By Rob Greer
Rorke Denver, former Navy SEAL turned author, will visit the Bay Area for three events.
A star on the U.S. Navy SEAL teams arrives soon in the Bay Area. Rorke Denver acquired his status an old-fashioned way: he fought to win it by a code he has embraced in full. Recently, a few other SEALs, after serving their nation well, chose next to serve themselves by seeking fame and fortune in a way that ignored promises made to the service. But Denver, a 14-year veteran, served the brotherhood by hewing to channels and procedures when he played a lead role in the 2012 hit action movie, “Act of Valor,” then published a memoir, “Damn Few — Making the Modern SEAL warrior,” (four weeks on the New York Times best-seller list in spring). Cmdr. Denver will appear at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park on the evening of July 9; at Books Inc. — Opera Plaza on July 10; and at the Commonwealth Club on July 11. Among other topics, he plans to talk about the rough and vigorous training that produces an effective SEAL, principles of leadership that can apply in every situation and the role of special ops in present and future warfare.
Q: Rorke, you grew up in Los Gatos, in the Bay Area. How did that background shape you?
A: The Silicon Valley phenom was still getting underway in the ’70s and ’80s, but it already had set a tone. Almost any accomplishment seemed possible, as long as you were intellectually ready to jump in there, be creative and compete. This is a hyper-bright part of the world, and I couldn’t help but feel inspired.
Q: And how did California at large nurture you?
A: Oh, I rambled all over the place with my dad and brother, fishing on the Klamath, camping and skiing in the Sierra, working and playing on ranches south of San Juan Bautista. I really found my center through intense physical activity. Playing water polo on a championship team in high school was huge, and I went on to compete at championship lacrosse in college.
Q: Sounds ideal.
A: Big parts of my youth weren’t so easy. I was hyperactive, probably would be diagnosed with ADHD today. I struggled with math, and still have problems with numbers today. Let me put it this way — when I was on active duty, I made sure I was not the one to call in grid coordinates for an air strike.
Q: How did you decide to join the SEALs? My senior year in college — I was a fine arts major at Syracuse — my dad sent me a copy of Winston Churchill’s “My Early Life.” And it felt like Churchill was talking right to me, about the importance of doing service to earn your citizenship, about taking one’s place in the fighting line. As I say in my book, my first thought was, where do I sign up?
Q: Over your 14 years and 200 missions with the Teams, you have fought against drug cartels in Latin America, defended citizens from rampaging mobs in Africa, and confronted jihadis in Iraq and Afghanistan. How does one handle the stress of combat?
A: To start with, guys in the SEAL brotherhood are warriors, they stress over things like not doing a job well, letting a teammate down or failing to complete the mission, not any physical danger. We train so intensely, and to such an extreme degree of realism, that moments of actual fighting become just a natural response, it’s what we’ve trained to do. Beyond that, it varies from person to person. One thing we all do is tactical breathing. You inhale slowly to a count of four, hold for a count of four and exhale to a count of four. A few iterations of that, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to bring your heart rate down.
Q: You not only commanded a Team in combat, you wound up in charge of basic and advanced training on the base at Coronado. Any tips you can provide on leadership?
A: Many books out there talk about character, which is fine. But it’s not enough to be, you also have to do. My number one thing? Develop judgment. Evaluate a situation and make a good choice, and you’ve got a better chance of attaining a good result. Another huge element is trust. If your folks don’t trust you, there’s little you can do to get past that. But establish trust, and it goes both ways. You empower them to do a job without micromanaging — which is you trusting them back. How do you build it? Set an example. If you want your people to look sharp in uniform, be the sharpest one in the line. If you want them to be early, you be the earliest. If fit, make sure that you’re the fittest.
Q: Even though you were a college athlete and on SEAL Teams, both famed as hard-drinking, hard-partying groups, you reveal in “Damn Few” you’ve always been a teetotaler. Why?
A: In my youth, I saw talented men and women completely derail their lives and the lives of their families through alcohol. I decided not to touch it. Sometimes I feel jealous of those who can enjoy a glass of fine wine with dinner — it looks like a good pairing. But I need to acknowledge that mine is an intense personality. If I drank, I don’t think I’d turn into the jovial, garrulous type of Irishman. I’d be more the mad and brawling type. It wouldn’t be good.
Q: The U.S. military seems intent on allowing women to join the Special Forces. What’s your opinion on that development?
A: The brotherhood of SEAL Teams is a living entity that few understand. We may be gentlemen around our wives and civilians, but once among ourselves it gets rough and Spartan real fast, with hard jokes and constantly soaking each other in toughness and fire. My opinion is that that spirit just won’t come out of a coed locker room, and we must think long and hard before we do anything to impair it. Proceed with caution. Maybe the way to go is to make an all-female tactical unit, see how that works out first.
There will be three opportunities to see Rorke Denver speak and read:
• Tuesday, July 9, 7:30 p.m., Kepler’s Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, (650) 324-4321, www.keplers.com.
• Wednesday, July 10, 7:00 p.m., Books Inc., Opera Plaza store, 601 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, (415) 776-1111, www.booksinc.net/SFOpera.
• Thursday, July 11, 6 p.m., The Commonwealth Club, 595 Market St., second floor, San Francisco. Admission: $7 (students), $8 (club members), $20 (non-members). Evening starts with reception at 5:30 p.m., ends after book-signing, 7 p.m. (415) 597-6705, www.commonwealthclub.org.