It started decades ago when a few members of the Fraternal Order of the UDT-SEAL, predecessor to the UDT-SEAL Association, noticed that certain needs within the community warranted additional support. In time the discussion progressed to include areas such as the maintenance of history, the passing of traditions and other intangibles that give SEALs their “Fire in the Gut” determination. Jack Lynch, the beloved president of the UDT-SEAL Association, took it to heart and in 2007 began an unrelenting campaign to develop the SEAL Heritage Center.
“Countless members of the association, the Naval Special Warfare Foundation and the local community were key, but Jack was always the driving force,” said Bobby Cox, executive director of the Association. Sadly, due to his passing months earlier, Jack never had the opportunity to see the fruits of his labor. Identifying the void created with Jack’s passing, Bobby Cox and Jim Papineau, vice chairman of the Foundation, stepped forward to spearhead the work of their lost teammate.
A remarkable structure, the building’s unique design gives the appearance of a cresting wave while disguising its 18,000-square-foot size. Once inside the openness of the main hall puts the visitor in the center of the activity. Looking upward, the curvature of the ceiling encapsulates the light coming in from the large smoked glass windows, providing a calming hue to the main hall as the glossy shades of decorative grey flooring commemorate the decking that adorns Navy ships.
“This facility is all about Naval Special Warfare…[it’s] all about the Teams,” said retired Rear Adm. Tom Richards, and teamwork certainly plays a part in every aspect of the center, from its design, development, and use to its décor. Adm. Eric Olson, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, brought this to light when he stated “This facility was built to augment the already outstanding services here at the Joint Expeditionary Base…[however] there are two distinctions [distinguishing] it from Fleet and Family Services.” Olson went on to point out that the center is not a government facility, but a building funded by public and private donations erected on government land, and how working in partnership with the Navy Memorial and the UDT-SEAL Museum, its periodic rotation of historical objects will provide the local community with another museum honoring Naval Special Warfare. Even the massive painting depicting Underwater Demolition Team members of World War II to present day SEAL warriors that overlooks the main hall reflects this mantra. The original creation of famed aerospace artist Robert McFall, it was completed after his untimely passing by his grandson.
“It’s an extraordinary memorial that represents the essence of the teams,” said Petty Officer Ryan Seriani as he and fellow teammates discussed the building’s significance while standing next to the staircase, or ladder-well as it is known in Navy speak, during the grand opening ceremonies. Just left of center, at the rear of the main hall, stands an impressive staircase with a bifurcating second tier that demands the attention of any visitor and sparks curiosity as to what might be found on the second deck. To the right of the staircase is a spiraling photo collage descending thirty-plus feet from the ceiling. “If you look at the flow of the photos and its design you’ll see it represents the community’s DNA,” said Mike Rush, association president. Currently, this is only one of a few photographic collages on display, but it’s just a matter of time before circulating artifacts from Fort Pierce, Fla., and Washington, D.C. fill each and every intended space.
“I can’t believe all this grew out of our meetings in Tip’s garage four decades ago, and I never thought I would live long enough to see it if it did,” said Bob “Doc” Clark, one of the many frogman that helped forge the fierce combat reputation of the SEAL Teams in Vietnam. “If you want to see the real effect this building has, watch the response of the active duty and the spouses as they walk in,” said Papineau. He was referring to its use for family services, award and retirement ceremonies and a plethora of meetings supporting the Special Warfare community. Regardless of the event or activity taking place, one thing will always remain true: It’s a facility built and intended to support one philosophy – teamwork.