Greater Love Hath No Man, Steve Elson SEAL USN Retired
Steve Elson Former Special Agent with the Navy, DEA and FAA. Specialist in Counterterrorism, Intelligence, and Security. Twenty-two years military experience, primarily in Naval Special Warfare and nine years Federal service with the FAA and DEA. Retired Navy Seal.
“A former Navy SEAL and Drug Enforcement Administration rep in South America, Elson is not a timid man. “I’d give the commission a ‘D’ for investigating the FAA,” he declares. … “The commissioners knew a lot more than they included in the 9/11 report,” he says. “They sold out.” http://www.secure-skies.org
Operations Coordinator: Steve Elson
Steve Elson has twenty-two years military experience, primarily in Naval Special Warfare. He has nine years Federal Service with DEA/FAA, and one year with Local Law Enforcement in Undercover Narcotics. Mr. Elson specializes in Counterterrorism, Intelligence, and Security, both nationally and internationally, enhanced by a wide range of training and advanced studies in diverse topics relating to security, leadership, and intelligence. He holds a Masters Degree in National Security Affairs/Naval Intelligence with a focus on Terrorism.
And What’s Changed?
By Kevin Berger Salon Com
August 3, 2004
So far, media coverage of the 9/11 commission report has been dominated by story lines out of John le CarrÃ© novels. We’ve learned that the CIA failed to penetrate al-Qaida in the Middle East and capture the deadly hijackers, how the FBI gave short shrift to an internal memo warning that suspected terrorists were taking flight lessons in the United States, and how President Bush let slide a daily briefing that an emboldened bin Laden planned to attack American shores. The focus on the wrenching series of failures among intelligence groups is important and justified. But all of the international intrigue, not to mention partisan sniping over what president or government agency was at fault, has deflected attention from the one culprit that gets a universal thrashing in the 9/11 report: the Federal Aviation Administration.
Still more troubling, the 9/11 report portrays the successor to the beleaguered FAA, the Transportation Security Administration, as infected with a host of similar problems — a charge amplified by a host of former FAA security analysts and aviation security experts. “Look at security measures before 9/11 and look at them after 9/11,” says Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an aviation consultant firm based in Colorado. “The flaws are still there.” The FAA — the guardian of American skies and airports, with a special writ to protect travelers from criminal acts, including terrorism — should have been the last line of defense. Instead, 19 terrorists slipped through its porous shield. Here are just a few ways the 9/11 report gives the FAA an unequivocal thumbs-down: Each layer of the FAA “relevant to hijackings — intelligence, passenger prescreening, checkpoint screening, and onboard security — was seriously flawed.” Jane Garvey, who guided the FAA from 1997 to 2002, did not review daily intelligence.
As a result, she was “unaware of a great amount of hijacking threat information from her own intelligence unit.” Although government watchlists contained the names of tens of thousands of known terrorists, the FAA’s own “no-fly” list contained names of just 12 terrorist suspects (including mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed). In a rare moment of hyperbole, the report calls the discrepancy between the extensive terrorist roster and the meager FAA list, the one that airline clerks perused, an “astonishing mismatch.” Indeed, reading how the hijackers slipped through cracks in security on Sept. 11 is astonishing. Four of the five hijackers on American Flight 11, the first jet to hit the World Trade Center, were flagged as suspect by airline clerks at check-in counters; their luggage was examined, no explosives were found, and they were sent on their way.
Two of the hijackers on American Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, set off the security gate alarm — but the screeners didn’t bother to resolve what caused the buzz. The hijackers were hand-wanded, cleared and allowed to march onto the planes. And that’s just the airports. Revelations abound about what happened in the sky, beginning with the first chapter, “We have some planes,” a reference to the first thing an FAA controller overheard a hijacker say on Flight 11. Thirty minutes passed before the controller figured out the significance of that statement. Things could have gone very differently had officials realized immediately that more than one plane was in the hands of terrorists. Then there’s this exchange. When the Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Virginia, which oversees the entire airspace, discovered that United Flight 93 — which crashed in Pennsylvania — was hijacked, it contacted FAA headquarters. A command center controller then wondered aloud whether they should ask the military to launch (“scramble”) jets for assistance. Command Center: Uh, do we want to think, uh, about scrambling aircraft? FAA Headquarters: Oh, God, I don’t know. Command Center: Uh, that’s a decision somebody’s gonna have to make probably in the next ten minutes. FAA Headquarters: Uh, ya know everybody just left the room. To most readers, the 9/11 report’s indictment of the FAA may seem thorough and impressive. But to aviation security experts, both in government and in the private sector, the report doesn’t get to the core of the FAA’s problems. They argue that the report pulls its punches on the crucial point: that airline security was sacrificed to the bottom line and that old standby, keeping the customers satisfied.
