Remi Adeleke has an amazing story to share, and the fact that he served as a Navy SEAL is almost incidental to his epic tale.
He shares his life in a new memoir called "Transformed: A Navy's SEAL's Unlikely Journey from the Throne of Africa to the Streets of the Bronx."
That's a long and complicated title, but it barely scratches the service. Remi's mother was American, and his father was a tribal leader in his native Nigeria. He tells an overwhelming story about his father's attempts to invest in and modernize his home country, but that all came crashing down when his dad died when Remi was just a small child.
His mother took Remi and his brother back to the Bronx, where she raised the two boys as a public school teacher. She was determined to raise her boys right, but Remi didn't quite keep clear of the streets.
As a teen, he ran an amazing burner phone scam while working as a cellphone salesman. He was hanging out with drugs and crime, and his time would've run out if he hadn't met a Navy recruiter who saw his potential and took a chance on him in 2002.
Determined to become a SEAL, he fashioned his own training program while stationed at Camp Pendleton, California, and somehow found his way to BUD/S school and fulfilled his dream.
Since leaving the Navy in 2016, he has appeared in Michael Bay's movie "Transformers: The Last Knight" and participated in a high-profile Jockey underwear campaign. During that time, he spoke with us and went on the Today show. Host Kathie Lee Gifford was blown away by his story and personally helped him get a book deal.
The book is here, and it's amazing. Remi's mom made him write reports on newspaper articles for punishment when he was a kid, and her efforts have paid off. He's got a natural gift for writing, and his personality shines through in a way that celebrity books with ghostwriters never really do.
Speaking of Remi's personality, it certainly came through in our conversation. We weren't being monitored by PR staff trying to keep him on a schedule, so we just talked for a while and probably could've kept going all day, but I'm not sure anyone wants a book-length conversation between the two of us.
What we don't do here is spoil the details of the incredible stories he tells in the book. Adeleke is a man who shouldn't have had a chance to serve if all the rules were followed, and he's determined to lead a discussion about what America can do to give inner-city kids a better chance to serve their country.
If you enjoy our interview, you can also check out Remi's Cutting Room Floor Stories on YouTube, where he and his friends share stories that didn't make it into the book. And check out the book, which breaks all the rules of a military memoir. Remi doesn't back away from the truth about his younger days, and he's not afraid to describe some of the conflicts he faced while he served.
We talk about burner phones, hip hop music, how he invented his own SEAL training regime and the work he's doing with at-risk kids.
Did you know you were a writer before you started this book?
It's funny, I just discovered, I don't know what to call it, a gift or this inclination or the desire to write, as a writing class. When I was a kid, my mom, for punishment, would make us read The New York Times and make us pick articles and then write reports on the articles. That's where I started out writing.
Then, fast-forward, one of my jobs at the SEAL Teams was as an intelligence collector, so I ran sources and I would have to write these long reports for each meeting I had with the source. When it was time to write my book, I was too scared to write the book. Originally, my mom was supposed to write with me, but I just started writing and it is what it is now.
Why did you decide to write it? How did you get someone to publish it for you?
What inspired me to write it was people. For years, even while I was in the Teams, and before the Teams, when I was in BUD/S, guys would ask me why I was there, because not too many African-Americans go to SEAL training, right?
So, we would be sitting at our lunch table in SEAL Training, and guys would be like, "Remi, how'd you end up here, dude? What's your story?" And I would just tell 'em that I went from Africa, my dad was a millionaire, we moved to the Bronx and all the stuff I did in the Bronx. And they're like, "Man, that's a crazy story."
For years, people told me, "You need to write a book, you need to write a book, you need to write a book." When I got out of the SEAL Teams, that echoed even further. Every time somebody said, "You need to write a book," I told them, "No, absolutely not because there's a stigma attached to Navy SEALs who write books." I didn't want to be ostracized by my community for writing a book, even though I knew my heart would be in the right place.
Fast-forward to 2017, I went on the Today Show to promote "Transformers" because I was acting in the film. And live on air, Kathie Lee Gifford says, "Your story is phenomenal. You need to write a book, and then your book needs to be made into a movie." And I was just like [yells]. Inwardly, I nodded my head but, in my mind, I was like, "Absolutely not."
