Why Excellence Matters Personally and Professionally
on January 15, 2021
I needed two things. The first was a certain kind of experience. In my 13 years of service, I’d seen the military from almost every angle — but I had no experience of the world of private contractors. The name Blackwater had made this kind of shadow forces infamous, yet they were a far more crucial element in the big picture than most civilians realized.
There are a handful of intelligence agencies in the United States which help to keep us safe while we sleep, and most of them require the skills of highly trained Special Operations personnel for their work. Since they don’t have the capacity to produce their own operators, this personnel is almost without exception privately contracted. I needed to know what that world was like.
The second thing was, frankly, finances. As I contemplated my options, I happened to run into a good friend who was doing some work for an OGA (other governmental agency) and told me what he was earning money for relatively short-term deployments overseas. I calculated that in a fairly short time, I could go a long way toward bankrolling at least the early phases of my entrepreneurial venture.
A buddy of mine happened to work in that same intelligence network coordinating job applications. My application got fast-tracked, and by the time I had officially left the service, I already had a package approved and a deployment date set with the Client.
I wasn’t about to jump without a backup chute.
My then-wife, Gabriele, was nearing the end of her third pregnancy when I officially left the Navy on July 6, 2006. Our second son, Tyler, was born on the last day of August. By September I was standing in an abandoned warehouse somewhere in the DC area, holding on to my red circle and putting three guys onto the floor.
That fall I deployed to Iraq, where I provided mission support services for the Client. While I was there I rewrote the entire security plan for one of their remote sites in Iraq (it was a joke when I got there, just two pages-long and useless). I also developed a complete training program for our Kurdish Peshmerga security force (who’d had basically no training up to that point). I ran missions that ranged from the mundane to the bizarre, including delivering attaché cases full of American cash to intel assets (in case you’ve ever wondered how much $1.5 million in cash weighs, I can tell you: a lot), grabbing double-agent informers in the middle of the night and hauling them in for questioning, arranging and coordinating clandestine meeting points with locals-turned-intel-assets, driving like hell through the city losing Iranian tails, and anything you might imagine from everything you’ve seen in the movies.
I was never ambushed at any checkpoint or meeting spot, but it was known to happen. One group got into a firefight on the road to Kirkuk and had to blast their way through. At another checkpoint, a few of our guys realized too late that the officials on hand were not acting as friendly as they should have been; they got lit up by machine-gun fire and never made it out of there.
There was an incident late in 2006 wherein several key Iranian diplomats were caught spying in Baghdad and a number of high-level assets suddenly had to be smuggled into Iraq. I was in the middle of that mess, driving a vehicle through the city with stolen Iraqi plates and trying to calm a case officer who was bawling her eyes out because our assets had suddenly changed our rendezvous point and her commander was screaming at her on a cell phone (FUBAR). I had to pull the car over in the middle of the op, turn around in my seat, and yell into her face to break through and keep the op moving. Training, training. We got the assets and made it out alive. (You don’t want to know who they were or what intelligence we got from them.)
By the end of 2007, I was out of Iraq and back in the States. With the help of my investors, I had purchased the raw land for the site of my new facility: about a thousand acres of California desert out in Imperial County — and where? Right across the Salton Sea from my old friend Niland, of course. I called the facility Wind Zero, a precision shooting term that refers to the practice of precisely tuning your weapon to a point of perfect balance and neutrality.
It took a good four years to raise the full financing and secure the zoning and other legal go-aheads to get Wind Zero underway. There was a shocking amount of resistance to the plan from some local environmentalists and other forces resistant to change (which I had a hard time not thinking of as incarnations of the spirit of Harvey Clayton). By that time, though, we had the support of the local law enforcement community, the fire department, public safety personnel, and everyone else in the community who had a grip on common sense. Besides, it wouldn’t matter if it took twice that many years. Whatever red circle I’m given to hold, I’ll stand my ground.
My dad did well for himself eventually. Not long after I joined the Navy he started another company doing spec homes and custom housing, bought some land on the outskirts of Jackson Hole along the Idaho-Wyoming border, and developed it. He then sank his profits into properties that provided him his retirement. He built a house down in Cabo San Lucas, where he lives in the winter, fishing off the beach and playing drums in a local band. He’s 62 now and still plays music every day —and he has a 42-foot boat. Our relationship still has that bit of edginess to it. But he’s my dad.
My mom and I are still very close, and I see her often. A good number of the memories from the first chapter of The Red Circle come from her. To this day my parents still talk regularly, and if you asked either of them, I think they would describe themselves as good friends.
I can say much the same for Gabriele and me. Despite our best efforts, our marriage did not survive the intensity and long separations of the SEAL years. In 2009 we separated, and she and our three kids took up residence in a nice property within half a day’s drive. We managed it all in as friendly and collaborative a way as anyone could hope for. We remain committed to having a good relationship, both for the kids’ sake and out of respect for ourselves and each other. I wish it would have worked out better for us, but I’ve seen friends do far worse. I make the five-hour drive out there several times a month to spend time with Tyler, Madison, and Jackson, and it’s always amazing to see them every time. The marriage may not have made it, but the family is forever. That, too, is part of my red circle.
