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

“Listen up, gents. The next 90 days are going to be some of the toughest you’ve ever experienced. You’ll be put under more pressure and greater mental demands than you’ve ever been under before, and with zero tolerance given for error.…”

Déjà vu. I’d heard this speech before, or one much like it. Back in the summer of 2000, Glen Doherty and I had been inducted into the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) sniper course with a welcoming pep talk just like this one. The world had gone through a century of change in the four years since. It was now the summer of 2004, and this time the guy giving that speech to a fresh batch of incoming sniper students was me. 

“You’ll be expected to deliver at a level of perfection that will at first seem unrealistic, unfair, and unreasonable. We will push the limits of your performance to such high levels that even when you are rusty, tired, or unpracticed you will still outperform the enemy…”

As I spoke, the good citizens of San Diego were going about their lives several dozen feet above our heads, heedless of our subterranean presence. 

I loved this underground setting and everything it represented. For our sniper class headquarters, we had recently converted a set of old World War II-style bunkers built into the landscape on the south strand of Coronado. Put your back to the Pacific and you faced a monster set of doors, big enough to drive a truck through. Enter and walk through a breezeway, pass through another set of industrial double doors, and you were in our Naval Special Warfare complex, buried underneath south San Diego. You could keep walking and travel a good quarter-mile under there. We had our own classrooms and offices, even our own armory where we stored all our cameras, guns, ammunition, and other gear behind a huge combination-lock safe door inches thick, like the door to a bank vault. 

Standing in that bunker always made me think about being tunneled deep in the Hindu-Kush mountains, threading our way through the Zhawar Kili cave complex in Afghanistan a few months after 9/11. I savored the irony of being in this underground warren right off the southern California beaches. This was our cave complex, where we trained the guys who cleaned out those other cave complexes on the other side of the world. 

When Dave Scott died in the fall of 2002, I was already back from my tour in Afghanistan and part of a training detachment, teaching a range of specialized classes as a sort of continuing-education program for our snipers. The following summer, my friend and BUD/S classmate Eric Davis and I were tasked with the responsibility of helping completely revamp and transform the entire SEAL sniper course. The day we were called into our master chief’s office and were handed our new assignment still ranks as one of the greatest moments of my life. In effect, Naval Special Warfare Command was putting an entire generation of snipers in our hands.

“You will come to know perfection as your new normal. And you’ll be expected to deliver at that level of perfection day after grinding day without misstep, hiccup, or fuckup…”

A lot had changed since Glen and I had gone through the course with Mike Bearden in the pre-9/11 days. We saw the shift foreshadowed in the bombing of the USS Cole when an “insignificant” little two-man boat had taken out a billion-dollar warship. Eleven months later the scope and force of that shift were carved into concrete when two hijacked planes were shot, like steel-jacketed rifle shells from colossal rifles, into World Trade towers one and two. A full decade after the crash of the Soviet Union, we finally realized we were no longer living in an era where nations battled head-on like gladiators. We had stepped into the age of asymmetrical warfare. 

The nature of modern war changed during those first few years of the new century and with it the role of Special Operations. In the past, Spec Ops was a relatively fringe element in our arsenal, called upon for unusual assignments here and there but used mainly to support the missions carried out by our conventional forces. There was a reason for the “special” in Special Operations.

But that distinction had now been turned on its head. Now we weren’t going up against armies. Now we were pitted against shadowy leaders like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, and forces that faded into the scenery like the morning mist and flowed over national boundaries like water. War itself had in effect morphed into Spec Ops warfare, and our Special Operations warriors — Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Green Berets, Marine Force Recon, Air Force Combat Controllers/Pararescue Jumpers, and others — had gone from life as bastard stepchildren of the DoD to being the pointy tip of the spear. Which meant the demands on SEAL snipers had intensified dramatically. 

Our job was to make sure that NSW sniper training stood up to the challenge and reflected the new world in which we now lived and fought. 

“The men who graduated the classes before you are over in Iraq and Afghanistan right now, doing phenomenal work for the teams. They’re cutting swaths through hotbeds of insurgency, carving out safe zones for our Marine and Army brothers to get in and operate without being picked off by enemy snipers or IEDs. They are the most effective snipers the global battlefield has ever seen…” 

Eric, myself, and our handpicked instructor cadre dived into our assignment like the combat divers we were, taking the course apart and completely reworking it, bottom to top. We brought in a huge range of advances and innovations. We trained our students in how to operate in situations where they had to deploy independently, rather than in traditional shooter/spotter pairs. We also put our instructors through more rigorous training so that they were all not only excellent technicians but also consistently good teachers and much more. It was an ambitious and sweeping overhaul, and we had a blast sinking our teeth into it.

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Over the first year of this assignment, Eric and I had gone through four full iterations of our transformed course — and we were getting results. We were graduating better students and graduating more of them. In the old course, a failure rate of 30 percent or more was common. (In the summer of 2000, Glen’s and my class flushed 14 out of 26 starters, a loss of more than 50 percent.) Through the changes Eric and I implemented from Summer 2003 through Summer 2004, we slashed that attrition down to less than three percent. By the time of my subterranean induction talk in June of 2004, we were graduating the highest percentage of students in the school’s history, and producing the most highly skilled snipers the American armed forces had ever seen. 

“This course will push you harder than you’ve ever been pushed, for a higher level of excellence than you’ve ever achieved. Halfway through you’ll probably hate being here and wish you’d never signed up…”

This was nothing like the first day of boot camp. No sullen expressions, no shuffling feet, no teenage anxieties trying their best to stay hidden under a mask of macho bluster. The two dozen men who stood before us were already highly trained professionals. These guys had survived BUD/S and gone through years of advanced SEAL training. Most had by this time been through at least one overseas deployment. Still, they were about to enter a three-month pressure cooker, and how they each responded would tell us volumes. I was watching them more closely than they probably realized.

Among the two dozen young men there, a few stood out immediately. It’s always that way. As instructors, we’d trained ourselves not to trust our first impressions 100 percent — but damn close. In the field, sometimes your gut feeling is your only compass, and if you can’t act on it accurately and with precision, you might be dead before you get a second chance. 

So even as I continued wrapping up my opening remarks, I was letting those first impressions sink in. 

One guy, in particular, flagged my attention — a larger-than-life Texan. Later, when I had the chance to hear the students converse, I noticed that every time this one opened his mouth, what came out sounded like a cross between a country-western song and a gunslinger from the Old West getting ready to drawdown. “This guy’s trouble,” I thought with a smile. I meant that in a good way. 

The kid standing next to him was obviously a close friend. You could see it from the way they glanced at each other now and then, sharing wordless snapshot reactions to something I’d said. The kid was slender and tall, well over six feet, short curly blond hair, thoughtful widely spaced eyes. In their brief round of introductions before my remarks began I’d learned he was from California but didn’t quite catch his name. Quiet guy.

“But I can promise you this: If you give us every ounce of your attention, every calorie of energy, every percentage point of your focus and commitment, the instructors and I will do everything in our power to make sure you do make it through.” 

By the time my short talk was over, I knew one thing: I would be assigning the loud Texan and his quiet friend as my personal students in our instructor-student mentor program. I wanted to keep my eyes on those two. 

My gut told me they were quality.

Read more about Matt Axelson and Marcus Luttrell’s twin Morgan in Part II.

This excerpt is from Brandon Webb & John Mann’s bestselling book, Among Heroes, available everywhere books are sold and on Amazon