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.
Matt looked a good deal like Paul Newman and had that same affable, good-natured personality that made him impossible not to like. He also shared Newman’s passion for cars and car racing. Matt’s ’69 Corvette was one of his most prized possessions, and his dad had a Triumph TR6 at home that the two were planning to rebuild together.
At the sniper course, Matt consistently shied away from the usual ball-busting locker-room SEAL antics, and anytime someone else tried to give him any shit, he would simply decline to take the bait. Not that he couldn’t have dished it right back if he’d wanted to. Something else I learned as I got to know him was that the dude could think on his feet. His mind moved like lightning, and he could analyze a shooting problem in his head in half the time it took most students.
Another reason the other guys looked up to him was that he refused to judge others or participate in any kind of bad-mouthing. If anyone started complaining or cutting down someone else in the class, Matt would either find a way to change the subject or simply say, “Hey, let’s not talk about that.” He was liked and respected enough by the other guys that he could get away with that, and instead of giving him shit they would go ahead and change the subject. I noticed that he spoke about others only in positive terms and never gave voice to a person’s vices or flaws — a character trait that impressed me so, I soon found myself emulating it.
Matt and Morgan reminded me of Glen and myself when we first arrived at sniper school. They were new guys, as Glen and I had been, and they were obviously close friends. I soon learned that the two had gone through BUD/S together, had been paired up as swim buddies in the second phase, and were not just good friends but best friends. Despite being a study in contrast, they made a great pair. Or maybe it was in part because they were a study in contrast. Morgan had grown up in Houston and was a Texas boy through and through. We’re talking conservative country here. Matt hailed from Cupertino, California, the heart of Silicon Valley. Temperamentally, too, they could hardly have been more different.
They not only clicked really well together but were also unswerving in the way they supported each other — unlike many of the other pairs, who would start getting on each other’s nerves and barking at each other when the pressure got intense. Some guys would get pissed off and lose their cool if they lost a shoot or a stalk, and turn on their partners. When Matt or Morgan made a mistake, they’d just shrug it off and drive on with the mission. With some pairs, the tensions escalated and friendships frayed as the course progressed. With Matt and Morgan, the bond grew only tighter.
Some of these students would get really frustrated when we would give them critiques, try to justify why they’d acted in a specific way, explain what they were trying to do, or even talk us out of the critique itself. (To quote my daughter: “As if.”) Not Matt. With him, there was no pushback. He would just listen carefully, saying nothing but “Yeah” or “Got it,” and maybe nod. You could see him taking mental notes. He would take it all in, then turn around and execute.
You only had to tell Matt something once.