BEFORE HE COULD FORGE A BAND OF ELITE WARRIORS… HE HAD TO BECOME ONE HIMSELF.
Brandon Webb’s experiences in the world’s most elite sniper corps are the stuff of legend. From his grueling years of training in Naval Special Operations to his combat tours in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan, The Red Circle provides a rare and riveting look at the inner workings of the U.S. military through the eyes of a covert operations specialist.
Yet it is Webb’s distinguished second career as a lead instructor for the shadowy “sniper cell” and Course Manager of the Navy SEAL Sniper Program that trained some of America’s finest and deadliest warriors—including Marcus Luttrell and Chris Kyle—that makes his story so compelling. Luttrell credits Webb’s training with his own survival during the ill-fated 2005 Operation Redwing in Afghanistan. Kyle went on to become the U.S. military’s top marksman, with more than 150 confirmed kills.
From a candid chronicle of his student days, going through the sniper course himself, to his hair-raising close calls with Taliban and al Qaeda forces in the northern Afghanistan wilderness, to his vivid account of designing new sniper standards and training some of the most accomplished snipers of the twenty-first century, Webb provides a rare look at the making of the Special Operations warriors who are at the forefront of today’s military.
Explosive, revealing, and intelligent, The Red Circle provides a uniquely personal glimpse into one of the most challenging and secretive military training courses in the world.
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Brandon Webb is a former U.S. Navy SEAL; his last assignment with the SEALs was Course Manager for the elite SEAL Sniper Course, where he was instrumental in developing new curricula that trained some of the most accomplished snipers of the twenty-first century. Webb has received numerous distinguished service awards, including the Presidential Unit Citation and the Navy Commendation Medal with a “V” for “Valor,” for his platoon’s deployment to Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks. He is editor for Military.com’s blog Kit Up, SOFREP’s Editor in Chief, and a frequent national media commentator on snipers and related Special Operations Forces military issues.
John David Mann, who collaborated with Webb in writing The Red Circle, is an award-winning author whose titles include the New York Times bestseller Flash Foresight and the international bestseller The Go-Giver.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
RITE OF PASSAGE
Every culture has its rites of passage.
Native American adolescents journeyed into the wilderness for days on end in vision quests aimed at gaining life direction from an animal spirit, or totem, through a fast-induced dream. For Australian aborigines it was the walkabout, young males trekking the outback for as long as six months to trace the ceremonial paths, or dreaming tracks, taken by their ancestors. Mormon boys ages nineteen to twenty-five are sent around the world for two years to do full-time mission work.
For me, it was shorter and simpler. My rite of passage came when I was thrown off a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean by my dad, a few weeks past my sixteenth birthday. I had to find my own path home from that oceanic wilderness, and it turned out to be a path that ultimately led to the most elite sniper corps in the world.
I don’t know if you’d call that a dreaming track, exactly, but you could say it was a path taken by my ancestors, at least in one sense: My father was thrown out of the house at age sixteen by his father, too. And I suppose the only way to make sense out of my story is to start with him.
* * *
Jack Webb grew up in Toronto, short, strong, and stocky. A talented hockey player and avid drummer, he was always a bit of a wild man. A true child of the sixties, Jack grew out his full black beard as soon as his hormones would cooperate. His father hewed to old-fashioned values and threatened to kick Jack out if he didn’t cut his beard and long hair. When my father refused, out he went.
My grandfather may have thrown his son out, but he didn’t succeed in changing his mind. To this day my dad still sports a full beard, though its black is now flecked with gray.
Now on his own, Jack made his way from Toronto to Malibu, where he picked up landscaping jobs and soon had his own company. Driving home from a job one day, he picked up three young hippie girls hitchhiking. One of them, a free spirit named Lynn, became his wife.
After they married, my parents moved up to British Columbia to the little ski town of Kimberley, just north of Vancouver, where he took a job as a guide at a hunting lodge, despite the fact that he knew absolutely nothing about hunting. The guy who hired him said, “Look, don’t worry about it. Stay on the trail, and you’ll be fine.” He was. His first time out, he took a small group into the Canadian Rockies, pointing out all sorts of wildlife along the way. When they got back, the group told my dad’s boss he’d hired the greatest guide in the world. They didn’t know he was flat-out winging it.
Soon Jack was working construction, and on the job he taught himself everything there was to know about building houses. In those days, if you were a builder you did it all—pouring the foundation, framing, wiring, drywall, plumbing, roofing, everything from A to Z. Jack had never graduated high school, but he was a resourceful man with a big appetite for learning, and he soon became an accomplished builder with his own company, High Country Construction.
It was about this time that I came into the picture, followed a few years later by my sister, Rhiannon, and once I arrived on the scene my mother’s life became considerably more complicated.
