“I’m trained for this.” I had been repeating these words for twenty-four hours like a mantra, trying to shut out the cold. While lying rigid and prone facing north, I stared down a long road stretching through a breathtaking, moonlit desert landscape. The rain that had begun falling the night before was now a frozen, muddy slush covering my four-man team. There was nothing protecting us from the elements but the clothes on our backs and the camouflage face paint we had applied more than two days ago. Our muscles were so sore that shivering actually hurt. Bleary eyed from the lack of sleep, I was having trouble focusing on the red crosshairs in the scope of my rifle. It hurt to keep my eyes open, but just as I was about to fall asleep, I felt a tap on my right boot. Just liked we had trained, my teammates and I were keeping each other alert by tapping our heels against each other. It’s a good way to communicate and stay awake on clandestine missions; plus, it just feels good knowing that you have a teammate nearby when you’re feeling so exposed.
We were lying in a concealed position, camouflaged to blend into the desert landscape five hundred yards west of the intersection of two main roads near insurgent strongholds south of Ramadi, Iraq. The lateral road is a dirt corridor frequented by dilapidated transport vehicles commonly referred to as “bongo trucks.” The dirt road leads east, out to a village of small huts and farms. No U.S. forces had dared operate there since the war began. We were literally lying in al-Qaeda’s backyard. The other road, running north-south, is asphalt. This road is why we were there. This piece of blacktop was a main supply route for coalition forces operating in and around Ramadi.
Dozens of convoys crossed this intersection every week, delivering supplies and transporting personnel. Sadly, in the preceding month, five U.S. soldiers had died in this intersection as a result of roadside bombs. That is the simple reason my team was there — to conduct a clandestine insertion into the area, observe the intersection, and capture or kill the IED emplacers. The mission was originally planned to last one to two days. We were freezing and tired on the morning of day four.
My radio earpiece crackled to life. My team chief’s muffled voice whispered over the circuit, “Headlights approaching from the east.” I took a moment to stop my teeth from chattering and then calmly pressed Talk on my radio: “Here we go.” A bongo truck approached the intersection and began to slow down. I clicked the selector switch on my M-4 rifle to fire and pulled my night vision goggles over my eyes. I quickly glanced at my watch: it was 0323, Christmas morning.
• • •
I had entered the Naval Academy with the singular goal of becoming a Navy SEAL. I failed. I gave everything I had for four years to earn one of sixteen coveted slots and join the SEAL community. When selection time came, the Navy saw fit to send me another way. The night before graduation, while other midshipmen were celebrating with their families, I was alone in my room feeling like a complete failure. For me, graduating the Academy without entering the SEAL community was the equivalent of washing out. I was sent instead to surface warfare officer school in Newport, Rhode Island, where I was trained in the arts of seamanship and navigation to serve in the world’s most advanced warships. My first assignment was as a division officer on board a guided missile frigate. I deployed to the Mediterranean and the Middle East, where my ship conducted boardings of foreign vessels to inspect for contraband cargo and the smuggling of possible terrorists.