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U.S. Navy SEALs from Goldwater-Nichols to the Present Day: 1984-2012






While Naval Special Warfare (NSW) had shown promise in Grenada and other operations, the results had shown that the shortcomings identified by the Holloway Report – a high-level review intended to improve U.S. counterterrorist (CT) capabilities through an independent appraisal of a failed hostage-rescue mission into Iran on April 25, 1980, including a broad examination of its planning, organization, coordination, direction, and control – were still systemic to special operations forces (SOF) in all U.S. military services.

Casualties had been high and were sometimes due to failures in planning, support, transportation, and a lack of communications among the various services. The combat debuts of a number of new SOF units, platforms, and personnel, while promising, had been bloody and frustrating to those who participated.

The frustration was not just theirs.

Throughout the American national security establishment, there were genuine fears that while U.S. military training, equipment, and personnel were world-class, the military structure, command and control, and ability to plan and execute joint operations were completely inadequate. Even simple things, like basic topographical maps and ship-to-shore fax machines, had been lacking during Operation Urgent Fury (Grenada, 1983), not to mention radios capable of multi-service communications. Such seemingly minor annoyances to civilians had caused real-world casualties to deployed U.S. personnel over the years, but by the mid-1980s, there were leaders in all the right positions in the Pentagon and Congress to finally make the first real changes to how America would go into battle since the National Security Act of 1947.


Goldwater-Nichols/Nunn-Cohen: The Reformation

Not many people would have imagined that a couple of old congressional warhorses like Sen. Barry Goldwater and Congressman William Nichols would be the dual sponsors of the most groundbreaking military legislation in four decades. Nevertheless, that was precisely what happened when, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the defense reform legislation that carried their names. Goldwater-Nichols (technically the Defense Reform Act of 1986) caused a fundamental change in how the U.S. military fights, and remains the basis for American operations today. Things like Unified Combatant Commands (COCOMs), “joint” service tours for officers, and task-organized Joint Task Forces (JTFs) were just some of the many changes brought on by the new legislation.

Then, just one year later, an amendment known as Nunn-Cohen (after Senators Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and William Cohen, R-Maine, further revised U.S. military affairs. Nunn-Cohen took the bold step of creating U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and endowing that command with a four-star commander, its own assistant secretary of defense, and a SOCOM-specific funding line under Title 10 of the U.S. Code. This, in essence, created a “fifth service” within the Department of Defense (DoD), with new SOF component commands under the new SOCOM Headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base (AFB) in Tampa, Fla. These included the new Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and components for the Army, Navy, and Air Force (the Marine Corps was initially excluded from Nunn-Cohen). The Navy was to provide the maritime component, which would be known as Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM).

Created on April 16, 1987, and headquartered at the Naval Amphibious Base in San Diego, Calif., NAVSPECWARCOM was initially an exceptionally “lean” and “flat” organization, with little in the way of transportation, logistics, and support personnel. The SEAL officer pool, always small in the past, became heavily tasked and had to be enlarged to meet the requirements of the new legislation. In the beginning, the command was comprised of Naval Special Warfare Groups ONE and TWO and Special Boat Squadrons ONE and TWO, and their pre-existing operational component  SEAL Teams, SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) Teams, and Special Boat Units (SBUs). The NSW schoolhouse, which ran the famous Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training course, was still under the control of the Amphibious Training Commands. The SBUs were still largely equipped with Vietnam-era watercraft, and lacked a formal schoolhouse or doctrine to call their own. However, the new command and operational structure under Goldwater-Nichols and Nunn-Cohen began to rapidly change and grow the command. It also began to place new responsibilities and strains on the NSW personnel qualification and training system.

“The one thing that it did change in terms of our leadership was the requirement across all the services to have what was called a ‘joint’ qualification [tour],” said Rear Adm. Ray Smith, USN (Ret.), a career NSW officer who was in command of a SEAL Team at the time. “That put a new period into your career where you were doing something that was now going to be ‘joint,’ maybe on the Joint Staff in Washington, maybe on another unified command staff. But you had to do this, because if you did not do it, basically you were not going to get promoted. That ‘jointness’ was imposed upon us, and of course we had to send people down to USSOCOM to serve on their staff. So we were sort of the ‘tail end Charlies’ down there at the time because we did not have a lot of officers. It affected us in terms of how we managed our [officer] force, because the [special operations] officer culture expected of us evolved so that we could not just be NSW officers.”