To its credit, the 9/11 report does assert that the FAA and its self-interested partner, the airline industry, exerted “great pressures” on the Department of Transportation (FAA’s boss) to “control security costs” and “concentrate on its primary mission of moving passengers and aircraft.” But don’t be misled by the government-speak, says Boyd, who previously worked for American Airlines and Braniff International. “The FAA and airlines didn’t care if security worked or didn’t work. All they care about is no lines for passengers. And no flight delays.” Steve Elson was an FAA special agent for security from 1992 to 1999. He worked for the administration’s covert “Red Team,” which analyzed airport security by, among other things, placing suspicious objects in luggage and carting them through check-in gates — nine times out 10 without detection. A former Navy SEAL and Drug Enforcement Administration rep in South America, Elson is not a timid man. “I’d give the commission a ‘D’ for investigating the FAA,” he declares. To Elson, the FAA was the very embodiment of a stagnant, insular bureaucracy. Due to its cozy relationship with the airline industry — which is now in debt to the U.S. government for billions of tax dollars spent to bail it out â€“ it perpetually suppressed critical reports. “The commissioners knew a lot more than they included in the 9/11 report,” he says. “They sold out.” Elson sent five of the commissioners his own “White Paper.” In 46 single-spaced pages, Elson details decades of what he sees as the FAA’s ineptness. He quotes internal FAA memos, government reports, his own conversations with countless Congress members, former colleagues, and his own Red Team experiences in breaching airport security. Elson’s paper is intemperate in tone, a sustained rant. Yet it’s nevertheless a damning portrait of a government agency riddled with arrogance, inefficiency and distrust of its own employees.
“The FAA always talked about maintaining ‘layers of security,'” Elson says. “But it was layers of bullshit and facade. It was chary of doing anything that would cost the airlines money. We in the field knew it but couldn’t ever get anything done about it at headquarters.” Since Elson quit the FAA — “I was convinced they were going to kill people and didn’t want to be part of it” — he’s become a professional pain in the ass, seldom passing up a chance to blame the FAA’s incompetence for the 9/11 attacks. And perhaps his outrage sounds moot now, as it’s not going to bring 3,000 people back to life. But Elson’s criticism is significant because he charges that the same problems now infect the agency that took over airport security from the FAA, after Sept. 11, the Transportation Security Administration or TSA. TSA’s annual budget is a staggering $5.3 billion. But in the past two years, the media has gone hog wild broadcasting how airport security is no better than it was before Sept. 11. Throughout 2003, Elson, usually with TV news cameras in tow, waltzed through security gates of the nation’s major airports with objects (blow dryers and oranges) that resemble guns and explosives — by hiding them beneath lead-shield film bags — 135 times. In each instance, despite seeing a black blob on x-ray monitors, screeners didn’t bother to look beneath the film bags for anything else. But it’s not just Elson and other independent critics who are firing serious barbs at TSA; it’s government officials themselves.
Currently, five U.S. airports are testing whether airport screeners, hired by private companies, perform more effectively than TSA federal screeners. In April, Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin of the Department of Homeland Security (TSA’s boss), testified before Congress that both groups performed about the same, “which is to say, equally poorly.” The TSA, based on its own commissioned study, concurred, saying “there is no evidence that any of the five privately screened airports performed below the average level of federalized airports.” TSA chief Rear Adm. David M. Stone, a George W. Bush appointee, stated “that all screeners — federal and private — meet the same demanding hiring requirements, pass the same rigorous training regimen, and follow the same standard operating procedures.” But Boyd argues that it doesn’t matter which group gets better marks, for screeners, while often the central focus of security, are merely one link in a chain that has countless other weak spots. Airports and commercial jets are vulnerable in many other ways.
