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.”

These ships were coming out of Iraq sealed shut and tight as drums. To prevent being caught by boarding teams, these guys would literally weld themselves in so nobody could get to them. When the regular navy tried to board a vessel like that and take it over, they would be completely stymied and unable to get inside. 

That was where we came in. We knew how to get on and into these boats silently, quickly, and effectively, boarding in minutes. And we didn’t screw around. If the metal ship doors were welded shut we’d cut our way in through the roof with an acetylene torch. But we’d have to move fast, because the moment the smugglers realized they were being boarded they would take aggressive action and haul ass for nearby Iranian waters — and if they made it, that was game over. Once they were outside that narrow channel of international waters, there’d be nothing anyone could do but clamber back off their damn boat and head back empty-handed. So when it came time to take down a smuggler’s boat, we knew we had to move like lightning. 

This was where that VBSS (Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure) training we did off the coast of San Clemente Island paid off. There’s a reason SEALs train constantly, and this was it. We nailed those guys. 

Typically there’s a lot of adrenaline-pumping during a maneuver like this. You’re going out in the middle of the night, coming up alongside a vessel doing 15 to 20 knots, keeping your craft even with it, and trying your best to put your whole team on board before the bad guys are even aware you’re on them. Even in normal circumstances, this is an exacting and exciting procedure. Now everything felt heightened. With the events of 9/11 just weeks behind us like a fresh and gaping wound, the air crackled with angry electricity. We would quietly shoot the shit to keep ourselves occupied, but none of us were feeling casual about what we were doing here.

Our platoon was outfitted in black from head to toe, wearing balaclavas, those Ninja-style masks that conceal the entire head except the eyes. A few of our guys who spoke Arabic had dubbed our team Shaytan abyath, “the White Devils,” after overhearing crews captured from a few of the smugglers’ ships we’d taken down muttering the phrase in our direction. We embraced the name, and I used the idea of it in a patch I designed for our platoon: an image of a white devil on a black background underneath “3 ECHO.” In addition to our platoon patches, we also had NYFD patches sewn onto our uniforms to pay homage to fallen heroes back home. To say that we were in the mood to kick some ass is, to put it mildly.

Where were you on 9/11?

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