I’ve had several Navy SEALs on the podcast, because as the SEALs are one of the world’s last bastions of unabashed manliness, they have a lot to teach modern men. My previous SEAL guests have talked about how the lessons they learned from being a special operator can apply to gaining greater resilience, navigating the business world, and even parenting. In these interviews, my guests talked a little about their SEAL training. But in today’s episode, we’re really going to get into the nitty gritty of that training, and talk about the specifics of what it takes to become a Navy SEAL.
My guest today is Rorke Denver. He’s a Navy SEAL commander and the author of two books: Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior and Worth Dying For: A Navy SEAL’s Call to Action. Today on the show Rorke and I discuss the intense training that goes into becoming a SEAL as well as what lessons civilians can take from the SEALs on leadership, sacrifice, and duty.
- How Winston Churchill inspired Rorke to become a Navy SEAL
- Rorke’s career as a SEAL and his role in developing SEAL training
- How to apply to become a Navy SEAL (and how it’s changed over the years)
- How long BUD/S takes and what makes it different from other special forces training
- Why BUD/S instructors inflict “random acts of instructor violence” on men going through SEAL training
- Why BUD/S starts off with Hell Week
- How to prepare for BUD/S and Hell Week if you’re interested in becoming a SEAL
- Why the SEALs attract people from a wide variety of backgrounds (Rorke majored in art in college)
- How SEAL teams are assigned
- What family life is like as a SEAL
- The tension that existed in the SEAL community after 9/11 in regards to expanding the number of SEALs
- How the recruitment and training process has changed to ensure that the SEALs get the very best and that pass rates decrease
- How Rorke became an unintentional movie star
- What it’s like to kill another human being
- How civilians can develop the ethos of service that permeates the military in their own lives
- Why Rorke thinks there should be mandatory national service program in the U.S.
- How politics will change as more and more Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans run for office
- And much more!
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- How Winston Churchill never gave up his sense of adventure
- Hell Week
- Atomic Athlete
- Stew Smith Fitness
- Act of Valor
If you’re a “young lion” interested in becoming a Navy SEAL, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Damn Few. Rorke gets extremely detailed about what’s involved with becoming a SEAL and provides insights on how to prepare for training. Worth Dying For is also a fantastic book with his musings on duty and service based on his 15-year career as a special operator.
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. I’ve had several Navy SEALs on my podcast because SEALs are one of the world’s last bastions of unabashed manliness. They have a lot of modern men. My previous SEAL guests have talked about how the lessons they learned from being a special operator can apply and they gain greater resilience navigating the business world, and even parenting. In these interviews we talked a little bit about their SEAL training, but in today’s episode we really get into the nitty-gritty of the training and of the specifics of what it takes to make a Navy SEAL.
My guest today is Rorke Denver. He’s Navy SEAL Commander and the author of two books, Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior, and Worth Dying For: Navy SEAL’s Call to Action. Today on the show Rorke and I discuss the intense training that goes to becoming a SEAL, as well as what lessons civilians can take from the SEALs on leadership, sacrifice and duty. If you’re a young guy and you’ve been thinking about becoming a SEAL, a lot of great insights here. If you’re not interested in becoming a SEAL, it’s just fascinating what goes into becoming a SEAL. Also we get into some nice life lessons as well. After you’re done listening to the show, you can check out the show notes at aom.is/denver for links to resources so you can delve deeper into this topic. Rorke Denver, welcome to the show.
Rorke: Thanks for having me.
Brett: We’re glad to have you on the show today. We’re going to talk about your book, Damn Few: Making the Modern Navy SEAL. You’re a Navy SEAL yourself. Before we talk about your book, let’s talk about your career. What was your career as a SEAL like? Why did you become one and what did you do while you were a SEAL?
Rorke: When I was in my senior year of college I was trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. A bunch of my buddies were going to go into finance and go into the work force and seek their fortunes, which I had no problem with whatsoever. I just like getting adventures, I like playing rough and competing, and it felt like there was something more to do. I was actually reading Winston Churchill’s My Early Life, an autobiography he wrote much later in his life, but it kind of captures the first thirty years of his adventure. It just was nothing but adventure, service to country and military academies and the Boar Wars in Africa where he was a prisoner of war and escaped. He just has, as we all know, a tremendous way with words and leadership. There was just something about that book that struck me like lightening bolt. I knew I wanted to serve.
