25. Quiet Professionals

Quiet Professionals

This is an account of David’s mighty men…

1 Chronicles 11:11

“Holy shit, seventeen fifty!”1

I boasted a cry of relief, rage and retribution.

“Eighteen O nine!” 

Pride filled my lungs and replenished my body with each victory gasp. I finally scored my first three hundred with a time that outpaced my personal record by nearly one minute.

“You’re a fucking rabbit. Must be nice to have good genetics,” the instructor said. I scoffed inside, still catching my breath. Yep, good genes sergeant. Hard work had nothing to do with it. 

Basic Security Guard Course wrapped up the end of the week following the final PFT. While on the plane leaving Virginia, I reflected on my time there, but one event in particular kept me preoccupied. I could hardly remember anything about that night. Who were those guys at the party? It all feels so surreal now. I wish I had the courage to talk to one of them. 

I thought School of Infantry would be better, but I was wrong. I hoped BSG would be better, and it was, much, much better. BSG consisted of classes, tests, physical fitness challenges, shooting, with atypical weapons and best of all, we slept in a warm barracks. 

My physical fitness showcased in my initial PFT earned me a promotion to first squad leader. They also appointed Dust as squad leader of second squad, so our classmates viewed us as a dynamic duo with a reputation established in brotherhood. Unlike the cowering teen I once was in boot camp, I managed to maintain this position as my confidence continued to soar in part due to my rapidly improving physical fitness.

Dust and I visited the gym nearly every day after classes. Aided by raw, youthful motivation, we pushed each other to work harder than the day before, each of us contributing to the other challenges in areas we lacked. He taught me how to build muscle through the plethora of lifts and machines I either never tried or improperly used in high school. We slammed through set after set of lifts, paying special attention to the infamous leg day that many often avoid. My contribution was to always ensure we never neglected cardio or core exercises. 

Bodybuilders aided our quest to become fitness gods. We watched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most famous film of his bodybuilding days, Pumping Iron. I took notice of and inspiration from Arnold’s friend, Frank Zane, who achieved my favorite physique of all time. In his glory days, Frank could provoke the envy of any Greek god. Dust also introduced me to Günter Schlierkamp,2 by purchasing his 2005 film, Güntermania that followed his bodybuilding career, interviews and motivational muscle-building routines. 

Through our bodybuilding endeavors, we embodied the spirit of Arnold’s fictitious cousins, Hanz and Franz,3 adopting this ridiculous duo’s absurd accents. While checking ourselves out in the bathroom mirror, I looked over to Dust.

“Yo, you ever heard of Hanz and Franz?”

“No, who are they?”

“Dude, they’re freakin’ hilarious. They did an SNL skit, we’ll have to look it up this weekend.” I looked into the mirror over the sink with Dust next to me, succumbing to the spirit of Hanz in his Austrian accent.  “My name is Hanz, you are Franz, and we are going to pump,” clap “‘you up!’” Dust nearly died of laughter.

From that point on, he was hooked. We were Hanz and Franz. We loudly imitated their saying while shirtless in the open barracks shouting, “We are going to pump,” clap  “You up!” We also blared a most obvious yet laughingly repeated quote of Günter’s. When asked by a reporter how to build so much muscle in his muscle-bound German accent, “You have to eat a lot of protein!”

We took Günter’s advice to heart. We ate lots and lots of protein. I finally fueled my physical endeavors by overeating in the chow hall, purchasing protein bars as a mid-morning and afternoon snack, and spending an absurd amount of money on supplements I’d never known about before. Protein powder, creatine, glutamine, amino acids, caffeine loaded pre-workouts, post-workout recovery drinks, vitamin packs and calorie laden weight gainer shakes.

My quest to become Goku gained momentum through our routine. Though I never could sport his psychotic hair due to Marine Corps regulations, my physique enlarged and became chiseled. Since recruiters assistance I gained weight but ran faster, going from a 19:32 run time at 148 pounds to 17:50 weighing in at 156. 

Shooting at BSG was also a blast. We shot and qualified with two new weapons. The first was the 9mm M9 Beretta. Usually Marines don’t qualify with their pistol until they reach the rank of E-6, but due to the nature of our job, we shot them, adding another cool badge to our uniform. I bagged another disappointing sharpshooter emblem though.

