By Andrew Harris
It was 4:15 in the morning. As a 62-year-old teacher, I found myself begrudgingly running through the streets of New York on our way to Bryant Park. I ran alongside a student from our Comsewogue High School — an aspiring Navy SEAL, and several hundred other people all huffing and puffing our way past the bewildered eyes of cab drivers, truck deliverymen and the very early morning commuters.
Everybody was astonished to see us as they sipped their coffee. My student was helping me keep pace to make it without collapsing. “What great teamwork,” I thought.
Teamwork and leadership are some of the most important traits that a Navy SEAL could have and this concept would come up often over the next two days of intense training. Perhaps my student fit the mold to one day become a Navy SEAL. Their name is derived from the U.S. Navy Sea, Air and Land Teams.
It was all part of Extreme Muster, an event held by Echelon Front — a group of Navy SEALs and other elite performance professionals who were about to educate us on the leadership tactics used in combat. There were a wide variety of people such as former military operators, athletes, businesspeople and even a few other teachers.
We were all hoping to use the skills we were about to learn and apply them in our everyday lives. It was the most powerful event I have ever attended.
The person we met first was Jamie Lynn Cochran, chief operating officer of Echelon Front — a company started by retired Navy SEAL Jocko Willink. Although Cochran was not a SEAL, she was obviously well versed in many of the leadership tactics we were about to learn over the next two days.
“Cover and move” was one of the most important principles we would come to learn. Cochran was obviously Willink’s cover and move person, handling any problems with kindness and humility — another important principle we would soon learn — along with her gentle friendliness and charm.
Of course, this threw me off being from New York, and smack in the middle of a normally fast-paced and often rude city atmosphere. She put us at ease and fixed any logistical challenges we had to smooth out that day. I soon realized that I was the one who had made the mistake, yet immediately she took all responsibility for it. It was another principle called “extreme ownership,” and important enough for Willink to write a book about it. She even gave us some valuable gifts.
My student was elated to get a signed copy of Willink’s book, “Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual.” I admired how the author gave him the personal one-on-one attention he needed to find out about becoming a peak performer and hopeful Navy SEAL.
A big part of the teaching is “to put your ego aside,” and here one of the top heroes of our country was not in any way talking about himself, but intently listening to this young student.
This was far different than any other of the popular leadership conferences I had ever attended. I noticed that Willink and the other team members would welcome any conversations and were generous with their time during breaks.
At the events I have attended in the past, the leaders would often disappear into a back room and didn’t have conversations with the attendees.
A few months later, I was even more impressed when I heard that none of the leaders had a chance to sleep the night before because they had to solve problems to make the whole event run smooth. I’m sure that they have pushed themselves beyond what any typical human being does on a daily basis — after all, they had seen life and death situations in real combat. Willink’s response to this type of adversity was “Good! No factor — get some,” meaning that he welcomes problems and challenges because they force you to learn, get stronger and be better.
The two days of training went fast. Surprisingly we had a lot of energy despite the ungodly hour and all the exercise we did that particular morning. Our minds were open, and we learned much valuable information.
This year, I told some of our mostly female club members at the high school about the experiences at the muster. They started asking me if they could attend in the future. When I told them that it was 90% men and they were some really rugged ex-military dudes, it seemed to make them want to prove that this was something they not only wanted to do but something they could be highly successful at.
I said it was nearly impossible since the next muster would be in Dallas March 2022 and we had no money in our club account. We were not able to fundraise for the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This seemed to make their drive increase even more. First, they asked the principal, Michael Mosca, if they could start their fundraisers again. Then they started suggesting that perhaps they could work off the tuition for the event by helping out at the Dallas muster.
“If you are willing to do the hard work during the events and do whatever it takes, I’ll go to bat for you,” I said. They agreed, and I reached out to Cochran to see if she could help in any way. The folks at Echelon Front are very kind people and I have seen them help many people in the past. In addition, this summer I met some great people from the Whalen Foundation who fund scholarships and grants for people in the special education field. As a group, we will contact them and ask for help. If there is a will, there is a way.
The students may not desire to be SEALs but are looking forward to becoming better leaders in the future. I am, too.
This week the students had their first fundraiser for their hefty travel expenses and hotel rooms. They had a pizza fundraiser and raised $38 of what they expect to be more than a $2,000 bill. Their response? “That’s OK, we will continue to fight — we have a mission.” Another important principle is to focus on the mission you want to accomplish and everything else falls into place.
Stay tuned to see if the “mission” is accomplished.
Andrew Harris is a special needs teacher at the Comsewogue school district. Triple C stands for Comsewogue Culture Club.