Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
QM2 Brett Jones: Life inside the Navy SEALs and the CIA
| S:2 E:74
QM2 Brett Jones joined the Navy in 1993 with the goal of becoming a Navy SEAL. Jones says he “wasn’t ready” the first time he went through SEAL training, and he did not complete the course. He came back and successfully completed the training on his second attempt.
Jones joined SEAL Team 8, the most active of all the SEAL teams, where he served abroad. Due to the covert nature of SEAL operations, Jones wasn’t able to share all the details of his engagements, but he does talk about missions in Iraq, and the pain of losing friends in combat.
After almost being kicked out of the SEALs, Jones decided to leave voluntarily. He continued to serve as a member of the CIA, deploying to Iraq again and protecting high value individuals in “high threat environments”.
Jones is now a part time police officer in Alabama.
Hi, I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. If you love listening to this show as much as I love hosting it, I think you’ll really like the Medal of Honor Podcast, produced in partnership with the Medal of Honor Museum. Each episode talks about a genuine American hero, and the actions that led to their receiving our nation’s highest award for valor. They’re just a few minutes each, so if you’re looking for a show to fill time between these warriors episodes, I think you’ll love the Medal of Honor Podcast. Search for the ‘Medal of Honor Podcast’ wherever you get your shows. Thanks.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’ll hear from Quartermaster 2nd Class and former Navy SEAL Brett Jones. Jones served on SEAL Team 8, which at the time was the most active SEAL team. After leaving the SEALs, Brett joined the CIA. There, he was deployed to Iraq to protect people in “high threat environments.”
QM2 Brett Jones:
My name is Brett Jones. I got in the Navy, I think, it was in end of '93. My rank when I got in was a personnelman and then I ended up switching it to a quartermaster because it was easier at the time being a SEAL to take those tests, and then I got out as a QM2 or quartermaster second class.
Well, I remember the first time I heard about Navy SEALs and it was a conversation that my father had with my brother. We were living in Egypt at the time, my dad was military and they were talking about these people that had come to the embassy and my dad wasn't even allowed to see their faces. And I was like, "Oh, man, my dad's a colonel. Who are these people?" And so, I just listened in on that conversation and I was just fascinated by these people. Turns out later it was actually, or I think it was anyways, Richard Marcinko's group that was out there at that time but it just fascinated me and that planted a seed, I guess.
As I got older, my family ended up finding out that I was gay, I think, right around when I was 17 or somewhere in there and it was not a very accepting atmosphere and I got kicked out of the family or out of the house anyways. And I remember thinking how I didn't want to be an unsuccessful person. For some reason, that was really important to me at the time and I thought that the best route that I could go that could show people that, this gay thing, and it was irrelevant to who ... It was important, obviously, who I was but it didn't make a difference in what I wanted to do with my life.
And so, I joined the Navy and, yeah, I went through SEAL training. I didn't make it my first time, which was devastating to me at the time, and I went to Iceland for two years and there I got a refocus largely in part to some friends of mine that I had had and knew that I was gay that were also in the military and there with me in Iceland and that compassion that they showed me. Because I think, at the time, I was conflicted a lot, I still carried a lot of that resentment and that pain that my parents, and maybe intentionally, maybe unintentionally, that ... Coming out like that is very difficult and it weighs on you emotionally.
And so, that experience of not making it through SEAL training and being with those people in Iceland was a very healing experience for me and I got refocused and I went back to SEAL training and then, that time, I made it.
I quit, I totally quit. And it's funny, there was this guy, Master Chief Chalker, and so it was the first night of hell week and we were being surf torture which is where you lock your arms and you lay in the ocean and it's just really cold and you just sit there for what feels like an eternity. And it had been weeks of that leading up to it and I just wasn't ready. I didn't know, going into it, what a SEAL was supposed to ... Yeah, I was very naïve. And I remember I quit and, as I was leaving the ranks of this being surf tortured, Master Chief Chalker, who was a legend there at the time, was like, "Let him go! Let him go!," and then he came out to tell them to let me go because I was trying to quit and my buddies were like, "No, don't quit, Brett." And then him coming out, he face planted in the surf and, yeah, you just had to know his temperament and this person to understand what a big deal that was. And so, yeah, yea, I rang the bell. I wasn't ready, I was not ready.
