“The best preparation for tomorrow is doing your best today.”
— H. Jackson Brown Jr.
If you’re serious about winning, you need to be even more serious about your preparation. After all, it’s the work behind the scenes that makes elite performance poetic to watch.
Today, we’re joined by one of the most well-trained individuals on the planet, Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator, Andrew Sullivan.
After watching the events of 11th September 2001 unfold, Andrew enlisted in the Navy, completed BUD/S training, and became a Navy SEAL. After six years at SEAL Team Two, he was selected to screen for the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (NSWDG), also known as “DEVGRU,” where he spent the remainder of his time in service.
In an 11-year stint at the NSWDG, Andrew served as Team Leader for a 24-man counter-terrorism unit that conducted numerous missions pursuing high-value targets and conducting hostage rescue operations worldwide. He medically retired from the US military in 2020 after nearly two decades of service in the Special Operations community.
Andrew has been awarded the Silver Star Medal, two Bronze Star Medals with combat valor, the Purple Heart Medal, and numerous other joint and individual commendations. In addition, he holds a Master of Science in Strategic Leadership from the University of Charleston, West Virginia.
Following his time in service, Andrew started BlueForce Strategic Action Group, a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business (SDVOSB) that provides tactical, security, and leadership consulting to the U.S. Department of Defense and various law enforcement agencies. Some of the organizations and associations Andrew has worked with, and consulted to, include: the New York Police Department; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; Air Force Special Operations; and Naval Special Warfare.
In 2021, Andrew founded the Community First Project, a nonprofit organization designed to improve community safety by providing much-needed, no-cost training to police officers. The Community First Project delivers comprehensive, up-to-date tactical and operational training that allows officers to serve, protect, and survive – and keep our communities safe.
In this episode:
- Andrew’s career as a Special Forces operator and the work he’s doing today
- The importance of the right training – and the right team – in every mission you’re on
- What mindset you need to perform under pressure; and
- How to build resilience when you’re faced with pain and loss.
Before we begin, the right bit of inspiration can completely change the trajectory of someone’s life, so if there’s a friend or loved one who needs to hear this episode or could use some help to Win the Day, share it with them right now.
Let’s WIN THE DAY with Andrew Sullivan!
Sully, great to see you mate! Thanks for coming on the show.
Great to be here. I know we've been talking a while. It's glad to finally get out on the West Coast and sit down with you and chat.
Thank you for your service, first of all. In addition to your incredible career, you're doing so much work now in the nonprofit world to help people, so, on behalf of the Win the Day community, we really appreciate all the things you've done.
I appreciate that. Thank you.
Well, to kick things off, is there a struggle or success from when you were younger that helped put you on the path that you would ultimately go down?
I kind of viewed my whole life as struggle and success, to whatever degree. It didn't have to be anything extreme. Anytime I failed at something, it just motivated me to be more successful at that or at something else. So I kind of went through my life with that philosophy. Really that's pretty idealistic with the Navy SEAL mentality and how we get through our selection, our training, and our combat deployment.
Where did you grow up?
I say Boston, Massachusetts to people that aren't from Massachusetts, but I actually grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, which is a little bit west of the city. I have one brother and my parents are still together to this day. I had a great childhood.
I played sports, that's what I did. Woke up, my brother and I would be outside all day throwing a football, baseball, basketball, didn't matter, but that's what we did.
So you're a New England Patriots fan?
Diehard. Isn't everybody!?
The first U.S. city I moved to was Boston in 2012 so I'm a Pats fan as well! My wife, her family is from Boston so we’re a Pat's family.
Nice. I love it. We'll have to go to a game.
Actually, I don't know if you want to take me. I've been to two Pats games for two losses. This is during the Tom Brady era as well. I don’t even know how that’s possible!
Yeah, well, you can't win every game. You gotta let some other people have a little bit of success.
When did joining the military and becoming a SEAL first come on your radar?
I've thought about that quite a bit and I can't remember the first time that I actually thought about being a SEAL. I know growing up, my brother and our friends, we would go play, we called it Vietnam. We'd go into the woods with our toy guns and pretend we were soldiers and POWs and all that. It's our generation's Cowboy and Indians, right?
And growing up, I always kept tabs on that community and was interested in reading books and finding out whatever I could about the community. But it was really 9/11, that was the precipice for me, the motivation I needed. I went to the recruiter the next day and basically said, how soon can I get out of here?
I felt like if I wasn't going to do it at that point, I never would and I would have regretted it. So yeah, my biggest single motivation was 9/11.
And what about the Navy as the branch? Were there any other ones that you were considering or was it just the SEALs?
Yeah, it's weird. I didn't want to be in the military, I wanted to be in the SEAL Teams and I saw it as a distinct difference. It was a completely different community to me, even though it is the Navy, but there was never a thought of joining another branch.
And cold water up in Massachusetts!
Hey, must've got me ready! We didn't have a lot of money, so we would grow up vacationing on the Cape. We'd go down, we'd pitch a tent, we'd camp, and we'd go to the beach all day. Those were our vacations.
It was frigid water and we did not care. We'd be in there all day till our faces turned blue and then we'd warm up and then we'd go back in. Cold water isn't fun, but it wasn't a deal breaker for me in BUD/S.
And at the end of the day, if you want something bad enough, you're willing to make those sacrifices and deal with some discomfort for the bigger picture.
When you went to Coronado [Navy SEAL training], what was your first impression of BUD/S? And how comfortable did you feel in your own ability relative to what you saw when you were looking around?
Not to age myself here, but it was such an unknown because we didn't have the technology. There was no Instagram or YouTube. There was no platform where you could log on and find everything you wanted about BUD/S. There were one or two books that talked about it – and we all read them a bunch of times trying to game the system – but ultimately you got there, it was an unknown, and you just took it a day at a time.
So I got there and I was scared because I didn't know what to expect. I wasn't scared that I wasn't going to make it. It's a big decision in life and I wanted to be successful. I wanted to do the best that I could. And for me, I'm a very calculated, strategic person, so not knowing what to expect from day to day was hard for me. But again, big picture, if you want something bad enough, you're willing to be uncomfortable and get it done.
Absolutely. I think that's a good theme for the episode. How old were you at the time? And did you know anyone else who was going through it with you?
I did not. At one point in my life in high school, I had a neighbor that was a Navy SEAL and I never really talked to him about it. I just knew that he was, and it was kind of “oh, man, there he is!” And so I went to BUD/S.
I met a couple guys in bootcamp that were supposed to be going that ended up not making it. Then I went to our A school, which is our MOS [Military Occupational Specialties]. Back then you had to go get a job. In the Navy, in the case that you didn't make it through BUD/S, they'd send you to the fleet and that's the job you would do.
So I went to Virginia Beach and I went to that school and met a couple guys that actually I'm still friends with to this day who were going to BUD/S as well. And that kind of became my little group throughout BUD/S. But once I got there, there was no amount of people that could have been there with me to really prepare me for what was going to happen. I mean that in a good way and a bad way.
The type of guys who go through Navy SEAL training seem like the ones who generally wouldn't generally be very happy not making it and going back to the fleet afterwards. Is it a big motivator that once you're there to do everything you can to succeed in that training?
I think it is. I was a little older going in. To answer your previous question, I was 24.