Terrorists could easily load weapons or bombs onto planes, Boyd says, with a little help from a wide range of people — caterers, mechanics, baggage handlers; anyone who has access to jets before they take off. Boyd goes so far as to say that could be just the kind of help the hijackers had on Sept. 11. Perhaps the screeners really did find no weapons on the hijackers, he says. “I firmly believe there were things ferreted away on those airplanes. I firmly believe there were guns involved. I had one mechanic call me two weeks after 9/11 and say a 767 just pulled into the maintenance overhaul base and they found a couple of box cutters taped under certain seats.” Tom Burnett, a passenger on Flight 93, did tell his wife, Deena, that one of the hijackers had a gun. But the 9/11 report states that no trace of a gun was found at the crash site; it adds that “if the hijackers had possessed a gun, they would have used it in the flight’s last minutes as the passengers fought back.” That doesn’t deter Boyd. “What I’m saying is there was a larger conspiracy. They had to have had help by people on the other side of security. They had to have had help by people working at that airport. Mohamed Atta, after planning all this, wasn’t going to risk getting caught by some stupid screener, saying, ‘Oh, you have a box cutter?’ After spending all this money, scoping out Boston Logan Airport for months, would you risk this by putting a box cutter in your bag or pocket? They had to know all this.”
Boyd’s assertion that the hijackers thoroughly researched the airports and the type of jets they would commandeer is, in fact, supported by the 9/11 report. Otherwise, though, when it comes to co-conspirators at work in the airports, the commission report doesn’t go there. Elson too says he hasn’t seen any evidence of Boyd’s conspiracy. But that’s not the point. What is, Elson says, is that “you and I could get together, sit down and make a plan tomorrow to get on airfields. It’s a piece of cake. We could get on planes with virtually 100 percent of success, plant a bomb, get off, and then blow the planes up. And the chances of getting caught are close to zero percent. That should make you feel good, huh?” TSA spokesperson Amy Von Walter responds that screeners are just one part of airport and airline security. “That’s why we have a layered security system,” she says. “We now have federally trained, federally hired screeners. We’ve got thousands of federal air marshals, reinforced cockpit doors, and federal flight deck officers, or armed pilots.” Von Walter stresses that installing secure gates and fences around airport perimeters, and making sure that all areas of the airport are guarded, is a top priority for TSA officials. She points to a recent TSA plan that outlines how airport security firms and local law enforcement, including the police and FBI — “who have the day-to-day responsibility of enforcing the perimeter” — should protect all vulnerable areas, from hangars to restaurants. In every way, Von Walter says, air travelers today are safer than they were prior to Sept. 11. “Absolutely,” she says. “No question about it.” But in fact there is a question about it.
The 9/11 commission itself declares that the TSA has no “forward-looking strategic plan” in place to correct past problems and “major vulnerabilities still exist in cargo and general aviation security.” Other federal officials go further. In a General Accounting Office report this June, the government penny-pinchers slighted TSA’s recent airport perimeter plan, calling the agency’s security efforts “fragmented rather than cohesive,” and hardly enough to justify the program’s cost. Actually, look a little deeper into the bowels of government reports, and you find that our representatives on Capitol Hill are not happy at all with how things are going at TSA. In 2002, a House Appropriations Committee averred that TSA is “seemingly unable to make crisp decisions … unable to work cooperatively with the nation’s airports; and unable to take advantage of the multitude of security-improving and labor-saving technologies available.” The next year, a Senate Appropriations Committee chimed in that TSA was “characterized by arrogance and disregard of the public’s views. This is particularly troubling given the fact that the agency’s core mission is to reassure the public as to the safety of the nation’s transportation system.” For Elson, the TSA is quite simply a train wreck. “The fact is, TSA has proven itself to be a reckless, profligate, self-serving organization that can’t solve the most basic, rudimentary, fundamental elements of screening.” Von Walter responds that TSA has been its own harsh critic. “As we continue to develop as an agency,” she says, “we continue to assess, evaluate and make adjustments.” One wants to believe it. But inside the TSA itself is one of the world’s foremost aviation security experts, and he begs to differ. In fact, his voice is probably the most sober and frightening one you will hear regarding the current safety of our skies. His name is Bogdan Dzakovic and his rÃ©sumÃ© is awfully impressive. He was an officer in the Coast Guard, a criminal investigator with the Navy, a U.S. air marshal and a leader of the FAA’s covert Red Team. Dzakovic is as earnest as Elson is brash. Yet he has been every bit as fearless as Elson, first within the FAA, and then the TSA, in pinpointing failures in security and broadcasting them to his managers and Congress members. He paid the price for his outspokenness: Today, the 50-year-old Dzakovic is biding his time until retirement as an inconsequential security inspector in TSA. He is a man who fought the law and the law won. But fight he has. Before the 9/11 commission, he testified that his Red Team breached airport security 90 percent of the time — prior to Sept. 11 — but that FAA managers suppressed his findings and in some cases prevented his team from retesting airports that were particularly bad offenders.
