I didn’t do anything heroic. But I’ve often said that I learned how to be a man when I got to interact with Navy SEALs over the course of my deployment with Combined Joint Task Forces – Horn of Africa. So I’m used to telling people, “I learned how to be a man from Navy SEALs.”
I suppose that phrase alone could sound somewhat condescending. It might sound like I learned how to be macho.
But every once in a while, I get this response:
“Like what? What did you learn?”
That question comes up very rarely, and it’s one I always get excited about. I loved the SEALs. They were everything I expected them to be, and everything I hadn’t expected them to be. Yes, they were fit, every single one of them. Their daily Physical Training regimen consisted of 9 mile runs and 2.5 mile swims before the sun rose. But that’s just a description of what they do. Before I met them in person, that’s how I knew them, and all that I had attributed to them. But then I learned about the men behind the actions. I learned about who they are.
As a 19 year old who was deployed overseas, I was extremely impressionable. And I looked up to these men. Demigods, I called them. And so I treasured and learned from every little interaction I had with them.
In this posted picture, we were waiting for orders to deployment elsewhere and taking it easy in a swimming pool. There were some Filipino tourists, and a couple young girls no older than 9 or 10 years old swimming around.
They, with the consent of the watchful gaze of the parents, took to playing “find the hippo” with the girls. The whole idea was for the girls to scout out the hippos in the swimming pool and wait for them to come out to breathe. I recall several minutes passing by before even one of these men came up to breathe. I got tired of waiting, watching them while just sitting there, because they could submerge for what seemed like eternity and not come out.
Looking back, I suppose this is somewhat of an oddity. I mean, how many adults in America would even think about mimicking hippos in their local swimming pools? But it never occured to us that we were doing anything odd at that time, having been out in our bulletproof SUVs to urge hippos to emerge from their watering holes. They hadn’t seen their own families in a long time, and these tourists had provided them with an opportunity to do what they would do if they were with their own kids.
I learned that real men deeply care about their families.
We sat around the speed boats. The ones that are so advanced that it’s impossible to detect its silent motors. The same ones that had taken them to dangerous beaches around this secretive base which no one can acknowledge ever existed. The glistening sunglasses shielded his eyes from the treacherous African sunlight that reflected off of his body, hardened by years of training and war. Michelangelo could not have sculpted harder abs out of marble.
We all sat there. I watched. He listened. He listened to one soldier’s venting about the chain of command. How dealing with that has been emotionally challenging. How, in fact, they would rather face enemy gunfire than deal with the command. And the SEAL who had faced more enemy gunfire than the said soldier decided now would be the right time to speak up.
“Are you sure about that?”
I learned that real men don’t complain incessantly.
“Hey Kim, there was this Navy SEAL who wanted to invite you over for a get together at their tent tonight.”
“Really? You’re kidding, right?” I didn’t believe him.
“No, I’m not kidding. Look, I’ll even go with you if you think I’m joking.”
“Why would they ask me to come? I haven’t done anything for them.”
“I don’t know, but they asked for you by name.”
So we went, and we met them all. I got to know them as real people, as the men behind the news stories that I only read about. I got to hear about their families. I got to talk to them about their perspective on war and their emotional struggles. There were a few others there, too. People that the SEALs had gotten to know over their deployment.
I was a nobody. Seriously. I didn’t do anything heroic. And I was one of only a handful of people they had invited. My name was not to be engraved forever in the annals of history. So I was curious why they had invited me.
“Because we’re all part of a team, and your job is just as important as ours.”
He must have been kidding.
“And the last thing I want you to think is that I’m not serious. We might get all the press and all the glory, but we need support people like you in order for us to be able to do our job. I suppose without people like us, you wouldn’t have a job.” We both chucked.
“But without people like you, we can’t do ours. This is our way of saying thank you.”
I learned that real men don’t just pay lip service to teamwork and are grateful for everyone’s contributions.
He was a Navy SEAL Captain. With over 20 years of experience on the field, he commanded respect even from other SEALs. Being that he was the one with the longest tenure, I asked him all kinds of questions. Questions I’m sure only naive 19-20 year olds who don’t care about political correctness would ask. Others were more aligned, however. What was the best part about being a SEAL? What was the hardest part? Where were some of the worst places he’s been? What was the best place he’s been?
He said the best part was the fact that he knew he was making a real difference in the world. Because he knew that he was going after really bad guys and that he was therefore leaving this world a better place than he found it. Yes, there was an undeniable undertone of patriotism and double meaning behind those sentences, and we both knew it. But I couldn’t disagree with him.