BSG is where I used a shotgun for the first time. They are rarely used in Marine units because according to the Geneva Convention, they are inhumane and cannot be used as an offensive weapon in warfare. In combat situations therefore, it is used primarily as a door breaching tool. This rule however, does not apply to defensive positions. We would be guarding a base, or embassies, so we were required to qualify with them. I loved every second unloading our M1014 shotguns.4 Firing buckshot was fun, but hearing the explosion, feeling the shockwave and resisting the upheaval of a 1 oz slug launching out of the modern-day musket was thrilling.

Liberty while at BSG was the icing on the cake. Nearly every weekend we left base and stayed at Dust’s uncle’s house. He owned a beautiful home in a nice suburb near Norfolk about forty minutes from base and was kind enough to bring two young, loud-mouth Marines under his roof. While there we ate good food, watched cable television, hung out in their computer room watching dumb internet videos and visited the mall. While walking towards the base exit to be picked up by Rich, Dust spoke up.

“Yo, Decoup, what’s up with your outfit?”

“Uh, nothing.”

“Come on man, you look ridiculous. We gotta go to the mall.” I scanned Dust’s clothes from head to toe. He rocked white, Puma tennis shoes with black soles, fitted, light wash, boot-cut jeans, a dark leather belt and a tight, gray T from Abercrombie & Fitch with a dipping, three button collar opening towards his chest with only one latched as the thick, reinforced rim flared out around his neck.

I looked down at my dark, swooshy cargo pants, old skater shoes and bright blue graphic T I’d owned since tenth grade. I couldn’t even remember the last time I wore a belt or bought clothes. He was right. I needed new threads. 

That weekend we shopped. Yeah I know, two straight dudes shopping for clothes together is a bit odd, but desperate times call for desperate measures. My style was on life support, and I needed something fast. 

We bargain shopped in the clearance sections of American Eagle, Pac Sun and other similar stores, seeking to mimic Dust’s style with my own flare. I came to like fitted T’s, button downs, and not-so-loose boot cut jeans. I purchased some white pleather K-Swiss shoes and a few belts. By the time we finished, with our matching haircuts and style, one might think our similar civilian attire had regulations. I guess we did have regs, bro regs.

By the time things wrapped up at BSG, with the culmination of everything moving in a positive direction, I felt like I was finally becoming a warfighting professional. I was a squad leader, ran my first perfect 300 PFT, added muscle, lost fat, gained strength, revamped my wardrobe and shed off the final vestiges of my depressing life. The Marine identity finally began to sink in. I was a new man. The final class photo added another smile-less picture to my collection. This time however, rather than unconsciously projecting a sad vacancy through an absent expression my flat lips and cold eyes projected the stern, confident glare of a man reborn.

Cinco de Mayo occurred towards the end of BSG. Though it landed on a Monday, this didn’t prevent Rich from throwing a party on the weekend. This weekend, when picking us up, he informed us of the event he was hosting.

“Hey boys, we’re throwing a Cinco de Mayo party tomorrow. Feel free to hang out downstairs with us, we’ll be having shishkabobs, and beer. I don’t care if you drink, but if you start acting like idiots, I’ll kick your asses out. I won’t let you embarrass me in front of my SEAL buddies and their families.”

We looked at each other in the back seat with excitement. Though I didn’t know much about SEALs, I knew they were some of the best our military had to offer. I’d seen heroic deeds featured on Tears of the Sun when Bruce Willis led a team of SEALs extracting a philanthropist from Nicaraguan guerillas. We were stoked.

“Sure thing uncle Rich, we’ll be squared away.”

“One thing I might add, whatever you do, don’t talk to them about their job. They’ve seen a lot of shit and they sure as hell don’t want to talk about it with you. Just let ‘em enjoy the party.”

“Yes sir,” I said, “thanks for inviting us, I’m excited to meet them.” 

Saturday, May 3rd rolled around. We helped chop the vegetables and skewer the meat. We impaled chicken, shrimp and steak chunks between bell peppers, red onions and tomatoes. The charred scent of meat and veggies filled the air as it snuck in through the sliding door from the barbecue on the deck. We sliced watermelon, prepared coolers and helped Rich’s wife and kids clean up and decorate.

