Everyone has had a pink thing for a boss. Here’s my story of how I dealt with it, and hopefully a guide for you on how to step up and do the hard thing.

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 fourteen-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.”

War Stories: Navy SEAL Sniper School

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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 happen soon.

At the time, we had instructors who were newly minted chiefs, with us 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, Marines, 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 left, I made chief petty officer my first time up.