Once I knew I wanted to be an officer in the military, I kind of researched what programs would be the right fit. I knew there was this group of Naval commandos down in Southern California where about eighty percent of the people didn’t make it through, and that sounded like the right odds to me. The SEALs just felt like the right place to pursue my leadership path and to really push the warrior in me to the furthest extreme, and that proved true. I came in pre-9/11 and I had couple years and deployments before those events unfolded, and then a decade and a half of chasing bad guys. Pretty much the entire time we’ve been at war, I’ve been in a great position to go get in that fight and participate in those engagements, and I feel very lucky that that was the case and that I got a chance to learn those things I learned from that time on the battlefield.
I finished my career on the active side of my SEAL time, running training back on Coronado, so running the basic course through Hell Week and then all the advanced courses to round up my active time. I had a pretty complete of block of time in the Navy and it’s just been a gift.
Brett: That’s awesome. A lot of people don’t know that about Winston Churchill, that he actually served in the military.
Rorke: He had tremendous military service both as a young cavalry officer, and then actually as a war correspondent, a writer, he spent more time in harm’s way. Fascinating run all over the East and Asia and then Africa with tremendous building blocks. They learned there to lead that island through its most tumultuous times, all our most tumultuous times maybe, although we might be eclipsing it now.
Brett: Right. What do you do now?
Rorke: I’m still a Commander in the Reserves, which keeps me connected to the SEAL teams. I still get my Reserve time in to kind of build toward retirement. I’ve got kiddos. I want them to see me in uniform and that service is very important and something that our family does. I do a lot of speaking to corporate America on leadership and high-performance teams. I wrote the book that we’ll talk a little bit about today, Damn Few, then my newest book that just came out, Worth Dying For, so I’ll continue in the writing world, which I enjoy.
Just this spring I was one of the leaders and honor participants of this show on FOX called American Grit, which was a bunch of civilians coming in to kind of test themselves against military challenges and compete with peers to see who could make it to the end and win a prize. John Cena was the host. I had a lot of fun. That was a great thing to be a part of.
Brett: That’s great. Let’s talk about your book, Damn Few. It gets into detail about what goes into creating or developing a SEAL. Definitely there’s like this mythos around it. Everyone has probably seen shows about the making of SEALs and BUD/S and everything. Let’s start from the very beginning. How do you even apply to try out for the SEALs? What’s the process of even getting started and getting accepted into BUD/S?
Rorke: There’s basically two tracks that you’re going to experience in the entire military, but then for SEAL training you’re either going to go in as an enlisted man … You’re going to enlist in the Navy and go to boot camp to become a sailor and then you’re going to go to SEAL training or BUD/S. As an officer, you’re going to either graduate from the Naval Academy, an ROTC program at a college, or like I did, do a regular experience through college, get your degree, and then apply to officer candidate school, hopefully to then get selected to go to SEALs. There’s a very disciplined path now.
It used to be a little bit tougher in the sense that there wasn’t as programmatic a system that gets you into the SEAL pipeline. You usually had to be in the Navy for while, apply, get your commanding officer’s recommendation to go to SEAL training. Now a young lion could graduate from high school, walk into a Navy recruiter’s office, say “I want to be a SEAL,” and they could draw up all the paperwork to then compete for that spot. There’s a physical test, push-ups, pull-ups, sit-up, a run, a swim, to make sure you’ve got the basic physical capacity to do the training. Then there’s some academic tests and some personality and psychological tests that we ask of a young lion to see if they’re right for our brotherhood. Then you’re on your way.
Brett: Okay. Once you’re accepted you go through BUD/S? What does BUD/S stand for again?
Rorke: BUD/S is Basic Underwater Demolitions/SEAL Training.
Brett: How long is that training and what makes it unique from other special forces training?
Rorke: The best way to describe BUD/S now … BUD/S in it’s kind of insular self is about six months, but then we’ve kind of bulked it all now into one big training program. There’s different names, so to keep it easy for the listener, about the day from you start training in the Navy until the day you’re going to … Should you see the finish line and become a SEAL, it’s about a year. It’s about fifty-two weeks to see it all the way through.
