SEAL Turns Warrior Loss into Artwork
Retired Navy Senior Chief Dave Hall used to look forward to the anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks when he was an active duty SEAL.
"When you're a SEAL who's deployed on 9-11 you know what you're going to do," Hall said. "We don't sit in camp that day. We stack as many missions as we can. We go kick people's asses. It feels good to be an American Navy SEAL on 9-11 when you're deployed."
However the feeling has been different since he retired. "When you come back [9-11] is an ominous day," Hall said. "It's a day the enemy scored on us, and you feel the weight of all of those losses."
That feeling peaked for Hall on the attack's anniversary in 2012, when the marketplace was filled with books and movies about Navy SEALs.
"At that time everybody in America seemed like they wanted a piece of SEAL teams," he said. "We were so high profile, in the community, and of course you can't have that. You can't say, ‘Hey, go have coffee with a SEAL' because of the secrecy involved."
So he decided to take his negative feelings around the loss of his comrades in the wake of 9-11 along with the public's demonstrated appetite for all-things-SEAL and, as he said, "do something that has a real serious SEAL connection."
But Hall also wanted to connect with the largest possible audience.
"I didn't want it to be just a military thing." He liked the 9-11 theme because of the sense of national unity it represents. "It was the last time Americans agreed on much of anything," he said.
He decided to create a work of art that would be accessible to both veterans and civilians.
Along with being a SEAL, Hall was a sniper, so on September 11, 2012 he took a small team to Blackwater's former facility in the swamps of Virginia where he shot at a target from 911 yards 79 times -- once for every Naval Special Warfare casualty since 9-11, those killed in both combat and training.
"As we were setting up a friend was texting me real-time details of what the terrorists had been doing on 9-11 (6 AM- Mohamed Atta checks out of his hotel room)," Hall said. "They project started to feel important. I was feeling the weight of what I was attempting to do."
Hall sent the first round downrange at 8:46 AM, the time the first airliner hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, in honor of Petty Officer First Class Neil Roberts -- the first SEAL killed during the war in Afghanistan. The shot found the target, and the bullet hole was labeled with Roberts' name by a volunteer spotter downrange.
"I'd take the shot, and they'd find the bullet hole," Hall recalls. "They'd write the name down next to the hole. I'd hand the brass to my wife who had the list of names and she'd label it. It was kind of a sacred process."
There were anomalies during the event that made it feel like the spirits of those being honored were present. At one point, after hitting the target dozens of times without fail, he missed. And then he missed again. And again.
"Who am I shooting for?" Hall asked his wife, who was checking the names off the list drawn up in order of when they'd fallen.
"Jeff Lucas," his wife replied. Hall laughed. Lucas, a fellow sniper who was killed during Operation Redwings -- the "Lone Survivor" mission -- was practical joker along with being a talented warrior.
"I figured he was up there enjoying making me look bad," Hall said.
Another shot felt close right out of the barrel, and as the spotters reported it hit very close to the center of the target, Hall said to his wife, "That was for Danny Dietz, wasn't it?"
"It was," his wife replied. "How did you know?"
"I just felt it," Hall said.
The bullets shot in honor of Nate Hardy and Mike Koch -- two killed on the same night in Iraq -- hit right next to each other.
"From 911 yards I couldn't have made those bullets hit together like that if I had wanted to," Hall said.
Several days after the shoot, Hall's wife convinced him to show the target to one of the contractors working on their house who had a brother who supposedly did "target art." Hall Googled him -- Ellwood T. Risk -- and realized the guy was the real deal.
The contractor called his brother on the spot, and after hearing about what Hall had done without hesitation the artist said, "I'm in; I'll do it for free."
Hall rolled up the target and sent it off to Risk. In the weeks that followed the retired SEAL fought the temptation to give the artist his input on how the piece might be conceived. "I didn't want to influence him," Hall said. "But you get worried. You hope he's not a liberal fruit loop and it turns out to be some kind of anti-war thing."
Risk had been saving military-related front pages of major newspapers since 9-11, waiting for just such an opportunity. The result was a powerful piece of art called "Until It Hurts."
"Until It Hurts" features Hall's target with the 79 bullet holes highlighted in red. The target is flanked by the front pages with headlines announcing the news of the wars over the years. At the bottom of the piece the 79 names of the fallen are listed in chronological order.
Hall wanted to do something with the piece, perhaps sell it at auction and donate the money to a military-related charity, so he reached out to his friend and fellow SEAL Jason Redman, a well-known wounded warrior, author, and founder of Wounded Wear, a company that specializes in providing free clothing to wounded vets.
Redman, in turn, contacted Norfolk-area businessman Todd Grubbs who eventually bought the piece at auction for $10,000. That money was put towards clothing for wounded vets and the Navy SEAL Foundation, a non-profit that funds education for the dependants of fallen SEALs.
Hall, Redman, and Grubbs see the sale of the piece as just the beginning of its utility.
"The art should be perceived as a celebration of life," said Grubbs, who has no desire to let "Until It Hurts" languish on a wall in his home.
"I knew all of these guys, especially the east coast guys and many of them died in heroic ways," Hall said. "You can start to believe that the best among us are dead and that thought takes you to no place good. So this piece forces me to remember them as the men they were."
"My biggest fear is we give guys clothing and they kill themselves in it," Redman said. "We're not helping them find their purpose. The American people aren't helping. You see nothing on the news any more. Even those we're still losing guys. We have to keep the discussion going, to contextualize the sacrifice for the entire country."
"This artwork is a tribute to lives well spent instead of tragic loss," Hall said. "The ones killed on 9-11 weren't warriors. They went to work with every expectation they'd be home for dinner.
"What it cost Naval Special Warfare to go after the bad guys is a unit of measure for all Americans -- 79 really good people. If you can get your head around that then you can start thinking about the greater loss."
Last week production started on a documentary about the project. "Until It Hurts" should be released next year.
-- Ward Carroll can be reached at Ward.Carroll@monster.com.