Nearly four decades ago, America’s fledgling counter-terrorism force launched a daring operation to a remote desert outpost to rescue Americans held hostage. The mission failed, but its repercussions were felt for years, and the flames and death of that day forged the special operations force that was able to successfully execute even more daring — and successful — missions in the decades to come.
On Nov. 4, 1979, approximately 3,000 Iranian militants took control of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, holding 63 Americans hostage. An additional three U.S. members were seized at the Iranian Foreign Ministry for a total of 66.
This was in response to President Jimmy Carter allowing Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the recently deposed Iranian ruler, into the U.S. for cancer treatment. New leadership in Iran wanted the shah back as well as the end of Western influence in their country.
After a few weeks, 13 hostages, all women or African Americans, were released but the remaining 53 would wait out five months of failed negotiations.
President Carter, originally wanting to end the hostage crisis diplomatically and without force, turned to alternative solutions as he felt the political pressure to resolve the problem. On April 16, 1980, he approved Operation Eagle Claw, a military rescue operation involving all four branches of the U.S. armed forces.
The two-day rescue mission consisted of eight Navy RH-53D helicopters and multiple variations of C-130 aircraft. All aircraft were to gather together at Desert One, a salt flat about 200 miles outside of Tehran. There, the helicopters would refuel through the C-130’s and then transport assault units into a mountain location near Tehran where the rescue mission would begin. Unfortunately, the mission never made it that far.
On April 24, 1980, Operation Eagle Claw began. All aircraft proceeded to Desert One but a strong dust storm complicated traveling. Two of the eight helicopters were unable to complete the mission and had to turn around. Another helicopter broke down at Desert One, leaving a total of five working helicopters. Mission commanders and leadership needed a minimum of six to complete the mission. The decision was made to abort the operation and return home.
During departure from Desert One, one of the helicopters collided with a C-130, killing eight U.S. service members. The remaining members all left in the additional C-130 leaving behind numerous helicopters, a C-130 and the eight dead Americans. The failed mission, in addition with loss of life, was a humiliating blow for the U.S. However, this tragedy put a magnifying glass over the inadequacies of joint operations, forever changing the future of the U.S. military and special operations.
The need for enhanced capabilities between more than one military service was the prediction for the future of the Armed Forces. Significant military reforms, such as the Goldwater-Nichols Act and Joint Doctrine, addressed the readiness and capability issues demonstrated in Operation Eagle Claw. It pointed out the necessity for a dedicated special operations section within the Department of Defense with the responsibility to prepare and maintain combat-ready forces to successfully conduct special operations.
Today, the different branches training alongside each other is common practice. Planning for missions consist of specific details with back up plans to the back up plans. Ultimately, the lives lost as Desert One weren’t in vain. The lessons learned from that mission made special operations into what we know them as today.
Sailing saved Ronnie Simpson’s life. He was an 18 year old high school senior in Atlanta, Georgia when the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began in March 2003. Drawn to service by the events of September 11, Ronnie joined the Marine Corps Infantry the day after the war started.
Less than a year later in March 2004, he deployed to Iraq with the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines.
“I was a .50 cal gunner on top of a Humvee,” he recalls. “Four months into my deployment, we were ambushed during a night-time convoy, and an RPG hit the ground near my Humvee. The rocket bounced up and exploded in the air one meter from me. I had broken ribs, detached retinas, a bleeding brain which created sub-retinal fluid, a traumatic brain injury (TBI), a blown-out left lung and my tongue was blown into my airway. I was temporarily knocked unconscious. Because I wasn’t breathing and was unresponsive, Marines in my truck thought I was dead. It was actually a textbook blast injury. The Corpsman in my Humvee, Doc David Segundo, was injured too but he got up, cleared my airway, and saved my life.”
Simpson, now 30 years old, spent a lot of time recovering both physically and mentally. Most of his TBI symptoms weren’t permanent (he credits the helmet technology for that). Despite having burns over 10 percent of his body, many of those scars aren’t visible.
“It fucked me up pretty good,” he says. “Unless you knew me though, you’d never know I’m hurt. I have no visible scars unless I take my shirt off. Then I have many.”
