played a full 18 holes in his mind while his body sat in his cage. He played it perfectly, never hooking, slicing, or missing a single shot or putt. Hey, he was making it all up, right? Why not make it perfect?
Here was the amazing part. Before joining the Navy, Captain Sands was an average weekend golfer, barely breaking 100. After he was finally released from his captivity and made his way home, he eventually got out onto a real grass-and-air golf course, and his first day out on the green he shot a stunning score of 74. He had taken more than 20 strokes off his game — without once laying a hand on a club. (By the way, some have claimed this story is an urban legend and there was no such person. It’s no urban legend: Lanny sat next to the guy on a seven-hour flight to a world championship match they attended together.)
The point, said Lanny, was that your reality is defined by your mind, not your external environment. Jack Sands’s golf game changed so dramatically because that was how he had programmed his brain to see it.
Lanny went on to tell us about a national shooting championship he participated in. As part of his preparation, he had spent time mentally rehearsing the moment when he would be kneeling there and suddenly realize, “Holy shit, I’m about to shoot a perfect score.” What so often happens in a high-stakes situation like this? The realization that you are on a roll knocks you off balance. It’s that “Uh-oh, I’m so close, what if I screw up now?” moment that can come with asking someone out on a first date, taking your first driver’s test, asking for a raise, or doing anything risky and important in life. We’re not ready for this place of victory and don’t know how to react now that we are here — so we choke. Not Lanny. He’d rehearsed that moment so many times that it was now as familiar to him as coming home.
“When I hit that moment in that championship,” he said, “I recognized it like an old friend. And just like I’d done every time I’d rehearsed it, I took two deep breaths, said to myself, I’m shooting the next three shots perfectly, then took my time. Boom. Boom. Boom.”
He shot a perfect score.
Lanny returned to the Olympics in 1976, and this time, using his mental management system, he took the Olympic gold. Over the following years, he dominated the field, winning 22 world individual and team titles and setting four world records on top of the gold medal he took in Montreal. Lanny incorporated what he’d learned into a whole mental management program, which he wrote about in his book, With Winning in Mind. His system became so popular that other coaches and athletes started having him come train them.
We hired Lanny to help us apply his methods to our sniper course — not just for the instructors but for the students. We also went and studied what the British, the U.S. Army, and Marine Corps were doing and consulted with coaches to a wide range of championship athletes, collating and discussing everything we learned. We ran a few pilot courses, experimenting in our live laboratory, trying out different techniques, and seeing how each one affected the students. Eventually, we developed an entire system of mental management and integrated it into our marksmanship class.
The first time I started teaching the mental management material as part of our course, some of the students were just as skeptical as I had been at first. I had a pair of Team One guys, Brant and Leiberman, as my personals. We issued Lanny’s book to the whole class, but these two guys were my guys, so I also made them listen to Lanny’s CDs. Every night, Brant and Lieberman would be out in the car listening to these CDs, and the other guys would ride them unmercifully. “Hey, you guys, you gonna go make out in the car again tonight?”
The two guys ignored them and kept listening. The others kept taunting, too — but not for long. When that class’s first shooting test came up, a snaps and movers test, Bear and Livermore both shot perfect 100s. We had never had a pair shoot perfect 100s. In the second part of the test, Brant shot another 100 and Lieberman shot a 95.
It was the highest score in U.S. Navy SEAL sniper course history.
Talk about people swallowing their pride: Suddenly all the other guys were begging to borrow Brant and Lieberman’s CDs and burning copies for themselves. Before we knew it, the whole parking lot must have turned into a make-out session — because every night the parking lot was full of pairs of guys in their rental cars listening to those CDs.
Despite all the progress we were making, throughout the year a darkening cloud hung over our work at the sniper course. It was a problem that made the issue with Chief Carver the year before seem like a summer vacation, and it kept getting worse.
Barely a month after Eric and I had checked into NSWC, Senior Chief Nielson pulled me into his office one day and said, “Brandon, I’m retiring.”
I didn’t know whether to be shocked or pissed. In truth, I was both. “What do you mean, retiring? Who’s replacing you?”
He paused, then looked me square in the eye and said, “Master Chief Harvey Clayton.”
