The Navy SEAL Sniper Program’s Matt Axelson Demonstrates why Excellence Matters
on January 9, 2021
I quickly saw why Matt’s platoon mates had given him the nickname Cool Hand Luke, and it wasn’t just his resemblance to Paul Newman. It was that unshakable equanimity under pressure. People often use the phrase “quiet professional” to describe Navy SEALs and other Spec Ops warriors. I’d never met anyone who fit that phrase more perfectly than Matt. He had a level of competence that spoke louder than words.
This goes to show that appearances can be deceiving — even the most incisive first impressions. When I first met Morgan and Matt it seemed obvious that Morgan was the leader and Matt his sidekick. Watching them in action, I gradually realized that in many ways I’d gotten it backward: It was Morgan who often took his cues from Matt. Anytime Morgan would start getting frustrated, Matt had a way of glancing over at him without a word, just a look that said, “Pipe down and just get the job done.”
Matt knew my eyes were drilling holes in the backs of their heads, looking for any excuse to ratchet up the pressure even more — and he wasn’t going to give it to me.
I soon learned that just because Matt was quiet didn’t mean he was without pride. On the contrary, he had intensely high expectations for himself. For him, being a SEAL was more than an interest or pursuit. It was a deeply personal mission.
After high school, Matt had enrolled in college to study political science and pursue his lifelong fascination with history. (Marcus, Morgan’s brother, who was in the same SEAL platoon as Matt, described him as a bottomless font of knowledge about every culture, country, and population group, making him “our resident academic and Trivial Pursuit king.”) After a few years at Cal State in Chico, Matt realized they couldn’t deliver the degree course he wanted and transferred to San Diego, where he roomed with his brother, Jeff, and a few other guys — one of whom happened to be a SEAL.
Matt was also keenly aware of his own family’s military history. His grandfather was career Navy and was stationed on the USS Pennsylvania at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bombers attacked on December 7, 1941. Matt was stoked when he learned he’d been assigned to a unit stationed in Pearl City because this meant he would be walking quite literally in his grandfather’s footsteps. His grandmother was in the service, too, as were his father and uncle, who had both served in Vietnam.
After college, degree in hand, Matt decided his career would have to wait. He told his parents, “I want to give back to my country first.”
When I heard this I was impressed — and moved.
For a lot of us, joining the SEALs was something like joining the French Foreign Legion: the expression of a thirst for adventure. As Dave Scott said, “I get to shoot guns and jump out of planes … and get paid for it?” For me, it was more the allure of being part of such an elite group. My teen years hadn’t been easy, and I needed to prove to myself that I could do something of real worth. My decision to become a SEAL had not been driven by an especially strong sense of patriotism or, to be brutally truthful, even by the impulse to serve. For me, the SEALs offered the chance to be part of something great, something special, to reach a level of achievement that put me among the best of the best. And as aspirational as that was, I also had to admit it was all about me, about what I wanted to experience and achieve.
Matt wasn’t like that. Here was a kid determined to live his life as a gift, as an act of service to others. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d observed that quality. Mike Bearden was also an outstanding example of a teammate I looked up to for his selflessness, and there were others. But with Matt that sense of devotion was so stark, it cut a deep groove in my consciousness.
Getting to know Matt affected me in two ways: First, it made me realize that over the course of my years in the teams, seeing the sacrifices so many guys and their families were making, and experiencing first-hand what was going on in the rest of the world, I’d come to have a deep love for my country, along with a dedication to serving that I hadn’t known was in me.
He also made me want to up my game.
I was already fiercely dedicated to excellence; I had always been. By natural inclination, I have a very low tolerance for bullshit, laziness, or mediocrity. (One reason among many that Dave Scott and I clicked.) But just being around Matt and watching the way he held himself to the highest standard possible was pushing me to hold myself to an even higher standard. As much as our students looked up to us and took us as role models, every now and then it worked the other way, too. As Matt worked his way through the course, I found myself looking up to him. To me, he represented the epitome of what it was we were working to develop in all our students.
My favorite example of this is a story my buddy Dave Fernandez told me about an encounter he and Matt had later that year, a few months after Matt had been through our course.
That fall Matt’s platoon was near the end of their pre-deployment workup and went through a set of final training exercises up in Bangor, Washington, which were led by Fernandez. Dave is a first-rate operator and he was hammering the piss out of these guys, getting them ready for their C1 certification. (C1 means you’re combat-ready; C2 means you’re not quite ready; C3 means you’re not even close.) The platoon was what we call a “stacked platoon,” meaning it was composed of all A-class operators. Despite that fact, unfortunately, the platoon was performing like shit. Or perhaps, as Dave points out, it was because they were all A-class operators and had trouble forming any kind of natural hierarchy that they were performing like shit.
