One fine fall day not long after wrapping up that workup with ECHO platoon, I got up at the crack of dawn to go surfing. Our platoon was about to rotate overseas (the whole reason I’d joined them in the first place), so I would soon be back out on the Persian Gulf, where we were scheduled to participate in the interdiction of oil-smuggling boats coming out of Iraq — the same mission I’d been hoping to participate in when the attack on the USS Cole tossed our plans out the window. That was still some weeks off, though. Gabriele was now eight months pregnant, and my command had granted me permission to stay stateside long enough to be there for the birth of our first child. After that, I would go rejoin my platoon. For now, I was enjoying the R&R.

I knew this would be my last day of surfing for a few days, so I made the most of it. The next day I was booked on a flight to Texas for a Stinger missile school at Fort Bliss that would last a few days. Always training. 

After an hour or two of surfing, I returned home exhilarated and ready to start my day. Even after all the years and all the crazy things I’d done, from Dräger-diving underneath gigantic tankers to jumping out of planes at 20,000 feet, there was still no experience that beat being out in the surf in the chill of the early California morning, nothing but a sleek plank of lightweight foam like a membrane between my bare feet and the surging elements. It’s one of the greatest feelings in the world. I love it to this day.

When I got in, I found Gabriele sitting not five feet from the television, enormously pregnant, staring at the screen. It was early still, barely six o’clock, but she was already up. She turned to look at me, her face pulled into an expression of speechless horror. I sat down next to her and started watching the live broadcast from New York City, just in time to see the second plane hit the South Tower. The attack on U.S. soil that I’d worried about after standing watch over the crippled USS Cole was no longer an abstraction.

Within days I had joined my platoon on a nonstop flight to the Middle East. By the time our son Jackson came into the world on the last day of November, I was in the Persian Gulf and headed for Afghanistan. 

We left North Island Naval Air Station in a big C-5 cargo plane, stopped off in Washington state to pick up some Army Rangers, made a short refueling stop in Iceland, and then a brief overnight somewhere in Spain. Barely twenty-four hours after leaving San Diego we were receiving a briefing at Camp Doha, the principal U.S. base in Kuwait, where we were told we would be participating in, yes, the interdiction of non-compliant vessels in the Gulf.

Ironically, this was now a bit of a letdown. A year ago I’d been looking forward to exactly this mission. Hell, just a month ago we would have been thrilled to be on this assignment. Finally, some action! we’d have thought. Now everything had changed. Our country had been attacked in a brutal and unprovoked strike that slaughtered thousands of civilians. It was payback time, and we were champing at the bit to get our asses where we could do some serious damage in the name of our people back home. Interdiction of Saddam’s oil smugglers, until recently a cherry assignment, now seemed like a time-consuming detour. 

Still, this was a perfect mission for SEALs, and we’d had teams in there supporting the operation for years, ever since Desert Storm. In violation of U.S.-led sanctions, these maritime operators were feeding a huge black market, getting illegal oil on the cheap and selling it on the open market for millions in profits. Some were Middle Eastern nationals; others were British sea captains gone rogue. I’d met a number of both varieties in the back-alley bars in Bahrain. Another term for these characters would be “pirates.”