BUD/S is the first crucible that you’ve got to face. The early parts of BUD/S encompass Hell Week and those things that make most of the young lions that don’t make it go home. I think the unique parts of the SEAL training program actually are many, probably none so challenging as … This surprises people, because the training program is in San Diego, but dealing with the cold. That Pacific current runs through San Diego, so the water temp there hangs in the fifties to mid-fifties, sometimes lower than that, very rarely warmer than that. It’s very easy for us to get you wet, cold and miserable out in that type of water temp and get you jackhammer shivering and just falling apart and see if you quit. That’s really what the program is designed to do. It’s to offer up a lot of opportunities for people to see how tough it’s going to be, what we require of a young lion if they join the brotherhood, and then what we’ll expect of them.
What we expect on an elemental level is that you will never give up, so we offer up a whole lot of opportunity for you to quit. Most people do. For those that don’t, they have some quality within them that won’t allow them to throw in the towel when things get tough, and that’s a piece of clay we can mold into a very, very special operator on the battlefield. If we know for a fact you’re never going to throw in the towel, you’re never going to give up on a teammate or the job, the rest we can teach you.
Brett: One of the interesting aspects that was kind of funny in a sadistic sort of way was how you and the instructors would often make things unfair for the guys going through BUD/S and they would kind of gripe about it, but there was a reason to your madness. Can you give me examples of how you guys made things unfair for the guys and why you did that?
Rorke: Yeah. It’s very, very pointed. We don’t do anything by happenstance. Frankly not only in the SEALs, in military training there’s a lot of things that people will see from the outside or even experience and they don’t understand why we’re doing it. There is a why in everything we do, from folding your underwear a certain way to cutting your hair and wearing uniforms. All that stuff is building blocks to prepare you for the ultimate possibility of going into combat and doing that well.
One of the things that we do at SEAL training, I kind of coined a phrase called random acts of instructor violence. The simplest way to do this and what I mean by that, it’s not actual violence on the student, but the type of punishment or remediation we give to a class when they’re making a mistake. They’re going to do push-ups and runs in the surf and get wet and sandy and carry their buddy down the beach and their buddy will carry them, just kind of destroy them physically, is if I were to tell you … Let’s say you were running a class and I said, “Hey, I need you to be at the pool deck tomorrow morning at 6:00am. Have your mask and fins, everything ready, and be ready to go.” If you showed up at 6:04, you can pretty much imagine what your SEAL training day is going to be. We are going to destroy you because you failed to meet the standard that we gave you, so that’s just going to turn into a horrific day.
Let’s say the instructor staff shows up early, maybe it’s 5:50, we’re ten minutes early but you guys were fifteen minutes early, you’re in perfect ranks, you did everything we asked you to do, we can even see a little gleam in your eye or a smile on the students’ face like, “Yep, we did it right. We’re here, this is great,” we’ll beat you worse than the day you did it wrong. There will be a bunch of guys that will quit because they’ll be like, “This is BS. This is unfair. I’m out of here.” That is the entire point. The reason I say it’s random acts of instructor violence is on the battlefield the acts of violence are going to be actually violent and they will be random. The lesson there is really teaching cultural resilience. You can do everything right, you can do everything perfectly and it can go catastrophically wrong.
Very few people are designed to metabolize that. Most people, things go wrong and it breaks them down. In our world we can’t have that happen. I had a bunch of SEAL teammates killed in helicopter crashes. They didn’t do anything wrong, best pilots on Earth, best operators on Earth going to a fight that we know they can go win. They got shot out of the sky or the helicopter had a mechanical failure and crashed, killing everybody on that bird. They didn’t do anything wrong. If we had a cultural ethos where that went wrong so now I’m going to quit, we wouldn’t be able to do our job.
The lesson there is one, some people are going to quit because they think it’s unfair. We want to find the young man that when it’s unfair and things go wrong is still going to push ahead and win the day.
Brett: I’m curious if you’ve applied random acts of instructor violence to your kids in some sort of way to kind of teach them that same sort of resilience?
