Each year I select a person that I believe has contributed to the common good, as seen through a military filter. Sometimes the choice is easy, sometimes it is controversial, and sometimes it is just plain difficult. Deciding on a choice for 2009 was difficult. There were a lot of heroes.
The year was marked by highs and lows. A new President took office, allowing the country to shed the shameful cloak of racial discrimination in the process. A former Air Force officer landed a crippled commercial airliner in the Hudson River against all odds and without the loss of a single life. Victory in Iraq was – for all intents and purposes – assured, so much so that combat forces began to be redeployed ahead of schedule. By 2010, all combat forces will be out of the country, in according with the Status of Forces agreement. In December, for the first time since the beginning of the war in 2003, there were no combat related deaths in Iraq.
But the war in Afghanistan heated up and casualties began to increase. The economy slowed to a crawl. Terrorist attacks – successful and unsuccessful – took place on U.S. soil. A few days before Easter, Somali pirates attempted to take control of a U.S. flagged tanker in the Indian Ocean. The subsequent events galvanized the nation.
The 21 man crew disabled the ship and evaded the pirates on board, locking themselves in a steering gear compartment. Only the skipper, Captain Richard Phillips, remained outside and offered himself as a hostage in return for release of the rest of the crew. The pirates agreed and boarded the Maersk Alabama’s lifeboat with the captain in tow. His ransom was set at two million dollars.
Enter the U.S. Navy.
Naval forces were scrambled to intercept the pirates. USS BAINBRIDGE arrived on scene the next day and began negotiating with the four pirates. A SEAL team was flown in, parachuted into the sea, and was picked up by BAINBRIDGE.
As the pirates began to run short of food and fuel and the seas began to increase, the pirates agreed to be resupplied by small boat and towed by BAINBRIDGE into calmer waters (and away from the Somali coast). Initially, the distance between the two vessels was around 200 feet. As darkness fell, the tow rope was shortened by half. The SEAL snipers watched through night vision scopes.
The President had authorized the use of deadly force if the hostage was determined to be in imminent danger.
When the SEALs had a clear shot at all three remaining pirates (one pirate had requested medical assistance and had been brought aboard the Navy ship), and when one of them was seen pointing a weapon at Captain Phillips, the snipers fired.
Three shots. Three kills. Shortly afterwards Captain Phillips was brought aboard BAINBRIDGE and safety.
Through all the events of 2009, none that I can recall had such a dramatic and cathartic effect on the entire nation. At a recent speech I showed a picture of Richard Phillips aboard BAINBRIDGE and before I could utter a word the crowd erupted as one in a loud and prolonged ovation. They were applauding the performance of the Navy, the SEALs, and the professionalism of the U.S. military in general. They were cheering the fact that in a world fixated on bad news, there in the choppy waters of the Indian Ocean the good guys had won.
It was a riveting, proud moment for the Navy and the country, and it sent a powerful message to the vermin who live in the dark shadows. The Navy had come to the rescue thousands of miles from home to save lives, protect commerce and deliver a breathtaking blow to piracy as the world watched. But more than that, the act symbolized the power and effectiveness of of the American military, held in check through discipline and ethical restraint until force becomes necessary.
So in the end, the Broadside Person of the Year wasn’t such a difficult choice after all. But it’s not a person, it is a group of people. The crew of USS BAINBRIDGE and the embarked SEAL team – and all they represent – are our persons of the year.