No Target Escaped Alive

By John Gilstrap

There are perks to writing in my little corner of the thriller genre.  Three or four weeks ago, I got an email from an active-duty U.S. Navy SEAL named Steve telling me how much he liked the Jonathan Grave books, and wondering how I did my research.  He said in his email that I was “spot on” the details.  Wow.  As compliments go, it doesn’t get a lot better than that.

This started an ongoing correspondence, and after I told him about the tour I got of the First Special Forces Operational Detatchment-Delta compound at Fort Bragg (the Delta Force compound), he offered me a tour of the SEALs compound in Virginia Beach, a mere three and a half hour drive from my front door.  He learned not to make such offers lightly.  I said not just yes but hell yes, and the details all came together last week.

First a few details about this amazing community of heroes.  Steve is now preparing for his fourteenth deployment since 2001, having only recently returned from Afghanistan.  He’s an E-9 (a master chief, the highest enlisted rank available), and he just won the Legion of Merit with Valor Device for an operation he’s not allowed to talk about.  When I asked him about it, his first concern was how I knew that he had won the award.  He seemed almost embarrassed.  They don’t do what they do for the glory of it; they do it for the honor of serving.  I know it sounds corny, but when you’re with these elite Special Foces guys for more than ten minutes, you know that they’re speaking from the heart.

Like the Unit compound at Bragg, the SEAL compound is the land of broad shoulders and no necks.  It’s also where you’re far more apt to see long hair and mustaches than the high-and-tight clean-shaven look.  Within minutes of checking into my hotel on Thursday afternoon, my cell phone rang.  It was Steve, asking me if I was in town yet (I was), and if I wanted to go watch a training exercise (I did).

He picked me up at the front door of my hotel and we drove into the hinterlands, through a couple of security chcekpoints, until finally we were in a simulated Iraqi village.  With snow on the ground–okay, there’s a limit to simulation.  Within a few minutes we met George (all of these guys go by nicknames–remember Maverick and Iceman?–but I’m not sure what’s appropriate to pass on, so none of the names are real), the guy in charge of running the training scenario.  George said, “Nice to meet you.  For the full training experience, do you want to be an insurgent?  We can get you the gear.”

“Sure,” I said.

“No, you don’t,” Steve said.  That brought a big laugh.  Turns out they use turbo-charged paint pellets, and it’s never pleasant.  They also deploy the god-awful meanest dogs I’ve ever seen.  Muzzles notwithstanding, I would have needed a change of trousers.  Still, I got to watch the training, and I learned a lot–much of which will appear in future Jonathan Grave books.  And I had yet to begin the real tour.

Friday began at 8:30, with a tour of the administrative areas, and then the shooting range.  I got to see the squardron team room where Uday and Qusay Hussein’s gold-plated weapons are on display.  There’s also a very cool picture of a SEAL team in the prison yard of Carcel Modelo in Panama City, taken within 24 hours of the events I wrote about in Six Minutes to Freedom.  That was very, very cool.

But let’s be honest.  The shooting range was the best of all.  My firearms instructor was a former SEAL who goes by Turbo.  A hero of the famed Roberts Ridge engagement in Afghanistan, he’s the nicest guy in the world, and has the coolest toys on the planet.

The attached videos show me shooting the Heckler and Koch (HK) MP-7 (4.6 mm/17 caliber) and then the HK 417 (7.62 mm/.30 caliber).  I also shot the HK 416 (the 5.56 mm/.223 caliber carbine that is replacing the Colt M4, which replaced the venerated M16 as a soldier’s best friend).  These are all very, very cool weapons.  The coolest weapon of all was one for which I have no video.  The .300 WinMag is a standard sniper rifle for the SEALs, and let me tell you it is a cannon.  It fires a .30 caliber magnum round that is deadly accurate at 1500 yards.  (I say with no small degree of pride that I shot the snot out of my target at 200 yards.)

Having never served in the military myself (no source of pride there, I assure you), whenever I visit those who do the nation’s bidding, I always leave inspired.  Cool toys aside, my new friend Steve will be heading into harm’s way in two weeks, and he won’t be home for his family again for four months.  Modern technology lets him communicate every day–with live pictures, even–but nothing substitutes for the touch and smell of the people you love. 

They do what they do because it is a job for which there is no comparison.  The nature of their jobs requires violence, but the violence is not something they crave.  They take solace in being the best of the best, and they, more than anyone else, pray for peace.

I’m a better person for being able to call a few of these heroes my friend.  I pray that they succeed in their mission, but more than that, I pray that they all come home safely. 

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