I see quite a few of my old SEAL buddies, too, from my Sniper Cell friend Eric to Chief Dan from the GOLF platoon days. I may not be an active member of the teams now, but the community is more like a family than a job, and once you’re an intrinsic part of it, it never goes away. Glen, my shooting partner and best friend from sniper school, is a partner with me today in Wind Zero; not long ago we wrote a book together The 21st-Century Sniper.
Our quiet community was thrust into the public spotlight in April 2009 when a team of three SEAL snipers took out three Somalian pirates in a perfectly coordinated trio of shots, rescuing Captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama. Soon my phone was ringing off the hook. Before I knew it, I was standing before the CNN cameras explaining to Anderson Cooper the practically impossible logistics involved in pulling off such a mission and the lengths to which those three covert warriors had gone in training for it.
Two years later that spotlight grew more intense when a team of SEALs staged a covert raid on a compound in Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden, America’s Public Enemy Number One for the past decade, and the man credited with orchestrating the 9/11 attacks. Once again I found myself on CNN and other media outlets providing viewers some insights into what had just happened. The sense I’d had back in 2000, while standing on the deck of the crippled USS Cole off the coast of Yemen, that the nature of our modern military was tipping upside down and covert ops forces would soon become the vanguard of the 21st-century warfare, was proven out. Yet I’m not sure the American public fully grasps what that looks like from the inside.
Three months after the bin Laden raid, in August 2011, enemy forces shot down an American helicopter over Afghanistan, killing 30 American Special Ops troops, including 17 SEALs. It was the highest number of casualties in a single incident in the, at the time, 10-year-old war in Afghanistan, higher even than the devastating losses of Operation Redwing, the op Marcus Luttrell had so narrowly survived. For me, this latest tragedy touched equally close to home. My good friend Heath Robinson, one of the strongest members of our team at ECHO platoon, was one of those 17 SEALs. So was Chris Campbell, a BUD/S classmate of mine.
By that time the bin Laden raid had long left the headlines, and most of us in the States were on to other hot news of the day. But the SEALs are not like a sports team that goes off to celebrate and takes the season off after winning the Super Bowl. The guys who took out bin Laden were back to work the next day.
Not long ago I was sitting at the barber’s in San Diego getting a haircut when the guy in the next chair looked over at me and said, “Brandon?” I recognized him immediately, but it took me a minute to come up with the name: Chris Ponto.
Chris was one of the kids I hung out with in my teens at the Ventura harbor when we were all aimless and hadn’t yet figured out what the hell we were going to do with our lives. When I made my decision to get out of there and join the Navy, I lost touch with them. It was great to catch up. Chris was doing okay and had a boat service going in Ventura. We got to talking about the old days, and after a few minutes, I asked him about a guy named Jake who’d been my best friend in those days.
“Jake,” said Chris, his eyes dropping to the floor in an unconscious gesture. “Yeah. He’s homeless now. Totally addicted.”
I asked about the girl Jake used to hang out with; I couldn’t bring up her name. Neither could Chris. “They’re still together,” he said. This surprised me. Jake’s girlfriend was from a wealthy family and had a trust fund. I’d always wondered if they’d stayed together. I hoped that maybe she had pulled him out of that scene, helped him get on some positive track. It turned out that the opposite had happened. Jake had dragged her down. They were both still hanging around the harbor now, eking out a wretched existence.
Neither Chris nor I said it, but I know we were thinking the same thing. That could so easily have been me.
I’ve thought long and hard about why I wrote The Red Circle and what I wanted it to say. I think the message I wanted my story to get across boils down to two words:
Throughout my time with the Navy and the SEAL community, I’ve seen poor leadership and exceptional leadership. I’ve seen training that was simply good, training that was great, and training so transcendingly amazing it blew my mind. And I’ve seen the difference that it makes.
In political matters, I have always been a down-the-middle-line person. When it comes to leaders, I care less about their party affiliation and more about their character and competence. I don’t care how they would vote on school prayer, or abortion, or gay marriage, or gun laws. I want to know that they know what the hell they’re doing and that they are made of that kind of unswerving steel that will not be rattled in moments that count, no matter what is coming at them. I want to know that they won’t flinch in the face of debate, danger, or death.
I want to know that they excel at what they do.
A free society looks like it rests on big principles and lofty ideals, and maybe it mostly does. But in the dark times, those times that count most, what it comes down to is not reason or rhetoric but pure commitment honed over time into the fabric of excellence.
Why am I telling you this? Because it matters.
You may never shoot a sniper rifle. You may never serve as part of an assault team, or stand security in combat, or board a hostile ship at midnight on the high seas. You may never wear a uniform. Hell, you may never even throw a punch in the name of freedom. I’ll tell you what, though. Whatever it is that you do, you are making a stand, either for excellence or for mediocrity.
This is what I learned about being a Navy SEAL: it is all about excellence and about never giving up on yourself. And that is the red circle I will continue to hold, no matter what.
For a limited time, you can join me as we hold our own Red Circle with my RC Mastermind group.
I’m accepting a limited number of people to join me and learn mental toughness and leadership performance in 2021. Together we’ll produce an unfair advantage and become unstoppable professionally.
Watch my video and apply here.
Hope to see you soon.