“The more serious the problems in aviation security we identified, the more FAA tied our hands behind our backs and restricted our activities,” Dzakovic testified. TSA was designed to be more open to criticism. Has it been? “TSA is worse than FAA,” Dzakovic says flatly. “Nobody bothered to learn from the shortcomings leading up to Sept. 11. TSA is not only making the same mistakes but they’ve taken things to a new depth of ineptness. And they’re spending 20 or 30 times more money doing it.” Dzakovic’s own detailed report of security failings at the FAA, and his subsequent claim that his work was being covered up, earned him official whistleblower status by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which essentially means, yes, he was telling the truth, and yes, findings from the elite Red Team were “grossly mismanaged.” Like many FAA employees, Dzakovic was transferred to the TSA, where despite his whistleblower status he was given a lackey gig in TSA’s airport inspection division. After a year, a TSA manager asked him to prepare a “lessons learned” report about his manifold experiences in the FAA. And he did. “I wasn’t just spouting off my theories either,” he said. “I was saying here is the evidence why this will work and why you shouldn’t do this.”
Ten days later, Dzakovic was demoted even further by being assigned to TSA’s general aviation area, where he was given computer fix-it jobs that “any kid in high school could do on a work studies program.” Dzakovic himself doesn’t give the 9/11 commission report high marks. It’s redolent of the political cronyism and craven policies that marred FAA and now TSA, he says. He offered the commission his 500-page whistleblower report, which proved that “FAA security operated in a manner that was a gross threat to public safety,” and yet, he says, the commission turned him down. “The more I read the 9/11 report, the angrier I get,” Dzakovic says. “I keep reading how the intelligence agencies didn’t have any imagination. But they had too much imagination. They were so disconnected from the real world that they were in la-la land. Now they say the answer is having the agencies talk better to one another. But having one ineptly run agency talk to another ineptly run agency doesn’t exactly fix the problem.”
What should have been corrected, Dzakovic continues, “is the one thing that should have happened in every agency — the FBI, CIA, FAA. And that’s the people on the bottom level of each of the respective agencies did their jobs. We recognized that the terrorist threat was increasing, we knew that security in aviation was a joke, we reported this to our chain of command, and they did nothing. If we would have been allowed to continue with what we were working on, and had the agencies made changes based on what we were doing, 9/11 wouldn’t have happened.” Dzakovic has some specific ideas for fixing the TSA, such as placing rigorously trained TSA employees throughout airports, rather than having a TSA manager strolling around with a clipboard, trying to organize myriad security guards and law enforcement agencies, the result being that no one is clear who’s actually in charge. But it’s pointless to offer recommendations, he says. So he stays in his office, doing his work. “One of my first assignments from the division manager was to go through an old FAA operations manual,” he says. “Every time I saw the word ‘FAA,’ I was to scratch it out and put ‘TSA.'” Kevin Berger is senior news editor at Salon.
INTERVIEW PROFILES STEVE ELSON (SEAL)
Steve Elson Steve Elson spent five days with the fifth estate looking at Canada’s airports.
Steve Elson is a former Navy Seal and Federal Aviation Administration Security Inspector. He has specialized training in counter-terrorism, intelligence and security.
In the early 1990s, Elson was a leader of the FAA Red Team. During this time he conducted covert assessments of airports in the United States and around the world. He also helped perform mock aircraft hijackings.
In the late 1990s, Elson was an FAA Security Field Agent. He spent his time in airports, working with the airlines, screening checkpoint personnel and airport agents.
Elson says he wrote a number of reports and emails to FAA headquarters and government officials, warning of the weaknesses in airport security and recommending improvements. He says he quit his job in 1999 when he realized the government was not listening to his warnings or making the necessary improvements.