The visitors arrived slowly and sporadically. Each time the doorbell rang, I heard warm greetings as I looked over towards the hallway leading to the front door. One by one, family after family filled the open gathering space. Around eight to ten SEALs and their families joined, some of whom brought young kids between the ages of about six and twelve. 

While in the living room, looking towards the hall as people trickled in, the first thing I noticed was how unnoticeable these men were. Had Rich not told me they were SEALs, I never would have assumed they were even in the military, let alone elite warfighters. 

None appeared to be younger than their mid thirties. Though their hair was still faded, it grew much longer than I’d seen on a service member. Each one appeared to have a relatively average build. Some even looked a tad bit overweight. Though I’m sure they were all fitness gods, their casual civilian attire hid any evidence of easily identifiable physical prowess. I figured all SEALs looked like WWE wrestlers. If John Cena starred in the movie The Marine, then I assumed SEALs must at least match and likely exceed his bulk. But no, they blended in. Dust and I were the ones who stuck out with our raging high and tights. 

Despite not drinking a drop of alcohol, I have very little memory of that night. Only several, cloudy images remain in my mind. While picking up shish kabobs, one SEAL stood to my right, as he acquired his own. Though I doubt he was much taller than me, my misty memory projects him as a faceless being at least eight inches up and to the right of my glancing eyes. He looked down intently at his food. I dared not speak a word.

After all, what could I say? I knew nothing about this man, his rank, his service, his life, his family. I only knew he was a SEAL, and I by no means wanted to embarrass myself by asking a stupid question, especially one that Rich forbade. Though I’d begun to reclaim some ground in social competence in prior months, the odds of my foot not ending up in my mouth was zero.  I knew they had seen and done things I could never possibly imagine. Things they would never talk about with a stranger, let alone a starry eyed Marine who still believed war was glorious.

Phil stood on the other side of the island staring at one of the men slicing the pineapple. His skill with a blade was impossible to miss. Effortless precision guided calloused hands as he dissected the fruit with the fluidity of a master chef and the focused intensity of an embittered butcher. Rich, standing nearby, noticed Phil’s fixation and leaned over.

“You think he knows how to use a knife?”

“Hah,” Phil laughed quietly. “Uh, yeah.”

As the night progressed some of them gathered on the deck with Rich as they drank beers and ate food. Laughter commingled with their light-hearted banter. An image of me sitting down flashes before my eyes, though clearly I didn’t listen intently enough to remember what they talked about. I do know Dust was out there too. He drank but seemed to maintain his red-cheeked composure enough not to get kicked out. I think he struck up a conversation with a SEAL or two. I simply sat on the outskirts of the huddle, pretending to be part of it by laughing and drinking some virgin beverage alongside them.

The one thing I do remember somewhat clearly is that after spending a bit of time on the deck, I made my way into the living room past the sliding door where the young kids caught my attention. While visiting California I would enjoy entering into the world of my little cousins, aunt Jenny’s children. They rode on my back like a horse, wrestled with me, stuck bows and ribbons in my hair and we splashed in their pool. Dad and his siblings always said I was great with kids.

So naturally I joined them on the carpet playing with their toys and they welcomed me in. I think there were three of them. The little SEAL pups took me to another world, forgetting completely whose children they were. They seemed to like me as their laughter and giggles filled the open space already drowning out with elevated conversations and music. 

As our play progressed, one of them pulled out a sticker book. By the time they finished, only my eyes and hair could be seen beneath the dozens of stickers plastered to my face. Their pitched, gleeful laughter penetrated the hum of the evening as they added more sticky layers.

The whole time I played, I recall a looming figure seated on the couch with a beer in hand, resting it on his knee. Once again, my dim projection embodies him as a giant, faceless, shadowy man, observing my play with either his kids, or at least his teammates’ children. I think there were others watching too. There must have been… but I was too lost in the moment. 

I wonder what this man thought while watching us so close. Was he smiling? Was he scowling? Was he wondering why two dumbass teenage Marines were crashing their party? Did he look down on me? Did his heart warm while playing with the children? If asked today about Saturday May 3rd, 2008, would he recall a dorky kid with stickers on his face entertaining the baby SEALs? I wonder.

The night wrapped up. Goodbyes were said, hugs shared and stickers removed. I was genuinely sad to part with the kids, and I think they were too. 