Rorke: Yeah. I think dipping the toe in the water, it is important. Probably not at the same level obvious of intensity, but I think my bride and I talk and think about that a lot. We make our kids struggle with things. You see a kid right now on a playground let’s say anywhere from eight years old and under, any playground USA and you see a kid trying to zip up their jacket and they can’t get the zipper to work, you will see like seven parents swoop in, descend on them to help them zip their jacket, and it is an absolute tragedy because they need to learn to struggle. They need to learn to fix things and solve things on their own. That’s what’s going to create their ability to be resilient and function in the world.
I think we’re making things so easy for everybody, and just culturally … Our society has all but eliminated pain from our lives, and suffering. To be honest, I think it’s a tremendous mistake, I really do. I think pain is where the growth comes. Suffering is where you find how tough you are, and then you’re inoculated from future suffering. That’s one of the things that SEALs have, is … I can teach anyone to shoot effectively, accurately, jump out of planes, and do all the things we ask SEALs to do. What makes SEALs special and unique is just this intense desire to perform, to see the job through, and to never give up. That’s potent beyond belief. The answer is yes, not at the same level of SEAL training yet, but the kids aren’t going to have it easy, and that’s why they’ll be ready for life.
Brett: That’s great. BUD/S ends with what’s called Hell Week. What goes on in Hell Week that makes it so hellish?
Rorke: Actually BUD/S starts with Hell Week, so it’s very-
Brett: Is that right? I thought it ended? Okay.
Rorke: No, it’s very early in the training program. That six-month cycle of BUD/s itself, it’s in the first phase. We want to find out very early who’s going to quit and who’s not. Hell Week has become our mythic week of training, and I think every special operations force in most military units, even your regular units have some type of crucible that’s a line in the sand to kind of test your ultimately toughness. Hell Week has become legendary, and deservedly so. It starts on Sunday night. We get the class out of bed with some bombs and explosions and machine guns going off. It stops sometime on Friday mid-morning, mid-afternoon. In that period, from Sunday night until Friday afternoon, they get no more than four hours sleep for the entire time in maybe two two-hour blocks of a nap somewhere within that week, so you’re just wet, sandy, miserable, moving and kind of grinding away for that entire period of time.
By Thursday people are starting to hallucinate and fall apart. What it’s based to show you is that your body and spirit and mind can go much farther than you think it can. When you think you’re hitting the wall, you’re probably pretty far from it. If you can dig deep inside yourself and see it through, then you’ve kind of got the stuff we’re looking for. If you ring the bell, which is kind of the way people exit the program, they go up and ring this famous bell three times and then they’re out of the program, then that program isn’t for you. We don’t make that a negative, it’s just that program is not for you at this time and it’s time to go do other things.
Brett: I’m curious for the guys who are listening to this, as you call them young lions, who are like, “I want to do this.” Is there anything they can do to train or prepare for BUD/S both physically and mentally, or is this something that you don’t know if you’re going to pass it until you actually do it?
Rorke: That’s an interesting question and I hope my answer makes sense. When I ran training, so when I got to the other side of the fence and was running training, I used to give a speech to some of the young lions when they showed up and I’d say, “Hey, every one of you has come here through some different path, some different avenue, and has these experiences bankrolled into their psyche and character and who you are. There’s no doubt every one of you asked somebody, ‘How do you get through BUD/S? What’s the secret?’ There is no secret to that training program.”
The program is actually nowhere near as technical as you might think. I think people think they show up at the SEAL compound like that and there would be retina scans to get in and laser guns and all this high tech equipment. BUD/S, the basic course, is basically sand, concrete and cold water. That’s what we use to find out if you’re tough. I used to tell them when they came in … I’m like, “Look, If you didn’t bring it here, you ain’t going to find it here. There’s nothing we’re going to give you to get through it. There’s nothing your buddy next to you is going to do for you. Your mentors, coaches, pastors, parents, whoever that was that have either helped you to be the type of person that can find something inside themselves that’s better than a lot of others as it pertains to that training program, so there are no secrets. It’s just finding within yourself the ability not to throw in the towel. That’s what it takes.”
Brett: That’s what it takes? All right. Another common theme throughout your book was the diversity that’s in the SEAL community. There’s this misconception that there’s like one type of guy who becomes a SEAL, but you actually in your book highlight there’s SEALs from all walks of life. You, yourself, I think you majored in Art, right?