Operations Earnest Will and Prime Chance

NAVSPECWARCOM’s (and SOCOM’s) first combat test came in 1987 during Operations Earnest Will and Prime Chance, a U.S. effort to maintain free maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf. The ongoing Iran-Iraq war had begun to spill over into the tanker traffic of the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), especially Kuwait. Anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), mines, and gunboats from both sides became a genuine hazard to freedom of navigation, and in July 1987, Reagan decided to act to protect American interests in the region by escorting Kuwaiti supertankers (reflagged as American vessels) through the Persian Gulf under Operation Earnest Will. The U.S. Navy initially considered ASCMs and air attacks as the primary threats, and provided escorts with a heavy anti-air warfare (AAW) armament to protect them. But naval mines and gunboats deployed by Iran proved to be the primary dangers to the tankers.

PB Mark III Prime Chance

A MK III patrol boat from Special Boat Unit 11 returns to the barge Hercules after an all-night patrol. The 65-foot aluminum patrol boats worked in pairs to monitor small boat activity in the Persian Gulf during Operation Prime Chance. DoD photo by PHCS Terry Mitchell, USN

Realizing that the Iranians had adopted an asymmetrical strategy to interdict the GCC tankers, JCS tasked SOCOM to deploy a Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF) to the Persian Gulf in August 1987, under Operation Prime Chance, to counter the new threats. Running concurrently with Earnest Will, Prime Chance created a pair of NSW Task Units based aboard a pair of leased oil barges.

Each barge was home to MK III patrol boats, a SEAL platoon, a U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team, and helicopters from the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s (USASOC) Task Force 160, the precursor to today’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR, aka Nightstalkers).

Within weeks, the Prime Chance units had gained the upper hand against the Iranian maritime threats, capturing and destroying mine-laying craft and oil platforms being used as observation posts and bases, and participating in the largest naval battle since World War II on April 18, 1988 (Operation Praying Mantis). By the time Prime Chance was terminated in June 1989, the effort had completely driven the Iranian threats away from the sea lanes, and was a major factor in the settlement of the Iran-Iraq War.


Operation Just Cause

Following Operation Earnest Will, things began to heat up between the United States and Panama’s de facto leader: general, dictator, and resident drug kingpin Manuel Noriega. Newly inaugurated President George H.W. Bush took a personal interest in the continuing criminal enterprise that was the Noriega regime, and began to make plans to intervene militarily if necessary. By late 1989, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the fall of Communist governments across Eastern Europe, tensions between the United States and Noriega reached the breaking point following the killing of an American serviceman by the Panamanian Defense Force (PDF). The response came on Dec. 20, 1989, as Operation Just Cause.

SEAL Team FOUR During Operation Just Cause

Members of SEAL Team FOUR pose for a group photo before Operation Just Cause. U.S. Navy photo

The NSW contribution to Just Cause came in the form of operations designed to deny Noriega the means to flee Panama to any sanctuary beyond the reach of the American judicial system.

The NSW component of the Just Cause JSOTF was known as Task Force (TF) White, and was tasked with a number of missions. Drawing personnel from SEAL Teams TWO and FOUR (both based on the East Coast), TF White deployed five SEAL platoons, employing a variety of combatant vessels – from combat rubber raider craft (CRRC) to various types of patrol boats – formed into four task units (TUs).

TUs Charlie and Foxtrot were assigned to secure the vital Atlantic and Pacific entrances to the Panama Canal, respectively. TU Whiskey was tasked with seizing/destroying the watercraft in Balboa Harbor that Noriega might use to escape, and TU Papa was to neutralize Paitilla Airfield, where the dictator kept his private aircraft. TU Charlie/Foxtrot accomplished their missions without incident and were completely successful. The other missions, however, were a bit more difficult.

TU Whiskey began its operations an hour before Just Cause officially began, with combat swimmers blowing up a patrol boat and seizing Noriega’s yacht. They also helped repel an assault by the PDF on a merchant ship, and captured Noriega’s beach house on Culebra Island. SEALs from the other TUs would capture other Panamanian watercraft and have their own fights with the PDF. But the real action would take place with TU Papa at Paitilla Airfield. Coming in from the waterside in CRRCs, two of the SEAL platoons encountered heavy opposition from PDF units. While they were successful in neutralizing Noriega’s Learjet and other aircraft, TU Papa lost four SEALs killed and eight more wounded in the resulting firefight. These were the heaviest NSW casualties since Grenada in 1983, and a shock to the NSW community at large.

