It’s an amazing story. One that I’ve been waiting 16 years to be told, other than the dribs and drabs I’ve been producing. You see I was over there with him. My first firefight, in fact.
An Amazon.com search shows that since then about a gazillion books have been written about the SEALs. Not a joke: “Navy SEAL dogs” brings up over a thousand hits.) That along with several movies. I guess it’s the Starbucks effect — more lead to more. One such movie, 2014’s American Sniper, was ostensibly also about Task Unit Bruiser (TUB), although as I’ve written it had serious credibility problems, including putting down the rest of the unit — the most decorated SEAL team since Vietnam — to make the protagonist, Chris Kyle, appear larger than life.
But finally we have this, a truly outstanding book about a truly outstanding human being — Defend Us in Battle: The True Story of MA2 Navy SEAL Medal of Honor Recipient. It’s by the Navy SEAL Michael Monsoor’s father, George, and a family friend, Rose Rea, who has her own connections to special ops that won’t be disclosed here.
I first “met” our protagonist in May 2016. We were both there for the same reason. At that time it was the most violent city in Iraq, what the bad guys had labeled “The Graveyard of the Americans.” My own “handler,” Public Affairs Officer and Marine Maj. Megan McClung, would later die in an IED explosion. (By coincidence, her biography has also just been published.) But almost no news was coming out of the city because civilian journalists didn’t have the gumption or ability to get the stories and get out on two feet. (Turns out I had two civilian predecessors; both got sniped, though neither died.) Thus it was that on my first patrol, and having slept through the briefing the night before, I was surprised to find these men in the older, non-digital uniform absolutely armed to the teeth. I knew immediately. Paydirt for a combat journalist! “SEALs!”
To go “outside the wire” (away from base camp) in those days was to get hit, and we did. I jumped out from my protected position to see if I could get pictures. Probably not too smart. But as I glanced back I saw a SEAL aiming his 7.62 millimeter Mk 48 right in my direction. Disconcerting. Until I quickly realized he was watching over me. My heavily armed guardian angel, if you will. If a bad guy or guys jumped out to take me down, he would beat them to it. As in “I’m not aiming at you, I’m aiming with you!” I later found out his name. Michael (Mikey) Monsoor, Master-at-Arms Petty Officer 2nd Class, Task Unit Bruiser, SEAL Team Three. (I have some blurry video of it here; Monsoor was on a different rooftop so he’s not in it.)
A few days later, in actions that would lead to a Silver Star award (the third-highest in the military), Mikey dragged a wounded teammate to safety with one arm while continuing to fire his machine gun in Rambo style. That teammate later got the most impressive tattoo I have ever seen to honor the man who saved him, including an image of Mikey and the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, patron saint of Michaels and of warriors.
Fast forward to September 29. That’s the feast day of Archangel Michael. I was supposed to be back in Ramadi, but instead a SNAFU had me stuck in Kuwait, with poor McClung working desperately to bring me in. “George felt great relief to learn that Michael was so close to coming home and almost silly for having thought that he may not see his son again,” write the authors.
When I arrived, I wanted to interview some of the SEALs, but when I finally got there I was told they weren’t in the mood, having just lost one of their own. When I heard his name and saw his picture I fervently hoped I had at least one picture of him. Turns out about half my photos were of him, yet out of 19 TUB members about a dozen were present that day. When I watched my video, only his and one other name were uttered. It still makes my skin crawl. There was just something commanding about his presence. I knew it; everyone knew it.
Yes, it was Mikey.
Monsoor had been the standing observer in a parapet surrounded by the bad guys as several fellow SEALs and Iraqi allies all lay prone from where they sniped and called in enemy movements to other friendly forces. In other words, they couldn’t move.
Suddenly a hand grenade tossed from below bounced off Monsoor’s breast plate armor and rolled. Hopeless to try to toss it back. Monsoor yelled “Grenade!” and threw himself on it. Unfortunately, he did not die instantly:
[SEAL] Mike S. watched in disbelief as Michael, the only one of them who had an out to escape the blast [emphasis mine], instead, lunged forward dropping directly onto the grenade. The explosion was deafening. Blast and shrapnel smashed into Doug, Mike S., and Benny with such power that it flipped Mike S. onto his stomach and slammed Doug into the wall of the roof. Mike S. turned his head back to where the blast had come from. Michael was lying facedown. “Mikey … Mikey … Mikey!” he yelled.
Mikey moaned, but it’s unclear to what extent he was conscious. He was evacuated as quickly as possible, but it was a foregone conclusion. He was pronounced dead half an hour later. Given the severe injuries inflicted upon the other warriors notwithstanding the dampening effect of Mikey’s body, almost certainly several others would have died. Mikey, conversely, could have absorbed the shrapnel in the thick soles of his boots. Had he so chosen.
It was John 13:15 embodied: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
There can be no possible compensation for such a sacrifice. That said, Mikey not only won the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, but also — get this — had a destroyer named after him.
This book is not meant to be a constant page-turner like a graphic novel, though, yes, it has photos, including two of mine. It’s not just about what Mikey did in Ramadi but why he did it. In part, he has a strong military heritage. George was a Marine helicopter crew chief in Vietnam, which may have been the most dangerous job in the war. Mikey’s brothers, James and Joseph, were Marines, as were numerous relatives. But going special operations has its advantages. You get the best training, including airborne, the hardest peacetime challenges, and a chance to fight when there’s no major war. (Among the SEALs, that’s especially the “black ops” SEAL Team Six.)
Contrary to mythology, you can “ring the bell” in BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition Training/SEAL) training, the first and most hellish part of SEAL training, and be invited back — under very exceptional circumstances. In Mikey’s case it was because his feet had become bloody pulp. Exactly the sort of person you want to come back.
