There are two types of Navy SEAL. There’s the fictitious one who kills 31 bad guys with a 30-round magazine. And then there are the real SEALs, flesh-and-blood people who perform assigned duties with incredible professionalism, make no Arnold Schwarzenegger wisecracks about the dead, and carry hearts as well as machine guns.
Last month we celebrated one such when the Navy commissioned the stealthy Zumwalt-class destroyer USS Michael Monsoor in San Diego. Given that there will be only two other such destroyers — one named for President Lyndon B. Johnson, the other for the late Elmo Zumwalt Jr. himself, naval commander during the Vietnam War and subsequently head of the Navy — you’ve got to be thinking this Michael Monsoor guy was pretty special.
He was. I know that firsthand.
In the spring of 2006, I worked my credentials as a former combat engineer paratrooper with special-ops training to become an embedded journalist in the most violent part of the most violent city in Iraq. It was the Mullab district of Ramadi in western Al Anbar Province. And it was the headquarters of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), while local graffiti boasted that it was “the graveyard of the Americans.”
I figured it was where the war was going to be won or lost — not Baghdad, where most media were holed up. And AQI was indeed in a death match with the Army’s 1st Battalion of the 506 Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, at Camp Corregidor. Supplemented by Task Unit Bruiser (TUB) of Seal Team 3. If you saw American Sniper: Those were the guys. And all were just as heroic as the film’s protagonist was portrayed to be. They would go on to become the most highly decorated SEAL team since Vietnam.
Leaving the base camp virtually guaranteed a fight. I got one my first day. Camera in hand, I darted out from my protected position into the street toward the sound of the shooting. A glance over my shoulder presented the sobering sight of a SEAL seemingly pointing his 7.62-millimeter MK48 machine gun right at me. “Gulp!” Then I realized this guy was my guardian angel. If anyone popped out to shoot me, he was going to drop him first.
It was of course Mikey, as everyone called him. Possibly as a result of that encounter, most of the SEAL photos I took that day included him. Or possibly I sensed that even though he was at that time a low-ranking enlisted SEAL, the other members of TUB treated him as somebody truly special. Later my video footage revealed that only two names were ever uttered. One was “Mikey!” (He was also quite the jokester and people just genuinely liked him.)
We were right about this man.
Not long after my first Ramadi visit, during a particularly heated battle, a SEAL was shot in the leg and incapacitated. Monsoor and another SEAL left their protected position and, in a hail of bullets, used one arm to fire their machine guns and the other to drag their heavily laden comrade back to safety. (All the SEALs wore incredible loads, and Monsoor, as radio operator, often bore about 130 pounds in the scorching Iraqi heat.) For this action Mikey would later receive the military’s third-highest medal, the Silver Star.
On another occasion he won the Bronze Star for valor.
But you don’t get a ship named after you for those actions alone.
The date was September 29, 2006, and I was inbound to Corregidor for my second visit. That happens to be Saint Michael’s Day, the saint day not only of Michaels but of warriors.
Mikey, then 25, was standing in an overlook position while three other SEALs and eight Iraqi soldiers were lying prone, to get a good view of the battle area for sniping and directing other units. Suddenly a hand grenade thrown from beneath the outlook arched over the top, bounced off Mikey’s chest, and then rolled. Mikey knew that, given the time all this had taken, there was zero chance to grab and throw it.
So the only man capable of evading the blast did the opposite. Mikey yelled “Grenade!” and tossed himself onto the bomb. The blast was such that some of the others still took shrapnel. But only Mikey died. He was their guardian angel.
When I later asked his aunt and godmother, Patty Monsoor O’Connor, how he could have made such a quick decision, she told me he didn’t. A product not only of the hellish SEAL training but a strong Catholic religious upbringing, he knew the risk and had already decided what do if it arose.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Flash-forward to April 2008. The Battle of Ramadi had been won (ISIS later occupied the city but was quickly thrown out), because of the sacrifices of the SEALs and many others. And at least that stage of the war was won. Now we who knew Mikey, along with numerous dignitaries, were in the White House as President George W. Bush presented his parents, George and Sally, with the nation’s highest award: the Medal of Honor. I stood next to a SEAL who had been blinded in both eyes.
“Mr. and Mrs. Monsoor, America owes you a debt that can never be repaid,” Bush said, breaking down in tears. Trying watching the video and see if it doesn’t have the same effect on you. “This nation will always cherish the memory of your son.”
Though not a Catholic, Bush nevertheless emphasized the connection to Saint Michael’s Day. It gives you goosebumps.
That evening at a bar, just three blocks from my house, we gathered to celebrate. It was the first chance I had to converse with any TUB members. I had previously written that “anyone who harbors the notion that SEALs are as tough on the inside as they are on the outside is wrong.” At the bar one confessed to me, “you know, we really had become convinced we were invincible.” It was all the harder to realize otherwise.
In addition to losing Mikey, they lost Marc Alan Lee who was fatally shot in the mouth during a rescue operation. The blind fellow next to me? That was Ryan Job, his vision destroyed by shrapnel when a sniper round blasted his weapon, as essentially depicted in American Sniper. “Mr. Biggles,” as he was called, went on to marry his girlfriend, become a spokesman for wounded veterans, and even go mountain-climbing and hunting but died from a botched reconstructive procedure. (Chris Kyle dedicated American Sniper to both, and the movie scene portraying Lee as weak is blatantly false; mightily angering the SEALs.)
Look, enjoy the movies, the books, the video games. But please remember, as so many did on that January Sunday, that these are human beings. Sons, fathers, brothers. Those families will never fully recover. Nobody who goes over comes back the same, and they never forget.
With the USS Michael Monsoor now plowing the seas and defending our country, please don’t you ever forget either.