Simpson is legally blind and can’t obtain a driver’s license. Though his body healed, his mental state took much longer. He reevaluated his life and experiences through a 9,000-mile bike trek across Europe and Asia in 2009 and more than 50,000 miles at sea, both healing counterpoints to his experiences in Iraq.
“My time in theater and my travels have shaped my perspective,” Simpson says. “There’s a lot of good and beauty in this world, and I want to add to that. Our program is about helping the men and women that are coming back – the veterans – the people we should be looking out for. We in the veteran community have these experiences and while we may interpret them differently, this shared experience can bring us together. We can come together to create profound and impactful programs to help the veterans from these two wars as well as something permanent and sustainable for veterans of future conflicts.”
Sailing is the catalyst for Simpson’s initiative. Not only his love for sailing but how he changed his life and how he aims to change the lives of others.
“I joined the Marines at 18, was injured in combat at 19, my dad died four months after I got hurt, and by 20 I was medically retired,” Simpson says. “By 22 I was a lost soul. I had reached my deepest, darkest point. I’m fearful of what would have happened if I hadn’t flipped the script. I broke off an engagement, sold my house, and moved from Texas to California. That move was my re-birth as a new person.”
On the California coast, he found his calling. After living so recklessly, he became completely focused on becoming a racing sailor and making the most of his life. Seven years later, Simpson now travels the world as a professional sailor and sailing writer.
“It helped me heal,” Simpson says. “These adventures help you positively adrenalize yourself in a sustainable manner. Guys who come back from places like Fallujah have experienced adrenaline like most will never know, and again need to achieve that heightened state of existence. But where will they find it? Drugs, alcohol, or doping the pain away with pills? I can put you on the helm of a racing sailboat in the middle of the night and it will rock your world. This is a healthy way to get that fix.”
It’s not just about giving people the fix of adrenaline they were accustomed to while in combat. For Simpson and his sailing nonprofit – Coastal and Offshore Recalibration Experience, or CORE (www.medicinalmissions.com/CORE), that community of veterans is the most important result.
“Because that’s what it is: a Community,” he says. “On a sailboat you can put anyone into a job they can do, regardless of their injury. It’s a sport that doesn’t care if you have arms or legs. That’s a big part of it. Everyone has an assigned, defined role. There’s a chain of command, a defined mission, teamwork is critical and constant risk management is all part of the game. The parallels between racing sailboats and combat are incredible. When you combine that with the peacefulness and serenity of heading to sea with your brothers and sisters, it’s a powerful experience.”
Simpson and his best friend Army veteran Walter Kotecki, created a sailing program within an existing wounded-veteran nonprofit, raised $50,000 through yacht clubs and private donors, and gave a sailing experience to 30 veterans over the course of four clinics in 2012 and 2013.
“There’s always a steep learning curve when you start your own thing. We flew vets to San Francisco,” he says. “They had the whole range of injuries from PTSD to multiple amputees to blindness. We used sailing, surfing, yoga, nature walks, kayaking, art and more to help these guys look past their injuries and realize that anything is possible, no matter their injury, while re-establishing that sense of camaraderie and community that so many have lost since leaving the service.”
It was so successful and the veterans so responsive Simpson and Kotecki decided to strike out on their own earlier this year, forming CORE.
“I had a Vietnam vet hook me up with a racing sailboat and an opportunity,” says Simpson. “He passed that torch to me and told me to pay it forward. Here’s my chance to hook somebody else up. Let’s re-build that community and keep that torch going.”
CORE is seeking veterans of the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to participate in more sailing clinics throughout California, with the first being in San Francisco in October of this year. They will be accepting applications until August 31. For 2016, CORE is planning six to eight clinics up and down the California coast.
The most ambitious plan for CORE is participating in the 2017 Transpacific Yacht Race – where they will train a full crew of combat-wounded veterans to sail from Los Angeles to Honolulu, the first time ever that such a crew would be assembled.
“Our goal is to help reduce the rate of veteran suicide in this country. Sailing is one of the tools that we use,” he says.
