HH: Special program today, and I want you to immediately get on your iPhone, not if you’re driving, call all your friends, call everyone who ever wanted to be a SEAL, who thought they had it in them to be a SEAL, or every young man, and everyone who’s interested in it to come and sit down, because we’re going to tell them whether or not they are in fact made out to be a SEAL. The book is Damn Few: Making The Modern SEAL Warrior. It’s author is Rorke Denver. He’s in the Hugh Hewitt studio with me. Lt. Commander Rorke Denver, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show, good to have you.
RD: Thank you for having me, sir, I appreciate it.
HH: This is not your first trip to the Hugh Hewitt Show, but it’s the first time you’ve been on air.
RD: It is. It is. I’ve had a chance to take pot shots from the corner at break, but now I finally get in the hot seat.
HH: Some people don’t know sometimes the most fun that goes on in the studio is what they don’t see. Seeing you and Steven Pressfield yuck it up a couple of years back was very, very interesting. And Pressfield, this has got to be the best endorsement you could ever have for a book. The author of the Gates Of Fire and the War Of Art writes about Damn Few that if you’ve ever wished you could read the testament of a Jedi knight, here it is. That’s pretty high praise from Steven Pressfield.
RD: It doesn’t get a lot better. I mean, he’s a legend. His writings, for special operators and warriors, I think across the U.S. military, have become the stuff of legend. So to have him say that, and have that chance to be in studio and goof off with him was a treat.
HH: Damn Few: Making The Modern SEAL Warrior is linked at Hughhewitt.com, it’s in bookstores everywhere, every airport you go through, and you can order it, of course, from Amazon.com, from Barnesandnoble.com. Rorke’s got a Facebook fan page, by the way. Rorke is spelled Rorke. I have to do that slowly for the Steelers Fans. Denver as in Denver, Colorado. So Rorke, we’ve got a lot to talk about. We’ve got a lot of time to do this, but let’s begin with you – biography. How old are you now? And where did you start? And what happened in between?
RD: I’m 39 now. I started in Northern California, so I grew up in the Bay Area, you know, the son of amazing parents that I give tremendous respect to in the fact that they really did help pave the way for everything that’s happened since the stork dropped me off to them. So very, very lucky to have grown up in the family I grew up in. Went to school in Northern California, then college up in upstate New York at Syracuse University, I was a lacrosse player, so I had a chance to play for the orange. Very near and dear, I know it must be to your heart, with Jim Brown being one of the legends of the game.
HH: What years were you in lacrosse?
RD: I played, graduated in ’96, so I played for those four years, which were phenomenal times to be an Orangeman. We had a chance to play in the Final Four all four years I was there, won two national championships when I was there. So really in the hunt and fighting it out the whole time, so that was a treat. And then in the spring of, or the fall of my senior year, having no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated, and where I was going to go, a lot of my teammates would go down to New York City and get into the finance world, and with some of the contacts that connect through that alumni. But I knew that wouldn’t be a good fit, and my father, brother and I was just voracious readers, and always sending books back and forth to one another. And my dad sent me a copy of Winston Churchill’s My Early Life, which he wrote later in life, but you know, chronicles about his first 30 years of life, and Sandhurst, the military academy, up through the Frontier Wars, the Boer Wars in Africa, and about the time he started in Parliament. And I put that book down and called my dad, and I said I’m going into the military. And I don’t think that’s what he had intended, although I don’t think it surprised him. I just knew at that point I wanted to serve, and that kind of path would be the right way for me to cut my teeth and to kind of start my adult life. And that’s what led me to service.
HH: When I pause in the middle of this, it’s because something resonated. I’ve got five pages of notes, and we’ve got all morning long. But I want to go to Page 97 of Damn Few: Making The Modern SEAL Warrior, because it’s the longest quote in the book. It’s from Churchill. You quote Churchill from My Early Life, and you say I swear he was talking straight to me. “Come on, now, all you young men all over the world. You are needed more than ever to fill the gap of a generation shorn by the war. You have not an hour to lose. You must take your place in life’s fighting line. 20-25, these are the years. Don’t be content with things as they are. The Earth is yours and the fullness thereof. Enter upon your inheritance, accept your responsibilities, raise the glorious flags again, advance them upon the new enemies who constantly gather upon the front of the human army, and have only to be assaulted to be overthrown. Don’t take no for an answer, never submit to failure, do not be fobbed off with mere personal success or acceptance. You will make all kinds of mistakes, but as long as you are generous and true, and also fierce, you cannot hurt the world or even serious distress her. She was made to be wooed and won by youth. She has lived and thrived only by repeated subjugations.” Nice quote. Is that the longest quote in Damn Few?
RD: I think it is. I think it is. You know, obviously we’re on radio, so you can’t see that I’m choked up. But when I, as I read that now, it just, that probably was the passage. I can’t say that for sure, but you know, I was 25 when I started my SEAL adventure, once I finally got into the program and that kind of call to service, and idea of, I don’t know, adventure and testing yourself as a young man, that way just spoke to me.
HH: Now I want people to understand this first segment, you spent how many years on the teams?
RD: Just 13 on active duty, and I’m in our reserve SEAL unit now, so I’ll continue service as long as they’ll have me, and we’ll see where it goes from here.
HH: And 13 years on the active teams. And the reason I bring that up is coming by the studio a little bit later are a couple of young men who knew you were coming in, and they wanted to say hello. They’re in their mid-20s, and they’re always, mid-20s now is the new 18.
HH: You must have dealt with a lot of, you ran the BUDS program, and so let’s jump ahead and tell people what you ran after the active deployment, so people understand your perspective.
RD: Yeah, so after sustained rounds based on history of sustained combat rounds and tactical elements and assault teams, everyone has to take a break at some point. So you come off the line, and there’s a lot of opportunities post those tactical rounds to give back to the teams and continue to serve, and frankly, take a break, which you really do need after a bunch of that time. So I was lucky enough to get one of the very few slots of lead instructors as an officer instructor at BUDS – Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL training in Coronado, California. And that’s our, you know, our ground zero for selecting, training and preparing young lions to join the brotherhood, and see if they have what it takes. So I ran initially first phase of training, which includes Hell Week, and kind of the most famous blocks that the bulk of the attrition takes place in, and then I went on to run all the phases of training. So I was a basic training officer that covered all those phases, first, second, third, advanced training, SEAL qualification training. And then my follow on tour ended up being as the executive officer of the advanced training command. So all the advanced schools that then kind of put the polish on guys that have made it through the course – sniper, hand to hand fighting, language and medical, communications, all these programs that really, really give the advanced combat skills to the guys, so I had a very unique window and opportunity to run from the day one, a young guy shows up, until he’s on, and even back from the battlefield and sustaining that training and move forward.
HH: So we’re going to cover that all today, so if people have ever wondered what’s inside the SEALs, they really need to read Damn Few. But we’re going to give them some peeks today. And then I have to put the cap on here. You are the star of Act Of Valor. Now people will probably be wondering where do I know that voice from, and if they’ve seen Act of Valor, you’re Lt. Denver in that.
RD: Lt. Engel. Lt. Rorke is the name they use, yeah.
HH: And so tell people how that came to happen. We’ve got about a minute and a half to the break here.
RD: Yeah, I was running first phase at the time, and the SEALs were in a unique period in our history, and there’s peaks and valleys at all times, I think, through all units, but we were in a depression. We had lost enough guys getting out, you know, departing the Navy, and had a gap of guys coming in. So our numbers were about a wash, or almost at a negative for the first time in a while, and I think there was a fear with the leadership in Washington who wanted to grow all special operations, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and SEALs, that we wouldn’t have enough guys to even throw at the program to try and do that right without changing our standard. And so the film company, the Bandito Brothers, that made the movie, had done some high impact web videos for our website, and then they got cleared to do a bigger project through the senior leadership, through the admirals in the Navy and beyond, up through the Department of Defense, to do a larger theatrical release picture, but using real SEALs as the principal good guys. That’s how it came to be.
HH: And they came to you, and over your reluctance, and the reluctance of your team members…
RD: That’s right.
HH: They finally talked you, actually, they talked the Navy into…
RD: That’s right.
HH: …detailing you to do this.
RD: Yeah, every single guy that got asked to do it said no. And then once we got to know them and build some trust, it made sense, and it seemed genuine that they wanted to do a story about the brotherhood, about how much we care about our families, this country, each other, and the job we do, more than a gunfighting movie. And when that became believable, and I think they stuck to that, then we said yes. But yeah, we were on Navy orders. We were on Navy orders just as you’d get assigned to go to sniper school or a language school, or any course of instruction. Navy pay and Navy chow to go produce a movie.
HH: When we come back, we’re going to walk you through not just the making of Act Of Valor, that’s actually at the end of the story, but actually how people become SEALs, how Rorke Denver became a SEAL, how you make them. It’s all detailed in his brand new book, Damn Few: Making The Modern SEAL Warrior. It is out by Hyperion, and co-authored by Ellis Hennican, who’s a pal of mine, and a very, very good writer to put a little extra polish in there. But I know this story, because I knew Rorke actually before Act Of Valor got made, so it’s been kind of fun watching this unfold in real time.
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HH: It’s been an extraordinarily difficult time, I think, for the SEALs, Rorke. I go back to after the killing of bin Laden, you lost so many of your colleagues in a terrible crash in Afghanistan. You lost your famous friend, Chris, just a couple of weeks back. And there’s been lots of pressure on the teams for the last year. So it’s got to be interesting to be representing your friends and your brothers this way in the major media at this time.
RD: It is. It’s, you know, I think since those, really those huge events, the bin Laden raid, the Somali rescue, the Captain Phillips Maersk Alabama event, I mean, those things just thrust us into a level of public interest and actual reporting that we hadn’t ever dealt with before. So those things that have been shrouded in mystery for a long time are a little bit more in the light. I haven’t seen any, fortunately, that I think have put anyone in tactical risk. There’s been conversation and talk about that, and I don’t believe the works that have gone forward, or Damn Few, I was very careful to make sure I didn’t give anything that would put my brothers and my teammates in harm’s way. But yeah, it’s an interesting time to have the microphone a little bit, or have an opportunity to speak and talk to who we are and what we are, and the way we think about things. But I hope I can do credit to it, and it’s been, it has been rough. And the passing of Chris is one of those bizarre experiences in the history of our community. And it’s not been uncommon, unfortunately, to have your cell phone light off and see a report usually before it hits the airwaves that we’ve lost teammates, or guys have been injured or killed in combat. But to see that one come in and not know the circumstances, and then turn on the TV to figure out how it unfolded was very strange.
