SEAL = Sleep, Eat, and Lift.
Here we were, stuck on the boat but anxiously awaiting our turn to jump into the ship take-downs happening with our fellow SEAL Team 3 mates up in the northern part of the Arabian Gulf. Meanwhile, we were like street rats trapped in a rusty steel cage with a running wheel. That wheel for us was the guy.
Prior to hitting the Gulf, we steamed southwest across the Pacific, with a few brief stops along the way at various exotic locations, until we reached the port town of Darwin, Australia, where we spent a week doing the things SEALs do to keep themselves occupied: joint training exercises with the Aussies, working out, and blowing off steam when we could. From there it was a quick hop north to war-torn East Timor, which had recently fought for its hard-won independence from Indonesia and was still in shambles. A team of our guys went ashore for a few days to help in some humanitarian efforts there. And that was about as exciting as things got in those days. It was a time of unprecedented prosperity and stability, both in the States and in the world at large. To put it in SEAL terms, a pretty boring world.
That was about to change.
From East Timor we sailed westward through a series of stepping-stone stops — Singapore and Phuket, Thailand — until we finally arrived in mid-October at the Persian Gulf, where we planned to spend a few days engaged in ship-boarding exercises. It was October 12, a quiet Thursday morning right about lunchtime, when Jim McNary, our officer in charge (OIC), suddenly showed up in our berthing area with some unexpected and sobering news. One of our destroyers, the USS Cole, had been hit and was in danger of sinking.
“Holy shit,” we all thought.
Shortly after 11 o’clock that morning, a small powerboat just off the coast of nearby Yemen, loaded with a quarter ton of homemade explosives and manned by a total of two, as yet unidentified assailants, had sidled up to the ship on its port side and detonated, blowing a 40-by-40-foot hole in the Cole’s hull.
Two guys in a little speedboat did this?
Yes, two guys. Seventeen American sailors had died, 39 others were wounded, and a gigantic U.S. warship was dangerously close to sinking. Immediate support was needed. Other naval personnel would labor to save the vessel from sinking, and still, others would play an investigative role and work to nail down exactly who it was who did this thing. As SEALs, our job was to button the place down and provide impenetrable security.
Within eight hours we had made the clockwise loop through the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, and the Gulf of Aden, and were in the Port of Yemen boarding the crippled hulk of the USS Cole.
An acrid smell from the explosion still hung in the air, but as we climbed aboard the Cole that odor was quickly overtaken by another, far worse smell. The carnage was awful, with rotting food and decomposing bodies under the hot Middle Eastern sun.
I’ll never forget that smell.
Command had serious concerns that there might still be unexploded ordnance, so some of our guys went to work searching the vessel while others circled out on the water and maintained a defensive perimeter around the harbor. Meanwhile, Glen and I, fresh from our sniper school training, joined the platoon’s two more experienced snipers up on the USS Cole’s bridge and began round-the-clock overwatch rotations with a full complement of weapons at the ready. Our orders were unambiguous: If anyone came within a hundred yards of that ship, we were cleared to use deadly force.
Our reaction when we heard those orders were raised eyebrows, followed by fist pumps. These were unusually aggressive ground rules. Ask any Spec Op warrior about ROEs (rules of engagement) and he will tell you they are seldom our friends. As SEALs, we are trained to operate independently in any situation, which means we’re expected to use our own judgment and make snap life-and-death, mission-critical decisions. In essence, every SEAL is a fully operational army of one. The last thing we want is to be second-guessed on the battlefield by shortsighted restrictions motivated by political considerations parsed from comfy armchairs thousands of miles from the realities of war. Unfortunately, the typical ROEs in situations of armed conflict more often reflect the conditions on Capitol Hill than those on the battlefield. In years to come, such timid and impractical ROEs would routinely drive us nuts. But not here on the bridge of the USS Cole. Right now our orders were simple: “Anyone approaches without permission, shoot to kill.”
As snipers it was our job to maintain constant, 100 percent, 360-degree situational awareness, and threat assessment. What were the strengths and weaknesses of our position? Where were threats most likely to come from? At any given moment, what should we be most focused on — and what was happening everywhere else? Glen and I and the other two snipers spent hours at a stretch on the spotting scope or binos, surveilling every inch of the harbor, Win Mag at the ready, different sectors arranged in our heads and accurate ranges dialed in on our scopes so that if at any second we had to take a shot, we’d be prepared and not have to scramble to set our parameters.
Meanwhile, the USS Cole was slowly sinking under our feet. Our team of naval engineers brought in special equipment to keep the bilges pumping and the ship afloat. If someone farted in the wrong direction, that boat was going down. It almost sank a few times right there in port.
As we watched the shore, the shore was watching us.
Yemen was not exactly the most U.S.-friendly nation in the Middle East. The Yemeni military forces had their weapons trained on us, which meant that the guys we were staring at through our binos were peering at us through their binos. It felt like a high-tech Mexican standoff. Technically speaking, they were our hosts; after all, we were tied up to their pier. But what did we really know about them? Were they in sympathy with the guys who’d just blown up our ship? Had they sent those guys? We had no way of knowing. It was eerie. And it went on like that for days, while our naval engineering crews furiously pumped out the putrid bilge water and struggled to keep the ship from giving up the ghost and sloughing off to rest at the bottom of the Port of Aden.
Within 12 hours after we first arrived, a team of FBI agents was on the scene, soon followed by a Naval Criminal Investigative Service detail and a crew from the CIA. This was some serious shit. Most of the world didn’t yet fully grasp what had happened, and few would understand its implications until 11 months later when the World Trade Center would lie in blood-soaked ruins.
We hadn’t just been attacked by a few rogue terrorists. We had entered a new age of warfare.
In the Civil War, long lines of soldiers armed with bayonet-clad rifles massed into great walls of firepower, facing off in leaden hailstorms of Minié balls and black powder, just as Xerxes and the Spartans had faced off with spears and shields. In World War II, Patton’s and Rommel’s tank battalions pummeled one another in the African desert. In Desert Storm, fleets of warplanes wreaked such rapid and complete devastation on Saddam’s offensive line that ground troops were practically an afterthought. As the tools of war evolved, the form of battle changed, but it was all fundamentally the same tactic: Line up the biggest mass of weaponry you can and hurl it at the enemy with all the force you’ve got.
But not with the Cole. Here the old rules of engagement no longer applied. A crappy little speedboat manned by two guys had just crippled and nearly sunk a billion-dollar, 10,000-ton warship, killed and wounded dozens of sailors, and inflicted some $250 million in damages on the mightiest military force on earth. This wasn’t conventional warfare, and it wasn’t even guerrilla warfare. This was asymmetrical warfare — a brand-new kind of war, where mass meant nothing and intelligence meant everything.
This was our own modern-day Pearl Harbor and the rise of the Dirty Wars. Just the beginning of over 20 years of sustained combat that would come, and still no end for American Special Operations in sight.
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