While the mission at Paitilla Airfield drew criticism because of the heavy SEAL casualties, the overall performance of NSW units during Just Cause was judged to be successful. Important lessons regarding planning and task organization became a part of the evolving NSW doctrine.

“There were some mistakes made,” Smith said, “but as one of our great founders, the late SEAL Capt. Dave Schaible, used to say, ‘There’s never been a mission that the SEALs have ever run that didn’t have three things go wrong.’ There are no ‘perfect’ missions, and normally that is the case. We [NAVSPECWARCOM] had not had an event like this [Just Cause] occur where we had to organize and deploy in a very short period of time. It was a quick-reaction thing, and I don’t think that at that point in time we had reached the point where we had the capacity, where we were capable of that sort of response. That was probably a wakeup call for us as we went forward; since these kinds of events were more than likely [what] SOF units were going to have a role in. Having moved the NSW community into SOCOM, we began to think about how we task-organized our teams. I think that Panama showed us that in order to be able to react properly; you needed to have that planning done beforehand. It really professionalized us into being a ‘quick-reaction’ force.”


Operations Desert Shield/Storm

SEAL Team EIGHT Training

A member of SEAL Team EIGHT adjusts his headset during a training mission aboard the fleet oiler USNS Joshua Humphreys (T-A0-188). SEAL Team EIGHT was providing boarding teams to assist the ships of the Maritime Interception Force in their enforcement of U.N. sanctions against Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. U.S. Navy photo

Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 became the first large-scale test of the U.S. military since Vietnam, and NAVSPECWARCOM was in the middle of what became Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. The U.S. response was swift and massive, with major military units being deployed to the Persian Gulf within days of the Iraqi invasion. U.S. Navy units led the movement of forces into the region, including those drawn from NAVSPECWARCOM units based on the West Coast.

Commanded by then-Capt. Ray Smith, the deployment of what became Naval Special Warfare Task Group – Central (NSWTG-C) was drawn primarily from Smith’s West Coast Naval Special Warfare Group 1 (NSWG 1). In addition to a small command group (including medical and legal personnel), Seabees, and a mobile communications team, the deployed force included four SEAL platoons (two each from SEAL Teams ONE and FIVE), along with an SDV Team (led by a young SEAL commander named Eric Olson, who would later attain four-star rank and command USSOCOM), Special Boat Unit (SBU) 1 with MK III patrol boats and rigid inflatable boats (RIBs), and a high speed boat unit borrowed from JSOC.

NSWTG-C also took along a number of specialized ground vehicles like the Chenowth Desert Patrol Vehicle, based on popular civilian sand rails or dune buggies. The force was ordered to the region on Aug. 7, 1990, and was ready to move within 36 hours. The first elements of NSWTG-C arrived in Saudi Arabia on Aug. 12, based at Half Moon Bay in an old oil company facility. It was with this force that Smith, armed with an initial allowance of $5,000 in cash (mostly spent on drinking water and food), would take on a variety of maritime special warfare tasks in the months ahead.

Smith’s first problem was “selling” the idea that NSW operations had value to the tough-minded CENTCOM commander, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. Schwarzkopf, who had a genuine hostility toward SOF operations because of his experiences in Vietnam with special warfare “Snakeaters,” had actually tried to block the deployment of SOCOM personnel. Rapidly though, Schwarzkopf changed his mind as events in the region began to unfold prior to the outbreak of war.

Smith recalled, “Gen. Schwarzkopf called and said, ‘We need you to go out to a point about 40 kilometers south of the Kuwaiti border, and teach the Saudi army general staff how to fight a [tactical-air] war. This was important because no American unit had [yet] gone into the field on a real-world mission. I found out later that the president wanted to be able to say that we had someone out there doing something. We were there for about three weeks, with the Saudi generals with all their tents and Mercedes-Benzes, and taught them how to call in fires and control aircraft for bombing strikes. Eventually we handed that mission over to the Army Special Forces when they arrived, and we really hit a home run.”

NSWTG-C’s first assignment would become a regular task in the months ahead: foreign internal defense (FID) training of Saudi and Free Kuwaiti forces on how to work with the incoming allied forces. Other missions for Smith’s NSW force began to arrive. In particular, the Iraqis were clandestinely working to block access to the northern ports in Saudi Arabia by deploying mines and gunboats. In response to the mines, Olson’s SDVs proved to be the decisive tool, as they were armed with sonar capable of mine detection. This allowed the SDV crews to locate the mines and clear lanes for shipping with small explosive charges.