Clayton had a reputation, and it wasn’t good. I barely knew him, just enough to say hi as we passed in the halls but it’s a small community. I knew he had run the course many years earlier. I also knew he’d spent most of his time in the fleet Navy and had really absorbed that culture — not usually a good mix with SEALs. What’s more, while he was a very good match shooter, Harvey had never done any kind of operational tour.
He also had the reputation of being a real prick to work for.
“Harvey?! Are you serious? I just signed up for a couple of years here, and now you’re sticking me with Harvey Clayton?”
Senior Chief Nielson shook his head. He knew exactly what I was talking about. “Look, I’m sorry — but listen, you’re the most experienced guy here, and I’m setting you up to be course manager.”
That latter point was no small thing. To put it in perspective: The sniper school was taught by course instructors, typically E-5 and E-6 petty officers, who reported to the course manager, usually a chief, who managed the curriculum and ran the whole course. The course manager in turn reported to the division officer (Senior Chief Nielson, soon to be Master Chief Harvey Clayton), who ran interference between the course itself and the parent command. I was still an E-6, and teaching this course was my first LPO (leading petty officer) billet. By making me course manager, Senior Chief Nielson was saying he would be giving me an E-7 billet — in essence, setting me up to make chief petty officer the moment I became eligible.
Advancement to chief petty officer (E-7 and above) is a big deal in the Navy. It’s more than just a pay raise. Chief petty officers are considered a breed apart, a community within the community. And making chief after being in just over 10 years? That would be a seriously big deal. A lot of guys go through their whole careers without making chief.
I understood what Senior Chief Nielson was saying and what it meant — but, man oh man, I did not want to work for this guy.
As it turned out, working for Harvey Clayton was not as bad as I’d expected. It was worse. Of all the leaders good and bad, all the bosses I’ve had throughout my entire career, from Petty Officer First Class Howard in boot camp to Chief Clarin in HS-10 to Commander Smith in Afghanistan, Master Chief Harvey Clayton was the worst.
Harvey was not much enamored with technology, or progress, or change. He was not interested in whatever improvements and new developments we wanted to bring to the course. He was too insecure to hear new ideas from anyone. If he had supported us the way Senior Chief Nielson had done, or even just stayed out of the way and let us do what we were there to do, he could have taken credit for all of it, and we would have been happy to let him do it. But he couldn’t get his own ego out of the way long enough to see that. Instead, he just wanted to rewind everything and have it all go back to the way it used to be. And he was quite clear that he was in charge, it was his show, and if he said no, that meant no.
One afternoon we were out at Coalinga teaching a course and one of our instructors, Arty, had pulled a group of students aside to give them some coaching on elevation. Arty was a very smart guy and especially sharp with technology; he could write code and had a reputation (deserved) as an Internet technology guru. Whenever Arty talked about anything technological, I made sure to listen.
“So, you adjusted your elevation when you shot this morning,” he was explaining, “but now that you’re shooting in the afternoon, you’ll find that when you shoot at 200 yards your existing 200-yard adjustment is an inch too high. That’s because it’s a good 20 degrees warmer now than it was this morning, and as the temperature increases, your chamber pressure also increases, which translates into higher muzzle velocity. So now you have to bring your elevation down an inch to compensate —”
“Stop!” Suddenly there was Harvey, striding out onto the range and interrupting Arty right in the middle of his class. “Stop, stop, stop! You guys, listen, you just trust your dope.” (Dope meaning “data on personal equipment,” the elevation data from a data book.) “Trust your dope. Don’t start changing your settings and messing everything around. Trust your dope!”
I felt the blood drain from my face. Everything Arty was saying was spot-on accurate, of course. Even if it hadn’t been, though, the last thing you want to do is start contradicting your instructor in front of the students. If one of your instructors does screw up, you pull him aside afterward and talk to him in private, but never in front of the students. Do that and everybody loses credibility.
As soon as I could I pulled Harvey aside and said, “Harvey, you’re killing me here. You can’t do things like this to my instructors.” This wasn’t the first time he’d done this; he was becoming infamous for it. And the students weren’t stupid. Between Harvey and Arty, they could clearly see which one knew what he was talking about. Harvey’s behavior was undermining the whole concept of respect for leadership — not only privately, among the instructors, but also among the students.