Brett: What are some of the types of people that you worked with or types of men that you worked with that sort of broke the mold of what people think as a typical SEAL?
Rorke: That’s the gift of being in the military. This is not specific to SEALs. The beauty about being in the military is you got a kid from the north side of Houston or the south side of Chicago or some tough neighborhood, and then you got a kid that grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth and came from all the advantage you can have. You got a kid that broke horses in Texas and a logger from Oregon and a coal miner from Pennsylvania, so we all come into this place from these different backgrounds, disparate locations and experiences, and then when you show up in any military training there’s a reason we shave your head and put you in a white tee shirt and some ugly fatigues and the same pair of boots. We need to get rid of the I, the personality.
That will come back later. It’s not meant to extinguish that, but it’s meant to put everybody on the exact same page and realize there’s nothing special or something you’re bringing to the table to get through this program, but when we get past that and get you in the teams, then what makes you unique becomes what you bring to that team, but never at the expense of the team. I think one of the words we use in the military that’s usually a bad word that I think is a good word is the idea of subjugating yourself to a greater good. Most people think of that in terms of bondage or some negative. We think of it as a good thing, getting rid of what you need and think of what the whole team and the we needs. If you can do that, then you’re going to be a great, great team player.
That’s what’s unique about SEALs. The fact of the matter is we have guys that are shredded, six foot two, look like they were chiseled out of marble by Michelangelo and probably what you would expect a SEAL to look like, a big, tough warrior archetype. Then we have guys that are five one and a hundred and thirty-six pounds, wiry, and just tough as nails. Those are actually usually the most dangerous guys, because nothing can keep them down. We have guys that just really come from a lot of different body types, a lot of different backgrounds. That’s what I’m saying. The program is from the neck up, it’s not from the neck down.
Brett: Got you. What happens after someone passes BUD/S and passes through all the other phases of training? I know they’re assigned to a team, but how are they assigned? Do they have any say in that or are they just like, “Yep, you’re going here”?
Rorke: For the most part you’re going to directed where you going. You might get a choice on do you want to go to the east coast or stay on the west coast? As a SEAL, as new guy, you’re going to either be stationed in San Diego or in Virginia Beach, Virginia at Little Creek. You might get a chance at one of those choices, either west coast or east coast. After that, it’s going to be the needs of the Navy, needs of the team in where you’re going to be assigned. Frankly, young guys might think they know where they want to go. It’s not important. What’s important is that you go there and learn the skill set and distinguish yourself and add to the strength of that organization as opposed to going where you want to go.
Later in your career you’ve got a little bit more of an ability to pick where you want to be, where you want to have your family, but for the most part you’re going to get assigned to a team, you’re going to go learn the advanced level, what we’re looking to do, the high tech gear, the advanced tactics and things that we’re going to bring back from the battlefields so you’re effective when you go and you learn that skill set and you find out if you can do the job.
Brett: Speaking of family, you’ve got a chapter about this. I think this is something that people don’t think about when they’re like, “Hey, I want to be a SEAL,” they’re probably thinking that when they’re single, don’t have any dependents upon them. What’s family life like as a Navy SEAL?
Rorke: Early in the career it’s very challenging. When you first start, the whole training program demands basically full time, very little time off. Then when you show up at your first team, you’re going into multiple rounds of advanced training and then you’re going to deploy and go chase the nation’s enemies right now, so very, very taxing on families. You have to have an extremely strong gal that’s going to make it through that experience, and that’s usually what we find. They become some of the best parts of the story. The toughest person in our household sure as can be isn’t the SEAL, it’s my bride and how she’s run our family and dealt with the stress and the intensity of me being in harm’s way and doing the job overseas.
It’s taxing. I think for a lot of years our divorce rate was extremely high, I think just because of the time away from the home and the guys being out in a wild life while somebody was back home kind of holding down the fort. I think that’s actually improved. I think our guys are doing better with that life and I think the entirety of special operations forces as much as SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets, all the spec ops … Leaders have just figured out that there is such a toll, we need to do better about balancing that life. It doesn’t take away the extreme time commitments, but they try and do better that when they’re at home we let the guys be home and get that time in when we can.