Simpson is now featured in a series of short films produced by Craftsman, We Are The Mighty, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), showing how IAVA empowers veterans as they transition back to civilian life.
“It’s admirable for companies like Craftsman to reach out to veterans groups to benefit the guys and girls that are coming back,” Simpson says. “I see a positive shift in awareness about issues that affect veterans, how we can improve the care of veterans, and how we can achieve a more holistic healing approach instead of pumping them full of drugs.”
Craftsman is donating $250,000 to IAVA and from May 25 – July 4, for every new follower of @Craftsman on Instagram, Craftsman will donate an additional $1 to IAVA (with a minimum donation of $5,000).
“I am honored to be part of this and stoked that a big corporation is out to make a difference of stemming the tide of 22 veterans a day,” Simpson says. “I’m excited that they believe in what we’re doing, and to work on this next mission of saving lives by reaching out to the veteran community.”
In January 1961, the U.S. Army suffered its only nuclear accident and the only fatal nuclear accident in the United States. The accident was caused by the manual removal of a control rod in a nuclear reactor in Idaho. The resulting explosion killed two Army specialists and a Navy Electrician’s Mate. One of the Army specialists, Richard McKinley, was so irradiated that his body had be interred in a lead-lined casket, covered in cement and placed in a metal vault before burial.
The special grave is now at Arlington National Cemetery where it is under special watch, unable to be moved without permission from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.
That’s not really what we think of at Arlington National Cemetery.
The official cause of the explosion was ruled an accident, although some suspect it might have been a suicide due to the nature of the accident. In the nighttime hours of Jan. 3, 1961, three enlisted men working the reactor at an experimental Idaho-based Reactor Testing Station were killed when one of the nuclear core’s control rods were removed manually.
That is to say one of the men removed the uranium-235 control rod 50 centimeters – with his hands. Just 40 centimeters was enough to send the reactor to critical.
And it did send the reactor critical, immediately unleashing 20,000 MW in .01 seconds, causing the nuclear fuel to melt. The melted uranium began to interact with the water in the reactor and produced a violent explosion of steam that caused part of the core to rise three meters in the air.
In the late 1970s, it was even alleged that the incident was an intentional murder-suicide.
Army Specialist John Byrnes and Navy Electricians Mate Richard Legg were also killed in the incident, the first and only deadly nuclear incident on U.S. soil. They were buried in their hometowns. Specialist Richard McKinley would have to be buried elsewhere – somewhere his irradiated body could not harm anyone else.
When the specialist removed the control rod by hand, he had already absorbed enough radiation to kill him a few times over but the resulting steam explosion sent the rod flying through his body, contaminating it with long-life radioactive isotopes.
He was placed in a lead casket, covered in concrete and sealed in a metal container. His body now rests in Arlington National Cemetery. Along with delivery of the body came the orders from the Assistant Adjutant General of Arlington Cemetery:
“Victim of nuclear accident. Body is contaminated with long-life radio-active isotopes. Under no circumstances will the body be moved from this location without prior approval of the Atomic Energy Commission in consultation with this headquarters.”
The Israeli pilots were given clearance to fire, and they started off with a Sparrow engagement. The first Sparrow shots missed, then the F-15s closed.
Moshe Melnik, in the second of the four F-15s, took on the enemy fighters. He selected his infra-red guided missiles for the attack. It wasn’t an American-made Sidewinder, though. The Israelis had their own dogfight missile, the Python 3. Melnik selected one, and fired.
The missile tracked in, taking out one of the Fishbeds. It was thirty seconds into the engagement.
Melnik had secured a place in history as the first pilot to shoot down an enemy plane with the F-15 Eagle. Since then, between small-scale engagements and major conflicts like the Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot and Operation Desert Storm, the F-15 has dominated the skies, only yielding as the premiere air-to-air platform when the F-22 Raptor entered service.
Okay, the Raptor is pretty cool, too. (U.S. Air Force photo/Alejandro Pena)
Ironically, while Melnik would make history, he would not be considered the hero of the engagement where the F-15 scored its first kill. That honor would go to another Israeli pilot, Eitan Ben-Eliyahu.