HH: You wrote a very moving piece for I believe Fox News on why it was to be expected that he would reach out to this wounded vet. And that’s what I think of them when they have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They are wounded.
RD: That’s right.
HH: And he was trying to help him, and it was not unusual to do it at a range.
RD: No, I think mental health professionals are going to have their opinion on that, and I think there’s probably a good marriage of what we do and what we think of as the right way to handle vets and wounded warriors, and then what a mental health professional would think about. But to me, when I saw that, it made perfect sense, the fact that Chris would take somebody to a range, and show him and use a skill set that he has very few equals in the world in, and then get him that soldier, who had experienced that, and had gotten to a level of proficiency that would definitely be considered expert, and use that as a way to spend some time, expend some energy, I think a lot of the public thinks shooting a guns is an aggressive act. And you see it on TV and movies, but it’s completely the opposite. To shoot effectively, you need to control your breathing, control your heart rate, trigger squeeze, front side focus, and do a lot of things that are contrary to the exciting part of what it is to shoot. And so to think that that’s not, those skill sets are not good things for somebody, I mean, all that is analogous to yoga and the way people enjoy that. For us, it’s a calming experience.
HH: You also wrote an amazing piece on women in combat, and that’s the one I actually think I read. I think I saw you quoted about Chris in the L.A. Times, but I read your piece in Fox about women in combat.
RD: That’s right.
HH: And you made some amazing points, especially about your respect for the toughness of women who do deploy, but then some reality checks as well about the SEALs.
RD: That’s right.
HH: Give people that background.
RD: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a super interesting piece. I mean, the most…and it’s been reported widely, not just from me, but that to say women aren’t in combat is absurd. I mean, they’ve been shoulder to shoulder fighting with their male counterparts through the entire war, and both wars, aggressively and with great distinction. So the fact that there’s no argument that they can do it and do it exceptionally well. When you start talking about direct combat units and elite units, I also appreciate that having those experiences for your career are huge. So those are open to women. It’s huge for women, for their ability to advance. And I mean, most of the people who are generals and admirals, and in those backgrounds, have come from combat units. It gives you that chance to distinguish yourself as a leader in combat. In our community, the thing that I focused on in that article is do I think a woman can get through SEAL training? I do. I just have seen the fitness of women. You got to lacrosse games, you look at sites where gals are competing on such a phenomenal level, athletically, and really, the secret to that also becomes, if anybody asks you what it takes to get through SEAL training, it’s really what’s in your head and in your heart as opposed to what you can do with your body. I mean, the body is important. You’d better be fit if you show up, or you’re going to have a horrific experience at SEAL training.
HH: Yeah, I’m not buying that, Rorke Denver, because I read Damn Few.
RD: Yeah, I mean, I guess…
HH: And I want to meet Father War, because how old was he when he went through that thing?
RD: I think he was 36 when he went through.
HH: You see, I cannot imagine someone at the age of 36…we’ll come back and talk about that.
RD: Yeah, yeah.
HH: But okay, back to women.
RD: But you know, but for us, I mean, it really is this, when we talk about the brotherhood, that’s not a joke. And it’s not meant to be to exclude people, but it is this 75-80% of the people that come to our training don’t make it through. So you get this very, very special group of folks that come into that culture, and it really is a culture. I mean, you will subjugate most things in your life, and often in your personality to become part of that team for the right reasons. It’s that ethos and that aggressive spirit that lives within our brotherhood is what allows us to be effective on the battlefield. And so looking at that and then wondering how will that translate in a coed locker room, how will that translate when you put good looking guys and good looking girls together that are fit and aggressive, and you know what happens when you put those two folks together.
HH: Yeah, no surprises.
RD: There’s just no surprises.
RD: I mean, I just think that’s the reality of that. And so right or wrong, if that changes that culture, if it changes the dynamic, the potential for that to then change combat effectiveness exists. And that’s my only fear. It’s not the exclusion of anybody. It’s the fact that what we’re doing works in a very, very unique niche warrior brotherhood.
HH: There are many combat billets, and I’ll get in trouble for saying this, because I first met you through an F-18 pilot. But there are great women F-18 pilots, and that works very, very well. But it’s a different culture.
RD: That’s right.
HH: And it’s a different level of intimacy. I mean, they’re very intimate, but very different from forward deployed. And I go back to Combat Outpost Keating in The Outpost by Jake Tapper. I can’t imagine sending women out for months at a time…
HH: …with a group of warrior men, gross warrior men…
HH: …who are going to be out there for a long time.
RD: No, no, it becomes savage. I mean, who I am with my wife and my family, and with women that I interface with throughout my life, and who I am at a SEAL team or in combat are very, very different people.
HH: That is something I hope they listen to very, very closely. A minute to the break, Rorke, I want to go back and then pick up again. The years you spent on the teams, would you give people the geography of your deployments? Just were you East Cost? West Coast? That kind of stuff?
RD: Yeah, I graduated from SEAL training in ’99 and then I first was assigned to the East Coast, so I was in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where the East Coast teams make their home. Those first deployments were pre-9/11, so I was down in Central and South America primarily, running counter drug, counter narcotic training for the Ecuadorians and the Colombians, and a lot of the special military units down within those host nations. And then when I came back from that, 9/11 happened on one of those watches. And then as Afghanistan unfolded, I’ve deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, East and West Africa, and a few other hot spots around the world.
HH: We’re going to come back and talk about all those various hot spots, but I want to remind you, I’m talking with Rorke Denver. His brand new book is Damn Few. That’s easy. Damn Few: Making The Modern SEAL Warrior. What’s the genesis of the title, by the way, Rorke?
RD: You know, we have a quote at the end of Act Of Valor, or in the movie during a toast in Act Of Valor, called Damn Few, and it comes from this old Scottish toast, which I actually looked up after the fact. But a teammate of mine, Chief Dave from the movie, used that quote during the film. We end the film with that. So it just kind of felt right.
HH: Damn Few is a great title for a book, Making The Modern SEAL Warrior.
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HH: By the way, I also want to let people know, kind of creating a Frankenstein monster on the speaking tour here, and I don’t like that, because I like to go out on the speaking tour. But you’re like the greatest thing since sliced bread on the speaking tour. That must be very rewarding.
RD: It has been. I mean, I’ve always enjoyed speaking. I’ve felt comfortable with it. But to come out and translate some of the lessons I’ve learned on the battlefield, and those lessons that we kind of consider are written in blood, and use those as tools that seem to translate across the board, it’s been very rewarding, and I think surprising across the spread of folks. I mean, I’ve talked to private equity guys, large agriculture firms, small IT solutions companies, sports executives, and so far, no tomatoes, no eggs, and we’re up and running.
HH: How do people find you if they want you to come do their event?
RD: Sure, I’m represented by CAA, Creative Artists Agency, so you can go to CAA’s speaker page, punch in my name, and up comes a request form, and easy.
HH: All right, now I want to go back to a couple of things. I was saying during the break to Rorke, and his wonderful wife who’s in studio with me, I have eight pages of notes, and I’ve gotten through four of ten lines on the first page. And it’s about over-preperation. But this may be the only thing I have in common with SEALs.
RD: For sure.
HH: …is that I’m over-prepared. What did you guys say? Twice…
RD: Two is one, one is none.
HH: Explain that. I love the SEAL…there’s a language that you pick up if you have out…Tracy must know this by heart, right? You must know all these crazy phrases. What is two is one, and one is none?
RD: Well, I think it maybe, primarily came from actual gear. So if you, you know, let’s say a GPS for a mission, you want to have a GPS to make sure you’re out there. If you have one good chance it’s going to fail, if you have two, then you’re down to one, and then you can keep moving forward. So we just kind of like redundancy in our preparation and in the way we stack our gear and build our packages in such a way that we’re never going to be wanting for it when we need it in the fight.
HH: You tell the story at the end of Act Of Valor about the pirates. You were not on the pirate deployment, but you tell it.
RD: That’s right.
HH: And my buddy, Bill Bennett, loves to tell that story, that your counterpart on that team told him we like time. Time is our friend, and that that’s how they were able to take out those pirates just boom, boom, boom.
HH: …because they had enough time to pull the boat a little bit.
RD: That’s right.
HH: When does that culture of patience take hold, because BUDS doesn’t seem like a very patient place?
RD: You know, it’s not, but in some ways, I think, you want to get to SEAL training, the guys that are going to make it through, they want to get to the SEAL team. They want to get to an assault team. And it takes about a year to get through the day one of training of Hell Week and all that stuff, up through the advanced training. So you know, that seems like a lifetime when you’re trying to get to the battlefield. I know the young lions right now that I’ve seen at the compound, you know, they’ll come up to me and say God, I hope, we know the wars are grinding down, is there going to be bad guys left to chase? And I say look, gents, I assure you, we’ll run out of bullets before we run out of bad guys to chase. But just that energy and excitement to get in the fight and become part of that elite team, so I think that patience is developed there. But then, tactical patience is hugely important. So we leverage every possible piece of technology, training, gear, the weather, terrain to our advantage in a fight, and we don’t want to be disadvantage in any way. So that patience is hugely important. So certainly for that mission or any one that we can take the time to stack the odds in our favor, we do so.
HH: And I want to assure the audience, I’m going to walk you through BUDS with Rorke in the second hour of my program. I’m doing that for maximum manipulation of the audience to make you listen for the longest period of time. So I’m not just skirting over that. I’ll come back and tell you about Hell Week and BUDS and all that. But I do want to stay focused for a second on patience. There is a point in the book where you talk about, you’ve got great senior leadership in the SEALs, Admiral McRaven and others who have come before him and will come after.
HH: They always pick the great people. But at points, the political people say let’s just turn out 50,000 SEALs, and then we’ll win the war. And of course, you can’t do that. But explain to people why you can’t do that.
RD: Well, I think the tenets of special operators, not just the SEALs, is that you can’t mass produce special operators. I mean, it’s not something you can accelerate or do via correspondence course or generate quickly. So it takes us time to get a guy ready. I mean, it takes a long time and a lot of money of training to get someone who’s even prepared and the right guy, all the skills required to do the jobs that we’re asked to do. And so when…I was there. It was actually the officer, what’s called the flag lieutenant to our two star admiral who runs all of Naval Special Warfare Command, and we were up in D.C., and we were listening to Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, say look, this is, we need to grow these forces. We need more of you guys on the battlefield. And for us, we said okay, I mean, we can get more, but how do we do that without changing the standard? And that became the challenge.
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HH: Rorke Denver, when we went to break, we were talking about the fact you can’t mass produce special operators. How many SEALs are there? And I’m not talking about Saturday night in the bars. Real honest to goodness SEALs.
