One night I found myself in the back of a helicopter outside the city of Ramadi, Iraq, the most dangerous place on Earth. The aircraft was staged in a remote area of desert, and we were waiting for the call to verify a terrorist for whom we were on the hunt. I had been successful in combat before and was even given a battlefield promotion, a first in Navy SEAL history, to lead this team into the Battle of Al-Anbar. This unit had been training together for a year, but I had just taken over command, so I knew no one. Worse, no one knew me.
The staging area was strategically chosen, close to the target yet far enough away so as not to tip off the terrorist organization. I was seven minutes away from hitting one of the most dangerous targets in my career. This particular high-value target (HVT) had taken all measures to keep his location safe. There was an American tank still burning down the street after trying to make it to this part of town; driving was not an option. The HVT had a heavily armed lookout team, and they moved among schools and mosques to protect them from American attack. The network was paranoid and never stayed very long in one location. The only way to the target was to land on the “X” in the center of the compound, right on the beehive.
With my back against the cockpit looking down the long aisle through my night vision goggles, I could see my SEALs staring at each other, in their own worlds, as we waited for the helicopter to depart. The aircraft was in idle, with its blades turning, and the smell of jet fuel and hydraulic fluid filled the air. This was a moment like I had never had before; I felt like I had a bowling ball in my gut, weighing me down. I was seven minutes away from imminent death or worse, imminent failure, getting someone killed because I screwed up or wasn’t ready for this night. It was a true test of GUTS.
Being the Ground Force Commander, I had my headset plugged into the aircraft, listening to the final preparations for departure. From their training, pilots are as calm as monks and speak in a methodical matter-of-fact voice. As they finished their final checks, the helicopter vibrated under power, and the lead pilot checked in with me and said: “Red Bull actual, you have 24 souls on board, seven minutes to target—wheels up.” That one word saved my life. He said souls, not passengers, not SEALs, not troops, but souls. That one word triggered all the training and preparation that I had done in my life and refocused me.
That bowling ball in my gut melted away. The extreme fear that had weighed me down turned into exhilaration, an emotional euphoria that coursed throughout my entire body, mind, and soul. In that moment, I knew that the opposite of fear was love, and at that moment, my focus turned from myself to my team, the men who were trusting their lives to me. One word changed one thought, and that one thought changed everything.
As the pilot increased power, I could feel the helicopter lifting. The last thing I instinctively said over the din came out of me from years of training as a warrior and leader. I yelled down the aisle so everyone could hear, “HOOYAH, motherf***ers!” That triggered a response from my guys. In unison, they yelled back, “Yeeeeeeeaaaaaa!” For those seven minutes, I was alive like I had never been before. I felt like I was the happiest and most fulfilled person on Earth—all while flying to my potential death.
After that night I tried to understand the meaning of that feeling. I knew that the opposite of fear was love, but that didn’t explain it to my satisfaction. Why did I feel the way that I did? What was that feeling? And how do I feel that way again? There was a sense that my ego, my self, had dissolved in those moments. Although I understood the gravity of the situation, that glimpse into the souls of my team produced pure emotional ecstasy. To this day, I am not sure if anyone in that mental state would be considered courageous. Being courageous means acting in the face of fear, but I wasn’t fearful that night. I was feeling the opposite, love. It didn’t entirely make sense because I didn’t know most of the SEALs on that helicopter, but I still loved them.
When I searched for the words to describe what I was feeling, the closest I can come is agape. Agape is considered the highest form of love. In the religious context, it refers to God’s love for humankind as well as humans’ love for God. In its essence, it’s goodwill and benevolence toward every living thing. (This may seem ironic given my mission, but I don’t decide who lives and who dies—the enemy does. If he puts his hands up, we take him in, but if he puts his hands down on his gun, we take him out.) I believe that all human beings search for agape, even if they don’t know what it is, and once they’ve experienced it, it motivates them toward action for the rest of their lives. It is the purest form of love that true warriors know and have felt: the willingness to sacrifice everything to protect others, even if that means losing your life.
In the back of the helicopter that night, I realized that true warriors don’t fight for what they hate in front of them; they fight for what they love beside and behind them. I struggled for years after retiring and coming home because I became fueled by hate. Although I knew and had felt agape, I had taken a different path. I became driven by hating my enemy, not allowing myself to let go of that hate, and not allowing myself to awaken my warrior energy. That hate for my enemy was fueled by fear; it was like a disease that took over all aspects of my life. I had lost sight of agape.
