The Instructor, a retired Navy SEAL, spoke with a quite, steady and commanding voice: “Load one nine round magazine, lower the hammer, place your weapon on safe, re-holster, and raise your right hand when you have completed these actions.”
Clear and concise. Each of his ten students followed these commands. Soon ten right hands went up.
“Now lower your hands, and listen to the following directions. I will give these directions twice, and only twice.”
He then enunciated how his students were to draw their weapons, engage targets, how many rounds to place on each target, when to perform a combat reload, and when to indicate they had completed tasks.
This was the student’s final day of a very long course titled “Weapons and Security Training for Mariners.” Most mariner training is fairly straightforward, and though often demanding, students expect to pass if they show up each day and pass the multiple-choice exams.
This course was different. Many of the students, if not all, were wondering if they were going to pass. It was mentally and physically demanding. That was obvious from day one.
“You have one hour to memorize, verbatim, the four rules of firearm safety. Here they are,” and he gave them each a printed card with the rules.
“Meet back here at 10:00, not 09:59, and not 10:01, at 10:00 and you will write these four rules on a piece of blank paper. If you get them correct, word for word, you will continue, if not you can go to the admin office and see if you can get into another course, now get out of my classroom.”
“Holy shit,” the students said to each other in unison. Now it was day five, they had survived days of dry firing against red dots on a wall. Of drawing weapons with their eyes closed, of doing combat reloads of magazines over and over and over. They did so much dry firing their trigger fingers had blisters, on both right and left hands. Who thought that was possible?
There were days when he would stand behind them banging pots and pans, playing rock music, yelling, throwing tennis balls, doing everything possible to distract them.
“Stay focused, stay focused, think, use your brain, get your head in the game.” He would say over and over in a calm, rational and yet forceful tone. They knew he had been places none of us would ever go, and could not find on any chart. They listened. They tried their best to focus, trying to be a competent mariner in front of a combat SEAL.
“A weapon is a tool. Any idiot can pull the trigger. You don’t want to pull the trigger; you want to be smart enough to not pull the trigger. Let the other guy make the mistake of questioning your skill and commitment. If you pull the trigger let it be a conscious decision on your part, not a reaction to events.”
His words had meaning. Mariners use tools every day, they use dividers, binoculars, sextants, wrenches, radios, line throwing devices, boat hooks, and the list is endless. Weapons are a tool, you must understand it’s capabilities, its purpose, it’s proper use.
By day five they were ready for the final exam, they thought.
“We are going to the Naval Academy outdoor firing range today for your final live fire test,” he told them.
“You will be tested on the 9 mm pistol, the shotgun and the M14 rifle. This is a GO/NO GO day. You either pass or you fail, don’t fuck this up.” And that’s all he said.
What he did not say was there would be a final “Top Shooter” competition and that he would be throwing obstacles at them all day. Figure it out, deal with it, and find a solution. Don’t look at me, figure it out.
After days of grueling, hours long instruction the students now realized that weapons were truly tools, and only useful tools if you had a brain. Stay focused, think, and remember what you are doing. Don’t let events overtake you.
They all survived the tests on each weapon. Slow, steady, breath, think. Now the final, unannounced “Top Shooter” competition.
“Listen,” he said. “Load three 15 round magazines. Holster your weapon and move to the firing line. Do not load a magazine.” When they were all on line and facing downrange he gave them the shooting commands. It was complicated, involving specific rounds in specific targets, combat reloads, moving positions, and it was all timed.
“Winner of this final competition will be the “Top Shooter” and that designation will be reflected on your certificate. Everyone wanted that honor. Mariners all have type A personalities. Though often quiet, they all want to be a ship’s Master. Top Dog. They guy that sits in the leather chair on the bridge. The guy that gets the first cup of coffee from a fresh brewed pot. That guy that docks and undocks the ship. The guy that talks to the pilot, and will one day be a pilot.
They all stood on the firing line, ready to fire. They stood for minutes with no sound, no words. He was testing them. “You won’t fire until you hear something from me, could be anything, you never know when a threat will appear,” he had told them.
They stood at heightened attention for 10 minutes. Their legs hurt, their eyes hurt, they hands were shaking. They were waiting. They suddenly, without any preparatory command he started yelling in Arabic.
“Shit,” they all thought, this is it. Start shooting. They were moving in slow motion. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Remember what he said, “Two rounds in target #1, three rounds in target #3, then one round in target #4”. Think, aim, shoot, recover, move to next target.” All they could remember were the words “Any idiot can pull the trigger”. How true, we can’t even remember which target to shoot!
Finally, it was over, there was a Top Shooter, and everyone was joyous. They all passed, and one of them was the top dog! They felt like baby SEALs that day, at least in their minds.
The Instructor smiled. “You guys were great, you listened, you focused, you applied what I told you.” Then he added “Take these lessons back to your shipmates, teach them to think.”
There was a pause and then he said the words they would all remember, “Smell the roses, smell them every day, appreciate the smell, the appearance, the magic of what they represent, but don’t become attached to them. You need to stomp on them and move on. If you become attached and distracted your enemy will gain the initiative, and you will lose the gunfight”. We all thought about that. “Smell the Roses, then stomp on them.” It was true in so many ways.
“Clean your weapons, and when they are really clean bring them to me, and I will give you your certificate, get doing I don’t have all day.”
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Michael W. Carr is a retired U.S. Army Watercraft Master and U.S. Navy Diving & Salvage Officer.