It's funny, one year is a huge difference in a program like that – physically and mentally. It's the 18-year-olds that tend to quit first, just because their first experience being away from home is being wet and sandy for eight months. The second group to quit is usually your older guys, 24 and up, because physically they tend to get injured a little. The body doesn't recover as well.
We're only talking about maybe a six-year-gap in age there, but it makes a huge difference. So for me, going out there at that age, it was tough getting up in the morning sometimes with the pain that you had to deal with because the body didn't recover the way it should have.
Interesting. I feel like with life experience too, if I had been a father at like 22 or 23, very different than when I became a father at 36. A lot more life experience to bring.
I agree. And the mentality of the guys coming out there, I think everybody comes out with the same mentality. I don't think anybody goes out there thinking they're not going to make it, but at the end of the day, 70% of the guys that are there aren't going to make it. And it's one of the biggest recruiting tools the Navy has is they man the fleet with BUD/S dropouts.
So you come in to do six years in special warfare or more and you end up doing four to six years on a ship. And to me, if that's not motivation to be successful, I don't know what is.
What is your focus when you're in BUD/S? Are you trying to get the lay of the land? Are you trying to make friends with other people as quickly as possible? Are you trying to get to know the instructors a bit? What's your plan from the moment you get there?
It's not hard to make friends with other people, because you always want to suffer with a buddy. Nobody wants to suffer by themselves and you do a lot of suffering in BUD/S. So for me, it was just to make it to the end of the day.
When I get kids asking me for advice when they're going to BUD/S, it's to take everything one step at a time. If you start looking at the big picture, I have to do this for eight more months or however long the time is, you are going to get overwhelmed and that's when you start thinking negatively.
Instead, think “I just need to make it to the end of this evolution” or “I just have to make it to the end of the day, I just have to make it to Friday” and you take things sequentially, a step at a time, it’s a lot easier to process and handle.
So that was my mentality going in.
Yeah, it's just chunking down that mission. If you want to win your life, you have to focus on how to win the day, which becomes a week, which becomes a month.
There's not one thing about BUD/S that a fit person couldn't do, it's the fact that you have to do it over and over and over again that makes it really difficult.
And shout out to our good friend Rich Diviney as well.
Rich mentioned when he was in BUD/S, he looked around and he said that you just couldn't pick who were the guys who were going to make it through. Did you have a similar vibe in your class?
Yeah, it's funny, one of the first guys to ring the bell was this championship triathlete. He was just a stud. He'd smoke us all on the runs and the swims. It was very impressive. But he quit before he even hit Hell Week, he was done. He was like, “Nope, this is not for me.”
So that kind of threw me for a little bit of a loop because you don't know why at the time they're quitting because typically you don't see him again. They get them out of there. And so it is true to some degree, you look around and the guys that you think won't make it, make it and the guys that you think are going to make it, don't make it so it's really hard to process.
One of the first guys to ring the bell was this championship triathlete.
The Navy spends a lot of money trying to figure it out because it would be so much easier if you could know the traits or the attributes that are going to get the guys through ahead of time before you put them in the selection course. It would be much more efficient, but it’s impossible.
And the bell moves with you, doesn't it?
It does. They'll put it on the back of a truck and roll it around. You'll be sitting in the cold water and they'll back up the truck up to you so you can see the bell and you're shaking and they'll tell you, “Hey, we'll finish as soon as someone rings the bell.” And some people do.
Was there a moment during that training where you were like, “Oh my God, I'm in the thick of it now” or that you were at your breaking point?
Mentally, no. Physically there were definitely some times, but there was never a time where I thought I was going to quit or wanted to quit. Again, just staying positive and focusing on the bigger mission, which is wanting to be downrange.
I looked at it as, I'm going to protect my family. That's why I want to be here. That's why I want to go overseas. And the thought of quitting because I was cold or wet or sandy, it wasn't there.
There's an attribute that Rich Diviney talks about in his book The Attributes. He said that a sense of humor, sometimes just finding humor in a dark place, can actually be something extremely positive.
Did you notice that some of the people were able to find a bit of joy in absolute pain? And that it was just nice to be around someone who was like that?
You don't want to suffer alone. Negativity is contagious, but so is positivity – and if you can take the worst situation and laugh about it, then it tends to motivate you.
I had a really good group of core guys in my BUD/S class, a lot of them that I'm still friendly with today. We just did our 20-year reunion last year and we were able to make light of a lot of the situations we were in, which really made it a lot easier to be there.
Some good stories, I'm sure!
Some great stories! Just not for the podcast.
What was your first deployment and how did you feel ahead of your first combat mission?
My first deployment was to Iraq and it was definitely mixed emotions. I was married at the time, I didn't have kids.
When I showed up to BUD/S, I didn’t have a lot of expectations and I assumed the worst because my only experience with what was going on in Iraq is what I had seen on TV or what I had been told. So it was keeping your mouth shut and your ears open and trying to learn and do the right thing and not make a mistake and let the team down. And that's a huge motivator, how your peers perceive you and doing your job and doing your job well.
So yeah, it was a good experience for me. There wasn't a ton of combat at the time, surprisingly, even though it was kind of the beginning of the war, but I learned a lot and I took a lot with me.
I hear from a lot of special forces guys that they hate sitting still. They want to get out there and see some action.
It's very difficult. And to give people an analogy, think about being a football player at a pro level training all the time and then never playing in a game. Not that anybody wants war, our community, we don't want war, but we are prepared for war and obviously we want to go do our job.
It’s not just because we're making a difference, but because applying our tactics and techniques helps us refine them to make them better, and then that filters down into other levels of the military. There's a lot riding on what we do overseas, so we want to be there and we want to do our best.
And for those who are deployed, is it tougher for them to have family and children back home or does it give them a bit more of a sense of purpose in terms of the mission?
It's an individual thing. I know guys that when they go down range, they cut the family off, they would talk to them every couple weeks. It's just really difficult for them to be in that situation knowing they have their family, their kids, their wife back home.
I typically wasn't that way. I liked having the support and I was married for a few deployments before I ended up getting divorced and my wife was supportive. We talked almost every day, every chance we got. I would always get the care packages, which is just very motivating to get that from home and getting the updates on the family.
I think maybe MySpace had just come out or something to date myself, so there wasn't the ability to track what was going on in the real world with your family the way there is now, just by social media. So it was important to me to have that at the time and it meant a lot to me, the amount of work that she put in to keep me in touch with the reality back home.
Did you feel an element of culture shock going into some of these different countries?
I wouldn't call it culture shock. I love to travel and some of the best places I've been are war zones, surprisingly. Some of these countries, thousands of years, they haven't really changed that much.
I love to travel and some of the best places I've been are war zones, surprisingly.
And seeing the history to me is very impressive. Some of the best stories that I have now and the best memories I have now are from war zones, but not war related, if that makes sense.
It's funny, you can travel to some of the poorest and most war-torn countries, yet they can be some of the happiest people in the world.
Absolutely. We call them dirt farmers. They wake up to farm and that's it for their entire lives and it's a rough life and the life expectancy is short, they don't have the medical care or the FDA restrictions on food that we have. So they age quickly and, man, I couldn't imagine living like that, but to see how happy they are, they're doing something right.
