The Navy base at Dam Neck was home not just to the intelligence training school, but also to a more innocuous sounding command named Naval Special Warfare Development Group (NAVSPECWARDEVGRU or "DevGru" for short).
To those who followed such things, DevGru was known to be the official name of SEAL Team Six, the most elite SEAL unit, then tasked with anti-terrorism and hostage rescue duties, among other things. Operators within DevGru referred to other SEAL units as "junior varsity." Everyday, as we marched to and from our classes, we heard a steady stream of weapons fire emanating from the DevGru compound, which was located on a remote and restricted section on the other side of the base.
Then, one day, one of the DevGru "varsity" squad decided that he was going to start leading our lame PT sessions. I'll call this guy "Don."
Don, it turned out, was married to one of our instructors at intelligence school. She had suggested that he get involved and, she told him, there were some SEAL candidates in the group. And, after the first PT session with him, Don asked all the guys hoping to go to BUD/S after intelligence training to stick around a minute.
Whatever one's preconceived notion might be about what a warrior should look like, Don did not fit the bill. He appeared to be in his mid-30s, with large blue eyes and soft features. He was clean shaven, but his brown hair fell past his collar, reflecting the relaxed grooming standards that applied to his unit. While obviously fit -- with the cannon thighs typical of career frogmen -- Don did not have the physique of a triathlete. In short, he looked like normal guy.
As a member of DevGru, Don had the keys to castle, or in this case, the base's Olympic-size swimming pool. He told us -- me, Mars, Bob, and a fourth chap -- that if we were interested, he'd open the pool up very early in the mornings and work out with us before class. As I later wrote my dad, it was kind of like going to flight school to be a fighter pilot and having Maverick volunteer to be your tutor.
Except this wasn't Hollywood and Don wasn't an actor. He'd been a SEAL since he was 18. Before joining the ranks of DevGru, Don had been assigned to one of the remaining UDT platoons, and then SEAL Team Two. He'd seen combat and he'd killed people. But you'd never pick him out of a crowd. He had no tattoos and kept no SEAL team stickers on his car. Don was a calm, cool, silent professional. Most people thought he sold surf boards for a living.
Bob and I ate the silent professional attitude up. For me, it was easy. I'd always been taciturn, a trait I picked up from my dad. Plus, I was older and had already accomplished a lot physically. I didn't feel any need to prove myself to anyone (except myself), so it was easy for me to remain low profile and not attract attention to myself.
As for Bob, he was just 21 or so at the time. I wasn't sure what accounted for his seeming maturity. But if anything, Bob was more composed and security conscious than I was. Maybe it was because as a Seabee he had made friends with a SEAL unit and had imbibed some of their good habits. Whatever it was, Bob -- a fluent Spanish speaker -- was great raw material for a covert operator.
I only saw Don in uniform once. His daughter's school was having a career day in rural Virginia and he asked me and a couple of the other guys to come along to help him. He dressed me up in a Ghillie suit and one of the other guys in a diving rig. We were the props in his presentation to the kids.
On our drive back to the base, we stopped for lunch at a small store that served sandwiches. A couple of the other customers asked why I was wearing camouflage on my face. "We're Navy SEALs," Don replied.
Of course, I wasn't a Navy SEAL, but it was nice of Don to say so. It felt like my goal was closer than ever. He treated us -- his proteges -- as peers, even though we were the furthest from it. There's no better tool in a mentor's belt than that.
As a result of all this attention, not to mention the monster physical shape we were getting into, both Bob and I felt a tremendous amount of physical and energetic self-confidence. As we would joke to ourselves, "the cockiness meter was in the red."
One night, near the end of our 16 weeks in Dam Neck, Bob and I decided against going out in Virginia Beach and instead headed over to the Enlisted Club on base. The E-Club, like most everything else on the base, was adjacent to the beach. And sometime after 11 p.m. and a few beers, I decided that it was a nice night for a swim.
Bob didn't like the idea -- and he certainly wasn't going to get in the surf with me -- but he knew that I found it hard to resist the warm gulf-stream, especially during the hot, east coast summer nights. So, while I stripped off my clothes and waded into the surf, Bob stood on the beach smoking a cigarette. Unfortunately, that's what the base police saw as their SUV crept along the darkened beach.
After sundown, the beach was off-limits. When the cops saw Bob's cigarette, they put their spot light on him and used their loud speaker to tell Bob to remain where he was. I was in the surf zone -- butt naked -- some 20 or 30 yards off shore, but I heard the loud speaker and saw the spot light.
The cops had no idea I was in the water and Bob, I was sure, wouldn't tell them. It was dark and would be impossible for them to see me as I got into my combat swimmer stroke and began powering out to sea.
I figured I'd go out a few hundred yards and then loiter until the beach cleared. My plan had only one flaw: a new intelligence trainee who had followed me and Bob out of the E-Club. He was plastered and when the cops approached Bob, this kid panicked and ratted me out.
The kid wasn't being malicious, he was just completely drunk and seemingly worried that I'd be in some kind of trouble out in the dark waters. "Come on in, man," he yelled to me with a slurred voice from the water's edge. "We're busted!"
Paying attention to the kid for the first time, the cops swept their spot light on him and then out into the surf zone towards me. I dipped under and swam 10 or 15 yards to the side, sure that I wouldn't be seen. This seemed to cause the kid to panic and scream more. I guess when he lost sight of me he thought I was drowning. That's when I noticed Bob walking up to the water's edge. He yelled out to me to come in.
For a second, I entertained the idea of just swimming south a mile or so, which would have taken me clear of the base. It would be an easy swim in the warm night water. But then Bob yelled out again. "Come on in, Joe. The cops won't charge us."
I headed for shore.
As I emerged from the surf stark naked, I realized that I had two options: act embarrassed or be bold. I chose to be bold. I jogged straight up to the high water mark -- my junk flapping in the offshore breeze -- to where the two uniformed base police officers were standing with Bob and our young, drunken shipmate.
"Good evening, officers," I said with a smirk.
It seemed that both officers were simultaneously ready to laugh and uncomfortable standing so close to a naked man, as I kept direct eye contact with them and acted as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
"The beach is closed at night," one of them said to me. "So get your clothes and get out of here." He didn't have to tell us twice.
Like boot camp, my four months in Dam Neck were chock full of low level adventures and shenanigans too numerous to mention. The bottom line, though, was that Bob and I -- and Mars -- all graduated, were given the title "Intelligence Specialist," and ordered to report to Basic Underwater Demolition training in Coronado, California.
I've had numerous mentors throughout my life and I've tried to pay tribute to them throughout the blog, but no one gave more of his time and physical energy to trying to help me achieve a goal than "Don."
I'll always be grateful to him and his wife. Thanks D & T!