Chapter 1Alpha Platoon
Craig Miller scanned the sweaty faces of the SEALs in Alpha platoon, crossed his arms, and allowed a rare, satisfied smile. It was a hot night in the California desert, and they were all pressed into a ramshackle barracks kitchen after a hard week of training—twenty big men yelling and laughing, circling like jackals, shirts off, spilling beer. As he watched the SEALs holler and strut around one of Alpha’s newest members, he felt the pride of a job well done. He knew they were one of the best commando teams in the Navy. With Eddie Gallagher above him and a stable of solid guys below, things were finally coming together.
Miller was Eddie’s second-in-charge, the lead petty officer of Alpha platoon. Everyone in Alpha called him “the Sheriff,” not just because he was the best and fastest gun in all of SEAL Team 7 but because he was a tall Texan who liked to wear cowboy boots and didn’t f*** around when it came to laying down the law. The Sheriff had a slim, powerful build, sharp features, and alert, searching eyes like an eagle. He was strict with everyone, including himself. He believed, at his core, in rules, discipline, and order. There was a right way to do things, and if anyone was going to screw around with regs, there better be a damn good reason.
Miller was twenty-eight years old but appeared to most of his men to have stepped through a wormhole from another era. He drove a sun-bleached Jeep CJ that was older than he was, and that he had repaired top to bottom. He wore a classic windup Rolex Submariner watch that was standard issue for frogmen in the 1960s. He loved old architecture and collected postcards of nineteenth-century courthouses. While many SEALs were focused on their next op, Miller studied SEALs lore and traditions.
Miller’s father had been a SEAL before him, but his father had refused to steer his son toward the Teams. The crucible of SEAL life was so unimaginably intense that Miller’s father believed a man had to reach for it on his own. Miller made up his mind early. He was a high school freshman in 2001 when the towers came down, and from then on was convinced that the nation needed good men to counteract all the bad in the world. Over the next several years he learned to swim and shoot and lug heavy packs while saving up more than $5,000 from summer jobs to buy his own Rolex Sub. The watch was his way of swearing his commitment to the SEALs long before he was old enough to sign papers. He had worn it nearly every day since.
Miller didn’t talk a whole lot, but his taciturn bearing hid an iron will. Few in the platoon knew it, but Miller had barely made it through BUD/S. Halfway through training, he had broken his foot. He could have quit or gotten a do-over on medical grounds. Instead, he laced his boot tighter and pressed on. They can carry me out on a stretcher, he told himself, but I’m not ringing that bell. That determination and his skills with a gun had helped him climb fast in the ranks of the SEALs. His formal evaluations dripped with superlatives. Five years after joining, he was the youngest lead petty officer in Team 7.
Well after the sun went down it was still 100 degrees in the desert. Miller looked on as Eddie and the rest of Alpha’s SEALs crowded around the kitchen table, their shirts off in the heat. They were all sculpted but lean, pro athletes whose chosen sport was combat. They bellowed like ancient warriors around a fire. At the center of the scrum, seated at the table, was Alpha platoon’s newest member, Special Operator Second Class Josh Graffam. His muscles were as tense as a drawn bow. On the table in front of him, the platoon had spread four black pieces of steel. Assembled, they would make a Navy-issued Sig Sauer 9mm pistol.
Six feet away at the other end of the table, also stripped to the waist, sat the newest SEAL from one of Alpha’s sister platoons, Bravo. The new SEAL was a mass of muscle, rising so big and broad above the table that he looked like a shaved grizzly bear. Graffam was five-foot-seven and wiry, a fraction of the size. But that didn’t matter. This was a contest of skill and speed. Spread in front of the bear was the same array of pistol parts. In the middle of the table, a short lunge from both men, stood a magazine holding a single round of ammunition.
It was April 2016—almost a year before Alpha platoon deployed to Mosul. Eddie had become Alpha’s new platoon chief just a few months earlier. The two platoons were at a remote Navy installation called La Posta in the dry, rocky Laguna Mountains fifty miles east of San Diego. They were there for close-quarters combat training: four grueling weeks of high-intensity shooting, room sweeps, and hostage scenarios that drilled into the men both the art and arithmetic of making quick life-and-death decisions at close range.