RD: That’s right. Yeah, that tends to spread, depending on how late you are out at the main bar streets. There’s about 2,000-2,500 active duty guys at any given time. We’ll keep it right in that window.
HH: And so in terms of how many, again, if I ask you anything you can’t tell me…
RD: I’ll tell you.
HH: You will never…you’ll say can’t say anything.
RD: That’s right.
HH: How many teams are there?
RD: You know, that becomes somewhat hard to explain. There’s basically four what we would call regular main SEAL teams in the East Coast and West Coast, so you have eight of those teams. And then there are specialty teams that spread out from there that do some niche work within the teams. But there’s basically four on the East Coast, four on the West Coast.
HH: So you’re walking down the street and Rorke Denver runs into a guy wearing a trident, so you know it’s a real deal, so it’s not someone who’s pretending to be a SEAL, but the real deal.
HH: How quickly do you translate where you’ve been and how, what tribes you’ve been a part of within the community?
RD: I think it’s changed. I mean, I think before 9/11, what BUDS class you were a member of was kind of the question to find out if somebody was for real, and then there would be discussion of what team you’re at, and what teams you’ve been at, and the people you know. It’s a small enough community, you definitely stand a good chance of, if you don’t know the other guy, of being able to know people they know. I think post-9/11, everybody’s been going so hard and doing the work that it ends up becoming talking somewhat about the deployments, the kind of combat windows that you’ve been in, because it’s been hot for certain points, and a little bit more slower on some rounds, and that happens for a lot of different reasons. But there are waypoint, or kind of flagpole deployments that everybody knows about. And if you were on one of those, it’s kind of fun to have participated in one of those, in my mind, kind of legendary deployments, which a lot of teammates and members have.
HH: Now is it unique, the culture of the SEALs, completely and utterly unique compared to other special operator cultures? You mentioned the ones that you admire.
HH: And there’s a list of those special operators that you admire in Damn Few. But what is it that is unique about SEALs?
RD: You know, boy, I’ve been trying to figure that exact secret sauce about…I mean, if you and I could figure out a way to bottle that today, we’d be celebrating on an island somewhere retired. I mean, it’s a lot of things. I think it’s an alchemy of a lot of traits and characteristics that get people to the team, and I think it’s the culture of the team as well that’s very, very special that you become a part of. All the special operators are great. I mean, there’s not a bad special operations unit in our arsenal. I think the SEALs are unique in that we are as creative as anyone I’ve worked with. I think we’re less tethered to doctrine and historic ways of doing things compared to other units. I mean, there’s nothing that’s out of bounds in a planning space or a planning session to get ready for an event. So I mean, if somebody came in one day and said hey, if you took an orangutan on target, you’d definitely have much higher chance at success of getting your target, we’d start teaching that chimp to jump for sure, yeah.
HH: Now the Navy-Marine mammal thing…
RD: That’s right.
HH: There’s some pretty funny stuff about that.
RD: There are. Yeah, absolutely.
HH: Tell people about that since I just brought it up out of sequence.
RD: Well, there’s a mammal program in the Navy. They have dolphins and seals, and a couple of other actual critters that we’re talking about here that do special jobs in and around port, and harbor security. But occasionally, one or two of those critters will get free, and when we’re diving in, particularly in San Diego Bay, if you happen to get attacked by a 600 pound bottlenose dolphin that takes a liking to you, that can be an interesting moment underwater.
HH: Now do the other special operators resent the press, because you guys get the best press. You got the movie, you got Zero Dark Thirty…
HH: Obviously Damn Few is out there. There have been other couple of books about tactical operations as opposed to training.
HH: Do they mind?
RD: You know, I can’t say 100%. I’ve seen senior leadership of certain units obviously upset about it, and a little bit combative about it. I don’t know. I mean, they may frankly be happy that the heat or the light is on us, and to kind of keep the focus on what they do. It really is an amazing team. I mean, the amount of time I’ve spent on target in and around other special operations units and conventional units, it cannot be said enough how important everyone is to the fight. I mean, whether you work in the chow hall at one of our bases overseas, if you’re on an air crew that’s bringing us to target, and intel, and weather analysts and all these folks, I mean, no one is more important, and we believe that sincerely.
HH: And I know you believe that, because I’ve talked to you off air.
HH: But I do have to ask, male culture, athletic culture, I assume warrior culture will, whoever is getting the spotlight on them, it’s going to be merciless on you. They’re just going to give you so much grief. Is that happening?
RD: Of course.
RD: The jokes abound, and I think only because of the thick skin you develop in this community for a long period of time can you suffer those slings and arrows.
HH: And of the number of guys that you’ve deployed with, give us sort of a number of people whom you consider not obviously as a brotherhood, but you’re close buddies with whom you’ve been in harm’s way.
RD: Yeah, you know, there’s probably a list of about 30 guys that I’ve spent the most time with, or the most aggressive time with. And those will be forever special in my experience or my memory from my time on the teams, and then an even smaller nucleus of those guys that you just become closest with as you would at school or in any other experience in your life. So there’s a few officers, and then what’s special about our brotherhood as well is the connection between officer and enlisted is unique amongst any military in the world.
HH: You see, I want to come back to that, because that came through in Act Of Valor, which is very different.
RD: Yeah, it is. Yup.
HH: Duane types in a question. There’s inter-service teasing, etc. Is there one team that everyone knows is the Pittsburgh Steelers of the SEALs?
RD: (laughing) I don’t know. I don’t know. I would have a hard time trying to pinpoint any one unit amongst everybody else. I’d get ungodly amounts of flak for it.
HH: You would get roasted completely on that.
RD: Yeah, yeah.
HH: Okay, so when we come back, I want to do the history of the SEALs, as well as your own history, because we did it briefly. But hour number two is straight ahead, America, but Damn Few: Making The Modern SEAL Warrior, is in bookstores everywhere. Don’t go anywhere. Come back to hour two, and we’re going to walk you through BUDS, and hour three, a lot of these classic stories. But I had to ask before we go to the break. Have you seen Zero Dark Thirty?
RD: I have, I have.
HH: What did you think of the movie?
RD: You know, I can disassociate the tactical and kind of that experience from the enjoyment of watching a movie. I think she makes good movies. I like the way she films things, and you feel like it’s present, and she’s got a good way of doing that. The tactics are, as well as her first movie, very tough to kind of stomach, because it just, it, I don’t even know if we got it right in Act Of Valor. I think we did as good as you could, because it was real operators doing it. It’s just very, very hard to kind of quantify that and do it. But it paid respect to the real people on that mission, and that’s the CIA and intel folks that found him.
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HH: You know, Rorke, there was a book when I was 20 years old, or 21 years old, called 1L. And it was about Harvard Law School. And it still sells, 35 years later, because people want to know what’s the 1L experience like.
HH: I assume this is going to be the same thing for as long as the SEALs go on, and I’m surprised. I know a lot of SEALs have written books about their tactical deployments. I’m surprised that someone really hasn’t combined both that story, your own story, with a look inside BUDS the way that you do.
RD: Yeah, I don’t know of many people that can. I mean, there’s a generational gap there, so to be able to do that effectively, you’d need it to be a Vietnam era guy who had had combat experience in Vietnam as a SEAL, and then gone into the training program and ran the training. And there’s a few in there that have done that. I mean, Dick Couch has written a lot of books about the SEALs, great books, you know, kind of more investigative, kind of journalistic books about the SEALs, and a great perspective on BUDS on some of those details. But I, and by no control of my own, just through assignment, went through tactical and combat rounds, and then came for a big window of time back to the training center. So I think that kind of 360 degree perspective that I have is unique. So I enjoy that because of the way my assignments went.
HH: So that’s what unfolds here, and I want to talk about that. But let me begin by talking about women out there who are thinking that their husbands might make great SEALs, or their boyfriends should go off and try and become a SEAL. Tracy, the wonderful Tracy sitting with us, what should the spouse or mom, if it’s a young man, know about what BUDS is going to hold for their man?
RD: You know, BUDS is just an all-in program. So I mean when you start that program, you’re time and enjoyment of those things you enjoyed the day before SEAL training began is more or less over. I mean, we’ve got you, we’re going to put the meat hooks in you, and kind of put you through every wicket we can come up with to find out if you have what it takes to be part of our community for more or less a year. I mean, you might get a short break at Christmas. I think we may take a day break at Thanksgiving. Other than that, it’s round the clock we’re going. So once you’re in, you’re there. It takes very, very strong women both as mother and spouses and girlfriends to spend time with SEALs, and those are the ones that make, the type of women that are able to stick around and kind of handle the culture, are a breed in and of themselves.
HH: So if your boyfriend or your son says I want to try, and they get past the gate and they vanish into the facility, you’re not going to see them for a year.
RD: You will not see them…the one thing we do in SEAL training is different than…I went to Army Ranger school when I was assigned at a SEAL team, so I got that experience of their kind of elite selection course as well. They use two month or a three month window when they starve you. That’s kind of their method of testing and discomfort. We use the cold of the water and time, and so you’ll have weekends off, but when you talk about a weekend off from SEAL training, that means as much sleep as you can get, you get your knife sharp, your boots polished, your uniform ironed, and then maybe knock out a massage or something to be ready to go to work the next morning, so very little time off.
HH: All right, let’s start with, let’s talk to people who are thinking I could do that. Before they even pick up the phone, you’re 18 years old, you’re 17 years old and you’re driving around right now, or…how old do you, can you be to become a SEAL?
RD: You’ve got to be 18. You have to be 18, and you have to have graduated from high school. So you’ve got to have a diploma or equivalent GED.
HH: And what’s the upper end?
RD: 28 is our stated limit. So 28, you’re not supposed to be able to start training after that. We do write waivers, very few. But if you’re a Recon Marine, and Army SF guy, or somebody from another elite unit, or even a conventional unit with a great background and you wanted to come, we know you’re vetted, you’ve gone through military course of instruction, or if you’re an Olympian, or you come from some fighting background that makes sense, waivers are possible. They’re challenging. So 18-28 is the real window.
HH: So you’ve got bad boys out there, 18 year olds, they’ve been punks and they’ve gotten in fights, but they’re studs. Can you, can they still think of themselves possibly in this way?
RD: Well, I mean I think the most important thing is if you believe you can do it. I mean, I think it really comes down to your belief in what you bring into the program. When young guys would show up, I would give a pregame speech before Hell Week, but right when they showed up, and I would say to them if you didn’t bring it here, you ain’t gonna find it here. So if you didn’t come with the goods, whether your parents, mentors, coaches got you to a place mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally to handle our training, we’re not going to be able to give you those tools. It builds, I think, as you experience the training and go forward, but the basic stuff, I think, guys bring in through the front door.
