Inside Navy SEAL Team 6

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The first rule of Navy SEAL Team 6 is you don’t talk about SEAL Team 6. In fact, the U.S. military has never publicly acknowledged its existence. But over the past week, tales of the Navy’s most elite squadron have blazed like wildfire, as the SEALs’ takedown of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, has generated white-hot news coverage and a fair amount of awe.

While it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know who these SEALs are or what they faced that dark spring night that brightened America’s spirits, one former member of SEAL Team 6 is now describing his experiences inside America’s tightest band of brothers.

They’re part of his memoir, out Tuesday. Former Navy sniper Howard Wasdin, 49, details his life of secret missions and deadly force in SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper (St. Martin’s Press, with co-author Stephen Templin). His stories include one operation amid the 1993 battle of Mogadishu (as memorialized in Black Hawk Down) that brought him steps from death while earning him a Silver Star, one of the nation’s highest awards for valor.

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The Navy was an easy choice for Wasdin at age 20, when he had no college degree and no money to afford one. Breaking from his abusive father and rough-and-tumble upbringing, Wasdin found that his steely skin meshed well with the demanding requirements of the Navy. Through boot camp and the Navy’s rigorous search-and-rescue training program, Wasdin proved his military prowess, a status confirmed when the Navy tapped him for the elite Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training.

After a successful mission during Desert Storm in which he took out an Iranian compound in Iraq, Wasdin was selected for the most prestigious of the prestigious squadrons, Navy SEAL Team 6. There are reportedly just 2,500 Navy SEALs on active duty – and only the best, a mere fraction of the total, make the secretive Team 6. TIME’s Nick Carbone spoke with Wasdin:

TIME: The missions of SEAL Team 6 seem to be kept under a tight lock. How did you get the proper clearance to divulge some of the nitty-gritty about the squadron’s training methods and tactical missions?

Wasdin: Gosh, we had to go through this thing with a fine-toothed comb. We had to research and make sure everything we talked about had already been printed. Fortunately, almost everything except my life had already been written about in different articles. I started the book in 1994, a few months after I got shot. I still have my field notes from the battle, and as I was going through them and writing stuff down, I noticed, Hey, there’s still blood on the pages from when I got shot. I wanted to get them into a book, knowing I’d be limited in what I could write. But a couple of years later [in 1999] Mark Bowden comes out with Black Hawk Down, and now everybody knows everything. We did the vetting ourselves and cited case in point, making sure we weren’t giving up the CIA’s information. I don’t want to hurt anyone or do anything that’s not right by our code of conduct or nondisclosure agreement.

You returned from the battle of Mogadishu with three bullets in your leg, forcing your retirement from the Navy and leaving you with chronic pain. What prompted you to write a book, which almost certainly forced you to relive these experiences?

I returned with PTSD, and I didn’t even know I had it. I thought it was weakness. But my wife always told me this would be great therapy for me, and I kept saying, “Come on, quit saying I need therapy.” But she was so right, because after I finished this book, I felt so much better. I took it out of that deep place in my heart and soul. This was the best therapy — I feel better now about Howard Wasdin than I ever have in my entire life. (More on See photos of canines in combat)

You’re engaged in stressful missions almost constantly as part of SEAL Team 6. Do you need a particular attitude in order to succeed?

I call it mental toughness. I can take just about anyone and make them physically strong. A lot of people showed up at [training] who were much more physically capable than I was, football players and athletes in phenomenal shape, and they were the first to quit. Mental toughness is a must to make it through training, much less through combat.

What’s the most mentally challenging part of being on SEAL Team 6?

Getting ready, gearing up, and then if you have to stage down and gear up multiple times, that’s the most stressful part. And that happened to us numerous times when preparing for Somalia. You get the call that says, “Pack your [stuff]; we’re leaving right now.” When you’re en route, you think about all the practice and hope it was good enough because here we go. An op is all intelligence-driven. You’re living in a fluid situation and waiting for the intelligence to come in. And when it does come in, how credible is it? I pay these guys to give me intelligence — is he just stringing me along? Is he a moron, or is he setting me up for an ambush? You’ve got to evaluate the intelligence, so that’s where the gearing up, the gearing down and the hurry up and wait comes from.

How do you prepare for an op? What would the training ritual be like for SEAL Team 6 ahead of its mission in Abbottabad?

It’s mind boggling the amount of training you do. Even if you’re not gearing up for a specific op like these guys were, you still train every day. I’m gonna put 50 pounds of equipment on you, give you two weapons and a sidearm, and we’re going to go up and down stairs all day long, clearing different rooms. Some of them will be barricaded, some of them will have little kids in them, some of them will have people with machine guns shooting back at you, and we’re going to do this all damn day, every day. You’re going to shoot over a thousand rounds a day and you’re going to keep doing it until I come over and wake you up in the middle of the night and say, “Let’s go!” Then we gear up and we go and just start doing it.

The mission to kill bin Laden was a capture-or-kill operation. What’s the distinction, and why do you think they made that choice?

It’s based on what the person is doing when we show up. In a capture mission, you’re putting yourself at more risk. If I come in the room and [the enemy is] shooting at me, that capture mission in my mind just turned into a kill mission. The guys in the room made that decision. You make that decision in a split second. Does he have a gun? Is he being compliant? What’s he doing and does it warrant judgmental use of deadly force? The more you do it, the more adept you get at it. (More on See the top 10 elite fighting units)