Navy SEALs: Their Untold Story is the first comprehensive history of the special operations force and it's the companion book to a new PBS documentary by the same name. Written by former SEAL Dick Couch in collaboration with William Doyle (who also co-authored Chris Kyle's American Gun), the book goes all the way back to the World War II underwater demolition teams and continues through the formal creation of the SEAL program in 1962 all the way up to the present day.
It's most definitely an overview: the authors cover dozens of events and incidents that could all support their own detailed histories, but they do a great job of putting the entire story into context. Some of the stories are familiar but Couch and Doyle do a great job of putting them into historical context.
Dick Couch talked to us last week about the book, his own SEAL career and had some strong words about what was then the upcoming revelation by a former SEAL who says he's the guy who shot Osama bin Laden. (That guy's name is now out there and there are a more than a few of his SEAL brothers who aren't happy about it.)
Here's the resumé: Couch is a 1967 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. He served as a Surface Warfare Officer and a Special Warfare Officer. While a platoon leader with SEAL Team One in 1970, he led one of the only successful POW rescue operations of the Vietnam War. On release from active duty in 1972, he entered the Central Intelligence Agency, where he served as a Maritime Operations Case Officer. Dick retired from the Naval Reserve in 1997 with the rank of captain and currently serves as an advisor on military and tactical ethics for the component commands of the US Special Operations Command.
SEALs have been shrouded in mystery for all these years and now all of a sudden there's all this information available.
Yes, it is kind of surprising. Well, our approach to this particular special and the book is more historical. This is sort of how they grew, where they came from, how they evolved and arrived at this moment in time in the modern context of things.
You really go into depth on the roots of the SEAL teams, the pre-1960s operations that set the stage. A lot of people don’t know the history.
I think so. In a lot of the books that I've written on SEALs, I tend to do a “Here's where they came from and these are the actions that led to the formation of the first NCDUs and then the first UDTs.” I sort of glossed over it, but I never really went into it in depth. This work, along with Bill Doyle's fine efforts in this, has kind of allowed us to dig a little deeper into it and it's been a lot of fun to learn about my family tree in a little more meaningful way.
Give our readers a sense of your background.
I'm a graduate of the Naval Academy in 1967. We weren't allowed to go directly into special operations then.. Since I was a little boy, I'd always wanted to be a Navy Frogman. After a tour aboard ship, I got a chance to come back to a training in 1968, finished in early 1969, and then went into the teams. I served both in Underwater Demolition Team 22 and SEAL Team 1. And then I served a period of time as a Maritime Operations Officer at the CIA.
As guys get into middle age, you can no longer do those things, but I decided, well, maybe I can write about them. And it seemed to work out for me, so I began writing books. My first novel and my first book was SEAL Team One, published in 1990. Some novels followed that, but I really started writing about Navy SEALs seriously with The Warrior Elite, in which I followed a class through training. I was able to walk with them. I audited the course, didn't get cold and didn't get too wet, but I was able to do that in 1999 and 2000, then that book came out in 2001.
You said you wanted to be a Navy Frogman since you were a little boy.
I think my mother took me to see Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World. I remember getting the book and reading The Silent World and I thought, "Boy, that’s great stuff." Aqua-Lungs were brand new things and I – as a young kid in southern Indiana, I got myself an Aqua-Lung, saved up my money, and bought a regulator and I got an old fire extinguisher bottle and had it steam-cleaned and fitted to the regulator. And I dove in stone quarries in Indiana by myself for several years before I found a buddy who had an Aqua-Lung too, and we could be junior Frogmen together.
I did this in the mid-50's, when there weren't too many people diving. It’s one of those boyhood fantasies that I was able to fulfill later on. I feel very fortunate to have wanted to do something as a young man and been able to kind of stay with it for a lot longer than I ever thought possible.
There’s been an explosion of interest in SEALs over the last few years and we’ve covered a lot of books and movies on the topic here at Military.com. The overwhelming majority of SEALs we’ve interviewed didn’t stick around for their full 20. Do you think there’s a reason for that?
I’m not sure I can really address that. What you learn in the Navy, as a Navy SEAL, underwater demolition or through Navy SEAL training, is to become a good team player and a hard worker. You should probably know how to set goals and achieve those goals. Al those sayings predispose somebody to be a good hire no matter what you're doing and should teach you some skills that are useful, whether you're a Navy SEAL or no matter what else you're doing. I would hope that SEAL training is good no matter whether you stay in the Navy or get out of the Navy. And I can't imagine the problems a former Navy SEAL who gets out after five or seven or ten years has any harder time or easier time than somebody who gets out of the Army, Marine Corps, or Air Force at that time.
