Rough Men and Heroes

April 15th, 2009

People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.

George Orwell could have been referring to soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, or even law enforcement officers.  In the rescue of the captain of MV Maersk Alabama, the “rough men” doing violence on our behalf were Navy SEALs.  According to press reports, SEALs parachuted into the sea near the USS Bainbridge, the destroyer on the scene of the attempted piracy and kidnapping.  Once they were aboard Bainbridge, they prepared to take any action required of them to rescue the American hostage and deal with the criminals holding him. 

In the end, SEAL marksmen killed three of the hostage takers and saved the captain of the Alabama.  To do this, they fired with deadly accuracy across a distance of about 100 feet, from one moving vessel to another, then climbed down the tow line to the boat where the hostage was tied up.  The decision to act was made by the commander on the scene in a split-second situation when the hostage seemed most threatened and his captors were visible to the SEALs. 

This may sound like something from a Hollywood movie, where the handsome, square-jawed hero and the beautiful, impossibly thin heroine take on the evil pirates and defeat them all by themselves, in open defiance of ineffective officers and corrupt politicians.  Like most of what comes out of Hollywood, that scenario falls far short of reality. 

What really happened was the result of training so difficult that few people qualify even to begin training and of those few, most can’t complete it.  What made the successful operation possible was an efficient, highly professional chain of command starting with the President and ending with the relatively junior officer who gave the command to fire.

There are special operations elements in all U.S. armed services, each specializing to some extent in the mission areas of their services.  They operate under the command of U.S. Special Operations Command, which was formed to centralize control of special operations and maximize the synergy that comes from combining their various capabilities. 

Special operations are normally planned and executed in secrecy, rarely attracting press and public attention.  But sometimes we get a brief glimpse of what they can do.  The SEALs who rescued the captain of the Alabama, like the two Delta Force operators who won Medals of Honor in Mogadishu in 1993, represent the best of the best, although they’re typical among their elite comrades.  It’s unfortunate that the people they serve can’t see more of them and their accomplishments.

I was never a member of a special operations organization, but I worked closely with them in combat situations and sometimes lived with them for short periods.  They don’t brag about their accomplishments; in fact, most are quiet professionals satisfied simply to do their extraordinary jobs with uncommon skill and dedication.  They don’t think of themselves as heroes.  I do.


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7 Responses to “Rough Men and Heroes”



  1. Brian Bagent |

    Did you read “Blackhawk Down”? The movie didn’t do the Deltas justice, in my opinion.

    Unfortunately for our SF guys (well, everybody in uniform for that matter, but SF is the tip of the spear), the last president we had that really had a grasp on the use of force was Eisenhower, and we didn’t even have any SF back then. Maybe Reagan did. Certainly none of the rest did, and it has resulted in the demise of some of the finest men that have ever served this republic.


  2. Brian Bagent |

    I had another thought on this. May the former CIC and SecDef responsible for that fiasco find out if Dante Alighieri really knew what he was talking about.


  3. doris |

    Great article, Tom. These guys are amazing, do they at least get paid more, or just regular pay? I’m sure whatever the pay, it’s not enough. They, like policemen and firefighters, don’t do it for the pay, but the thrill and for the satisfaction of doing something really worthwhile with their lives. These are the real heroes of our world and I daresay, they don’t get any glory to speak of. Just doing their incredibly impossible jobs for us. I say, Thank-you and job well done. Good info, Tom.


  4. Tom |

    There are various kinds of special pay that military personnel can receive in addition to normal pay and allowances. Some special pay is for skills, like flight pay for pilots and aircrew, and some is for conditions of service, like hazardous duty pay. Most military personnel don’t receive these extra amounts, but under some circumstances it’s possible to get a couple of them at the same time. You can see a list of special pay categories here.

    In any case, they aren’t doing it for the money, as you said. Military personnel, police officers, firemen, and other kinds of professionals who are so critical to our society are motivated by something other than money. And, in my experience, virtually any successful career member of these challenging and dangerous professions could make a lot more money in the civilian world.


  5. John Q |

    Thank you for writing this. I was a Ranger and in Special Forces in the Army. I cannot imagine training any harder than those two programs but maybe Seal training is. One thing for sure, the people I was with in SF were awesome in every way, both military and as human beings. It’s nothing like the junk they put in movies. It really is too bad that Americans don’t know more about what spec ops people do and who they are.

    I am a firefighter now. I certainly don’t do that for the pay any more than I was in SF for the pay. There’s just a kind of compensation you can’t count in dollars, and that comes from the feeling you get when you did a hard job well and helped somebody who needed it.


  6. Kevin |

    Well said, Tom!

    I used to be friends with an ex-SEAL. He was a drug-addled nutcase who had been discharged for mental health reasons. The drug use (psychedellics, unfortunately) preceeded him joining up and dated to when I first got to know him. Anyway, even though he was sometimes lucid/sometimes a raving lunatic, during his lucid periods when he would talk about his training and specializations in the SEALs it was abundantly clear that those guys border on super-human in terms of their sheer willingness (even eagerness!) to do things that would scare the bejesus out of me. But then I have a deep-seated fear of deep water… LOL – But even setting that aside, I stand in awe of what they are willing to do to achieve the mission, whatever it may be.

    All through highschool I was an avid reader of Soldier of Fortune and dreamed the dreams of all young boys and men of being just such a hero someday. In particular I loved reading the Special Forces accounts from Vietnam. Of course this was back when the Soviets were in their Afghanistan Quagmire and reading the accounts by Brown et al doing their semi-covert thing over there was riviting too.

    Anyway, I don’t doubt for an instant that the SEALS were fully ready and capable of ending the Somali stand-off before it finally ended. But the Founders in their wisdom placed the military firmly subservient to the civilian leadership, and that’s as it should be. It’s at the core of this brilliant experiment called the United States of America.

    I’m very proud of how professionally and extremely capably our forces handled the situation there in the Indian Ocean.


  7. Kevin |

    Upon reading my comment it seems to make my old friend out to be worse than was the case. By his own account he didn’t do any drugs of any kind while in the Navy. But I’m a former drug addict myself and while that doesn’t qualify me as an expert by any means, it does give me some insights. That and the fact that I knew him before he joined up led me to conclude that his affinity for psychedelic drugs in highschool irrevocably tore something asunder in his mind and it wasn’t until the extreme SEAL training you describe in the post that the weak link in his mental chain broke. But this guy from day one was an inordinately gifted individual. A superb athelete, very intelligent, not at all afraid to take risks, etc. Just the kind of individual I would expect to be capable of surviving SEAL training. Which he did do. As I recall it was somewhere within his first year of being a full-fledged SEAL that his past finally caught up with him and he was booted.

    Had it not been for my own drug use I probably would have joined both of my best friends from highschool and joined the military. Both of them are still in – a 1st SGT and a Lt. Col., both in the Army. I dabbled in… well, more than dabbled in… a free-form martial art called Wu Ying Tao (akin to Jeet Kune Do, at least in philosophy) through most of highschool, intent on following in the footsteps of my heros. But by the time I made it into the advanced group it was cutting into my drugging and drinking time too much and I quite. What followed over the next decade was fairly predictable.

    The point of my aside here is that my old ex-SEAL friend’s advanced martial arts training on his own time was the catalyst for his downfall, which I can vaguely identify with in my own small way. Well, except that medic never had to revive me from self-inflicted loss of large amounts of my own blood. Ever seen that commercial for some kind of car buying scheme with the Klondar character dipping his wrapped and resined hands into a huge bowl of broken glass before stepping into the circle of fire? Yeah well that’s what my friend was into except he didn’t wrap his hands.


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