Quiet Professionals in Naval Special Warfare

I was asked by NSW Ethos magazine to write an essay on “Quiet Professionalism,” after a spate of books, interviews, articles and the like by SEALS, mostly retired, have appeared in the wake of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.  SEALs are appearing on O’Reilley, Imus, in a new movie (Act of Valor,) and on, and on.   I am also a retired SEAL sharing his opinion about what is happening in the NSW community in the public forum.  I hope that this falls into the ‘helpful’ category.

For the uninitiated, SWCC is Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewman – the specially and highly trained ‘Boat Guys’ who are also a key part of NSW.   The Ethos entire magazine is at: http://www.public.navy.mil/nsw/Publications/ETHOS%20ISSUE%2015.pdf  My essay in that issue follows:


For years, Naval Special Warfare (NSW) leaders have sought to instill a low-profile, stay-under-the-radar, “quiet professional” ethos within the NSW community.  And yet, from time to time, SEALs and former SEALs have inadvertently or intentionally brought unwelcomed media coverage to the community, through impromptu interviews, emotional articles or controversial books. In response, NSW Leaders have had to expend political capital in damage control, to shore up the ‘brand,’ of Naval Special Warfare. “Quiet professionals” they say, stay out of the news, except to be acknowledged for their outstanding service.

Military leaders expect our operators – SEALs and SWCCs – to be highly capable and aggressive warriors in combat, and discrete, humble and ‘quiet professionals’ in garrison. The challenge is that most of the men we recruit for SEAL or SWCC training are young, gregarious, aggressive, Alpha males, eager to take on the world. When they finish training, they know they will be sent almost immediately to the far corners of the world, often directly into combat. These men are not by nature, ‘quiet professionals,’ yet most do mature into that role, and come to exemplify the SEAL Ethos: “The execution of my duties will be swift and violent when required…We train for war, and fight to win” and yet, “I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.”

They know that decisions regarding what the public knows about who we are and what we do, are made by those in positions of authority, up the chain of command, all the way to the President. This includes the authority to release classified and other information to the public, for reasons that those in the trenches may not always understand or agree with. This can, and often does, cause frustration. Occasionally, we’ll have active duty warriors go ‘off the reservation’ and voice opinions, frustrations or even classified information in the public or in bars, for which they are appropriately sanctioned.  Alcohol, it seems, is often associated with violations of the SEAL Ethos and the quiet professional demeanor it demands.  For the most part, however, our active duty force understands that compliance with the decisions of superiors is fundamental to good order and discipline in the military. They have come to understand that the confidence military leaders have in NSW depends not only on how well operators carry out their missions in combat, but also on their discipline and ‘quiet professionalism’ at home and in-garrison. Once again, our warriors are guided by the SEAL Ethos: “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.”

The issue of retirees and former warriors is a bit more complicated. These are men who generally served as “quiet professionals” while on active duty, but after leaving the service, may feel compelled to share their perspectives and stories in the public forum. Sometimes these perspectives are helpful, sometimes they are not. Short of egregious violations of security, the only sanction the NSW community has against former warriors bringing inappropriate or negative attention to NSW, is against that individual’s personal reputation and status, which ‘the tribe’ always holds as collateral.

I do believe we need former SEALs and SWCCs to contribute to our national conversation by sharing stories and perspectives from their time in service, to help our citizens better understand the NSW community, which exists to serve them. Many of our former warriors have honorably and constructively contributed to the general understanding of who we are and what we do. Some have not been quite so honorable in their contribution. What might distinguish the honorable from the less than honorable?

In determining whether a book, article, interview or other public pronouncement adds to or diminishes the credibility, reputation, and honor of the individual and our community, I suggest three criteria:

1. Is it fair and honest, and does it constructively contribute to the public understanding of NSW? Or does it primarily promote self-interest or a personal agenda?

2. Is the warrior exhibiting ‘a strong dose of humility,’ to include respect toward those with whom he might disagree?

3. Does the perspective or story serve the interests of those still in the arena, or does it make their lives and work more difficult, more complicated, or even more dangerous?

‘Quiet professionals’ in Naval Special Warfare need not always be ‘quiet’ – there are times when it is important and appropriate to tell our story. I don’t believe that the real issue is being ‘quiet,’ but rather having the maturity to be humble and the good judgment to be discrete. Anyone “going public” should be careful of their motives, not hurt those still in the arena, and avoid publicly airing personal agendas. When in doubt, former warriors are well-advised to review what they plan to share with a leader still serving, to get a perspective on how the active-duty community will react and whether their intentions meet the above criteria.

How each of us presents ourselves to the public reflects our personal and professional honor, and reflects on all of us. None of us wants to be ‘voted off the island’ for an emotional or ill-considered sharing of privileged information that comes from being a trusted member of our exclusive ‘tribe.’

4 thoughts on “Quiet Professionals in Naval Special Warfare

  1. Well said, Bob. I particularly appreciate the way you describe the NSW community’s reaction to behavior they disapprove of–not a desire for rules, laws or police enforcement of their norms, but an internal reassessment of the offender’s reputation within the tribe.

    I believe this focus allows people to act according to their own beliefs and priorities, considering but not being compelled by the desires of those around them. By relying on internal rather than external controls, they demonstrate faith in each other’s ability to choose wisely and in essence say, We won’t force you to do the right thing, but you still have to live with your choices.

    It’s a testament to the quiet professionalism of the NSW community that every time I encounter a member bragging or being obnoxious it seems out of place and strikes me as peculiar they would act that way. Half the time it makes me wonder about their alleged credentials.


  2. I enjoyed the post Bob. From someone outside the “tribe” many of the books that I have read have been informing and at times inspiring. I do understand the need for “quiet” at times and my hope is that your tribe will always be respected and kept in as much safety as possible.


  3. Bob,
    Thanks for writing this. Your timely discussion brings out insightful points to consider that the “Quiet Professionals” bumper sticker alone cannot. And, the embedded posters are a nice Frogman accent to your analysis.


  4. Bob… well said. After 30 years of being “married to the Teams” I still have vivid memories of my husband educating me on the art of keeping my mouth shut on what he did for a living! I so wanted to “brag”, if you will… and still find it hard – 18 months after his death – to say aloud that he was a Navy SEAL for 32 years. Steve died after a bicycle ride just over a year after retirement. I am so proud of our active and retired, but stunned at the publicity and political gesturing. LOVE YOUR embedded poster.


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