In addition, Smith’s patrol craft and SEALs began to work with the Saudis on harbor security, and eventually located the Iraqi minelayer, which was later destroyed. NSWTG-C also carried out a successful combat search and rescue mission of a downed Allied airman, and conducted a number of beach reconnaissance and maritime deception missions supporting the “left hook” of VII and XVIII Airborne Corps in the west. This included the seizure of a small island and the capture of more than 50 Iraqi POWs.


Operation Eastern Exit

SEALS ship ops

Navy SEALs pictured having just fast-roped from an MH-53 Pave Low helicopter onto shipping containers aboard a ship during a search and seizure exercise, 1995. Note the MP5 SMGs carried by the team. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. John E. Lasky

While U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf were getting ready for Desert Storm, another crisis erupted farther south in Somalia. In late 1990, Somalia had descended into anarchy, with rival militias run by despotic warlords passing for a sovereign government. Rescue attempts of diplomatic personnel by the Soviet Union and Italy on Jan. 4, 1991, failed, and with the continuing fighting, President Bush ordered a general evacuation of the U.S. Embassy staff in Mogadishu. Code-named Operation Eastern Exit, the rescue was executed on Jan. 5-6, 1991, when elements of the 4th MEB, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) AC-130 Spectre gunships, and a nine-man SEAL team executed the evacuation of the embassy. Using 4th Marine Corps Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) CH-53E Super Stallion and CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters flying from amphibious ships, the SEALs organized the embassy staff on the ground, negotiated a safe passage with the local warlords, and supervised the loading of a total of 281 civilian personnel from 30 countries, including eight ambassadors, four Charges D’Affaires, and 39 Soviet citizens.


Somalia and the 1990s

In late 1992, the situation in Somalia had degenerated into civil war and famine, the warlords passing for a sovereign government. Somalia had become a failed state with no hope and untold numbers of civilians slowly dying of every deprivation known to mankind. When the warlords and their militias began to steal international food aid at gunpoint, the international community intervened in the hope of stabilizing Somalia while political solutions were sought.

SEALs and other NSW personnel would make major contributions in two failed attempts to capture or kill warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid during Operation Restore Hope in 1992. This once again included Eric Olson, who would participate in the famous “Black Hawk Down” Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993. When the humanitarian intervention in Somalia ended the following year, it was SEALs and other NSW personnel that joined a Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) to help cover the withdrawal of U.S. and United Nations personnel.

East Coast NSW Task Units and platoons from SEAL Team TWO and SEAL Team EIGHT were deployed consistently to the Balkans, when NATO elected to intervene in the Bosnia and Herzegovina conflict during Operation Deliberate Force. This was largely in 1995 and beyond, where SEALs participated in FID operations, conducted training, and helped in the apprehension of a number of Serbian war criminals.

The remainder of the 1990s were a relatively quiet period for the NSW community at large, but also a time of expansion. “We were allowed to have [some] growth, and actually began to build a logistics force,” Smith recalled. “We had never had things like that. We’d never had that kind of backup [in the NSW community]. We were getting billets to bring in more intelligence people, and finally getting to keep those folks. The same with supply and logistics; we were getting quality people from the Navy. We were growing. After Desert Storm our budget was going up every [fiscal] year, and it has continued to grow. So we built an infrastructure that we had never had before. Right after Desert Storm, everything in NSW began to change.”


Operation Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan

SEALs During Operation Enduring Freedom

U.S. Navy SEALS talk to local Afghanis while conducting a sensitive site exploitation mission in the Jaji Mountains. Navy special operations forces were conducting missions in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Tim Turner

The coming of 9/11 and the attacks by al Qaeda on the American homeland started a new phase in the history of NAVSPECWARCOM. Having evolved the command, along with its personnel, equipment, doctrine, and leadership, NSW was ready to respond with the rest of SOCOM when President George W. Bush declared the global war on terrorism as official U.S. national security policy. Like the rest of SOCOM, NAVSPECWARCOM began to immediately deploy units and personnel to Southwest Asia to help in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Operation Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan (OEF-A) is just one of more than a half-dozen missions worldwide that have been run under the OEF aegis.

For NAVSPECWARCOM, the early days of OEF-A were based around their assignment to Capt. (now Vice Adm.) Robert “Bob” Harward’s Task Force Sword/K-Bar in Southern Afghanistan. Harward’s mission was to interdict any al Qaeda/Taliban traffic from the southern borders of Afghanistan and coastlines of Pakistan, with an emphasis on the killing or capture of high value targets (HVT): al Qaeda/Taliban leadership. This is where the NSW community made its early contributions to OEF-A, along with what would become their “meat and potatoes” missions involving direct action (DA) and special reconnaissance (SA). Eventually, however, SEALs would take over the full range of SOF missions in Afghanistan. They would have many successes over the next decade, but they would also suffer some grievous losses.