Since quitting the FAA, Elson has continued this work in other ways; for example, in 2003 he developed test protocols for the US Capitol Police to enhance security procedures in the Congressional office buildings and the US Capitol building.
Elson has helped various organizations study and report on airport security. He has appeared on television programs such as CBS Nightly News, CNN and NBC Dateline to assist reporters with airport assessments. He does not charge a fee for his services.
The fifth estate asked Elson to visit Canada and conduct a security assessment of Canada’s airports in preparation for its report Fasten Your Seatbelts.
STEVE ELSON INTERVIEW
Hana Gartner: DID YOU HAVE, YOURSELF, GIVEN YOUR LINE OF WORK – DID YOU HAVE ANY IDEA THAT NORTH AMERICA WAS GOING TO BE HIT WITH SUCH A CATASTROPHIC AND HORRIFIC EVENT AS 9/11?
Steve Elson: Not 9/11 specifically. I was positive we were gonna get hit. I quit the FAA – Federal Aviation Administration in the United States–because I exhausted virtually every avenue I had to get them to pay attention.
Hana Gartner: AND YOU KNEW IT WAS GONNA BE BAD?
The magnitude – no, I couldn’t have predicted that. But with regard to hi-jacking, which is what we saw, the issue wasn’t what happened after the plane was hi-jacked; the issue was to prevent a hi-jacking. If we prevented a hi-jacking, anything thereafter simply didn’t matter.
Hana Gartner: SO IF YOU TO SOME DEGREE WERE ABLE TO PREDICT IT, YOU’RE SAYING IT WAS PREVENTABLE?
Steve Elson: Oh, it was absolutely preventable and the United States government knew it. The Federal Aviation Administration knew this and I was able to get a question in at the 9/11 hearings that proved this. We knew how vulnerable the planes were. It’s all documented. ..As of 9/11, I failed. I’m not a failure, but I failed. I couldn’t get anybody to listen.
Hana Gartner: SO IF SO MANY PEOPLE SAW IT COMING, WHY DID IT HAPPEN?
Steve Elson: Why – the question I have now is why is it happening again? We know what can happen now and yet working all over the country for two years with the media and following articles – the same thing’s happening again. And the big focus unfortunately, is strictly on aviation Security check points.
Hana Gartner: SO DO WE NEED MORE SECURITY?
Steve Elson: No we don’t need more security. We need security. We need a rational group of people to sit down, clearly assess the situation, not just throw money at the wall, not run in circles, scream and shout, look at what the situation is and start figuring what can we do quickly, simply, cheaply and easily getting basic things done and prioritizing those. Start fixing the basic things so that we can actually force and channelize terrorists to do the more complicated things.
Hana Gartner: SO TELL ME, WHEN YOU WOULD ASSESS AN AIRPORT, WHERE DO YOU BEGIN?
Steve Elson: I like to look at the big picture and consider the entire aviation system and that includes what the public sees and the government’s focused on. Checkpoint screening. I look at baggage screening, whole screening for explosives, carry on screening. I’ll look at the airport perimeter; I’ll look at access control, ramp control, cargo, badging, background checks. You know, the layout of the field, access to the planes. So you have to look at the entire system.
Hana Gartner: AND BY POINTING OUT THE VULNERABILITIES IN THE SECURITY SYSTEM, AREN’T YOU SORT OF BREAKING THE LAW?
Steve Elson: Absolutely not. First of all I said I believe these people already know this. Secondly I’m American; I look at it from an American perspective. They may think, as the Soviets did, a lot of what we say is disinformation but the driving force is that I kept quiet for years. I was in F.A.A. I quit the F.A.A. I went to the Department of Transportation. I was called by reporters. I said I won’t talk to you. I went to the General Accounting Office, I went to a number of senators and Congressmen. I’ve got their names, the dates, the times, the places, the people I talked with. They didn’t care. So now I know I’ve got this horrible feeling something’s gonna happen and I’ve tried working in the government, I’ve tried being outside of the government – what am I to do just sit here and watch people get slaughtered? About the only way to get politicians in the United States to react – and a Congressmen’s staffer told me this – is go to the media. Hopefully you alert the people and as the people know what’s going on, they call their represents and say, hey what’s going on here? And then maybe we’ll get it changed. Otherwise we’re dead.