At the end of Arty’s course, we had everyone in the class fill out critiques, as we did with every course. The students absolutely hammered Harvey. They had their certificates at this point, so they must have figured they had nothing to lose, and they just told the truth. “Unprofessional,” said some of the critiques. “Hurting credibility.” “A clear weak point.” “You need to know,” wrote one, “that Master Chief Clayton is an idiot.”
When Harvey read the critiques he was furious and declared he would order the students to redo them.
“I’m sorry, Master Chief,” I said, “but it doesn’t work that way. You can’t do that.”
He started getting drunk after hours and picking on students. “Hey, you,” he’d say, “Mister So-and-So, get over here. I don’t like you. You can’t shoot for shit.” He would be truly mean to these guys. No matter what authority you have, you just don’t treat people that way. I can be hard on my own people, but I’m always careful to be fair. Harvey didn’t seem to give a damn about being fair.
I had recently gotten my private pilot’s license. Senior Chief Nielson had let me take enough time off to do the 14-week course, which I started in April and finished by mid-July. The drive from San Diego up to Coalinga was about seven hours, but I could fly there in two, and I would sometimes round up a group of students, fly them up there, and take them out for steaks at a nearby ranch that had its own private runway.
Harvey hated it. He hated the fact that I flew. I think he hated my having any kind of autonomy.
Soon everyone was coming to me, complaining about the latest thing Harvey had done. It was a nightmare, and I didn’t know what any of us could do about it. I started worrying that the course’s reputation would suffer, and if that started happening, it could unravel everything we were working so hard to accomplish.
One Friday toward the end of 2004, we had a staff meeting to go over a course we were starting the following Monday and weigh whether we were going to approach the subject using minutes of angle, mil dots, or exactly what. As so often happens with a discussion like this, the best idea came to the surface, and we all agreed to do it a certain way. That weekend I spent some hours prepping the course, redoing it, and getting all the materials together so I’d be ready to go. On Monday morning, about an hour before the class was scheduled to start, Chris, one of our chiefs, came over to talk to me with a hangdog expression on his face. “Uh-oh,” I thought, “what is it now?”
“Hey, Brandon,” said Chris, “Harvey wants you to teach it the other way.”
“What?” I stared at Chief Chris in disbelief.
“Yeah,” he said. “He told me to come tell you. He wants it taught the other way.” I lost it. “No fucking way,” I said. “You go back and tell him to get his ass in here right now.” As a chief, Chris outranked me (as did Arty, who was also a chief), but he knew I was course manager and this was my terrain. This was my course Harvey was dicking around with.
A few minutes later Harvey showed up, and I reamed him out, right in front of the other instructors.
“You son of a bitch,” I said. “I’ll tell you what, Harvey, if we were on a pirate ship at sea right now I would shoot you in the back, toss your sorry ass over the side, and declare mutiny.”
I know, I know: This is not the recommended manner for addressing one’s superior officer. I value respect as much as any SEAL, and I don’t lose my cool very often. But this was one of those rare moments, and master chief or no, I tore him a new one.
He tucked his tail between his legs and left, and I taught the course the way we’d agreed to teach it the Friday before. I knew this was the beginning of the end, though. For close to a year I’d done my best to be loyal to the guy and work things out, and the situation had gone from bad to worse. Morale on the course was in the can, and the place was starting to feel like it was going to fall apart if something drastic didn’t happen and soon.
At the time, we had instructors with us who were newly minted chiefs while waiting to ship out to leadership posts: Arty (the instructor Harvey had so boorishly upstaged), Joe, and Chris. I went to all three of them and said, “Guys, something has to be done about Harvey. You guys are the chiefs. You’ve got to take some kind of action!”
All three understood that while I was in charge of the course, my hands were tied. They all outranked me, and any initiative here would have to come from one or all of them. Understandably, though, all three were extremely reluctant to take any action. In the military, there is hardly anything you can do to screw up your reputation worse than going up the chain of command to complain about a superior. Whether you’re talking Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Navy, I don’t care what division or what force, ratting on your superior officer is tantamount to taking your life in your hands, reputationally and professionally speaking. In a situation like this, it’s far easier and safer to take the path of least resistance: wait it out. Suck it up. Grin and bear it. But we’d been sucking, grinning, and bearing for close to a year.
