By JEFF PICKELL
Underwater. In the air. On the ground. A Navy SEAL is trained to operate in almost any environment, no matter how seemingly inhospitable.
Students learned about the life of a SEAL when lieutenant John Waggoner visited Gorham Fayette middle school last month for a question-and-answer session. The Sandusky native is a friend of Fayette teacher Brittan Bosco, who arranged for the visit.
Lt. Waggoner recently returned home from a tour of duty in Iraq, where he and his team carried out assignments in locations spanning the entire embattled country. He spoke much about his experiences in the Middle East, but as a 10-year armed forces veteran, he had tales to tell of serving on every continent except Antarctica. Some of his most interesting stories occurred on his home soil.
Lt. Waggoner first joined the Navy in 1996 at the age of 17, when he enrolled in the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He told students he had considered serving in the armed forces throughout his youth, but knew that to get accepted to any of the nation’s three prestigious military colleges, he would have to excel in high school.
“I did very well in high school,” he said. “I finished close to the top of my class.”
In high school, Lt. Waggoner said, language arts was his least favorite topic. However, he warmed up to it when it became apparent how challenging the math and science courses were in the Naval Academy.
“For the first time in my life, I had encountered an academic subject I wasn’t good with,” he said of an engineering course. “It really opened my eyes.”
It was the first in a series of challenges he would have to overcome in his career in the Navy. Originally, Lt. Waggoner had planned to train as a Naval aviator, but later decided to try his hand as a SEAL—short for sea, air and land. However, the path to earning the designation of one of the nation’s most elite commandos included enduring one of the most severe and exhausting training programs in the world.
For instance, recruits were sometimes forced to physically train until 3 a.m., which wouldn’t have been too bothersome if they were not expected to report for duty at 5 a.m, Lt. Waggoner said.
He spoke of one episode in which he and a fellow recruit were at the brink of throwing in the towel. They were in the middle of a particularly exhaustive exercise, and neither aspiring soldier could stop making small procedural errors. As drill instructors assigned them more and more push-ups, Lt. Waggoner said he questioned his will to go on.
“Thankfully, we got through it and pulled ourselves together,” he said.
After serving as a SEAL for several years, Lt. Waggoner now understands why the training was so intensive, so physically and mentally draining.
He has endured three-month stints on submarines, where conditions were so cramped that he felt like he couldn’t move without jostling someone. He has gone 50 straight days without a shower. He has awoken from a slumber to find distressingly large camel spiders in his boots.
In Iraq, Lt. Waggoner saw many instances of violence, but he has not been injured in the line of duty.
“On the front line, there are a lot of bad guys there who love to shoot their guns,” he said.
During reconnaissance operations conducted via helicopter, Lt. Waggoner saw car bombs detonated in the distance.
When a student asked if Lt. Waggoner had shot anyone, the veteran replied hesitantly.
“I knew that question was coming and I said I would be honest and the answer is ‘yes,’” he said. “It is a thing we regret. Any veteran will tell you when you are called to do it that it is a difficult thing to do.”
“I would suggest not asking that of any other veterans,” he said.
After a decade in the military, Lt. Waggoner is now at a point where he can choose to go back to combat or retire from active duty. As a SEAL and a graduate of one of the best colleges in the country, he is in demand. Several private companies have offered him consulting positions. He is also considering attending medical or law school.
Lt. Waggoner acknowledged that he chose an uncommon path in life, and encouraged students not to shy away from the road less traveled.
“Enjoy yourselves,” he said, “don’t be afraid to get involved in different activities.”– June 13, 2007