On a cloudless afternoon in March, 7,500 feet over the stone canyons northeast of San Diego, Brandon Webb pulls back the stick of his Yak 52 fighter plane and soars into an inverted loop. Flying at 150 miles per hour, the Soviet-era aircraft rumbles like an 18-wheeler as its engine digs in, shaking the cockpit and flipping it upside down. Webb — a 40-year-old former Navy SEAL — hangs suspended, looking up through the curved cockpit hatch at El Capitan reservoir thousands of feet below. Suddenly, four G's of force plaster Webb into his seat, draining the blood from his head, as the plane rights itself. It's a stomach-tossing, eyeballs-pressed-to-the-cranium experience, but Webb continues to chat as if he's on a Sunday drive. "This is my adrenaline fix, my release," he says over the headset. "It's funny: I own two planes, but I don't have a car."
Webb is flying as part of Bonesfest, a private four-day gathering of soldiers, pilots, and entrepreneurs who love dogfighting — the looping, rolling style of aerial combat invented during World War I. It's like summer camp for thrill seekers. Wealthy ones. Flying today are a Silicon Valley mogul, a Google drone designer, a Virgin Galactic spaceship pilot, a biotech CEO, and a Hollywood director. This is only Webb's third year with the group, and he's volunteered to supply the barbecue, scotch, and Nicaraguan cigars while earning his flight hours. "Fighter pilots and special operations forces guys have the same DNA," he says after landing the plane and taxiing to his personal hangar — an epic man cave with a bed, a shower, a stocked bar, six surfboards, scuba tanks, framed photos from his two combat deployments, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a giant American flag. "You have to be smart, highly driven, and able to get along with people — these are my kinds of guys."
(Riding upside-down with Webb in his Yak 52 fighter. Photograph by Joe Pugliese)
Over the past decade, the once-secretive Navy SEALS have shed their code of silence, spinning combat exploits into bestselling memoirs, blockbuster war movies, and websites, and amid all the attention stands Webb, who is profiting more from these floodgates opening than anyone else. A SEAL for 10 years who did a stint as a sniper instructor — he and his team trained both Lone Survivor author Marcus Luttrell and American Sniper author Chris Kyle — Webb is the founder of Force12 Media, a network of military-themed websites with Hollywood deals and a publishing imprint. His flagship site, sofrep (Special Operations Forces Situation Report), hires former SEALs, Green Berets, and Army Rangers to write about the U.S.'s clandestine wars around the globe. "Brandon built a cool space for special operations that has all the intangibles of 'been there, done that,' " says Ward Carroll, editor in chief of military site We Are the Mighty. "He's established himself as the voice of reason with mainstream media." The pay site gets more than a million visits a month and can range from breaking news — they were first to report the death of Chris Kyle — to dispatches from Syria and op-eds that criticize Special Operations Command (socom) mismanagement. "Mainstream news covers war and gets everything wrong," Webb says. "I'd rather learn what's happening from soldiers with combat experience. It's like a former NFL player giving play-by-play. We bring the expert commentary."
Webb believes writing can help soldiers open up and better readjust to civilian life, but he hates memoirs that encourage "hero worship of the SEALs." In his books, he refuses to give a number to his own kills as a sniper and doesn't go into much detail about them. "The last thing we need is another shoot-'em-up book." He makes his living discussing the SEALs but criticizes teammates who squabble in the media over who shot bin Laden, and he acknowledges that a large number of teammates will never approve of his business. "There's a lot of SEALs who hate me and claim I've broken our code of silence."
Webb parks his plane and cracks a beer. Standing 5 feet 10 inches, with black hair, square-jawed stubble, and a stocky build, he doesn't look like a Hollywood version of a SEAL. But start talking with him and you get a glimpse of the steely inner warrior. During conversation, his face remains completely relaxed, his unblinking eyes trained directly on yours, betraying no emotion. The intense attention can be unsettling, but then Webb cracks a thin smile and breaks into a laugh. "Right now the SEALs are having their moment," he says, sitting on a futon in his hangar, "and I intend to ride this wave as far as I can."
