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A Close Look At San Diego-Trained Navy SEALS

Aired 8/9/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

The Navy SEALS are dealing with the deaths of 22 of their own after a Chinook helicopter goes down in Afghanistan. We take a look at this locally trained elite group.

The Navy SEALS are dealing with the deaths of nearly two dozen of their own after a Chinook helicopter goes down in Afghanistan. Coronado is the training ground for Navy SEALS, including members of SEAL Team Six, which recently raided a Pakistani compound and killed Osama bin Laden. We take a look at this locally trained elite group.

SAILORS WATCH AS LANDING CRAFT ARRIVES AT CORONADO ISLAND
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Above: SAILORS WATCH AS LANDING CRAFT ARRIVES AT CORONADO ISLAND

Monday, San Diegans brought flowers to the North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado to pay their respects to 22 Navy SEALSs who were killed Sunday in Afghanistan. Members of SEAL Team Six were headed back to base after lending support to some Army Rangers under fire. That's when their Chinook Helicopter was shot down. A total of 30 servicemembers were killed in that crash, the single most deadly event for American troops of the Afghan war. Today President Barack Obama traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, to privately honor the U.S. forces killed in the attack.

GUEST

Tom Perry, San Diego Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

FUDGE: I'm Tom Fudge filling in for Maureen Cavanaugh.

First we focus on the Navy seals. Yesterday people brought flours to the north island naval air station in Coronado to pay their respects to 22 Navy seals who were killed Sunday in Afghanistan. Members of seal team six were headed back to base after lending support to some army rangers under fire. That's when their shin okay helicopter was shot down. A total of 30 service members were killed in that crash. The single most dead he event for American troops in the Afghan war. Coronado is the training ground for seals, including seal team six, which killed Osama Bin Laden. Tony Perry is the San Diego bureau chief for the LA Times, and he spent much time embedded with American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He joins me today to talk about the seals. And thanks for coming in.

PERRY: My pleasure.

FUDGE: And listener, if you want to join the conversation, you can call us at 1-888-895-5727. Or send us a tweet at KPBS midday. Tony, the seal community is a tight knit group. What would something like this mean to them given your knowledge of their culture and their expectations?

PERRY: They're grieving. This is a terrible loss in a small community, some 3400, about the size of a couple of marine battalions. And when you lose this many in that small a group, everyone feels it. And I'm sure they're grieving. I am also sure that they have redoubled their sense that this is a mission that they need to continue and a mission that is worth it, and they are doing what they are doing in defense of their country.

FUDGE: It's my understanding that seal team six has approximately 200 members. So this would be about 10% of seal team six. That went down in that helicopter.

PERRY: Indeed. And I think everybody within the seal community knows everybody else. They rotate in and out of this Virginia based seal team six. They rotate out here, back there. Even people that are in a different team may be out here. Maybe they went to training here in Coronado with the guys who were in the mission the other day. All seals train right here in Coronado. Then they fan out for teams both forward deployed and in Virginia.

FUDGE: I'll tell you what else we have right here in Coronado. It's a place called Danny's palm bar and grill. And Danny's bar and grill has a special connection to the Navy seal, especially those that have died in combat. And joining me right now on the phone is Katie McMillan, who is with Danny's bar and grill. And Katie, thanks very much for joining us.

MCMILLAN: No problem. How are you?

FUDGE: I'm doing great. I hope you're doing well, especially since it's the lunch hour. And I'm sure you guys are very busy. I'm glad you are able to give us a little bit of time.

MCMILLAN: No problem. Not at all.

FUDGE: Tell us, what do you do to recognize seals who have been killed in combat?

MCMILLAN: Well, we've -- about three years ago, we started a dedication wall to our fallen heroes. We get the -- their pictures from the command. And we put them up on our wall. They all have name plaques. And right now we're in the process of talking to the command to try to get us the pictures of the 22 seals that died on Friday. And we will be hold be a celebration for the Navy seals for any military to come in and just celebrate the -- their life and the dedication to their country that they have.

FUDGE: So you have pictures up on your walls of seals who have been killed in combat. How many pictures do you have up there?

MCMILLAN: We have about 40, a little over 40 right now. And we're gonna be moving that around so that we can add the 22 more, unfortunately.

FUDGE: Unfortunately. And at this point we don't know their names I guess.

MCMILLAN: No, Ia few have been released. We found out a few guys that used to be stationed out here that passed in the mission on Friday. A few close friends. But we don't have all the names yet because they're still trying to get ahold of families and what not.

FUDGE: Katie, how did Danny's forge a special relationship with the Navy seals?

MCMILLAN: You know, a lot of our history is kind of unknown. A lot of it is by word of mouth. We've been a Navy seal bar for 20, 30†years plus. We've been here over 100†years, and for the last 30†years or so, the guys claim this as their bar. It's kind of a home away from home for them, you know? A safe place for them to come in, relax, unwind.

FUDGE: All right, well, we'll assume you'll be lifting a glass in memory of these seals who keyed on Sunday.

MCMILLAN: Absolutely.

FUDGE: And thanks very much for joining us.

MCMILLAN: Thank you very much.

FUDGE: That was Katie McMillan, she is a bar tender at Danny's bar and Grill in Coronado. And you're listening to midday once again. If you want to join our conversation about the seals, 1-888-895-5727. Maybe you served in the seals, let us know what it was like and let us know what you think about what happened on Sunday. Tony, now that 22 members of seal team six have been killed in Afghanistan, are they going to have to replace them? Do they have a lot of seals? Are they difficult to train. ?

