(Photo: Mike Ritland, author of K9 Trident Warriors, and I-BUD/S Third Phase)
Figured I’d give you a look at what I’ve been working on. -Brandon
Chapter 5 Excerpt
I met Chris Campbell when he rolled into my BUD/S class in 1997. Chris was living, walking proof that you cannot judge a book by its cover. He stood about 5′ 7″, one of the smallest guys in our class, and weighed maybe 140 sopping wet. The instructors called him “Campbell’s Soup,” because he always had a smile on his face, like the happy cartoon kid on the soup can. No matter how much shit they threw at him, it wouldn’t stick. Chris was afraid of nothing, never lost his temper, and nothing could faze him. You just could not get this guy down.
One night during second phase (this is after making it through Hell Week in first phase), we were winding down for the night, when one of our instructors screeched into the parking lot, parked his car on a crazy angle and got out, leaving his headlights on. We heard him outside telling the other instructors, “Go home, you guys. I’ve got this.” Instructor Weber, as we could clearly hear from his slurred speech, was piss drunk. He was going through a divorce at the time, and he was not a happy man. What’s more, he was prepared to share that state generously with all of us.
Instructor Weber walked into the building and started laying into the class, yelling at us, hosing us down, and subjecting us to various forms of punishment. As he stood regarding the group, his head swiveling slowly left to right like a tank gun, his eyes lit on me. I didn’t know what was going on behind those reddened eyes, but whatever it was, it wasn’t good.
“Hey, Webb,” he growled. “So, you got time to go grab a dry shirt? Fuck you.” That was when I knew I was in for some trouble.
Somehow Instructor Weber knew I’d had a dry tee shirt on earlier that night. The truth was, when we suited up in our wetsuits to go out into the surf, I never wore a tee shirt underneath like everyone else did. (I never understood this. I mean, why bother? It just gets wet!) I’d do my dive, take my wetsuit off, put my dry tee shirt on, and then everyone would be standing around in wet tee shirts except me. This little luxury I allowed myself had just come back to bite me in the ass.
Nearby there stood a large tank of clean, freezing cold water that we’d use to wash the sand and salt water off our gear and regulators after being in the ocean. The Dip Tank. Weber looked at me emptily, then swiveled his tank gun gaze over and looked at Chris. Then over at the Dip Tank. Then back at us. I could see the words forming in his brain before he spat them up and coughed them at us.
“Webb! Campbell! In the Dip Tank!”
What infraction Chris had committed that earned him being in there with me, I don’t remember, or never knew in the first place. But there we were, up to our necks in freezing cold water, watching the rest of the class doing pushups and eight-count bodybuilders while Weber talked. And talked. The guy went on and on: what shits we were, how miserable this class was, how we’d never make it to third phase, what an embarrassment we presented. Soon he was getting circular. Oh God, I thought, when is this going to be over. I was positive that death from hypothermia was only minutes away. I couldn’t imagine feeling more miserable. I felt so sorry for myself.
And then I glanced over at Campbell.
His teeth were chattering so hard they sounded like they were going to rattle right out of his head—rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat, like a chipmunk machine gun. And he had this big shit-eating grin on his face. I did a literal double-take and wondered if I was hallucinating. What the hell would he have to be so happy about? And yet there it was, that classic Campbell grin plastered on his mug—and so help me, I was grinning back.
It occurred to me then how ridiculous we both looked. And how inane Instructor Weber’s endless rant sounded. And how absurd the whole situation was. And then Chris and I were both laughing—at our own misery and everything about it.
That moment was perfect Campbell. And he had that effect on everyone. No matter what was going on, no matter how bad the situation got, things always seemed easier when Chris was around. Everyone liked him. How could you not like him? It was impossible.
I heard a story about Chris from Randy Kelley (the same Randy Kelley who later helped me out when I was starting the Wind Zero effort). Randy and Chris were teammates in the BUD/S class before mine, before Chris got rolled. During Hell Week, we do an exercise we call Around the World, where we go out onto the ocean in the middle of the night and paddle around Coronado Island. This is essentially an endurance contest, an all-night affair that runs from the early evening through dawn the next day. On this occasion it was deep in the middle of the night, they’d been out there paddling for hours, and everyone was starting to fall asleep. Randy had grown up going to a Baptist church, and at that moment the tune of an old Baptist hymn popped into his mind. Desperate to keep himself awake, he started humming it.
Suddenly Randy heard another voice harmonizing with his. Chris had joined in, and not only that, he was singing the words. Randy looked over at Chris. They both laughed, then started in again, singing this old hymn together. The other guys on the boat groaned and said, “Jesus, you guys.” Which only made them laugh harder—and keep on singing.
It turned out Chris and Randy had both grown up in North Carolina. They hit it off and stuck together from that point on, even after Chris rolled out of that BUD/S class and into the next. After BUD/S they both went on to Team Five and ended up in the same platoon, where they became inseparable.
Chris had joined the SEALs in large part because he wanted to get out of North Carolina and see the world. He and Randy both loved the outdoors, and whenever the platoon arrived at a new location, if it was possible to camp out, they would take that option over a hotel room. While the other guys would go out partying, Chris and Randy would go exploring—safari, diving, hiking, whatever. For the next four years, through two platoons, they did this all around the world.
A devoted photographer, Chris always had a camera with him, taking pictures of anything and everything. The others would ride him for what seemed like stupid things to snap pictures of at the time. But when they’d get back home and look at the photos he’d taken, they would turn out to be amazing shots. The dude had an eye, that was for sure. In fact, the thing Randy noticed most about Campbell was his capacity to appreciate the beauty of whatever was going on, to be at home wherever he was. No matter where here was at the moment, he never seemed to want to be anywhere else.
