In 2005, long after Matt Axelson and the Luttrell brothers had graduated Jon Tumilson came through our course. JT, we called him.
My first conversation with JT happened in my office, which by this time was not underground in the Coronado bunker but in an aboveground building in another location. I had called JT in to let him know that I wanted him to be the class leader for that session. The two reasons I remember this so clearly are that I could immediately see, first how perfectly suited to the job he was, and second how uncomfortable this made him.
Class leader was no mere honorary or symbolic title. In the NSW sniper course, the class leader has his work cut out for him. Keeping a pack of alpha-male Navy SEALs in line for three solid months of long, punishing days is not a job for the faint of heart. I would meet with the class leader every day, brief him on what the next day’s evolution was and what it would involve, explain where I wanted him and the rest of the class to be, and go over the schedule. It was his job to make sure the class was prepared and squared away. If they weren’t, it was to some extent his ass that would be on the line.
Just as I had with Matt Axelson and JT’s BUD/S teammate Morgan Luttrell (and later with Marcus), I took JT as one of my personal students and spent time mentoring him every day throughout that session. He turned out to be the best damn class leader I ever had. His reluctance notwithstanding, JT knew how to drop the hammer. He rarely needed to do it, though. Nobody gave him any trouble during those three months. They respected him too much.
JT was a quiet, tall Iowa boy, six-foot-five, with an economical frame, dark hair, hazel green eyes, and a gentle, easygoing personality, hugely popular throughout his school years. A friend once described him as a “human Labrador: smart, athletic, and you want him to be with you everywhere you go” — an inside joke, as JT’s one constant companion was his chocolate Lab, Hawkeye. JT was devoted to his family, driving home to see them every chance he could. One December he called home to say he couldn’t make it for Christmas that year. When Christmas came, JT’s sister Joy (who was in on the secret) led the family outside to find a huge present sitting there, a wrapped box as big as a three-drawer filing cabinet. They tore the wrapping paper off the top, and looked inside — and there was JT, sitting cross-legged and grinning up at them.
Lurking underneath that easygoing personality was a ferociously disciplined athlete. JT was a wrestler throughout his school years, had competed in marathons and triathlons, and was a dedicated and accomplished distance runner.
When JT was a kid he had no interest in reading. As far as he was concerned, if the teacher couldn’t put it in words right there in the class, why should he have to take his time sitting in a chair extracting it from a book? He’d much rather be outside running, jumping, or climbing. Or in the gym wrestling. His mother told him she would buy him any book he wanted, on any topic (“as long as it isn’t smut”), if he would agree to read it. Toward the end of his freshman year of high school, when JT was 15, he asked for a copy of a book that had just been published: Rogue Warrior, Richard Marcinko’s wilder-than-fiction memoir.
A controversial SEAL with combat roots in the Vietnam War, Marcinko was the first commander of that top-tier unit decades ago. Rogue Warrior was strong stuff, and JT ate it up, loved every word of it. The moment he put that book down he was on a mission, reading everything he could dig up on the SEALs (which was damned hard to find in those pre-Internet days). From that point on, every book report and class project was about the SEALs. He knew more about the teams as a 15- and 16-year-old than most frogmen know when they first sign up for BUD/S.
JT enlisted in the summer of ’94, following his junior year of high school, with plans to jump into boot camp a year later, immediately after graduation, and make a beeline for BUD/S. Not so fast, they told him: The SEAL pipeline was full at the moment. Instead, they suggested he go into intelligence, which could serve as a stepping-stone to BUD/S. When he finished A school at the top of his class, they gave him his pick of assignments. For a boy from a tiny Iowa town (Rockford: population 850) Hawaii sounded pretty appealing. Hawaii it was; he got orders to the state-of-the-art guided-missile cruiser USS Port Royal, which had just been commissioned.
