What Makes a Hero?

I spent 99% of my time in the Navy as a Special Warfare Operator, a SEAL. A Frogman and “Tier One” operator for 28 years, nine more as a civilian. I have far more time training for war than I have time in war. I was deployed more than a third of my career, but that doesn’t mean I went to war every time.

The last eighteen months or so have left us all feeling like we’ve been to war, too, and many of us have the battle scars to prove it, if not on the outside, then certainly on the inside. We’ve all had to become heroes in some respect, which begs the question what exactly makes a hero? An especially apt question to pose with Veteran’s Day upon us, and it’s a fellow vet to whom I’ll turn for the answer.

I have a teammate named Pete. He’s my friend, senior officer, and incredible leader. He was older than all of us when I first met him. He was a VMI (Virginia Military Institute) “Rat” and a Navy Chief’s son. After a stint in the Marines and a deployment to Vietnam and then a short pump in civilian life he reentered the military, the Navy, as a Diving Salvage Officer.

Not an easy route, but for Pete life wasn’t about being easy. As a person who always seemed to take the road less traveled, he decided the SEAL Teams sounded better, but by this time his age clock was about to run out for a crack at SEAL Training, a.k.a. Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training or just BUD/S.  He was in great physical shape, no doubt about that, but he was 34 years old, racing toward 35, which was the age limit for entry into BUD/S.

He was in constant contact with his officer detailer at BUPERS, the Bureau of Personnel for the Navy. His detailer was a captain, three grades above him, and Pete pestered him continuously with phone calls requesting a shot at the storied training.

One day, while the captain was meeting with his boss, a rear admiral, he mentioned this persistent lieutenant who wanted to go to BUD/S but, by his impression is too old and given the attrition rate there, he won’t make it.  The admiral not only disagreed but made the captain a $100 bet that Pete would make it.

A bet may have been how Pete made it to BUD/S, but his own grit and determination is how he got through, costing that captain $100. His next step, after completing his platoon commander tour, would be to get an interview with the tier one special mission unit, DevGru. Pete was accepted and made it through the assessment and selection of Green Team in his 40s. I was 26 and thought it was tough; I couldn’t imagine being “old” like Pete.

When he checked into our assault team he was assigned to my tactical element, Alpha, unofficially known as the Wrecking Crew. One year later Pete ended up in charge of the entire Assault Team, making him a team leader, one of only six in the entire DoD.

Then a parachute training trip out west went bad. We were conducting combat equipment high-altitude jumps during the predawn hours and well into the day, Pete was jumping with my assault element. As we were “stacked up” and coming in on our final approach to land, Pete was swept up by a sudden dust devil and slammed to the ground. 

The impact resulted in a compound fracture of his lower leg and left a bone jutting out of the side of his soft leather assault boot. As Pete tried to heal it seemed to be setback after setback with his leg. Finally, after about a year of struggling with his leg not healing, fighting off gangrene and excruciating pain, the tough decision was made to amputate just below the knee. Now Pete had to struggle with being an amputee in the military. The rules, written in black and white, stated that amputees could not jump, dive, or all the other things that came with being a SEAL.

But Pete couldn’t accept that. How could he find a way to stay in, still serve, remain a SEAL?  A VMI classmate, now a lieutenant colonel in the Marines and working in the commandant of the Marine Corps Office at the Pentagon, had heard of Pete’s plight through the VMI “Rat Line”. The lieutenant colonel explained Pete’s situation to the commandant. The commandant reviewed the options and walked into the Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations’ (CNO) office and flatly said, “You have a SEAL officer who’s being forced out just because he’s missing his leg below the knee. He was a Marine officer before that, and I’d like to take him back into the Corps.”

Well, the CNO didn’t want to be shown up, so he came up with a plan. Assuming Pete could pass the Navy Physical Readiness Test (PRT) within SEAL standards, a medical waiver would be granted regarding use of a prosthetic so Pete could keep doing what SEALs do.

He was introduced to an amazing doctor who fitted him with custom prosthetics for walking, running, and swimming. After I had the privilege of first taking Pete to the wind tunnel and then on his first free fall jump with his prosthetic, he trained for the next bigger milestone: that PRT test. Not surprisingly, Pete passed with flying colors.

After completing various SEAL officer tours Pete was elevated to commanding officer of DevGru. And it was in that capacity that Pete oversaw the raid that finally got Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. Enemy Number One who had orchestrated the attacks on 9/11 was EKIA, enemy killed in action, on a one-legged man’s watch.

As was the case with Pete, being a hero doesn’t mean you never get knocked down; it’s all about how you get up afterward. COVID has knocked us all down in one way or another. And, for months, every time we got up, it knocked us down again. The effects linger to this day, issues with the supply chain, businesses closing, divisions over vaccines and treatments, 700,000 lives lost and still climbing. How do we endure, how do we get through, how do we find ways to still thrive?

Many of you have no doubt heard of the infamous BUD/S bell that hangs outside the training cadre’s office. Ringing it three times triggers a “Drop on request,” meaning you quit. Once rung, you can never “un-ring” the bell. I think all of us at some point in the months since COVID hit have wanted to ring our own metaphorical bell. To throw up our hands in the face of overwhelming adversity and changes forced upon us that we neither embraced nor signed up for.

Next time you’re faced with adversity and want to ring the bell, ask yourself, “What would Pete do?” In fact, on this Veteran’s Day let’s make that our new mantra. Going forward, let’s find the inner strength, resolve, and resilience to not only beat the odds but also thrive.

Just like Pete. Just like all the veterans out there we recognize on this day.

God bless America and God bless our Veterans.

Steve Giblin, retired Navy SEAL Master Chief, is the author of “Walking in Mud: A Navy SEAL’s 10 Rules for Surviving the New Normal,” now available from Post Hill Press.

Image: Phil Roeder

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