Free spirit though she may be, my mother has always been fiercely loyal to me and my sister, and to my dad, too, as far as that was possible. I always felt completely loved and supported by her, even through the difficulties to come.
My mother has also always been very entrepreneurial. She opened up a restaurant with my dad’s sister, and later, when we lived in Washington for a while, she had her own boat maintenance business, sanding and varnishing the boats and keeping the woodwork in good condition. She wrote and published her own cookbook for boaters, The Galley Companion. Later still, when I worked on a California dive boat in my teens, she held a job there as head cook.
One more thing about my mom: She has always had a great sense of humor.
She would have had to, to cope with me.
* * *
I was born on June 12, 1974, screaming at the top of my tiny lungs, and I screamed for weeks. For the next ten months I stayed awake every night from ten till seven the next morning, yelling my head off, at which point I would sleep blissfully through the day while my mom recovered from the night’s battle fatigue. My parents did everything they could to keep me awake during the day so they would have a shot at getting me to sleep at night. Didn’t matter. It wasn’t going to happen.
According to my mom, I was as wild as the Canadian landscape. I started crawling at six months and crawled everywhere. My mom talks about a study she heard about, where they put babies on a glass counter to see how far they would crawl. Nearly all the babies would stop when they got close to the edge—but the last 1 percent went crawling off into thin air every time.
“That 1 percent?” she says. “That was Brandon.”
I started walking at nine months, and there was not a gate or door that could hold me. My mom bought every childproof lock she could find, but evidently “childproof” did not mean “Brandon-proof.” She had doorknobs that even she couldn’t open, but I always managed to get through them. She would lock me into my high chair, but if she stepped into the bathroom for even a moment, I’d be gone when she returned.
By eighteen months I discovered the joys of climbing and found I could climb up, over, and into pretty much anything. This ability, combined with my easy friendship with locks and predilection for drinking anything I could get my hands on, added up to quite a few visits to the emergency room to have my little toddler-sized stomach pumped. Among the beverages I sampled during those early years were kerosene, bleach, and Avon honeysuckle after-bath splash. I’m not saying this is a method I would endorse or recommend, but I am convinced that this is why I have always been able to hold my liquor and have never had a problem with addiction. By the time I was three, the hospital emergency room staff and my mom knew each other on a first-name basis.
When my mom was pregnant with my sister, my dad built an enclosure with a swing and what he thought was a Brandon-proof gate. (There’s that term again: “Brandon-proof.” Hadn’t they learned?) My mom still doesn’t know how I got out, since she was sitting right there reading a book—but she looked up and I was gone: I had crawled under a barbed-wire fence, scooted down a steep hill, and was out of sight.
My mother was wild with fear. Seven months pregnant, she knew there was no way she could get under that barbed-wire fence, and she didn’t have any wire cutters. The night before, she and my father had seen a pack of coyotes ranging around, and now all she could think of was how her tiny son would make a tasty little coyote meal. The only reason she spotted me was that I was wearing a red sweatshirt. Somehow she managed to coax me back up the hill and under the fence so she could grab me, crying hysterically and at the same time wanting to beat me.
From my earliest years, I always had a penchant for danger and physical extremes, and it made my poor mother’s life a living hell. She likes to say that when I was little, she was the victim of parent abuse. She once called Social Services on herself when I had driven her to the edge with my behavior. She explained to the poor lady on the phone that her two-year-old son was driving her so crazy, she was about to hurt him. The social worker spent a week at our house observing, but I behaved like an angel for those seven days, and she left thinking my mom must be crazy.
It didn’t take long for my parents to figure out that while they couldn’t control my wild energy, they could channel it. Once they saw how madly in love I was with skiing, they knew they’d stumbled on the parenting strategy that would serve us all well for years to come: If they could get me involved in every sports activity possible, maybe it would keep me out of trouble. It did, too—at least for a while.
By age five I was on a ski team, and by age seven I had piled wrestling, football, baseball, swim, and track teams onto my athletic schedule. Later, as an adult, I found I have a love of extreme sports. The steeper the ski slope, the larger the wave, the higher the cliff, the more difficult the jump from the plane or helicopter—the more danger and adrenaline involved, the more I want to try to conquer it. In my thirties, I would channel that same impulse into a drive to conquer huge goals in the entrepreneurial world. At the age of five, my Mount Everest was a 2,500-foot hill called North Star Mountain.
My earliest memories are of the crisp cold in my face and the sibilant schusss of the snow under my skis as I flew down the face of North Star. Every day, during the long months of ski season, my mom would pick me up from kindergarten and drive us straight out to the slopes. We had a season pass, and we used up every penny of it.
Less than half the height of its more famous neighbors, Whistler and Blackcomb, North Star is not really much of a mountain, but I didn’t know that. To me, it seemed vast and inexhaustible. When I think back on my early childhood, what I remember most are the countless afternoons on my bright yellow Mickey Mouse K2 skis, exploring every trail and out-of-the-way patch of what seemed to me an endless world of snow and adventure.
