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Mourning quietly for a staggering SEAL loss

The SEALs' veil is lifted, if slightly, after the deaths of 17, along with 13 other Americans, in the helicopter downing. Some family members publicly praise the men's bravery, but much of the sorrow unfolds in private.

August 10, 2011|Brian Bennett and Tony Perry and Ashley Powers

Their heroics are conducted, and celebrated, in secrecy. Their deaths are typically mourned the same way.

They are members of the famed U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU. Sometimes, they're known simply as Seal Team 6.

When they are killed, no public announcements are made in their hometowns. No impromptu shrines pop up in frontyards. No crowds line the streets to greet their flag-draped caskets.

Members of the elite Seal Team 6 carry out some of the military's riskiest operations, including the May raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in which Osama bin Laden was killed. But there is no expectation of public adulation -- in life or in death.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, August 12, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Navy SEALs: An article in the Aug. 10 Section A about the deaths of SEALs and other military personnel in Afghanistan said that John and Teri Kelsall received a call Sunday morning from their daughter-in-law, Victoria, about the death of their son, Lt. Cmdr. Jonas Kelsall, who was killed in the crash of a Chinook helicopter. The Kelsalls received the call Saturday morning.

"There was a lot about him we didn't know," said John Kelsall of Lakewood, whose son Lt. Cmdr. Jonas Kelsall was among 30 U.S. servicemen killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan last week. "We just trusted the fact that he loved what he did."

With the crash, the largest single loss of U.S. military lives in the 10-year war, the SEALs' veil of secrecy was lifted, if slightly. Jonas Kelsall and 16 others were part of Naval Special Warfare Command, nearly all of them members of DEVGRU. Also among the fallen were five support sailors, five aircrew from the Army's 10th Mountain Division and three Air Force ground support personnel.

Some family members publicly praised the bravery of their husbands and sons, but much of their sorrow unfolded outside the media glare, just as the men's lives had. One SEAL wife, for example, quickly removed the hundreds of condolences that friends had posted on her Facebook page.

When President Obama spent more than an hour Tuesday offering condolences to 250 family members and troops at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, there were no reporters present.

The troops were killed when their Chinook helicopter was shot down Saturday, possibly by a rocket-propelled grenade. The men were en route to help fellow troops battling insurgents, officials said.

In the insular world of elite military units, the deaths of so many SEALs made for a particularly staggering loss. The community last faced a calamity of this scale in 2005, when eight SEALs and eight aviators from a special operations unit died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.

"It's hard to put it in civilian terms," said a special operations officer, who asked not to be identified. "It's like an entire NFL football team wiped out. It's like the department of surgery at Cornell medical school wiped out."

The Navy has about 2,500 SEALs on active duty, with about 200 in DEVGRU. It takes about five years to train members of the storied unit, who have been plucked from other experienced SEAL teams. Their reasons for signing up for the SEALs vary.

Aaron Vaughn of Virginia and Jason Workman of Utah, who were killed in the recent crash, felt compelled to join after Sept. 11, friends and family told reporters. In Iraq, Matthew Mason had lost part of his left arm and suffered a collapsed lung, but felt it was his duty to return to his SEAL unit.

Jonas Kelsall, who grew up in Louisiana, was 17 when he enlisted in the Navy, his father said. Like all SEALs, he was trained in Coronado. Of the 144 troops in his class, only 18 finished.

"When he said he wanted to become a SEAL, we asked him one question: 'Is that what you really want to do?' " his father said. "He said, 'Yes.' We said, 'We'll support you 2000%. Tell us what you can.' "

It wasn't much. A special forces operative is fated to a life of secrecy.

At any time, an operative's beeper can go off, calling him to a mission. His family members can go weeks without word from him. No calls. No emails. His unit has "gone dark."

If an operative is killed, the Pentagon will release his name, as it does all service members' who die in action. But for members of covert units, the release of the names is usually delayed.

"For a lot of us, what we do is invisible to our neighbors," said the special operations officer, who sometimes uses a fake name when he works outside the U.S. and doesn't tell his neighbors where he travels.

There are reasons for the extraordinary secrecy. After last week's crash, the officer worried that publicity could rally insurgents. "They will say they took out the people who got Bin Laden," he said, though none of the DEVGRU members was involved in the Abbottabad raid.

Since the crash, SEAL spouses and parents have turned mostly to the only people who understand the culture of silence: other operative families.

"They like to mourn in private and grieve in private, with others who they know have that same kind of bond," said a Navy officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

John Kelsall and his wife, Teri, learned of their son's death at 6 a.m. Sunday, when their daughter-in-law called with the news. Since then, SEAL officials have spoken to them in person and filled in some details. Chief Petty Officer Robert James Reeves, their son's friend since high school, was also killed in the crash.

Teri Kelsall has been taking comfort in something her son told her repeatedly: "If I die on a mission, I'll die happy because I'm doing something for my country."

It was one of the few things he shared about his work.

--

brian.bennett@latimes.com

tony.perry@latimes.com

ashley.powers@latimes.com

Times researchers Kent Coloma, Robin Mayper and Cary Schneider contributed to this report.

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