Greater Love Hath No Man
Posted By Froggy
Than he who would lay his life down for his friends. Petty Officer Second Class (SEAL) Marc A. Lee from Hood River, Oregon was killed in action this week while providing cover fire for a wounded comrade on a Ramadi rooftop.
U.S. Navy officers told his mother, Debbie Lee, that her son died minutes after he single-handedly held off enemy fighters as his team rescued a soldier wounded on a rooftop by a sniper.
Marc was part of a major operation to clear out terrorists from the center of the city in conjunction with the US Army’s 1st Armored Division. According to news reports two other SEALs were wounded during the operation-one severely. My sources in the AO report that the seriously injured frog remains in critical condition and may have lost his sight in at least one eye. I would ask that all B5 readers send a prayer upstairs for this brother of mine and keep Marc Lee’s family in your thoughts and prayers as well.
Unfortunately, the SEAL Team’s record of no combat fatalities in Iraq has now been broken. Up to this point, we had not lost a man during OIF.
MASTER CHIEF TOM BLAIS — a personal view and assessment
04May 2014 4:13 PM , Virginia Beach, Virginia
From: Steve Elson
to: TO MY MANY TEAMMATES AND FRIENDS, WHETHER WE HAVE MET OR NOT –
BAND OF BROTHERS WHO SHARE A GREAT ADMIRATION AND LOVE FOR ONE OF OUR LONG TIME TEAM LEGENDS —
DMCM TOM BLAIS
I talked with Eva (who used to baby-sit our own daughter some 35 years ago) about a week ago; she told me her Dad had been moved from the unassisted care side of his apartment building to the assisted care side. I know many of you have seen the sitreps coming out and while very well written and informative, I got a different impression of where the Chief is living and how he is doing emotionally as well as physically.
Chief Blais is a SEAL Team icon and legend as we all know. He has some unique qualities to say the least and while he means different things to all of us, I reckon we each share our own special view of and relationship with him. He had the unique quality of being able to read people well and tailor, especially to those in his training classes, his own individualized brand of “torture” to help weed out those who didn’t belong and to develop those who did. I personally am glad I was NOT in his class; he probably wouldn’t have tolerated all my whining. He was a Godsend as our VN Plt Chief. He did a lot to help me grow up (sometimes disputed by my wife, kids, and friends) and became part surrogate father, mentor, protector, and dearest friend.
Since we moved out west in 2008, I haven’t been back to VA Beach in several years when the Chief was still living on his own near the Creek, ignoring his many injuries, and charging along he was wont to do. We have talked frequently over the intervening years. So when Eva explained his situation, I knew I had to go up and see The Chief. I flew up to BWI landing at 0100, rented a car and drove all night down to VA Beach, and spent all day,and part of the evening as well as few hours the following morning with the Chief. Eva had described his condition pretty accurately but somehow I hadn’t been able to shake the vision in my mind that he would be in bed with tubes and IVs in him, sleeping most of the time, and uncomfortable. Eva did say that he was doing well, happy, laughing, and enjoying the many visits of old Frogs and SEALs. But the impression of a subdued and withering Chief lingered on haunting and greatly saddening me. To be honest, I was somewhat apprehensive about the visit.
I had quite an uplifting surprise walking into his room, finding him sitting on the bed, proffering that Chief Blais strong handshake, a big laugh, and typical Chief Blais greeting. No tubes, no medicine, and pretty much nothing obviously “medical” or life sustaining excepting oxygen nasal cannulas. He was lucid, talking, gesticulating, and seemed to be having a great time. As Eva had described, he said this was one of the happiest and best times of his life. A morning phone call from one of his Class 38 trainees and one of my all time heroes, Rick Woolard started the morning off with a laugh and good feeling.
Rick is so sincere and such a strong person that his messages convey. People are calling from all over the world, literally. The word “hospice” had conjured up some pretty frightening images. So for those who haven’t had the opportunity or good fortune to visit the Chief and are concerned about his environment and state, I’d like to share a few vignettes of each. Some of the e-mails I have seen are very informative and well-written but don’t quite capture the feeling of warmth, happiness, and fun I experienced while there. A couple times, I saw the Chief quietly talking and laughing with each of his daughters, Eva’s wonderful husband, and grand kids. I left for those were private moments. Of course, I stayed when other old Teammates came to visit.
