It was a proud time for all of us – Mike, Glen, and I stood together with nine other classmates to receive our NSW Sniper School certificates
on May 3, 2019
Excerpt from Brandon’s Book: Among Heroes: A U.S. Navy SEAL’s True Story of Friendship, Heroism, and the Ultimate Sacrifice
On June 12, 2000, Mike, Glen, and I stood together with nine other classmates to receive our NSW Sniper School certificates. It was my twenty-sixth birthday; Mike was exactly twenty-seven years and three months old. His wife, Derenda, was there, along with their son, Holden, who was one day shy of nine months old. It was a proud time for all of us.
For most of us, deployment would be coming soon. First, though, Glen and I had a thirty-day leave coming, and we both took full advantage of it immediately after graduation. For the Bear’s part, he was moving right on to another school, this one involving one of his favorite activities: jumping from tall places. Mike was using this time to go through military freefall training right there in California.
Each of us had already been through rigger school, where you learn the basics of parachuting. There we had practiced a form of jumping called “static line,” a whole row of us jumping together with our chutes automatically pulled for us, what we call “dope on a rope,” and we’d also been through the exercise we call “hop-and-pops,” where you jump out over water at a few thousand feet and pull immediately, World War II–style, like the American airborne landings in Normandy. A funny story from Mike’s rigger school days: While partying at someone’s second-floor apartment after hours, Mike was sitting out on the balcony when he looked out and glimpsed a guy snatching a purse from a woman on the street below. He leaped off the balcony, landing on his feet, and went after the guy. Seeing this giant appearing out of the air and plowing toward him, the terrified thief took off down the street as fast as he could run, but he didn’t have a chance. Just as he’d done on that high school choir trip in Scotland, Mike caught up with the perp and took him down with a flying tackle, then held him in a lock until the police showed up. That was Mike’s version of basic jump training.
But this school Mike was going through now would take jumping to a whole different level. In military freefall he’d be jumping out of aircraft at ten to twelve thousand feet with full combat equipment. On an earlier visit to Coronado, his parents had seen some guys jumping out of a helicopter, and later that day Michael Senior had asked Mike, “How do you do that? I mean, you just throw yourself out of that thing. You don’t hesitate.”
Mike shrugged. “Hey, somebody’s got to do it.”
“But seriously,” his dad persisted, “have you thought about how dangerous this all is?”
Mike said, “You know, Dad, I don’t think about that. You can’t think about that. This is our job. This is what we do. There are people out there who can’t help themselves. Somebody’s got to help them.”
One day shortly after graduating from sniper school, Mike passed by the SEAL quarterdeck in Coronado on his way to get himself set up for jump school. A BUD/S instructor was finishing up with a group of fresh recruits, taking them through their punishing paces on the broiling-hot asphalt grinder. The instructor glanced up and spotted Mike walking by, recognizing him instantly. Reputation is everything in the SEAL teams, and everyone on the teams knew how well the new guys had done at sniper school, especially Mike.
“Hey, Bearden,” the instructor called out. “Now that you’ve finished sniper school, what’s next?”
Mike reached a fist up behind his neck and yanked, miming the action of opening a parachute. He grinned.
“I’m gonna be a sky god,” he said.
A few weeks later, nearing the end of jump school, Mike drove himself, Derenda, and their infant son, Holden, the fifteen hundred miles home to eastern Texas to attend a cousin’s wedding. The day after the wedding, he saddled the family up to head straight back out west so he could rejoin the class.
“Man,” his dad said as Mike packed their bags, “I sure wish you could stay through the weekend. We could spend some time together.”
“I can’t, Daddy,” said Mike. “We’ve got a jump coming up.”
His dad nodded, said so long, and saw them off.
A few days later, on Tuesday evening, Mike called home to check in with his folks, as he was in the habit of doing. He told his dad he’d made a jump that day, and said his back was really sore. When you watch SEALs go through their paces in documentaries, it’s easy to get the impression that we’re invulnerable and nothing fazes us. The truth is, all that training takes its toll. Mike’s knees had been dicey ever since high school, and while he never said a word about it to the other guys, they would hurt after jumping.
“Well,” said his dad, “maybe you can skip tomorrow.”
“Dad, you don’t skip,” Mike explained. “Besides, we’re just about finished up here.”
There was a pause in the conversation; then his dad said, “So, what are you going to do next, Mike?”
“What do you mean, what am I going to do next?” said Mike.
“Your four years are fixing to be up. Have you thought about what comes after this?”
Mike was silent for a moment before answering.
“Dad,” he said, “I’ve found something worthwhile here. Yeah, I’ve had offers to go work for a few companies. And I’ve thought about working for the U.S. Marshals at some point. But for right now, I’m doing something I’m really good at.”
Michael Senior digested that, then said, “So, what are you saying?”
“I’m going to re-up, Dad,” Mike replied. “What we’re doing here makes a difference. People need us.”
“Okay,” his dad said, and they said their goodbyes.
It was the last time the two men spoke.
Michael Senior was at school teaching the next day, Wednesday the twelfth of July, when someone came into the classroom and said he was needed at home right away. When he arrived home the news was waiting for him. That day the Bear had run smack into any military trainer’s worst nightmare: His main chute had a rare malfunction and got tangled up in his secondary or backup chute, preventing the secondary from deploying.
He fought to the last second to get that canopy open—fought it all the way to the ground.