The Coolest Guys in the World

Article excerpt

Byline: Tony Dokoupil

With their perfect takedown of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. Navy SEALs proved themselves America's top soldiers. A look at their daring deeds, their deadly skills-and their scandalous past.

High in the Caribbean night, Dick Marcinko shouted profanities. After five months of training, culminating in early 1981, his clandestine strike force--the nation's first terrorist hit squad--is parachuting into Vieques Island, a scrub-jungle rock near Puerto Rico. Their inaugural mission: snatch a hostage back from Los Macheteros, a militant nationalist group. But there's a hitch. Marcinko's parachute malfunctioned, sending the commander whistling off-course and face-first into a tree. "It was a good hurt," he would later write, "the kind that made me feel I was alive." Once on the ground, he punched his executive officer in the shoulder and gave the order. "Let's go hunting."

SEAL Team Six has been doing so ever since. They're America's quietest killers, working anonymously and without public recognition. But SEALs, so-called for their lethal skill by Sea, Air, or Land, can also make some noise--as they did when they killed Osama bin Laden last week with a point-blank shot to the left temple. They were already a semi-legendary bunch, a wing of the Navy that attracts gung-ho soldiers who drink snake venom and punctuate kills with a kiss to the victim's cheek (if their memoirs are to be believed). Swagger, perhaps, but also inevitable. SEAL training takes at least two years--about the same as it takes to become an astronaut--and includes an agonizing combination of brain and brawn, topped with five days of simulated battle stress. The men call it "Hell Week" (official name: Motivation Week), a regime of bullets, bombs, and extreme endurance tests. Men can ring a bell to quit at any time, and historically two out of three do. There are only about 2,500 SEALs worldwide, and an estimated 200 in Team Six, the squad that picked off three Somali pirates from 100 feet on rough seas in 2009.

But the SEALs haven't always enjoyed such heady days. In fact, the bin Laden mission is a bright spot in a history marked by scandal, failure, and, most recently, a decade of stalled recruiting efforts. That may not change. "Recruiting is a big problem, and retention is an even bigger problem," says former senator Bob Kerrey, a Medal of Honor-winning SEAL during Vietnam. "Ninety percent of a SEAL's life is training, preparation, and being bored to death."

The SEALs originated on the beaches of World War II, where "frogmen" cleared the way for invasions, and they gained fame in Vietnam. But the modern SEALs were born out of the Iran hostage crisis, when America's best rescue team lost eight men, seven helicopters, and a plane before even making contact with the militants who had taken over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. In the aftermath, Congress created a joint command, the brainstem for all U.S. Special Forces.

But the early results were underwhelming. Four SEALs drowned during the invasion of Grenada in 1983. A 1984 attempt to rescue a kidnapped CIA station chief failed in Beirut. And in 1987, Team Six itself was splashed across the news after some of Marcinko's men confessed to exploiting the clandestine nature of their work: stealing scuba equipment, faking travel receipts, and falsifying training vouchers.

The 1990s began more honorably, if not augustly. The movie Navy Seals was a cult hit starring Charlie Sheen as a hotheaded foe of terrorists worldwide. ("I wouldn't assume on any level that I possess the qualities of a SEAL," said Sheen. …