The following was published in The Brookville Democrat newspaper in May 2014.
By Melanie Padgett Powers, Special Contributor
The orders came, and Thom Shea was going to Afghanistan. It was 2009, and the Navy SEAL had been on other combat missions, including to Iraq. But Afghanistan was different. Shea said comparing the two countries is like trying to compare “apples to dogs.” (Standing for “Sea, Air and Land,” SEALs are the U.S. Navy’s special operations force.)
“Iraq was dangerous, but not even close to Afghanistan,” he said. “When we got that notice, it was clear that it was touch and go whether everyone was going to come back alive.”
So his wife, Stacy, asked him to write down all the life lessons he wanted to pass on to his three children in case he died: “who I was as a man, a warrior and a dad,” he said.
Shea said writing was tremendously harder than trying to survive in combat.
“The only way I could think of to possibly do it was to be as raw as possible,” he said. “It was really tough.”
But Shea kept writing, and he survived that deployment, as did all 22 men he was platoon chief for. They had 28 missions in six months, and each one was a heavy firefight in which Shea’s platoon ran out of ammo. He received several medals, including a Silver Star for taking over an enemy safe haven and a Bronze Star for a rescue mission in which he shot an enemy sniper from 1,200 yards. The entire platoon received a Presidential Unit Citation.
Shea was raised in Brookville and now lives in Greenville, S.C., with his family. He graduated from Brookville High School (B.H.S.) in 1986.
He retired from the SEALs in January of this year. And those messages for his kids turned into 13 chapters with 13 life lessons, becoming a book, “Unbreakable: A Navy SEAL’s Way of Life.” The book is available as a paperback or an electronic version through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It will be officially launched, in hardback, on Memorial Day, May 26.
Shea also launched a business to coincide with the book, Adamantine Alliance, in which he travels across the U.S. giving motivational speeches and business leadership talks.
One of his lessons revolves around an individual’s “internal dialogue.” Shea challenges people to walk without stopping for 24 hours. At that point of physical and mental fatigue, you start to home in on your internal dialogue.
“[You] really see how it can get in your way and affect your performance,” he said. “It’s so subtle we don’t even know we’re doing it. We talk ourselves out of [things] before we even know it.”
A few of Shea’s lessons came from his experience growing up in Brookville. His parents, Martha Shea and Joseph Shea, grew up out of the Depression, Shea explained, learning to “earn things and not be entitled.” His parents taught him that if he wanted something, “if you were willing to put the time and effort in, we’d support it.”
He also appreciated the outdoors, setting his own trap lines at age nine along the East Fork of the Whitewater River and hunting a lot. He was a B.H.S. football player and runner and set the school record in the long jump. (He continues to run, in ultramarathons and adventure races.)
“[That] outdoor lifestyle drove me to a high level of success because I’d grown up being tough,” he said.
With Shea’s lessons originally meant only for his children, have they read the book? His seven-year-old son is a little young, but his 13-year-old boy is currently reading it, and his 16-year-old daughter is slowly reading it in sections. She becomes sad when she learns what her father went through and needs to put the book down for a while before returning to read it, Shea said.
Shea said the adjustment to civilian life after 23 years as a SEAL has not been difficult.
“I’m busier now [but] I’m not getting shot at,” he said.
Previously, he was gone from home 220 days a year, so occasional travel for his business doesn’t seem like much. He is happy to spend much more time with his wife and kids.
What does he miss most about being an active SEAL? The idea that “nothing is impossible,” he said. “SEALs find a way to solve problems that seem to elude other units.”
It took extreme work, dedication and stubbornness to get Shea to the point of being a decorated Navy SEAL, but no one said becoming a SEAL was easy.
Shea attended the United States Military Academy at West Point but was “turned out” his junior year for failing English composition, ironically. He went on to Ball State University, where he graduated with a degree in exercise physiology and, from there, planned on enlisting into the SEALs.
One problem: He couldn’t swim well. So he spent a year and a half teaching himself to swim first — later becoming the SEALs’ No. 7 all-time best swimmer. When he started Navy SEAL BUD/s Training, it took him five tries before he made it through. He made it through Hell Week twice but got a concussion the first time and dislocated his shoulder the second time. Hell Week is held in the third week, and only about 25 percent of candidates make it through. It consists of 5 1/2 days of cold and wet extremely difficult training on fewer than four hours of sleep.
The third time, Shea got pneumonia during Hell Week, and the fourth time, “I woke up in the hospital during Hell Week because my pneumonia got worse and worse and worse.”
The fifth time, he made it through Hell Week and all of SEAL training.
“I’m the only guy in history to do Hell Week five times,” he said.
Normally, you only get two chances, but his supervisors saw that it was injuries and illness keeping him from succeeding, not performance or dedication. Just one more life lesson Shea shares with others.
For more information on Shea, visit AdamantineAlliance.com or search “Unbreakable: A Navy SEAL’s Way of Life” on Facebook. You can also read about Shea and one of his missions at http://huff.to/1syKj04.