Forty years after surviving the notorious “Hell Week” of their Navy SEAL training, Mike Charbonnet was at a reunion of his “brothers.”
Eight of them, having lost several steps but not the heart of a frogman, departed the gathering with a new mission. Through their non-profit Beyond the Teams, they’re raising funds for “unsung heroes facing physical disabilities and cultural disadvantages.”
Their inaugural mission is a 1,000-mile bicycle ride down the East Coast this fall. The eight riders are all graduates of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL School class 98 in 1978. Their journey will begin from the epicenter of Naval Special Warfare in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and finish at the birthplace of the SEALs in Fort Pierce, Florida.
The ride, Oct. 29 to Nov. 9, will benefit VIP NeuroRehabilitation Center in San Diego. The cutting-edge clinic helps disabled military, veterans, children and others who have difficulty functioning due to brain or spinal cord injuries and stroke, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and various traumas.
Charbonnet told WND he didn’t set out to start a non-profit.
Last year, he began training again, after 30 years, to help raise funds for the VIP clinic through a bike ride from San Francisco to San Diego. At the 40th anniversary reunion of his SEAL training class, he recounted his fundraising trip.
The response was, “Charbo, if you do that again, we’ll be there.”
Charbonnet said he thought nothing would come of it. But the next morning, his SEAL mates were beating on his hotel room door, full of ideas.
They eventually decided not only to do another bike-ride fundraiser but to form a non-profit to raise funds for other charities.
“That’s one of the things I think is unique about these guys: We didn’t try to do things, we did things,” he told WND. “You might not want to know how it happened, but we got it done.”
He contrasted that attitude with the civilian work environment he encountered when he retired from the Navy after 21 years.
“Everybody thought it was their job to say why things couldn’t happen. Every idea was met by resistance, instead of everybody just figuring out how to make it happen,” he said.
Charbonnet said that when he gathers with his SEAL teammates, it reminds him of the old Clint Eastwood movie “Space Cowboys,” which featured aging astronauts called back for one more mission.
“It’s these geezers, trying to get together to pull something off.”
Charbonnet recalled joining the Navy after being kicked out of college. He said his motivation for applying to become a SEAL was “this will be a good job, I’ll have fun.”
“It wasn’t until I was in the teams that I started thinking, ‘We’re out there to do things nobody else wants to do that have to get done,'” he said.
Beyond the Teams has a personal connection to the VIP center. Charbonnet’s son, David, a member of SEAL Team 1, began rehab there after a parachuting accident in 2011 outside San Diego during training left him paralyzed from the waist down.
“It made a huge impact on me during a super-difficult time,” David Charbonnet said in an interview with WND.
The impact was so great that he became the non-profit’s president.
It’s a job he does without pay.
“I knew how impactful and passionate the staff was, and I wanted to make sure they could keep doing what they are doing by taking care of the behind-the-scenes, non-profit side of things,” he said.
The younger Charbonnet explained that there aren’t many rehab centers of its kind, focusing on spinal cord and brain injuries, and related conditions.
“We have a lot of equipment you can’t find anywhere else in area,” he said, noting patients fly in from all over the world.
“Our patients are really a tight-knit community,” said Charbonnet.
Scholarships are offered for military and low-income families. Otherwise, the costs are out of pocket. A decision was made not to accept insurance, he said, because most insurance companies won’t pay for prolonged rehab anyway, and it keeps the costs down.
He said it will be meaningful, on many levels, to meet his father’s classmates.
“I’ve heard stories about them since I was a little kid. Those stories inspired me to be a SEAL myself,” he said.
“To have them come full circle to get behind this clinic trying to help people that are in need, together as a team, with my dad and with me, it means a lot. I can’t express how humbled I am.”
He said it’s “knit into the fabric of every team guy to push toward something greater than yourself.”
“I think it came natural to those guys,” he said of their new mission.
Closer than family
Lt. Brandon Meyers, a highly respected member of SEAL Team 7, became paralyzed from the waist down when he fell 40 feet to the ground while navigating a training obstacle course in August 2015.
David Charbonnet sought him out and invited him to come to the VIP center. Meyers now goes there at least three days a week.
“It’s an amazing opportunity,” Myers told WND. “It helps me in my daily life, it’s made my mental and emotional attitude better, as well as my physical strength.”
He particularly values David’s ability to relate to him in a way that few others can.
“We’re not your regular people. He understands that,” Myers said. “Not everywhere do civilians fully understand that. They only see what the media shows them. It doesn’t truly represent us and who we are.
“Yes, we’re different. We’re not demigods, we’re just different,” he said. “We have a different mindset, we have a different mission-set in this life.”
He said that what stands out in his SEAL experience is not any particular mission but the “brotherhood.”
“I’d do anything for my boys. I know that that’s reciprocated,” Meyers said.
“The bonds that you forge throughout this career are insurmountable. That’s one thing I’m very fortunate to have and I’m sure that most civilians are envious of,” he said.
“The types of relationships we have – people don’t even have that relationship with their wife and children. It’s closer than family.”
He smiles when he thinks about Mike Charbonnet and his brothers deploying one more time.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s 40 years down the road, or 400,” Myers said, “as long as you have a fellow frogman alive and you need him, he’ll be there.”