It was Chief Chris who finally decided to do something. He went to our command’s master chief and complained about Harvey.
I don’t know exactly how he did it, and I don’t know exactly what he said, but whatever he did, it didn’t work. Nothing happened to Harvey — and Chief Chris got demoted. In the pecking order of chiefs in our command, he went from the number two spot to the last in line, and they pulled him from the course. You don’t recover from something like that. From this point on, Chris effectively had no hope of ever making master chief. It was a career-destroying move.
Not surprisingly, Arty and Joe, the two remaining chiefs, were now completely intimidated, and they certainly weren’t going to make any moves against Harvey. Not ever.
So it was up to me.
I knew it could be the end of my career in the Navy — the unfortunate fate of Chief Chris had made that abundantly clear — but we couldn’t keep operating like this. Harvey was screwing up the course. You go out into the jungle and mess with a lion cub, and you will hear about it from the lioness. The sniper course was my cub, and as long as there was breath in my body I was not going to let anyone compromise the integrity of what we had all worked so hard to build. Not even if it meant my career.
I started carefully documenting all his bad behavior, every incident I could think of, from his contradicting Arty in front of the class to the students’ terrible critiques to his arbitrary changes in the course to the student complaints about his drinking and verbal abusiveness — everything. I didn’t editorialize, comment, or draw conclusions. Just put down the facts in black and white. I gathered up my sheaf of documents and proceeded over to the office of Harvey’s boss, a warrant officer named Len Marco, sat down with him, and spelled out the entire situation.
“This is what’s happening with Harvey,” I said, “and it’s a problem. You can fire me from the course and send me anywhere you want me to go. I would rather stay. But someone needs to shed some light on the damage this guy is doing.”
I took a deep breath and waited to see what would happen. Had I just committed career suicide?
Len was silent for a few moments, looking at the papers I’d put in front of him as I spelled out the whole story. Then he looked up at me. “Come with me. We need to go talk to Master Chief Jordan.”
Master Chief Jordan wasn’t just the next higher-up on the Navy food chain; he was the master chief in charge of the entire Naval Special Warfare Center. As it happened, he was also the very same Master Chief Jordan who’d been running the sniper course when I enrolled in it two and a half years earlier, before Chief Carver took over. I took this as a good sign: At least he knew me well enough to know that I wasn’t some weenie jerk-off making trouble just because I had a bad attitude.
On the other hand, he was also the very same master chief who had shit-canned Chief Chris when he told the same story I was about to tell. I took this as a bad sign.
A very bad sign.
But what could I do? There was no backing out now. Besides, I wouldn’t have backed out if I could. For the course, for the guys, and for myself, this was the right thing to do.
Len started the meeting by explaining in the broadest terms why we were there and then turned it over to me. I went through what I had to say, detailing the worst of Harvey’s offenses, and Len, to his considerable credit, backed me up. Chief Jordan listened without comment, then nodded slightly and said, “We’ll look into this.”
We were dismissed.
The next day Harvey started packing. Orders had come down. Apparently, there was something of an emergency situation developing in Bahrain where they needed a master chief. Harvey had been assigned to the station there unaccompanied for a year.
Instead, he put in for his retirement papers. Within a few weeks, Harvey was gone — and suddenly I was not only running the course but also serving in the role of division officer, at least until another interim division officer could be assigned.
In an evaluation Harvey had written up not long before he left, he had said of me, “Promote ahead of his peers!” Ironically, his advice was acted on — after he was gone. In February 2005, just weeks after Harvey had left, I made chief petty officer my first time up.
With Harvey gone and our new curriculum in place, the sniper course started soaring, and we were graduating guys who were absolutely deadly. Suddenly our graduates were in big demand in the field, and I was getting phone calls from other branches of the service. “Major So-and-So wants to come out and observe your course.” Our guys were gaining such a reputation in combat overseas that these officers were saying, “What are these guys doing that we’re not doing — and how can we change our course so we start getting our guys to this level?” We were happy to give them all the help we could.