There's that difference in perspective and gratitude when you come back after serving in the military and you see people over here who are so ungrateful without any context of how lucky they are to be living in the U.S. or Australia. Is it frustrating or do you just understand the human psyche of where those thoughts originate?
Exactly, human psyche.
We have a saying in the Teams, “If you're not bitching, you're not happy.” But there's a difference between complaining and not trying to solve the problem – and complaining to complain – or complaining to make a difference and coming up with ways to resolve issues.
We have a saying in the Teams, “If you're not bitching, you're not happy.”
So I do have a little bit more tolerance towards it. I see it overseas too. It is human nature in many ways to want to complain about things, but it can be frustrating also, especially when it's something that you're passionate about like for me, law enforcement to watch people complain and not offer solutions to fix the problem.
Did you have any pre-combat rituals or is there anything that you observed that you saw some other guys do that was pretty interesting?
A lot of people do, nothing really that sticks out. I didn't have any pre-combat rituals, which is funny because playing sports, I always had my rituals whenever I go up to bat playing baseball or wearing the same equipment, the same clothes, but yeah, not really. I know that seems weird.
In hindsight, I'm kind of weirded out by it too because I feel like I should have!
Obviously the nature of the work that you're in is doing some difficult things to keep people at home safe. How do you prepare your body, mind and spirit for such violence?
It's hard to talk about that without talking about PTSD and veteran suicide.
PTSD is a huge issue right now, even in our community [Navy SEALs]. However, I do think our community is much better equipped or prepared to handle that. And I don't know if that's a result of the screening and the way that we eliminate guys from our community by having a selection process so that we're actually taking guys that already have the attributes that make us better equipped to handle it, or if it's the training we do and the constant deployments that actually desensitize us to be able to handle it better.
At the end of the day, there are guys that can and cannot handle it. Typically, our community is on the side of, it's part of our job. And this is going to sound weird, I've never lost a second of sleep over someone I've killed, but I've lost months of my life of sleep over people that I didn't shoot – because what if that person then went on to take an American life because I didn't take that shot.
I've never lost a second of sleep over someone I've killed, but I've lost months of my life of sleep over people that I didn't shoot.
But at the end of the day, we have rules of engagement that say pretty clearly whether or not you can or can't do it and you have to make that decision in the moment whether it's justified. So it's a difficult process for anybody to understand who hasn't been there.
And it's probably an even more difficult process for me to explain it to people that haven't done it or seen it. But there is a community-based approach to that where you're surrounded by like-minded people who are doing the same job in the same situation that somehow makes it easier to deal with some of those things.
And the stakes are so high, not to mention all the disorienting and deafening noises, the fog of war. You've got no idea what's going on half the time. Rich, when he was on the show, spoke about how in that situation the first thing you need to do is try and figure out what's going on and see what you can do about it.
But most people, when they're faced with not a similar situation, but something that certainly brings that feeling in a civilian life, they just shut down. And that's not going to do you very well when you're with a team who has a clear mission where if you don't do that, then people die.
Agree. And the goal in our training in the Teams and what I do now for law enforcement is to try and expose that in training. So the first time you see that high stress, high threat incident and have that reaction isn't in a real world scenario.
In the SEALs, we do a really good job of exposing ourselves as close to war-like scenarios as possible before we actually go to war.
Uvalde, that's what we're trying to avoid [Robb Elementary School shooting]. And that's why I harp so much on training properly. And yeah, I think in the SEALs, we do a really good job of exposing ourselves as close to war-like scenarios as possible before we actually go to war. So that when that happens, we're prepared for it.
Was there a moment when you accepted looking around at the other guys that you belonged with the elite, or did you have feelings of inadequacy throughout your career?
I never felt inadequate, but I always felt the stress to perform.
And I saw the Thought for the Day quote you had the other day, “Earn your trident.” To me, if I showed up to work not ready to do my job, there was someone right behind me that was going to take it from me. So the stress of performing all the time – from the day I joined up to the day I got out – was always there.
That's a good thing in many ways, but it's also really hard to live that way.
Can you talk a little bit more about that? We touched on it a bit earlier when we spoke about Win the Day and taking it a day at a time, but the Navy SEAL philosophies in terms of “the only easy day was yesterday” and “earn your trident every day.” The importance of just living for today, not expecting things to be super easy, knowing that you've got to put the work in, if not for yourself, for the other people who depend on you.
A hundred percent for the other people. It's team, teammate, self. You are last in the line of importance. Your teammate, your team, that takes priority. The mission takes priority.
So it's a very focused culture on teamwork. The fear of letting your buddies down is the biggest motivator in the Teams because you don't want to be the guy that fails and someone else gets hurt because of it.
It's team, teammate, self. You are last in the line of importance.
So every day you show up. This is across the board, and this is one of the really good benefits of having this selection process where we try to get the best of the best at this specific job is that I know the guy to my right, the guy to my left, the guy across me, the guy behind me is like-minded and going to do the same thing.
And it's why we're so successful. We're problem solvers. We come in, we expect things to go wrong, we prepare for it, we have contingency, secondary, tertiary options all the time, and we're always ready for things to go wrong.
If they go right, perfect. They never do, so we're prepared. It's cultural.
Yeah, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.
Yeah, exactly. Just expect to get punched in the face and roll with the punches.
Is there any structure around building team bonds and camaraderie as quickly as possible?
Some sporting teams in Australia, historically, would get the team together and drinks as many beers as possible.
Or is it just through the training and the trust in each individual’s capabilities that comprises your team?
I go back to suffering with people. BUD/S is a great equalizer for us because you haven't gone to war with somebody, but you've gone through hell with somebody. You have that connection with any SEAL that you work with, whether you went with them or not, you know they went through the same thing as you. So that adds a level of trust already.
If I switched to another team and I join a new group of guys, I know they have the baseline that I have. And then going through the training, the workup to get ready for deployment, being on deployment, losing friends, being in combat, being away from families and our families taking care of you, it's all things that build the brotherhood and the bond and it's something that you won't understand unless you actually do it.
BUD/S is a great equalizer for us because you haven't gone to war with somebody, but you've gone through hell with somebody.
And I don't have to like the guy. There are a few guys that I didn't get along with. We have different personalities, whatever, but when it came to combat and the job, I trust that person as much as anybody else.
It's a brotherhood that’s hard to quantify or explain, but it's amazing. I don't think I could ever work with as good people or a good group of guys as I had when I was in the Navy in the SEAL Teams.
The goal is to try and recreate that now that I'm out.
It must be so motivating in that environment.
It is. You can't have good days every day, but to have guys around you who know what you're going through and pick up the slack when you drop the slack. It's teamwork, it's effort, it's efficiency – and we're really good at it.
The SEALs, especially DEVGRU, get called up for some of the most significant missions in the world. You've touched on it a little bit already, but what is it about the SEALs that makes you so effective relative to some of the other forces?
Obviously personnel, the people there, you are the elite. You've been selected, you’ve gone through BUD/S, you get to a team, then you get selected again and go through another selection to go to NSWDG.
You're already at the tip of the spear as far as past performance, having the right attributes for the mission set, and the desire and will to do it. These are people that haven't failed in their life and got to this spot. So it's really easy to be successful when you have those attributes.
