On April 14, 2009, I drove into the heart of downtown San Diego to hunt down an address I’d been given via e-mail. It was a little hole-in-the-wall off Market Street. Inside, the guy running the place ushered me into a tiny room, where he sat me in a chair in front of a green-screen backdrop, facing a television camera. “This thing is piped directly into the studio in New York,” he told me. “And right into a hundred million households,” I thought. “Hi, everyone, Brandon here.“
Earlier that day, an email had landed in my inbox asking whether I would be willing to be interviewed on live national television for CNN. It was just two days since an American sea captain had been rescued from pirates off the coast of Somalia by three simultaneous shots fired by three Navy SEAL snipers. Someone from Anderson Cooper’s office had learned about me and my role in the NSW sniper course and tracked me down. Would I be willing to go on Anderson Cooper 360° that night to talk about these men and their training? Like, in a few hours?
Sure, I replied. So there I was.
This would be my first time appearing before the media in any major way, and I was a little nervous. People who do this all the time — celebrities, politicians, big business executives — typically go through media training and get extensive coaching to prepare for live TV. The only coaching I was going to get was this guy nodding in the direction of the lens.
He wired me with a nearly invisible earpiece and pointed out the monitor parked next to the camera. Christiane Amanpour’s lips were moving, but there was no sound coming out. “Don’t try to look at the person on the other end,” he said. “It’ll mess you up because of the time delay. Look right into the camera, or it’ll look like you’re being evasive.” I nodded. Some good coaching after all. Then he left the room.
The place felt airless. I could reach out and touch the walls on both sides at the same time. Suddenly Christiane Amanpour’s voice was in my head.
“…It was marksmanship at its best — the way Brandon Webb teaches it” — it sounded like she was sitting directly next to me, her mouth to my ear — “…and he joins us now from San Diego. Brandon, I think everybody wants to know how three coordinated shots, different people shooting at a moving target from a moving platform, just how did they do it? And how difficult was it?”
I talked for the next two or three minutes, doing my best to answer Amanpour’s questions. But I knew the question all her viewers were really asking:
Who ARE these guys — and how the hell do they do what they do?
I’ll tell you who they are: some of the best, kindest, noblest men I’ve ever known.
The Captain Phillips rescue generated an enormous swell of interest among the public. And with good reason. By the spring of 2009, America was tired of failing. Wall Street had just self-destructed, the housing market had crashed, and the economy was going down in flames. War in the Middle East was dragging on with no end in sight. The rest of the world community was looking at us like we were the kid who stank up the whole room by shitting our pants and were too clueless to realize it. We couldn’t seem to do anything right. The nation was hungry for heroes.
Three months earlier, on a crisp January day, a U.S. Airways pilot named Chesley Sullenberger had saved a passenger plane from crashing into the Hudson by flying it like a glider. Sullenberger’s performance had a seismic impact on the national morale. It was like a sign from above that maybe our country was still capable of producing someone who could pull off a classic American can-do miracle.
And now these three anonymous SEAL snipers had pulled off a stunt so perfect you’d think it was lifted out of a James Bond film.
The Captain Phillips rescue faded eventually from the news cycle, but the current of public interest in the SEAL community continued to surge along. Two years later it burst onto the front pages again, this time in an even bigger wave than before. On the evening of May 1, 2011, President Obama interrupted Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice to stride up to a White House podium and make the announcement that we’d just completed a successful raid on a suburban complex in Pakistan and killed America’s public enemy number one.
It’s impossible to overstate the impact and sense of historical vindication the UBL (bin Laden) raid’s success ignited in our nation. It wasn’t just the ghost of September 11 being avenged at last. Rather, the feeling of payback and resolution reached decades farther back, all the way to the original formation of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
I was only five years old when President Jimmy Carter sent a contingent of Spec Ops troops into Iran in a failed attempt to rescue the American hostages, but the reverberations of that disaster were still echoing well into the new century. Operation Eagle Claw, as it was called, ended catastrophically, leaving one helo crashed and five abandoned, eight servicemen dead, our 52 hostages still captive, and America thoroughly humiliated. It was a classic right-hand-doesn’t-know-what-the-left-hand’s-doing fuckup. And it was in direct response to that colossal failure that SOCOM was created — a unified structure bringing together the Spec Ops forces of the different branches under one centralized command. The bin Laden raid not only nailed the architect of the 9/11 attacks but also presented the ultimate demonstration that we’d learned from that 30-year-old debacle and gotten our shit wired tight.
