Bill Atkinson knows better than most Vermonters how much the U.S. military lost August 6 when insurgents in eastern Afghanistan shot down an American Chinook helicopter, killing 30 U.S. service members, including 22 Navy SEALs.
Atkinson spent 16 of his 21 years in the Navy as a SEAL until his retirement in 1998. He was part of SEAL Team 4 that swam ashore Grenada in October 1983 and afterward deployed to the Middle East in response to the U.S. Marine Corps barracks bombing in Beirut, which killed 299 American and French service members.
For the last five years, Atkinson, 55, has worked as a mentor in the Navy's Special Warfare/Special Operations/Air Rescue Mentorship Program, helping the Navy recruit a higher caliber of candidates for its most elite training programs. Seven Days first wrote about that program, and Atkinson, a longtime Burlington resident, in a July 2006 article, "Saving the SEALs: A Burlington vet readies recruits for the rigors of special warfare."
Seven Days sat down with Atkinson at his New North End apartment this week. While Atkinson didn't personally know any of the 22 SEALs killed last week, one of his former recruits, Brock Robinson, lost his brother, Heath, on the mission.
SEVEN DAYS: How many Navy SEALs have you recruited over the years?
BILL ATKINSON: Applicants? Geez, it’s well over 100. How many of them have actually been successful and have gone on to become SEALs, I couldn’t tell you because I don’t have access to that information. I would guess probably 40 or more.
SD: Military units are typically pretty tight-knit, especially those that see combat together. How does an incident like this one affect the team?
BA: On an individual level, of course it affects people differently. For example, let’s suppose someone at the command gets everyone together and gives them a briefing about what happened and whose lives were lost. That’s in a formal or semi-formal setting, so people tend to be objective and not overly reactive. And then the brief ends and everybody goes their separate ways. Of course, as we all know, most if not all of us have to deal with that individually and everyone deals with it differently. What’s different today is that there’s more attention paid to the individual, including in the SEAL community. When there’s a tragedy like this, there’s more guidance and counseling availability than in the past, which I think is a good thing.
SD: Anytime there’s a military loss of life, the press usually descend on the family to get some background on the fallen service member and the circumstances surrounding their death. I would assume that's a lot more difficult when their mission is cloaked in secrecy, as the SEALs are. Are there details the military don’t tell the family?
BA: They usually do divulge that information, but it may take more time to divulge it because of the nature of the work that special-operations types — in this case, the SEALs — are conducting. They may not have all the information available in a timely manner as to the circumstances that lead to their deaths.
SD: Generally speaking, do family members of SEALs know what their loved ones are doing?
BA: They don’t know the particulars. Absolutely not. That’s to protect the guys and what they’re doing. Actually, it’s astounding to me how much information is out there already. There was a presentation recently following the successful mission against Osama bin Laden. Apparently, there was something on television that one of my colleagues conveyed to me, that they divulged a lot of information that was operationally oriented that he found astounding... But people generally don’t know what SEALs do, first of all because they shouldn’t, but second because it protects the SEALs and the missions they do. They just don’t need to know.
SD: Since these guys you're recruiting — and by law, they must all be male — are pretty young, do you think they truly understand what they're getting themselves into?
BA: The individuals who do pursue these jobs, particularly in New England, which is a very fertile area for these candidates ... I think they do understand what they’re getting themselves into. These are individuals who want something more that they’re not necessarily getting with education, post-secondary or otherwise, or a job. And, they still actively pursue it today, even given our world as we know it and the United States’ involvement in wars and conflicts in various places. In fact, having done this job for five years now, the quality of the candidates now is as a good as it’s ever been.
SD: As callous as it may sound, losing that many SEAL team members also represents a considerable financial loss for the military. What does it cost to train each Navy SEAL?
BA: It’s tens of thousands of dollars. I can’t put a number on it. I’ve heard as much as $100,000...to put someone through the six months of SEAL training out in California. The four-and-a-half month of training that follows that? If there’s a dollar amount put on that, I’m sure it’s in the tens of thousands of dollars, if not more. And the reality is, the training never stops.
SD: Does an incident like the one last week significantly weaken SEAL forces?
BA: It does...because when you take that one individual and you look at all their experience and training that they brought to the table and brought to that operation, and then you’ve got to replace that, it takes years. So, you multiply that by all the losses on that aircraft and that mission, that’s a huge loss. A huge loss.
File Photo by Matthew Thorsen