We're always ready for things to go wrong. If they go right, perfect. They never do, so we're prepared.
Now you take that and apply it to no-fail missions and you have a group of guys whose greatest attribute is the ability to solve problems in an unconventional kind of way. And we're really good at doing that, finding solutions, and not accepting no and being able to work the gray to get to the end result.
After six years in the SEAL Teams, you were then called up to the Naval Special Warfare Development Group [NSWDG]. What was the biggest difference you noticed from where you’d been at previously?
Age is a big one. You’re older at that point, once you get to NSWDG.
Everybody has experience, and the culture is a little bit different. You still have the same mindset, but you went from a small fish in a big pond to a small fish in a small pond, and you're just trying to work your way up.
The level of experience is like going from 70 miles an hour to 100 miles an hour. In the first year, you're just trying to keep up and find the attributes from the people who are successful. You’re trying to soak it all in and become better and catch up to them.
But it's a little overwhelming getting there. You see the level of talent, but you know that you belong there and you've been selected to be there, so it's also pretty motivating.
Is there a mentorship element from the more senior guys so the people coming in feel supported?
It's a smaller community than the regular Teams, so it's a lot easier to have someone mentor you. Typically guys are looking to do that because you can get there and you could be on an op the next week and you have to be ready to do that. So it helps everybody else from the leadership side of the house.
You're reaching down to those guys who are coming in and you're providing them the tools that they need to be successful. It's not a competition. Even though I want that job ahead of me, I want to learn from that guy, but I also want the guy behind me to learn and be able to do my job.
And I always use the Coach Bill Belichick [New England Patriots] mantra, “Do your job.” My version of that is, “Do your job, but know his job, too.” It's a great culture.
Being part of NSWDG, such a renowned unit, were you constantly focused on raising the bar as much as possible? Is the idea that you can do better and get better than the guys who were there yesterday?
It really is. And a lot of that depends on what's going down overseas too. So we're always looking up and out trying to find the next battlefield and be prepared for it.
That's the strategy you should use in the business world, too. Anybody can take that and apply that to whatever they're doing in life, no matter how big or small. And there are times where we get very mission-focused because, during the height of the war, we were going overseas and doing the same thing over and over and over. So it's really hard to find a reason to change when what you're doing is so successful and applicable to what's going on.
You never want to let failure be the reason that you change. You want to change ahead of failure and be successful as much as possible.
But you have to realize that, in a moment's notice, you could be doing something else that requires different tactics, a different mentality, and different equipment. And if you're not prepared for that, then you're already behind the eight-ball.
Part of being in that culture and being successful is our ability to look strategically at the future and be prepared for something before it happens. You never want to let failure be the reason that you change. You want to change ahead of failure and be successful as much as possible.
In life, everyone goes through moments of anxiety. Maybe you're on the brink of divorce, maybe you've got things going on with your health or challenges with your kids. Or even performance anxiety, knowing that you're going on a mission where you're parachuting into a random country in the middle of the night or swimming into a heavily fortified location.
Did anxiety ever creep in? Or are the attributes of the guys at that level such that you don’t feel anxiety and can better separate personal hardship from performance?
I do think we compartmentalize really well, and I would imagine that's probably a Rich Diviney question because he’s so good at understanding what attributes our community uniquely has.
But anxiety exists. It's there and it's different from person to person. I never had operational anxiety. To me it was, and I hear this from pro athletes, when I'm in the game, I'm in the game. There's nothing else going on around me, I don't even hear the crowd. That's how I feel about combat. Nothing else exists at that point.
Training on the other hand, different story. A lot of anxiety, performance anxiety. Am I going to mess up? Am I going to do this correctly? What if I fail? How do I look to my teammates? And it's a motivator to perform, to do well, to go the extra mile.
It motivates you to be successful in training so when combat comes, you're locked in, you know what to do, when to do it, and you're ready for the curveball.
Is it nervous energy or a little bit of fear that you're able to use? Or is it just a performance focus where you're actually quite calm knowing all the training you put in?
There's fear. You're standing on the edge of an aircraft at 28,000 feet waiting to jump into the darkness. That's scary. I don't care who you are, there's not one person in the world that isn't getting butterflies. But once you take the leap, the fear goes away and you're mission focused.
But once you take the leap, the fear goes away and you're mission focused.
There have been very few times on operations where I've been afraid. I can probably count them on one hand. I would say I've been more afraid in training than any operation. I've been more afraid of being a father than I have of combat. I've been more afraid of public speaking than going to war.
So I think there's a lot of perspective issues here. To me, this is normal. This is what I was born to do – and I'm really good at it. So what's to be afraid of? It's working outside your comfort zone that brings the fear. My comfort zone is completely different than most people probably!
You mentioned something so interesting – that once you take the leap, the fear then goes away because you start to establish a bit of momentum. I think that's an amazing analogy for people in life who they're so worried about starting a business or asking the girl or guy out for a date.
Funny, Rich talked about that a lot.
We had breakfast not too long ago and talked about the public speaking side of it. I go to him for advice on that stuff. And he said, “I just started doing things that made me uncomfortable. I didn't want to do it. I wouldn't have done it before because I was afraid to do that. But I'm going to do it anyway and see how it goes.”
I've been more afraid of being a father than I have of combat.
Then you become comfortable working in the uncomfortable. And that is any part of your life. To me, being in combat is comfort and the fear goes away because now I'm focused on my mission. This is what I have to do, and there are all these things that I have to do prepared to do that you really don't have time to sit there and worry about fear.
And if you are, you're probably in the wrong profession, right? Because your mind needs to be focused on something else, not on that part of the job.
Out of all the different theaters of combat you were in, and I know that since Iraq and Afghanistan, there's been more of a focus on maritime missions, was there one that you were like, yes, this is what I want to be doing? Were you more comfortable in the water or were you just as comfortable in the desert?
Yeah, I'll avoid the water at all costs! Taking the S out of SEAL, right!?
Yeah, Rich said there are some SEALs who just don't like the water!
I had a cousin who took her family to San Diego a couple weeks ago and I said, "Well make sure you put your feet in the Pacific Ocean" because they're Massachusetts born and raised. So she sends me a video of her kids in the water and I immediately get goosebumps and start getting cold because it just brings me back to BUD/S and being in the Pacific Ocean and freezing.
For me, if I have to get in water, I will. It's definitely not the highlight of my career. I don't go do that for fun. I don't scuba dive. I don't like to go to the beach. I will if my kids want to go, but I'll limit my time in the water.
So I joined at a great time to be a SEAL because I joined to go make a difference, to protect my family, to protect my friends, to protect my community, which means going to war and fighting for our country and for my family. And I did that for almost two decades, and the war for most of that time was in the desert, and we just found ways to get better and better at operating in those conditions.
That's I guess where my head is and where I've stayed, so to speak.
And you've had access to some pretty epic training throughout your career. Is there one training phase or one skill that you acquired or someone that they brought in where you were just like, wow, this is a really cool experience just to be learning?
Yeah, we had a fight gym at work. Some guys like to box, some guys like jujitsu, whatever. And I walk in one day and I'm like, man, that looks like B.J. Penn. And it was B.J. Penn teaching. I'm like, “Oh man, I'm going to get my ass kicked today.”
