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Heroes 2010

‘He epitomizes what a SEAL is’

Heroes beyond the battlefield

There is the temptation to look at Petty Officer 1st Class David Goggins as a physically gifted freak whom mere mortals could never hope to emulate.

That would be a mistake.

Goggins, a Navy SEAL and ultramarathon runner, has a hole in his heart that surgery hasn’t fixed. He is a 35-year-old asthmatic. His bones and joints have suffered the impacts of jumping out of planes and helicopters at high and low altitudes, not to mention the rigors of combat.

Goggins has every excuse in the world not to get up at 3 a.m. nearly every day and start with a 15-mile run before bicycling 25 miles to work at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, Calif.

He does it anyway, for two reasons: to challenge himself, and because his life changed on June 28, 2005, when the Navy SEALs suffered the worst tragedy in their storied history in a mission that went horribly wrong in Afghanistan.

Since then, competing in endurance races has helped Goggins raise more than $250,000 for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a charity that grants full college scholarships to children of fallen warriors, along with financial assistance to severely wounded warriors and their families.

“He realized that in order to gain the attention to raise money, he was going to have to suffer,” said Aleeza Goggins, David’s wife. “He hates running. He hates riding the bike. I’m here to tell you he’s angry every morning he has to do it.”

Aleeza, a nurse who also helps Goggins as part of his support team, can’t help worrying sometimes when she sees the pain he puts himself through. She also knows it’s pointless to talk him out of anything he is motivated to do, no matter how torturous.

Friends and family said David Goggins possessed that unbreakable determination far before he had the chiseled physique he has today.

His Navy recruiter didn’t realize that 11 years ago, when Goggins, a 290-pound man who had left the Air Force and taken a job as a late-night exterminator, walked through the door and said he wanted to be a Navy SEAL.

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“You’re 290 pounds. Can you even swim?” Goggins recalled one of the recruiters asking him during that first office visit.

“They pretty much laughed at me,” Goggins said. “Then I dropped 100 pounds in 59 days. The recruiter was floored.”

Goggins barely passed his SEAL physical screening test. He then suffered through a hernia and two bouts of pneumonia during Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL School at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, Calif.

The injury and illness forced him to start over twice and endure Hell Week three times before graduating as a member of Class 235 in 2001.

By June 2005, weight training had put Goggins back up to 280 pounds.

Goggins had finished his last jump at free-fall parachute school in the U.S. when fellow SEAL Morgan Luttrell brought the news that would shock the special operations community to its core.

Luttrell’s twin brother, Petty Officer 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell, was missing in action in Afghanistan following an attack by overwhelming numbers of Taliban fighters.

Luttrell’s team members, Petty Officer 2nd Class Danny Dietz, Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Axelson and Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Michael Murphy, all died after a long fight.

A rescue helicopter carrying eight SEALs and eight Army special operations aviators responded to the situation, but a rocket-propelled grenade took out the helicopter, killing all aboard.

The only man to survive the attack was Marcus Luttrell, who crawled seven miles with serious injuries until he was aided by friendly Afghans and rescued several days later by U.S. forces.

Goggins either went through SEAL school with or had trained with most of the Navy men who died that day.

“It touched me,” Goggins said. “I was trying to find a way to help after that, and I thought about how the cost of a college education is huge now. Most of the guys who died over there had kids.”

Soon afterward, Goggins set his sights on raising money for the group by running the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon from Death Valley to Mount Whitney, Calif.

Goggins had never run competitively. The race director sent Goggins away, telling him to get some ultramarathon experience first. A few days later, Goggins found a 24-hour race in San Diego and entered without a lap of training.

“We didn’t really know what we were getting into,” Aleeza Goggins said. “We showed up with a blue lawn chair, a cooler and some Ritz crackers. Not exactly the fuel you need to run a 100-mile race.”

Goggins’ body began revolting at Mile 75. His kidneys failed and he broke two bones in his feet, but he finished the 100 miles in 19 hours.

Aleeza helped him home that night and urged him to go to the emergency room.

“ ‘No, let me enjoy this pain that I’m in right now,’ ” Aleeza recalled him saying.

After running more ultramarathons and shedding his weight-training bulk, Goggins finished fifth in the July 2006 Badwater race.

In between SEAL duties, Goggins has been running and cycling, including winning the 203-mile, UltraCentric 48-hour race in 2007.

He has used fame from his races to help the Special Operations Warrior Foundation any way he can; he’s gone door-to-door, acquired corporate sponsorships and directed followers to both davidgoggins.com and the foundation website at specialops.org.

Goggins also speaks at schools and mentors many of the students he has met over the years, some of whom have become Navy SEALs.

“He’s the number one recruiting tool naval special warfare has, in my opinion,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Jason Torey, who instructed him during SEAL school and now works with him in San Diego. “He epitomizes what a SEAL is and he earns that trident every day.”

Goggins doesn’t plan on regularly entering races for too much longer. But he planned his greatest endurance challenge beginning on June 9 — the Race Across America, a 3,000-mile bicycle race from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md. Solo racers typically finish in nine to 12 days, averaging 300 miles a day.

“The human body can do so much more than you think it’s capable of doing,” Goggins said.

“You definitely find out who you are.”

slavine@pstripes.osd.mil

This story has been corrected from the original version.

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