What We Can All Learn From A Navy SEAL Graduation

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September 14th 2012, BUDs Grinder, Coronado CA.

Article by Jessie Thuma, freelance writer & Navy SEAL mom.

Fewer than 50,000 Americans have ever attended a Navy SEAL graduation ceremony. The man standing behind me said it best when he summed up what we were about to witness: ?This is it. This is history.?

For the families of SEAL Qualification Training Class 291, seeing our sons step up to the podium and get their gold tridents pinned to their chests was exactly that: a moment when extraordinary effort is recognized as extraordinary accomplishment?and when you realize that what already seemed like an impossibly high performance bar just got higher.

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John Allen, born 24 years ago at Quincy City Hospital just outside of Boston, so-so student, outstanding baseball player, habitually truant high schooler, the boy who never made it to the YMCA on time for his five AM shift, is now a Navy SEAL.

But after more than two years of training, thousands of miles of swimming and running, and hundreds of thousands of push ups, pull ups, and bear crawls, it turns out Johnny has not reached the finish line, but rather that he has earned a spot at the starting line: the chance to become a ?Team Guy,? and put all the training he has and will be doing to the test of real life combat.

It turns out Johnny has not reached the finish line, but rather that he has earned a spot at the starting line: the chance to become a ?Team Guy,? and put all the training he has and will be doing to the test of real life combat.

For the small group of men who graduated with Johnny under a blazing sky on Coronado Island in San Diego on Friday September 14th 2012, getting a trident means you now have to earn the respect of some of the most effective and self disciplined soldiers in the world. The difference between an FNG or ?f#*!ing new-guy? like Johnny and a veteran Navy SEAL is the difference, in Mark Twain?s words, between a ?lightning bug and a lightening strike.? To those already on the teams, a trident means little until you?ve seen at least one deployment.

Still, for the moms, dads, girlfriends, wives, and friends and family gathered under a white tent on the grinder where every aspiring SEAL musters for 57 weeks of the grueling program known as BUDs?basic underwater demolition SEAL training ? John?s graduation was awesome.

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It wasn?t just that our sons looked unbearably handsome and young, it wasn?t the music of the four person military brass band, or the immaculate dress whites. It wasn?t even the graduation speech which was one of the best?and briefest?reflections on character I?ve ever heard. It was instead everything we couldn?t see, but knew from following our sons through their training: hearing first-hand about surf torture and Hell Week; not knowing until the very end whether our child would be among those men who are able to embrace and thrive in a world that gives new meaning to the word pain, and a new definition of what is physically and mentally possible.

?There is no splendid ceremony or fuss,? said the retiring Navy Seal who addressed Class 291. ?But the education you are receiving is better than any Ivy League College or University can offer. Through the crucible of this training you will gain an inkling of self-awareness. You will learn to seek your own strengths and weaknesses; your boundaries and your fears.?

Through the crucible of this training you will gain an inkling of self-awareness. You will learn to seek your own strengths and weaknesses; your boundaries and your fears.

Over the last two years, I?ve asked myself and Johnny, ?what does it take to become a Navy SEAL?? Johnny is practical: ?You have to have the right mindset, a body that can hold up to the physical demands, and a lot of good luck.? Which for me leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

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Maybe Johnny?s graduation speaker realized that many people in the audience have asked the same question.

?What does it mean to be a good SEAL? Is it the man who swims hundreds of miles and runs thousands of miles? Is it impeccable standards? Spit and polish?

One of my BUDs instructors was a Vietnam veteran who said ?I did five tours of duty and I never saw an obstacle course, and I never had to run more than 50 yards in the jungle.? So it isn?t just about being physically healthy and capable.?

The speaker recalled being on a mission that was aborted at the last minute, and having to stay on board a ship for weeks after that. While he was on deck one day, an old SEAL warrant officer told him, ?your uniform looks like crap and go get a haircut.?

?I was thinking,? said the speaker, ?who wears pressed khakis to a gunfight?? In a moment of insanity he answered back to the warrant officer: ?My uniform may be messy, but at least it fits me.?

The speaker lived (but just barely) to regret that remark. ?But that old warrant officer knew something back then that I didn?t: the definition of discipline. I had allowed him to form an opinion of me: if I made the wrong decision when the choices are easy, what would I do when the choices are hard??

But that old warrant officer knew something back then that I didn?t: the definition of discipline. I had allowed him to form an opinion of me: If I made the wrong decision when the choices are easy, what would I do when the choices are hard?