So, physical pain is a very temporary thing mostly and I think, when you go through something as emotionally hard as coming out the way that I did ... And a lot of people, I'm not anyone special, my coming out was nowhere near as bad as a lot of people's but it builds something in you, a strength when you make it through a situation like that and you process. And here's the thing, the difference between, I think anyways, between emotional and physical stuff is that the physical stuff is temporary. And even though at times it doesn't seem like it is, the emotional stuff is something that takes a whole lot more work on your part later down the road to heal from but you ultimately do, if you do that work, become a much stronger person. And I think that was what Iceland did for me, was made me a much stronger person emotionally. And then the physicality of it, you just have to be in good shape and that's relatively the easy part of making it through SEAL training. The difficult part of SEAL training is the emotional aspect of it. And, as you know, going through some challenging courses that the military offers requires that emotional strength. And so, I was, well, much better equipped and I learned also to really focus just on what was happening to me at the moment and not to focus at the monstrous mountain that was still left to climb. It was just, okay, I'm cold and I'm really hungry and I'm tired but this is my moment right now and I know it's going to end, it has to. It has to end in an hour or two hours or, at the latest, when the sun comes up and brings the warmth and all that stuff that comes with that. And so, that was what I really tried to do is focus on that. And then I also had some mental tricks where I would try to create a story in my mind while all this cold and whatever stuff was happening around me.
Yeah, I would just try to create a story in my mind or say the ABCs backwards or say the ABCs and think of a friend that begins with every single letter. Whatever I could do to get my mind off of how miserable ... Out of my own self, whatever I could do to get out of that negative pattern that happens when things are not going your way.
It was the end of Wednesday night and the beginning of Thursday and, when the sun came up Thursday morning, I was like, "Oh, hell yeah, you aren't going to stop me now." And the way that hell week works is, at least in my recollection of it, was it was very physically just super-duper hard in the first two, three days where it's just cold and they're yelling and it's nonstop. And I remember, Wednesday night, there was this evolution that we did where you just start to zone out and you start to just get into this automatic mode. And you're so sleep-deprived and you're night yourself and somehow, when that sun comes up Thursday morning, I was just like, "All right, I've got this," and, yeah, everything was just on cruise control from that point till Friday afternoon.
So, I graduate and, basically, you can put in what they call a dream sheet which is you can request which teams you want to go to. And back then everyone wanted to go to the teams that were the most chances of you actually going out and doing real world stuff and, at that time, it was SEAL Team 8. And so, obviously, my first pick was SEAL Team 8 and, oddly enough, I got it which was super exciting. Then I went from BUDS, because, technically, you're still not a SEAL yet. So, I had to go to Army's Airborne School where I learned my first lesson about army schools, and that the army can suck the fun out of anything. Even something as fun as jumping out of planes, they make it miserable.
And so, that was, I guess, three weeks long or something like that and then you go to your SEAL team. Obviously, it's changed a little bit since I was in it, but you would go to your SEAL team and you'd do something called SEAL Tactical Training, which was this advanced form of everything that you've learned up until this point. And, for some reason, I remember that being right around six months. I don't think the training was actually, I think the training was right around four months but, by the time I got there, waited for that class to start and that whole process.
And then you have to go through this really big test where, basically, they have these salty, old SEALs that are in this room and you walk into this room and they have maps and all kinds of guns completely disassembled, radios over in this corner. Just everything that you know would need to know and do as a SEAL and they quiz you on everything. And it's a very hard test, you're plotting stuff on maps while you're answering questions from this guy that completely have nothing to do with what you're doing right here and it's very stressful and long. I remember mine being in the neighborhood of, we broke even for food and then we came back, so I think it was right around six hours, four hours, six hours. It was really long and super stressful. And then at the end, they make me stand out in this hall while they all deliberate on whether or not they believe I'm ready to get my trident. And here's the thing, if you don't get that, if you don't pass that, then that could be it. You have made it all the way to this point and you're done. Or they may give you another chance or you get your trident so it's just really stressful.
