I stand in an open-bay shower. Dirt from the scrub slips off me, circling the watery drain. Laughter erupts from the doorway and I turn. My LPO, a SEAL, is snapping pictures of us, a bunch of tired, junior-enlisted Sailors.
I was a linguist, but my job did not matter. The SEALs needed test subjects. We were to hike around a desolate California forrest for eight days, while they tracked us with a “new capability.” Of course, this was ten years ago, so new is long ago old.
I do not let the shower pictures sit long. I wait until chow time and then run some black ops of my own. While folks cluster around the bar-b-que outside, I duck into the dusty barracks. I find my LPO’s rucksack, and then his camera. I expose every roll. This is back in the day of real film, when digital cameras are but an idea. Yes, he loses a lot of good pictures. No, I don’t feel bad.
Later that night, while running the exercise, I play a downed pilot. My orders are to spin up the radio at a very precise time. I hide under a wet log and it smells like mushroom pizza. Or perhaps I am hungry? I miss my first window. I wait another hour. I don’t miss the second window, but wish I had. The SEAL on the other end cusses me out. He directs me across a field and I am off running. My shadow jogs next to me and I think I am being followed. The air is too quiet. My boots are too loud.
I go to the exact spot under a tree where they had instructed me to wait. I am tackled by two guys both smaller and tougher than me. I don’t resist. One knees me in the back, the other zipties my wrists. I feel like a rodeo calf. I just hope they don’t brand me. They wrestle me to my knees.
Tilt your head back, one of them yells. I do and from an unseen flask he pours strong Coke down my throat. The strong part is Jack Daniels and I swallow all of it. My heart has snuck into my left ear and is knocking loudly. They haul me to my feet. The combination of being in shape, rapid pulse, and no alcohol tolerance gives me a buzz in thirty seconds. My head spins both clockwise and the opposite.
They continue to role-play, pretending I am still the downed pilot. (All fliers are treated as hostile until correctly identified.) They are having too much fun. Finally, the ziptie is cut off my wrists. I laugh, giddy at success and the Jack.
We return to base camp and the SEALs PT us. My buzz leaves, but my heart stays in my ear. I shower and no one takes my picture. That I know of.
Then we are all in a van, with me driving towards town. The craziest one, a second-class, leans over the seat and asks me: what are you doing with a college degree, driving a bunch of drunk SEALs around? I wonder the same thing.
Another SEAL stands on the table at the restaurant and tells the story of holding Saddam Hussein in his sights in Gulf War One. The waitress tells the SEAL to get down. He continues the tale. His Team is on the phone with the Pentagon. The Pentagon is on the phone with the President. The manager comes by to warn the SEAL. He ignores him too. But when our food is held up, he steps down. The Pentagon has told him not to take the shot. The President has told him to stand down. So he stood down.
Rest in Peace, Brothers. I have worked briefly with your brethren and know your bravery, daring. May angels drive your van in heaven, listening to your stories, exposing your film. . .
For a moving tribute and info about the Navy SEAL Foundation, go here.