Everything I’d experienced in the Navy up to this point, from those early days as an aircrew search-and-rescue swimmer to BUD/S and STT through deployment on the USS Cole, in the Gulf, and in Afghanistan, all of it had gone into our work in revamping and refining this sniper course, and we were now turning out some of the most decorated snipers in the world.
There is no better example of this than Chris Kyle.
Like Matt Hussian, Chris was a Texan who had been shooting since he was a kid, and like a lot of guys who grew up hunting, he knew how to stalk. He was also a champion saddle-bronc rider; in fact, the first time he applied to the Navy he was flat-out rejected because of pins in his arm, the result of a serious accident he’d had while in the rodeo ring. The Navy later relented and actually sought him out for recruitment. Good thing for our side, as it turned out.
Chris was not one of my personals — Eric had him as his student. But he immediately made a big impression on all the staff and obviously had great potential, although it didn’t jump out and bite you at first. Chris was a classic example of a Spec Ops guy: a book you definitely do not want to judge by its cover. A quiet guy, he was unassuming, mild-mannered, and soft-spoken — as long as you don’t get him riled. Walk past Chris Kyle on the street and you would not have the faintest sense that you’d just strolled by the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history, with more than 150 confirmed kills.
Like me, when it came time for assignment to the teams, Chris had chosen SEAL Team Three as his top pick, and gotten it, too. For his first deployment, he was one of the SEALs on the ground in Iraq with the first wave of American troops at the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. While he was there, Chris saw some serious action; it was a helluva place to have your first deployment.
Upon rotating back home, one of the first things Chris did was to go through our sniper course. After graduating, he shipped right back out to Iraq, where he fought in the Second Battle for Fallujah, which turned out to be the biggest and bloodiest engagement in the entire Iraq war. Since the largely unsuccessful First Battle for Fallujah seven months earlier, the place had been heavily fortified, and we had big Army units going in with small teams of our snipers attached to help give them the edge they needed. Our snipers would sneak in there, see enemy insurgents (sometimes snipers themselves) slipping out to try and ambush our guys, and just drop them in their tracks. It was no contest.
Our guys were not only expert shots, but they also knew how to think strategically and tactically and they came up with all kinds of creative solutions on the battlefield. For example, they would stage an IED (improvised explosive device) to flush out the enemy. They would take some beat-up vehicle they’d captured in a previous op, rig it up with explosives, drive it into the city, and blow it — simulating that it had been hit by an IED. Meanwhile, they would take cover and wait. All these enemy forces would start coming out of the woodwork, shooting off guns and celebrating, “Aha, we got the Americans!” and the snipers would pick them all off like proverbial goldfish in a bowl. You didn’t hear about this on the news, but they did it over and over, throughout the city.
Chris was in the middle of all this. In his first deployment, he racked up close to a hundred kills, 40 of them in the Second Battle for Fallujah alone. He was shot twice, was in six separate IED explosions, and received multiple frag wounds from RPGs and other explosives.
The insurgents had a sniper there from the Iraqi Olympic shooting team, who was packing an English-made Accuracy International, about $10,000 worth of weapon. This guy was not messing around. Neither was Chris and our other snipers. They shot the guy and took his rifle. Al-Qaeda put a bounty on Chris’s head — but nobody ever collected. You can read about Chris’s exploits in his book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.
As remarkable as he was, Chris Kyle was quick to point that he was not unique on that battlefield. There was a whole lineup of SEAL snipers in Iraq at the time who was cutting a wide swathe through the hotbeds of insurgency, providing clear zones for our Marines and Army forces to operate without being picked off by the enemy snipers themselves or being ambushed by IEDs.
It’s easy to have an image of these guys as trained killers — mean, ruthless men who think nothing of ending other people’s lives. Maybe even violent and bloodthirsty. The reality is quite different.
Think about the various ways we have gone about winning wars in the past. Think about American planes firebombing Tokyo and Dresden during World War II, actions that burned to death hundreds of thousands of civilians. And that’s an awfully painful way to go. Or consider what it’s like to take out a high-value target by leveling the city block where he’s located at the moment with a targeted JDAM strike. Imagine being someone in that building, slowly crushed to death under the rubble.