WWI was one of the first truly modern conflicts. Fought mainly along trenches, the war saw the introduction of chemical weapons, tanks, and aerial combat.
Thought of as the war to end war, over 9 million soldiers were killed in the conflict and 21 million were injured. These casualties were largely helped along by the war being the first to feature widespread use of machine guns.
Nowadays, people may not remember much about H. Ross Perot outside of his boisterous personality, his third-party Presidential run, or maybe even just comedian Dana Carvey’s spot-on impression of the Texas billionaire. Perot was a naval officer and eight-year veteran whose work ethic and subsequent success is the very ideal vets strive to achieve. He not only helped himself, he helped others achieve their potential.
The onetime Eagle Scout even demonstrated his love for country after leaving the military, by remembering POWs, supporting American troops by opposing a war, and taking care of the Americans who worked for him. His Presidential run was just the most visible part of the former Midshipman’s life.
As far as Dana Carvey’s impression goes, Perot loved it.
“The number one rule in leadership is to always be accountable for what you do,” Perot famously said in the middle of the 1992 Presidential Debate. “When you make a mistake, step up to the plate and say you made a mistake. That’s leadership, folks.”
Perot knew a thing or two about leadership. He joined the Navy via the Naval Academy at Annapolis, becoming the class President for the Academy’s 1953 class. It was there he helped establish the Academy’s honor concept, a code of conduct that forbids Midshipmen from lying, cheating, or stealing. He graduated from the USNA a distinguished graduate, forever changing the experiences of Midshipmen at the Academy.
“I had never seen the ocean, and I had never seen a ship — but I knew that I wanted to go to the Naval Academy,” he reportedly said of his appointment to Annapolis.
But his determination didn’t end with his service. Like most of us, Perot transitioned into civilian life and found the standards much lower than he was used to. In his first post-military job as a salesman for IBM, he filled his entire annual quota in two weeks. He would eventually go on to found his own information technology company, Electronic Data Systems, the one that would make him a billionaire. Within a week of going public, he increased the EDS stock price tenfold. It was the fastest fortune ever made by any Texan.
When called upon to serve his country as a civilian, he did so, traveling to Laos in 1969 to investigate the conditions of American POWs held by the North. Perot was apparently appalled, as he tried to organize a relief airlift that rubbed the Cold War superpowers the wrong way. He also took care of his people, as many veterans instinctively do, even when he was at the top. When two of his employees were taken captive by Iranians in 1979, he organized and paid for the rescue operation that freed the two hostages.
It was with this life of service, hard work, and success that Perot was able to take the fight to two entrenched parties represented by longtime politicians, and change the American political scene forever. For all the jokes made about his demeanor, Perot earned nearly 20 percent of the popular vote, a return that forced President Bill Clinton to reconsider his economic policies and end his term with a budget surplus – a practically unthinkable feat in today’s politics.
The U.S. Navy’s Fleet Week has kicked off with a parade of ships, including patrol, destroyer and assault vessels that pulled into New York Harbor.
The U.S. Army Garrison Fort Hamilton military base held a salute to the ships on May 24. The USS Kearsarge amphibious assault ship carried out a seven-gun salute to Fort Hamilton, which replied with a 15-gun salute.
“New York has always had a close relationship with the military,” U.S. Coast Guard Anthony Giovinco, U.S. Navy Vietnam veteran and chief of staff and secretary of the United Military Veterans of Kings County Memorial Day Parade, said in a statement. “The sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen are treated very well here. This is a tradition that is important to me. It brings back fond memories of the years I spent in the military.”
The USS Kearsarge was accompanied by vessels including the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Lassen; the Ticonderoga-class cruisers USS Monterey and USS San Jacinto; and Canada’s Kingston-class coastal defense vessel HMCS Glace Bay, among others.
“Fleet Week New York is a way for the general public to view and experience the maritime sea services while allowing us to show our appreciation for our Sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen,” U.S. Army Spc. Tanner Butler, who is assigned to Fort Hamilton, said. “I feel, that since 9/11, it is really important for the people of New York to experience these things and to remember that our fellow Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen are there for us.”
