My nine hunting companions last weekend in South Texas didn't look particularly special. Ranging from early-30s to mid-40s, they could be mistaken for the young doctor down the street, the general manager of the car dealership, the guy who builds custom motorcycles.
But they are extraordinary. Among them, they had a Navy Cross, four Silver Stars, 26 Bronze Stars for valor and four Purple Hearts. These were Navy SEALs with a combined 150 years of service and more than 67 overseas deployments in the war against terror.
The men had taken leave time to spend Veterans Day hunting quail and deer with friends of the Navy SEAL Foundation at Loralee and Al West's San Rafael Ranch just north of the Rio Grande River. It was their way of expressing thanks for all the foundation does to support their families and teammates. For the rest of us, it was an extraordinary honor to share the pleasures of their company.
At a Saturday luncheon, a SEAL no longer on active duty spoke to the group about his last mission, which took place in 2007. (I withhold his identity, as SEALS are generally not publicly named.) Seven days before his deployment in Iraq's Anbar province was to end, his unit received intelligence about the presence of 16 to 20 al Qaeda combatants in a remote compound. In the dark of night, helicopters dropped his SEAL team and Iraqi scouts 3.5 kilometers from their target. After surrounding the building, they assaulted it by blowing the main door.
Inside, the SEAL found himself in a foyer with doors leading to two interior rooms. He and another SEAL kicked in one door and were confronted by four al Qaeda, two armed with AK-47s, one with an M4, and the final one with a pistol. In the darkened room, both sides immediately opened fire. The second SEAL and an Iraqi scout were killed almost immediately.
The rifle of the remaining SEAL, our speaker, was shot out of his hand. He drew his pistol and returned fire, killing two al Qaeda fighters. He was then knocked to the ground as a grenade that one of them was preparing to throw instead exploded in the room.
When he regained consciousness, he realized the two remaining al Qaeda had driven off his assault team and were still firing at the retiring Americans and Iraqi scouts. He discarded his momentary impulse to play dead and instead re-engaged, emptying first one pistol magazine and then another as he shot it out with the two terrorists, killing both.
Staggering to his feet, he found his dead SEAL comrade and then two dead Iraqi scouts. He attempted to communicate with his unit before realizing his radio had been shot away. He recovered his dead teammate's radio to communicate with the rest of the assault team, which was about to have the compound pulverized by a C-130 gunship orbiting overhead, assuming since their calls had gone unanswered that none of their comrades in the building was still alive.
Despite grievous wounds, the SEAL explored the rest of the house, collected three Iraqi scouts and two terrorists they detained, and then moved his people outside to link up with the assault team. He refused to be carried to the evacuation chopper: He hurt so badly he felt he'd be further injured. Once on board, an airlift medic cut away all his clothes, stabilizing him as best as he could.
When the chopper landed at base, airfield personnel had difficulty assembling a litter. Spotting a nearby golf cart, the SEAL walked off the chopper and across the strip, wearing only his boots.
Driven to the base hospital, he was found to have 16 gunshot and shrapnel wounds. An additional 11 rounds had slammed into his body armor. Within 48 hours, he was airlifted to Bethesda Naval Hospital and 16 days later he talked his way out and went home to convalesce.
On Veterans Day 2011, in a south Texas pasture, this former SEAL said he'd learned from this experience the importance of empathy. He now works as an advocate for wounded warriors.
Some warn that America's freedom, like all things human, may crumble into dust. The reason it doesn't is because in times of trial our country produces men and women of courage and fortitude, honor and sacrifice. Which is another way of saying America produces self-effacing heroes like last weekend's hunting companions.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, November 16, 2011.