Now think about a trained Navy SEAL sniper-like Chris, waiting, sighting, and finally squeezing the trigger of his .300 Win Mag. The supersonic round reaches its destination in less than a second — the man is gone before the rifle’s report reaches his ears.
The reality is that the death that comes with the sniper’s strike is typically clean, painless, and as humane as death can be. A cleaner death, if we’re really going to be honest with ourselves, than most of us will experience when we come to the end of our own lives. The sniper is like a highly skilled surgeon, practicing his craft on the battlefield. Make no mistake: war is about killing other human beings, taking out the enemy before he takes us out, stopping the spread of further aggression by stopping those who would perpetuate that aggression. But if the goal is to prosecute the war in order to achieve peace and to do so as fast and as effectively as possible, and with the least collateral damage, then warriors like Chris Kyle and our other brothers-in-arms are heroes in the best sense.
One of our better students was Marcus Luttrell, another Texan, and author of Lone Survivor, his account of Operation Redwing in Afghanistan. I mentored both Marcus and his twin brother, Morgan, who had come through the course about half a year before Marcus did.
Marcus and Chris Kyle were actually good friends as well as fellow Texans — and they couldn’t have been more different. Where Chris blended in and wore his strength inconspicuously, Marcus is the dictionary definition of “conspicuous” — a big strapping hunk of a guy, colorful, rambunctious, entertaining as hell, larger than life in every way. If Chris Kyle and Marcus Luttrell had been alive in the Old West, Chris would have been the quiet one in the corner that you didn’t notice (at least, not until the gunplay started). Marcus would have been the gunslinger they ended up making the subject of Hollywood films.
Unfortunately, for a sniper, conspicuous is not necessarily an asset. Like Morgan, Marcus was a first-rate SEAL, but he did not pass through the course without incident. While he was a crack shot, he had a tough time meeting the course minimum requirements for stalking, where we were teaching the students how to use camouflage, the terrain, and stealth skills to sneak up to an enemy position.
I vividly remember the first practice stalk we did with Marcus’s class. We were giving them a bunch of practice outings first so they could get the lay of the land and get their stalking feet under them. Once we’d gone through these we would start a series of 10 graded stalks, on which the students had to score an 80 or above — meaning you could miss a maximum of two out of the 10, or you were out of the course.
On these practice stalks we gave the students time to clip off bits and pieces of natural vegetation to put all over their ghillie suits and hats so they would be fully camouflaged, and then hide, at which point we would scan the field to judge how well they were hidden, in other words, whether or not we could detect them. We got the sign that everyone was fully vegged up and hidden, I put my binos to my eyes and started scanning — and right away found myself staring at this odd-looking ice plant.
As I watched, that odd-looking ice-plant monster got to its feet and stood up.
Here was the problem: Ice plants don’t grow six feet tall, and also don’t suddenly haul themselves up to a standing position. Sure enough, it was Marcus, covered with wilting scraps of vegetation. He looked like an ice-plant Sasquatch.
“Oh, man,” I remember saying more than once during the course of those practice stalks, “it’s Marcus again.”
Marcus and his shooting partner were one of my two pairs in that course, and I often took them out on the course after hours, quizzing them and working with them, doing whatever I could to make sure they were getting this down. This was exactly why we’d set up this mentoring system: so that the instructors would take ownership of their pairs and have a vested interest in their success.
As much as we all put into it, though, it wasn’t enough: Marcus didn’t make it. He was crushed, and so were we; he was an excellent shooter and as solid a SEAL as they come, and we all badly wanted to pass him — but we hadn’t succeeded in getting him through that concealment and stalking phase.
So what did he do? He turned right around and went through the course a second time, the whole damn three months of it. This is a guy who does not know the meaning of the word “quit.”
The second time through the course, Marcus was partnered with a BUD/S friend of his named Tej, who was even bigger (and even louder) than Marcus. Easily the biggest guys in the class, these two were so outrageous and boisterous I nearly had to separate them. At the same time, they kept that class in line. We had one student who was a career complainer, and more than one who tried to give us a hard time — but whenever someone started piping up or getting out of line, Tej and Marcus would shut them down. They were rowdy, hilarious, impossible, and two of the most standup guys we’d ever had.