(Webb, 14, with a 10-pound lobster off San Nicolas Island. Courtesy Brandon Webb)
In the wake of this year's $350 million blockbuster American Sniper, Webb's success is breaking mainstream. Force12 Media now oversees 10 sites, from Transition Hero, a job-networking site for vets, to the Duffel Blog, an Onion-like satirical site about soldier life. Webb's new memoir, Among Heroes, out this month, details the lives of eight SEAL friends who died; he's recently begun working on a SEAL television pilot produced with Mark Harmon for a major network and just launched a sofrep book imprint with St. Martin's Press. (Its latest sniper memoir, The Reaper, which recently hit the New York Times bestseller list, was bought for $3 million, and is currently being made into an NBC series.) Last year, Scout Media — a company funded in part by Bob Pittman, one of the founders of MTV and a longtime media entrepreneur — offered Webb a deal worth $15 million for Force12. "Marketers want to reach the military audience and millennials who grew up playing video games like Call of Duty," says Ben Madden, a former executive at Scout Media who now works for Force12. "Kids used to idolize athletes, but now they see these special operators as superhuman guys. It's huge business." Webb rejected their offer. "I thought about it but then decided I should hold out," he says, lighting a cigar as the sun sets over the jagged Sierra Nevadas. "It wasn't fuck-you money, and besides, I'm having way too much fun steering this pirate's ship on my own."
A recent Facebook post from Webb: "My last 30 hours: 0400 Uber to JFK, 0600 nonstop to LAX, CBS studios, lunch with Mark Harmon (great guy), kids call, CNN call, dinner with friends and agent Valarie, friend Sally drops me at LAX, miss flight, standby for 1130 to JFK, coach seat secured, flt crew upgrades me to 1st class sleeper, 0730 land, 0830 NYAC swim 2,000 meters. Start my Saturday."
No matter his schedule, Webb always makes time for an early workout. On a snowy morning in Manhattan in January, he pulls himself out of a five-lane, 25-meter indoor pool in the New York Athletic Club — a two-story, white-tiled space in the 150-year-old private club on Central Park South. In addition to his private hangar in San Diego, Webb has a ski chalet in Lake Tahoe, a beachside condo in Puerto Rico, and an apartment in Midtown Manhattan. "An office is kind of pointless," he says, shrugging. "All I need is WiFi to run my business." Webb was offered a membership at the NYAC after he gave a reading of his 2012 sniper memoir, The Red Circle, to 50 of the elite club's members. "Guys were intrigued," a club member tells me. "It's like talking with Jason Bourne. They wanted to see how they stacked up against him."
Wearing a Speedo and blue-tinted goggles, Webb drops to the tile floor and bangs out 20 textbook pushups — straight back, full arm extensions. Webb prefers working out with others — "It makes you push yourself harder" — and this morning he's flanked by two other members, a lean elevator company CEO, and a barrel-chested TV-show chef. The three men are in the midst of a nonstop hour-long session: 10 reps of 100-meter laps, each punctuated by 20 pushups. The chef raises himself off the floor and pauses a moment, catching his breath. "I can still taste last night's bourbon," he mutters. "Hey, Brandon, there's girls and beer waiting at the end of this, right?" Webb grins and walks back to the pool. "Starting your day like this gives you a competitive edge," he says, before diving back into the water. "Everything afterward seems easy."
The same could be said for Webb's upbringing. Born in 1974, he and his younger sister Maryke were raised in British Columbia, on a remote cattle ranch without running water or electricity. Webb's father, Jack, had met his mother, Lynn Merriam, while working as a landscaper in Los Angeles. A year later they married, moved to the ranch to start their own construction business, and had Webb. "We lived way out in the woods with wolves, coyotes, and bears," Merriam says. "I was washing Brandon's diapers in the lake."
By the time Webb was 13, the family lived in a large house across the border, in Everett, Washington, when the construction business took a dive. "We were building a big project for someone, they pulled out, and we were left holding the bag," Merriam says. "We lost everything." So the family moved into their 47-foot Agio sailboat and became gypsies, moving to a harbor in Ventura, California. Webb began working part-time on the Peace, a 70-foot charter dive-and-spearfishing vessel with a hot tub on its deck, captained by a middle-aged divorcé named Bill Magee. "Bill was kind of like a seafaring Hugh Hefner," Webb says. "You'd walk to the boat, and he's got his superhot stripper girlfriend in the hot tub half-naked while he's winking at me and drinking a gin and tonic." Magee took weekend fishermen out to sea in pursuit of lobster, tuna, and yellowtail while blaring the theme to Rawhide. "I learned how to captain a boat, scuba dive, drink, and play poker," Webb says. "Older women were hitting on me — it was crazy."
