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`Silent option': Navy's elite SEALs: for 40 years, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, the SEALs have combatted the nation's enemies, be they Communists or terrorists. Though small in numbers, their lethal efficiency in combat is legendary. (War On Terrorism).

As they watched for sign of movement at an abandoned airfield 60 miles southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in November 2001, the small team of Americans endured the worst of nature's elements.

These observers, part of a 16-man SEAL platoon, were inserted behind hostile lines at night and walked miles in mountain and desert terrain before reaching the airstrip. "It was warm during the day, but when the sun went down it got bitter cold," one SEAL said.

The SEALs joined other special operations forces in ground surveillance while planes flew overhead dropping bombs. "We didn't warm our food and during the day we burrowed into the ground. We really didn't engage the enemy, but made certain the airfield was safe for our troops," another SEAL recalled.

Later, in January, a SEAL platoon raided an al Qaeda compound at Zawar Kili. That stretched into an eight-day operation; it had stumbled into a complex of deadly enemy caves.

But what really put the SEALs in the headlines was the death of Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts. After his helicopter was hit by rocket-propelled grenades on March 4 during Operation Anaconda, Roberts fell out and was killed in action by al Qaeda terrorists. Another SEAL, Chief Petty Officer Matthew J. Bourgeois, was killed after stepping on a land mine while conducting small unit training near Kandahar on March 27.


SEAL (Sea-Air-Land) teams were officially commissioned on Jan. 1, 1962. They were formed by personnel from Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT), or frogmen, at the direction of President John F. Kennedy. Lt. Cmdr. Roy Boehn started the unit and built a corps of men who could perform any duty at any time.

SEALs are trained at different schools and commands depending upon their mission. But they attend Special Warfare schools at either Coronado, Calif., or Little Creek, Va., for six months of extensive and intensive training. Only one in every four candidates who enters the course ever graduate.

The training takes into consideration several factors--physical prowess is only one. As an instructor said, "Mental toughness and the desire to not ever give up rank high along with emphasis on teamwork, which is vital to a SEALs existence. A candidate already has it in his make up. We just enlarge upon it and help the SEAL to adapt it into a more conscious part of his life."

After graduation, SEALs are assigned to teams and stationed at select bases overseas and in California, Puerto Rico and Virginia. Approximately 2,200 men comprise SEAL teams, as well as special warfare support and command units.

Teams 1, 3, 5 and 7 are located on the West Coast and Teams 2, 4, 8 and 10 on the East Coast. Team 6 (formed in 1980) is an at-large, anti-terrorist outfit assigned to the Special Operations Command and works with Delta Force, a top-secret unit (see the March issue). Team 6 reportedly is 100-men strong and thwarts terrorist attacks on oil rigs and U.S. ships worldwide.


SEALs saw their first combat in Vietnam. They operated in and around the Mekong Delta, conducting reconnaissance, search-and-destroy and rescue missions. Their numbers in-country peaked at 300.

Three Medals of Honor were awarded to SEALs during the Vietnam War. Lt. (j.g.) Joseph R. Kerrey, Lt. Thomas R. Norris and Engineman 2nd Class Michael E. Thorton earned the honor. SEAL Teams 1 and 2 lost 45 men in Vietnam--36 KIA, five in a helicopter crash, two drowned and two to non-hostile causes. Four UDT members were KIA. But the enemy paid a severe price. The personal motto of the SEAL was Sat Cong--Kill Communists.

Casualties continued after the war. Off Grenada in October 1983, four SEALs drowned in a tragic night drop into stormy seas. That same year, SEAL Lt. Cmdr. Albert Schanfelberger was assassinated in El Salvador by Marxist terrorists.

Four SEALs were KIA in a firefight during an assault on Paitilla Airport in Panama in December 1989. Eight others were seriously wounded in that mission to dismantle the Lear Jet belonging to Gen. Manuel Noreiga. The jet was intended for his escape.

Disabling Noreiga's aircraft proved to be extremely difficult. Bright lights on the runway, poor communications and lack of a coherent plan all created obstacles. In the end, the plane was simply blown up.

Then came the Persian Gulf in 1991. SEALs initially performed several recon missions in Kuwait to ascertain which beach was best to invade. The Iraqis placed three tiers of barbed wire, mines and charges on the most obvious beaches.

SEAL Team 5 members carried sufficient explosives to destroy those obstacles. Once the moon slipped beneath a cloud and the tide turned, swimmers went ashore. Timing was critical for charges to be set at strategic spots. "Everything was well-choreographed and coordinated and the feint worked," George C. Wilson wrote in Navy Times. Two divisions of Iraqi armored troops against 15 SEALs was a fair fight, Wilson quipped.

At least 50 SEALs served in the Persian Gulf; none were killed.

Three years later, in Somalia, five SEALs earned Silver Stars for their little-known roles in Mogadishu on Oct. 3-4, 1993.

SEALs are an essential part of the worldwide war on terrorism. Besides conducting operations in Afghanistan, they are currently training members of the Philippine Navy Special Warfare Group at the naval station in Zamboanga City.


History shows SEAL missions often come with a price. During WWII, 83 UDT and naval combat demolition unit members lost their lives. Several "frogmen" were KIA in Korean waters (1950-53).

Since Korea, some 56 SEALs have been killed during combat operations. But because most SEAL operations are highly sensitive, all deaths are not necessarily reported. Others (perhaps 23) have perished from non-hostile causes.

As the war on terrorism progresses, more casualties are likely. But no matter the cause, the Navy's elite are always there as a "silent option" in the nation's defense.

BARRY R. BISHOP, a free-lance writer based in Naples, Fla., is a former military reporter and contributor to numerous newspapers.
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Author:Bishop, Barry R.
Publication:VFW Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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