New York City residents can inspect the vessels while service members are allowed to roam the city and enjoy perks such as free subway rides and baseball tickets. About 4,000 sailors,Marines and Coast Guardsmen are anticipated to participate this year. There will be a special screening of the 1986 film Top Gun in New York City’s Intrepid Sea, Air Space Museum.
“Fleet Week New York, now in its 29th year, is the city’s time-honored celebration of the sea service,” the Navy said in a statement. “It is an unparalleled opportunity for the citizens of New York and the surrounding tri-state area to meet sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen, as well as witness firsthand the latest capabilities of today’s maritime services. The weeklong celebration has been held nearly every year since 1984.”
In 2013, the Navy canceled Fleet Week due to spending cuts amid a sequester. The event would have cost the Navy an estimated $10 million, while the New York City metropolitan area lost an estimated $20 million in revenue.
Military representatives from Morocco and the United States held an opening ceremony Feb. 27 for the Flintlock 2017 exercise at the Tifnit training base [in Morocco], marking another milestone in a relationship between their nations that began in the 1700s.
More than 2,000 military personnel from 24 African and Western nations are participating in the 10th annual iteration of the exercise, which continues until March 16 across seven African host nations.
The exercise, sponsored by U.S. Africa Command, strengthens security institutions, promotes multilateral sharing of information and develops interoperability among counterterrorism partners from across Africa’s Sahara region.
Deep U.S.-Morocco Roots
African partner special operations forces and U.S. Special Operations Command Africa jointly plan and execute the exercise, highlighting the sense of shared purpose across the continent as partners strengthen themselves and their regional network against violent extremists. For Morocco and the United States, the roots run deep in this partnership.
Morocco formally recognized the United States by signing a treaty of peace and friendship in 1786 between U.S. Minister Thomas Barclay and the Sultan of Morocco, Sidi Muhammad, in Marrakesh, according to the U.S. State Department website. The relationship matured with the naming of James Simpson as the first American consul in 1797 in Tangier.
Sultan Mawlay Suleiman gifted the consulate a building and grounds to use, marking the first property owned by the U.S. government on foreign shores.
In all of American history, no other country has maintained its treaty relationship with America for as long as Morocco.
Flintlock 2017 is the most recent in a long line of actions and expressions of solidarity between the two nations.
“Morocco plays a key leadership role in Africa and we are honored by the continued partnership and friendship between our two countries. We look forward to working with you over the next few weeks,” Morocco’s special operations command exercise instructor said.
‘A Golden Opportunity’
Brig. Gen. Mohammed Benlouali, operations commander for Morocco’s Southern Zone, delivered remarks on behalf of the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces.
“These types of activities, as well as other joint combined Moroccan-American exercises, are a golden opportunity to further enhance the ties of military cooperation between our two countries,” he said. “We will stand ready and willing to take maximum benefit from this period of training to further promote our knowledge and know-how in the field of special forces,” he said.
Marines from Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command are training alongside their Moroccan peers, refining tactics, techniques, and procedures across multiple full-mission profiles. The two forces specifically are training on small-unit special operations forces tactics, weapons training and fire support, lifesaving first aid and trauma care, command and control, and force protection.
The shared training experiences will develop the two partners’ ability to plan, coordinate, and operate as an integrated team and will strengthen the bond between the two countries. The Moroccan Royal Armed Forces have contributed to United Nations peacekeeping missions around the world and provide a center of stability and security across the Sahel region.
Countering the threat posed by violent extremist organizations around the world demands proficiency, coordination and enhanced interoperability. While regional security is the main focus of Flintlock 2017, the lessons learned and investments in relationships will allow participants to share the burdens of managing conflicts and improve their ability to provide security solutions that meet threats at their origin, exercise officials said.
Citizens of Hawaii are advised to look out for emergency sirens, alerts, wireless notifications, or flashes of “brilliant white light” that will indicate that a nuclear detonation is incoming or underway.
