(NEW YORK) — It used to be that Navy SEALs didn’t just operate in the shadows — they trained in them too. Their whole story stayed shrouded in mystery. Their secret missions stayed secret to the rest of us.
But when they got Osama bin Laden, snatched back an American cargo ship taken by pirates and rescued two air workers held hostage in Somalia, then, suddenly, it seemed that SEALs were headline-makers.
Add to that some SEALs who wrote books about SEAL adventures and even acted in a movie about the SEAL experience using live ammunition when they made Act of Valor. They can’t quite be called “the military unit that no one ever talked about” any longer.
Rorke Denver played Lt. Commander Rorke in Act of Valor, a film that used dozens of SEALs and went on to gross $80 million at the box office. Now, with the help of a writer, Denver is doing some pretty decent storytelling in a new book, Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior.
He agrees that with SEALs like him telling their stories these guys are out in the open like never before.
“We are, at this moment in our history, when the heat is on, the missions are getting press and coverage,” Denver said.
When asked if it was a good thing, he said, “Time will tell.”
“We are in the public eye and I think that mythology is something that people are hugely, hugely interested in and they have an appetite for it,” Denver said. “So for us with the movie and then also with Damn Few I had an opportunity, I feel, to authentically represent and hopefully do it from an honorable point of view and accurately do so.”
It’s mostly his own story Denver tells in Damn Few, how he joined the SEALs after college and they didn’t want him at first.
“I put in my first application and they said no, and I am glad it went that way. I think the community really values resiliency and toughness and focus and a ‘never quit’ attitude. For me, when they said no I thought, that ain’t going to cut it.”
Denver didn’t quit. He reapplied and went on to survive the SEALs’ brutal Hell Week and training, join the team and be deployed all over the world, including the deadly Al Anbar province in Iraq when the war there was at its hottest. His family waited for him to return stateside.
“The families, I feel, are the ones who pay the price of our choices,” Denver said. “But I didn’t appreciate how much I was asking my family to bear and experience it with me. They really are every bit a part of our experience and frankly they are the ones who are back home and praying and believing that you are going to come home.”
But even his family didn’t quite know what Denver did at work every day.
“I never ask questions about what he does,” said his wife, Tracy.
But Act of Valor was revealing in that way, and Denver’s wife watched the film.
“For me it was incredibly eye-opening to actually see a submarine mission or running around in the jungle, jumping out of a plane, shooting his weapons,” she said. “For me, it was like, oh, so this is what you are doing when you are away. I appreciated it actually.”
Someone else who appreciates what the SEALs do? Washington, which should be a good thing for the unit but there’s a catch. Politicians are saying we should have more of that good thing. More SEALs. Not necessarily a smart move, Denver said.
“It scares me, I am going to be honest,” he said. “I think the risk is we don’t know [about] the unintended consequences of getting more. The program works. We know what the results are with the program right now. If we double it, triple it, increase it by half, we don’t know what that result will be.”
He noticed, for example, that in some training exercises guys who fail are getting more and more chances to try again, like 10 or 12 times.
“I am concerned about 12 attempts to get through a program where it used to just be four,” Denver said. “But I was also cognizant as we were going through training that one of the things that is difficult is not letting those instructors get away from that focus on making it harder, to make it better. So that is really the tough part. Saying where is that cut-off point.”
Usually there are about 2,000 SEALs in service. Many more apply and start the training and most don’t make it. So what does it take?
“I think it’s a lot of things,” Denver said. “If we could bottle it — if you and I could bottle this right now we’d be retired on an island somewhere because it would be hugely valuable. I think it’s a tremendous desire to succeed, I think it’s an absolute inability to quit, no matter how tough things get.”
That’s why they call themselves the “damn few.” Something more of us know because the SEALs, in books like Denver’s, are coming just that much more out of the shadows.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Robert Mclean, CNN
Michael Nedelman, CNN
Sonya Hamasaki, CNN
Puja Bhattacharjee, CNN