Growing up with an adopted and abusive father, there was plenty for Howard Wasdin to overcome. And that was before he signed up to take basic underwater demolition/SEAL team training.
Now a chiropractor in Jesup, Wasdin delivered the keynote speech and several messages to the Effingham Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting Thursday night, including what he believes to be the key to handling life’s obstacles.
“The one big thing is mental toughness,” he said. “If you have the mental toughness, you can overcome any obstacle.”
Wasdin recounted his upbringing and his time as one of America’s elite special operations fighters in “SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper,” which landed on the New York Times bestseller list. One of Wasdin’s recurrent themes was teamwork, and he urged people to love their fellow Americans more.
“You love your teammates,” he said. “You’d be amazed at how many of our problems would go away if we would love each other more.”
Wasdin was born in West Palm Beach, Fla., to a teenage mother, and grew up in Screven, a tiny town outside of Jesup. Wanting to escape his environment, he ran away frequently.
“Imagine being 7 or 8 years old and getting on a bus and riding it to the end of the line because your life is so bad,” he said, adding he would go and find a stranger’s house in which to live for a while.
Instances such as those only served to show him that anything can be overcome, including having a bad upbringing.
“Draw on that,” he said. “Use that bad background.”
Wasdin advised people to find ways to encourage themselves, and they also should realize when they are wrong. He also said they should define what they want to accomplish.
“Before every single op, we knew what our mission was,” he said of his SEAL team days. “You have to define mission accomplishment.”
Wasdin was a member of the SEALs who were part of Operation Gothic Serpent, the U.S. military’s mission in Somalia, which had been plunged into a disastrous civil war and was in the grips of famine. Somali warlords, the most notorious of which was Mohamed Farrah Aidid, interfered and interrupted food shipments to the starving populace.
“Whoever uses food is a weapon is evil,” Wasdin said. “That’s what Aidid was doing.”
The saving grace of the mission, according to Wasdin, was he and his fellow SEALs aiding a Somali boy who had been maimed by a land mine. The enemy, he said, places land mines in school yards, not so much to kill children but as to injure them for life so that when they grow up, they are unable to fight against the terrorists.
But perched on the roof of their safe house, Wasdin smelled something awful. No other SEAL smelled it, and he could smell it only at night. It turned out a nearby family was putting their wounded son, whose foot had been blown off and gangrene had developed, outside. While the boy stayed in the house during the day, the family placed him outside at night so they could sleep.
“Despair has a smell,” Wasdin said.
The SEAL team took a risk and went to the home. Over the course of the next several nights, they rendered medical aid to the boy. Helping that child, he said, was the best thing to come from that mission.
He was involved in the Oct. 3, 1993, battle with hundreds of Somali gunmen, following the capture of two of warlord Mohamed Aidid’s top lieutenants.
In the daylong gunfight that ensued through the streets of Mogadishu, teeming with civilians armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 18 American soldiers were killed. Among them was Wasdin’s best friend, and Wasdin himself was hit by three bullets. He was hit in a leg by a round, and seven millimeters separated that wound from causing an amputation.
“I got to a dark place when I was wounded,” he admitted.
What transpired, he acknowledged, was finding a new best friend name Jim, whose last name happened to be Beam. He had post traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt — Staff Sgt. Daniel Busch, a 25-year-old Special Forces sniper, had been killed trying to defend the crash site of the first helicopter.
Wasdin’s marriage also was crumbling. The pace and demands of being a SEAL meant he was gone 200 days a year.
“I was married to the SEAL teams,” he said. “When you’re in that dark place, the light doesn’t move away from you — you moved away from the light.”
It was then Wasdin figured out he had to accept the responsibility to change. At 40 years old, he went back to school to become a chiropractor. He became a doctor for the same reason he joined the SEALs, he said — to help people.
Wasdin also said job happiness is being part of a winning team. He said the so-called “Rambos” don’t make it through the demanding, rigorous BUD/S training to become a SEAL team member. That training doesn’t test an individual’s strength and determination solely; it also forges the ability to be part of a team.
“The ‘Rambos’ are the first to go,” he said of those who get eliminated from training. “Most of (the tasks) are team-building and teamwork, more than anything else.”
Brad Pitt and Vin Diesel were in a bidding war for the movie rights to his book, Wasdin said, and his wife chimed in with whom she thought should win. Instead, Diesel won out.
Wasdin’s days as a member of SEAL Team Six, officially known as Navy Special Warfare Development Group, were long since over when members of that outfit raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, finding and killing the Al Qaeda leader. But he knew many of the SEALs who trained the men on the mission, including Brandon Webb, a sniper instructor.
“He said, ‘these guys are better than we were,’ and I said, ‘I hoped so.’ I’m glad America knows we have some very elite weapons out there,” Wasdin said.