Former SEALs reflect on crash that killed so many brothers in arms
Published: August 8, 2011
NAPLES, Italy — When his daughter told retired Navy SEAL Don Shipley to turn on the news on May 1, he thought President Obama was going to announce that U.S. forces had killed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
But the SEALs had instead taken out Osama bin Laden.
To Shipley and other retired SEALs, as well as the 2,500-strong active duty force, that was a watershed moment.
“Man, that’s our version of raising the flag on Mount Suribachi,” Shipley said, referring to the now-mythic image of Marines raising the flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II. “That operation had so much hair on it. These operations ... are zero to hero. There’s no other way they’re going to go.”
Three months later, that same community is reeling from one of the lowest points in SEAL history, the shooting down of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter carrying 30 U.S. servicemembers — including at least 17 Navy SEALs — and eight Afghans. It was the largest single-day U.S. loss of life in the Afghanistan war.
For former SEAL Larry Yatch, who retired in 2008 after major injuries sustained during an operation, there are two levels of loss for the community.
The first is the human loss, always tragic, he said.
“The fact that it took so many people is what makes it hurt so much more,” Yatch said.
But second, Saturday’s deaths were a significant blow to the SEAL ranks.
Attrition during SEAL training is huge, Yatch said, and the men lost on that Chinook carried years of experience with them.
“If you do the math backwards as to the percentages lost at each step of that process, you’re looking at needing to field almost 2,000 candidates” to make up for those lost, Yatch said. “Being able to replace those SEALs as a weapons system — not as a person — that’s going to take a long time.”
Shipley said the “continued shocks” of hearing that so many SEALs were lost to one mission has shifted toward concern for the wives and children left behind.
“Most of these guys were in their early 30s and younger, had kids, were married,” he said.
Those survivors will be able to lean on support networks in SEAL communities that are second to none, something that Shipley saw after Sept. 11, 2001, when “the guys started coming back hurt.”
“When you live in San Diego or Norfolk, when it happens, the amount of people at your door, this isn’t just checks in the mail,” said Shipley, who retired in 2003.
SEALs are conducting so many operations in Afghanistan right now, Yatch said, and bad things happen.
“A lot of our job is just the nature of odds,” he said. “You can only plan for so many contingencies, but in the end, what we do is dangerous.”
The best and worst parts about being a SEAL are pretty much one and the same, Shipley said.
“That’s going away, that’s being away,” Shipley said. “The amount of time a SEAL spends gone on these training trips and deployments away from his family, it’d make your jaw drop. But that’s what you want to do. These are the guys that run to the sound of gunfire.”
Shipley said this community will endure, because “they’re just a bunch of ass-kickers, and they get it done.”
“People have a really strange impression of SEALs,” he said. “We’re the guys going to the neighborhood barbecues, we’re eating next to you at Applebee’s, we’re at your church ... but when those guys go overseas, that quickly changes. You long for that. It’s a very, very hard life being a SEAL. And it’s extremely hard on the wives and kids.”