A Powerful Memoir About the Untold Lives of SEALs

The quotes on the book jacket say it all. Instead of featuring praise from other writers on the jacket of his new memoir Among Heroes, Brandon Webb showcases statements from the peers he really cares about — the families of the eight fallen SEALs he pays tribute to in the book. "This is more than a collection of stories about eight SEALs who gave their lives for their country," says Jack Scott, the father of SEAL Dave Scott, in one of the blurbs. "It also shows the humanity of each of these men." While most military memoirs are devoted to gritty battlefield scenes or geopolitical wrangling, Among Heroes spotlights the everyday men who push themselves to extraordinary limits as the US's elite soldiers. It's a fascinating, moving insider account of SEALs' private lives — their backgrounds, off-duty passions, and the families who loved them. "I wanted to write a book about the amazing guys I've known and how they've affected my life," says Webb, a SEAL for 10 years who served with each of the men in Among Heroes. "I told their families, 'I'm doing this to honor the memory of your son — there's a sincere effort here to do this and do it right.'"

A book about eight fallen SEALs might seem a depressing read. But Webb interjects his own story with those of the men, focusing on the uplifting impact they had on his life while spotlighting their bravery, humor and interesting backgrounds. Webb profiles SEALs like Dave Scott, a long-haired, earring-wearing computer prodigy who writes a graduate-school thesis about the dangers of Osama bin Laden — a full seven years before the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks; Mike Bearden, a 6'4" high-school quarterback who chases down a thief during a school trip to Scotland and then joins the SEALs, winning a superhuman 14-mile run through the Salton Sea desert; Matt Axelson, a humble, handsome sniper who loves racing his '69 Corvette, finishes at the top of his SEAL class, and is in one of the SEALs' most historic (and tragic) missions; and Glen Doherty, a former competitive skier who travels with the Grateful Dead and works as a whitewater-rafting guide before becoming a SEAL and fighting heroically in Benghazi. "With rare exceptions, Hollywood typically casts Spec Ops guys as macho, swaggering strongmen," Webb writes. "As usual, Hollywood's got it wrong. If I had to identify the one skill set shared by most by the men who become part of the SEAL teams… it would be sheer brainpower."

While recounting their lives, Webb also shows the real cost of his comrades' deaths — the lasting effects on their friends and loved ones. Scott died BASE jumping while stationed in Guam in 2002. Immediately after the funeral, his wife Kat — also in the Navy — passed over a desk job ("she knew that would be depressing and miserable") and returned to her warship cruiser to launch missiles into Baghdad from the Gulf. In 2000, Bearden died during a parachuting mishap in SEAL training (a tragically periodic occurrence within the rigorous SEAL schools, as demonstrated by another parachute training death last March.) At his funeral, Bearden's young son asked a SEAL where his father went, prompting the SEAL to later tell Webb "[answering the boy] was the hardest thing he'd ever done." In 2005, Axelson was killed in Afghanistan as part of Operation Red Wings — the mission made famous in Lone Survivor. His mother still holds a yearly event at a bronze statue commemorating her son in Cupertino. In 2012, Doherty died during the attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi, where he had rushed from Tripoli to help protect the workers before being killed on the roof by a mortar rocket. For his memorial, hundreds of friends, family and SEALs gathered on the beach in Encinitas and paddled out on surfboards to set flower leis adrift in his memory. "We've mourned their deaths," Webb writes of his friends. "Let's celebrate their lives."

Webb creates a powerful tribute to his friends by painting the SEALs as they were — complicated human beings —and his own story throughout is just as compelling. Echoing some of the anecdotes from his past memoir The Red Circle, Webb recounts how each of the men impacted his life through BUD/S, SEAL Team Three, and creating the sniper school. But the most telling detail is the story of the book's genesis. "Over the years, a lot of my teammates would die, but I wouldn't go to their funerals," Webb writes. "It would be more than a decade before I would finally break down and attend a memorial service myself." Webb didn't attend any of the SEALs' funerals until the death of his close friend Doherty in 2012. "I got judged for it," Webb says, "but at the time I had a young family and work and wanted to compartmentalize the loss. At one point, I would have been attending a funeral every other month." In 2012, Webb was working on a different book when he got the news about Doherty's death. "I called my agent and said 'I can't finish this book right now; I need to write about these guys.'" Webb visited the SEALs' families, talking with them to paint portraits of the men whose funerals he had missed. "I wasn't at a place in my life to write this until now," Webb says. "But I always knew I'd address the loss of my friends and that became the inspiration for Among Heroes."

Webb has found his mark. "After I wrote The Red Circle, the widow of John Zinn called to say she'd never heard the story about us doing a Dukes of Hazzard routine in a military vehicle in the deserts at Niland," Webb says. "She was like, 'I cut this out and saved it and put it in the girls' memory book for their dad.'" Webb smiles. "A friend who just read Among Heroes said it made her laugh, cry and reach out to tell a friend she valued her friendship," he says. "To me, that's mission accomplished."