My best friend at the time was a kid named Justin, who was as devoted to skiing as I was. We would spend every afternoon we could exploring North Star together. Justin and I got into ski racing and joined a team. By the time we were in first grade, our team was competing in tournaments at Whistler, and I was winning those races. My mom still has some first-place ribbons I took at Whistler at the age of six.
I don’t think my mom was joking when she called Social Services, but the truth is, she would never have hurt me, no matter how bad I got. With my father, it was a different story.
I was not exactly scared of my dad, but I knew he was in charge and not afraid to whip out his belt and get after me when he thought I needed it. Over the years, my backside and my dad’s leather belt really got to know each other. Today, now that I’m a parent myself, I believe in discipline just as much as my dad did—although instead of a spanking, my kids’ punishment is push-ups. My ten-year-old son can knock out more push-ups than most adults I know.
Although my dad was very strict, he was also not afraid to hug me and tell me he loved me. He was a good father, and I have a lot of happy memories of him from those early years.
When my dad went out on construction job site visits, he often took me with him, and I loved it. It always felt like an adventure, just me and my dad going on trips to these serious grown-up work sites—and they were great places to pick up colorful new ways of using the English language. I also went along when he played gigs with his country rock band, Jack the Bear, of which he was the drummer and principal sponsor. Jack the Bear played to a pretty rough-and-tumble crowd in the rural backcountry taverns of the Canadian Rockies. By the age of five I had the mouth of a sailor. Typically I would stay in the bar for the first set, and then Dad would tuck me in for the night in our VW Westphalia van outside with the family dog, Shy, where I would lie awake listening to the music and voices until finally fading off into sleep.
Best of all, there was hockey.
My dad has always been an outstanding hockey player. During those early years he was captain of his hockey team, and I would go with him when they would play their games, which were typically pretty late at night. It was a working league and the players all had their full-time jobs, so that was the only time they could play.
I was only five, but no matter how late it was, I never got tired at my dad’s hockey practice. I would go through the place looking for lost pucks or fish for quarters and play the big, brand-new Atari Asteroids video game console they had there. Crawling around, exploring every inch of the place, it felt a lot like being up on the mountain, only in a way this was even better, because I was there with my dad. After practice we would go hang out in the locker room, surrounded by sweaty hockey players who were cursing and laughing and cracking beers. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. It was just us, just the guys.
I could tell my dad really enjoyed having me there. I looked up to him, and in many ways, he was my hero.
Then, about the time I turned six, our lives changed.
* * *
My father had always been into sailing. My parents had a dream of sailing around the world, and business was now doing so well they decided it was time to take a few years off and hit the water, just the four of us, to make that dream into a reality. We owned a beautiful 60-foot Sparkman & Stephens ketch, which he kept moored on the California coast; why not let that become our new home as we circled the globe?
Just as we were getting ready to leave, my dad decided to do one more big project. My mother objected, but my dad prevailed: One last gig, he said, and that would really set us up. A group of investors was going to put up the money, so he took out a large construction loan and built the place. Then the recession of 1980 hit—and the project collapsed. My dad was left with the bill and no investors. He tried to negotiate with the bank. He kept trying for two years. They came and took our house. My dad declared bankruptcy and we lost everything.
Being so young at the time, I didn’t quite grasp what was happening, and nobody ever sat me down and said, “Brandon, we’re ruined, wiped out.” Even so, there was an ominous undercurrent that I couldn’t have missed.
I remember going into the bank one day with my dad to close our accounts—the same bank he’d been wrestling with for the past year—because we were about to move away from Kimberley. One of these was a savings account he had opened for me some two years earlier.
This had been quite a big deal for both of us when we opened it. “Look, Brandon,” I remember him telling me, “this is your first savings account. We’re opening it in your name—this is going to be your money.” He showed me the passbook and the first line, where he had entered the initial deposit. “Now you get to watch it grow.” I was so excited about it, and I could tell he was, too.
Now, when we asked where it stood, my dad was informed it had a zero balance.
“What?” he practically shouted at the teller. He was livid. “How is that possible?”
I don’t remember how much he had put in there in the first place, but it wasn’t much, and whatever it was had been wiped out by monthly fees, without my dad realizing it. He had wanted to teach me a life lesson about how you can invest and save—but the only lesson I learned that day was about how you can get wiped out without even realizing it.
When I was seven we left Canada for good, moving to a little town called Blaine, jammed right up into the northwest corner of Washington state, where we began the painful process of starting over.
As huge a change as this financial collapse was for my parents, it crept up on Rhiannon and me only gradually. It was only now, when we picked up and moved to Washington, that I began to realize that something pretty serious was going on here. No more Jack the Bear gigs or late-night hockey practi...
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