The one regret I had in the back of that helicopter that night was that if I were killed, my family and friends would not have known that I didn’t die in fear, that I didn’t go to my death scared—I went willingly, with a full heart. They would never have known the warmth of fulfillment that washed over me, how I felt privileged to be there, someplace I had never been and would never go again. I knew that not many people were willing and able to be in my seat that night, and that only a few on this Earth were qualified. Out of those qualified, I was chosen. I was where I was meant to be, exactly where I wanted to be, doing what I loved, with the people I loved. I was a steward. I was there to lead and to protect.
Before every combat deployment, we SEALs have to get all of our legal matters in order. We fill out powers of attorney, update our wills and, with our next of kin, figure out what IAD our families will take in the event of our deaths. We also write a letter home, a letter that goes with our legal documents that will be opened if we don’t return. It’s a very emotional process, but the process is a gift because it gives us clarity on the meaning of our lives. Before I go any further, I want to offer you that gift, the chance to write a letter home.
First, on a piece of paper, write down the names of those you want to see the letter, and then put that list into an envelope and seal it. Next, put yourself in a comfortable private environment and consider your last words to the world you will leave behind. Allow yourself to explore your thoughts, your memories, your feelings. Then write your letter to your loved ones. If you wish to write several, please do. Put each letter in an envelope and seal it.
What did you say about your life? What did you say to your nearest and dearest? Now, open the first envelope, and see who is not on the list. Why were they not? If you are a leader or work on a team, did you put your people on the list? Did you include the people with whom you spend a large portion of your life? If you want to add to your list, now is a good time to do so.
To me, this is a spiritual reflection exercise: What do I want my life to be? How do I want to spend it? This is the time to let your moral curiosity run freely, explore what it is you stand for, what you want your life’s legacy to be. Allow your mind and soul to dream freely without fear, doubt, or ego.
Without death, life has no meaning.
Writing these letters home when you’re facing imminent danger is a powerful process of Awakening the Warrior Energy (AWE). It reveals to us how we should be living our lives. Did we give more than we took? Did we have the GUTS to live with agape? Death provides us with a timeline. The problem is that we don’t know how much time we have. We have finite space in life’s backpack, so what do we fill it with for our life’s mission? It’s easy to conduct our lives as if the backpack is limitless, and we can just keep filling it without figuring out and prioritizing what is most important until later, but we don’t know if we will have a later. We only know that we have a now.
Living life without a higher purpose is like dancing without music.
When I finally came home after years of combat and retired from the SEAL Teams, I realized that being a warrior and going to war creates a lot of moral dissonances. In war, you commit acts that are against your fundamental belief system, and it’s natural to feel the lingering pain of guilt, shame, and disgust. I believe that life is the number one value, yet in war, you take it from others and destroy lives forever. Much of the suffering that veterans experience comes from these moral injuries resulting from what they did or didn’t do. I have turned the pain of moral injuries and dissonance into something positive.
The first time I took my weapon off safe and was about to pull the trigger during a mission on a dark street in Baghdad, I felt an intense aversion to killing someone, which I felt on the cellular level, beyond the cognizant thought process. Every fiber of my being was driving me not to do it; that feeling proved to me that I was a warrior. True warriors live by the principle to never harm someone unless you have to. Notice that I didn’t say “unless they deserve it” because that leads to harmful behavior. Courageous restraint is a virtue that every human being should strive for—to empathize with others and to control your actions and emotions. When I look back, I am proud of the fact that I never intentionally harmed someone unless I had to. To those I unintentionally harmed, I am sorry, and I have asked for forgiveness.
The emotional state of mind that writing and reading these letters creates is clarifying. It can help you figure out how you want to live your life and how to lead. You can imagine a lot of people in combat make promises to God or to themselves, “If I get out of this, I promise to (you fill in the blank).” For me, this is a spiritual reflection exercise. What do I want my life to be? What do I fill it with? How do I want to spend it? This is the time to let your moral curiosity run freely, explore what it is you want to stand for, and what you want your life’s legacy to be. Allow your mind and soul to dream freely without fear, doubt, or ego.
