The Last Punisher: A SEAL Team Three Sniper’s True Account of the Battle of Ramadi, by Kevin Lacz (Simon and Schuster, 320 pp., $28)
Kevin Lacz was a Mohawked, 19-year-old recreational rugby player with a 0.7 GPA at Virginia’s James Madison University when al-Qaida terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. Days filled with weightlifting, heavy metal, and beer pong suddenly held no appeal to the Middlefield, Connecticut, native. Stunned by the death of a family friend who worked at the Twin Towers, Lacz did what many young Americans considered doing, but didn’t—he dropped out and joined the Navy SEALs. “I wanted to kill the men who planned the mass murder of nearly three thousand Americans,” Lacz writes in The Last Punisher, his just-published account of the Battle of Ramadi. “It was the first real risk I had taken—the moment I decided to step up and be a man.”
Five years and lots of specialized military training later, Lacz found himself a man transformed. The “unfuckwithable” kid who had quit Little League, Boy Scouts, and the high school golf team was now a BTF—a Big Tough Frogman—on a six-month deployment as a platoon sniper and medic in the white-hot war in Iraq’s Anbar Province. He and his fellow SEAL Team Three BTFs were wisecracking hard-men all. Sporting spotty mustaches and cinematic nicknames like Pepper, Doc, Biff, Spaz, and Biggles, their charge was to rain lethal violence down upon Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s brutal Sunni insurgency. The SEALs of Charlie Platoon wanted nothing more than to take the fight directly to the enemy’s front parlor. Some, including Chris Kyle of American Sniper fame—nicknamed Legend—had been at it for a while. Lacz was dubbed Dauber for his resemblance to the big, blond lug on the 1990s sitcom Coach.
Two weeks into his deployment, Lacz developed an itchy trigger finger. Eager to meet the enemy, he volunteered to work the stone guard tower at Camp Corregidor, an Army installation on Ramadi’s outskirts. It was, he says with scorn for the politically correct sensitivities of Americans who have never been to war, “a good place to smoke some muj.” Packing a fresh load of ever-present Copenhagen tobacco into his lower lip, Lacz settled in to wait for the muezzin’s amplified voice sounding the call to afternoon Islamic prayer. That would be when the city’s deserted streets and alleyways sprang to life. Among the suddenly numerous women, children, and goatherders, Lacz knew, would be young men looking to ambush American troops with small-arms fire and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). With tobacco spit pooling on the floor between his feet, he kept stock-still, staring down the 20-inch barrel of his MK11 sniper rifle at a man periodically glancing up at the guard tower. His behavior indicated that he was a “muj”—short for mujahedeen—and Lacz had a clear shot, but the American military’s rules of engagement prevented him from firing absent hostile action or hostile intent. “Looking shady wasn’t enough.”
Dressed in the insurgent’s uniform of t-shirt, track pants, and flip-flops, the man scooted across an alleyway and ducked behind a wall. Lacz focused on keeping his breathing steady. The muj reappeared seconds later cradling an AK-47 rifle. His fate was sealed. Lacz calmly put a 7.62 millimeter round through his upper torso. The muj hit the dirt. It was the first of Lacz’s dozens of confirmed kills.
That night, back in his rack, Lacz took inventory of his emotions. He hadn’t minded taking a life, he decided. “If you volunteer yourself to do the business of doing bad things to bad people, you have to be prepared for the eventuality of being required to do it.” During training, Lacz and his fellow SEALs sat for a lecture by retired army lieutenant colonel Dave Grossman, author of On Killing, a study of the psychological effects of combat. Grossman’s theory is that 2 percent of the male population is capable of killing without remorse. These “levelheaded” warriors are drawn to military special operations units like the SEALs. They get missions guaranteed to end with someone—the enemy, preferably—in a body bag. Lacz no longer wondered whether he was one of Grossman’s “2 percenters.” He settled into an easy sleep.
The Last Punisher is an unapologetic tribute to the habits and attitudes of the professional warriors of SEAL Team Three. Lacz and his dehydrated co-belligerents storm enemy positions, clear courtyards, and fight their way out of ambushes in 120-degree heat. (“Ramadi in the summer was a perpetual state of full-body swamp ass.”) They convoy on the bomb-cratered thoroughfare known as Route Michigan, where, in the summer of 2006, you had as good a chance of being blown sky high by an IED as you did of getting sunburn. Lacz patrols with an American flag folded neatly and tucked between the plates of his body armor. He is ready to give all, at any minute, for his teammates. Preparing to break out of a fortified position under heavy fire, the thought occurs to him that he “wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than next to these bad motherfuckers.” Two of the BTFs of SEAL Team Three—Marc Lee and Medal of Honor winner Mike Monsoor—ultimately gave their lives in Ramadi. It stung; beneath the macho swagger, Lacz and his BTF buddies are still human. But they live, as few of us do, by the warrior ethos. “Pain is temporary. Death is fleeting,” Lacz writes. “The glory of a warrior lasts forever.”
The Last Punisher—the title refers to the Marvel Comics vigilante hero, whose death’s-head logo Lacz and his cohorts adopt—is a late but worthy arrival to the Navy SEAL memoir genre. Marcus Lutrell’s Lone Survivor (2007), Eric Greitens’s The Heart and the Fist (2011), Brandon Webb’s The Red Circle (2012), and Kyle’s American Sniper (2012)—among others—have already peeled back some of the desert camouflage on this mysterious fighting fraternity. The increased exposure has ruffled some feathers. Not all BTFs want their stories told. When two SEAL Team Six operators wrote competing and contradictory tales of the Top Secret 2011 mission to kill Osama bin Laden, the brass at Naval Special Warfare Command weren’t pleased. “A critical tenet of our Ethos is ‘I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my action,’” wrote Rear Admiral Brian Losey and SEAL Force master chief M.L. Magaraci, in a “dear teammates” letter.
Lacz opts not to give a day-by-day, challenge-by-challenge account of SEAL life, such as the grueling Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training that makes sailors into SEALS. Others have provided those accounts. Nor does Lacz opine on the politics of the Iraq War. Instead, Lacz devotes The Last Punisher to filling in gaps in the story of the Battle of Ramadi and memorializing the sacrifices of BTFs like Lee and Monsoor. His pungent, plain-spoken account has lots of butt-kicking and some tears, and serves to remind civilian readers again that war is another world.
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