Once again, Marcus and his partner were my personals, and once again, I was determined to see him succeed. Of course, we wanted every one of our students to succeed, but Marcus was so damn likable and such a good guy that we really wanted him to make it. He knew he’d have to get through on his own merits, but I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to do everything I could to make sure that happened.
When it came to the stalking portion he started having a rough time again — but at a certain point it just clicked for him, and from then on he did really well. This time around he graduated with flying colors. I don’t know who was happier about it, Marcus or us. I’d say we were all pretty fired up.
Just as he was graduating Marcus approached me to ask a favor. “Hey,” he said, “I’m about to deploy to Afghanistan, but we’ve got this big family event happening in Texas. Is there any way I could not do that FTX?”
Normally after graduating from the course, you could take up to 30 days’ leave to spend time with your family, but Marcus had already sacrificed his leave time to get himself placed immediately into the sniper course for his second go at it. Now the only way he could see his family before deploying would be if we let him out of the FTX, or final training exercise, which would normally add about one more week’s time on the course. The FTX was a graded mission, so theoretically it was mandatory, but hell, Marcus had clearly made it through at that point, so I worked it out for him to skip it and have that week with his family.
The week after that family event he was on a plane to Afghanistan.
What happened next is the subject of his book. Marcus and three teammates — Matt Axelson (Morgan Luttrell’s best friend), Danny Dietz, and Michael Murphy — went out on a reconnaissance mission in northern Afghanistan, not far from the area where we had run so many missions with ECHO platoon. The mission went bad, and soon the four were scrambling across the brutal Afghan terrain under heavy fire. Marcus watched as his teammate and brother’s best friend died in his arms. Murphy and Dietz were killed, too, as were all 16 of the men (eight SEALs and eight Army Airborne Night Stalkers) dispatched as a QRF to rescue Marcus’s team. It was the worst U.S. loss of life in a single event in Afghanistan — a grisly record of a tragedy that was broken only six years later when a Chinook helo was shot down in August 2011.
We were devastated when we heard the news. I’d lost other friends before, but this was the worst. I’d gotten close to all those guys during the course and had especially come to know Marcus and Axelson really well. As far as we knew, Marcus had died, too. That was what almost everyone believed (although Morgan insisted that he knew his twin brother was still alive). It wasn’t until five days later that we learned Marcus had miraculously pulled through.
Badly wounded and with all his buddies gone, this big Texan who had failed stalk after stalk when he first landed in our course had managed to walk and crawl undetected through some seven miles of hostile terrain, somehow evading capture and killing six more Taliban fighters along the way, until he made it to an Afghan village that shielded him until he could be rescued.
Marcus was the only one out of the entire operation who made it home alive.
The next time I saw Marcus was more than a year later, in the late summer of 2006, on the deck of the USS Midway off San Diego where the Navy was holding a big fundraiser. He and his coauthor, Patrick Robinson, had just finished writing Lone Survivor, although it would not come out on the bookstands until the following summer. I spotted him at the event and went over to talk with him.
“Hey, Marcus,” I said.
“Hey, Brandon,” he replied.
We embraced each other, then quickly caught each other up on what was going on in our lives. There was quite a crowd around us, and we both knew we wouldn’t have more than a minute to talk. He grabbed me by both shoulders and said, “Brandon, listen. You need to know, that stalking course? That saved my life. If you hadn’t pounded that training into me, I wouldn’t be standing here today.’
His voice choked, and I saw tears in his eyes. I was getting pretty emotional myself.
“You saved my life, man,” he repeated, “and I want you to know that, and I want to thank you for it.”
I thought about all he had been through in Afghanistan, watching his friends die one by one, the long days and longer nights hidden away in that Afghan village while the Taliban hunted for him, not knowing whether he would make it out alive. I flashed on all the time we’d spent in the course, the hours we put in together long after the day’s studies were officially over, shaping him into a first-class stalker. I thought about the hours Eric and I and the rest of us had put in crafting and refining that course, the strain on our families while we were away, even the long months of enduring the reign of Harvey Clayton… and knew that this made it all way, way past worthwhile.
That was my proudest moment as a SEAL.
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