Brett: Did you marry your wife before or after you became a SEAL?
Rorke: I had finished training and it wasn’t until I wrote Damn Few that I realized how complete her experience was. I thought I met her a little bit later in my SEAL life, but she had been with me through the entire time. I did one deployment before we got married, and then she’s been with me for multiple deployments since, all of post-9/11 and that whole experience. For me it was probably a blessing going through training single, because I could just have utter focus on that and wasn’t … But there were guys that went through training that were married that I think it actually really was a deterrent and hurt them, and then ones that it really helped them. It can work. It kind of just depends on the relationship.
Brett: Another interesting thing you talked about in the book towards the end, and you had direct experience with this, was this … I didn’t know about this, but there was sort of this tension that existed in the SEAL community right after 9/11 because there was this mandate from the higher brass and from the civilian executives saying they wanted more special operators and they wanted more SEALs. Why did that call for more SEALs cause tension within the SEAL community?
Rorke: It was just kind of that classic if this much is good, more has to be better, which I think a lot of people … It sounds like it briefs well. It doesn’t necessarily work in execution. I think the reason our teams are so effective is they are small and nimble and creative and streamlined and only so many people can get through the course. Donald Rumsfeld at that time as Secretary of Defense very much wanted to grow all of the special operations forces, and that’s because of their tremendous capacity and successes on the battlefield. It’s totally natural and in my mind appropriate that that would be the right decision.
What happened in practice, unfortunately, was is everybody started generating more people, but they did it by compromising their standards, and that’s just true. People will sling lead about that and say that’s not the case. I saw it and I know the people that ran those training programs, and the only way to get more people through most of these pipelines is to make it easier, and we were very resistant and kind of belligerent to that. Most of the counterparts did increase their graduation numbers. We didn’t. Senior leadership said you’ve got to make it happen, so we designed a lot of systems within the program to try and just get a better candidate through the front door. Instead of trying to change any of the standards or the intensity of the program, try and get a better young man to the entry to hopefully get more out the back end. I think that’s been achieved a little bit, but not in dramatic numbers.
When I was running the training, this was a absolute five-round MMA title fight that the instructors and those from the battlefield were definitely fighting senior leadership to try and guard the brotherhood to get the right people through.
Brett: What sort of changes did they make to make sure they get more of the best coming to towards them?
Rorke: There’s an entire recruiting directorate that didn’t exist certainly when I was coming in. Nobody was recruited back then. Now they’re just doing a better I think … For lack of a better term, they’re doing a better job marketing it. They’re doing a better job explaining that path to young aspiring SEALs or aspiring folks that want to serve. I have pretty personal feelings about how you could do it better, but that’s for senior leadership, and that will always be the tension between the military or corporate America or whatever it is.
I think if the standards remain the same, I have no problem with them working harder to get a better product into that program. The fact of the matter is it is so challenging and such a difficult course of instruction, there are just only so many guys that are going to get through. That’s just a fact. We’ve done it for years, and over some sixty odd periods the attrition rate of seventy-five to eighty percent has held pretty solid.
Brett: This is interesting about you. Besides being a real Navy SEAL, you played a Navy SEAL on the big screen. I’m sure some of our listeners have seen the movie Act of Valor. How did that happen? When you became a SEAL did you ever think I’m going to one day be a movie star because I’m going through Hell Week?
Rorke: Of course not. In no way was that something I sought out. That was directed by the Navy. There’s been a lot of I think tension about this since, but truthfully that was approved by the United States Navy up through senior leadership in Washington and Specials Operations Command to have active duty SEALs, active duty pilots and boat drivers … Anyone that was in Act of Valor that’s in a uniform is in their actual uniform doing their actual job. We were placed on orders to go make that movie. I have a set of Navy orders documented in number that said, “You are assigned in the next three months to go make this motion picture for the Navy.”
I think the impetus for that was to kind of tell our story authentically and accurately and maybe increase some of the young folks coming into our program, and it did result in that. I think not just that, I think the Captain Phillips rescue, the Bin Laden raid and some of the high profile missions our community has succeeded in has also created a tremendous amount of interest in young folks wanting to become part of that very elite brotherhood amongst a lot of others.