HH: The first time you knocked on the door, they slammed it. Tell people about that, and what that means, because you just don’t show up at BUDS and say I want to try.
RD: No, it’s an involved process at this point. I mean, right now, we have a backlog of folks that want to be SEALs and want to try, and many of them are qualified and capable, so we’re almost competing people into the program right now. I came through as an offices right on the onset, so I applied to officer candidate school in the Navy, so as a college graduate, you would go to the officer program, and you’d submit at that point a paper application up to D.C. So all my resume and sports statistics, letters of recommendation, all went into a package, and then you take a physical screen test. So a 500 yard swim, as many pushups, pull-ups and sit-ups you can do in a timed event, and then a 1.5 mile run. You’ve got to blow the minimums out of the water if you want to be an officer. So I submitted that package, I thought it was very strong. I mean, I had all-American team captain at a major D-1 college, national champion, all these things in there, and I got a letter back six months later. My dad read it to me and said hey, you know, they don’t think you’re the guy. And I hung up the phone…
HH: Where were you that day?
RD: I was in Colorado. I was working on a guest ranch out there, kind of this city slickers job out in Colorado teaching people to ride and be on a ranch. And I had been training, waiting for that word.
HH: That must have been a kick in the gut.
RD: It quite literally was a kick in the gut. I actually think that’s what I wrote in Damn Few. It really did. It knocked me sideways. I thought I would get accepted. But I think that’s kind of…
HH: Anyone ever tell you why it didn’t happen?
RD: No, the only reason I can say I know why is because I was on, two years ago, the selection board. So I actually was one of the guys sitting on that board that evaluates those packages. And the fact of the matter is every year, particularly in the officer round, we are going to turn away some absolute superstars. That’s how many talented people are competing for two few spots to be SEAL officers. There’s only so many in a given year that we can give away, so there will be guys that are absolutely green across the board, thumbs up from every member of the board, and we’ve got to cut the line somewhere.
HH: Now had you signed on only to be a SEAL, otherwise you didn’t want to do the Navy?
RD: There was not that opportunity then.
RD: But the way that I applied, I reapplied. As soon as they sent me that letter, I reapplied.
HH: Tell them about the old guy, Al,
RD: Yeah, well, I mean, I have a mentor now. Then, he felt like an adversary at first, but a SEAL that my dad knew through family friends. I called him and said hey, this is who I am, I want to be a SEAL. And he listened to me talk for about a minute and he just said I’ll be honest with you, it doesn’t sound like you’ve got the right stuff, and he hung up the phone on me.
RD: And so I put my package together, I got the application ready, and I called him back. And I gave him about a minute, and said hey, I don’t I need you. I’m sure you’d only sour my application process, I’m going to make it anyway, and I hung up the phone on him. And then about a week later, he called me back laughing. He’s got this big, booming voice, and he’s just a monster of a guy, but…physically. But he said look, you might have what it takes. I mean, you need to have thick skin, you kind of need to have a little something special in the tanks to do this, particularly as an officer, so tell me if I can help you. And so that was actually during my first application. Didn’t get picked up, second application, I called him and I said hey, I didn’t get picked up, doesn’t phase me, I’m going to reapply. And he instantly, they love that, because we’re looking for people that don’t quit. I mean, if there’s one thing you can bring to our program, it’s the no quit ever attitude, and that’s what it takes.
HH: When you were on that selection board, what secret sauce were you looking for in an officer to be a SEAL?
RD: It was actually different in most guys. I mean, we would have paper packages that we’d review first that were absolute superstars. I mean, you could not believe the pedigree. I mean, you know, I’m at Stanford, I’ve got a 3.97 in electrical engineering, I’ve been raising dogs on the side to work with blind vets, I mean, anything you could possibly imagine is in there. And they’d get in the room and start talking to you, and you just had a sense that they weren’t that right guy. The way they answered, it was more me than us, or wanting to be part of something else. And then you’d get a package that wasn’t all that impressive, and then the young man would get in front of you, and you would say you should skip BUDS. I mean, we should send you right to the assault team. I want you working for me today. So we had a column in the evaluation process that was X factor. And to say it’s one thing for any guy is hard to say. You just had a sense in talking to him…
HH: And how many guys were on the board?
RD: About six SEALs up through captain. I was the most junior member of the board as a lieutenant commander.
HH: And so how much disagreement, do you all consensus up by the end? Or is there sometimes a 5-1 vote, 4-2 vote?
RD: Yeah, it’s, there’s a lot of all green, and a lot of all red. Those are pretty easy to exclude and know their picks. And then in the middle, it gets very, very challenging, and I say in the high middle, the guys we know are in the window and kind of, I mean frankly, with the number of billets, the number of positions we have, we have qualified guys. If you just threw a dart at the board, any one of those guys, I think, would have done exceptionally well in the program. Now it’s cutting off that bottom level, and it’s very, very hard. So there’s some passionate fights, and there’s some…
HH: How many screw ups you guys, not people who quit. We’re going to talk about quitting later.
HH: That’s a different issue. But how many screw ups does the board send through?
RD: A couple. I’d say a handful every time.
HH: People can trick you?
RD: They can trick you.
HH: That’s interesting.
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HH: If you’re just joining us, I want you to do it again, Rorke, just to run through your creer for the benefit of people who’ve walked in, and then I’m going to go back to the first day of BUDS. Where have you been? And what have you done on the teams?
RD: Yeah, I was assigned to the East Coast SEAL teams after I finished basic training, and that was SEAL team 4, and we were assigned to Central and South America. I’ve been to East and West Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, a few other pleasure spots around the world, and have been busy the entire time, needless to say.
HH: What is the worst place in the world you’ve been, just for sheer discomfort?
RD: Djibouti in the horn of Africa was pretty tough. And when we were out in al-Anbar Province in Western Iraq in 2006, when we were working and we were out in the field, sometimes we were doing multi-day sniper and overwatch positions. I mean, it just was unbelievable. 125 degree heat, you’re on a roof that’s a tar roof that now has become a pool, the smell of burning garbage and the things that exist over in that part of the world, it’s rugged.
HH: My plan of action is in hour three to talk about the war and your role in it, and this hour is to training. But I do want to just emphasize to people that the real gun stories are coming up, because there’s a lot of this that people don’t associate with…they don’t think of SEALs doing daytime stuff.
RD: That’s right.
HH: You did a lot of daytime stuff.
RD: Almost, it seems like, at this point, almost primarily, but yeah, in our 2006 deployment, we really, I think, broke new ground for special operations units operating during the day.
HH: And with close quarters with our friends in the Marines.
RD: That’s right.
HH: And I want at the beginning, now we’re going back to BUDS, a lot of Marines listen, and of course, I married into a Marine Corps family, so I have to be careful how I say this. And everyone thinks of Paris Island as like the toughest, hardest thing you could ever do in your life, or the Marine Corps recruiting depot, the Fetching Mrs. Hewitt is in the other room smiling right now, because she knows I’m about to get in trouble with the Marines. But on a scale of difficulty, where does Marine Corps boot camp rank vis-à-vis BUDS?
RD: It’s not easily quantifiable to say hey, it’s…tough is tough. I mean, I wouldn’t want to be running around in August in Paris Island getting through any basic course on Earth. I think SEAL training is very targeted at…one, it’s long, so you’ve got almost six months of the basic round, and then six months of the advanced round. That initial six months, we stack more physical cold, wet, misery, mental attacks on who you are personally and spiritually, to find out what you’re made of than any other program I’ve seen. I think it does stand alone in the world of kind of physical and emotional strain to find out what you’re made of.
HH: In Damn Few, I’m trying to do some of this from memory because of what sticks out, jackhammer shivering. This seems to be me to be awful.
RD: Yeah, it’s awful.
HH: Tell people what jackhammer shivering is.
RD: I mean, when people ask what is it that happens at SEAL training, I think those that even visit and come down to the compound, I think they think they’re going to see something different than they do. I think they figure there’s going to be a retina scan and guys coming out of helicopters, and all this high tech equipment and gear. SEAL training is Sparta. I mean, it’s sand, concrete and really cold water, and that’s about all it takes for us to find out what someone’s made of. And you start getting immersed in 52 degree water for 10, 15 minutes on and off for hours on end, your core temperature will drop to a place where tough or not, your body’s going to start reacting on a metabolic level. And so I remember shivering to the point to where you felt like you were going to pull a muscle. You couldn’t button your four buttons on a big combat blouse, you know, the shirt you were wearing. You had to have a buddy that maybe had been out of the water a little bit longer than you button your clothes, and teeth chattering, and just cold in a way that’s hard to describe. But it really feels like they’re trying to kill you.
HH: In the course of any of this, is there any self-awareness? Or does that just vanish, that you just say you know, I’m shivering like a jackhammer here, but it doesn’t matter, and everybody understands why.
RD: I think everybody understands why. I don’t think everybody clearly are prepared for it, or have what it takes to get through that. I think the guys that come in with a belief that they can do it, and an internal dialogue that helps them as opposed to hurts them, are the ones that do really well. So I think being an athlete growing up, coming from the parents I came from, I really don’t have a lot in my mind that says I can’t do that. If I see something, I feel like I can do it. So my voice was telling me other people have done this, you can bang through it, keep going, whereas some people are hearing something different, and that must be brutal.
HH: Now you must have a legendary lacrosse coach in your life.
HH: What’s his name?
RD: Roy Simmons, Jr.
HH: Okay, so everybody who knows the game knows Roy Simmons, Jr.
RD: No doubt.
HH: Is he tougher than a BUDS instructor?
RD: At times, I would say so. He was an unbelievably tough coach. At the same time, he was an unbelievably nurturing motivational coach. I mean, I don’t remember him actually ever coaching lacrosse. I don’t remember him ever making a call, telling us to pass, throw, shoot, pick up the ball. I just don’t remember that. The assistants kind of took care of it. He was the motivator. He was a maker of men. And his stories, his pregame speeches, I mean, the military could use him for a prewar speech, because you’d get ready to charge into a machine gun nest after he talked.
HH: Now in Damn Few at one point, you write that there are five sports that give you a good shot at surviving SEAL training – rugby, wrestling, lacrosse, water polo, and triathlon. Explain why those are the five.
RD: You know, and certainly if you’ve played those or have those in your background, you have a very small percentage advantage, I guess, on folks that haven’t. I think all the sports require physical toughness. I think most of them require training regimens that are tougher than a lot of other sports. I mean, it just take a lot of internal and team discipline to excel in those sports. And they’re combative in their kind of competition. So those sound like pedigrees that are good for somebody coming into SEAL training. So if you have those, it helps.