From there, the agency instructs citizens to get indoors, stay indoors, and stay tuned via radio as “cell phone, television, radio, and internet services will be severely disrupted or unavailable.” Instead, expect only local radio stations to survive and function.
If indoors, citizens should avoid windows. If driving, citizens should pull off the road to allow emergency vehicles access to population centers. Once inside, Hawaiians should not leave home until instructed to or for two full weeks, as dangerous nuclear fallout could sicken or kill them.
For anyone who’s been through it, recruit training (or boot camp or whatever your service calls it) conjures up memories of hard work, new life lessons and a real sense of accomplishment.
But while the reward at the end of the experience seems worth it when it’s over, a lot of boot camp just plain sucks.
So here are eight things you surely don’t miss about basic training.
1. Losing sleep
The days of sleeping until noon are over. Getting up at 0400 or 0500 every morning is the norm. At times, trainees only get four hours of sleep due to night training events. Eventually, recruits learn to take “power naps” during moments of downtime to make up for the lack of sleep.
2. Eating in a hurry
During basic training, you have mere minutes to eat your food. This is where the old saying of “eat your chow in a hurry, you’ll taste it later” earns its meaning.
3. Fire Guard
You are sleeping comfortably following a long day of training when suddenly a fellow trainee wakes you up and tells you “it’s your turn for fire guard.”
It’s 0200, you walk around the barracks or sit at a desk while making sure the doors are secure and everyone is accounted for is part of military conditioning during training.
On fire guard, you must also be alert because drill sergeants could show up at any time to make sure guards are not sleeping on duty. They may even ask you some military questions or ask you to recite your general orders.
4. Running everywhere
Some days you may have felt like Forrest Gump because at boot camp you “just kept running” everywhere you went. “Double time” is a way of life.
5. Buffing floors
It feels like trainees should earn a special badge for the number of times they buff the floors during basic training. The sad part is those floors only stay clean for about a half day.
6. Doing push-ups
Doing hundreds of push-ups every day will make you stronger. However, at some point your arms will feel like they are going to fall off.
7. The gas chamber
I don’t think anyone misses the feeling of choking, thinking your eyes are coming out of their sockets and mucus flowing out of your nose.
8. Getting yelled at all day long
After finishing boot camp, you’ll appreciate having a conversation with someone who isn’t 1 inch from your face and screaming in your ear.
Tell us what you don’t miss from basic training/boot camp in the comments section below.
While the week-long exercise also featured anti-submarine warfare and other naval operations, most of the news coverage was of the Marines hitting the island. (In their defense, getting good footage of submarine battles is kinda tough).
Sure, pundits wrung their hands about the ramifications of a China and Russia conducting joint operations. But the fear may have been a bit overblown. After all, China participates in a lot of naval exercises with the U.S. as well.
The location and the activities in the exercise are important, though. Portions of the hotly contested South China Sea are claimed by a few nations, including the Philippines, China, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. If China were to try to edge other countries off their claims by force, this is the exact exercise they would need to do to get ready.
And the Chinese marines do look good in the video below, working with landing craft, tanks, and air assets to quickly take and hold the island alongside their Russian counterparts in green. See more footage of them in the full video from War Leaks below:
The Marine Corps wants to buy some second-hand Tigers. No, they’re not trying to replace Sigfried and Roy; they want to buy some F-5E/F Tiger fighters.
According to a report at Soldier of Fortune, the Marine Corps is looking to bolster its force of aggressors. The F-5E/F had long seen service as an attack airframe. In fact, F-5E/F aggressors portrayed the fictional MiG-28 in “Top Gun.”
So, why is the Marine Corps looking to expand the aggressors? One reason is the age of the fighters. The Marine F/A-18Cs are in some of the worst shape — it’s so bad that last year, the Marines had to pull Hornets out of the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
Currently, the Marines have VMFAT-101 at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, in Arizona. The goal is to place detachments of F-5s at three other Marine Corps air bases. This will help meet the needs of the Marine Corps.
One of the reasons ironically had to do with a new capability for the AV-8B Harrier force in the Marines: the ability to shoot the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile. The AMRAAM capability required training to help the pilots use it.