If we want to be better skydivers, we find the best sky divers and we hire them. We want to be better shooters, we find the best shooters to teach us to be better shooters. And we want to be better at driving, we find the best drivers to teach us.
A lot of the training we do is very humbling because these people are so much better at it than we are.
So a lot of the training we do is very humbling because these people are so much better at it than we are. But shooting isn't my job, skydiving isn't my job, Brazilian jujitsu isn’t my job. My job is a Navy SEAL. I have to take the best attributes of all those skill sets and combine it to do my job.
We've been very fortunate to have some of the best people in the world teach us how to do these things so that I can be better at my job. And it's an analogy you can use for any profession, like running a business.
Yeah, I often think about how much time, energy, and money people waste when they could, instead, simply hire an expert who can tell them what to do. If you're trying to figure it all out on your own, you’re wasting so much.
It's a simple route to success.
But people are afraid to ask for help sometimes. I know that happens a lot. I've done it. It's been me, it's been my community because you never failed, you're at the tip of the spear. It's almost humbling or you're worried about how you're going to be looked at by asking for help.
But once you break through that barrier and become vulnerable and get that help, you realize how invaluable it is. And yeah, it’s one of the things I wish I learned a little bit younger.
I've heard it's an interesting mindset battle for some people going into their last combat mission. Did you feel a bit of a difference in terms of your first and your last combat mission?
Yeah, it sounds very negative the way you put it. I don't think I would look at it that way.
To me, my first mission was looking through the tunnel vision. What's going to happen? Who's going to shoot at me? What if I have to shoot something? And all these things, all the unknown.
By the end, it was the big picture. I saw everything. And I was in a leadership position and I had people on the battlefield. It was completely different, for the better. It was comfortable. Going from the junior guy to one of the senior guys, I had so much faith and trust in the people that I worked next to that it was natural and it was a great experience for me.
That last mission at the time, I didn't know it was going to be in my last mission, but it was. And I don't regret any of it.
It's a profession you obviously can't do forever, as you mentioned – it's a bit of a young man's game. You still did it for almost 20 years. Were you ready to hang up the boots at that time?
Mentally, I was still ready. Physically, there were days where I couldn't get out of bed. It would take me an hour just to stand up and I would hunch over, walk to grab my pills, take a bunch of pills, and go lay back down until I started to relax. Then I would get back up and start my day.
The job wasn't helping with that side of my life. So in quality of life, being able to pick my kids up and give them piggyback rides because I'm not hurting, that was a significant motivator to hang the boots up.
At the end of the day, there is this huge feeling that you're letting your team down by retiring. And maybe it's because we were a little arrogant, but there was a point where, well, if I leave, who's going to lead? Who's going to be that guy? And I know in my heart that my guys are trained well enough that any one of them could step up and do my job. It's not that hard. That's what they're supposed to be able to do.
But in my head, I didn't want that. I wanted to be irreplaceable. And none of us is irreplaceable. As soon as you step off the train, it's gone. You're in the rearview. So when I did leave, my time as team leader was up and I stepped off the train and was starting to prepare for retirement, a mission came down the pike. And this was only weeks after I had left.
Being able to pick my kids up and give them piggyback rides because I'm not hurting, that was a significant motivator to hang the boots up.
I'm like, “Well, they're going to call me any minute because they need me. I just left, they need me there.” And the plane took off and I wasn't on it. And I'm like, okay, I guess I did my job, they don't need me. My eyes opened, the train goes on, there were guys capable and willing to do the job. It's not on me.
So you don't quite feel as responsible like you're letting somebody down at that point. And it was a lot easier to move on once I physically and emotionally dealt with that. And yeah, it was just humbling.
It's a good sign of your character knowing that you were able to train those guys so well. But at the same time, it must be a bitter pill to swallow, like it is for everyone, to realize that every single one of us is replaceable. Life moves on.
It really is. And especially from a community where you want to be the best and you work with the best. So it was humbling to say the least.
Do guys ever get a tap on the shoulder that they’re sticking around for too long?
It's twofold. I think if we're being honest with each other, that happens sometimes. Because there are definitely going to be points where guys physically aren't able to keep up. And if we're not telling them that, then we're doing everybody a disservice – because you’re only as good as your slowest person.
It doesn't happen often because I think we're pretty self-aware when it comes to whether or not we can do the job and guys will pull themselves offline if need be before they're told to come offline.
How was your transition to civilian life? Or did you struggle without a mission, a team, and a framework?
It was difficult. Again, now I'm in the uncomfortable area, working in the uncomfortable. It was hard not having the team around me all the time, right? Because that train keeps going without you, so they're not around the way they were.
You don't spend every second of your day with these guys anymore, so now you make mistakes, it's on you, there's nobody else to help you fix it. There's nobody there for advice. And trying to rebuild your network outside of that community is a little difficult. But I like a challenge. And just like everything else in my life, if I want do something, I want to do it to the fullest, and I want to be successful doing it, and I'm willing to fail to succeed.
The transition for me, I kind of started it during COVID. So we were already at a point where we weren't really going to work anyway because we were staying home. So I was five or six months of not even going to work anyway as part of my transition before I actually got out. I also had the comfort of having a retirement and having health insurance where if I didn't get the job I wanted right off the bat, it wasn't a big deal. I could afford to wait for the right job, the right position.
And I'm a service-motivated guy so I decided I had to create my own service-related job to really be happy.
Was there a structured process that you went through in terms of goal setting for that new life that eventually led to Community First Project? What was that process to set goals in your civilian life?
There really wasn't. So in hindsight, I wasn't as prepared as I thought I was to get out. And it really boils down to me not knowing what I wanted to do. And it's funny, I joined the Navy because I didn't know what I wanted to do in life. And here I am getting out of the Navy and I still don't know!
But I do know that I like to help. I've always done volunteer work, worked with nonprofits, and the thought of starting my own was always there. But I didn't want to do another Navy SEAL nonprofit because there's a bunch of them out there and they're all doing great work. And I didn't want to compete against people that are already helping our community.
And law enforcement has always been really good to me, my family and my community. So it just kind of made sense to try and give back to that community because I got out at a time where law enforcement was being heavily criticized and all of their mistakes were being published for the world to see. And everybody had an idea how to fix it.
So when I got out, I started a for-profit company and started training law enforcement, mostly SWAT teams, training federal agencies, and training tier one special operators. And as I'm doing this and charging a lot of money to do it, I'm watching law enforcement fail or specific members of law enforcement.
I'm watching the news and I'm seeing these officers put into situations, and I'm just looking at it from a perspective of, well, they didn't fail because they chose to fail, they failed because they're not trained properly. And I see it clear as day. It's like Bill Belichick going and watching a high school football game and seeing a team lose and knowing where their training shortfalls are and knowing how to fix it just by watching a play.
They didn't fail because they chose to fail, they failed because they're not trained properly.
It's the same for me with law enforcement. I've done this for so long, I've taught so many people, and I've trained this for 20 years, gone down range, and put this stuff into practical application. I watch and I see fundamental mistakes in law enforcement, specifically at the patrol officer, school resource officer level, not necessarily SWAT teams.
So that was when my mentality switched, well, why is that? I'm seeing these types of failures happen on national TV and criticism that often leads to prosecution for police officers who are doing what they're taught to do. And the more I dug into it, the more I found that they just cannot afford the level of training they need for the job that they're being asked to do.
