My father was a sailor in the US Navy. He was also a brother in a band that so many men (from all walks of life) try to become, in a place where only few make the cut. My father was a special operator; a Frogman, but better known by most as a Navy SEAL. Growing up a “SEAL PUP” in the early 80’s didn’t impact me in the same way that it does now. I’m sure it has something to do with being able to understand the job of being a SEAL – what these men do, what they go through, the risks of the job, and the challenges and sacrifices that they and their families must accept and make. The emotional, mental, and physical strain that these men face in training and in combat fuse them as one, but above all, as brothers operating as a single unit. There is no other operating group like them. These men have died for each other and that is why they are so close on and off the battlefield, and also why their families are also very close to one another.
I was four, going on five when my father was killed. I didn’t have the ability to understand any of it at that age. Mom and Dad did a great job at not allowing his career in the Teams to impact us in a negative way and for the most part, they kept my brothers and I oblivious. There wasn’t a stamp on how much time we had or spent together as a family. I only remember the good times and how the time with him was spent doing something incredible. I don’t remember the number of times he was deployed or home because we didn’t focus on that. We missed him when he was gone and excited to see him when he returned. We just picked up from where we had last left off because that was standard operating procedure for us, it was what was normal. It’s not an uncommon thing to hear how these guys live their lives. With or without families it’s either, “always to the fullest” or “like tomorrow is the last” and it couldn’t be more true. Now that I’m an adult and fully understand the lifestyle, I now understand why dad spent every moment he had home….with us.
Dad died in ’84 when there weren’t any wars and the world seemed relatively quiet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure he snuck off to save the world from some kind of threat from time to time, but deploying for war wasn’t something our family had to deal with. Unfortunately now, I can’t say the same for our active duty families. A huge strain has been set on the community with the amount of losses suffered over the last twelve years. The guys deploy about 65- 70% of the time now. Family life is certainly more challenging and because of it, the bond and kinship of the community is stronger than ever. We lean on each other for support because we’re the only ones that know what each other is going through. Families now have to accept the fact that the risks are higher with every deployment, that it is the norm. Wives are left home alone with kids, while keeping the household secure so the guys don’t have to worry about anything except concentrating on their jobs. Kids are now impacted by the stamp of time because their fathers are gone way too often, and it’s not out of the ordinary that a baby meets his or her father for the first time via Skype. The way I see it, my family and I had it easy and we were spoiled by comparison.
My father was killed during a training jump. He deployed his chute and got tangled up in the strings when he landed in the water and drowned. The details of his death are unknown because no one knows what really happened. The coroner stated that his back had been broken, so he may have hit the plane at some point during the actual jump. He also speculated that he was probably conscious enough to pull and deploy his chute, but probably went back out of consciousness before hitting the water. Whatever the details really are, my family and I have always hoped that it was quick and that he didn’t suffer. We were lucky to have been able to bring his body back home to bury. By a miracle, the search and rescue team found him the next day.
Life after that changed our family in an extreme way….
“Your father was a good man. Growing up without a him is gonna to be hard, it’s gonna hurt . You’ll feel alone, out to sea with no shore in sight. You’ll wonder why him, why me?” – Act of Valor
That quote is pretty much how I can honestly sum it up. Dad and I were very close but he was also close to my brothers, we were all close. My mom has often said that my brother Adam (who’s the eldest) and I (being the youngest), took his death the hardest. Adam was thirteen and had lost his role model, while also becoming the man of the house. As for me, well…I can’t imagine what it was like for my mother to have to figure out a way to explain to my four-year old self, what happened and why daddy wasn’t coming home. I didn’t understand it and as a result, I spent countless nights falling asleep in front of the front door waiting for him to walk through it finally.
We were stationed in France at the time, so we moved back to the states and into our home in Virginia Beach. We had to start our lives all over and it was hard. For us and the case for most of the families, the stress lies the hardest financially. Mom didn’t work when dad was alive because she was a stay at home wife/mom. Being a SEAL wife requires a lot of dedication to the homestead, which is why most don’t work and focus only on their families and the house. Mom worked 3 jobs while she went to school. She struggled a lot to pay the bills, to put food on the table, but she managed and did her best with the cards that had been dealt to her. Dad was not only the financial means for the family, but he was also the pillar while my mother was the backbone. Finding herself now serving as both, I often wonder how she never broke or crumbled under all of the weight that came with it.
When times for her were really hard, I would hear and see her cry over her school books, when she thought no one was there. She’d be talking to dad as if he were at the table with her, telling him how much she loved and missed him and sometimes cursing his name for leaving her. It was tough for her to face her own feelings over losing her husband, but she was also left to deal with her children’s.
