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.