May 4, 2011
By Bob Socci
This was one of those rare where-were-you-when moments in life, marked as much by the vivid imagery of our space in its time as by its time and date.
Most likely, for most of us, there hadn't been anything like it since the darkest hours of a sunny Tuesday in New York City nearly a decade ago. The memory of that morning, when nearly 3,000 innocent victims were murdered in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field, remains both surreal and unshakable.
So will, undoubtedly and indelibly, the recollection of our exact whereabouts late on Sunday night or the first thing Monday. Whenever it was that we first learned that Osama bin Laden, the man behind those attacks on 9/11, had been killed by U.S. Special Forces at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Clint Bruce happened to be fulfilling a dad's duty, proudly watching his daughter dance.
"I was at my daughter's ballet recital," Bruce, once and always a Navy SEAL, said by phone late Monday afternoon. "There are two places I would want to be, either there with the guys or watching my daughter's ballet recital. I managed to be at one of the two places."
Those "guys" Bruce refers to are the commandos who helped the world's most wanted terrorist, codename Geronimo, meet the fate Americans have long sought for him, as an enemy killed in action.
"We've all circled around each other the last 24 hours," Bruce says of the comrades he once served alongside. "Some of us regret that we weren't there. You almost feel like you missed the bus for the state championship game, that we weren't there for the guys."
Bruce may feel that way. But one can't help but imagine that he was there, at least in spirit, unequivocally inseparable from all the other remarkably dedicated and skilled professionals who ever trained to become our most elite warriors.
Those SEALs who carried out the Abbottabad helicopter assault in anonymity embody an ethos attesting that the "trident is a symbol of honor and heritage." Such heritage is made up by men like Bruce.
Fifteen years ago, he was defensive captain of a Navy football team that halted a string of 13 consecutive losing seasons and beat Cal in the Aloha Bowl. His position coach, Tommy Raye, once likened the passion with which Bruce played linebacker with that of Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke.
Bruce was a bundle of emotion and fury, uncontained by his No. 51 jersey. His toughness transcended the field. And upon graduating from the Naval Academy in 1997, he service selected the SEALs.
Where or when he deployed isn't for us to know. What's important is an understanding that Bruce did his part, just like anyone else who ever engaged in the War on Terror. Ultimately, in their own way, they all helped bring bin Laden down.
"Pre-op was nine years in the making," says Bruce, his point substantiated by every report of how years of military and intelligence efforts, during two presidential administrations, led to a 40-minute raid. "There are thousands of things that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq that pointed in this direction...it's a total moral victory for the military intelligence community.
"There's a pride from your own personal history that our guys were the unit to get it done. But I'm extremely proud of the entire U.S. military and intelligence apparatus. Rest assured, everyone played a role. It was a total team effort."
Offering context, Bruce reminds us that the SEALs formed "the pointed end of a spear." The so-called "violence of action" with which they operated so precisely isn't exclusive domain. It belongs not to one group alone, nor to a single branch of armed forces.
Even so, as layers of their amazing operation are unpeeled, we gain a greater appreciation for the unblinking eyes SEALs fix on finishing what's started. And, in that regard, for their amazing adaptability when best laid plans go awry, such as when a helicopter malfunctions.
"SEAL teams put a remarkable value on intellect," Bruce says. "Like surgeons, when something goes wrong, you start applying your knowledge. They have a tremendous capacity for innovation."
Some once demonstrated that faculty in Annapolis; often, while competing for Academy athletic programs and clubs.
"A lot (of ex-Midshipmen) are doing an incredible job," Bruce guarantees, speaking in an authoritative voice to a longtime observer of Navy athletics. "Not just a few of them...and not just from the major (sports). There are guys that you know well, who were athletes at the Naval Academy, who've done hundreds of times more than me. I didn't do as much as most.
"There's absolute pride and no surprise. They're the same men who sweated and bled next to me as plebes."
Several of Bruce's teammates and classmates, continue to serve. Their identities are hidden, their locations undisclosed.
They follow the lead of Bert Calland (Class of '74), who decades after his record-setting career as a wide receiver reportedly became the first American flag officer in Afghanistan post-9/11. As Vice Admiral, Calland commanded the SEALs, before his appointment as Deputy Director of the C.I.A.
And they humbly bear the legacy of former lacrosse player Brendan Looney ('04), who perished last September in a helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan. You wouldn't be alone if thoughts at word of bin Laden's death included Looney and all others who sacrificed their lives for the America they loved.
"I always think about guys we lost," said Bruce. "Losses and mistakes are immortalized. You think about them all the time; whenever Navy plays a lacrosse game, whenever I'm drinking a beer with (my buddies), or whenever I'm with my kids, wishing they could meet those (heroes)."
With that somber note, Bruce also sounds a cautionary word.
"It's the end of Chapter One, cutting the head off the snake," he says of bin Laden's demise. "(Sunday) was a reckoning, an accounting, but wasn't the end. There's all the morale and satisfaction that comes with that accounting.
"(But) strategically, you're at your most vulnerable after a win, in proportion to how high you hold your head after victory. We need to be concerned."
Bruce still stands vigilant. No longer active military, he manages intelligence and security for "admirals and generals of private industry" with the Trident Response Group.
He also remains extremely close to the coaches who once mentored him - "I was raised by those guys, (after) I lost my father" - and to the young men they now mold.
Bruce frequently reaches out to current Navy players, sometimes to counsel them on career choices. And when asked what it takes to be a SEAL, the self-professed "gas-pedal guy" never applies the break on the truth.
"The myth of who we are, and where we are, has been expanded," Bruce said, well aware of the near mystique surrounding `his guys' in the aftermath of Abbottabad. "But you either have it or you don't. A commercial won't get you through Hell Week."
But to those who have it, to those who made it, this week more than ever, Americans are indebted.
"It's amazing what can happen when you give bold men permission to be bold," Bruce says. "Dare well, and you deliver well."