HH: Now you also write you can’t pick a SEAL out by a physiology.
HH: Now I think that’s surprising. You’re a big guy.
HH: A self-described polar bear. You are not small. But there are little guys.
RD: There are. It’s all over the map, and that’s why I say, and I know you joke in saying that you disagree, but it really is what’s in your head and what’s in your heart. I mean, the little guys, the big guys, whatever you bring to the program, you’ve got to get that set of skills and body through the program. So if you’re little, the boats on top of your head are going to be heavier than it’s going to be for me. If you’re big, pulling that weight through an obstacle course is going to be more of a challenge for you. We’ll find your weakness. I mean, no matter what you come with, we’re going to find it. And if we haven’t, we’ll get creative and find a way to uncover it.
HH: Okay, so it’s first day of BUDS, you’ve gotten in, you’ve passed the packages. Do they mix the officers and the enlisted men?
RD: It’s one of the only programs that truly does mix the officer and the enlisted in a very, very intimate and special way. You are still distinguished as an officer. I mean, you wear officer rank as you’re going through. The enlisted guys in the class don’t call you sir as much as they call you mister, so it would be Mr. Denver, or Mr. Smith of the guys going through. But the officers need to take charge immediately, and that’s what the instructors, almost all the instructors are enlisted guys. And there’s only one officer per phase that runs the course. And they’re looking for guys that are going to be in charge of them. I mean, those instructors are going to go back to the combat units. If that young ensign gets through the course, he’s going to be in charge. So they’re very much evaluating that. But you’re in it together, for sure.
HH: How big is a BUDS class?
RD: I need to get my stats on what the current is. I think we capped it about 155. When I went through, it could be more like 160-180. They’ve had classes when I was running the program up to 200, which is so many to start with, it’s like herding cats. But you know, the classes reduce quickly, so by the time you get done with Hell Week, which is week five of the initial training, you’re down to more manageable 30,40, 50 people to deal with.
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HH: But I want to walk you through it. It’s a year’s commitment. The first five weeks are where the real rubber meets the road. What happens in those first five weeks, Rorke Denver, at BUDS?
RD: Well, it’s, you know, first phase is what I mean when I say that, so first, second and third phase are kind of primary initial SEAL training. There’s actually a course in advance of that now that happens up at Great Lakes near boot camp that is a BUDS prep course that actually is helping you get ready for BUDS. At least the enlisted guys go through that course. But first, second and third phase, which is really the moments in training that get the most attention, the first phase is just all about testing. It’s selection. That’s when we’re looking up through Hell Week, which is week five of that seven week first phase, that we’re going to find out physically and mentally and emotionally if you have what it takes to get through, if you’re committed to the program on the level that we require to then start giving advanced training and further tests to see if you can be trained and become part of this brotherhood.
HH: And so what kind of, give us an average day in the first week.
RD: I remember finding a training schedule that we had printed, a teammate of mine eight years later, and I read through it and could not believe, I couldn’t believe what it looked like. I mean, five in the morning, four thirty in the morning you’re up to go on a four mile timed run. So that’s a graded evolution. If you don’t pass it within the time limits, you’re getting kicked out of BUDS, or at least evaluated for being kicked out of BUDS. Then you go to breakfast. You come back from breakfast, maybe now you go on a 7, 8 mile soft sand conditioning run. Finish that and go to an obstacle course, knock out an obstacle course, then you’re going to lunch. By the way, every time you go to chow, so morning, noon and night when you’re going to lunch, it’s a mile and a half run on concrete over to the chow hall. So that’s your break to go get lunch. Then you have pool evolutions, so you might go to the pool where you do underwater knot tying, where you’re holding your breath while your instructor has your fate in his hands on whether you’re going to go back up to the surface or not, maybe a conditioning swim or a two mile ocean swim, followed up maybe by an afternoon of calisthenics, where hundreds, thousands of pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups, dips, running to the ocean and back, getting wet in sand, the entire time, you’re jumping in the Pacific Ocean, which in California, down in San Diego, I think people think it’s warm. It’s not.
HH: You thought it was going to be warm.
RD: I thought for sure I was going to…
HH: You’re a Northern Californian…
RD: Oh, I grew up in Northern California, and I’d come skipping over the hill and hit the bathtub, and it was much colder than I thought it was going to be.
HH: 52 degrees. So are there days they do not let you in the ocean for fear of having the SEALs swept away?
RD: No. There’s almost, I haven’t seen any day that we haven’t put people in the water. Sometimes, in San Diego, if it’s heavy rains, the ocean will get polluted with…
HH: Yeah, run off.
RD: And we’ll look at those…
HH: Nice term for everything you don’t ever want on your body.
RD: Run off that you don’t want on your body. Those days, we’ll consider maybe going to the bay.
HH: Okay, so in terms of the level of physical exhaustion, after the first day, how many people say I had this wrong, I’m gone, first day drops?
RD: We had people, yeah, we have people quit within the first hour.
HH: That would be me.
RD: Yeah, I mean, we just have people that instantly, I think the program gets bigger than they are, and so I don’t think it’s because it was so physically hard at that first hour. I just think they really figured out right away that this wasn’t for them. And I think they started looking around the room, and paying attention, which is actually not a great move. I write about that in Damn Few, that I tell the students don’t praise false idols. You’re going to see a guy next to you that’s built like a Greek god. He just told you he was in the Olympics last year for swimming and running, and he’s going to hit that water, and day two, he’s going to quit. And we’re going to have some kid from the middle of the country that grew up on a corn farm, he’s never seen the ocean, and we could not kill that kid with a nuclear weapon.
RD: There’s no way we could stop him. So it really is special what it takes to get through.
HH: So what are the instructors doing that first week? How are they, because A) you’re running these people crazy. When do they ever get to talk to each other?
RD: Yeah, I mean, we stack the evolutions, and all the training circuits through the day in a very special way. It is absolutely art and science combined. The art is that the instructors get to use their own personality to impart their wisdom and fury on the students. And the science is evolutions will cut off…the students don’t know this, but evolutions will cut off when they say they’re going to be cut off. There are timetables and things we use to know the water temp, air temp, and how long you can subject a young man to the water without killing him, because that’s not our goal. It’s to push him, it’s to make him think we’re going to kill him, but to push him to that point where we can find out if he’s going to break or quit. And that really is what that first wave of training is about, is finding out if somebody’s going to quit when it gets tough, because we cannot afford that in the combat theater.
HH: It’s interesting, selecting instructors must be its own science, because you can’t put the wrong people into that job.
RD: That’s right. Yeah, no, first phase, when I ran first phase, you really, very few instructors could come straight to first phase. You usually had to be second, and second is dive phase. Third phase is advanced tactics, weapons, demolition. Usually, you had to spend some time elsewhere to come to first phase. And it’s an amazing balance between…we have two names for instructors – huggers and hammers. The hammers are the demons, and the huggers are the guys that kind of help motivate, and you need both to do it right.
HH: What were you?
RD: I probably was neither. I mean, I didn’t see myself as an instructor for the troops. I tried to evaluate the officers in particular, but really run the guys was my job.
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HH: All right, now Rorke, back to the first evolution of training, five weeks that ends in Hell Week. I want to make sure we talk a little bit about Hell Week. It sounds like Hell in the book, and that poor boat ride, and is it Coop? Is that your friend?
HH: Tell people about Hell Week, and tell them about, because the Coop story is actually a very inspiring story.
RD: It is. That’s right. No, Hell Week is the famous week of training in the SEAL history, and I really think it is the line in the sand more than anything else that separates those that will make it through and those that don’t. And you have about a 25% chance of being a SEAL before Hell Week. If you make it through Hell Week, it starts heading up in to the 90%. You really have done something at that point. and so Hell Week starts on a Sunday night. We don’t ever tell htem when, but they’re in a tent kind of waiting for it, and then it starts with a bang, bombs and machine guns go off, and we start running you through the course. And then it ends sometime on Sunday around mid-day. In between Sunday night and Friday, you get maybe, at best, four hours of sleep that entire time, and you’re just cold, wet, miserable and sandy, moving around and getting after it the entire time. It is as tough a crucible as I thin has been created in the world of military training.
HH: You don’t get to take a shower?
RD: Oh, you get wet plenty, but you don’t to take a shower.
RD: They have what we call decontamination showers before you go in the pool, but those are bitter cold as well. There’s no hot.
HH: All right, what’s the worst part of Hell Week?
RD: Maybe taking the shower at the end of it, because if you knew how bad it was going to hurt when your body, with those sores and that beat down, that it feels like the shower is full of acid as opposed to anything that’s going to cleanse you, it’s the cold. I mean, the cold is what makes Hell Week Hell Week. I mean, you are jackhammer shivering like I described earlier, and just frigid cold the entire time. And that just wreaks havoc on your psyche. It’s very, very hard physically, it’s draining, and it just pulls on you.
HH: Now I skipped over the part where you get a swim buddy early, and you don’t swim alone.
HH: And there’s a whole culture of swim buddy. But are you helping each other? Or is it one of those look to your left, look to your right, someone’s not going to be here, so you’d better not help him?
RD: There’s a lot of that look to your left, look to your right, and you know most of those guys aren’t going to be there. So I think there’s…there’s an unbelievable social dynamic and a subplot drama that’s taking place within a class, and the instructors. Instructors have guys that they don’t think should be there and they’re going to lean on, and then the students have guys they think, I don’t think this guy should go through as well, because they know their character and their quality. And so that’s always at odds. The program, fortunately, kind of does it for you. I mean, the fact of the matter is you have it or you don’t, and if you don’t, you’re not going to stay. You’re going to go ring that bell. And we’ve got this bell there that says famous SEAL bell. If you say you don’t want to be in training anymore, you go up to an instructor, you tell them I’ve had it. We make sure that the kid’s not compromised mentally because he’s too cold and not thinking clearly. But you ring that bell three times, and you’re out of there. And that bell becomes the soundtrack of BUDS in first phase. It’s ringing constantly.
HH: And everybody rings it, and there is enormous pressure to do so. It’s part of the tradition. And there’s no shame in it, either.
