- In January 1962, President John F. Kennedy authorized the creation of SEAL Team One and SEAL Team Two.
- Since then, US Navy SEALs have fought all over the world, making their name in high-profile operations.
- While fame has helped SEALs promote themselves, the unit itself has been tarnished by their exploits.
Special-operations forces have been at the heart of US combat operations in recent years, earning a high profile and a reputation for pulling off high-risk operations.
But that hasn’t always been the case. US special operators have had to work very hard to take their place at the tip of the spear.
Among those forces, the US Navy SEALs stand out. In the 60 years since their unit was formed, the SEALs have operated all over the globe, fighting on their own or in support of other US military units.
Here’s how the SEALs have made their mark.
Frogmen and Underwater Demolition Teams
The Navy SEALs trace their origins back to the frogmen of World War II.
During the war, the US military established several special-operations units to fight Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. Notable ones that influenced the creation of the Navy SEALs are the Amphibious Scouts and Raiders, Special Mission Naval Combat Demolition Unit, and the Underwater Demolition Teams.
These units carried out special and hydrographic reconnaissance, cleared beaches, and conducted unconventional-warfare missions in support of Marine Corps and Army units during the island-hopping campaign across the Pacific.
Although Naval Special Warfare units primarily fought in the Pacific theater, mainly because of the maritime element, the predecessors of the Navy SEALs also fought in Europe.
The D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944, remain the deadliest day in the history of the Naval Special Warfare community, with 37 killed and 71 wounded in action — a 52% casualty rate.
In January 1962, with the war in Vietnam brewing, President John F. Kennedy authorized the creation of SEAL Team One and SEAL Team Two, which drew from and worked in conjunction with the existing Underwater Demolition Teams.
The two units coexisted and used the same selection and training process — the notoriously difficult Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training — until the Underwater Demolition Teams were absorbed by the SEAL Teams in the 1970s.
Since their inception, Navy SEALs have participated in almost all minor and major US military operations.
A fearsome reputation
The Navy SEALs’ most famous mission is Operation Neptune’s Spear in May 2011.
SEALs from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group — formerly known as SEAL Team 6 — flew from Afghanistan to Abbottabad, Pakistan, in the middle of the night to raid a compound believed to home to Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader and mastermind of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Another high-profile operation conducted by Navy SEALs was the rescue of Richard Phillips, the captain of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates off the coast of Somalia in April 2009.
An assault squadron from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group — the Navy special missions unit responsible for direct-action raids and counterterrorism operations — parachuted into the Indian Ocean and linked up with US warships monitoring the situation, including guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge.
The pirates had taken Phillips off the cargo ship in a lifeboat and were trying to negotiate when the Navy commander on the scene determined Phillips’ life was in danger. Three SEAL snipers then ended the standoff by firing from USS Bainbridge and hitting the three Somali pirates in their heads.
Another notable SEAL operation took place in the opening hours of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when Navy SEALs and Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen operators worked with Polish and British special-operations forces to attack and capture several Iraqi oil platforms.
The platforms were the end of Iraq’s only oil pipeline to the Persian Gulf, and they funneled millions of barrels of oil into supertankers every day. US officials worried that Iraqi forces would use them to dump oil into the Gulf and dispatched the SEALs to neutralize them.
In a 40-minute operation, SEALs with shotguns and crowbars burst into the platforms, facing no resistance and with no losses on either side. “‘When they saw our guns, they put their hands right up,” one of the SEALs said at the time.
SEAL operations only increased in the 2000s. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, prompted the SEALs ranks to swell by 50%. Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, remains the operation that employed the largest number of Navy SEALs in history.
Four of the seven Navy SEALs who have received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor under fire, earned it for their actions during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The other three received it for their actions in the Vietnam War.
The cost of fame
With the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the Navy SEALs solidified their status as a household name. In the years since, former Navy SEALs, including some who were part of the operation in Abbottabad, have drawn on that experience in second careers as pundits, authors, and motivational speakers.
Although their fame has helped the SEALs and the Navy with recruitment considerably, it has come with a cost to the unit itself. A string of scandals — including drug abuse, assault, and allegations of war crimes — has tarnished the Navy SEALs’ reputation.
“Let’s be honest. As a community, we have dropped the ball several times over the last 10 years or so. Public fascination facilitated by the media has certainly played a part in our stepping into the spotlight, but we went along with it,” a former Navy SEAL officer told Insider.
The books, podcasts, TV shows, and movies — including “Act of Valor,” a 2012 movie that was commissioned by Naval Special Warfare Command and starred active-duty SEALs — that have come out in recent years “have tarnished our reputation of being ‘Quiet Professionals,'” added the former SEAL officer, who still works in government and was not authorized to speak to the media.
“There is only one way back to the shadows where we belong, and that is by keeping our mouths shut,” which goes for Naval Special Warfare Command too, the former officer said. “You can recruit without compromising your reputation. There should be and there is a middle ground.”
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.