"Three Navy SEAL snipers take out Somali pirates," the headlines trumpeted a few weeks back. "Head shots, every one!"
In Coronado, where they put incoming would-be SEALs through BUDs, there were groans. BUDs stands for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL — the six-month course you have to get through, just to start the three-year process of becoming a SEAL.
"Oh, great," they were saying. "Now, everyone will think, 'how cool to be a SEAL.' Now we'll get a bunch of young guys trying to sign up who think this is some kind of video game."
In other words, young kids who think it's easy to go out and blow things up, and kill people — kids who have no idea the time, training or sheer force of will it takes to do the job. (That's one of the reasons the Naval Special Warfare Command has allowed us to film BUDs make-or-break Hell Week, the most access the SEAL command has granted to training at their Coronado base since 2003.)
The media didn't help — every network was pursuing interviews with "the three SEAL shooters." Not the entire SEAL unit, or two, or however many were there, who carried out the entire mission. Nor any of the Navy sailors on the boat who provided support, and trawl those waters for several months without a port call, trying to catch up with those fast pirate boats like a swimming elephant trying to catch a water skeeter.
The SEALs said no.
That's why it's so remarkable the SEAL command let the lieutenant we profiled tell his story. They don't normally do that.
But his "sign on the door" that he posted on his hospital room, at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, had become an internet sensation. It was snapped by some folks visiting injured troops and sent round and round — not just to troops and their families coping with combat injuries, but to trauma patients and cancer patients and anyone facing an uphill battle to recover.
It read something like this:
Attention to all who enter here. If you are coming into this room with sorrow or to feel sorry for my wounds, go elsewhere. The wounds I received I got doing a job I love, doing it for people I love, supporting the freedom of a country I deeply love. I am incredibly tough and will make a full recovery. What is full? That is the utmost physically my body has the ability to recover. Then I will push that about 20% further through sheer mental tenacity. This room you are about to enter is a room of fun, optimism, and intense rapid re-growth. If you are not prepared for that, go elsewhere.
That was aimed at anyone who walked in his room and wanted to offer pity for how he looked, what he'd lost, and how much he faced to come back.
Lt. Jay's face had been half-shot-off. Few who looked at him could picture him whole again — but that projected horror didn't help his recovery. He was having to cope with his own doubt, and deal with theirs too. Not welcome, hence the sign.
So many of us who've been in that situation said, "Amen, more of that. Where's the T-shirt?" (And by the way, he has designed T-shirts that, among other things, explain that he was combat injured, emblazoned with the words, "What have you done for your country lately?" That's helped answer the odd stares he gets from children, and sometimes their parents, at the local Wal-Mart, peering at his nose, or lack thereof, during his long recovery.)
The SEAL command decided that was a story worth sharing.
It's not glamorous, not Hollywood. It's not about Afghanistan, which is currently all the rage with the media and Washington — while more than a hundred thousand U.S. troops continue to labor on and risk their lives in Iraq.
And there was no neat end to the mission, like: dead: three pirates; safe and well: one American captain.
Lt. Jay was injured in al Anbar — that place the Sunni Awakening turned into a haven, instead of hell hole, for U.S. troops. It wasn't so great in 2007 when Lt. Jay took his patrol through a field to net a target, only to find the targets lying in wait to ambush his team.
They're still rebuilding Lt. Jay's nose, two years later. As he explains in the video, they're also rebuilding his arm — including trying to create a working elbow. So there's no neat, happy ending to his recovery either. He doesn't know if he'll get back to the fight – and his wife is secretly (almost out loud) is hoping he won't. As much as she loves him and, also, because she loves him that much, she doesn't want either of them to go through this again.
So this is no Demi Moore G.I. Jane movie. No heroine-saves-the-day ending.
And SEALs lately have become a bit of a kicking post here in D.C., where it' vogue among many political and military circles to say that SEALs in particular, and other special operating forces in general, are part of the reason the war hasn't gone the right way in Afghanistan, or in Pakistan's neighboring frontier provinces.
They are criticized by some conventional force commanders because they operate via a separate chain of command, moving in and out of battle space "owned" by the conventional forces. Some of these commanders still make a habit of grumbling that SEAL and SOF missions — focused on taking out Taliban or al Qaeda targets — cause too much collateral damage, which hurts attempts to win trust among the locals.
(Witness the controversy over what happened in Farah province – allegedly, Marine Corps special forces known as MARSOC helped call in air strikes, at the request of Afghan officials, when the Taliban entered a town. Afghan officials now allege the strikes were unnecessary, and killed up to 140 civilians. U.S. military officials say the number is more like 33 killed, with most of them Taliban.)
So it can be pretty thankless being a SEAL commander arguing your point in a place like D.C.
Perhaps that's why the Special Warfare Command would rather hold up Lt. Jay's painful, imperfect, hard fought and hard won struggle to recover — because as every SEAL has told me, making it through BUDs is the easy part. It only gets harder from there.
Lt. Jay's T-shirts are available at: www.woundedwear.org
They support the following groups to help injured troops:
Naval Special Warfare Foundation - www.nswfoundation.org
Special Operations Warrior Fund -
Wounded Warrior Project -
Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund -
Veterans of Valor -