Smith is executive director of the Navy SEAL Foundation, a nonprofit supporting US Navy SEALs, special warfare personnel, and their families. After
29 years with the elite fighting unit, Smith assumed leadership of the SEAL foundation last year, one marked by triumph (the killing of Osama bin Laden) and tragedy (the deaths of 22 SEALs in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan). He and his family will be in Boston for Tuesday’s New England Warrior Benefit at the Seaport World Trade Center. For more information, visit www.newarriorbenefit.org or www.navysealfoundation.org.
Q. You’re raising money to do what and for whom?
A. I’ll give you an example. We have a fellow who just lost vision in one eye to an IED in Afghanistan. The military covers next of kin being flown to his bedside. The foundation covers airfare and lodging for the family during his rehab. We have over 35 different programs, from education to grief counseling. We don’t replace what the government provides. But if you’re connected to the SEALs, even as a support person, we take care of you.
Q. The length of deployment and secrecy under which SEALs operate is unusual, correct?
A. Absolutely. There are only 2,700 SEALs, who might be deployed in 50 different countries at any given time. All have to be ready to leave home on a couple of hours’ notice and could be gone indefinitely.
Q. They don’t say much about where they are and what they’re doing, either.
A. No, they don’t. When other kids talk about where their dad’s deployed, ours sit there in silence. That’s one reason we run camps for teenagers, so they can be around other kids they can speak with normally.
Q. There’s plenty of public awareness of the SEALs these days, from their role in taking out bin Laden to the movie “Act of Valor” and best-selling book “Inside SEAL Team Six.” Is this a good thing?
A. You’ve mentioned three different categories. Good thing? With today’s social media, it’s impossible to hide in plain sight, something we’ve done pretty well for a long time. Personally, I feel the movie was well done, that it aptly depicted family relationships and teammates’ closeness. But the dots were connected for the bad guys, too.
Q. Meaning what?
A. Meaning that when they see our tactics, techniques, and procedures being portrayed — we don’t need to inspire thought, if you will.
Q. Where were you on 9/11?
A. On the Hudson River, fishing with my brother-in-law.
‘We have over 35 different programs, from education to grief counseling. . . . If you’re connected to the SEALs, even as a support person, we take care of you.’
Q. Also on the verge of retiring, you’ve said, after 20 years with the SEALs.
A. I was right at a decision point. Like many, at that moment I rededicated myself to the life I knew. My country had already given me the tools to do a challenging job. But my mind was made up for me that morning. I didn’t make it up myself.
Q. Did you see the twin towers collapse?
A. I saw the explosions. I saw them crumble. Being from [New Jersey], I’d watched them being built in the 1960s. To see them come down in a matter of hours was unbelievable.
Q. How do you look back on last year, from the bin Laden mission to the helicopter crash in Afghanistan?
A. Much like 9/11, it made America stronger. In May, we had our community’s greatest victory — our nation’s greatest victory — and then, in August, our greatest tragedy. I’ll tell you, though, both the foundation and SEALs community came out stronger.
Q. It certainly reminded Americans not only how valuable but also how vulnerable the SEALs are.
A. Our people’s strength is phenomenal. Pound for pound, man for man, they’re the world’s most effective fighting force ever. That’s a big statement, I know. But they also rely on the strength of the women in their lives, which we recognize.
Q. What will you do in Boston?
A. Beyond the Warrior gala, there’s plenty going on: the War of 1812 celebration, a Blue Angels flyover, the SEALs parachute team jumping onto Fan Pier. It should be great.
Q. You’re not jumping out of a plane, are you?
A. No, although I do miss it. For SEALs, it’s pretty much just a way of getting to work.
Interview was condensed and edited. Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.