When Webb turned 16, his parents uprooted the family again to realize a long-held dream — sailing to start a new life in New Zealand. But after pushing off from shore in Ventura, things unraveled fast. The kids resented being pulled from their friends, and Webb fought with his father over control of the ship. "I had a lot more boating experience, had a problem with following rules, and it drove me nuts when somebody wasn't doing something the right way," Webb says. "My dad was like, 'You're under my roof — I don't care what you say.' " In Tahiti, after 30 days at sea, Webb and his father argued over an accident with the anchor — and finally came to blows. "Jack was really mad and had Brandon's back up against the boat's stairway," Merriam says, "and I remember thinking, 'Brandon can take his dad.' " Webb says the loss of the family business and his own coming of age rattled his father. "I couldn't wait to get off that boat." So he did. Webb's parents found passage for him with a family sailing to Honolulu, gave him money for a plane ticket back to Ventura, and arranged for him to live aboard the Peace while going to school. "I cried myself to sleep every night for weeks," Webb says, "and then realized, OK, I've got to rely on myself from here."
Back in Ventura, he dedicated himself to diving and spearfishing. At night, he would descend 80 feet, take off his scuba tanks, and crawl into holes to retrieve 10-pound lobsters. By day, he would free-dive 30 feet below the surface to stalk 50-pound halibut with a speargun. "You've got to have a pretty good set of balls to do that stuff," Magee says, "but he wasn't scared of it." One day a group of SEALs rented out the Peace, noticed Webb's skills in the water, and said he should enlist. "I was looking for a way out and thought the SEALs sounded badass," Webb says. "I was like, 'This is the life for me.' "
(Manning a machine gun during the U.S. ground invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 . Courtesy Brandon Webb)
At 17, he joined the Navy, eventually landing at SEAL training in 1997. Over the next couple of years, he became a SEAL; married Gretchen, a 19-year-old student at San Diego State; and, in the spring of 2000, was selected for the SEAL's elite three-month sniper course. After years of stalking game fish, Webb was a natural shot. "These Texans who had grown up shooting white-tailed deer were pissed," Webb says. " 'How is this surfer motherfucker kicking our ass in the stalking field?' "
Before dawn on September 11, 2001, Webb went surfing in San Diego. He'd just returned from his first six-month deployment in the Middle East and was on leave with Gretchen, then eight months pregnant with their first child. After a brief session in the water, Webb returned home to find his wife crying and talking on the phone with her mother. Together they watched the second World Trade Center tower fall. The next week, Webb was on his way to Afghanistan. He wouldn't meet his son until he was six months old. "We picked a name, said goodbye, and off he went," Gretchen says. "It still brings me to tears."
As part of SEAL Team Three, Webb did mostly reconnaissance — sneaking into Taliban territory, dialing in their GPS coordinates, and calling in targeted bombings. "We dropped hate on them," he says. The mission that still stands out occurred on a predawn patrol in 2002, when Webb and three other SEALs were surprised by 20 armed Al Qaeda fighters exiting a cave 500* yards from their position. Webb estimated the enemy's range, relayed the GPS coordinates, and then returned gunfire, killing two fighters.** The first set of bombs dropped but missed the cave. Webb gave new coordinates and waited, then heard an unexpected sound. "All of a sudden I heard a baby wailing," Webb says. "I just looked at the guy next to me, and we were both like, 'Motherfucker.' I'd just had a kid, and that changes things. It was heavy. That's when I was like, 'War is hell. You brought your fucking kid to this — not me. It's your fucking problem.' "
In 2003, after two combat deployments, Webb and a dozen other top SEAL snipers were tapped for a new assignment, to help modernize the SEAL Sniper Cell training course in San Diego. He and his team taught recruits to use Photoshop to clarify reconnaissance images, trained them to hunt elk in the Rocky Mountains of northeast Washington — "Stalking an animal is way more difficult than stalking a human" — and promoted a system of positive thinking created by Lanny Bassham, a former Olympic gold-medal shooter. "We had guys shoot a perfect 100 on tests," Webb says. "The first time that had ever happened."
