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

I quickly saw why Matt’s platoon mates had given him the nickname Cool Hand Luke, and it wasn’t just his resemblance to Paul Newman. It was that unshakable equanimity under pressure. People often use the phrase “quiet professional” to describe Navy SEALs and other Spec Ops warriors. I’d never met anyone who fit that phrase more perfectly than Matt. He had a level of competence that spoke louder than words.

This goes to show that appearances can be deceiving — even the most incisive first impressions. When I first met Morgan and Matt it seemed obvious that Morgan was the leader and Matt his sidekick. Watching them in action, I gradually realized that in many ways I’d gotten it backward: It was Morgan who often took his cues from Matt. Anytime Morgan would start getting frustrated, Matt had a way of glancing over at him without a word, just a look that said, “Pipe down and just get the job done.” 

Matt knew my eyes were drilling holes in the backs of their heads, looking for any excuse to ratchet up the pressure even more — and he wasn’t going to give it to me.

I soon learned that just because Matt was quiet didn’t mean he was without pride. On the contrary, he had intensely high expectations for himself. For him, being a SEAL was more than an interest or pursuit. It was a deeply personal mission.

After high school, Matt had enrolled in college to study political science and pursue his lifelong fascination with history. (Marcus, Morgan’s brother, who was in the same SEAL platoon as Matt, described him as a bottomless font of knowledge about every culture, country, and population group, making him “our resident academic and Trivial Pursuit king.”) After a few years at Cal State in Chico, Matt realized they couldn’t deliver the degree course he wanted and transferred to San Diego, where he roomed with his brother, Jeff, and a few other guys — one of whom happened to be a SEAL. 

Matt was also keenly aware of his own family’s military history. His grandfather was career Navy and was stationed on the USS Pennsylvania at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bombers attacked on December 7, 1941. Matt was stoked when he learned he’d been assigned to a unit stationed in Pearl City because this meant he would be walking quite literally in his grandfather’s footsteps. His grandmother was in the service, too, as were his father and uncle, who had both served in Vietnam. 

After college, degree in hand, Matt decided his career would have to wait. He told his parents, “I want to give back to my country first.”