To Eagle Claw’s lingering question mark, Neptune Spear was one hell of an exclamation point.
The moment news of the UBL raid hit the media, the world went crazy over the highly secretive — and up till this point highly secret — Spec Ops unit involved, and that same question was once again on everyone’s lips: “Who the hell are these guys?“
First, let me tell you who they’re not.
They’re not Disney action figures. And they’re not the macho muscle guys you typically see acted out on the big screen. When the film Zero Dark Thirty came out, most of us in Spec Ops could barely watch it. Yes, it was that bad. That final scene, when the SEALs are taking the bin Laden compound and the whole team runs around the building sweeping one another with their lasers, and then they barge in doing that ridiculous movie-assault-team shout, “Go, go, go, go, go!” — it was fucking painful. No excuse, Hollywood, no excuse.
No, in real life these men are not steroidal supermen or one-dimensional fighting freaks. They are ordinary flesh-and-blood human beings who shape-shift themselves into something extraordinary through sheer will and devotion.
Like three of my friends, Chris, Heath, and JT.
I met Chris Campbell when he rolled into my BUD/S class in 1997. Chris was living proof that you cannot judge a book by its cover. He stood about five-seven, one of the smallest guys in our class, and weighed maybe 140 sopping wet. The instructors called him “Campbell’s Soup,” because he always had a smile on his face, like the happy cartoon kid on the soup can. No matter how much shit they threw at him, it wouldn’t stick. Chris was afraid of nothing, never lost his temper, and nothing could faze him. You just could not get this guy down.
One night during second phase (this was after making it through Hell Week in first phase), we were winding down for the night when one of our instructors screeched into the parking lot, braked his car on a crazy angle, and got out, leaving his headlights on. We heard him outside telling the other instructors, “Go home, you guys. I’ve got this.” Instructor Weber, as we could clearly hear from his slurred speech, was piss-drunk. He was going through a divorce at the time, and he was not a happy man. What was more, he was prepared to share that state generously with the rest of us.
Instructor Weber walked into the building and started laying into the class, yelling at us, hosing us down, and subjecting us to various forms of punishment. As he stood regarding the group, his head swiveling slowly left to right like a tank gun, his eyes lit on me. I didn’t know what was going on behind those reddened eyes, but whatever it was, it wasn’t good.
“Hey, Webb,” he growled. “So you got time to go grab a dry shirt? Fuck you.” That was when I knew I was in for some trouble.
Somehow Instructor Weber knew I’d had a dry T-shirt on earlier that night. In fact, when we suited up in our wetsuits to go out into the surf, I never wore a T-shirt underneath as everyone else did. (I never understood this. I mean, why bother? It just gets wet!) I’d do my dive, take my wetsuit off, put my dry T-shirt on, and then everyone would be standing around in wet T-shirts except me. This little luxury I allowed myself had just come back to bite me in the ass.
Nearby stood a large tank of clean, freezing cold water that we’d use to wash the sand and saltwater off our gear and regulators after being in the ocean — the dip tank. Weber glared at me emptily, then swiveled his tank-gun gaze over and looked at Chris. Then over at the dip tank. Then back at us. I could see the words forming in his brain before he hacked them up and coughed them at us.
“Webb! Campbell! In the dip tank!”
Whatever infraction Chris had committed that earned his being in there with me, I don’t remember or never knew in the first place. But there we were, up to our necks in freezing-cold water, watching the rest of the class doing push-ups and eight-count bodybuilders while Weber talked. And talked. The guy went on and on: what shits we were, how miserable this class was, how we’d never make it to third phase, what an embarrassment we presented. Soon he was getting circular. “Oh, God,” I thought, “when is this going to be over?“ I was positive that death from hypothermia was only minutes away. I couldn’t imagine being more miserable. I felt so sorry for myself.
And then I glanced over at Campbell.
His teeth were chattering so hard they sounded like they were going to rattle right out of his head — rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat, like a chipmunk machine gun. And he had this big shit-eating grin on his face. I did a literal double-take and wondered whether I was hallucinating. What the hell would he have to be so happy about? Yet there it was, that classic Campbell grin plastered on his mug — and so help me, I was grinning back.