And, yeah, I went back into that room and they're like, "Okay, you're good," and I was like, "Oh, my God." And then the next morning they pinned me in front of the whole SEAL team and it was a really an awesome experience and then, at that point, I'm officially a SEAL.
And then they put you in a platoon and the platoon is usually between 14 and 16 guys and then those group of guys are your family for the next year and a half. So, you'll spend a year training with them or there about, sometimes a little more, and it's all about sending you to different schools and then you all training together as a team.
And so, that's what that whole year is about and it's intense and it's fast-paced and it's really intense. And then you deploy for six months and you do what you've been training that whole time to do.
So, the Navy was really messed up then, it's not that way anymore. Now, SEALs have their own rates but, back then, SEALs didn't. So, first, I was a personnelman which was a secretary, really, to be honest with you and that was what the Navy trained me to be. But once I got to the SEAL teams, I was like, "There's no way I can study for this and have it applied to any" ... It was just a huge inconvenience to study for something that I had nothing to do with. And so, I thought the easiest one for me to do would be a quartermaster since a lot of it is just navigating and, basically, that's what you do a lot of as a SEAL.
So, I went to Quartermaster A school when I was a SEAL. And also, at that time, when you went to take your test, they would give you some points or a break or something like that because you were a SEAL because they knew that you weren't going to be able to study or you didn't work in your field. So, they cut you a little bit of slack.
My first deployment, I did what they call a strike platoon and my team was put on the Eisenhower battle group. And so, we would go and do stuff from the Eisenhower and then we would fly back and recoup and regroup and get all of our stuff cleaned up and ready and then we would deploy again from that carrier to wherever to do whatever for how long and then it was just six months of that. Although, we didn't spend a whole lot of time on the carrier. I think the longest we spent on that thing was maybe two weeks and, yeah, but then you're off doing something else which was really nice because I didn't like spending much time on those ships.
This whole time, I'm going through SEAL training and all this stuff leading up to this, I'm thinking, "Once I get there, then I'm a movie star, man. I don't have to do anything, I can just go be a cool guy and do cool guy stuff or whatever." And I don't know where that idea came from but, when I got there, the competition, it gets even more intense. The op level gets even more intense. Yeah, that was what was shocking to me was it wasn't this thing, this Hollywood thing that, I guess, I had in my head and it was actual, really hard work to, not only stay in the SEAL teams, but to be a good contributor to the team. So, that was what was surprising to me.
Pre 9/11, it was a lot of recon stuff and a lot of J sets, a lot of training. It wasn't as actiony when I went to go work for the CIA but we did do some pretty cool stuff. There was the whole Iraq and Iran, that situation was happening and so what was going on was they were smuggling oil out of Iraq and then selling it and it was funding that movement out there. They were called maritime interdiction operations and so we were taking down those ships which was ... That was real exciting and that was, actually, I feel like, a really great introduction into the SEAL experience.
There was this space of water where these boats had to go into international waters for brief, it was less than maybe 10 nautical miles. It's been a while so I can't remember exactly and then it would bounce right into Iranian water. So, it was this very difficult, very fast-paced, get in there, take control of the ship and take it further out into international waters where we would turn it over to NATO and then that oil gets ... I don't know, whatever NATO does with all that stuff is their thing.
So, yeah, it was intense and I remember one op in particular where we took down the boat and they tried to scuttle the ship, jump all that oil out into the ... They wanted to make a big international incident out of it. And so, our team, we had to work fast and quick and it was amazing what some of the guys on our team were able to do to take control of that ship and steer it even without the hydraulic systems and the ... They really tried to make that ship impossible to steer it. And we actually started floating very ... Well, I don't know what I can say about that op from that point on but it got really crazy as far as borders go and getting that boat into NATO hands.