There is this absolute glaring gap between what the general public thinks law enforcement is capable of and what they can actually do. So I talked to my training partner at the time who got out of our sister unit in the Army tier one special operations [Delta Force], and my other partner, Paul Fitzgerald, who's a retired superintendent of Boston Police, and we discussed this idea to start a nonprofit. I'd been thinking about it for about a year at that point, and I didn't really know how to implement it.
And the thought was, well, if they're telling me they want the training, which they are, they're telling me they need the training, which I can see they need the training, but you're also telling me you can't afford it, well how about I pay for it, now everybody gets what they need. And that was the methodology. So I immediately started fundraising and I thought I'd start this in Massachusetts because if I can do this in a very liberal state, my home state and get support from police, from community and from politicians, then I can do this anywhere and then I can recreate this model across the country.
So we went up, we started fundraising, we're at about almost $350,000 right now. And all that money's going back into Massachusetts law enforcement. And it's needed and it's received really well and it's fundamentals and mindset. And if we can make a difference to make a community safer by providing some basic level training to our police that are protecting our families, then it's a no-brainer.
These are the people protecting our communities, our families, they're stressed. At the end of the day, these are people who are absolutely going through real world challenges that don't have the amazing training that you've gone through.
At the end of the day, they don't train to be in stressful situations. And that's what we did in our community really well, is we recreated the stress of war in training. When our guys were put in those situations, they actually knew how to act because we've already seen it. And we could also weed out some of the people that we knew would never be able to function in that mindset.
When our guys were put in those situations, they actually knew how to act because we've already seen it.
None of that happens in law enforcement. But there's this expectation from everybody that law enforcement needs to go do that because they carry a gun and a badge. Well, a gun and a badge doesn't make you willing to run through a door when there's somebody on the other side that has a bigger gun and no badge and wants to kill you.
It doesn't change that fight or flight response that is innate in every person. So the first time they see it can't be in the real world. It has to be in training.
It's exactly what you mentioned about your training. You were confident going into battle because of the confidence that you developed from training.
Absolutely. Yeah, the fear wasn't there when I hit the ground. It's not the same for law enforcement.
It's sad. I have to be very careful, I don't want to be too critical, again, these are the people I'm trying to help, but I also want people to know that they're not what you think they are. SWAT teams are highly-trained, but SWAT teams aren't responding to active shooters. It's whoever is closest to the scene.
An active shooter is a hostage rescue. And I spent 20 years of my life becoming the best I can at that, and we still fail.
A school resource officer, a patrol officer, the people with no training at all, are the ones being asked to do a Navy SEAL level mission, a hostage rescue. That's what it is. An active shooter is a hostage rescue. And I spent 20 years of my life becoming the best I can at that, and we still fail.
Yet, you're giving this officer maybe 40 hours of training in a career, if that, and asking them to do something that they're probably going to go get themselves killed. And then you want to punish them when they fail.
They might be confident thinking, “Hey, if I was to face that situation, I'd be okay,” but when the bullets start flying, people start running.
Right, nobody wants to say, yeah, there's no way I could do that. Everybody says they can do it. But push comes to shove, you don't know until you're in that situation.
I'm sure the Uvalde police ahead of time didn't go into that situation [Robb Elementary School shooting] thinking, nope, I wouldn't go through that door. Probably every one of them thought they would. But the calamity of events that happened, paralysis by analysis, nobody wanted to take charge.
So much of what happened could have been exposed with proper training and it wasn't.
Nobody led the way, like in Nashville [The Covenant School shooting], and what happened was nothing happened and kids died. And it's unfortunate. I watched that. I watched the video. I see what's going on, and so much of what happened could have been exposed with proper training and it wasn't.
It was exposed in a real world situation where lives were lost. I want to fix that.
What should someone do, police officer or civilian, if they do find themselves in an active shooter situation?
It’s probably not something I can explain here in a second.
I have to be very careful about what I put out there because each department will have SOPs. So there's no blanket statement that I can say to any one law enforcement that's going to be transferrable, but between departments, which is kind of part of the problem as well.
But pretty much the overwhelming majority of a consensus right now is that you have to attack that problem. If you hear gunfire, you have to go to gunfire. If it's a school, if it's a place of work, if it's a business, if you're the law enforcement personnel that is on scene, you have to move to the sound of fire – that's the requirement.
And typically that's what I'm hearing across the country and the departments that I've been working with, and that's what they're training to. They're just not doing it, in my opinion, correctly or enough.
Should a civilian call their emergency number and just flee the scene as quickly as they can?
If it were my kid's school, I'm not fleeing the scene.
However, you have to realize that sometimes adding people to a problem is counterproductive. It isn't necessarily going to fix the problem. You can either become a victim yourself or, in a worst case scenario, you might shoot and kill the wrong person – an innocent person – which to me is a significant problem right now with the level of training law enforcement has.
If you put them in a situation with a firearm and they are fearing for their life, there's a really good chance that they're going to shoot the wrong person because they're not seeing the big picture, the whole picture.
So the run, hide, fight analogy is out there for a reason. But if the person is within arm's reach and you try to run, you're going to get shot in the back. So it's hard to give a blanket statement. There are acronyms out there, the run, hide, fight, things like that we teach and put out. But at the end of the day, it's hard to say unless you're in a situation what you need to do.
But if you're trying to save your own life and you are face to face with a gunman, you cannot run away at that point. Your chance to run is gone. If you hear gunfire away from there, then maybe run away, assess the scene. So if you do see law enforcement, now you have a picture that you can help them build.
Because we discussed earlier, when you're talking about Rich, building that picture is often the hardest thing to do when you're in combat. So if as a civilian you can help build that picture for law enforcement showing up to scene, by all means do it, but don't do it at the risk of your own safety.
And the time to prepare is yesterday, not when you're faced with the situation.
Hope is a terrible strategy and we see a lot of hope being used as our primary strategy in this type of situation.
At the end of the day, this is such a minute part of the job of law enforcement, but the repercussions are probably the most significant. And in law enforcement, they prioritize training to what they do the most. And it's not active shooter, right? Because it's a once in a career type thing, if at all.
Everybody wants to watch video and critique performance, especially in life or death situations, without a working understanding of how to perform in that situation.
So we hope it doesn't happen to us and we train for the things that we know will happen to us or they train on the job, which is how they get most of their training. But you can't train on the job for something that doesn't happen every day or at all.
It's a tough time right now because information is so readily accessible and everybody wants to watch video and critique performance, especially in life or death situations, without a working understanding of how to perform in that situation. And it's pretty tragic.
Not to mention that information can be manipulated. You can change context, angles. Often, these news outlets will zoom in, when zooming out will provide the full picture.
Yeah, exactly. Well, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
I was in Boston when the Boston Marathon bombing occurred. My girlfriend at the time was running in the Boston Marathon that was the very target of the terrorist attack. I was doing a university project about a 10-minute drive away, and you just get alerted to what was going on. The whole city was shut down. Phones weren’t working.
They were bringing out gas masks because they thought there were bombs that were going to continue going off at a large scale. No one had any idea what was going on. It was a crazy time.