RD: There’s no shame in it. And it’s not one of those things, and there’s guys that have rung that bell and come back and made it through, and become legendary SEALs. You mentioned Coop, one of our teammates in my boat. You become a boat crew at the beginning of training, but that moves a lot, because people are dropping from the program, and we do it by a height line. You want to be the same height, basically, of all the guys in your boat. And Coop was one of our top performers in our class, or good performer across everything. And late in Hell Week, he was just done. I mean, he just didn’t have anything left in the tanks. But he had performed so well at that point, it wasn’t because he didn’t, it wasn’t him, it was just his body was done. And so on part of it, a race that we were doing, which is basically a race around Coronado Island paddling these little inflatable boats, another teammate and I basically told him hey, I said you’ve got to lay down. You’ve got to go to sleep. You’re going to fall in the water and drown, and we’re not even going to be able to save you, because all of us are too tired to do it. He did so, and it almost made our boat plane out. We ended up winning the race with him not paddling. He really recovered and came back strong. Coop’s gone on to the legendary teams that have been in the news every day that we don’t talk a lot about, even though it’s made press. I don’t know how many Bronze Stars and Silver Stars and combat operations he’s been a part of. To this day, if I see him, he will hang his head a little bit around me, because he failed on that boat race. And that’s the type of personality our guys have. I mean, this distinguished career, and I write about it in Damn Few, this unbelievable career, and the thing he remembers is a failure. And I think it’s something about us we don’t…athletes do the same thing. They remember those losses.
HH: Yeah. Oh, sure. My old friend, Frank Pastore, who died last year, Frank could tell me when he gave up the game winning home run as a Cincinnati Red.
RD: Yup. And I bet he hit a lot of home runs that won the game.
HH: He threw a lot of great games, but he gave up a gopher ball at the wrong time…
HH: …and he could remember that. So in terms of the most memorable stories, I’ve just got to ask you about the twins. I think they were twins. They were certainly brothers.
HH: And that was a heartbreaker.
RD: It was a heartbreaker to experience. You know, we had these two twins, both right out of high school, so just that completely youthful energy of young guns coming into the program, and they had been absolute, as we say, they had been crushing the program. They were on the path to go smoking through. They were so identical that we actually dyed their hair. One of them, we dyed their hair blonde because we couldn’t tell them apart.
HH: I forgot that.
RD: So we wanted to make sure we could distinguish them. And we do an evolution called surf immersion. It used to be called surf torture. I think the PC term is surf immersion. It’s still torture when you experience it. But the guys basically lay down in the surf and just lay there, and start getting really cold and miserable with water washing over you. It was a low tide, so where the instructors are standing, the water was a good ways out, a hundred yards, something like that. And when kids come to quit, some of them come walking in with their head down. Some of them come running to the bell. They’re ready to leave. But we saw a young student, one of the guys walking towards us, and as he got closer, we couldn’t tell exactly what was going on, but we saw the brother. And then we knew it was the twins. And the brother had basically broken the line and ran up, tackled his brother, and we could hear them yelling at each other. And he was just saying look, we’ve been dreaming about this forever. There’s no way you can quit. We don’t get to do this together if you quit. Let’s go, get back, and he drug him back to the line. For me, it was brutal, because I have a brother, and we’re very, very close. And I can’t imagine that exchange. I’m sure for twins, it’s probably even more so. For all of us on the beach, the instructors, it was like watching what we knew was going to be a train wreck, because once your head switches, most of the guys that get talked back in, we’re going to see them again shortly. Sure enough, five minutes later, here comes the twin that was quitting, and the other twin came running up to stop him this time, and at this point, one of my instructors got in between them. He grabbed the one that had not come to quit, and he said hey, this is your adventure. You need to go back there. It’s not his anymore. And the one young man quit, and five minutes later, his brother followed him and quitted with him. It was a tragedy.
HH: It’s an amazing story of many in Damn Few: Making The Modern SEAL Warrior by Rorke Denver.
— – – –
HH: I’ve got to get into, we talked about BUDS last hour, and we’ll come back a little bit. But I want to make sure I cover a couple of things that I think people just need to know. Number one, there are a lot of retired SEALs out there, there are a lot of phony SEALs out there. And stolen valor is a case now that I teach my Con Law students, and I emphasize to them why it’s terrible that people do this. But how do you guys deal with that, that people are out there pretending to be who they’re not?
RD: Yeah, I mean, there’s a website. I wish I knew the site. There’s a website dedicated to SEAL phonies. So if a SEAL finds another SEAL, or anyone finds somebody that’s claiming to be a SEAL that’s not, they can kind of go on this shamed website where we list them. I think the way we look at it is this. If you’re a young man in a bar, and you’re trying to impress a lady, and you think being a SEAL is going to get you there, you know, you better hope a SEAL’s not in a room that hears that, and probably is going to…
HH: Funny story about that in the book.
RD: Yeah, he’s probably going to square that away. The ones that we genuinely worry about, there’s guys that have jobs as security professionals, or some actual job that they have where the background of being a SEAL either got them to that position, or they’re using for that launch pad. And that become genuinely dangerous. We don’t want somebody to be coming from a background of skill sets that they don’t have, and then using that to move forward. So it’s, it kind of depends on the nuance of what they’re doing with that claim.
HH: After the year of training, and you graduate to a team, and let’s pause for a moment and talk about how that happens, and who Father War is, and how the sergeant, the chief greeted you. Boy, that will get me in trouble.
RD: That’s right.
HH: Give a little background there, a little bio on that.
RD: Yeah, so when you’re in SEAL training, you get to at least ask where you want to go. You don’t even know, really, as a student what’s important, but you generally can pick do you want to stay East Coast or West Coast. So you want to stay on the West Coast SEAL teams in San Diego, or go to the East Coast SEAL teams in Virginia Beach. When I was going through, and it certainly wasn’t true, and I write about it in the book, the instructors basically said if you want to war, you go to the East Coast. If you want to stay and play volleyball and dye your hair blonde and have a tan, you stay on the West Coast. Totally untrue.
HH: But that’s what they told you?
RD: I heard that, I said I’m going to Virginia Beach. So I got assigned to SEAL Team 4. At that point in our history, we were regionally focused, so SEAL Team 4 was a Central and South America-focused team. So jungle warfare and a lot of the skills that would take place in those environments, and as soon as I arrived, there was a CO that was there when I checked in. I met him one time. They sent me to Ranger school. When I came back from Ranger school, we had a new commanding officer who has since become, he was at that point, but has only continued to be legend in our community. And we called him Father War. And so for me, when you finally get through all your advanced training of the team, because when I graduated SEAL training, you didn’t get your bird. You weren’t a made man in the community. You went to the team, did a bunch of advanced skills, and then went through boards that selected you for the team. The teams all ran those independently. And so once I finally passed all those boards, they have an amazing physical training exercise where we’d go out on a run and a swim, and I remember coming out of the water knee deep, and my family, my dad and my brother were there, I have pictures of it. I think some of those pictures are in Damn Few. Father War came down in knee deep water, so we’re all standing in the water as frogmen, that’s our history as a UDT and frogmen from the ancient days of warfare to become SEALs, he came down and just gave this speech about now that you’ve gone through all this to kind of become a made man in the community, and now the real work begins. Now, you’re going to be preparing and deploying into the combat theater. Little did we know how true that statement would be, because this…
HH: This was pre-9/11.
RD: This was pre-9/11, and so we still had plenty of work and gainful employment, not as much gunfighting as we would soon see. But he knew what he was talking about.
HH: You know, I know the daughter of Draper Kauffman, the guy who invented underwater demolition.
HH: And that’s fifty years ago. What do you think this community is going to be like fifty years hence?
RD: Well, I sure hope it’s still moving forward and maintaining the fight. I think we have a unique skill set and ability to adapt and focus our energies on whatever is required. So I just think our guys are problem solvers. So if you ask us to do something, whether it’s something we frankly do or not, we’ll figure it out. Our guys don’t know how to fail. They just are going to come up with a creative way to do it. And if you leave us untethered, and allow us to do that, I think that’s why senior leadership at the joint chiefs of staff, and JSOC, and these high level commands, guys like McRaven and McChrystal before him, looked at the SEALs as a very, very unique group within their kind of arsenal of weapons.
HH: I’m talking with Rorke Denver. His brand new book is Damn Few: Making The Modern SEAL Warrior. He’s the former head of basic and advanced SEAL training, and of course, the star of Act Of Valor. Rorke Denver, you kind of go over quickly in Damn Few, where were you on 9/11? And the impact on you and your teammates when that happened?
RD: I was down in, I was in, we were launching operations from Rosie Roads, Puerto Rico, so we were down in Puerto Rico, which was a huge Naval base at the time, and I came in from a morning run, and I walked into our compound, and sure enough, the first plane had already hit the tower. I came in, in time to kind of see that second plane hit the tower, and it was, I can’t think of a different word other than strange to see that happen. And what I mean by that is we were all very cognizant and present, and knew that this tremendous suffering and future suffering would go on both for the folks involved, their families and the country. But we also knew that our phone would probably be ringing, and that we’d be the guys they’d call to go do the job, to go respond. And so that happened on that watch. I think there was a level of excitement. I mean, if you were an athlete and practiced every day and never got to play a game, you’d probably be a crazy person. So for us, the idea that there was now an enemy active and kind of out there for us to go hunt, grew very exciting. I write about in Damn Few, it took me a while to get to the battlefield, but just the way deployment cycles work, and teams gets selected, is challenging, and nothing you can control, and can be very maddening, but it took me a while. If I knew how aggressive it would be when I got there, I wouldn’t have been worried. But it took a while.
HH: Talk a little bit about the enemy. You and I have talked about this off air, and whether or not you respect or do not respect various types of the enemy.
RD: Yeah, I mean, I would say across the board, I respect any enemy, I mean, because any enemy can put your lights out, and do so rapidly. But there’s a tremendous culture to the folks that we go engage with, and we as SEALs, I think, really look at that from a very historic kind of viewpoint. I think we talked about Pressfield earlier, and talking about those Spartans at Thermopylae, and those 300, I mean, it just comes from this warrior culture that you want to kind of meet the best enemy on the battlefield and give them your best, and take their best from them. And that’s not, that’s real. That’s the way we feel about it. So I think all of us, the only thing we fear from an enemy is that they won’t show up to fight, from my culture. And so when I was in Iraq, the folks that we were fighting, for a lack of a better term, felt like thugs. They just kind of felt like street thugs, hustlers, and folks that were moving, running around or weapons around. And I mean, we even found guys on the battlefield that had, they were from other countries that were basically on jihad for their spring break. And now they’re out there fighting us with no real cause or reason to be in that fight. Now Afghanistan is very different. You have a warrior culture and warrior tribes that go back, predate Alexander and his Macedonians trying to pacify and go through that region. So you start talking about this unbelievable warrior culture. And I know I just had tremendous respect for those guys. I think a lot of our teams do as well. They just have a hatred for being oppressed and occupied, and so the focus of those wars, the way the enemy feels about it and the way we feel about it, are different. But that was a worthy adversary.
