To every man who is or has been a Navy SEAL, the sea is sacred. It is our “hallowed ground.”
We few who have earned the Trident revere the water, more specifically the ocean, because it is where we were born as Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) and SEAL Team members. It is where we lived, worked, and bonded with our brothers in the Teams for as long as we were SEALs. And for some, long after they have retired from the Navy, the sea becomes their final resting place.
For every SEAL, in one way or another the sea always beckons.
In the first weekend of November all of this became powerfully clear to me when my wife and I traveled to Fort Pierce, FL for the annual reunion of former UDT/SEAL Team members at the Navy UDT/SEAL Museum. The gathering, called “The Muster and Music Festival,” draws thousands of civilians and former UDT/SEALs from the four corners to be with their brethren, to share stories, meet and greet family members, and to enjoy the festivities. The three-day celebration includes a 5k run/walk, a tactical demonstration, often with Navy SEALs arriving and departing in helicopters, a keynote speaker, music, and a lot of food and alcohol. Everything from a golf tournament to “Beat a SEAL” at the shooting range, the activities are what you would expect from a gathering of military special forces, family, and friends.
Except for one event. In the dark morning hours come Sunday, a group of UDT/SEALs descend on the museum for a mission unlike any other. Grouped into swim pairs the duos are granted the honor of swimming the ashes of a deceased UDT/SEAL into the surf zone for their “final swim.”
Early on Sunday morning, November 6, it was my honor, and my duty, to swim the remains of my old SEAL friend “Pup,” with whom I had served many decades ago. My swim partner for this honor was another old SEAL friend, “Ziggy.” In the 1980s, Ziggy, Pup, and I deployed together to Central and South America. Separated by life’s events for 30 years, we rekindled our friendships several years ago.
After the Navy I had a long career in federal law enforcement. Though separated from my former teammates, they always remained in my memory. I looked for former Navy SEALs “in the wild” but in all my travels around the world and the United States I never met another SEAL. Finally, after many years away from the Teams and my teammates I began to sheepishly reach out to my former frogman brothers not knowing if they’d remember me or the missions we’d conducted or would even welcome my attempts to rekindle our bond. Scouring through social media sites and internet searches I begin to contact former classmates and platoon members. More than I could imagine each one remembered not only me, “Brownie,” but also the adventures and misadventures we had.
Pup, Ziggy, and I recalled our adventures some of which can be told, others which cannot. But on this recent day in November, Ziggy and I had a job to do - a unique SEAL mission. You see while I’d agreed to join Ziggy and the group of swimmers at this year’s Muster, I had no idea whose ashes we’d be swimming out into the surf. About a year and a half ago Pup let us know he’d been diagnosed with throat cancer, but he was a UDT/SEAL so we knew he would beat it. Then at last year’s Muster it was obvious the cancer had ravaged Pup’s body. A few months later we lost our friend, Pup died.
It was now up to Ziggy and me to honor our teammate and take him to the one place he was always welcomed and was always safe, out into the ocean just past the welcoming surf zone.
Decades ago, as young men going through our brutal training evolutions, the ocean was feared for its cold, unforgiving temper, and vastness. Yet once in the UDT/SEAL Teams the ocean became our savior, the place we could always escape to when being extracted from a dangerous inland mission or chased by an unrelenting enemy. On many occasions, after days of conducting land operations, I remember sneaking out from under the brush in complete darkness, darting across the sand and into the waiting waves where I knew I’d be safe from the enemy. The ocean cared for us, and the surf zone was our welcome mat.
On this special Sunday morning I awoke before dawn and scurried myself and my wife out of our hotel room to gather with the 17 other designated SEAL swimmers. It was 5:30 AM and the museum parking lot was bustling, families of the deceased filed in, crowds arrived and began to fill the beach area where eight framed photo memorials stood above a green military ammunition box containing a satchel with the ashes of each former UDT/SEAL.
I joined six others including Ziggy to carry a small rubber boat called an IBS on our heads to the beach where we and another boat crew symbolically placed our boats in the sand facing the ocean. With the families seated facing the memorials and the waves, a procession of UDT/SEALs two by two marched in and stood behind each memorial. Then the name of each man was read. As a folded American flag was presented to a family member the ashes of the former frogman were ceremoniously surrendered to a waiting swimmer/UDT/SEAL.
After a final tearful playing of taps, we received our orders for swimmers - “about face”. Now staring into the waves each pair of swimmers carried a single shouldered green satchel and marched toward the ocean. Ziggy and I stopped at the water’s edge and donned our swim fins.
While the ocean was our respite, this morning’s surf was mighty. The first set of 4-to-6-foot waves crashed on the beach, the currents shifted left and right, and a rip tide warning was in effect. We knew to never take the ocean’s might lightly or for granted so we prepared for a difficult swim into the surf. As we made our way through and under the breakers and the waves crashed over our heads, flashbacks from my days in training and in the teams rushed through my mind. Our mission was to bury our friend Pup at sea and that is what we were going to do. SEALs always complete their mission. Clearing the first then the second set of waves we staged in between the crashing sets. Then I turned to Ziggy and said, it’s time to let Pup go. I unzipped the canvas satchel and gave my friend to the sea.
Returning to the beach the swimmers consoled the grieving families, passing on the empty satchels as a last memento of their loved ones. The ceremony attended by hundreds seemed to provide comfort and closure for the families and friends like Ziggy and me. We knew Pup was forever safe and forever in our hearts. We were proud beyond measure to have granted him his wish to rest in the waves.
Where do some Navy UDT/SEALs go to rest in peace? On a beach behind the UDT/SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, FL you will find that hallowed place. It is where many have gone back to the ocean and the surf they loved, feared, and respected. It is where they are given back to nature by the loving hands of their teammates.
David Brown is a former UDT/SEAL who served with Underwater Demolition Team 21 and SEAL Team 4, a retired federal Special Agent, and a current author.