Great leaders throughout history know that their legacy will live on past death, and it gives them the GUTS to fight for what they believe in on behalf of others. I call this courage the “heroes’ high,” a feeling of personal responsibility for others, a stewardship of your team and of society as a whole. People like Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. were not only great leaders, they were heroes. Once you tap into this way of leading and living, you will tap into agape, and Awaken the Warrior Energy in you. Once you experience this, you will seek it for the rest of your life.
A common mantra in business these days is to “find your why” and do what you are passionate about. Although our why drives us, finding it sounds like a matter of luck, as though we are at the mercy of something other than our own doing. Instead, I say, create your why. We are accountable for our own happiness and success. Your passion is not out there. It’s inside all of us, waiting to be awakened so it can run free. The purest art in life is how we live our lives, and we alone paint that canvas. It’s not given to us at birth. We create it, and the final product is our doing, our GUTS, our legacy.
Sometimes it takes a long time to learn to live as ourselves, but we are who we have been waiting for.
In 2005, 70 miles off the coast of Coronado, California, the SEAL Teams held a working group with more than 50 SEALs of different ranks and experiences to once and for all define what a Navy SEAL is and isn’t. Our goal was to do a deep assessment of our meaning, purpose, and character as an organization, and capture that in a concise narrative that would serve as a fundamental reference for ourselves, for the rest of the SEAL Teams, and ultimately for those outside the SEAL forces to better understand who we are, how we think, what we do, and what we stand for. It would become our ethos.
Two wars had taken a toll on the organization, and the stress of that burden exposed the seams of our cultural character. War is the ultimate arena in life and will test who you are as a human being and as an organization. All academic courses in ethics and leadership will fail you in times of stress in combat if you genuinely don’t have them defined, understood, accepted, rehearsed, internalized, and worked intimately into your culture and your soul. When you build an ethos, you have a specific blueprint for who you are, how you think, what you do, and what you stand for instinctively guiding you through life.
Our expression “you fight like you train” means that whatever you train to becomes you, and when the fear and stress get dialed up, you will fall back on your training. Character, leadership, and teamwork are no different. In times of stress at or near the “X” in life, you will find out who you really are and what you actually believe. You don’t act one way at home and another at work; your character doesn’t know the difference.
Our SEALs came off the island after a week of grappling with what is and what is not a Navy SEAL, and they brought back our first stated ethos:
In times of war or uncertainty there is a special breed of warrior ready to answer our Nation’s call. A common man with uncommon desire to succeed. Forged by adversity, he stands alongside America’s finest special operations forces to serve his country, the American people, and protect their way of life. I am that man.
My Trident is a symbol of honor and heritage. Bestowed upon me by the heroes that have gone before, it embodies the trust of those I have sworn to protect. By wearing the Trident I accept the responsibility of my chosen profession and way of life. It is a privilege that I must earn every day.
My loyalty to Country and Team is beyond reproach. I humbly serve as a guardian to my fellow Americans always ready to defend those who are unable to defend themselves. I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions. I voluntarily accept the inherent hazards of my profession, placing the welfare and security of others before my own.
I serve with honor on and off the battlefield. The ability to control my emotions and my actions, regardless of circumstance, sets me apart from other men. Uncompromising integrity is my standard. My character and honor are steadfast. My word is my bond.
We expect to lead and be led. In the absence of orders I will take charge, lead my teammates, and accomplish the mission. I lead by example in all situations.
I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity. My Nation expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If knocked down, I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission. I am never out of the fight.
We demand discipline. We expect innovation. The lives of my teammates and the success of our mission depend on me—my technical skill, tactical proficiency, and attention to detail. My training is never complete.
We train for war and fight to win. I stand ready to bring the full spectrum of combat power to bear in order to achieve my mission and the goals established by my country. The execution of my duties will be swift and violent when required yet guided by the very principles that I serve to defend.
Brave men have fought and died building the proud tradition and feared reputation that I am bound to uphold. In the worst of conditions, the legacy of my teammates steadies my resolve and silently guides my every deed. I will not fail.