So, usually what we would do is we would have a team that would fast rope onto the super structure of the ship and then we would have a team come up on a rib or on a SWCC boat and they would come on that way. So, one team would take control of the bridge and then the other team would go in and take control of the aft steering because that's another place where you can control the ship just like you can on the bridge. And then they would break off into teams where they would go and round up the crew and take and control of the crew and put them in a safe space where they couldn't try and do things like dump millions of gallons of oil into the ocean.
I remember how we trained and I remember we had one of this gnarly crash because we ended up using, at the time, it was just whatever asset we could use at the time. And I don't know how this happened, because this was way above my head, but we ended up with one of the ... It's the dual [inaudible]. That's the 47, right? Or R 46, yeah, thank you. So, we ended up with one of those and it was the one that would bring the mail to the different ships and it was the only one we had available at the time and so, yeah, that turned out to be just a awful, awful mistake. Because when you're flying a helicopter to get on a ship, especially a ship that's trying to ditch you, you have to stay relative with that ship as it's doing all these cuts and corners and stuff like that. I'm not a pilot, you would know better than I would, but it proved to be a very challenging thing for somebody that isn't used to that. And on one of the just getting ready to do those maritime interdiction operations that the helicopter clipped the AFN antenna on a USNS ship that we were practicing on and, yeah, that did not go. And then it just ended up crashing into the super structure of the ship and all the blades flew off. And at the time, I want to say we had two platoons practicing for that one but it was weird, nobody got hurt. And if you would've seen how high that super structure was and where it hit and then slid down, you would think, "Man, somebody, if not multiple people, are going to be dead," and, yeah, nobody.
And I happened to be the first person to fast rope off of that one because I was a breacher onto the superstructure and then somebody else fast roped behind me and then it clipped the thing and then it came down and, yeah.
So, right after 9/11 happened, I deployed with SEAL Team 8, two weeks, it was so fast. But what was crazy is we were already scheduled to deploy at that time anyways. And so, yeah, we already had everything packed and it was crazy, it was just boom and we were out the door. And when I came back from that deployment, everyone that was in that deployment with me went to SEAL Team 10, to commission SEAL Team 10 which is basically creating a whole new SEAL team. And that's basically what happened is we went from being SEAL Team 8 one day to the minute we got back from that deployment to being SEAL Team 10 and, yeah. And I didn't get to do a whole lot of work with SEAL Team 10. In fact, it was just a few months that I was there before they found out about me being gay. We did do stuff but we weren't where we wanted to be, let me put it that way.
So, here's the basis of what happened. So, the Navy finds out that I'm gay and I go through that whole investigation process and, basically, all my clearances, everything get pulled and I even have to be escorted on my team. It was really just an overall embarrassing… the way that I was ... It was just an awful experience. I eventually get cleared and I remember my SEAL team commander or the CEO of our SEAL team took me into his office because he was a very big supporter of mine, which I'll forever be grateful for, him and our master chief. And they brought me in the office and they're like, "Hey, man, we're all good, it's done. Apparently, a call from a senator makes all the difference in the world and what do you want to do because we can throw you in a platoon right now, get you out the door." And this was in 2003. So, you have to think about the timeframe. The repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell was still years and years away and, to me, at the time, it looked like that was never going to be a thing. And there were people that knew that I was gay now, it wasn't a secret. And there was high-ranking people that knew that I was gay and I just honestly felt that it would be a matter of time before anything, something, I don't know. As difficult as my life had been in the Navy up until that point with them, with the whole investigation of me being gay and all that, I couldn't imagine what it would be like for another, who knows, another 10 years until I retired.
So, I decided to get out and I feel, even to this day, that was the best thing that I could have done at that time given the timeframe and everything going on. And the CIA recruited me almost instantly. I got out and I was actually, technically, still in the Navy because I was on my terminal leave. I had two months of terminal leave and I was working at some ... I've always been really fascinated with the movie making process and filmmaking and all that and so I went to go work for this small little production company and I got recruited by the agency. They're like, "Hey, we have this program. It's called" ... Well, they called them GRS agents back then and it was basically part of their global response staff and, yeah.
