A New Series Reveals the Full, Untold Story of the Navy SEALs

A team of US Navy Seals circles the U.S. Embassy compound February 28, 1991 in Kuwait City. Credit: Christophe Simon / AFP / Getty Images

To say that the Navy SEALS are an elite unit is like saying Rhodes Scholars are pretty good students. It takes a rare kind of constitution to have the strength, tactical acumen and willpower to be a SEAL; since the origins of the special ops force during World War II, there have been just 17,000 members.

"You're more likely to know a professional football player than a Navy SEAL," says Rick Kaiser, a three-decade member of the SEAL team who is now the executive director of the Navy SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida.

Kaiser is one of several former SEALs who help explain the history of the force in Navy SEALs: Their Untold Story, a thorough new PBS documentary that premieres on Veterans Day. From the demolition units that blew up the Nazis' massive, solid steel obstacles in the surf on Omaha Beach, enabling the crucial World War II landing at Normandy, to recent successes such as the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips' pirated freighter ship and the dramatic takedown of Osama bin Laden, the Navy's special operations force has been one of the American military's most high-impact — if least understood — units.

Kaiser says that his prominent role in the documentary required more than a little soul-searching after devoting his life to the typically tight-lipped SEALs. "It is a fine line," Kaiser says. As museum director, "it's my job to promote the history and the heritage. On the other hand, I want to keep us safe and in the shadows." The job, which he assumed in 2012, is "way out of my box," he says.

The museum's location represents the site of Draper Kauffman's original demolition training unit during World War II, where the future Rear Admiral instituted the intensive training that would inspire the term "Hell Week." "It created this camaraderie that is not the same in any other unit," says Kaiser.

The SEALs take their name from their duty as the Navy's Sea, Air, Land teams. Dick Couch, a platoon leader during the Vietnam War, says he wanted to be a frogman ever since his landlocked boyhood in Indiana, when he built his first aqualung so he could dive the waters of the nearby quarries.

"Had my eyes been better, I might have taken to aviation like a lot of my friends did," he says. A novelist and non-fiction writer who joined the CIA after military duty, Couch is the co-author, with historian William Doyle, of the companion book to the PBS documentary. Though the book is full of fresh detail, "no real tactics or procedures are revealed," he says. "There were a couple things related to special missions units that everyone knows about, but the Department of Defense didn't want us talking about them, so we didn't. I think we all know what we can and can't say."

Like Kaiser, Couch acknowledges the occasional controversies that are part of the SEALs' past, including resentment from other disciplines and criminal episodes involving former members. "We were maybe arrogant in places," says the author. "We were doing such a different job. We could take a few liberties on duty." That might have encouraged the "Who do these guys think they are?" reaction the SEALs sometimes drew, he says.

"For the most part, today's SEALs understand they are military professionals, and they have a role to play in the spectrum of warfare. Maybe we weren't always the best citizens when we weren't out in the field. I'm happy to see that seems not to be the case today."