It occurred to me then how ridiculous we both looked. And how inane Instructor Weber’s endless rant sounded. And how absurd the whole situation was. And then Chris and I were both laughing — at our own misery and everything about it.
That moment was perfect Campbell. And he had that effect on everyone. No matter what was going on, no matter how bad the situation got, things always seemed easier when Chris was around. Everyone liked him. How could you not?
I heard a story about Chris from Randy Kelley (the same Randy Kelley who later helped me out when I was launching the Wind Zero effort). Randy and Chris were teammates in the BUD/S class before mine, before Chris got rolled. During Hell Week there’s an exercise we call Around the World, where you go out onto the ocean in the middle of the night and paddle around Coronado Island. This is essentially an endurance contest, an all-night affair that runs from the early evening through dawn the next day. On this occasion it was deep in the middle of the night, they’d been out there paddling in the frigid Pacific for hours, and everyone was starting to pass out from the cold and lack of sleep. Randy had grown up going to a Baptist church, and at that moment the tune of an old Baptist hymn popped into his mind. Desperate to keep himself awake, he started humming it.
Suddenly, Randy heard another voice harmonizing with his. Chris had joined in, and not only that, he was singing the words. Randy looked over at Chris. They both laughed, then started in again, singing this old hymn together. The other guys on the boat groaned and said, “Jesus, you guys.” Which only made them laugh harder — and keep on singing.
It turned out Chris and Randy had both grown up in North Carolina. They hit it off and stuck together from that point on, even after Chris rolled out of that BUD/S class and into the next. After BUD/S they both went on to Team Five and ended up in the same platoon, where they became inseparable.
Chris had joined the SEALs in large part because he wanted to get out of North Carolina and see the world. He and Randy both loved the outdoors, and whenever the platoon arrived at a new location, if it was possible to camp out, they would take that option over a hotel room. While the other guys would go out partying, Chris and Randy would go exploring — on safari, diving, hiking, whatever. For the next four years, through two platoons, they did this all around the world.
A devoted photographer, Chris always had a camera with him, taking pictures of anything and everything. The others would ride him for what seemed like stupid things to snap pictures of at the time. But when they’d get back home and look at the photos he’d taken, they would turn out to be amazing shots. The dude had an eye; that was for sure. In fact, the thing Randy noticed most about Campbell was his capacity to appreciate the beauty of whatever was going on, to be at home wherever he was. No matter where here was at the moment, he never seemed to want to be anywhere else.
“What’s special about Chris,” said Randy, “is not that he’s larger than life. It’s kind of like, he is life.”
Chris’s progress through SEAL training was not an easy time for him. In fact, in those early years, it almost seemed like he had to work extra hard just to keep up.
Near the end of third phase in BUD/S, we were doing a final land-navigation exercise up at Camp Pendleton. Land nav was tough. We were out in the mountains through the freezing nights with snow on the ground. We didn’t get much sleep. Most of land nav we went through in groups, but this final exercise dissolved the squads. Now it was every man for himself. The air crackled with tension. We all knew that if we didn’t pass, we wouldn’t graduate.
The exercise was a combination of survival skills and navigation/reconnaissance skills. The instructors had planted a series of navigation points distributed across the countryside, spanning a number of mountains. We had to hit each point in the right sequence, almost like a survivalist scavenger hunt. At each point, there was an ammo box with a unique code inside that we had to radio in along with our coordinates before moving on to the next.
In the middle of the night, I ran into Chris. He looked disheveled and frazzled.
“Hey, man,” I said, “what’s going on?”
He jerked his head in my direction and stared at me. “I just realized, this isn’t my point! I’m not supposed to be on this hill!” He pointed to a mountain about two miles away. “I’m supposed to be on that hill!” And he went staggering off in the other direction.
“Oh, man,” I thought. “Campbell is fucked.” And he almost was. He nearly flunked out of BUD/S on that land nav. The next morning I checked in with him to see how he’d done. He’d made all his points, all right, but in the process, he’d gotten a severe case of poison oak. The poor guy was covered with it. Anyone else would have been in utter misery. Not Campbell. There he was, lying on a rolled-out mat on the ground, covered head to toe with that ugly red, burning rash, grinning and laughing at some joke.