So, why not just ask the other services? Well, the Navy and Air Force are having similar problems in terms of airframe age.
SOF also notes that the Air Force has resorted to using T-38 Talon trainers to provide high-speed targets for the F-22, largely because the F-22 force is both very small and expensive to operate. The Marines face the same issue with operating costs if they were to use the F-35B as aggressors.
The Marines are also looking to add light attack capability, possibly using one of two propeller-driven counter-insurgency planes, the AT-6C Coyote and the AT-29 Super Tucano. If such a unit were to be created, it could very well be assigned to the Marine Corps Reserve’s 4th Marine Air Wing.
When Dave Berke was a kid, he imagined himself flying an F-18 off an aircraft carrier.
By the time he retired as a US Marine officer in 2016, he had not only done that, but he’d also flown an F-16, F-22, and F-35, taught at the elite Top Gun fighter pilot school, and served a year on the ground alongside Navy SEALs in the 2006 Battle of Ramadi as a forward air controller.
Today, he’s a member of Echelon Front, a leadership consulting firm started by two of those SEALs, Task Unit Bruiser commander Jocko Willink and one of his platoon commanders, Leif Babin.
Berke has spent the past year sharing lessons from his 23-year military career, and we asked him what insights were at the heart of his leadership philosophy. He shared with us two lessons he learned as a teenager, long before he ever saw combat.
They’re lessons he said became not only the foundation of his service, but his entire life, and they’re ones he’s had reinforced repeatedly.
Set specific goals and develop detailed paths to them.
Berke’s mom Arlene had become used to hearing her young son talk about how he wished he could fly fighter jets one day.
She told him that he needed understand that the role of a fighter pilot was a real job, one that existed outside of his daydreams. Berke said her message boiled down to: “You could sit there and think about wanting to be a pilot. By the time you’re 25 somebody will be doing that job. Spend less time fantasizing about it, spend less time dreaming about it, and spend more time coming up with a plan.”
Berke took it to heart, and in retrospect, probably took his mom’s advice even more intensely than she had intended. By 15 he knew that his goal was to fly F-18s off aircraft carriers and be stationed in Southern California. He wouldn’t go the more traditional Navy route, either, but would join the Marines and become an officer.
The Marines have fewer pilots, but even their pilots go through the same training as all other Marines. He wanted the best of both worlds, and to have his goal be as challenging as possible.
He accepted that he might not make this a reality, but decided he would act as though there were no alternative.
At 17, he met with a recruiting officer to nail down everything he needed to do to make his vision a reality, giving him a year to think about the resulting timeline before signing up for the Marine Corps.
“It keeps you disciplined because the risk of not doing all the things you need to do is failure,” he said about this timeline approach. “It’s a failure that you have nobody else to blame but yourself.”
Mental toughness is more important than abilities.
Berke said that he’s never been the biggest or strongest guy among his friends in the military, and as an 18-year-old, he was thin and average height.
He arrived at the Marine Corps Base Quantico for officer candidate school scared and intimidated. “I looked around and everybody else around me looked bigger, tougher, stronger, faster, and seemed to be more qualified than me to do that job,” he said.
But as the days went by, he would be surprised to see some of his fellow candidates break under pressure. A guy next to him that he knew was naturally a better athlete than he was wouldn’t be able to keep up in fitness trials, but it was because he didn’t share the drive that Berke had developed for years.
“As they started to fail, I started to realize that the difference between success and failure was mental toughness,” he said.
Berke, middle, with the Echelon Front team and Jocko Podcast producer Echo Charles, second from right. Berke joked this photo proves his point about not having to be the biggest or strongest to succeed. Photo from Echelon Front
He became an officer. Next was the Basic School, where he would be given his role in the Marine Corps. He was one of 250 new officers, and there were only two pilot spots for his class.
“There’s no way I’m going to let somebody else work harder, be more committed, be more disciplined, and outperform me in that environment to accomplish what they want at my expense,” he thought. “It’s not going to happen.”
The same mindset is what got him through the chaos of Iraq 15 years later, when a plane didn’t separate him from the fighting on the ground.