How did you edit the SEAL story down for a 300-page book?
We put a disclaimer in the book that this can only be a sampling of the history. There's much, much more out there. We tried to look for representative stories or things that we could get information on or knew something about. Two vignettes that are in the book are incidents that I dealt with personally, one was an operation I ran that was successful and the other one was an operation where I refused to go. It was a very difficult decision to say, “No, I'm not gonna go on this operation,” but Bill Doyle felt that this was appropriate and should be in the book and so there it is.
We had to be selective. There were stories we were told and said, “Boy, if we had the time or the room or maybe a little more detailed information, this would be a good one.” But we tried to go with those stories that illustrate what it was like for everybody else. We had to make some hard choices about what to include and what to leave out.
There seems to be a moment now where men who served as SEALs are starting to go public with their experiences, something that didn’t happen 10 years ago or 20 years ago. Do you think there's a change in SEAL culture?
Well, the subject of current SEALs that are writing books and the notoriety of SEALs, that’s kind of a tough one. I think it can be done somewhat appropriately. I think that some of these books that come out that talk about “me” and talk about sensitive operations, things that perhaps shouldn’t have happened. A lot of this is coming out of our special missions units.
The Army Special Missions units, you don’t seem to hear those guys talking about it too much. Most of these operations, including the current operations and the ones that we know about, are team-centric operations. They're the end result of a huge amount of intelligence collection that the analysts, combat support capabilities and aviation support capabilities have collected that lead to a successful operation.
It just seems to me that if one person says, “Hey, I'm gonna tell my story and make a lot of money at it,” it doesn’t seem appropriate to me. And, of course, this is maybe the pot calling the kettle black, because I'm a professional writer. And, if I was writing about truck drivers instead of Navy SEALs, I probably wouldn’t be selling as many books, so maybe I don’t have room to talk about this. But it seems to me that some of these books seem to be just a little bit self-serving and maybe talk about some things that are better not talked about.
There’s a special premiering on Fox News on Veterans Day where they have announced that they're going to interview the SEAL who took the kill shot on Osama Bin Laden.
There were a whole bunch of guys on that operation. They all filled a specific role and there were a ton of things that happened that got that guy to his finger on that trigger, into that room, at the head of that stack, to make that shot. Now, whether this is the real guy or some guy who says the’s the guy, I really don’t know, but it just seems to me that he's probably getting paid money to do this and there's an awful lot of guys that stood behind him to get him to that point.
I'm not even sure I'll watch it. I might be doing something else that night, but we'll just have to wait and see. Shame on Fox for saying “we're gonna have this thing and we're gonna present this guy and we're gonna ask him questions and he said he did it.” You know there was a team leader who made those decisions and got that operation done. There was probably a senior enlisted leader, who made sure all those guys were briefed, were equipped, were outfitted, that were on time, on station, and got the job done. There was a lot of things that took place that made that happen and probably one of the least important was the guy who pulled the trigger. And, to single him out like this, I think it does a disservice to all those hardworking guys that were on that operation who performed well and performed well as a team.
Navy Seal Class 45, East Coast, 1969. Dick Couch is rocking the sunglasses in the front row. (cred: U.S. Navy)
There seems to be a fascination with Navy SEALs that doesn’t quite exist with the Special Forces from the other branches of the military.
First of all, SEALs training is longer, harder, and, because of the maritime and underwater, undersea aspects of what they have to do, it costs a lot more money to make a Navy SEAL than anybody else. It's a two-and-a-half year process, whereas it's a year-and-a-half or so for Army Special Forces. Marine Special Forces will do it in about a year, year-and-a-half, and our Rangers, our 75th Rangers, they do it even quicker than that. So SEALs, it's definitely that they're generalists and it takes a long time to make one.
The second thing is their mission sets. They have been tasked with direct action missions, so that means they're the guys that kick the doors to go in the compounds, that kill the people, and find the terrorists, and do the hostage rescues. That’s in their portfolio. I think one of the reasons you don’t hear much about Special Forces is they're in the business of training our allies to resist insurgency and to perform counterterrorism operations. And it's just not as sexy as the direct action piece.