HH: Late last year, there was a spookily similar to Act Of Valor hostage rescue, where SEALs came in out of the night in Somalia and grabbed a couple of Americans and took them away. And that kind of enemy, they’re just pirates.
RD: Yeah, absolutely.
HH: They’re just gangsters.
RD: Yeah, connected to nothing. They’re doing it for their own profiteering. And so I think for us, the rescue missions are the most interesting skill set that I think we maintain, among other units that are capable of doing it. But rescue missions are special. I mean, if you hear that one’s spinning up, that’s one you get excited about, I think, on a level above many others. And I’ve had people ask me do you think it’s a waste that you’ve lost teammates going after some aid worker that’s put themselves in harm’s way, and maybe you don’t believe about their cause? And I really don’t. All of us really think that that is the mission. And I think it’s what becomes very challenging when you start looking at the senior leadership of our country’s behavior when these events unfold that we’ve seen recently in the press – you know, Benghazi and some of these type of events. You just think man, I would hate to be a soldier downrange and know that somebody wasn’t coming for me. I mean, we’re coming for you. And so if we don’t, I think we’ve really lost something as…
HH: Did you know the men in Benghazi?
RD: I know one of them well.
HH: And so, I don’t want you to criticize your commander-in-chief.
RD: I won’t. I won’t.
HH: But in terms of, tell me about him.
RD: Ty Woods was a friend. We were assigned at SEAL Team 1 together. He was a chief when I was there. He went on beyond that, just gregarious, focused, fit, just a good guy, the guy you want to have as a friend, and go get a beer with, and also be in a challenging fight with. So when I think of Ty, I can’t imagine what he probably did in those last minutes to take care of the people in his charge, or those people he was at least believed was his job to defend.
HH: What do SEALs do when they’re not SEALs anymore? You’re kind of unique – movie star, author, speaker, you know, that’s a different kind of trajectory.
RD: Yeah, you know, what’s next becomes, I think, the real challenge for SEALs, and trying to find a use for those energies and that focus, and coming from such a special group to then move forward, that really does become the challenge for people moving on.
— – –
HH: All right, weirdest thing, SEAL van brawls.
HH: Okay, this is just bizarre.
RD: Yeah, so I don’t, I can’t say, because this is what I’ve done for most of my adult life. I don’t think this happens in a regular business or a culture or climate, but in SEAL tradition, and it started from the day one I showed up at a team, if you are in a van, sixteen packed, your regular van that you drive kids to school in, driving along to a training mission, at any moment, if somebody basically called out van brawl, the worst bar brawl you can think of erupted within that van. And then the only rule of a van brawl is you cannot impede, distract or hurt the driver. So a lot of times, these brawls are taking place at speed, so as long as you don’t impede the driver, all else is fair. I mean, I’ve seen eye gouging, fish hooks, hair pulling, a lot of other lower than manly tactics to win a van brawl. But just, I think, when you get that many SEALs in a confined space for a big block of time with testosterone overload and nowhere to go, it needs to go somewhere. And our guys are just combative.
HH: And so obviously the brass knows about this, and they must pay for a lot of vans.
RD: They do. A lot of vans have been replaced, so much so, and I write about it in Damn Few, that I got called into the office with another senior officer in my platoon to have, and it was in fact Father War, tell us that the next bit of damage we do to any van that’s been assigned to Bravo Platoon at SEAL Team 4, we will pay for it out of our own pocket. He said I don’t care what the policy is, you are paying for it for yourself. We were very, very careful with vans from that point forward.
HH: All right, also, SEAL teams as yellow pages.
RD: So one of the best learning points I ever had, and one of the best things about being a SEAL is the mentors you have from senior SEALs, and guys that have been there and done that, and kind of know how to handle themselves, it seems like, in any situation. But I remember getting ready to open, I opened a yellow pages to try and find a cap, you know, to go on the back of a pickup truck I owned. And this senior SEAL, who’s a warrant officer now, he kind of said what are you doing over there, Sparky? What’s going on? I said I’ve got to get a cap for my truck. And he closed the book, and he said let me show you how this is done. And he picked up the phone, he started calling around to all the SEAL teams, and he said somebody get back to me. And I don’t think he’d put the phone down from the last call, the phone rings, someone he knows, his uncle sells caps at the corner of a street two miles from the base, gives 50% off to SEALs, you know, go. And the lesson was, he told me, he said look, the SEAL teams are the greatest yellow pages and the greatest support network you’ll ever have. And my wife can attest to it as well. When I’ve been on deployment, I mean, the pipes never break when I’m home. They break when I go overseas. So she’s left there dealing with those things that needed taking care of the house. But she can call another SEAL, or connect to folks that within our community will make sure it’s taken care of.
HH: That’s where I was going. Now the wonderful Mrs. Denver is in studio with us. Tell me about that side of the community. It’s all male, obviously, so it’s completely, there’s a group of spouses and girlfriends out there, but mostly spouses, and what kind of parallel sisterhood do they have?
RD: It’s interesting. They have a very tight network. The team is good at connecting those women to make sure they’re informed and kind of connected to the team and feel very much a part of the brotherhood and the community. I think we do that as well, if not better, than most communities. I think the thing that’s interesting about my wife and my situation is actually a little different. For Tracy, she believes in what I do, and she knows who she married. She knows she married somebody that might not come home, which is a phenomenally challenging thing, and a special thing for me to not be burdened by the fact that I can go do the nation’s work and know I don’t have somebody that’s worried about me to the point that I shouldn’t be doing it. So that’s a credit to her and her strength. But for her, being connected to those women was actually not a good balance for her, so she’s hugely respectful of those outlets. She has plenty of wives of SEAL friends, but when we were in Iraq in 2006, we lost two teammates. So Mike Monsoor and Mark Lee were both killed on that deployment. That information moves very quick nowadays, as all information does. And so there were wives at home that got word that a SEAL had been killed, and then had a bloc of time hoping that a chaplain and someone in uniform wasn’t going to come walking up their walkway. And Tracy never had that experience. And so she, I think she unplugged from the world for a bloc of time, and didn’t want to watch the news as much or pay attention to it, but that was a good balance for her. It made sense to have a little bit of that separation. I don’t think that makes sense for all the gals. I think a lot of them should be connected to that, and there’s a tremendous sense of strength that goes with that.
HH: Now Rorke, I don’t even know if I can phrase this the correct way, but the emotional ups and downs, and the velocity with which those occur, and you know, I did a couple of screenings with you for Act Of Valor, and people react very emotionally at the end of the movie, because it’s based on some true incidents.
HH: And everything in the movie actually happened, and you just mentioned Mike Monsoor. And people know that story, or they should know that story. But is there a special chemistry that develops where you’re kind of indifferent, or not indifferent, but that you learn how to get through terrible grief?
RD: I think so. I mean, I think, look, if you came to do this job and you’re not aware of what the possible results are, you’re kidding yourself. I mean, you’ve just not focused on the right thing. So I think I’m at ease with the worst of what can happen with our teams. I think for us, also, we as warriors, the guys that do this job, are warriors. I distinguish that above and beyond just being a soldier. I think the guys that come to do this job have another level of warrior blood or a gene in them that’s different. So for us, we can’t really imagine someone giving up their life in a more amazing way. I mean, I just, there’s almost a little bit of jealousy when you go to, and we’ve been to, a lot of funerals in the past decade plus, that you see that coffin with a beautiful American flag, which we fight and die under, and fight for, that you don’t have this sense of, I mean, that’s the way to transition if ever there was a special way to do so. I want to be around for a long time. I want to see kids get old and grandchildren. But it’s a special situation for warriors.
HH: Now you write in the book about coming back from Camp Habbaniyah…
HH: …not long, seven months, not long in the course of a lifetime. I have seven month stretches in my life that I can barely remember. But the members of Bravo Platoon packed so much life an death into that mad seven month deployment in Western Iraq, I wasn’t sure I could ask much more of them. Everyone I brought to war, I brought back home, and you’re very proud of that. So obviously, that’s the commander’s job.
RD: That is. I mean, I think everybody feels that burden of command, or that responsibility when you’re in charge to ensure that you make decisions that don’t lead to a catastrophe. There’s a lot you can’t do. The leaders that lost men on the battlefield, and a lot of men, it wasn’t because they were less than those who didn’t. I feel a lot of things were at play. I hope some of my calls and my decisions kept us focused in the right way that we had a good balance and ability to bring everybody home. But there’s a lot of fate that’s involved in that, too. I mean, the one thing you learn being on the battlefield, when your time’s up, your time’s up.
HH: How does a SEAL tell their officer they think they’re wrong, or that you’re being a pain in the neck, or that you’re having a bad day, because everyone’s got bad days, right?
HH: So what do they do?
RD: I mean, I think the nice thing about our community, we don’t, we just have a very open social group, and you’re rarely not going to know what your guys are thinking. They’re aggressive, they’re devious, they’re creative, and very, very challenging of authority. And for us, we think it’s a good thing. I mean, it brings the best out of all of us. So my guys knew exactly how to talk to me. They knew when to talk to me. For instance, when we prepare for a mission, everything was open during rehearsals. You could make any suggestion. As soon as we launch in the mission and we were on our approach leg, people knew they would get their head torn off if they tried to change the plan at that point, because that plan, we’re going forward.
— – – –
HH: Here’s a poem. I never feared the day that death came to take my hand. I fear the cries of my family, so I’ll live as long as I can. The poet is Nate Denver. It’s from the book Damn Few: Making The Modern SEAL Warrior by Rorke Denver, my guest in studio if you’re just tuning in. Rorke, the former head of basic and advanced SEAL training, the star of Act Of Valor, author, along with Ellis Hennican, of the new book, Damn Few: Making The Modern SEAL Warrior. Nate Denver is your brother…
RD: He is.
HH: And it’s a nice little bit of poetry, nice little homage to your brother there. But it must be funny to be the brother of a SEAL, and of a movie star.
RD: You know, Nate’s one of the all-time greats. He’s a throwback to men that don’t exist much anymore. He’s a renaissance man, he’s a firefighter here up in Los Angeles, and an amazing writer and musician. And that’s actually a lyric from one of his songs. And it’s a lyric that I always loved listening to, and I listened to it well before I went to war. And then when I went to war, it became every bit more intense to me. And so I have quotes in each chapter from kind of warrior greats or leaders or luminaries, and it wouldn’t have been right not to have Nate in there.
HH: Yeah, it’s very neat, and you pay homage to your mom and your dad as well. And it’s a whole family deal, and I just want to stress that, and your children are little, but it’s a whole family deal to be a SEAL.