But during those crazy situations, we need people who have the right training to be able to step up. That's why I feel the work that you're doing is so important.
I couldn't agree more.
As we scale, as we grow, that becomes a big part of what we want to do. And pushing law enforcement to integrate with other departments and cross-train is a big part of my messaging because it doesn't happen.
Something like the marathon bombing is a prime example. The Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida where law enforcement from different communities end up on the same scene and don't know how to integrate. Who's in charge, who's taking the lead, who's doing this? I don't know your tactics, you don't know my tactics. How do we do this together? And there's time wasted and it's inefficient.
There's time lost when you need to be as quick as possible to end the situation. And the marathon, I don't know if you've watched the documentary on it, but the response was scary. They were so unprepared, and I hate to say it, but across the country, that is the level of preparation right now that the majority of police departments, community states have to respond to an act of terror.
It's terrible that we have to wait for those events to try and make changes in how we act. In our community, we're really good at predictive threat analysis and trying to be ready for something that hasn't happened yet. And I think we're failing our people by not better preparing for these types of situations.
There's a statistic on your website that you mention, which I think is the most damning statistic: more officers die from suicide than they do in the line of duty. That is just crazy knowing that that's a real thing.
Yeah, I come from a community, the veteran community, with 22 suicides a day. It is a systemic problem that we face and I advocate as much as I can and I try and volunteer and help as much I can in veteran advocacy programs that deal with veteran suicide and mental health and TBI [traumatic brain injury] and PTSD.
When I started working with law enforcement in the capacity of the nonprofit and talking to people and asking where they need help, the number one answer I got was mental health in law enforcement. And it makes total sense. The job that they're doing and the crimes that they're seeing, now coupled with the part of the country that is condemning their behavior and their actions, is so demotivating and demoralizing that it's no wonder that they're having the crisis that they're having right now. And my response to that was, okay, how can I help?
I've had a lot of friends take their lives and every time we look back, we didn't see the problems or we ignored the problems.
And what I started doing, I do it as part of the nonprofit, but it doesn't cost me any money to do this. It's an advocacy thing. When I have an officer who is either involved in an OIS, meaning he had to shoot somebody or been shot, I pair them up with someone from my community who's been in a similar situation, whether they've been shot or had to shoot somebody just for some peer counseling.
It's not clinical in any way, but “Hey, I've been there, this is how I made it through this situation, here's what I suggest you do.” And to have that from a community where they really don't have that already has been significant.
And it's very different coming home to talk to your spouse about it because you’re trying to keep the horrors of war and what happens in your career away from the people that you love the most and that you're trying to protect. Not to mention they’re probably not going to understand it.
So to have peer support means that you have that outlet through someone who understands, who can help you get in the right space, rather than potentially burdening your spouse or if your spouse doesn't have the awareness to be able to ask the right questions to guide you to getting the help you need.
I agree completely. And yeah, it's therapeutic for the guy doing the counseling as well to talk about what they went through. So it's a good situation.
As we grow, I definitely want to focus more on that. I'll put it out to your listeners: if you have someone who's in that situation on the law enforcement side, reach out to me and we'll get you paired up with someone that can help.
I love it. Thank you.
What should someone do if they have a parent or a spouse or a friend, a work colleague, who perhaps is in law enforcement or a veteran who they believe may be struggling with mental health. Maybe they've started to shut down or they're a lot more irritable. Is there anything you suggest they do?
You have to have the conversation and a lot of times it's hard to have that conversation, but you have to intervene. And especially on the veteran side, there's so many organizations out there that want to help and are available.
If anybody needs some guidance, I'm happy to do it. But my suggestion would be to contact one of those organizations. And typically they focus around... like the Marines have their own, SEALs have their own. Then there's general ones like Wounded Warrior and all these people that want to help. Get in touch with them, let the professionals guide you through the best practices to help your loved one, but don't wait. Do not wait.
Even if you think they're doing okay – and I've had a lot of friends take their lives and every time we look back, we didn't see the problems or we ignored the problems because we just thought, no, he's having a bad day or a bad week. If you wait and ask a question, how are you doing, something, maybe you can save a life.
People want to help. That's the thing, when we're in a dark place, we can think, “Oh, I don't want to burden these people.” But at the end of the day, everyone around you, there's a very good chance that they want to help you.
If you're in a dark place, put your hand up and reach out to someone close to you who can help move you out of it. We all need help from time to time.
Easier said than done sometimes, especially coming from my community.
And this is not to get too far ahead, but one of the bigger changes that I've had is from this community where being strong, silent and sucking up your problems and charging forward has been the methodology is having to change that to be able to come out to my friends and talk about, Hey, this is what's going on. And realizing that they're going through the same thing and didn't want to say anything either.
So sometimes changing that culture and changing the narrative of the culture that you're in is needed to really get people to open up about their problems.
The work that you're doing, when you first told me about it, I thought instinctively one of the things you might be doing is teaching them shooting tactics, but stress management and deescalation are big components.
Is that the foundation before you would even worry about teaching some of these other skills?
It is not. I'm pretty open about this, I'm not a deescalation company. However, deescalation is a big byproduct of what I'm teaching, because if you can give officers the right tools, training and equipment to be able to do their job, the deescalation part becomes a natural byproduct of that education because you are better equipped to handle the stress of the situation you're in.
You can't criticize the officer responding the way they've been taught to respond.
You watch some of these videos of officers involved in shootings and you just see the red line peg, and once they hit that spot, they're not thinking about deescalation, they're not thinking about using their tools or working the situation to try and find an alternate means of resolution. They're thinking, “How do I save my life? I have a gun, I'm going to use it.”
And that's what they've been taught. So you can't criticize the officer responding the way they've been taught to respond. What you need to do is find ways to train them to respond differently. And I'm critical of law enforcement, but I'm protective of police officers. They're doing their job to the best of their ability, 99.9% of the time. We need to support them better.
Is there any specific skill from tier one special forces that you've been able to apply to helping these people, like breathing or mindset?
99% of the time coming in and reinforcing fundamentals is the best way to teach law enforcement.
I don't get into the mindset of the physical breathing routines and things like that when it comes to this type of training. Not that I wouldn't with more advanced training, but for me to get the bang for the buck with the limited amount of time I have with the officers, I need to focus on building a strong foundation. And then they can continue the lessons on top of that as they go forward.
I'm critical of law enforcement, but I'm protective of police officers. They're doing their job to the best of their ability, 99.9% of the time. We need to support them better.
What I think we're seeing now in the active shooter training that's out there is we're taking officers with no fundamental skills or foundation and we're teaching them varsity-level maneuvers that they don't understand or know why they're doing what they're doing.
It’s like, you don't know how to drive, but here's a sports car, go ahead. Well, it doesn't work that way. Let's learn the brake, the gas, the steering wheel, and all that first.
So to me, that's my biggest focal point on this training.
What are some of those foundational things that you go through?
Well, on the tactical side, weapons manipulation, how to actually shoot your gun properly, how to maintain your weapons, how to enter a room when you think there might be somebody with a gun on other side, how to read doorways, body position, knowing what your partner's going to do at any given time.
It's things that we take for granted in our community because we do it so much, but law enforcement doesn't necessarily train it outside of SWAT teams. And like I said before, SWAT teams aren't responding to these critical incidents, usually it's patrol officers. It's crazy.