“What’s special about Chris,” said Randy, “is not that he’s larger than life. It’s kind of like, he is life.”
Which didn’t necessarily mean he had an easy time of things. Far from it. In fact, in those early years it almost seemed like Chris had to work extra hard just to keep up.
Near the end of third phase in BUD/S, we were doing a final land navigation exercise up at Camp Pendleton. Land nav was tough. We were out in the mountains through the freezing nights, snow on the ground. We didn’t get much sleep. Most of land nav we went through in groups, but this final exercise dissolved the squads. Now it was every man for himself. The air crackled with tension. We all knew that if we didn’t pass, we didn’t graduate.
The exercise was a combination of survival skills and navigation/reconnaissance skills. The instructors had planted a series of navigation points distributed across the countryside, spanning a number of mountains. We had to hit each point in the right sequence, almost like a sophisticated scavenger hunt. At each point there was an ammo box with a unique code inside that we had to radio in along with our coordinates before moving on to the next.
In the middle of the night, I ran into Chris. He looked disheveled and totally frazzled.
“Hey, man,” I said, “what’s going on?”
He jerked his head in my direction and stared at me. “I just realized, this isn’t my point! I’m not supposed to be on this hill!” He pointed to a hill about two miles away. “I’m supposed to be on that hill!” And he went staggering off in the other direction.
Oh man, I thought. Campbell is fucked. And he almost was. He nearly flunked out of BUD/S on that land nav. The next morning I checked in with him to see how he’d done. He’d made all his points, all right, but in the process he’d gotten a severe case of poison oak. The poor guy was covered with it. Anyone else would have been in utter misery. Not Campbell. There he was, lying on a rolled out mat on the ground, covered head to toe with that ugly red, burning rash, grinning and laughing at some joke.
If you’d been a betting man and you were around when Chris was going through those early years of training, your money probably would not have been on him being the guy who would go on to become an outstanding operator. His spirit was Teflon®, but this SEAL stuff did not come easy for him.
Not long after 9/11, Chris and Randy’s platoon went into Pakistan to do some hydrographic reconnaissance for a potential landing on Pakistan’s beaches, in case it proved impossible to air drop forces directly into land-locked Afghanistan. Randy was the platoon’s Leading Petty Officer, so it was his responsibility to make sure everyone had all the right gear. After they finished their surveys and were preparing to pull out, Chris approached him on the beach. “Hey, Randy,” he said. “I, well … I lost my gun.”
“No way,” Randy said. That wasn’t possible. We would always, always have our sidearm strapped in, and we would always, always lanyard our guns, especially when we were going in the ocean.
Chris showed Randy his holster. No gun.
“Tell me you lost it somewhere here, right?” said Randy, gesturing up and down the stretch of beach.
Chris hung his head. “No, man. It’s nowhere on the beach. It’s gotta be in the ocean somewhere.”
Even aside from being a SEAL, Chris was an avid outdoorsman who had always loved the ocean. He would spend hours surfing the waves. The ocean was like his home. This was the last guy in the world you’d think would be unprepared for an op in the water. But the gun was gone.
As a SEAL, there are two things that will ruin your career. One is losing crypto for your comms or some other crucial intelligence. The second is losing your gun. Make pretty much any other mistake, and you can work through it. But do one of those two things—especially in a foreign country; especially in a foreign country where you do not exactly have permission to be in the first place (which was their situation)—and the chain of command goes ballistic.
There was nothing Randy could do to help Chris out here. As LPO, he had to tell the platoon commander. He did. The commander went ballistic.
They spent the next six hours diving in the surf, trying to find that gun, until the sun went down and the boats came in to take them back to their ship.
Chris was on kitchen duty on the ship for the next two weeks. That may sound like light punishment, but let me explain something: SEALs are never on kitchen duty. It just doesn’t happen. There may be several hundred crew members, sailors, Marines, and others on a ship—and a few dozens SEALs, who are regarded as being in a class by themselves. I’ve seen high-ranking officers step aside and let a Teams guy through when they see that Trident. Kitchen duty? You must be kidding. It was unspeakably humiliating for Chris.
As it turned out, this was a defining moment for his career. He felt he’d let everyone down—and it drove him to double his effort to become an outstanding performer. Which is exactly what he did. Not long after the lost gun episode, Chris went on to Green Team. Green Team is to DevGru what BUD/S is to the SEALs. In essence, it’s the tryout phase leading to DevGru. It is one ball-busting tryout, and half or more who start don’t make it through.
Including Chris. He failed out of Green Team.
And then something amazing happened: they kept him around.
It’s hard to convey just how rare this is. When you fail out of Green Team, you fail out—emphasis on the word out. In that way Green Team is not like BUD/S: you don’t get a second try. And you don’t stick around, either; you are sent back to your regular SEAL team, where you resume your career. Incredibly, though, they let Chris stay. His instructors gave him a temporary billet somewhere at DevGru command, doing thoroughly boring administrative and support tasks. Basically, being a whipping boy. But still: they let him stay.
Why? Because of that Chris Campbell attitude. They could see he was dead serious and very conscientious and at the same time completely humble, both about himself and his job. They couldn’t help it; they just liked him.
And he worked his ass off. After about a year of this he went back through Green Team a second time, and this time he made it. As part of DevGru, he became a truly stellar performer who saw more action than most of my friends and I put together. He was not a part of that OBL raid in May 2011, but he was a part of plenty of others just like it, missions that you and I have never read about in the papers or heard about on CNN, and never will.