Of the seventeen who had survived our Navy SEAL Hell week, only eleven graduated with our Class number 81. Injuries, failed standards, and academics had lessened the final graduation number.
We were all in dress blue uniforms to accept our graduation certificates. The Xeroxed graduation certificates we were awarded were thin pieces of paper, with a gold seal, and blue and gold ribbons applied to the right lower corner, titled:
UNITED STATES NAVY
Naval Technical Training Command
CERTIFICATE OF GRADUATION
This is to certify that “(Typed name here)”
Has successfully completed the prescribed course of instruction in
Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training
Presented This 4th Day of April, 1975
The chairs were few. The crowd was invited and small.
A speech was made and forgotten, but the event was memorialized by a photograph with eleven men gathered out front of the training area with Seaman Apprentice Robert McNabb holding the Honor Man certificate. Three officers and eight enlisted men gathered for a photo that would be displayed at the Fort Pierce, Florida SEAL museum alongside all the past and future SEAL classes.
The Honor Man is a special award given to one man in each graduating class. The qualifications to earn this special recognition from the cadre of instructors are not published.
There had been a discussion, and serious debate by the instructors, to determine who best exemplified the Teams and would continue to serve with honor. Bob McNabb would prove them right, in combat and in peacetime, for decades to follow.
This was a moment in all our lives that would live forever in our collective memories. It was accented by the handshakes of the veterans that welcomed us to their fraternity. We were no longer tadpoles. We were frogmen.
Our five medical classmates were missing from the photo. All our corpsmen were present, but not considered for the graduation photo since they had been treated as non-combatants by the Navy at that time, and not required to do Hell Week. The potential training loss rate would be unacceptably high for these men with special and needed skills. One of these corpsmen would later join the police force and earn two medals of valor under fire, and one other would later serve a brilliant career in the CIA.
The Teams would always honor their corpsmen, and the future would find changes in policy allowing corpsmen to train more completely for combat and be tested by Hell Week. One corpsman, Senior Chief Edward Byers, would be awarded the Team’s sixth SEAL Medal of Honor, in 2016, for his actions in Afghanistan. His Team would rescue a Taliban-captured American doctor, lose one teammate in the rescue, and see this medical trained operator use both his combat and medical skills to the benefit of America and his teammates.
After accepting the long-sought-after diplomas, which acknowledged that Class 81 had made it, we all moved down the line of instructors and leaders who were welcoming us into the Teams. We then each walked to the potentially ignominious brass bell and rang it loudly and ceremoniously three times. The bell no longer represented a threat. It signaled, for all to hear – success.
To this day, despite many other momentous events in our lives, most of us will recall with pride the handshakes that we were offered by our instructors. Chief Rogers reserved the personal privilege, and right, to render a first Team salute to the three officers that had finished with our class. Instructor Steve Frisk, who would train and see nineteen classes graduate, and had guided us all, shook our hands and smiled with pride. Mike Thornton, wearing a dress uniform adorned with the Medal of Honor ribbon, smiled like a new dad. We were his first class to train.
“Welcome to the Teams, sir,” Chief Rogers stated as he whipped a perfect salute to each officer individually. This moment would resonate in our individual and collective memories as the ultimate recognition of our personal achievements to date.
The chief petty officer that had accosted and challenged the eight officers in our class to prove to him that we could lead his teammates into combat, rendered a first salute at graduation to only three as new members of his elite community.
We would each go on to earn other salutes and awards, but none would be more memorable than that one, respectfully rendered, which he honored us with that day.
As for me personally, I cannot recall a more satisfying life moment.
The story above is real and is from my book “Six Days of Impossible Navy SEAL Hell Week A Doctor Looks Back”
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