The following day my amnesia began setting in. These guys must have dropped some kind of memory-wiping mist at the party, because it all felt so vague from the get go, and I didn’t even have a sip of alcohol. While we helped clean, Rich struck it up with us.

“Thanks guys, you did good last night, the kids liked you too, Ryan.”

“I had a blast, that was awesome uncle Rich.”

“Yeah, thanks Rich, I had a lot of fun with them too.”

“Have they ever talked to you about ops they’ve done?” Phil asked.

“Like I said, they don’t talk about it. The only time they do is when they’re drunk. I haven’t heard many stories… but one of ‘em started talking after one too many beers.” Dust and I were all ears at this point. We didn’t care if the story was one degree removed from the lips of a drunken SEAL, accurate or not we were down to hear anything.

“Really?” I asked, “What happened?”

“He told me they had a mission to secure an HVT. Y’all know what an HVT is, right?”

“Yeah,” Dust said

“No,” I responded simultaneously.

“HVT means high value target. Usually a leader or an IED maker or something. Anyway, they were up on a ridge observing for a few days to see if they could lay eyes on him. They saw trucks loading and unloading supplies and weapons in the town but after several days they never spotted their target. They did however, see the occupying force abusing the locals, smacking the women around, taking stuff from them at gunpoint and so on. They decided to help and would also be able to confirm with certainty if the target was hiding out there. They snuck in at night, secured a compound and by sunrise over one hundred enemy were confirmed dead. None of the guys had a scratch.”

“Holy shit Rick, how many SEALs were there?” Phil asked.

“I think around twelve, give or take.”

“My god, that’s fuckin’ nuts.” 

“Yeah, that’s the kind of shit these guys have done, they’re warriors to say the least. I’m lucky my best friends are the best of the best.”

“How did you meet them?” I asked.

“Well, I was a rescue swimmer and I taught an advanced swim course that SEALs would attend. I got to know the community over the years before I retired.”

“Wow, I never would have known they were even SEALs. They all looked so…normal,” I said.

“Yeah they’ve been doin’ it a while, they know their shit and always maintain a low profile. Remember this as you guys run into combat vets, the loudest guy at the bar hasn’t seen shit. The real badass is the one who never talks about it.”

Phil and I finished cleaning in awe after Rich departed. I thought a lot about what he said. We were in the presence of greatness and never knew it. How many more untold stories of valor did these men have? 

I wanted to know them. I wanted to hear their stories, to praise their achievements and relish in their bravery. Yet, I would never know their heroic deeds. Only they know and hold onto the sanctity of their duty and rightly guard it with sealed lips. 

Without speaking a word to them, I both loved and feared those men because their proficiency abounds in the arena of death. They uphold the stability of the world by embodying the very brutality that threatens it. They joyfully bear the burden of sinful humanity to save us. They take our shame upon themselves by becoming that which we fear, even that which we hate. They master our most ruthless and often abused desires for unjust bloodshed, seamlessly integrating this dangerous power in the just defense of others. They do the dirty work we dare not attend by shedding blood on our behalf, often shedding their own in the process. They absolve us of our sins by doing what we can’t do for ourselves, by killing for us, by dying for us, that we might live. In love they voluntarily give up their bodies to be burned as they stand in the gap between death and life. They drink the wrath of the world so we don’t have to. For this, they are resurrected to eternal glory.

Though they are the best of the best, they won’t brag. Though they have every reason to boast, they never will. Though they carry the burden of war on their shoulders, they discretely hold onto it so we don’t have to. Though they could kill in a moment, they keep their strength tucked away, unobservable to the casual onlooker. Though they don’t remember me, I remember them. Though I will brag about them, they will always uphold their reputation as quiet professionals.

  1. Sorry this makes no sense if you haven’t read the prior post 24. No Longer Last, but you can just skip over this short first section and pick up from there for the purposes of this story.
  2. Günter is featured in the 2006 movie Beerfest.
  3. These two bodybuilding buffoons, played by Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon, are featured on SNL and opened the 1989 Arnold Classic competition with a new skit. One SNL skit can be found here.
  4. This is a semi-automatic shotgun that has a tube below the barrel where seven shells can be loaded for a total of eight if one is placed in the chamber as well.

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