I walked out backstage after the set, after the piece, and she pulled me aside, she cornered me. She said, "Remi, I'm serious. I'm as serious as I was up there. You need to really write a book. Your story is like really inspiring? And I gave her the same reasoning why I shouldn't, and she said, "That's a stupid reasoning. I know your heart will be in the right place. You would write it to inspire people. You wouldn't write it to beat your chest and say, 'Look at me, I'm a Navy SEAL.'" And I was thought, "Yeah, you're right."
Anyway, that's what inspired me. She walked into my publisher, HarperCollins, and she told him, "You need to sign this guy to a book deal right now." And that's how I got my book deal, with help from Kathie Lee Gifford.
What did your mom say to you after she read the book? Because I kept thinking about that while I was reading.
She loved it. She was the first person that read it, actually. There's a whole crazy story behind that because my publisher fired me as a writer halfway through. They said, "You need to hire a ghostwriter to write the rest of this book because of the way you're writing. If you keep going, we think that this book is going to be a 200,000-word book." And I said, "There's no way." I know my mindset, and I know that I'm just getting stuff on paper first and then I'm going to go back and cut.
In that same process, I said, "Well, what is the maximum word count?" And they said, "60-80,000 words." I said, "What?!?!" They said, "Yeah, that's what we contracted you for this book." I said, "There's no way I could tell this story in 60-80,000 words." So I fought with my publisher for two weeks to change the word count and they finally budged and changed the word count to 130,000 words, no more than that. However, their caveat was that I had to hire a ghostwriter.
So, I capitulated. I hired a ghostwriter. This was December of 2017 and, a month later in January 2018, he turned in three chapters. I read them, and they were horrible. They were horrible mainly because it wasn't me. It was this old white guy trying to sound like an African-American kid from the Bronx, and it just wasn't my voice.
He hadn't read the first half of the book. And I asked him, "Dude, how could you know to write the last half if you didn't read the first half?" I figured that out in the first three lines that he didn't know the whole story. So, I sent him the previous chapters. I said, "Read the previous chapters that I sent you before we do anything else, and I'm going to rewrite this entire chapter that I'm reading now."
The next day, he called me back and he's said, "Remi, I can't believe you wrote this. You're a gifted writer. I don't know why your publisher made you hire me. You should have written this by yourself. I hate to fire myself, but you just need to write." He asked if he could stay on as the editor, but I said, "No, I'm writing this." And so I pretty much fired him.
When I fired him, I told the publisher, and they freaked out. "We can't believe you fired him. You're not going to be able to finish this book," all of this stuff. I said, "Listen, I'm a Navy SEAL. I'll figure it out."
I wrote the rest of the book. I wrote the whole book, finished the whole book. The publisher still had no confidence in my writing skills. A week before I was supposed to turn it in, they told me, "If your book is over a word count and if we don't like it, we can reject it. And if we reject it, you have to pay us back $100,000 of the advance that we've given you so far." Because, at that point, they had given me a $100,000 advance.
"If you just quit now and don't turn it in, all you have to do is pay us back $50,000." What? So I said, "Give me the weekend to think about it." That weekend, my mom happened to be at my house. She said, "Let me just read it before you make this decision. I'm confident in you because you're my son." She read it and she was just blown away. She said, "Remi, this is a historic book. This is really good; I'm so proud of you." Wow, she was just amazed.
So I turned in the manuscript to HarperCollins that next Monday. I still have the email from the vice president. She was like, "You know, pretty much like we didn't think that you could pull it off, but we were just blown away by what you wrote."
One of the amazing things to me about the book is how much you don't disguise. You didn't use fake names when you were talking about people who brought you into the service and your experiences in the early days of your career or did you?
The recruiter's real name, Tiana, that's her real name.
What about the people who you dealt with at Camp Pendleton who were hassling you? Did you use their names?
No, those are fake names.
But people who served with you at Pendleton are going to know who you're talking about.
Did you talk to your recruiting officer Tiana Reyes before you published the book and tell her you were gonna give the details of how she broke the rules to get you into the Navy?
No. That's a sad story. So, let's go back to that day when my mom read the book. The other thing that she said to me was, she said, "Remi, you know what's gonna happen?" At that point, I had a different name for Tiana because I had forgotten her name. In all honesty, I would say that two years after I joined the Navy, I totally forgot her name, even though she did this amazing thing for me.