JT loved his time in Hawaii and was enormously popular, both with his teammates and with the local female population. One year he posed shirtless for a “Men of Hawaii” calendar. (He was Mr. February.) The other guys teased him unmercifully and said he could make good money modeling, and thus his nickname was born: JT Money. As with Heath Robinson and “Hollywood,” the name had more than one meaning: JT also had a reputation for spending money on wining and dining the ladies. There’s no other way to say it: Women just loved JT. He was the ultimate ladies’ man. Unlike the stereotypical bad-boy heartbreaker, though, he left no trail of resentment or ill will behind him. All the women who loved JT had nothing but good things to say about him, even after he had broken up with them. They all understood that his first love would always be the teams.
That had been a given since he’d picked up his now dog-eared — and, eventually, personally autographed by the author — copy of Rogue Warrior.
After six full years in the regular fleet Navy, JT finally made it to BUD/S in October 2001, starting just weeks after the planes crashed into the towers, making his career as a SEAL precisely contemporaneous with the new era of warfare that came to be known as the Global War on Terror. He finished Class 238 in April 2002 and did his workup as the initial Afghanistan operation was winding down and the invasion of Iraq was winding up. He went on to do two deployments in Iraq, where he earned a Bronze Star for bravery during a firefight, and two in Afghanistan before joining Green Team.
What made JT such a great class leader was not simply his own excellence as an operator. While unquestionable, that alone would not have been sufficient; I’ve known plenty of impressive shooters who could never have exercised the leadership he did. It was his empathy and gift for bringing people together. The dude was so clearly wired as a social animal. At a wrestling match when he was just seven, a coach told his parents, “Jon may or may not win this match, but I can tell you this: Before it’s over he’s going to know how many brothers and sisters that other kid has and what he ate for breakfast.” JT went to a lot of high school graduation parties for guys on the opposing teams. JT used to keep extra keys to all his friends’ apartments. If another guy was out on deployment and JT was back home, he would go over and play with the kids, fix a broken dishwasher, do whatever needed doing to keep the home front solid and happy.
When JT first left home to join the Navy and make his way toward becoming part of the teams, one of his mother’s friends said to her, “I just hope they don’t take his sensitivity away from him.”
And that’s the point I most want to convey about JT, and about Heath, and about Chris Campbell: All three of them had such kind, generous natures. “Sensitive” may not be a word you expect in a description of the nation’s deadliest warfighters. But there it is.
So: Who are these guys?
As I said, they are not your typical Hollywood pumped-up gladiators. They don’t serve as the “rough men” of Heath’s e-mail sig line because it’s in their intrinsic nature to be rough. They make it their nature. They do this out of love and the undeniable drive to keep the rest of us safe.
Back in April 2009, as I sat in my claustrophobic booth in downtown San Diego waiting for Christiane Amanpour’s voice to come over my earpiece, I didn’t know exactly who had been on that mission to rescue Captain Phillips, but the three men I thought about were Campbell, Heath, and JT. I thought about what solid guys and thoughtful friends they were, how devoted they were to their families, what grueling training they’d gone through, the insane odds they had overcome to become the warriors they were, and how much service they had given to so many of us sleeping peacefully in our beds, we who would never know more than a fraction of all that they did to protect us.
I thought of them again two years later in 2011, when I heard about the UBL raid, although none of these three were on that particular mission.
And then I thought of them again three months after that.
On August 6, 2011, a Chinook-47 transport helicopter, call sign Extortion 17, on its way to support a nighttime raid in the Tangi Valley west of Kabul, was shot down by three RPGs fired by Taliban forces, killing all 38 onboard, including 17 SEALs, five Navy Spec Ops support personnel, five Army aircrew, and three Air Force ground support personnel, as well as seven Afghan commandos, one Afghan interpreter, and one U.S. military dog. It was the single largest loss of American lives in our 10 years of war in Afghanistan.
I heard the news about the same time everyone else did. All we knew at first was that 17 SEALs had died in the crash, along with more than 20 others. When I heard the numbers I murmured to myself, “Oh, man… there were people I know on that helo.” Sure enough, there were.