One of these would come in early 2002 during a clandestine insertion mission onto a 10,000-foot peak deep in enemy territory in support of Operation Anaconda. Petty Officer Neil Roberts was killed by enemy combatants during the mission after being thrown from a 160th SOAR MH-47 Chinook that took three rocket propelled grenade (RPG) hits and subsequently crashed onto a ridge known as Takur Ghar. In the crash and firefight that ensued, seven other SOF personnel were killed and two other SEALs wounded during what became known as the Battle of Roberts’ Ridge.

Three years later, during Operation Red Wings (operations were named for NHL hockey teams), the SEALs and SOCOM suffered their worst losses to date when a four-man SEAL special reconnaissance (SR) team was caught on a ridge in Kunar province by Taliban forces that vastly outnumbered them. Only one SEAL, Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell, survived. For his gallant actions in trying to save his team during the firefight, Lt. Michael Murphy posthumously received the Medal of Honor, while the other three SEALs were awarded Navy Crosses, two of them posthumously for their actions during the fight. But tragically, they weren’t the only losses of June 28, 2005. Eight SEALs and eight 160th SOAR crew, part of a Quick Reaction Force deployed to rescue Murphy’s team, were killed when their MH-47 Chinook was shot down by an enemy RPG. Despite these and other losses, NSW units and personnel continue to be a vital part of OEF-A, where they have achieved some of the most important victories of the 10-year campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban.


Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines

Along with OEF-A, there was another venue where the SEALs gained immediate traction: the Philippines. For years there had been a growing Muslim insurgency in the southern islands of the Philippine archipelago. Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic terrorist group allied with al Qaeda, had been conducting terror bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations, and in early 2003, SOCOM was tasked to help the Philippine military eradicate the group as part of what became Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines (OEF-P, previously known as Operation Freedom Eagle). There were major differences between OEF-P and OEF-A, mostly centering on the fact that the Philippines effort was essentially a large-scale FID operation.

OEF-P has been a truly joint operation, with about 600 personnel at a time drawn from across SOCOM taking part in a given rotation. SEALs and NSW personnel and their combatant craft have provided a great deal of support over the years, since they are well-suited to the training and operating environment of the many islands and adjoining waterways of the Southern Philippines.

Their missions have ranged from training and local construction to advising on planning and execution of downrange missions by the Philippine military. OEF-P has generated excellent value for the resources invested, and it is now considered a model of how to accomplish counterinsurgency intervention.


Operation Enduring Freedom – Horn of Africa

A number of other places worldwide have seen NSW personnel operating since 9/11, especially around the Horn of Africa. OEF-HOA, based out of Djibouti, is an ongoing multinational effort to combat terrorism and piracy in East Africa, the Gulf of Aden, and surrounding areas. Over the past decade, SEALs and other NSW have been involved in a number of missions in the region, though one event is the most well-known of this particular campaign: the Maersk Alabama incident.

In April 2009, Somali pirates attempted to hijack the M/V Maersk Alabama off the Somali coast, taking Capt. Richard Phillips, the ship’s master, hostage (the rest of the ship’s crew escaped capture). In response, the U.S. Navy deployed the guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG 96) and other ships to the scene, establishing a presence and surveillance of the situation. The pirates, unable to control the ship, took to one of the powered lifeboats with their hostage and made for the Somali coast, dogged all the way by U.S. ships, aircraft, and UAVs. President Barack Obama ordered the deployment of SEALs to the area in case the situation required the use of force.

The SEALs and their specialized gear were parachuted into the ocean near the scene, and joined the crew of the Bainbridge in monitoring the situation. Finally on April 12, when it looked like the pirates were about to shoot Phillips, three SEAL snipers on the fantail of the destroyer ended the crisis in amazing fashion. Firing three, near simultaneous aimed headshots from the rolling and pitching deck of the Bainbridge, they killed the three pirates in the bobbing lifeboat some 90 feet away. It was a dazzling demonstration of the state-of-the-art in aimed gunfire, and a potent explanation of how far sniping has come within SOF in general and NSW in particular. Phillips was recovered unhurt from the incident and continues to sail those same waters today, thanks to three unnamed SEALs.