So after my mom read the book, she said, "Remi, you know what's gonna happen? You're going be at a book signing somewhere and your recruiter is going to walk up, and she's gonna say, 'Hey, remember me?' And you're going see her and she's going to see what she did. She did a great thing by sneaking you into the Navy." And I was like, "Yeah, but, Ma, I forgot her name, so I don't know if I'll ever find her again."
As I said that, a thought popped in my mind: Remi, your military record is in your cabinet. So, I ran to my cabinet and I pulled out my old military record from 2002 and I went through all the papers, and I found her name and her signature. I Googled her name and, when I Googled her name, I found out that she had died of a rare autoimmune disease in 2006, four years after I enlisted.
Man, every time I tell the story, I get emotional. When I found that out, I was broken. I was crying. I was just a mess because Tiana saved my life. If she didn't get me in the Navy, where would I be now? I saw a memorial page that said she had a daughter named Sierra. Tiana also had her brother and mom and dad. So I said, "Mom, I'm going to find her daughter, whatever she needs, I'm going take care of her for the rest of my life."
Two weeks later, I was on my way to Atlanta to go because I work with a lot of inner-city, at-risk-youth nonprofits. I work with a nonprofit now in San Diego called City Hope Now, where I deal with the worst of the worst kids, society's most written-off kids, single-parent kids, all that.
I was working with a nonprofit in Atlanta, and I needed to fly there because one of the kids was getting ready to get sentenced to either prison or jail. It was going be for like five, six years. I needed to go stand in front of the judge and advocate on his behalf so that he would be released into my custody and the custody of the nonprofit instead of going to prison.
As I'm at the San Diego Airport getting ready to fly out, I decide to just try and find Tiana's family. I went to her memorial page and I just started Googling names I found there. By the time I got on the airplane and was about to take off, I found this one female name, Googled it and found that she owns an event-planning company.
So, I call the event-planning company and this person picks up. I say, "Hey, this might sound crazy, but do you know Tiana Reyes?" And she says, "Yes, that was my cousin." I just went through the whole story with her as fast as I could because the plane was getting ready to take off, and told how her cousin snuck me into the Navy.
She said, "You need to talk to her brother!" I said, "Well, my plane is getting ready to take off, so I'm not gonna be able to talk to him right now, but give him my number and when I land, I'll talk to him." And she asked, "Where are you going?" I said, "I'm flying to Atlanta." She said, "He moved to Atlanta. He lives in Atlanta now!" And I was like, "What? That's crazy!"
Anyway, she connected him with me. When I landed, we spoke on the phone and I went straight to his house from the airport. We talked for three hours, and I told him about the book. I told him about what she did for me.
He shared with me how she would drive around the Bronx when she was a recruiter and look for people she grew up with who were in trouble. Tiana would tell them, "Listen, I see where your life is going. Come with me; I'll get you in the Navy." She did the same thing for him. He got into misdemeanors, and she came back off her deployment and connected him with one of her friends and got him in the Air Force.
The reason she did that was because she knew that the recruiting system wouldn't give people like me a second chance. So she saw it as her duty as a recruiter who was from the Bronx to give people a second chance. I wish that I had the chance to see her, but I'm now friends with her family. They call me on holidays, and we're messaging each other all the time.
Have you encountered other people who had to lie to get into the Navy?
I've met two or three people whose recruiters did a similar thing. Interestingly, I get messages about twice a month on my Instagram, Facebook or Twitter from kids who know my story and they say, "Remi, I've been trying to get into the military for a year," "I've been trying to get into the military for two years and no recruiter will give me a chance because of this misdemeanor or because of this mistake that I made. What advice do you have for me?" And I tell them, "You just have to meet that one recruiter who is willing to take a risk."
I know this firsthand because my cousin, who lives in Georgia now, was getting in a lot of trouble and he had a misdemeanor that was so stupid. He went to a mall, got into an argument with his girlfriend, and he told his girlfriend, "If you don't give me my money, I'm gonna blow this place up." Somebody overheard that comment, and he was charged with making a terroristic threat. As a misdemeanor, not a felony. I flew him to California and took him to recruiters all around California, and not one of them would touch him.