The Chief lives in a beautiful apartment building in a square shape with one side assisted living (where he now resides) and the other unassisted. It is a great place http://www.kiscoseniorliving.com/senior_living/Virginia_Beach_VA/zip_23451/kisco_senior_living/5768 — clean, beautifully decorated, warm, and staffed by truly caring folks, from the people who perform the janitorial duties to the food prep folks, and other care givers. I didn’t really see many “medical” people and there was nothing that smacked of my view of “hospice” care.
All day long there was a constant stream of people, some of them like Herschel (who comes daily and who I haven’t seen in years), rolling through. Talking, laughing, BSing, and just having a good time. Crazy Herschel D. is great medicine as are others the others I saw: Ken McDonald, Harry Coleman or one I never met – Randy Wise; it seemed like most of the First Colonial Staff came into hug the Chief (mostly woman) daily and spend some time talking/laughing with him. As you would expect, the Chief’s presence is well known to most of the staff.
When I came through the side entrance, I passed through the first door and then had to press a button and put my face on camera where I was asked who I was and what I wanted. When I told the lady I was coming to visit MC Blais, she started laughing told me to tell him that Norma sent a big hug. These are NOT hospital rooms, but actual apartments – very nice, roomy, clean, and comfortable. Residents on both sides of the facility decorate their outside doors and apartments as they wish. Many have a dried floral arrangement on the door and one resident has a lot of American Flags and “Support Our Troops” stickers all over the door. The halls are attractive and soothing. Naturally, the Chief’s door looked like the entrance to a SEAL museum — the inside even more so. His living room has a TV and pictures of his family. There is a corner with religious artifacts. And there are UDT/SEAL pictures and memorabilia everywhere. I loved looking at his plaque from his entering the UDT Training Class in 1947 and then going to UDT 2, UDT 21, and finally ST-2. Also many don’t realize that he went through UDT Training Classes 4 and 16. He briefly got out of the Navy and when he came back, they made him go through twice. To the best of my knowledge, that makes him even more unique in the community.
I had expected to get a few waking moments with The Chief during the day between hours of napping. There was no napping and it was GREAT spending so much time reminiscing and BSing. The Chief’s memory (excepting a few moments of “Where the hell did that damn word go?” that I have all the time) is amazing. I wish he HAD forgotten some of the incidents. Had a few times when talked seriously about life, its meaning, good and bad things we had done, his wonderful family, and the tragedies experienced. He thinks he had a heart attack, loves his doctor, talks about getting better, working out, breaking boards with his feet, and yes (surprise) chasing younger (40, 50, 60??) women. He is the same of ebullient, self-confident, crazy, confidence-inspiring, and fun-loving Chief we all remember and love.
We did talk about the end of life whenever it comes and how important it is to enjoy every moment and all your family and friends — which he is doing. In the end I left a satisfied and happy man knowing how well he is doing and how much he is enjoying the calls, cards, and visits from his many friends and admirers. I was sad to have missed Rick Woolard who, perforce, was out of town and I would have loved to been there when our VN Plt Commander Bill Gardner (I haven’t seen him since VN) visited. But it is gratifying to know so many care and remember that “love of our fellow Teammates is so strong. Medically, it seems almost impossible that the Chief will get up and leave the room — to break boards or chase woman. But who the hell knows?
The Chief never let minor things like the difficult or impossible get in his way. Whatever happens and when it happens, he seems to have made peace within himself, loves his immediate family as well as his UDT/SEAL family, and when he does go, there is little reason to be sad except we won’t get to see or talk to him in person. He is one of those rare people in our lives who will ALWAYS remain within us. Many of the things I have accomplished are in some part due to his influence on and caring for me. Few have accomplished as much for so many special folks as has he.
Don’t hesitate to call him and harass him like Herschel or just talk a bit. He loves it and keeps him going. Make every moment of his life, however long, moments of joy and friendship.
I was honored and so very happy I got to see the Chief, talk with him, laugh, be rude and crude, and in the end hug him and tell him I love him. These days, rather than sad, dreary or depressing, are a celebration of the amazing life of a Great MAN! I thought I was going up to say “Goodbye” and go for his benefit. In the end, I realised he did far more for me than I for The Chief.