After 10 years in the SEALs, Webb — now the father of three young children — decided to leave the military and start his own business. He took a lucrative gig doing private-contracting work in Iraq for a year and then set out to build a massive shooting range where West Coast SEALs and law enforcement could train. "A proper site didn't exist in California," Webb says. "The market was there." With $4 million raised from friends, family, and outside investors, he bought 944 acres in the desert east of San Diego to build Wind Zero, got the necessary county approvals, and was then blocked by a lawsuit from the Sierra Club over water concerns and noise issues. "I was stretched thin, and they had the money to keep us in litigation," he says. Webb was forced to walk away from the project and tell everyone they'd lost their money. At the same time, Gretchen filed for divorce. "Brandon was a good SEAL and sniper because he put all of himself into it," she says. "It's hard to come home and have that balance. We just grew apart." "This was the low point of my life," Webb says. "I said, 'Well, I can throw myself off a bridge or I can learn from it.' I decided I'm just going to fucking create a business all over again."
As a hobby, Webb had been writing fiction about sniper operations. Around the time of his divorce, he decided to take his pastime one step further and tell his own story. Webb paired with a veteran co-writer and began working on a manuscript. Released in 2012, The Red Circle is a compelling, plainly told, exhaustive account of everyday life in the SEALs and soon became a New York Times bestseller. Webb began writing for military.com, reviewing gear like dry suits, camp stoves, and knives from a SEAL perspective — and the response was huge. "I was shocked to realize there was no Web space dedicated solely to special operations forces," Webb says. "I saw an opportunity." On the side, Webb created sofrep and soon left with several of his colleagues. "Within a year of launching the site, we had a host of advertisers and were turning a profit."
The next night Webb is wearing a black T-shirt with a gold seal team three logo on the breast pocket, black cargo pants, and black sneakers as he drinks a Guinness at Wilfie & Nell, an exposed brick and $12-cocktail bar in Tribeca. While pods of 20-something guys wearing loose ties and buzzed grins chat up girls, Webb stands alone, frowning at his phone. "Working on notes for an upcoming CNN interview," he says. Next week the trial of Eddie Ray Routh — the former Marine accused of killing Chris Kyle — will begin in Texas. With American Sniper number one at the box office and Kyle's widow, Taya, preparing to walk the red carpet at the Academy Awards, the trial is dominating headlines — and TV producers, as they always do, are calling Webb. He's averaging two taped interviews a week on cable news, discussing everything from his friendship with Kyle to the crumbling VA hospitals. "I'm pretty good now but was a nervous wreck on my first interview," he says, sipping his beer. "I wore a suit. And I hate suits."
To many in the SEAL community, Webb is committing treason every time he appears on cable news. In their minds, he is breaking the group's vow of secrecy, formally adopted in 2005 as the SEAL Code: "I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions." Webb counters that top command set the precedent years ago. In 2006, to boost Navy recruitment numbers, the Department of Defense actually commissioned the book Lone Survivor — hiring a British spy novelist as the ghostwriter — and former socom admiral William McRaven worked with Hollywood producers on the film Act of Valor, which even featured real-life active-duty SEALs. "Don't just create an ambiguous rule and try to enforce it," Webb says, "when you just completed fucking Act of Valor."
(Webb, right, with SEAL Team Three in northern Afghanistan in 2002. Courtesy Brandon Webb)
Webb draws a distinction between himself and Rob O'Neill and Matt Bissonnette, the SEAL Team Six members who broke their nondisclosure agreements about killing bin Laden. The main difference, to Webb, is that he reveals only what he's allowed to reveal. Before SEALs embark on a mission, they are briefed on what must remain confidential and what can be disclosed. The SEALs in the bin Laden raid knew they were violating the law, so Webb contends that it's now fair game to criticize them in the media — but he draws a line. "There are 50 articles we could write that would make world headlines, but we're not going to dive into the internal drama of the Real Housewives of SEAL Team Six," Webb says. "We're not the TMZ of the military — we're interested in reporting on open information like foreign policy and domestic military issues." With the exception of his first memoir, The Red Circle, Webb has submitted his books to the Department of Defense for clearance before publishing. "I warned Matt against writing No Easy Day," he says. "There's stuff I've done that I know I can't talk about, but if it's my experience and it doesn't break the law, then I can write about it. Simple as that."