No, I would have never predicted it. It was a good experience, positive in that I think the film company did a great job of letting us tell the story authentically and not fed a script that didn’t make sense. We told them if it doesn’t happen on the battlefield, if we don’t say it, we’re not going to do it, and they honored that commitment. We didn’t know what was going to happen with that movie. I think a bunch of people thought it would go straight to DVD and be at the bottom of the basket at Walmart. The next thing you know, it’s the number one movie in America, so it was a pretty wild adventure.
Brett: That’s fun. You got a new book out, Worth Dying For. Can you tell us a little bit about what that book is about and why you wrote it?
Rorke: Yeah. This one I’m really excited about and it was a special experience. Worth Dying For is kind of a reflection of fifteen years of sustained combat, chasing our nation’s enemies and where I think we are kind of as a country, where we are in terms of what we believe in as service and who we should be as citizens, what I think our leadership should be thinking about, our position in the world, which needless to say has become a high stress environment right now based on the choices we’ve managed to offer up for the senior position.
It talks a lot about the idea of everyone serving in some capacity, and then a lot of chapters that just kind of came out of the blue. I’m writing an entire chapter about killing and the intensity of that and what that’s like to experience on the battlefield. Worth Dying For is just a thinking warrior’s view on where we are, where I think we should be going, and maybe how better to be citizens both here at home and abroad.
Brett: Let’s talk about the chapter about killing. I know that’s a question a lot … Do you get asked that a lot, did you kill anyone, or do people not like to talk about it?
Rorke: I think it’s a mixed bag. I get asked it a fair amount. I think maybe early on in engagements people didn’t know what SEALs and special operators and how much those were in the actual fight. I think now people have a pretty good sense if there was a SEAL with multiple combat deployments on the battlefield there’s a good chance he was aiming his gun at the bad guy. Maybe it’s lessened in the past eight years or something, just thinking probably of course he has, although you’d be surprised how much some certain teams have done a lot of the work and how some haven’t across all the forces.
The chapter I wrote about that I think is a very personal and unique look at the concept of killing. I talk a lot about how we can train someone how to shoot effectively and how to level your sights on an enemy combatant and how to do the mechanical part of the job. I can train an orangutan to do that effectively, but then it takes a toll. There’s going to be an emotional connection to that probably in reflection that you’re going to have to deal with and rectify and kind of balance in your life.
I just talk about I think the reverence for that moment. I’m also a hunter. I’ve become a big game hunter and I like being out-of-doors, particularly post-military. It’s a great way to transition from our last life into carrying a gun, being in the field, doing terrain studies, learning what your quarry is and then go hunting it, and you get to eat the best food on Earth if you actually achieve your goal.
I talk about how the hunters that I care about and I respect, that when they do take an animal it’s a reverent moment. There is unfortunately some hunting TV shows that will show people high-fiving and hooting and hollering and taking the big grip and grin photograph with that elk or the deer that they killed, but those aren’t the hunters I spend time with. The guys that I spend time with are very, very thankful of the hunt, of the time, of that animal giving its life for their family, and then the food that they’re going to put on the table and the experience of being in wild places, and that’s frankly a birthright in this country and something that we’ve enjoyed for many, many years. I’m just talking a lot about the reverence for that moment, and that that is not something that should just be blown off and be Hollywoodized. I think anybody that reads that chapter will enjoy it.
Brett: Going back to this idea of service, for folks who are in the military, they’re serving their country, and particularly if you’re in combat you’re in the front line of defending and you you’ve developed this ethos of service. I’m curious, any insights for civilians on how they can develop that ethos of service within-
Rorke: A hundred percent. One of my chapters is about universal service. In many ways it’s probably my most important or favorite chapter. What I call for in this chapter is the idea of I think we should just pass this … Congress should talk about this and make it something that’s a requirement. I don’t think that will ever happen based on the way our country is going, and some people probably argue it’s unconstitutional, but we’re allowed to manipulate that document, that’s the strength of it. I would call for universal service. I think every young person either when you graduate high school … If you’re going to college, you can defer it for the four years and then you have to do it when you graduate college, needs to give this country a year of service.
