Sunday, May 13, 2012

FEARLESS, by Eric Blehm (Waterbook Press, May 2012). Reviewed by Henry Mark Holzer


As I write these words today, and later when they’re read by others, it’s certain that in far-flung places around the world United States Navy SEALs are in the field.  As we plant flowers, go to work, play with our children, drive to the nearby mall, welcome a newborn to the family, American warriors are swimming ashore, jumping from airplanes, interrogating hostile prisoners, rescuing terrorists’ American hostages, engaging enemies in deadly firefights and obtaining intelligence crucial to our national security.  

You can be sure that in rugged mountain areas, insect-ridden swamps, unforgiving endless deserts, triple-canopy jungles, and pirate-infested waters, SEALs are there.  While we safely live our lives, mostly oblivious to what those men are doing to protect us, some of them die. 

Indeed, as the end-credits rolled in the recent inspiring film about SEALs, Act of Valor, I quickly counted dozens of in memoriam names of Navy warriors who have died since September 11, 2001. 

The names themselves don’t tell us anything about the dead heroes.  About their motivation to serve our country, their ability to withstand a grueling training regimen seemingly beyond psychological and physical endurance, their sometime near-superhuman courageous feats.  And, above all, about their unmitigated devotion to country and to each other.

Although the veil has been lifted somewhat on special operations— especially lately, when SEALs liberated an American captain and his crew from Somali pirates and liquidated Osama bin Laden—still, there’s a paucity of non-fiction that has successfully and seamlessly integrated the personal stories of the men with their heroic vocation.

Eric Blehm—author of the 2010 bestseller The Only Thing Worth Dying For (reviewed by me at http://henrymarkholzer.blogspot.com/2010/01/only-thing-worth-dying-for-by-eric.html)—has admirably succeeded in accomplishing that difficult structural and literary challenge in his new book, Fearless.

The author conducted extensive interviews with the actual SEALs who walked the walk  and fought the fights together with team member Adam Brown, the book’s protagonist.  Blehm interviewed Adam’s wife, Kelley, his parents, and friends from his youth.  The author had access to “official documents, statements, military records and reports, criminal records, family archives, letters, emails, and journal and diary entries.”

Within a tight, chronological structure, Eric Blehm has woven this trove into an uplifting story of a youth’s fall, a man’s redemption and, in the end, a hero’s gift to his country—all occurring in the short lifetime of “one of the most respected Special Operations warriors in the United States Navy.”  Blehm’s evocative prose—in his action scenes, on a par with the David Morrells and W.E.B. Griffins of that genre—leaves the reader with emotions of incredulity, pride, fear, sentiment, celebration, and more.

The author achieves this feat by chronicling Adam Brown’s life, from birth to his enlistment in the United States Navy vowing to become a SEAL.  As a teenager and young adult Adam was at once a loving son and brother, protector of the weak and all-around nice guy—and a crack addict.

Nearing the edge of the addiction abyss, Adam was pulled back, barely, by a combination of his own deep religious belief, a strong-willed woman later his wife, and tough-love parents.  With the help of a Navy officer who went out on a long limb, putting his own reputation on the line with a strong recommendation, Adam Brown was able to enlist in the Navy.

Blehm recounts Adam’s insatiable drive to succeed, from enlisted seaman not merely graduating to the SEALs but to a special group within that organization.  He fought extreme odds, internal and external, to join the company of Naval elite warriors.  To be at the tip of the tip of the spear.

Nothing stopped Adam Brown. Not the excruciating mental and physical demands of SEAL and post-SEAL training.  Not loss of an eye in a friendly exercise.  Nor, later, smashed and reattached fingers caused by a road accident in Afghanistan.  Nor having to shoot with his non-dominant hand, and see with only his remaining eye. No matter how far, deep, high, cold, hot, painful, or dangerous, Adam Brown pushed forward with all he had, and then some more.  And more after that.

What was supposed to be his last deployment turned out to be, according to a team mate, “a classic . . . mission . . . . High value target in a high-danger environment.  American forces had never been to the valley where [their quarry] was holed up.  The whole area was bad guys; we expected zero compliance from anybody.  We needed to get in, hit everything real hard and fast, and get out before we encountered too much resistance.  If the sun were to come up, we’d be running out of bullets because it would have been us against the entire valley.”

A six hour march through rugged terrain took the team to their objective, the safe house of a key Taliban leader, where a furious firefight ensued with grave consequences.

Thanks to Eric Blehm's fine book, Adam Brown's inspiring life story has been preserved, especially his service to America as an heroic SEAL.

Per the book's title, Adam Brown was certainly Fearless.

But for me a different legacy--indeed, epitaph--comes to mind: indomitable.