Do you think the Pentagon should institute some kind of rehabilitation program, appeals program, a way for people to have a second chance? Because this is obviously part of the issue for people who grew up in environments like the one you grew up in.
That's why I wrote the book. I hope the Pentagon will read my story and, as my platform grows, I'm gonna advocate for more chances. There are kids who need a second chance. My story is a prime example. Here I was, a kid who was told you're not qualified, but I became a Navy SEAL in the military. So yes, something has to change, whether it's a program or they can work with the justice system. They could work in tandem.
Now, there are kids who are crazy, who are going to end up being murderers. Those people should not be allowed in the military. But we should do something for people who commit small offenses. Or even if it's a medium-sized offense or even if it's a second offense, we have to be willing to look at it in a case-by-case basis and see if we can do something to help change the trajectory of this person's life.
As I was writing the book, I spoke to a friend of mine from boot camp. He's a recruiter in Philadelphia now, and he called me up super emotional. He was just like, "Remi, I can't get any of these kids from the hood of Philadelphia into the military because of little weed charges. The military won't take them, and these kids have so much potential. And I know where they're gonna end up; they're gonna just end up back in the streets selling drugs or doing something that they're not supposed to be doing." So something needs to change. One hundred percent.
Well, it's interesting because while the things that you had warrants for were pretty ticky-tacky. But you were involved in some pretty felonious stuff with dealing the cellphones. Your explanation of how burner phones worked is probably the best I've ever read.
Yeah. Don't try this at home.
Well, I guess no one can do what you were doing anymore because of how all the technology has changed. Did you have to research if you were in the clear with the statute of limitations before you decided to put those stories in the book?
The funny thing is I called my lawyer and I said, "Listen, I need you to make some phone calls to find out if I'm clear to mention this, or if I'm gonna end up in federal prison." She pretty much gave me a thumbs up.
At this point, as you can tell from my book, I'm an authentic writer, right? I'm going to just shoot it straight. I'm going to tell it exactly as it happened. I'm not going to water it down. I made these mistakes, I did do this. I'm not proud of it. And there are people who have done the equivalent or worse.
So if I end up getting prosecuted so that all the people get to hear my story and see that they can make a change, or for other people to see that people like me can change, so be it. So be it. If I have to go to prison, with all that I've done from there until now, and where I'm at now, if somebody wants to prosecute me, I'll take it.
Another great thing in the book is how you write about the Notorious B.I.G.'s influence on you as a kid, how his poetry spoke to you. Do you still have that kind of intense relationship with hip hop or is that something that you've grown past?
I still listen to hip hop now. I don't listen as much as I used to. Since I've gotten into writing, I haven't listened to a lot of music when I work out. I used to listen to music, but now I listen to writing classes and different stuff like that. I'm always trying to learn and get better as a writer. Hip hop doesn't have as much influence on me as it did years ago.
Are you keeping up? Is there any music from the 21st century that connects with you, the way that that stuff did when you were a kid?
I like the Drake song, "God's Plan." I like songs here and there. So it's like a song thing more than an artist thing for me. Jay-Z's recent album 4:44, that I liked. What I loved about the album was to see his maturity in it, where before it was drugs, hustling, that kind of thing. This album is more about, "Hey, black people, we need to invest in property and stop investing in sneakers and jewelry." He was rapping from the perspective of a husband and talking about how he almost messed up -- infidelity or something with Beyoncé -- when he almost threw away his whole marriage.
What I liked about that album is it's more relatable to me now as a man. Because I'm a man now. I'm not a boy anymore, you know chasing these felicitous dreams. I'm a man that's trying to be a businessman like Jay-Z is a businessman, be a husband like Jay-Z is a husband.
In the book, you talk about how much your mom hated your music. Did she ever come around on hip hop?
No, my mom, she never really came around to it. She's still old school, and she likes jazz, she likes the classic R&B. She's pretty much the same as she's always been. She hated it when I was growing up. That's for sure.
When you were serving at Camp Pendleton, you weren't really on a career path that would lead someone to becoming a SEAL. How did you find a way to train yourself to get into BUD/S School?
I wanted it. I wanted to be a SEAL. One thing that my mom taught me as a kid was whatever you do, you do it right. That's something that she literally would beat into me and my brother's head all the time is that you don't half-ass anything. You need to go all the way in or you don't do it. My mom was very regimental as it related to that.
