Brett Chappell has the distinct presence of a quiet professional. His eyes are always attentive, alert to everything around him. He looks you directly in the eyes when speaking, always giving you his full attention while still maintaining his situational awareness. If you know what to look for, you see all of the wheels in motion. He is ever-vigilant and confident with a very relaxed demeanor. There is an overt athleticism that compliments his overall presence.
Brett has taken these natural qualities and their refinement made possible by the rigors of becoming a Navy SEAL, and he has restructured and adapted them to the classroom. He is currently teaching science under Teach for America.
His story is an inspiration not only for veterans who are leaving the service, but also for anyone who is interested in service to a noble cause. Brett believes that education has stimulated his desire to serve and to make his nation a better place. He is a man of action, and he chooses to channel that energy into making service a personal challenge, with positive results for all who are involved.
Brett has been a competitor since his youth. He was brought up on a dry land farm in Colorado, doing labor-intensive work that helped mold him into a three-sport varsity athlete. His competitive spirit was led by his father, a star athlete who made competition part of the DNA for Brett and his brothers. Brett ended up pursuing a baseball scholarship and played for four years, but he was a restless student. He felt he was searching for something.
The world changed for Brett in December of 1989 when the United States invaded Panama in the action code-named Operation Just Cause. This was the effort to rid Panama of General Manuel Noriega. Panama was being used as a supply center for drugs going north to the United States. There was a concern for all the U.S. citizens living in the canal zone. In Washington, Noriega was perceived to have declared a state of war between Panama and the United States. These concerns and the deaths of several U.S. military personnel put Operation Just Cause into gear. Brett had heard about the Navy SEALs and their battle at the Punta Paitilla Airport, along with the destruction of Noriega’s private jet and his Panamanian gunboat. He was very interested in who these Navy SEALs were and what they did.
Shortly after, through one of his baseball contacts, Brett attended a party where he had his first encounter with a couple of Navy SEALs. He was very impressed with the way they acted. They stood out among all the others because they carried themselves with that quiet confidence that Brett so respected.
He began to question his own behavior. He was always a big athlete, though he was not as motivated in school at the time. He began to ask himself how he stood up against these silent warriors, and found himself lacking. The tadpole who was to become a Navy SEAL was growing.
The tadpole grew legs when he noticed a story on the cover of Muscle and Fitness magazine about BUD/s (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) Training, called: “The Toughest School in the World”. The story hooked Brett. The tadpole began his transition into becoming a Navy Frog. The United States began Operation Desert Storm, under the Presidency of George Bush the elder, on the second of August 1990. Within days, Brett was at the Navy recruiter’s office in Tucson to join the Navy and become a SEAL. But first he had to get through boot camp. It was a different time back then, and there was no designated route or contracts to BUD/s. Brett had to first finish a source rating A school that was compatible with becoming a SEAL and then he could apply to BUD/s.
Brett had no doubt about the SEALs. This was the group he wanted to be a part of for his service. No other SOF groups interested him – only the SEALs. He was 24 years old when he finally got his orders to Coronado to attend BUD/s. Brett has pointed out that at that time there was much more mystery to BUD/s, so he really did not know much more than common scuttlebutt about what happened during training. But he had no doubt that this would be a life-changing experience.
Brett was originally in class 183, but due to a case of cellulitis, he was rolled back to class 184. He started BUD/s on December 27, 1991 and graduated on October 23, 1992 – as the Honor Man of his class. (This is the man who excels through each evolution.) Brett was the fastest four mile runner in his BUD/s class. He was also part of the second fastest swim pair in his class. When Brett realized that he was not the fastest, he approached the fastest swimmer in his class and asked to be his swim partner. With the added push of his swim partner he excelled and pushed himself to make Honor Man. He was also the only Honor Man to come from a different class than his original class.
Brett had some interesting men in his class. One of his friends and classmates was Neil Roberts, Bowswain’s Mate 1st Class, who was killed atop the Takur Ghar mountains in Afghanistan in March of 2002 during the Battle of Takur Ghar. In the honor due to Neil, being the first casualty of this battle, it is now known as the Battle of Roberts Ridge. When they graduated from BUD/s, Brett and Neil rode together in Neil’s Pathfinder from Coronado to jump school in Georgia. Neil had the distinction of having the fastest time on the obstacle course in their class, and at the time it was a BUD/s record.
What is most revealing, and not expected, was how much boot camp impacted Brett’s ideas from the military. He told me a story about when he was in a dive class and a Master Chief asked everyone what made the SEALs so special. Brett said that most of the responses were what we might all expect—they were tough, bad ass, enduring warfighters. But this was not the Chief’s answer. He told them it was Navy boot camp, because it taught them attention to detail – from shining shoes to folding clothes, paying attention all the time to everything is what made the SEALs a special breed.
Brett went on to join SEAL Team Eight. He served with the team from the second week in December 1992 until he left the SEALs in 1995.
So why did Brett leave the Teams? He is an observant and competitive human being. He loved what he was doing, but as he told me, there was not much going on when he was with the Teams. When you train and train, you would like to put those skills to work. There were things going on in the world, but there was a lot of competition for SOF groups to take the jobs. There was also a funding problem at that time for the Navy, and particularly the SEALs. Brett thought about reenlisting but he was also thinking about the fact that he had not finished his college degree, and that haunted him. He wanted to be the best, be a winner, and this tugged at him when he thought about reenlisting. It had not gone unnoticed how much more money the officers were making and how different their lives were compared to the enlisted men.
It was a tough decision for him, but he left the SEALs and headed back to the farm in Colorado. It was during this time that Brett bought a truck from a fellow baseball player and his life was to again change dramatically. He found himself working for a dealership as a finance manager and was making big money, which then brought him into the position of General Sales Manager. He was doing really well, making big numbers and his lifestyle took a steep turn upward. He was in his early thirties and he had toys, homes, and all that went along with a money-fueled lifestyle. He was living the life.
And then the market and economy started to take a nose dive. Money dried up, people could not get loans, and the business just collapsed from within. Brett started taking stock of what was going on and he realized that his life was at another crossroads. The idea of going back to school and finishing his degree became not only a good economic move, but part of a soul-searching that made him redefine what was important to him in the long run.
It was at Arizona State University (ASU), when Brett was taking an elective class on leadership and change, that he reached another defining moment in his life and in his career. He realized that he wanted to make a difference. He wanted to do a service that would impact the lives of others in a positive manner. Coincidentally, around this time he received a letter from the President of ASU for his academic excellence, suggesting that he consider the program Teach For America. It was a two year obligation that would involve teaching underprivileged and immigrant children—children who would be a challenge for a normal teacher. Brett was hooked, and signed on for the program. This would be his way to serve, by bringing the skills he learned in the military—lead from the front and by example.
Brett will complete a Masters degree in May 2014 and is looking to pursue his Doctorate. When his Teach for America contact is done, he would like to continue to become a full-time teacher and student at ASU. He told me he was as proud to complete his educational goals as much as he was to have his Trident pinned on him.
In keeping with a SEAL profile, Brett is a Gray Man about his life as a SEAL. He blends in with the students and the other teachers. He realizes that he is the new guy in this environment, and he soaks up all the information that he can.
Brett is a man who wants to give back to his fellow citizens and have the chance to influence them in their education and their lives. Brett has taken all of the best of the military and never given up on making himself a better citizen.
This is one path, of one man, but it is a lesson for all us. If we want to make this country a better place, a better nation, then we must give of ourselves. And the burden falls especially upon those of us who have served in uniform. We must remember those fundamentals we all learned in basic training and forge ahead, like Brett Chappell, leading from the front and by example.