Trapped Underwater; Lessons from War

Iraq-2008: Laying on my back in the pitch-black water, pinned to the bottom of a river with a 40-foot boat full of men and crew-served weapons on my chest, I saw death closing in and all I felt was disappointment.

  • Disappointment that I was going to drown during night reconnaissance in preparation for a larger mission, instead of in a hail of bullets and explosions like I always thought. Disappointment that my death was going to ruin the Thanksgiving and Christmas all my friends and family would be celebrating in the next few days.
  • Disappointment that I would never see the son that I just learned my wife was pregnant with, after waiting in line for an hour to check my email.
  • Disappointment that by dying at 22 years old, I would never reach my full potential in life.
  • Most of all, disappointment that I let everyone down. 
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While deployed to Iraq, one of my collateral duties was to jump into the 40-degree water, swim under the boats and clear all debris out of the grates for the intake. The rivers in Iraq were full of branches, leaves, garbage bags, and other waste that required me to take antibiotics.

The rivers in Iraq were full of branches, leaves, garbage bags, and other waste that required me to take antibiotics.

The boat hook I was given could not fit between the grates and did not allow me to clear them completely. Out of the 30+ Special Warfare Boat Operators on these missions, I was the only one who had to wear a dry suit and get in the water every time. They told me it was because I was leaving for Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), and I was “extra motivated.” #Hookup I was tempted to complain or at least see if we could rotate that responsibility. However, I remembered some important lessons taught to me and many other Special Operations Forces (SOF):   

1.    Order of Priorities to clean: Team Gear, My Gear, Me (Clogged intakes are a higher priority than being dry and comfortable).

2.    Own your responsibilities and departments. Take pride in them.

3.    Don’t make excuses! Even if you make mistakes take responsibility, learn, and move forward.

4.    Don’t complain without offering a solution.

 
 

I remembered these lessons and brought my only valid issue about the boat hook size to my leadership. They instructed me to go talk to our Construction Battalion Mechanic and learn how to weld a better hook. That is what we learn in Special Operations, if you have a problem...fix it.

That is what we learn in Special Operations, if you have a problem…fix it.

There is little room for emotion. I don’t mean that it does not exist; I simply mean that there is a mission and objectives that need to be taken care of with little time for political correctness and sensitivity. No excuses… get it done! This can be a negative trait when transitioning into the corporate world, but when used in small, tight-knit groups operating on trust and respect rather than hierarchy to accomplish a single objective, it is very efficient and effective. The ultimate goal is to get an entire team, or company, on the same page and in a group state of flow. So I spent the next few days learning how to weld, and then built a sufficient hook to do my job. I take pride in the fact that when ALL 4 Special Operations Craft were inoperable on the side of the bank with completely clogged intakes, my new tool allowed me to get them all back up and running at full capacity in less than 30 minutes. 

 
 

The next time we went out on a mission I was confident that if need be, I could get our boats back up and running. This led to my Team being confident and pursuing newer areas that could be used as insertion and extraction points for our SEAL, Army Ranger, and Delta Force Teammates. Inevitably our Reconnaissance craft got stuck on a shelf and clogged, so it was my time to shine and get us going again. I was clearing the intake underneath the 40-Foot boat full of men and crew-served weapons, when all of a sudden the current pushed the boat and some of the shelf broke away. The boat dropped onto the entire left side of my body, pinning me to the bottom of the river. I tried to get out with every fiber of my being… but failed.

The boat dropped onto the entire left side of my body, pinning me to the bottom of the river. I tried to get out with every fiber of my being… but failed.

I can’t say that life flashes before your eyes when you feel death closing in, but I can say your priorities become very clear. Before you die you think about the people you wish you could see one more time. You instantly realize WHO, not what is important to you… it’s your loved ones. 

 
 

As I was holding my breath, I heard my teammates rushing around above me trying to figure out what to do and trying to find me while remaining covert. Suddenly my training kicked in, be clear, concise, communicate, and take action! I reached my right arm as far away from my body as I could, and began banging on the bottom of the boat. My teammates heard my communication and responded by all moving to the opposite side of the boat away from where they heard I was. The boat began to tilt toward my left side and lift to my right. I started turning, twisting, digging, and squirming… until finally, I escaped.

After that first gasp of air I realized how grateful I was that everyone on my boat crew decided to pay attention to my communication, and work together to accomplish the goal of shifting the weight. From our Mechanic who was able to teach me how to weld, to taking my responsibilities seriously, these 10 lessons had a significant impact in my life:

1.    Special Operations Forces Must Have a No Fail mindset.

2.    Rule #76 No Excuses, Play Like a Champion (Wedding Crashers).

3.    No matter what you do in life, try to be the best.

4.    Confidence is Key. It comes with preparation as well as the ability to adapt and overcome. Confidence does not equal cockiness and is not a negative trait. I want my Pilot, Surgeon, and favorite Athlete to be 100% confident in their preparation and abilities.  

5.    Everyone deserves to be treated well, from the janitor to the CEO.

6.    One Team, One Fight. None of us is stronger than ALL of us; we are more than the sum of our parts. Everyone has value, help others whenever possible.

7.    We must ask for help and never give up. As difficult as it sounds, we cannot control every aspect of our lives. So be clear, concise, and ask for exactly what you want.

8.    A man with his health has 1,000 dreams; a man without his health only has 1 (Ancient Indian Proverb). Take care of yourself mentally and physically because it can all be gone in an instant.

9.    Don’t wait until it’s too late! Pursue what makes you happy, and do what you’re passionate about as much as you can.

10. We do what we do for the men and women on our left and our right. Our team, friends, and family- Life is about the people we love.  

As I look toward my next mission in life, I can see the lessons and themes discussed combining with my passions. My entire career as a SWCC Operator revolved around accomplishing tangible objectives, and literally helping others reach their goals. It makes perfect sense that I would find a career in helping my teammates pursue what they are passionate about. Please join me in helping Elite and talented veterans find Careers.