And there are stories of traffic stops where all of a sudden a passenger inside the car pulls out a machine gun. If you’re in law enforcement and you take your eyes off the prize for a moment, or you're responding to a domestic disturbance that escalates, you can find yourself in the middle of an officer ambush like we mentioned in the intro. So many of these things can happen out of left field.
Well, situational awareness is huge, right? It happens to us. If you get too comfortable doing the same thing over and over, your situational awareness fails you. Usually that's when bad things happen.
So an officer who does their job repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly for years, and often a big part of their job isn't glamorous, it's difficult – traffic patrol or responding to a domestic or these things where you become complacent – that's where you do not want to be. So I go back to mindset, teaching mindset, avoiding complacency, avoiding a lack of situational awareness and solving problems in a systematic way every time you do it.
And that's not something I can come in and teach in a week. That's a cultural change that needs to happen in law enforcement. So I advocate for change as much as I try to teach it.
Is everyone receptive that you're working with these departments or is there ever any pushback? I know it can be tough at times when you’re working with a bureaucracy.
It’s been overwhelmingly supportive.
It’s hard to argue with your resume as well! You're coming in to help with the best of intentions and great experience.
Exactly. Hey, you're going to get this for free. Nobody gets this for free and you're getting it for free as a patrol officer.
Typically SWAT teams are paying a lot of money to bring someone with my resume in to come teach them tactics. And you, as a patrol officer, are getting it? And SWAT teams around the country are like, wait a second, why are they getting it!?
I have had some people at the senior level question me coming in, questioning my motives for coming in, but never questioning my skill level or expertise. And what I'll often do is I'll come in and observe training for a day or two without being part of the training and sit down with those people afterwards and say, “Hey, here's what I see and here's how I would fix it.”
I don't care what side of the political aisle you're on, community safety is everybody's problem. Let's fix it together.
Because at the end of the day, I don't have time to come in and teach them a new tactic or a new curriculum. I take what they already have and I try to shape it and make it a little bit better so it's easier for them to teach it to the rest of the people that I don't have in the room.
Some people, for whatever reason, get very protective of what they teach or what they do and don't want outside people seeing it. I've only had one department flat out tell me no. And it was a very liberal state that didn't want Navy SEALs teaching cops. That was it. And they just flat out said no. I was like, well, you know it's free, right? They just didn't have the appetite for it.
That's their decision. I'll go somewhere else. And if they want me to come back, all they have to do is ask and a hundred percent I'll be there in a heartbeat. I'm apolitical. I don't care what side of the aisle you're on, community safety is everybody's problem. Let's fix it together. That's how I feel.
So it’s been overwhelming support though from everybody.
There's some other statistics from your website:
- 33 states have no requirement for deescalation of force training.
- Only 39% of agencies require conflict management training.
- Only 1% of the NYPD budget went towards training officers.
Yeah, and the NYPD has a billion dollar budget, right?
The majority of budgets in police departments go to payroll, retirement, healthcare, and whatever's left over is everything else. But that's a big budget. So that's why a lot of departments will pay overtime instead of hiring more people because they save money in the long run by paying an officer overtime than having to pay another retirement, another healthcare, whatever.
All you're doing is overworking your people and giving them less time to train, less time with their family. And you're asking them to do stuff on their off time when they just worked 78 hours a week. It's not a good system right now.
What are you doing to prevent and better manage some of those on-campus active shooter incidents?
I don't necessarily do any preemptive training. So I am response training. I am teaching people when the situation happens, here's how we can better respond to end this situation.
That being said, we have a mental health crisis in this country right now. Absolutely. And something needs to change. I don't have the answer for that. So I'm not even going to try and fix that problem. But until it gets fixed, I'm going to provide the best possible solution to that problem that I can, which is making sure the first line of defense, our law enforcement, is ready to respond.
Is there a specific individual or department you've been able to work with in the Community First Project that made everything worthwhile?
I have a huge soft spot for the Boston Police Department for many reasons. Obviously I grew up in Massachusetts, I've worked with them many times over the years within the SEAL Teams.
I was in Boston when Extortion, the helicopter that we lost, was shot down with a whole troop of our guys [of the 38 who were killed, 15 were members of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group]. The Boston Police responded to our guys. They took us in and made sure we were good to go. They got us to the airport to get us back during one of the most traumatic times of my life. Then they sent their bagpipe teams down to play at the funerals.
I dealt with a lot of loss like most people in my community, which is I went to work, worked all the time, and then I came home and I drank.
BPD, they have done so much to support the SEAL community, it's awe-inspiring. So I knew right away that that's where I wanted to start. The first big training exercise we did under the nonprofit was with them. And we had them fill out critique sheets after they were done. And man, you want to feel good about yourself, just go through and read those 50 pages of that! I can't believe we don't do this all the time. This was amazing.
A couple weeks later, I had a female officer who had gone through our training. They responded to a critical incident – they thought there was an armed suspect – and she went in and she cleared the premises with one of the other senior officers and he was like, “I couldn't believe how good she did.” And I'm like, awesome. That makes me feel really good.
Because again, we're focused on fundamentals over a short period of time. There has to be some buy-in from the officers to continue the training on their own after I'm gone. And it seems like that's happening.
Prepare, and then you perform.
For someone who feels like they're at rock bottom after something that they've gone through, how can they find the gift in that challenge or rise above the adversity they're facing in the present?
For me, it was vulnerability. Actually opening up and talking. It's something that was very counterintuitive to how I lived my entire life.
I dealt with a lot of loss like most people in my community, which is I went to work, worked all the time, and then I came home and I drank. And that's what we did. We did that for years. And it wasn't until I actually decided to open up and talk to somebody and found out that I'm not the only one feeling this way or in this position or dealing with this, that I really constructively and productively started to heal and use that as a method for motivation, rather than a reason to sit there and not perform or to drink or to keep everything inside.
On your best day, what's an affirmation that you would write on a flashcard that you could show yourself on your worst day?
You have to go get what you want. Opportunities aren't going to just come to you often. If you want something, go get it.
I like to think that's how I live my life. And when I'm not in the proactive mood, sometimes I need to remind myself that, “Hey, it's not going to get itself. You need to get out there and do it.”
What's the best way for people to support the work you're doing today?
Go to C1P.org. That's my website. It links to my social media and there's lots of ways you can support. You can donate on that site – and every bit helps. Every donation is a 501(c)(3) tax write off, and all the money goes to help law enforcement.
We are always looking for corporate sponsorship. So if you're a company that wants to prioritize community safety and want our help, then let's talk about it.
And law enforcement, if you're in law enforcement listening to this and you have questions or you need help, whether I come down and train you or we just talk about something on the phone or a video conference, then reach out to me, shoot me an email, and we'll do it.
Final question: What's one thing you do to Win the Day?
I treat every day like I’m earning my trident. I wake up every day and think, if I don't do my job, there's somebody ready to do it for me. So I'm going to perform.
Sully, thanks so much for coming on the show.
I appreciate you having me. This was great. Thank you.
IMPORTANT: If you’re a military veteran or in law enforcement and you’re struggling with mental health, reach out to Andrew Sullivan for support: firstname.lastname@example.org
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