When that switch was turned in my head and I wanted to be a SEAL, it wasn't like "I want to be a SEAL." It's like, "I am going to be a SEAL, even though I meet absolutely no qualifications to go to SEAL Training, period." So for me, I wasn't going to depend on anybody. That's another thing that my mom taught me.
I hate to jump around, but there's a story that's not in my book. I tried to fit it in, but it just didn't work. After my father died, my mom called up her cousin and said to him, "Listen, my husband is dead, we have absolutely no money, I don't know how I'm gonna feed the kids, I don't know what I'm going to do. Can you loan me some money?" And this guy was financially well off. And he said, "Let me call you back in five minutes." So, five minutes later, the phone rings, and my mom answers it and it's her cousin's wife. She says to my mom, "How dare you call my husband up and ask him for money? Who the hell do you think you are? If you want something, you go through me," and she hangs up the phone on my mom.
My mom tells me a switch turned in her head at that moment in time. It told her, "Pauline, you are on your own, you can't depend on a family member, you can't depend on a man, you gotta do it yourself. And you are going to make it, and these boys are going to be successful. They are not going to starve to death. They're going to have what they need, and you are going to do the work."
People ask me all the time, "Remi, where do you get your purpose, your resilience?" And I tell them all the time, "I had a living example of it every single day of my life in my mom." And I also had an example of not depending on other people.
When that switch turned in my head that said, "I'm going to be a Navy SEAL," everything that I had seen my mom do, as far as depending on herself, I did. I wasn't going to depend on somebody to teach me how to work out. I wasn't going to depend on somebody to drive me to the pool. I wasn't going to depend on going to a tutor class to sit down with a tutor to teach me how to train. I was going to depend on myself to get it done because I wanted it.
That's what happens when you truly want something. When you truly want something, you don't need anybody to push you. You don't need anybody to help you. SEAL Training is a prime example of that. I met so many guys as I was getting ready to go to SEAL Training, the two times that I went, who were like, "Remi, I'd like to come work out with you."
That doesn't appeal to me at all. I would tell them all the time, "Listen, you can come, but when I say my start time is 3:00, it's 3:00. No ifs, ands or buts. It's 3:00. And if you're not here, I'm started." And, like clockwork, every single guy that ever trained with me, they only trained with me one or two times. After that, they never trained with me again because I train really, really hard.
The interesting thing is that every single guy who trained with me, they were kind of depending on me to push them. Guess what happened? When they went to SEAL Training, when they went to BUD/S, and things got rough and I wasn't in their ear saying, "Keep going," they quit. Every single one of them quit because they were depending on me to push them.
What I learned in that whole process and what I learned from my mom is you gotta depend on yourself. You have to do the work by yourself, because when things get rough, there's not going to be a personal trainer by your side saying, "Keep going, keep going." All you're going to have is your inner thoughts. And if you haven't conditioned yourself to push yourself, you're not going make it. So that's what that process was for me.
It really did suck. Every single morning, waking up, going to the clinic, working four hours, having the next four hours off to go train, and running the three miles uphill to the pool, and running the three miles back after swimming, that sucked. Hot, cold. I remember I would have to run these trails because the long route was the road route.
I can get up to the pool by running on the road, but it would take me a lot longer. There was a trail which skirts Lake O'Neill that was shorter, but the thing was there were so many rattlesnakes. I'm a city boy, so I hate snakes. I mean indigenous animals, I don't mess around. There are two things I don't mess around with: That's wild animals and outer space. I tell people that all the time. There were all kind of wild animals that I would hear running through the bushes as I was running, and I didn't like it. But, you know what, I didn't care because I wanted it. I pushed myself, and I did the work.
You left the Navy after 13½ years. What was the motivation behind your decision to become a civilian again?
My kids, my two sons. My father, you know from the story, died when I was five. It was just a decision point. I was getting ready to mobilize and deploy, and my contract was up and I was given an ultimatum: Deploy, or you should probably get out. I didn't want to be a burden to the other guys on the Teams by staying around when I knew I wanted to be home with my boys, so I got out.
It was to be a father. Being a SEAL, you're gone so much between training and deploying, and I just wanted to be home with my sons and raise them. It was hard, it was hard, it was hard. It was depression.