He said the worst part was leaving his family. That he’s been gone far too many times. That those same SEALs that I look up to are looking up to him, and that he cannot afford to make any mistakes, and that he tries as hard not to make any. He had to become their father, and looked after his team as a father would. He had left his family to take care of another. And he said the hardest part about that was always when one of his soldiers did not come home. He could never forgive himself, even when it was not his fault.
I learned that real men care about and care for each other.
He could not tell me the worst place he’s been because he couldn’t talk about it. But he did say that the best place he’s been to was Santiago, Chile. So when I drove down to South America by myself some 3 years later, you can bet that I made sure to stop by Santiago and Valparaiso to soak it all in, all because of him.
We continued to talk as we sat there, watching Good Will Hunting together, with a handful of infantryman and SEALs who were deployed in this forward operating base that we will never be allowed to identify on a map. Out of nowhere, this SEAL started to recite every line, word for word. This was his favorite part, he said. And as Robin Williams rebuked and challenged Matt Damon on a bench in a public park, the Navy SEAL was always one step ahead, anticipating every pause and intonation. No one, of course, dared to even think about telling him to shut up.
When he finished and sat next to me, he proactively started to talk to me about why he loved the movie so much. About how he is so into math, physics, and human psychology. He was much more educated about all those topics than I was, and tried to teach me everything he knew. I could only try to keep up with the conversation.
I learned that real men think it’s cool to be smart.
With a handful of years of service as a Navy SEAL under his belt, he was definitely not a newbie. In fact, he was going to finish up his enlistment within a couple years. When I first met him, I could not believe he was a Navy SEAL. I was taller than him by a couple inches. Moreover, he and I both weighed in the same. From that moment on, I could not make make excuses on why I could never be a SEAL based on physical attributes. “Man, you have no idea how much respect I have for you,” I repeatedly told him. “SEAL training was definitely harder on people like me than on others,” he said.
He heard that I was going to UC Berkeley, so he had sought me out. He was tired of getting shot at, he said, and getting deployed so much. Some of it he knew what he was getting himself into, so no complaints there. But the frequency and duration of these deployments was weighing on him. After the enlistment was over, he was planning on applying to UC San Diego, and wanted my help getting in. He wanted what I had. I wanted what he had. We looked at each other chuckled at the irony of it all.
I learned that real men are not afraid of being open about their thoughts and feelings.
He invited me again. I thought it was going to be just a one time thing, but no. He came by to invite me to the get together again by name. The SEALs provided plenty of booze and tobacco for the handful that they had invited to their tents, yet again. I noticed, though, that the SEALs were all holding cans of Coke. I felt bad, thinking that perhaps we were drinking too much for them to be able to enjoy it themselves. “No,” they said. And I write “they,” because I asked several of them. They all said that none of them drink alcohol. All that booze and tobacco was for us to enjoy, and they were fine with their Cokes.
I learned that real men really care about what others care about, even if it’s something they themselves don’t care about.
I also learned that real men don’t give a rip if other people think you have to drink to be cool.
It was my brother’s birthday when the SEALs and I went to an undisclosed location to make a trade with the indigenous population. I wasn’t allowed to make any phone calls outside of using a satellite phone. In the movie, “Lone Survivor,” there is a scene where even the satellite phone doesn’t work in the heat of battle. Of course my situation was nothing like that, but I know what it’s like for those phones to not work. I tried several times over several hours to make a phone call over the satellite phone. It never worked. It was the only time in my life where I couldn’t wish my brother a happy birthday.
We were about to leave this town. And before I did, I asked to try again. Instead of getting annoyed at my repeated request, he respectfully obliged, every time. Even though I never got through, I told him how much I appreciated him. That’s ok, he said. Lots of SEALs used the phone to call home sometimes.
I learned again that real men deeply care about their families.
In anticipation of seeing my platoon again for only the third time in the 10 years since we’ve been back home, I suppose I’ve now disclosed as much about my experience overseas than I ever have to people outside of my own platoon. I don’t write all of this to say that I am now one of those men, and that I perfectly encapsulate what I’ve learned. Far from it. I sometimes do think back still to those men and the experiences I’ve had with them, and try to teach myself again what they have taught me, both explicitly and implicitly, all those years ago.
And if you read this far, then you may have noticed a pattern. That what I have learned as a 19-20 year old of who a real man is had nothing to do with what they do as their occupation. I had somehow expected them to be senseless man-hunting robots. Instead, I found men whose compassion and empathy for those around them, not only in their immediate SEAL Teams but to nobodies around them like me, were real and actualized.
On this Christmas season, I hope to encourage you to enjoy spending time with your families, and to care deeply for those in your immediate vicinity and even for those outside of that. I know that’s what these men would do, and that’s what I continue to aspire to do to this day.