I would also submit that their job in training other forces is far more important than anything else. In other words, if we train those Afghans well, we can leave. And if we didn’t train them so well, then there's gonna be some problems after we're gone. So these guys are very important. It's just that they haven't caught the public attention.
Our Special Operations Marines do an awful lot of training. That’s one of their stock in trade is training allied forces, so you don’t hear much about them. Our 75th Rangers are light infantry. They're a superb light infantry and they do do direct action work, but they're primarily assaulters and their expertise is that they function not only in a platoon-sized organization. They can also conduct battalion-size and even regimental size operations in the form of light infantry.
So why the SEALs? I don’t know. I think that they have a diverse skill set, they’ve caught some good missions, and they’ve been used primarily as a direct action force. And so that’s what America wants. It's action. And so they get a lot of the attention, whereas perhaps maybe a lot of the heavy lifting is being done by just as many of the other special operations components.
There are a lot of classified operations that SEALs have participated in. Do you think eventually historians will have access to a lot of details that folks may know about and haven't published or talked about or is there just some stuff that'll always remain secret?
You know I'm really not sure I can answer that. I think that as time goes on and technologies move on, what have you, it'll be different. I think the procedures that they use, the real secret stuff is how we find out about it. Those surveillance technologies, listening technologies, our ability to electronically collect intelligence, the response times between getting the information and getting it in the hands of the operators and out the door, those are the things that are really important. The basic infantry tactics and even the modified and highly refined infantry tactics that SEALs use, those things aren't so much important.
Going into the future, I think we're finding that the direct action approach, whereas it plays awfully well on television and in the books I write, is something that we're probably going to be doing a lot less of. I think we're going to be engaged in partnership operations with allied forces around the world. And if an allied nation or a friendly nation is not prepared to put their people in the field and to go do the heavy lifting of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism work, we're not gonna do it for them. So I think even the Navy SEALs are gonna find themselves in situations where they're training a lot of and partnering with a lot of other host nation forces, rather than going out and doing it themselves.
Then there's the issue of our technologies to include drone strikes and things like that, then why put a team at risk and put them way back in there someplace where there's a lot of danger to them, when we can fly a drone in there with a very precise weapon and accomplish the same thing? So I think we're going to see things changing a little bit and I think you're going to see future involvement of our special operations components far more involved with embedding with other host nation forces and trying to bring up their capabilities.
There are probably stories from 20, 30, 40 years ago that you might even know yourself, of things that have happened in the past that haven't come out. Do you think there are some of those incidents from the past will emerge so that historians can tell those stories later or are there just some things that SEALs have done that'll always be in the dark?
From my knowledge of classified things both within the agency and with the teams, there are things where we've had a relationship or involvement in a country, gone someplace, done something that we probably don’t ever want to come to light. You know it's not in the interest today for that country for it to come to light that we had an involvement in a given country.
Some of the most sensitive things are where we've done something, it hasn’t worked out, or maybe we've hurt some noncombatants. Those are things where it doesn’t serves anyone to talk about now or further in the future. And there's some lessons learned. Maybe there's been some operations that just didn’t work out that we had to go back and think about how can we do that better and prevent it from happening again.
I think that there will be some things that will be declassified operationally. I'm talking more about things in Iraq, Afghanistan, or things like that, but we'll just have to wait and see.
So is there a specific anecdote or thing that you learned while you were writing this book that really surprised you?
What I learned more than anything in writing this book is just the innovative nature of how SEALs were formed. It seems like early on they’ve always been presented with a problem and had some very crafty sailors go out and figure out how do we accomplish this mission, how do we do this type of thing. And they’ve always been innovators and they’ve come up with ways to do it. How do you better waterproof an underwater assembly? How do you better jump out of high altitude with a heavy load? How do you best lock out of a submarine? Teams have always been innovators.
Operationally, from Vietnam forward, we’re one of the few forces where nobody said, “Go over here and do this.” They’ve just said, “Here's a problem, how do we solve it?” And the SEALs have always been very good about saying, “Okay, let's think about that.” They're very good at finding their own targets.
It's not that somebody tells you, “Here's a target, go get it.” We’ve put together our own target folders and we think that if we go over here, we can attack this target and create a good mission out of it. So I think I had always known that, but what writing this book brought home to me is just our rich history of being innovators, of bringing creative solutions to complex and deadly situations where we have to not only figure out how to do it, then we got to put it on the line and go out and do it.