I am not a military man. Not even close. I fully support our nations’ military personnel and veterans because I could never do what they do in a million years. I lack the discipline, the courage, and all-around necessary demeanor. I have nothing but admiration for the men and women in our armed services, and I know I could never even walk an inch in their shoes. And yet somehow, I was going to be taking part in an “Extreme SEAL Experience”.
A couple weeks ago, Universal Home Entertainment sent me to Virginia for the DVD/Blu-ray release of Peter Berg‘s Lone Survivor (click here to buy it). During my trip, I got to participate in very light versions of SEAL training as well as speak with Berg and Lone Survivor author Marcus Luttrell. Hit the jump for more.
After arriving in Washington, D.C. on May 22nd and doing a little sightseeing, I wake up bright and early on May 23rd. For someone not in the military, “bright and early” is 6:00am, and this wakeup call is a feat of strength. How am I supposed to get on a chartered bus after a good night’s sleep in a comfy hotel bed? I deserve a medal.
We then take a four-hour trip to Chesapeake, Virginia where we’ll participate in the “Extreme SEAL Experience” run by former SEAL Don Shipley. Shipley is a towering figure with a mop of gray hair, and a big, boisterous attitude. He shows us how to put on our rappelling gear, and informs us that if we don’t pass inspection, he’ll shout, “EPIC FAIL!” If you’ want to get away with shouting “EPIC FAIL!” in your daily life without incurring ridicule, become a SEAL. They can shout as many awkward catchphrases as they want because becoming a SEAL is one of the hardest things to do. The entire opening credits of Lone Survivor is dedicated to showing the brutality of SEAL training.
We’re skipping the un-fun parts of being a SEAL. We don’t have to worry about running a timed four-minute mile, swimming two miles, etc. We get to rappel down walls and fly in a helicopter and fire guns! Wheeee!
And it was a lot of fun. After finally managing to get my rappel gear on correctly (I received a couple of “EPIC FAILS” from Shipley), the other movie journalists and I headed to a training course used by Extreme SEAL Experience. There are hollowed out buildings and towers that can broaden the experience for those who sign up for the full course. For our purposes, we’ll only be rappelling down a 20-foot tower.
For reasons I no longer remember, I decide to go down first, and it’s only at the top of the tower that I realize why rappelling might be somewhat intimidating upon first glance. It means that although I’m tied to a rope and have a veteran SEAL overseeing my safety, I still have to walk backwards off of a building. Instinctively, I know walking backwards off of buildings is wrong, but once I power through that very understandable survival mechanism, I make my way down without too much trouble. In fact, I almost look badass:
The second time around its even easier as I now know the procedure for winding my way down, walking down the side of the building, and kicking off the building literally for kicks (it serves almost no purpose other than getting me down to the bottom slightly faster, and it’s not like I’m on a clock to storm the compound and save the hostages). Rappelling is a big confidence booster provided you have several safeguards clearly in place to remind you that you’re not in any real danger as long as you behave sensibly. It’s like a roller coaster except much shorter and with a sense of minor accomplishment.
We then drove to an “undisclosed location” to fire weapons and ride in a helicopter. After a detailed safety briefing from our instructor Dale, we split off into groups since the helicopter can only hold two people in addition to the pilot and the cameraman. I chose to go soaring in the helicopter before firing the guns, and our pilot Jonathan took us to a beautiful nearby lake. However, this wasn’t a simple scenic tour; Jonathan had no problem buzzing us very close to the vast forest and the lake.
I had never ridden in any kind of helicopter before. I knew they were loud which was why you needed headsets to talk. What I didn’t know is that although helicopters feel turbulence, there’s no warning. The pilot doesn’t turn on the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign, and inform you that the tiny aircraft you’re in is about to shake unexpectedly. Jonathan was so smooth at flying the chopper*, that when we would get the occasional turbulence, my insides would tense up a little bit. Riding in the helicopter was also a bit like a roller coaster except with no tracks and screaming at the top of your lungs is frowned upon. I actually found the helicopter ride to be exhilarating as long as I didn’t focus on how terrified I was.**
When I returned to terra firma, I went to go fire guns for the first time in my life. It did strike me as a bit odd that I should see countless movies featuring guns and live in a culture where guns are so prevalent, but have never fired one myself. That being said, I didn’t grow up around gun-owners, so it’s not like I had any reason to get myself down to the firing range.
For my first time firing any gun, I wouldn’t be starting off with something more common like a pistol, a rifle, or even a shotgun. No, I would be using submachine guns and machine guns. The submachine guns were a PPSh-41 with Tokarev ammo and an MP5 with 9mm ammo. As for the machine guns, we were using an M240 with 7.62mm rounds and an M249 SAW with 5.56mm ammo. I don’t know if that means anything to anyone other than our gun enthusiast readers, but I thought it was important to know what kind of hot death I was firing at metal targets.
I don’t remember much when it came to the “feel” of a gun or which one I preferred using since I was able to hit the target with all four as long as I lined up the sights. My big takeaways from using big guns were that they were louder than I expected and they soaked the air with the scent of gunpowder. I was also surprised that we had to wear safety glasses because sometimes I metal sliver can sometimes find its way into your eye. I did, however, get burned by a hot bullet casing, which qualified as my wussy injury for the trip.
My “SEAL Experience” was a lot of fun, but I was glad that when we returned to Washington, D.C. later that day, we were able to have dinner with Peter Berg and Marcus Luttrell. It was an important reminder that the reason we were even doing this activity was because of Lone Survivor, and that the movie and book were about real people who gave their lives for what they believed in and for their brothers’ in arms.
Nineteen guys were killed and Marcus was there. The emotions were very real. I met with the particular families of the soldiers and quickly realized that this wasn’t something that could faked by me or a film crew. There had to be a level of authenticity and effort made not just on my part but the actors, the editors, camera men, prop guys, stuntmen, anybody that wanted to be involved with this. Having Marcus and the family members involved made research and prep very demanding. I went to Iraq and Marcus helped me get permission to go as a journalist with a SEAL platoon which was unheard of but Marcus made sure that I was willing to do the research and made sure that the military, the guys that would allow me to do it, would let me. The fact that these men existed and really died and that their brothers, sisters and widows were around made us work a lot harder.
And now that the film is out, Luttrell is pleased by how many people it reached:
People don’t read these days, not the amount of people who watch TV or movies. I thought I was doing a good job by immortalizing my teammates by telling their story on paper, film there is just no end to it, it will be around forever. That is the most important and best thing about it.
Berg explained that there were some studio pressures to tone down the movie or that he shouldn’t expect high test screening scores, but he told us the film got record-breaking test-screening scores, and it allowed him to keep true to his vision of the movie. It’s a vision that had a deep, heartfelt, and unquestioning love for those in the military. I was only play-acting at being anything close to an armed serviceman, but Lone Survivor is a good reminder that there’s no playing around for the real guys.
Lone Survivor is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
*Side note: if you think a bunch of movie nerds would say “Get to da chopper!” more than once on this excursion, you’d be right.
**If you’re wondering why there aren’t many pictures from this part of the trip, it’s because I didn’t want to drop my phone out of the plane. This image was taken from the professional cameraman on board. Had I brought my phone on the plane, I knew it wouldn’t be coming with me off the plane. I’m clumsy like that.