I could see his weapon’s barrel. Then I saw his back and head and right arm. I took a breath and closed my eyes. All the training at sniper school and all those rounds I had fired over the years kicked in.
This November 11, while many honor those in uniform, the Shea family is still figuring out exactly what to do. You see, after 25 years, it will be only the second Veterans Day their veteran is actually home. Up until last fall, Navy SEAL sniper Thom Shea spent his autumn days strapped into protective body armor, an MK17 assault rifle on one side and an MK13 sniper rifle on the other, fighting in some sand-blasted hellhole only God and the enemy knew existed. “Yeah, Veterans Day is not a big day to me,” the recently retired senior chief special warfare operator admits. “I’m a veteran all the time. We celebrate being alive all the time.”
Thom’s wife and kids are learning to create new traditions with their Silver and Bronze star recipient. This Veterans Day, they’ll light a fire at their Simpsonville home and pass around a flag carrying names like Lawyer, Nike, Snowman, and Texas. “It’s a flag my whole platoon signed. The family will talk about old times, all the times we’ve spent laughing, and what it was like for them not to have daddy around. I’m 47 years old, and my entire career I’ve never been home in November. I missed it all,” says Shea.
I opened my eye to look at the wind. I could see it moving from left to right at about three miles per hour. The mirage was kicking. I closed my eyes and took another breath. With them still closed, I released the safety.
EXECUTIVE DECISIONS // Thom Shea, a retired Navy SEAL who honed his will and mindset over a 23-year career and over 250 special operations, now brings his expertise to the corporate world with Adamantine Alliance and his book Unbreakable: A Navy SEAL’s Way of Life.
Each fall was filled with training, or war—three to be exact. The lethal fighter describes each, saying, “Kosovo was secret, clandestine, stay hidden and report on the stuff going on. Iraq was a lot of nighttime-only missions that were not as combat-intensive. Afghanistan was when the gloves came off and you could stay out there a week, or six hours. You never really knew when it was going to end.”
Shea’s 2009 foray to that Middle Eastern war zone is the pinnacle of a 23-year-career, filled with distinguished valor and combat action medals. The self-described “high-energy predator” logged more than 250 SEAL missions, ran the famed SEAL sniper course, and is credited with 65 enemy KIAs. Back in spring of ’09, when the chief learned his SEAL Team was not going to the Philippines as planned, but Afghanistan instead, he called fellow student and friend Chris Kyle, of American Sniper, for intel. Thom’s team would be one of the first to fight in Afghanistan, and Kyle had similar experience. “It was really clear to me this was a very, very dangerous deployment. I’d been in combat many times before, but we’d been asked to go into Afghanistan because it had gotten out of control,” says Shea.
Suddenly I thought of my kids and my wife, and I thought of that connection, far away, so far away, when I was not this man covered in dust, bullets flying everywhere, my men fighting for their own lives.
The Sheas don’t simply believe there’s a good woman behind every good man. They’re a living example of a Spartan wife behind every Spartan warrior. “Military spouses are immensely capable. They have to manage everything,” explains Stacy, Thom’s wife of ten years. “You have to be fiercely independent when they’re gone, and immediately surrender that independence to connect with your husband for the precious days or moments he’s there, so there’s not a power struggle.”
Stacy and Thom were three kids and four years into marriage when he prepared to deploy to Afghanistan. The day before he left, the Spartan Wife asked her adrenaline-infused fighter to write a guidebook for the children. She recalls, “I knew how dangerous it was going to be. This is no game. I told him, if you don’t make it home, I don’t know what I’ll tell the kids about what kind of man you are. Write a lesson that can come only from a child’s father.”
So in-country, when not straddling land mines and avoiding rocket-propelled grenaedes, the guy who flunked out of West Point because of English, wrote home. He composed long, purposeful emails filled with memories and specific instructions on how to become unbreakable. He outlined arduous tasks to build a body and mind capable of success. Across six months in hell, the man called “Ridge Boss” found his voice. In the end, for his kids, he sent home 13 pointed lessons, and he ushered home every single member of SEAL Team Seven, Task Unit Trident, Bravo Platoon. All 22. Alive.
I am a sniper. I smiled because I knew I was up against a worthy shooter. I said, “Do your best (expletive). Try to kill me, because here it comes, buddy.” I slid the last inch forward, where I would be exposed for a split second, then squeezed.
Thom’s past two years of civilian life have passed as quickly as his last four in the Navy, when he ran the West Coast SEAL Sniper Program and designed new weaponry. In late 2013, after considering other locations, the Sheas settled in Greenville. During the transition of camouflage to dress suits, the highly-skilled seaman’s instructions to his children have become a book: Unbreakable: A Navy SEAL’s Way of Life.
With a friend’s encouragement, the Sheas self-published Unbreakable. Response was undeniable. Readers demanded more, so the Sheas created Adamantine Alliance, which uses Unbreakable’s directives to push everyone, from athletes to venture capitalists, to their highest performance levels through personal coaching and motivational speeches. While outlining tasks to grow as an individual and leader, the book is also a love story, teaching spouses how to support each other on the most intimate levels. “I had to edit some of it out,” chuckles Stacy. “It is a vulnerable look into our lives. If we get even one or two to reach out and connect, then it’s worth it. We get emails from people who’ve changed the way they deal with their parents and business partners, and how they make unbreakable bonds.”
Thom calls that the “upside surprise.” He was simply trying to show his kids how to harness a positive “internal dialogue” should he die at war. “I made a life out of not giving up,”
he shares. “I failed four times before becoming a SEAL. Four separate times. Anything worth doing, you can’t just do one time. You have to keep doing it. It’s okay that things don’t work the first time, try it again, try it again. It’s like a mantra for me.” More people are sure to learn that mantra now that a national publisher is re-releasing Unbreakable. Hollywood is also reviewing the book for a possible movie.
Time froze. Then I saw blood splash the rock behind his head…Irolled…andIheardasmackontheground. I looked where I had lain to take the shot and saw a round embedded in the dirt, right where my head had been. He’d had me dead to rights, but he’d been too slow.
As you fly your flag this Veterans Day, think of Thom’s platoon flag, filled with names of those who risked their lives protecting ours. “If you see someone in uniform, just acknowledge them, say thank you, and let them say thank you,” advises the retired senior chief. His Spartan Wife adds more, saying, “I wish all Americans would do is live a life that’s worthy of the sacrifice of the people who put themselves in harm’s way to make it. And they do it without flinching.” The warrior closes by encouraging all to use the unbreakable mindset that’s helped him escape the devil’s crosshairs time and again. “Ask yourself what would your life be like if you learned not to quit. Then go and do it!”
I smiled, bent down, and twisted the bullet out of the ground, then dropped it in my pocket. I recall thinking it would make a great necklace for Stacy.
Excerpts are from Unbreakable: A Navy SEAL’s Way of Life by retired senior chief SEAL Thom Shea, now available at bookstores and online. Join the Sheas on Friday, November 20, 5:30–9 p.m., at the Poinsett Club for cocktails and dinner to celebrate the re-release of the book by a national publisher. Thom will also give a keynote talk at the event. Tickets are available at eventbrite.com. To learn more about Shea’s work, visit adamantinealliance.com.