Campbell was on board.
So was Heath.
Have you ever taken a punch square in the solar plexus, right below the sternum? If you have, then you know what happens next. Your diaphragm contracts to the size of a mung bean; you feel like throwing up and passing out at the same time and are horrified to realize that you don’t have the strength to do either one. You can’t breathe, you can’t move, and you can’t think. You don’t just collapse; you implode. You feel like you’ve been turned into a sock puppet, with no will or agency of your own, and it would be funny if you weren’t in agony, which you are times one hundred.
If you’ve ever had that experience, then you have a sense of how it felt to read the list of names from the Extortion 17 crash.
A teammate from my BUD/S days. A close friend from those touch-and-go days in the caves of Afghanistan. And one of our finest student leaders from the sniper course. Training; deployment; teaching. All three chapters of my SEAL career were on that helo.
It felt like my life had been shot down there in the Hindu Kush.
When you read casualty figures, you obviously know you’re reading about a tragedy. What the numbers don’t convey and few really grasp is the full impact an event like this has on our military. These men are not resources you can simply replace. You don’t train a Spec Ops warrior in a few months or even a few years. In strategic terms, the loss to the Spec Ops community was crippling. “It’s like an entire NFL football team wiped out,” said one Spec Ops officer at the time. “Like the department of surgery at Cornell medical school [gone].”
For me, it was the loss of too many friends. I know men in their 80s who are at the point in life when they are starting to lose their friends. You expect this to happen when you reach your 80s. You do not expect it in your 30s.
A friend of mine was in charge of the CACO (Casualty Assistance Calls Officer) effort. He had an entire department under him, some 40 guys, tasked with all kinds of things people don’t normally think about that are involved when something like this happens. For example, they had to pore through all the personal effects left behind by those who’d been killed. And, of course, they had to drive up to all those addresses, walk up to all those doors, and notify all those family members — wives, parents, children — that their husbands, their sons, their fathers, were gone and would not be returning.
“It got really personal,” said my friend. When I asked him to describe the experience, he had just two words: “A nightmare.” He thought for a moment, then added, “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” And trust me: This is a guy who has done some hard things.
JT’s coffin was flown out to his hometown in Iowa to a small airport in nearby Mason City, about a half-hour away. The motorcade bringing JT to Rockford, led by hundreds of Patriot Guard Riders on motorcycles, drew people from far and wide. At one point Kathy Tumilson, JT’s mother saw a semi parked off the road on the other side of the interstate, the driver standing at attention by his inert rig, hat over his heart, as they drove by. People started showing up on the overpasses as the motorcade passed underneath, paying their respects. The closer they got to Rockford, the more people lined the overpasses. By the time they turned onto the blacktop to head into Rockford, it was like a parade, people standing two and three deep, with posters and flags, many of them weeping. More than 1,500 people attended JT’s funeral service — a number, it should be noted, that is nearly twice the entire population of Rockford.
At one point during the service, a friend led Hawkeye, JT’s faithful chocolate Lab, silently up to the front of the gymnasium where the military casket sat draped with its American flag. Hawkeye lay down on the cold floor next to the casket and didn’t move from that spot as the service continued. You might remember seeing that photo; within days it went viral, showing up in newspapers and on websites everywhere, the wordless expression of an intensely personal grief that resonated nationally.
At the time of the crash, Heath Robinson’s grandfather had been ill for months. When he heard the news that his first grandson had died, it was too much. He died four days later, on August 10. “I have to go,” he told his wife.
I think I understood how he felt. I think all of us in the teams understood how he felt.
There’s been some controversy around the downing of Extortion 17, in part because there was such a large number of SEALs aboard this one helicopter. Most of that controversy is manufactured and groundless, spurred on by shameless partisan politics and base motivations. But there was one thing about it that has plagued me.