Operation Iraqi Freedom

SEALs During Operation Iraqi Freedom

Naval Special Warfare operators walk through Iraq’s Mina al Bakr Oil Terminal during an operation March 21, 2002, to secure the oil platform from being destroyed by the Iraqi military. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Arlo K. Abrahamson

What became Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) had very different objectives than Desert Storm a dozen years earlier. When hostilities began on March 19, 2003, it was the beginning of the largest NSW operation ever attempted, which itself was part of the biggest SOF campaign in history.

This began with a reconnaissance of the Iraqi oil terminals using SDVs, and was followed on March 20 by a large-scale assaultof all Iraqi maritime facilities by SEALs, Polish GROM, and Royal Marine Commandos. The facilities included oil refineries and pumping stations, and the two large oil terminal platforms where supertankers load product for delivery to the rest of the world. The SEALs also helped take the Rumaila oil field, all while suffering no casualties of note and taking more than 100 prisoners. Later the SEAL/GROM force also seized the Mukarayin Dam, which they assaulted from U.S. Air Force MH-53 Pave Low SOF helicopters. Following these early successes, the SEALs and other NSW units began to support other missions, like clearing waterways and the port of Umm Qasr. The SEALs also began to conduct “snatch and grab” missions of high-value Iraqi leadership targets in and around the Baghdad area, again working closely with the Polish GROM.

SEALs and Polish-GROM Commandos During Operation Iraqi Freedom

SEALs and Polish GROM commandos search an Iraqi vessel for weapons and illegal cargo. USN Special Warfare operators assisted in operations that cleared Iraqi waterways of mines and rogue vessels to make way for the arrival of humanitarian relief shipments to the port of Umm Qsar, Iraq, in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom. U.S. Navy photo by PH1 (SW) Arlo Abrahamson

Following the fall of the Iraqi government in April 2003, the SEALs began conducting direct action, special reconnaissance, and POW recovery operations and other specialized tasks throughout Iraq. They fought in many of the large battles in western Iraq, especially in cities like Ramadi and Fallujah. Crucially, they fought with more than just kinetic weapons. SEALs were the key enablers of what is now called “the Anbar Awakening,” when SEALs allied with key sheikhs and tribes to defeat al Qaeda. In addition, SEALs and NSW personnel have been instrumental in the protection of the oil loading platforms and other vital infrastructure, so that the new Iraqi government could maintain a steady stream of revenue to rebuild their shattered nation. Their Iraqi mission continues to the present day.


2011 – Triumph and Tragedy

In 2011, the SEALs enjoyed their greatest victory as well as the greatest loss in their 50-year history. The victory came on the evening of May 1, when a JSOC force of several dozen SEALs, along with a number of other SOCOM personnel, finally managed to kill al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Acting on information developed in a search that dated back to 1998, the SEALs and their support team entered Pakistan, landed at the compound, and killed bin Laden and several followers. They returned to their base in Afghanistan with a wealth of intelligence information, suffering only the loss of a helicopter due to a landing accident. Organized by JSOC commander then-Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, Operation Neptune Spear was a spectacular success in the efforts to seek justice for, and to avenge, the attacks of al Qaeda since 1998.

But just two months later, on Aug. 6, 2011, a Taliban RPG brought down an Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook loaded with 38 U.S. and Afghan military personnel and a military working dog, killing them all. Of those aboard, 17 were SEALs, and five NSW support personnel. It was the worst single loss of life in the history of SOCOM and NAVSPECWARCOM, and was a brutal reality check after the success of Neptune Spear. It reminded everyone that SOF operations are especially risky and dangerous, and often involve major loss of life instead of hoped-for success.

SEAL operators can perhaps be best personified by the SEAL Creed, created by the SEALs themselves in 2005. Before this, SEALs had an unspoken code largely defined by the culture, historical experience, operational experience, and training experiences that evolved over 50 years. “Leave no man behind” and “failure is not an option” are examples of cultural mantras that evolved from battlefield experiences in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, OIF, OEF, and elsewhere. Among other passages, the SEAL Code in part reads:

“My loyalty to country and team is beyond reproach. I humbly serve as a guardian to my fellow Americans, always ready to defend those who are unable to defend themselves. I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions. I voluntarily accept the inherent hazards of my profession, placing the welfare and security of others before my own.”

Also, “I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity. My nation expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If knocked down, I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission. I am never out of the fight.”

As the SEALs would say, “Hoo Ya!”

This article first appeared in Navy Seals 50: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Establishment of the U.S. Navy SEALs.


John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...