Whatever the reason, they were doing a terrible job, and Dave had just pulled a training time-out. For a SEAL platoon on its final readiness exercises, this is unheard-of. Especially for Dave Fernandez.
“I am extreme about this,” says Dave. “In conventional troop training, admin time-outs occur frequently as a safety measure. But in my book, they have no place in SEAL training. If your platoon gets in a bind, tough. You’re going to have to dig your own way out of it. That was my philosophy.”
But these guys were such a train wreck, Dave was forced to call a halt and recall the entire platoon. They were running out of time, and he didn’t want to have to flunk them. He reamed them out, told them where things stood, and directed them to regroup, get their heads in the game, start over, and this time make it work.
Dave and his crew were playing the role of the enemy, fitted out in indigenous garb and playing their part to the hilt. The platoon’s task was to stay close enough to observe Dave’s group but not be seen, and eventually make their way to shore and into the 40-degree water where they would swim out to rendezvous with their recovery element.
Before long one of Dave’s guys came to him and whispered that he’d located one of the men on the platoon. It was close to dusk, and Dave had to peer carefully to see where his guy was directing him. Sure enough, there was a pair of steely blue eyes looking back at him. Shit. It was Axelson.
As Dave walked over to talk to Matt, he thought, “How the hell is this tall, curly-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned, Scandinavian-looking motherfucker ever going to blend in the field?”
He knew Matt had a solid reputation, but he lit into him anyway. “As of right now you’re on E and E” — escape and evasion. This meant he”d been spotted but not yet captured and would now have to escape. “Your ass is busted, I’m coming after you, and you’d better not let me catch you. It starts right now.”
Without a word, Matt slipped back into the scenery as Dave went off to rally his team. Dave had been pulling for the platoon to pass, but now any reluctance to flunk them was gone. “I want this guy,” he told his team. “I want his ass. Do not fail.”
Now the platoon’s fate rested on Matt’s performance. Dave’s team had a pretty good idea of what Matt would do and where he would go. He was headed for a rendezvous point whose location they all knew already. No matter how you sliced it, the odds were wildly stacked against him.
“And son of a bitch,” says Dave. “I don’t know how he did it. But he did it. That blond motherfucker just melted into the night. None of us ever saw him — and we knew exactly where he was going! Even at the endpoint, we never got a bead on him. Where the hell was that guy? It was the damnedest thing.”
When Dave described the scene to me I laughed. I wished Eric and I could take the credit for that feat. After all, the guy had just gone through our stalking course. But it wasn’t just our course. It was Matt. He was one of the very best we had.
Which didn’t mean he had an easy time of it in sniper school. Nobody does. Suffering is designed into it; that’s the only way to create top-tier snipers. And those students soon learned that I wasn’t kidding back in that Coronado bunker when I said they’d probably end up hating the course.
Since Pendleton is less than an hour’s drive north of San Diego, Morgan would take off every evening and drive back down to Coronado where he was rooming with his twin brother, Marcus, rather than stay at our barracks. Marcus remembers Morgan coming in every night, feeling exhausted and defeated. One evening he rolled in, collapsed on the living room couch, and said, “I am praying every night that they kick me out of this course. It sucks so bad. It’s worse than BUD/S.”
Marcus couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He stared at his brother and said, “What are you talking about? Nothing’s worse than BUD/S.”
Morgan stretched out his long limbs, groaned, and said, “Man, it’s a different kind of suck.”
Marcus could not wrap his head around this. “What do you mean, ‘a different kind of suck?’ I’m a SEAL; I know what the definition of suck is.” A few months later, when he went through the course himself, Marcus understood exactly what his brother was talking about. “Please, God,” he remembers muttering, “let them kick me out of this frigging course — I can’t stand it!”
Matt was having just as hard a time as Morgan. His mother remembers him calling home one day and saying, “Oh man, I only got a 60 percent today. I’ve got to get my average higher if I want to make it through this course!” He was consumed with worry that he was going to flunk out.
I understood why he felt so much anxiety about it. Every sniper student did. But he had no reason to worry. At no time was he ever at serious risk of failing. He and Morgan ended up finishing at the top of their class.
As I said, observing the way Matt held himself to the highest standard possible goaded me to hold myself to an even higher standard. I didn’t know it then, but within months this would push me into one of the riskiest decisions of my years on the teams. In fact, it would take me within a hair’s breadth of ruining my career.
When September came Matt and Morgan returned to their platoon, and Eric and I were on to our next class of new students. Except that it was not business as usual. Axelson’s presence in the course that summer had hammered home an ironic fact about our sniper course that was gnawing at me and making my life increasingly miserable. It had to do with my mentor.
This excerpt is from Brandon Webb & John Mann’s bestselling book, Among Heroes, available everywhere books are sold and on Amazon.
Lead Photo credit Courtesy of the Axelson family (Radio.com)