The SEALs who had seen that helo shot down back in June 2005 said it was not an RPG but something much more powerful, a MANPAD (man-portable air defense missile) of some sort, that took the bird down. According to Peter Nealen, a former recon Marine sniper and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, “Had a suspected MANPAD been reported and verified, it’s likely that loss of life in-theater linked to shot-down helicopters could have been prevented, including the controversial Extortion 17 crash that would happen years later” (Operation Red Wings, New York: St. Martin’s Press 2013).
Why didn’t they include this crucial point in the after-action report on Operation Red Wings?
It’s always risky to speculate, and since I was not privy to any part of that process when it occurred, speculation is all this is. But I would guess it was because they knew that if they did include it, they would create one hell of a shit storm that could seriously disrupt the way we were managing our air operations in that AO at the time. An RPG has no guidance system. A MANPAD, which is not a grenade but a type of missile, does. If we’d known we were potentially up against portable, shoulder-fired guided missiles in that theater, would we have been forced to upgrade the defensive capabilities on our helos, with better and/or additional countermeasures?
Granted, they may not have had 100 percent accuracy on that MANPAD observation. But there was enough to put it in the damn report. If it’d been me, I sure as hell would have mentioned it. How many more helicopters have been shot down between June 2005 and now — including the helo carrying Chris, Heath, JT, and more than two dozen others — that potentially might not have been shot down, had we looked squarely at the intelligence from the ground and adjusted our rules and procedures accordingly?
They held a funeral service for the lost heroes of Extortion 17 at Arlington, where they buried all the Americans from the crash together. My old Golf Platoon teammate Mike Ritland attended the service, and while he was there he suddenly thought about Dave Scott and his tragic passing in Guam nine years earlier, in part because Dave had also been buried at Arlington. “The shittiest thing about Dave’s death,” Mike says, “was that none of us could go to the funeral because we were all on deployment out in the Philippines at the time.” Mike had felt awful that he couldn’t be there for Kat on that day back in 2002. And yet in the nine years since, he had never visited the gravesite.
He says he still can’t explain exactly why that is. He doesn’t need to explain it to me.
When the ceremony was over Mike started walking. Before long he found himself at Dave Scott’s gravesite. It was approaching five o’clock, but in that late August DC afternoon, the heat still hung around Mike like a canopy. Like Guam. Nobody else was around, not even a car driving by, just humid, hovering silence. He stood for a bit, then knelt down and placed a SEAL Team Three coin and a SEAL Trident down on Dave’s gravesite where they joined the small cluster of Marine Marathon finisher’s medals.
“I talked to Dave for a few minutes,” recalls Mike. “Busted his balls for a bit. Then got up and went on my way.”
A lot of time had passed since Dave Scott’s death in 2002, and even more since Mike Bearden’s two years before that. I’d lost quite a few more friends over those years, and now so many at once — not only Chris and Heath and JT but more than a dozen other good men, some of whom I knew in passing, and all of whom I knew in one way or another, if only by reputation. It’s a close-knit community.
But still, I didn’t go to Arlington.
At that point, I still hadn’t attended a single memorial service.
Not long after the crash, I wrote a blog post honoring the guys who were on that helo. In the post, I mentioned how Heath and I had been friends in Afghanistan. Someone, an unidentified teams guy, wrote a comment on the post: “Some friend — you didn’t even go to the funeral.”
To this day I don’t know who wrote those words, but they burned deep. The thing is, we all have to deal with loss and grief in our own way. I didn’t show up for the funeral, but that didn’t mean that Heath, and Chris, and JT, and all the others weren’t weighing heavy on my heart.
At the time of the helo crash, my book The Red Circle was about to be published, and I was thinking about what I should work on next. The loss of so many friends in one terrible event planted a seed that took shape over the following year and would eventually become the book from which you’re reading an excerpt. In 2012 my writing partner and I drew up a proposal, signed a contract with a publisher, and started work on the manuscript.
I never imagined that before it was over I would be writing about my best friend, Glen.
This article was originally published in March 2021.