This is Part II of a three-part series on Navy SEAL sniper Matt Axelson. You can read Part I here

The transformation of the SEAL sniper course was not just about techniques and technology. It was also a shift in how we related to our students and brought out the best they had to offer. Among the many changes we made in the course, one of the most significant had to do with the power of mentoring. Starting in 2004, we made it a regular practice to assign a specific instructor as a personal mentor to each pair of students. At a ratio of about six instructors to 24 students per class, that meant every instructor typically had just two pairs of students to focus on.

Nothing trains a skill like an apprenticeship model and this new system meant that every student was essentially apprenticed to his own master. For us instructors, it also added a new competitive dimension to the course. Suddenly we each had a significant added motivation to ensure that our students excelled: We wanted them to succeed not only for their sakes but also because we wanted to kick one another’s asses. SEAL instructors are every bit as competitive as their students. 

Beyond all that, the mentoring program made the course personal. When you are assigned to teach a class of two dozen, that’s one thing. But when you are responsible for individual students, you cannot help getting emotionally invested in these men. Their success becomes your success and their frustrations and challenges, whether or not they ever fully realize this fact, become your frustrations and challenges.

One of the first pairs of students I assigned myself to mentor was the tall Texan, whose name was Morgan Luttrell, and his friend, the quiet kid from California. The Californian, despite his youthful energy, was not a “kid” at all but 27 years old, just a year younger than Luttrell (and for that matter just two years younger than me). 

The quiet kid’s name was Matthew Axelson, but everyone called him Axe, which I thought was ironic because if there was anyone who did not behave like an ax, it was this dude. Luttrell, could swing a string of words over his head and probably split a cord of hardwood with them — most of the men in the course could, after all, SEALs are not a demographic group known for their shyness or reticence. Yet, Matt was the last person who would think of cutting anyone down, not even in jest. 

As the course got underway, it also became obvious that the other guys looked up to Matt. This surprised me at first because he was so quiet. Typically the ones the others look up to — guys like Mike Bearden or Dave Scott — are talkers. Quiet isn’t an adjective you’d use to describe any of them. 

Matt was different. Matt was an observer, someone who clearly liked to hover on the sidelines of group scenes and take his time getting a read on everything. He was like this, according to his family, even as a kid. Whenever he went into a new situation, he would hang back and take his time to observe before stepping in and getting involved. People sometimes got the impression that he was shy, but that wasn’t it. He just liked to get the lay of the land. He liked to think before he leaped.