Monsoor and Rea have documented Mikey’s death, but importantly also his life. A life that in a sense would lead to that noble demise. He was a frail, asthmatic child à la Theodore Roosevelt. He was raised Catholic (for a long time I corresponded with his godmother and aunt, Patty) in all the best ways. He was a pious child who nonetheless hated bullies. And he acted on his beliefs. Patty told me she later thought this upbringing would lead to that fateful day in 2006. She said it was no sudden decision; he knew a grenade could drop in unannounced and knew what he would do.
He was taught that being good was more important than being happy. That said, he grew up a happy child and was apparently TUB’s chief joker. During one firefight, a TUB superior berated him for taking pictures instead of shooting. He snapped a grin. “I was Winchester!” (Ran out of ammo; probably 1,200 rounds.)
Nor is this a pro-war book. When some ignorant civilian asked me if war wasn’t glorious I snapped, “It’s you trying desperately to kill the guy on the other side without being killed while he is trying to do the same. I see nothing glorious in that.” It’s also frankly absurd. One reason we won in Ramadi, which I think determined the outcome of the war more than the famous “surge,” was we had Special Forces Capt. Travis Patriquin. Patriquin, something of a T.E. Lawrence, spoke fluent Arabic and negotiated a deal to bring Sunni tribesmen from the other side over to ours. Quite literally, the people shooting at us one day were shooting alongside us the next. (The same IED killed Patriquin that killed McClung and Specialist Vincent Pomante III. They may have been targeted, or it could have been coincidence.)
George and Rea are more poetic than me:
The vast majority of people do not understand the mindset of those who say they desire to go to war. Those who express that desire do not actually know themselves if they do until they are there. Of those, even fewer have a desire to ever return. War is not some glorious thing that creates heroes and legends. It is a grotesque example of what human beings will do to each other in the absence of civility.
But absurd or no, we need tough people to fix the problems we create. Soon the call came to TUB. Regardless of the sagacity of attempting to nation build in a country that had been cobbled together by foreign powers and kept together only through sheer brutality, America invaded and gained an easy conventional victory. Which soon became a vicious insurrection. After the Second Battle of Fallujah, the rats in western al Anbar province just scurried on down the river to Ramadi. There would not be a similar knock-down, drag-out fight this time like the one the Marines and Army waged in Fallujah. The population had decided to not conveniently leave. The rules of engagement practically forbade close air support or heavy weapons. It was essentially a small-arms war and even the only mortars I ever heard were incoming. Lots of ’em.
“Insurgents controlled over two-thirds of the city itself, and certain areas were nearly impenetrable to the United States and Iraqi Security Forces,” write the authors. The allied forces were overwhelmingly conventional (The unit with which I was based, Red Currahee, comprised mostly soldiers from the 101st Airborne, which actually isn’t airborne anymore but I would still consider “elite”) special ops like TUB were brought in as part of a “three-step process (Find, Fix, Finish) that involves finding the enemy, getting a fix on their physical location, and then sending a special operations unit to finish the target by capturing or killing the enemy there.”
At times the book is riveting war reporting: “Michael’s 48 continued to eat away at the enemy positions. An indistinct yell came from the right. Michael turned to see one of the enemy insurgents try to cross the street toward the SEALs’ position. He sent a burst, and the enemy fighter fell against the hot pavement, motionless.”
A quibble. The authors write that TUB “continued to talk of family and home along with the recent firefight that claimed the life of Marc Lee and left Ryan Job permanently blinded.” And that’s just about all there is. These men deserve more space. Marc Alan Lee was the first TUB warrior to die, shot in the mouth. It was he whom the American Sniper movie dissed by making him look weak. It depicted his real-life mother, Debbie, reading in real tears part of what was actually an incredibly thoughtful last letter home. Then it switches to Kyle’s character telling his wife that that letter was what killed him. One TUB member told me that that scene made a bunch of them want to feed their knuckles into director Clint Eastwood’s mouth.)
(I proudly presented Debbie Lee with apparently the only combat photo taken of him; just his back and side back marked “ML,” but she was delighted to have it.)
Job was blinded when an enemy round splintered the butt of his machine gun and sent shrapnel into his eyes and brain. Despite mountain climbing with his new wife while blind, he later died in the States during corrective surgery.
In 2008 I was one of the invitees at the Medal of Honor Ceremony. I stood next to Job without, at that time, knowing his background.
I watched President George W. Bush read the citation with tears rolling down his cheeks as he presented the award to Mikey’s parents, George and Sally, who themselves were clearly shaken. You can see the presentation here; be prepared for your own tears. Here’s the official citation.
While Medals of Honor are rare enough, getting a warship named after you as an enlisted warrior (Mikey’s rank was equivalent to a sergeant) is another thing, though not unprecedented. Yet three years ago the Navy commissioned a Zumwalt-class destroyer named the USS Michael Monsoor. The world’s largest destroyer, it’s a multi-mission stealth weapon designed for troop support. (George invited me, but war injuries kept me from going.) It’s all the more of an honor given that there will only be three such ships, one named of course for former chief of naval operations himself and one for President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Heady company for any enlisted man! Except that, of course, Mikey wasn’t just any enlisted man.
As I write this I’m recovering from my 10th war-related surgery. This one is particularly bad both physically (cut through two different nerves that are both motor and sensory) and psychologically because a leg is out of order, which puts one hand out of order (to steady yourself) and for other reasons. I’m reminded of what I’m often asked: “Was going over there worth it?” It’s totally rhetorical, of course. I can’t take it back. But I can say I will never have had an honor greater than spending my first firefight with Mikey Monsoor and his teammates. Even though, yes, that is a wound that will never heal. And should not.
But I know this, too. Heroes may be fewer and farther between than in our past. Yet still they exist.