2 SEALS grew up, served, died together

  • Article by: THOM SHANKER , New York Times
  • Updated: August 8, 2011 - 9:53 AM

Two SEALs had been friends since high school.

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A flag in Norfolk, Va., flew at half-staff Sunday in honor of the SEALs killed in Afghanistan when their helicopter was shot down.

Photo: Ross Taylor, Associated Press

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WASHINGTON - They came from the same town, Shreveport, La. They were high school friends. Both men, Robert James Reeves and Jonas Kelsall, overcame extreme tests and rigorous training to serve on the same elite SEAL team. Both were assigned the same mission, and put in the same helicopter, only to die together Saturday.

The helicopter crash in Afghanistan that killed 30 U.S. servicemen, including 22 members of the Navy's most elite counterterrorism unit, brought the pain of a double loss to a Louisiana river port this weekend.

Chief Petty Officer Reeves, who had turned 32 just days ago, was accepted for naval special warfare training in 1999. He passed the harsh winnowing process to qualify for SEAL Team 6, the counterterrorism unit that conducted the raid into Pakistan on May 2 that killed Osama bin Laden.

"He was always very gregarious -- a star soccer and lacrosse player in high school," said his father, James W. Reeves. "It had never been obvious to me that he was going to choose a military career. It is very difficult to make it on these SEAL teams. But that was where he knew he needed to be."

Robert Reeves had been deployed to the war zone more than a dozen times in the 10 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, earning four Bronze Stars for bravery and meritorious service.

Since their freshman year of high school, Reeves had been best friends with Kelsall, who also enlisted in the Navy, tried out for the SEALs and passed the trials to join Team 6.

He then chose the route of officer training, and had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander by the time the unit was sent into the rugged Tangi Valley of Wardak Province, just west of Kabul, for what became his last mission.

The last time Reeves' family had seen him was during a Christmas reunion in Shreveport, and even then he did not talk about the specifics of those missions, in keeping with the highly secretive nature of the Navy SEALs. In triumph and in tragedy, members of the special operations community do not speak of their work. In fact, many had expressed frustration with the jubilant atmosphere after the May 2 raid that killed Bin Laden, marked by fist-pumping and chest-pounding from some politicians and a few retired members of the SEALs. Yes, going after high-value target No. 1 was a supreme tactical success; but, no, in this line of work, you just do not talk shop.

So it was not surprising that when the fate of SEAL Team 6 was reversed on Saturday, there was only private mourning across the insular special operations community.

"There is no more closely knit community than the Navy SEALs," said Thomas W. O'Connell, a former assistant secretary of defense overseeing special operations forces, who also noted that all of the military's secretive counterterrorism units "develop such amazingly tight bonds that cannot be easily comprehended by the average citizen."

While the downing of the Chinook helicopter carrying the SEALs, which also claimed the lives of Army and Air Force personnel, "will be a deep scar indeed," O'Connell said, "Trust me: They will continue on in the finest traditions of their respective services."

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