PERRY: The one figure I've seen most recently is there are 3400 people in what they call the seal community. They're attempting to almost double that through recruitment. But training a seal isn't easy. The initial training in Coronado is 24†weeks, and I've heard that the dropout rate is 50 to 80%, and that there is no shame in dropping out, washing out of seal training. It is that difficult. And even once they do the initial training, it can be 2, 2 and a half years before they're ready to go out on a mission. By the way, while we grieve the 22 seals, as we should, let's also remember three United States air force personnel and five army personnel who were the -- with the crew members on the shin okay. They were all there, they were all serving and they're all dead.

FUDGE: It's interesting to me that the seals in this mission didn't appear to be doing anything naval or amphibious. Tony, what exactly to seals do?

PERRY: I'll tell you in two ways. They sea, air, and land. They do windows. They do whatever is needed to be done. And that requires jumping out of airplanes and jumping out of helicopters, and sneaking in over land, whatever needs to be done. The second worry is, we don't really know. Like all special force, they do not allow press coverage, do not report to the public very publicly about what they do. And it's all kind of a black book kind of thing. If indeed this mission had been successful, if they hadn't been shot down, we probably would never have heard about it, or if we had heard about it, that they had been able -- the rangers who went in to capture and kill this Taliban leader they were after, which apparently they were not able to do, if they had been evacuated successfully by the seals, we probably would never have heard that the seals were even there.

FUDGE: We have a tendency to romanticize these special forces like the Navy seal, and we'll try to avoid that. But what kind of a person becomes a Navy seal?

PERRY: One, someone so physically robust one cannot believe it. The seals I've met though are not tall guys, they're just buffed out and lean. And they like to do crazy things like jump out of airplanes. And they believe in what they're doing, and they're dedicated. And it's what they want to do right down to their toenails, and they do it. The people who do know how well they do if, uniformed personnel, major civilian officials in the Department of Defense, major politicians who get classified briefings, they think they do it damn well. And I'll have to take that on faith. They are doubling special forces all over the place, army, air force is involved, and just yesterday a four star admiral, himself a seal, said that special forces including seals are the future.

FUDGE: In Afghanistan, the intention of the Obama administration is to pull out troops eventually. But special forces are going to stick around for a while.

PERRY: Well, I think seals and other special forces are the first in, and probably will be the last out. I can tell you that in both Afghanistan and in Iraq, the first conventional forces, land forces that were are in country when the assault began in both countries were the error marines from Camp Pendleton. And who were they greeted by but the seals from over in Coronado. So the seals, first in, last out.

FUDGE: And you quoted I think a retiring admiral, a retiring general who was talking about the fact that special forces like the seals are going to be the future. What did he say?

PERRY: Admiral Eric Olson, he was turning over the reigns of U.S. special operations, that's all the different services including the seals, and he himself is a seal, and he said of special ops, including seals, he said they punch above their weight, they absorb blows with abnormal toughness and stamina. They are the future. Our nation deserves and expects to have such a force that operates without such drama or fanfare, and who are among the greatest heroes unacknowledged. This is it. The yin and the yang. He believes in it, but not just him, other people who might, you think, have different viewpoints are aboard. Special forces for good or ill, and there is a down side to the use of special forces, is the future.

FUDGE: My guest is Tony Perry. He's the San Diego bureau chief for the LA Times, and he's spent quite a bit of time covering American forces that are based in San Diego who have been deployed to Afghanistan, to Iraq. Let's talk about the fact that you brought up earlier, I think that there's very little publicity that comes with being a member of the special forces. It sounds like as a journalist you're a bit frustrated that it's difficult to find out what they're doing.

PERRY: It's virtually impossible. We know that they were very successful in the takedown of Osama Bin Laden's lair there in Pakistan. We know about the mission the other day, we know about the 2005 mission in which 16 special force forces were killed. We know about a mission in Iraq where several seals stood court martial in a beating death of a suspect. We know about the takedown of the pirates on the high seas in 2009. But day to day, we do not know, will not know what it is the seals or the Marine special forces or the army special forces, what it is they're doing, and there are people concern about this, that in a democratic society that prizes itself on civilian over view, civilian over sight of our military, that this is running contrary to that.

FUDGE: Well, give that you're a reporter who has spent a lot of time covering the military, what do you think of the quotation that you read to me by this member of the top brass? Do you really feel that special forces should be the future of the American military?

PERRY: I'm agnostic on that. I have no views about what the future of the American military should be. I think tactically, I can see what he is saying. They move quick, they move stealthily. And they possibly can do things that if the press was hanging around, they couldn't do. And I suppose we need that. On the other hand, an academic from Harvard just the other day was issued a white paper in which he was decrying what he calls the secret war in 100 and 20 countries in which American special forces are involved, a doubling of the budget. All of it not on any sort of document that you can see. The activities not there to be reviewed. And he's very concerned about that. I don't think he's the only one concerned, and I think it's a legitimate question. We ought to sit down and talk about it some day on one of those weekend seminars that you see on Cspan.

FUDGE: Okay. Well, I'd like to thank my guest, Tony Perry is San Diego bureau chief for the LA Times. He's spent much of his time embedded with American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tony, thanks for coming in.

PERRY: My pleasure.

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