La Posta had a massive indoor training facility informally known as the Kill House. The building was nearly the size of a Walmart, its interior a warren of rooms and corridors. Each day the platoon ran shooting scenarios over and over in the Kill House while instructors watched with clipboards from catwalks above, like scientists studying rats in a maze. Each night the whole platoon slept in a spartan double-wide nearby—one long room with rows of bunk beds. At one end was a kitchen with an old fridge, a basic stove, and just enough room for two long tables. After a few long weeks of training, someone usually bought a keg.
That night, as the beer flowed, the platoon turned the kitchen into an arena for new-guy initiation games. The games had been going on in the SEAL Teams since the first groups of Navy frogmen generations before, and showed no signs of conforming to contemporary attitudes toward hazing. All freshly minted SEALs coming into a platoon were expected to go through them. There was no formal playbook, only ideas passed down from platoon to platoon with improvisations added by every generation. Games could take any form, but in an intense brotherhood of warriors like the SEALs, where unconventional thinking was prized and platoons had ready access to materials like flash grenades and tear gas, they were rarely dull.
Miller wouldn’t have stood for anything truly abusive, but he loved a good new-guy game. The best games tested resolve and creativity under pressure, which in their line of work was critical. At the same time, of course, a good game had to have the promise of enough pain to make it entertaining.
The game devised by Alpha and Bravo contained all three. Graffam and the shaved grizzly had to assemble their pistols as fast as possible. The first to finish could grab the magazine holding the single round in the center of the table, slam it into his gun, and shoot the other new guy in the chest. It was a test of weapon knowledge and performance under pressure. The single round in the clip was a high-velocity paint round. It was nonlethal, but on bare skin from point-blank range, it was going to hurt like a bitch.
Standing near Miller was the boss of a troop of three platoons in Team 7, Senior Chief Brian Alazzawi. At forty-three, he had been on eight combat deployments, including six to Iraq. The Navy officially frowned on this type of stuff, but even though he was in charge, he was enjoying the game as much as anyone. He was an old-school guy and believed in old frogman traditions. There were limits, sure. Guys didn’t need to get too hurt. Both men were wearing eye protection. But a little pain wasn’t a problem—in fact, it was the point. He expected his SEALs to be hard. They had to be. The job was to kill, sometimes fast and up close. Their language was raw. Their lives were intense. They were the nation’s door kickers and had to be ready to get medieval on whatever crazy mission they were given. They didn’t do nice, or polite, or easy, and if you didn’t like it, you could go back to the regular Navy.
Someone made a wager: Not only would the loser get shot, but his whole platoon would have to pick up all the spent shell casings after close-quarters combat training the next day. It was a chore nobody liked, made worse because every piece of brass they picked up would serve as a reminder that their platoon had gotten beat. And SEALs hated getting beat.
The men from Alpha and Bravo crowded around and howled for the competition to start. The new guys at either end of the table eyed each other, their hands hovering, trembling, ready to grab the pistol parts. Then someone shouted, “GO!”
Hands scrambled for steel. Assembling a gun was something both had done hundreds of times: Slip the black barrel into the hollow underside of the slide, then pull down and back into position. Grab the recoil spring and push forward until the steel pin clicks. Guide the slide onto the main frame that houses the grip. Hit the takedown lever just above the trigger, and snap! All the parts are in place. Then grab that magazine. Straightforward, but not with forty SEALs screaming at you. Both men started to fumble. Their hands shook. Simple movements became blurs.
“Come on, Graffam! Come on!” Miller yelled above the crowd. Eddie was just a few SEALs away, yelling even louder. They had trained the guys hard and suddenly felt like coaches on the sidelines. It was Eddie’s first time being a platoon chief and Miller’s first time as LPO. The win said as much about them as it did about the new guy.