My wife will tell you, I was depressed. From the time I found out about the Team when I watched the movie "The Rock" when I was a kid, it fizzled out for a while, but it was a dream of mine for most of my life. To have this dream and now have it go away was depressing.
How did you handle that depression? How did you work your way through it?
It was a few things. One, just one, prayer. I'm a person of faith, so prayer helped me a lot. Just understanding that everything happens for a reason, and God has pretty much laid out my path for me. I know that this is a hard decision for me, but everything has just worked out for me. I didn't like it, but at some point there were going to be brighter days. So, that was one.
Two, my kids, man. After I got out, I would go on trips to go speak somewhere or to go do like some small little contract job somewhere. It was two days, three days, and then I would come back. Just to see my kids light up and see my kids so happy that I was home, or even times when I was on the phone with them and they were upset that I was gone and they were crying, "Daddy, please come back home," that was just confirmation for me that I made the right decision.
Three, my wife and her encouragement. And then finding purpose. I think that's important for all veterans, especially like guys who come from the background of special operations. When you're in special operations, you know your purpose. Every day you wake up, you know that purpose. When you get out, it seems as though that purpose disappears. If you can find something that gives you purpose, you know that's a game changer.
When I found working with inner-city kids and giving back in that way, when I found traveling and inspiring people's story, whether it's verbal or whether it's through [writing] or whether it's through acting, whether it's through writing a film, because I write films now as well. I got a film that's getting ready to go to market. So, when I found my purpose, that's a game changer and that's important for veterans, especially guys that struggle with PTSD. You know, find your purpose.
What's the name of your movie? Explain what you mean when you say "go to market."
Go to market to shop. One of the reasons why the operational side of my book is as short as it is that I wanted to tell the charity story; I wanted to inspire people. And I didn't want to pimp the Trident, so to speak. Plus there's a lot of the stuff that I can't really talk about it. I just can't.
There was a CIA story in the book that I had to take out, and it was only like about four or five paragraphs. It was like a quarter of a chapter. After I had to take it out, I started thinking. Why not write a fiction film about a kid from the Bronx who has found his way into the CIA and he's a James Bond-type guy? That's why he's one of the best CIA agents out there, because he grew up in a rough environment and that prepared him.
I wrote this film and it's called "The Chameleon." I wrote it right after I wrote the book, and I just handed it out to people in the industry just to see if I was onto something, and everybody felt it. And then I sent it to a company called Zero Gravity. So, they produced "Ozark" and they produced "The Accountant" and a bunch of other films. And they signed me as a writer.
I'm about to turn in my last rewrite and, after that, we're taking it to market to studios and production companies, and we'll go shop it as a franchise. Or they're probably going to produce it if we don't get picked up because they have a production budget. Our primary goal is to take it to a studio for them to pick it up. But if that doesn't happen, Zero Gravity is a production company. They produce a bunch of stuff, so we'll just produce it in-house.
If people who are reading your story want to get involved in the charity work you do, what are the organizations they can look up to support that work?
The nonprofit that I work with is called La Mesa City Hope. La Mesa City helps with human trafficking because human trafficking is a huge thing in San Diego, as well as domestic violence. We have houses and apartments that we put domestic violence victims in for a period of time until they can get on their feet.
The third arm of it, which is the arm that I pretty much run, for the most part, is the mentorship program. So, going into inner-city schools, building relationships with kids who are in single-parent homes and helping them out. You can donate on our website, if anybody is interested to do that, or you can find us on social media.
Thanks for speaking with us and thanks for being so open in your book. It really sets yours apart from most books on the subject.
I know I'm going to get backlash. I know people are going to make fun of me. But, you know what? At the end of the day, 99.99% of people on the face of this planet will never be a Navy SEAL. That's just the reality of it.
So, if they pick up a Navy SEAL book, all they're going do is get entertained. However, 99.99999% of people will either have a dream and they'll fail on or will lose a parent or either go through a bad breakup or either lose everything financially or either lose their parents. I mean the list goes on and on. So I wanted to write it for those people. I want people to read it and be like, "You know what, I've gone through the same thing and, wow, I can't believe this guy talked about this, but he overcame it, so I can overcome it."