And so I went and I did it, went through their application process, it was very fast and furious. From the minute I said yes, I was in a training program just a couple weeks later and then, right after that, I was on a plane to Iraq. And crazy enough, I was still in the Navy serving in Iraq for the agency and I was one of the first guys to get my clearance. I remember, the guys that came out, they did these clearances really quick back then because they just needed people. And I remember, I was brutally honest, I was like, "Look, man, I'm gay. I'm in a relationship with, I own a house with this and that," with this guy doing the background investigation and I thought for sure that I would never get my clearance. But two days after landing in Iraq, they came in and said, "Hey, your top secret clearance came through." I was like, "Damn, that's quick."
It's basically protecting people in high threat environments is really what the baseline of it is. Now, it gets complicated on different mission levels and all that stuff but, basically, it's going in, working with people within the agency who are trained to meet with and talk with shady people and our job was to go with them or bring them or to pick up for them shady people and that was really it. It was just protecting, it was all about keeping people alive was what that job was which was very rewarding, actually.
Unfortunately, there aren't any examples that I can share but I can tell you that the difference between working as a Navy SEAL and then going and working for the agency was. So, at a SEAL team, you have your operators, you have your Navy SEALs and then you have the support people that help with the administrative side and the motors, just this whole support staff behind these SEALs. And the difference being, when I was with the agency, is that support was much bigger and it wasn't felt as like, "Oh, we were the ones that" ... It was more of a team. The team felt much bigger and much wider. We would fight for a lot of little things in the SEAL teams, believe it or not. Things like new weapons or new sight systems and things like that. Whereas, at the agency, it honestly at times felt like all I had to do was ask for something and I would get it no matter how much it might have cost.
Oh, the guy that drove in and blew himself up? Yes, absolutely, I was in during that. In fact, one of the guys that was killed, one of the GRS guys, was a really good friend of mine, yeah. We went through what we call TDC together, it's this very difficult training that you had to do every year at the time to stay in that program. Yeah, and it's really sad. I saw a movie, he was depicted in some movie, I can't remember. Oh, maybe 13 ... No. God. And I remember watching that and just feeling that same damn sinky feeling where it feels like your heart disappears out of your chest and then there's that void or whatever when that day ... Golly, that was awful.
And I remember a guy that I worked with, they were actually ... Because he was a cop in Atlanta or somewhere around Atlanta and I remember him and this other cop that were on the program had worked together. So, they were in the military and then they got out, were cops and then went and did this whole thing with the agency and they had been cops together. I remember his reaction because we were roommates at the time when we heard and fuck, man, I don't know how to describe it to you other than it was literally having something in you just disappear instantly and then the emotions and how you deal with that. It was awful, it was a awful fucking day.
I saw the person get smoked that was the head one after that. And you think something like that will bring you peace and ending or whatever to it and it didn't, yeah.
So, I think, fortunately, at the time that that happened, I was deployed when it happened so I was around people that we could talk about it with. But even then, there's this whole bravado that you have to try to maintain that you're strong and this and that. And I remember I was in a relationship at the time and that person was what we call read in which means that I could talk to them about things like that and, yeah, I don't know. It's a loss, man. It's like losing a brother. You can talk, sure, yes, talking does help, I don't mean to discourage talking but a part of that is just time. It's just time and patience and try…
Even today, I get choked up thinking about it because it's still, even today, hurts a little bit, for sure, I miss them. And I try to, in those moments, focus on the things that I really enjoyed about them and, yeah.
I want to say that the most beautiful examples of leadership that I have seen are always people that, one, aren't afraid or don't. It's not even a matter of afraid or not, but do the same thing and you know will do the same thing that you're being asked to do but also the ones that have compassion and love, really. I don't want to make it sound corny or anything like that but there is a whole lot of leadership lessons to be learned in compassion. And I think those are examples that I had seen throughout my whole career and even now are the ones that I really try to emulate and to be like is, yeah, those who were fierce but also compassionate.