And that is at the core of being a good Navy SEAL. ?You know the right action, and you take the right action: ONLY. EVERY. TIME.?

A good SEAL also recognizes that good fortune plays a big role in what happens; that you can?t outrun bad luck. A good SEAL seeks and accepts responsibility for his own actions or lack thereof. A good SEAL is a leader who understands that leadership is not given, but honed through experience; that true leadership is revealed when you roll up your sleeves and do what has to be done. A good SEAL embraces the concept not of one leader and many followers, but of leaders leading leaders, and of being part of a team of creative thinkers bound by their tridents.

A good SEAL embraces the concept not of one leader and many followers, but of leaders leading leaders, and of being part of a team of creative thinkers bound by their tridents.

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And rather than recite the SEAL ethos, SEALs tell stories that give life to that ethos, that show character, experience, and wisdom. A good SEAL emulates the behaviors of those he trusts, admires, and respects.

?You are not here to lead the hunt for the Osama bin Ladens of the world,? the speaker told our sons. ?You are here to make sure this community continues. I envy you; I worry for you. In the meantime, there is work to be done. Congratulations.?

I envy you; I worry for you. In the meantime, there is work to be done. Congratulations.

On their way to the podium, Class 291 walked by the brass bell that men who drop on request (DOR) have to ring to signify they have quit SEAL training. Class 291 walked by the line of 17 helmets of men who have already DOR?ed out of the current BUDs class. They passed under the inscriptions on the wall that read ?The only easy day was yesterday,? and ?Fasten your seat-belts.? They walked by all of us craning our necks to catch a glimpse of them, and watching afterwards as our newly minted SEALs reached up to touch the tridents they have worked so hard to earn.

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When graduation was over, we all walked out to the edge of the great blue Pacific Ocean. We watched a BUDs class heave 300 pound inflatable boats up over their heads and start a five-mile run down the soft sand, instructors with 80 pound weight vests running alongside the recruits. Later we went to a store in Coronado that sells SEAL themed shirts and mugs and stickers and forked over a ridiculous amount of money for souvenirs.

I had a wonderful week in San Diego. I saw my son and my daughter in law. I swam in an outdoor, ten lane pool at Mission Valley YMCA. I spent three hours with my younger daughter at Torrey Pines State Park, walking switchback trails on cliffs overlooking the ocean. I had a chance to walk through Balboa Park with my older daughter, and I made dinners using fresh local tomatoes and basil and arugula. I drank California red wine and ate sourdough bread. I got a tan. I wondered why everyone in the world hasn?t moved to San Diego.

But most of all, I realized that my fears are not my son?s fears. I worry about Johnny getting injured or killed. I calculate the cost of war. I think politics. I think the longer Johnny can train rather than fight the better. Part of me wishes he could stop right now?go home, raise a family, get a safe job, take up stamp collecting.

Part of me wishes he could stop right now?go home, raise a family, get a safe job, take up stamp collecting.

But Johnny loves this job. He loves being part of this cohort of men. He loves jumping out of an airplane two miles above the ground. He feels he is making a positive difference; that the military has been good for him. His fear is the opposite of mine?of not getting deployed soon enough. Of seeing a year or more of training tick by before he goes on a mission. He thinks he understands the risks. He thinks he understands the danger. And if he could leave tomorrow for Afghanistan, he would.

In closing, Johnny?s graduation speaker reminded us, ?that a few professional men can turn the tide of war. When men of our ilk are no longer needed, there will be no more war.?

As we heard the waves of the Pacific lapping the shore behind him, the speaker paused, looking over at the line of our sons, and finished his address. ?But that time.? he said quietly, ?is not now.?

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When men of our ilk are no longer needed, there will be no more war. But that time is not now.

Postscript:

On May 24th 2013, Jonathan Kaloust, a member of Johnny?s graduating SEAL Qualification Training Class 291, was buried in his hometown of Massapequa NY, after he was killed on May 15th when the humvee on which he was riding overturned.

I think back now to that graduation, to all we didn?t know, and all we don?t know looking ahead. But even then, on that most perfect of days, I looked around at the families under that tent, and at the young men in front of us, and I thought, ?some of us will lose our sons. Some of us will get calls or knocks on our doors that our kids have been hurt or killed. Some of us will be lucky; some of us won?t.? Somewhere in the crowd were Jon Kaloust?s mother father and sister, knowing somewhere in the back of their minds, as all of us did, that we were celebrating an accomplishment and an avocation the very point of which was to put the sons and brothers we love in harms way.?

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