During this battle to create the ethos—and yes, it was a battle—we had more than a few disagreements. The main point of contention centered on the SEAL code, the distillation of the ethos that all SEALs carry in their wallets to review as needed contains the statement: “train for war, fight to win, defeat our Nation’s enemies.” In the ethos, it states, “achieve my mission and the goals established by my country.” An important difference of opinion emerged over a single word: defeat.
We had two schools of thought: one that preferred the phrase “we defeat our Nation’s enemies” and the other that favored “we destroy our Nation’s enemies.” The choice of a single word made a world of difference: it would paint a distinctly different self-image, as well as a different understanding of what we do as our nation’s top warriors. It may seem insignificant to you, but when the stress dial gets turned up as we approach the “X,” this word matters, and it matters a lot. To me, the image evoked by the word destroy is extremely violent and hateful. Being a “destroyer” makes me judge, jury, and executioner. Such a self-image can lead you into a dark cave of moral hazards that becomes hard to navigate out of. Words matter!
As a warrior and leader, I am not harmless, but I choose to be a gentle man, a gentleman. In all aspects of my life, I will act with courageous restraint fueled by agape, not the hatred that I once was filled with. When I contemplate this battle around the words destroy and defeat and how defeat was finally chosen, it reinforces what I felt in that helicopter. It tells me how to live my life, how to lead, and how to be a better human being. It demands that I have the GUTS to have restraint, to be a steward, and to lead myself and others with agape.
You may already have an ethos by which you live. It may be a spiritual ethos. It may be a work ethos. It may be an organizational ethos, like that of the SEAL Teams. If you have such a group ethos in place, then you’re a step ahead. It will help you craft your personal ethos. If you’re not part of a larger team that has an ethos, you can develop one of your own. It can be very simple; something like the Golden Rule or a short list of “I will always” and “I will never” statements. Or it can be a more elaborate framework of personal values and guiding principles that guide your being and behavior.
My ethos is the energy that fuels my actions, life, and leadership. When you awaken this warrior energy, you will find the GUTS you seek, the transformation you’ve dreamed of. This AWE will motivate you to greatness in times of darkness and despair.
On the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, California, in a small, enclosed area for BUD/S training that we call the “grinder,” is an unassuming brass bell hanging from a post, with a braided rope hanging from the tongue of the bell. The grinder is sacred ground to all SEALs because we all shed blood, sweat, and tears on that very ground.
All students coming through BUD/S training know this simple rule: at any time they can, without penalty, walk up to the bell, take hold of the braided rope, ring it three times, and leave BUD/S training forever. Throughout the training, you can hear the bell ring out loud, audible up and down the beach, and heads turn slightly toward the bell as the student departs. They know that student will be leaving his helmet in a long row of helmets of former students who also decided that being a SEAL was not for them. The bell is a definitive statement of the student’s commitment to leaving the program and the SEAL way of life. For a short period, the bell was removed because some critics believed that it was a mark of disgrace to have to ring a bell, announcing to everyone in earshot that you were leaving the program. But SEALs demanded that it be returned, and it was. The bell had taken on significance to the community and had become an integral part of SEAL culture. The critics didn’t understand that the bell is not a quitter’s bell; the bell is a commitment bell for those who commit to leaving the program. There is no disgrace in leaving, and when a student chooses to go and ring the bell, we encourage him to ring it like he means it, to ring it loud!
As a consequence, this bell is a symbol that has an essential place in our culture. And, indeed, you cannot un-ring a bell. Much of our modern world is ambiguous, and most people are ambivalent about many of the important issues in their lives. They go through their days half-asleep, uncaring, committed more to a paycheck than to any purpose or goal of the organization they are part of, or even to their own goals and their own purpose. Ring the bell and commit to a life worth living, one that you design, one that is truly honest and authentic with yourself and with the world. By doing so, you create your why for living, fueled by GUTS and agape. You will never hate what you do when you are who you were meant to be!
The principles in this book are meant to transform you, but you must ring the bell, you must commit, and that commitment starts with your ethos. So who are you? What do you stand for?
I challenge you to look down the aisle of your own helicopter in life, stare at the souls around you, and explore what your life can be and how you can lead yourself and others with agape. Develop your own ethos, write it down, ring the bell, commit to it, and then practice it in every aspect of your life. So that when the bell does toll for thee, you know that your letter home matches your life and your ethos, and those reading it can honor and respect you for living the life that you chose and designed, a life that takes GUTS!