The elevator opens onto the nineteenth floor and the publicist shuffles down the elegant hallway of the hotel. The fabric of his suit is rumpled; he’d been up in the darkness of morning to catch the first media hits of the day and riding the wave since. “The truth is, we got some very good early reads on the book, but,” he whispers, “nobody really gave a shit until .... ”
It is a publisher’s dream come true. Two years ago, St. Martin’s Press purchased SEAL Team Six, a memoir by Howard Wasdin, who had worked his way up through the SEALs as a sniper until he was tapped for Team Six, a unit that is so elite the military doesn’t acknowledge its existence. The book was scheduled to come out later this month, but then Osama bin Laden was dead, courtesy of Wasdin’s old team, and Wasdin was suddenly a guy who knew things people wanted to know.
Wasdin himself learned the big news when the preacher who lived across the street from his home in Georgia knocked on his door. “Happy Dead Bin Laden Day,” the preacher told him. The publication date was moved up to May 10 and the print run was tripled to 70,000 copies. Wasdin, who since leaving the SEALS has done everything from selling cars to practicing chiropractics, was called into action and rushed onto a plane for some CQB — SEAL-speak for “close-quarter battle” — with the media. Location: New York City. Estimated time of the mission: TBD.
The incoming onslaught of press inquires was not Mogadishu, where Wasdin, 42, nearly died in a firefight. But it was not entirely dissimilar. He’d packed and planned for a day of calls and television appearances. Three days later his official tally of interviews was at 67 and he was scheduled to break a hundred by the weekend. Outside his hotel-room door was a cart for room service, the dirty plates piled high, because there had been little time to break for meals. Or sleep. Inside the room, a white shirt (he had sweat through several during media days one and two) was draped over a chair to keep the creases. He was relaxing in a pink Tommy Bahama cabana hat and dead asleep on the bed before I walked in.
On the bed next to him is his wife, Deborah. Behind the laptop, fielding the Facebook messages from all their friends back home, is their daughter Erin, who had taken a few days off from high school to be here. For Deborah and Erin it is their first time in New York.
“Oh my gosh,” Erin says, when asked to pick her favorite moment of the trip so far. “Meeting Sean Hannity. We watch him every night at home. He was so nice. He even gave me college advice.” And a Styrofoam football to take home. Hannity and his team had signed it for them. “Our only souvenir,” Deborah says. She’s hoping the interview requests will let up long enough for the family to do a little shopping or take a carriage ride together through Central Park.
Her initial feelings of joy over bin Laden’s demise had turned to sadness in the celebration. “To give a high-five after someone dies,” she says, “just don’t feel right.”
Meanwhile, Wasdin was up and noshing on a cheese plate and feeling guilty. He wanted to make it clear how unfair it is that it was unknown members of Team Six who had risked their lives storming bin Laden’s hideout and here he is, sixteen years after retirement, sauntering in his dress socks in a posh room at the Essex House, getting all the attention. “Just timing, that’s all.” His throat is sore from fielding so many of the same questions about what life is like on Team Six. He pulls up a pant leg to reveal a softball of scar tissue made by wounds from the bullets of an AK-47 that nearly ripped off his leg off in Somalia and the surgery that kept it on. Later, outside the hotel, he will show off a kind of SEAL party trick, demonstrating a memorization game called KIM (for Keep in Mind) that snipers use to train their minds. “Basically, KIM is like who are the last two guys you saw?” Wasdin explains. I shrugged. “Well, it was actually two women, one elderly, and they had nothing in their hands, unlike that guy right there,” he says, pointing to a businessmen clutching an umbrella.
Wasdin is nervous about having his book out there and about what he wrote — not about the SEALs, but his own family. When he was a boy, Wasdin writes in the book, his stepfather Leon, a truck driver, had beaten him badly in his boozy fits. One passage: “At school, whenever I used the toilet, I would have to peel my underwear away from the blood and scabs on my butt to sit down.” It took Wasdin sixteen years to finish his book. One reason was that his experience as a SEAL was traumatic. Another was that he wanted Leon to die before the final product came out.
Wasdin hadn’t given his mother an advance copy to read, and now she was not happy about his many media appearances. “We have to have a heart-to-heart,” she said in a phone message he’d received earlier in the day. But there wasn’t time to call her back. Wasdin was expected at Fox News for a radio hit in twenty minutes, the driver was downstairs, and it was time to slip the white shirt back on.