I don’t go into a real focus specific to military. It could be military. You could do a year of military service without having to be then tied into four years of advanced service. If you wanted to extend, you could, but just some type of service to the country. That could be military, it could be for a health organization, it could be for an educational program, but I think it should be humble. It should be something where you leave your hometown, you’ve got to go live on a substance wage for a year. It’s not something you’re going to go do to get rich, but it’s going to be to go help the country, and there’s just unlimited places that this could be effective.
I think while it would be expensive, we spend money on insane programs that don’t reap much reward, and I think this would be a game changer. I think if people thought about others before themselves for a block of time in their lives, we would just be phenomenally better for it. My recommendation would be that kids from different backgrounds show up in different places and they have to work together. Exactly like we do in the military, you come from all these diverse backgrounds, the same thing would be offered in this. We would systematically send people from a high end community in Connecticut to work with a tough kid from some other part … South Central. Those two would then have a shared experience and realize how much we all think very much the same about what we’re looking for in this world.
Brett: Right, so you can develop that national unity.
Rorke: One hundred percent. It would be a game changer. There’s just no doubt in my mind this would have a deep, positive impact on our country. I fear that we would never pass something like this or even think of doing it, but boy, I think it would be potent.
Brett: Right. Other countries … I guess in Israel they have mandatory military service I believe?
Rorke: There’s compulsory military service in a lot of countries, Scandinavian countries and certainly Israel. Anyone I’ve met from those parts of the world, and I’ve met a lot of them, thought of that service one, as a national debt and something that they believed in doing, and two, took tremendous value out of it.
The other thing I write about in Worth Dying For is just how small the number of people are that are serving compared to the greater society. It’s less than one percent of the United States is serving in uniform, carrying that tremendous burden and responsibility to fight our nation’s enemies to sacrifice themselves to that cause. We just don’t own it the way we did in years past. Even our government … The reflection of service has just dropped off precipitously. In the ’70s Congress, both the House and the Senate, were in the high seventies, seventy-eight percent former military. Now it’s down to like eighteen percent, so now you have all the decision makers that are going to put people in harm’s way that almost have no service in connection to the United States military, and they’re sure not sending their kids. Some of them are. Of course somebody is going to flame off when they hear this and say, “I’m a senator and my son serves.” It is a very, very small number of people.
Even our presidents had a tremendous history of military service in the background and now that’s disappearing. I think when you talk about what do I want from my government, to be honest I don’t want that much, but I definitely want them to be focused on the military and security and our international position abroad, and to have a Commander-in-Chief who has military service I sure think has a lot to recommend it.
Brett: Yeah. I’m curious as to how things will change in the next ten years as you have veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars get more involved. I’ve been seeing it. They’re slowly, slowly starting to run for political office.
Rorke: No doubt. You’re dead on, and you’re going to see a lot more of it. I think a lot of us feel the weight of that responsibility. Talk about somebody that has a worldly experience and can talk about foreign policy, and the fact of the matter is we hear this premium on foreign policy and what they would know; I could take a twenty-one year old Marine and have them advise this current state of our leadership and they’d know more about foreign policy than anyone working in DC. It’s kind of crazy.
Brett: Rorke, this has been a great conversation. Where can people find out more about your work and your books?
Rorke: Damn Few is on shelves in bookstores everywhere and you can certainly get it on Amazon. Worth Dying For, which just came out this spring, it’s called Worth Dying For: A SEALs Call to a Nation, that’s the same, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, any place books are sold you can find that book. I do a lot of speaking on leadership and high performance teams. You can find me in the social media world, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, all that good stuff. I’m here to serve, so I hope this next life still connects to making this country a better place, or citizens stronger and more focused on what we enjoy in the world. I am very wary of where we are, with what we’re voting and the way we’re treating one another, so I hope we can get it right, and if I can help I’m going to do it.
Brett: Awesome. Rorke Denver, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Rorke: Thank you Brett.
Brett: My guest is Rorke Denver. He’s the author of two books, Damn Few, as well as Worth Dying For. They’re available at amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere. After the show check out the show notes at aom.is/denver for links to resources as well as a transcript on the show so you can delve deeper into those topics.
That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed the show I’d appreciate it if you give us a review. It really helps us out a lot. Thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.