We didn’t make it easy for her and the burden of feeling guilty weighed heavily on her, despite knowing that there was no one to blame. I gave her the most difficult time and as a result, I spent years growing up, being resentful and blaming her. It took me a long time to finally understand and truly believe that my father’s death was no one’s fault and beyond anyone’s control. I admit that I believed that he abandoned us for his job and that my mother didn’t try hard enough to stop him from leaving, even though it was a volunteer trip. She understood the job and she understood my father’s love for it, but most of all, she understood who he was.
My mother, Diane is one of the strongest women I know and one of the most hard-core SEAL widows to boot. She’s the true meaning of Warrior Queen in my book. Raised three kids, worked three jobs while attending college full-time. That woman earned a Masters in Psychology and beat all the odds against her. She has sacrificed so much, twice over for her family and never looked back with regrets. She has dedicated her life to being a SEAL wife and then after that, to playing the role of both parents for her children, and I respect her so much for all of it.
There are no regrets other that my daughter will never get to meet her grandfather. I believe they would have been the best of friends. My brothers and I grew up knowing and believing that our father loved us very much. He died doing what he loved with a heart full of content. I only wonder if his last thoughts were of all of us. I like to believe we were.
I was asked once If I ever wanted to marry a man just like my father. What girl wouldn’t want to marry some one like their dad, especially if their father was as amazing as mine? I wanted to marry a man with the same values and spirit as my father, but I didn’t want to marry a man who had the same career. Mom never wanted me to live the same kind of lifestyle and she sure as hell never wanted me to go through what she had. We stopped attending the annual SEAL reunion picnics that took place every summer when I turned 16. I knew mom’s reasons and I didn’t argue with her because I felt the same way. I didn’t want to love my husband with all of my heart, only to lose him to the same line of work.
Despite all of that, it was hard to grow up in the community and in a place like Virginia Beach, and not have a few friends that were team guys. I met my first two friends through my brother because they trained in Brazilian Jujitsu with him. After that, I just kind of made more and more over the years, and as a result, I now have some of the most “rough & tumble”, “no holds bar”, but ever so amazing friends. Friends that I made when I was in my early 20’s and that I still have today as my brothers. Unfortunately though, over the last 12 years, I’ve had to say goodbye to too many as a result of the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq.
15 U.S. Navy SEALs from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group’s Gold Squadron
5 U.S. Naval Special Warfare support personnel
3 U.S. Army Reserve personnel from the 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment
2 U.S. Navy SEALs from a west coast based SEAL team
2 U.S. Army personnel from the 2nd Battalion, 135th Aviation Regiment
2 U.S. Air Force Pararescuemen from the 24th Special Tactics Squadron
1 U.S. Air Force Combat Controller from the 24th Special Tactics Squadron
1 U.S. Military Working Dog
I lost one of my closest friends on August 6th, 2011 when the CH-47 Chinook helicopter that was carrying him and his teammates (30 men were lost all together, and one military working dog) was shot down over the province region of Wardak, Afghanistan. It was the largest loss of life in Naval Special Warfare history and the single greatest loss of life for our forces in Afghanistan. Before that, Operation Red Wings held the title, when 19 of our brothers were lost on June 28, 2005 during a fight with enemy forces in the Pech District of Afghanistans Kunar Province. Three of the SEALs that were lost, had been engaged in heavy gun fire on the ground and another sixteen men (8 US Army Night Stalkers and 8 US Navy SEALs) were lost when their helicopter was taken out by an RPG while attempting to rescue them.
I will never forget the morning of August 6th. I can honestly say that it was one the worst days ever – for a lot of us here, back home in the states. Waiting for confirmation was the worst and I remember sitting by my phone and computer in denial, praying that I might get a phone call or an email from my friend, telling me that they were all alive and well. I wish more than anything that this was how it ended.
When the boys finally came home to be laid to rest, it was a very difficult time for those of us who knew and loved these men as sons, brothers, uncles, fathers, nephews, cousins, friends and teammates. But, the tragedy brought all of us together as a community and we supported and loved one another to get through it as we mourned and said our goodbyes to these amazing men. Just like my father and his brothers, I know and believe that these men also loved what they did and believed in the cause in which they were called to fight. They were proud to be Americans, they loved their country and were willing to sacrifice themselves for it. They did just that and then some, and I could not see them wanting to go any other way, except to grow old with their wives and to watch their children grow up to be just as amazing as they were.
I am a proud American and I too love and serve my country. I am honored to have known and been a part of so many of these amazing warriors’ lives.
In memory of US Navy UDT/SEAL Lt. Slater C. Blackiston III
and the men of Extortion-17