While taking full advantage of the current SEAL phenomenon, Webb is also wary of it. He's cautious about disclosing his whereabouts on social media. "My biggest concern is crazy people," he says. "I'm real careful doing public appearances because look at what happened to my friend Chris Kyle." Webb has had three online stalkers — "one girl in Australia got my info from friends on Facebook and started texting me 200 times a day" — doesn't ride the New York subway at rush hour ("more for terrorist attack concerns"), and is hit on by SEAL groupies. At one point he shows me a digital photo of an attractive young brunette licking a serrated steel knife. "They're fucking nuts, man," he says. "You've, uh, got to be careful."
Since his divorce, Webb has had a string of relationships. "A single guy in New York," he says, "I was a train wreck." As a SEAL sniper, Webb learned to compartmentalize his emotions. Reversing that has been difficult. "War changed me," Webb says. "I returned home and felt a lack of interest to invest in people." Of the eight SEAL friends who died in combat in Among Heroes, Webb attended only one of their funerals. "I got judged for it, but there was a period where I would have been attending a funeral every other month," he says. "I had a young family and was running the sniper program and decided to put off the loss," he says of his new memoir. "This book was my way of dealing with it."
Webb is now working to open himself up. He sees a therapist when needed, has a new girlfriend — a 24-year-old medical student — and remains close with his three young children, who live in the Pacific Northwest. "He's a good dad," says Gretchen. "They FaceTime every night, and he flies in to take them on adventures. The kids love that he's quote-unquote famous."
(With Chris Kyle at a shooting range in Las Vegas in 2013. Courtesy Brandon Webb)
Webb was raised by bands of men for whom lore and unfiltered honesty are part of the culture, and he sees Force12 as building on that tradition. After helping several friends get book deals with his publisher St. Martin's Press, Webb negotiated for his own sofrep book imprint and is now set to release six military memoirs a year. (The four books he's already helped to publication have all been New York Times bestsellers.) Soldiers are lining up to tell their stories. And while Webb will get a cut, he's also negotiated for the veterans to receive a 5 percent larger share of the royalties than in typical contracts and has donated more than $1 million to the families of fallen veterans through his Force12 sites and nonprofit Red Circle Foundation. "The SEALs were an open, candid community where we skipped the bullshit," he says. "Writing is my way to deal with grief, and I want to help other guys tell their stories."
Guys like Nick Irving, a 28-year-old Army Ranger sniper who killed 33 men in a four-month stretch in Afghanistan. "For a couple of years after returning home, I had PTSD-like symptoms," Irving says. "I'd wake up every day, drink a six-pack, a pint of Jack Daniel's, and then finish it off with another six-pack. I kept thinking about my friend dying in a ravine, blood spurting 20 feet from his small artery as he screamed for his mom." After reading Webb's books, Irving showed up broke at one of his signings. "I told him I had a story I wanted published," Irving says. "A week later I had a book deal. I had five deployments' worth of emotions and was like, 'Dude, I'm going to break if I don't talk about it.' " Irving's memoir, The Reaper, became an instant bestseller. "Brandon has been my mentor every step of the way. At the beginning he told me, 'Same fight, same team.' "
Webb finishes his Guinness. He checks his smartphone, writes a quick tweet about a recent podcast interview with Green Beret mixed martial arts fighter Tim Kennedy — "social media, gotta feed the beast" — and walks out to hail a cab. Tomorrow there's a meeting with Heineken for an ad campaign, final edits for his series trailer, and Wicked musical tickets to buy for his daughter, who is coming to visit in a few weeks. President Obama has recently announced a slowdown in U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. With endless war in sight, business is looking good. "Dawn swim, if you're interested," Webb says, dropping into the waiting cab and disappearing into the night.
*The story previously read "50 yards," but the distance to the enemy fighters was 500 yards away.
**This passage has been changed to reflect the fact that Webb did not personally call in the GPS coordinates of the fighters.