RD: It is. Everyone is all in, everybody’s part of that experience. And I think one of the things I write about in Damn Few that I didn’t realize is I didn’t realize the burden I’d put on them choosing this path. I saw the adventure of it, and the excitement from Churchill and what I thought I wanted to do as a young man, and it went a lot longer than I thought even my initial commitment would be. But you know, the conversations you have with loved ones being a SEAL are very different than I think normal people. I mean, to sit down with your brother and explain to him, to tell mom if I don’t come back, I believed what I was doing, don’t have her descend into sadness and grief and hate of our country. I mean, those are not normal conversations for most people.
HH: Now again, there’s a lot of that in Damn Few, and it’s about the life, not just the making of the SEAL, so I would encourage you to do that. Now I want to go back and get to a couple of things I missed when I was talking last hour about training.
HH: Eating during BUDS, the number of calories you consume. And of course, it hadn’t occurred to me, but you must have to just stuff food in yourself.
RD: You cannot get, you frankly get enough calories in your system to make it through the training. And we, as instructors, enforce that. So much so, if you were in Hell Week, for instance, and you weren’t eating at a meal, if you couldn’t eat, I mean, if we couldn’t get you to get food in, we’d have to pull you from the program. It’s just, there is just too much physiological and metabolic requirement to have energy in there to expend. You have to get as much food as you can.
HH: So what do they serve you? Is it good? Or is it just calories?
RD: It’s not too good.
RD: I mean, it depends on the chow hall you’re in. I mean, I’m sure some of the chow hall folks down there want to shoot me now. But I mean, it’s standard kind of chow hall food. I mean, you’re just going to pile a bunch of starches and protein and carbs on a plate, and just get as much in as you can.
HH: All right, room inspections. You went a little crazy on this.
RD: Yeah, so room inspections are one of these very special parts of, there’s not a military course of instruction, basic instruction you wouldn’t go through in the world where you wouldn’t have room inspections or uniform inspections. We use them as SEAL instructors to really push the students, but push concepts that we think are important. So if you fail a room inspection, because everyone does because of sand or dust or dirt, or something wasn’t aligned right in the room, what we call beat session, or the physical training, run the beach, picking up a buddy and running the beach and pushups and sit ups and pull ups, and all those hideous events that we do to test somebody, they get extra if you fail a room inspection. And then what comes out of that is we start teaching somebody that it really does matter that your room is clean when we tell you you’re room needs to be clean. It really does matter that you put your fins and your knife in a very specific format so we can look at it and inspect it, because if your gear is ready on a mission, it’s going to make the mission go well. If it’s not ready and you didn’t take that seriously, it could cost everyone. So those little details matter. And so the room inspection is one of those things that becomes one of those building blocks of future experience and success as a SEAL.
HH: When do you figure out whether or not, I mean, there are lots of evolutions here where you talk about, you do mountain training in Alaska, you do dive training, you do free fall practice, you do weapons training. When do you figure out someone won’t jump out of an airplane? Has that ever happened?
RD: It’s happened. I mean, I don’t know, I can’t think of any SEAL that I’ve heard that happened, that he was a refusal that he couldn’t jump. When I went through, you went through Army at Fort Benning, the classic jump, you know, 82nd Airborne type jump school there, where you jump out on a static line, so all you’ve got to do is jump out and the chute opens for you, and you crash into the ground a lot harder than you expected it to come. And then when you got to free fall training, the first time on static line, they open up a ramp. I’m a big guy, so I was the first guy out the door, because I’m going to have a greater fall rate. I remember at jump training when it came out on a static line, I thought we were too low. I mean, it looked like my feet were going to hit the trees when they pitched us out on that static line. And the first time they opened up that ramp for a free fall, you looked down and you feel like you’re working for NASA. It just ends up becoming, the training is very specific. We tell you how to do everything. If you don’t take a lot of thought into it, if you just listen to the procedure and do it right, you get to the ground safe.
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HH: Rorke, it’s kind of a unique career. You were in the SEALs, and deployed when 9/11 happened, you’re still on the reserves, you just got out of active duty in the last few months, and so the ten years of your life have been ten years of war. There have never been ten years of America being at war.
RD: That’s right.
HH: And we’re not very good at this. I just, I’m just curious where you see this going, because we’re skedaddling from Afghanistan, we’re already out of Iraq, that’s holding, the work you did there is holding, but it’s a funny without a beginning and an end.
RD: It is. It is. I mean, I think the future of warfare is going to be interesting to see where we go next. I think this decade plus of sustained combat has highlighted things we do well and things that don’t work. And so I write about in Damn Few that I think there’s, particularly with special operations units, a future employment that could be effective. I think our ability to rapidly deploy, be very creative when we get there, and solve problems when we show up on a scene, even if we feel like we know the area well, is unique. And so I think if you can deploy our teams for purpose and for targeted opportunities, that we’ll be very well employed for here into perpetuity. So we’ll see where that goes. I think another part of this process is going to be, after a decade plus of combat, is how we’re going to deal with folks coming back. And I think most people are going to come back from this time in combat, and they’re going to be fine. I think they’re going to come back and they’re going to get back into society and move forward, and hopefully only improve things. I mean, the type of skills you learn in the military translate to the coming world, and to the civilian world. There are going to be folks that are going to need help, and we obviously saw that with my teammate, Chris Kyle, who was killed on a range trying to work with one of those trouble, young men. And so I think culturally, and in government, if we’re not doing a good job of building that process of making sure folks that do need help get it, I think we’re going to have some terrible results.
HH: And how does the community take care of the survivors of the SEALs who have not come back?
RD: We’re very special in that regard. There are several SEAL charities and benevolent organizations that are amazing. I mean, when someone is killed in combat, they swoop in and take care of everything. I mean, they take care of, not only just the funeral services and those things, but I mean, they’ll pay off house payments, they’ll make sure college tuitions and grants are set up for their kids. We’re very good at taking care of our fallen.
HH: Now in terms of your life, I mean, you’re a young guy, and obviously right now, audiences are demanding you come and speak to them. By the way, why do you think they want you? Why does corporate America want to hear from Rorke Denver, obviously a movie star, Act Of Valor, they all know that, now they’re going to have read Damn Few. But my guess is if they knew your resume, and you hadn’t been in the movie, and you hadn’t written the book, they’d still want to hear from you. Why?
RD: You know, I think as much publicity has been shown on SEALs, there still is a mythology there. There’s a presence that goes along with it that people connect to. And I think a lot of folks think there’s something special happening there, and I like talking about those things I think are special that are probably above and beyond those things you would think are special So those lessons that I’ve learned after about 13 years on the SEAL teams translate across communities. So the folks that I’ve talked to have just really been able to pull concepts out of there that have just become powerful and useful for them. So I think it’s partially great support for the military and service as well, and I think a very, very specific desire to kind of know what we’re about.
HH: Pressfield argues there’s an archetype, right, that goes back to the beginning of time…
HH: …that’s been written about forever, and that it’s a really small subset of the population. It’s not better, but it is very different.
HH: And to run into a warrior, it’s just a very unusual thing, and people don’t get a chance to…what’s the dumbest thing anyone’s asked you?
RD: What is the dumbest thing anyone’s…
HH: Never mind. You don’t have to, probably a lot of them, right?
RD: Yeah, I mean, to be honest, it has been very special. I think Pressfield’s right. I think there’s this kind of covenant between a nation’s warriors and its civilians that doesn’t get enough time to spend together. I mean, we get to go do our job because the folks here give us something to fight for. And I mean that very sincerely. I’ve never been in uniform and not had somebody come up and thank me for my service. And I know there’s a generation of warriors that came back from a war recently that did not have that experience. I can’t fathom what that must have been like. But for us to come back and have people thank us for our service, wherever they fall out on their belief in the war or politics, is very, very special. And so for me, to have a chance to thank them for their service, and giving us something to fight for, I mean, I wouldn’t want to kiss my wife goodbye, pat my kids on the head, and not know if I’m coming home if there wasn’t something worth fighting for back here. So it’s very, very special and important for me to know that this whole experiment of our country moves forward.
HH: And do you think the bad guys are done?
RD: I don’t. I think bad is going to be bad for a long time. I think they’re morphing into different forms of evil, and always trying to find new spots to root and take seed. So no, I wasn’t kidding when I said earlier we’d run out of bullets before we run out of bad guys. We need to be prepared.
HH: When you see these guys coming down from Mali, and they may very well have been the guys who took your team out in Benghazi, and the French drop in, does the sound of the horn in the back of the mind, you wish it was the SEALs as opposed to the French?
RD: No, you know, a lot of our allies have amazing units and capacity for work on the battlefield. And the fact of the matter is that if the organized French military goes to gets that job done, I think they’ll do it well. And I think they are doing well in the places they’re engaging. I think…I don’t think any fight would be lessened by having SEALs on the battlefield, or special operators from the United States military. So when we get an opportunity to engage, I think you’re going to get tremendous return on investment if you send us.
HH: Last question, when Blind Man’s Bluff came out about Naval submarine warfare, people learned things 30 years after that they would never have imagined were going on. Is that the same thing with SEALs, that I mean there’s stuff that we just, we’ve seen a lot between Act Of Valor and Zero Dark Thirty…
HH: …your book, many other books. We have a clue about the capabilities, but would we still be shocked and surprised at the capabilities?
RD: I think you would. I think you would. I think the things that have been demonstrated have been exactly just that, capabilities. Not tactics, and not the way we actually look at a problem set, the way we plan for that, and the way we solve it, and then the type of things that take place on every one of those missions to do it to success time and time again.
HH: And in terms of the SEAL community when it’s done, the old, old guys, do you see them anymore?
RD: Yeah, we do pretty well by reunions. I mean, there’s nothing better than when you see a Vietnam era frogman, or the very few left of the UDT guys, and have them talk about their experience, and connect to us about our experience. It’s very, very special to have those generational moments to interface.
HH: So we end where we began. If someone is listening right now, 30 seconds, and they’re thinking I’d like to try that, what should they ask themselves?
RD: I think you need to ask yourself if you have the commitment to get through something that’s as challenging as anything you’ve experienced, most likely, up until that point. And do you want to be part of something bigger than yourself. You know, you are going to become part of a team, an elite network and brotherhood that’s special and unique in the warrior pantheon, and we do it as a team. No one does it alone. So if you want to be part of that, and you believe you can, then you probably can.
HH: Rorke Denver, congratulations on a great, great book. Damn Few by Rorke Denver in bookstores now, it’s listed at Hughhewitt.com, Amazon, Barnes And Noble, everywhere, and the Facebook page for Rorke is Rorke Denver. Go out and meet him. You’ll enjoy it, and you’ll be glad you did.
End of interview.