Why It's Rare To 'See A Black Face' In The SEALs

The Navy SEALs are known for conducting some of the U.S. military's most dangerous missions. But they're not necessarily known for their diversity. Host Michel Martin speaks with two men trying to bring people of different backgrounds to the elite military force.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. To grill or not to grill on Memorial Day? Is that even a question? We'll talk with singer, songwriter and grillmaster, Ruby Dee of the group Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers about her new cookbook. She'll tell us how to cook up some down-home recipes to go with her down home music. That's later in the program.

But first, on this Memorial Day where we acknowledge men and women who've made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, we thought we'd like to talk about what it's like to be a member of one of this country's most elite fighting units. They are the Navy SEALs, known to Americans, if only by reputation, for their participation in some of the most dangerous and important missions, like the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound.

It turns out, though, that not all their missions are covert. For the past few years, members of the group have been traveling to the country's schools and recreation centers to promote physical fitness and mental toughness and to give young people a taste of what it's like to be a SEAL.

We wanted to talk more about that, so with us is Scott Williams. He is a retired Navy Senior Chief. He is now marketing director of the Navy SEALs Scout Team. Also with us is Senior Chief Joseph Jones. He's an active duty Navy SEAL who's served for more than a decade in the Special Forces.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

SCOTT WILLIAMS: Well, thank you, Michel, for having us.

SENIOR CHIEF JOSEPH JONES: Yes. Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Williams...

WILLIAMS: Yes.

MARTIN: Chief Williams, I just want to start with you. How did this idea start? I think many people might be - if you haven't participated in an event like this, you might be surprised to know that the SEALs are doing something like this because we know that their confidentiality - secrecy, if you will - is highly prized.

So how did this start?

WILLIAMS: There's really two different reasons why we're beginning to work in the communities with community-based organizations, and one is, of course, to spread a general awareness about Navy SEALs to young men that are coming up. But, more importantly, we've had a number of Navy SEALs from the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. area in particular and we wanted to find a way where we could kind of reinvest in those neighborhoods that we've come from and we knew that, by teaching these young men mental toughness and physical fitness, that we would be able to help them reach their full potential.

MARTIN: I have to assume that recruiting is part of it, or at least getting a look at potential recruits. Is that a part of it?

WILLIAMS: Well, we don't really recruit. That's the thing. The Navy has recruiters. We don't. We spread the message about Navy SEALs. Being a Navy SEAL is something you have to self-select and if someone else convinces you that this is what you need to do, you're going to get to a point in Navy SEAL training where you're going to quit because it wasn't your idea.

For us, it's just about telling people about Navy SEALs, telling them about the ideals and values that we hold. Hopefully, we make a connection and they consider it.

MARTIN: Senior Chief Jones, the training, the process of becoming a SEAL, is known for being particularly grueling. Having gone through it yourself, does it live up to the billing?

JONES: Oh, yes, it does. Making it through SEAL training was probably - marked one of the greatest moments of my life and I was told it was the toughest military training in the world and going through hell week proved that it definitely was.

MARTIN: What is it that you like about it or what is it that you were looking for in self-selecting for the experience, as Mr. Williams was telling us?

JONES: Yeah, that's right. Each person's a little different. I was already in the Navy. I've got 24 years in the Navy. Around the nine year mark, I was at an impressionable age just like a lot of these young men are and I was looking for something different to do. I met a SEAL and he told me about the program and that inspired me. He planted a seed and it just grew from there and I self-selected at that moment to do something different and to be all that I can be for my country.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I point out that you also happen to be African-American and I happened to look at some of the institutions where these physical fitness challenges and where the SEALs have gone have been diverse institutions. I'm wondering, what's it like when you show up? Are people surprised to see you there?

JONES: Oh, yes. Regardless of whether it's a predominantly white audience or mixed audience or African-American, they're all kind of shocked because we are like - out of 2,500 SEALs, there's only like 50 of us, and it's very rare that you see a black face. So people are always a little shocked and African-Americans are impressed, usually, and kind of excited and more respondent to you because they see that - hey, that guy's just like me.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is?

JONES: I'm glad you asked that and it's something that I address to almost every diverse audience that I speak to because I get that question a lot and it's not racism. It's not because of anything other than two things that I've seen from personal experience, talking to other friends and family and it's - one is awareness. You can't aspire to be something that you have no idea - you truly don't know what it is. And the other thing is swimming. A lot of African-Americans, especially ones that I know personally, don't know how to swim or are not comfortable in the water and, obviously, being a U.S. Navy SEAL, you have to be very proficient in the water.

MARTIN: Because SEAL stands for what?

JONES: Sea, Air and Land. It's a big part of the sea.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the Navy SEALs and their outreach efforts. With me, Senior Chief Joseph Jones. He's an active duty Navy SEAL. Also with us, Scott Williams. He's retired Navy. He's also with the Seal Scout Team now.

Scott Williams, you have anything to add to that, that point about what Senior Chief Jones was telling us about sort of the relative lack of diversity compared to other branches of the service? You think it's the swimming?

WILLIAMS: Well, certainly, that's a factor and I think Joe touched upon an important point and that is that, you know, we value diversity in our organization and, in the past, we've kind of done a poor job of communicating to diverse audiences that we want them, too.

I tend to look at it more from an organizational perspective and the more variety that we have in the organization, the stronger we're going to be and we always want to be the strongest possible organization.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, I want to thank each of you for your service to the country. I know that, Scott Williams, you're retired from the Navy, but you're still serving in a different capacity. I want to thank you for your service. Senior Chief Jones, I want to thank you, also, for your service.

Before we let you go, you know, it has been talked about that the experience of military service is one that - a minority experience. I mean, small - you know, I mean that small and minority experience is something that is not common to - you know, every American doesn't have that experience anymore.

And I just - before I let you go, I just wanted to ask if there's anything you would like to share with people about that experience that they perhaps may not know on this day when we honor people who have been there. So, Senior Chief, is there anything you want to say?

JONES: Yes. I'd like to say that, in light of what you just said, serving your country is probably one of the greatest honors that you can possibly do for your country. To quote something that's said in the bible, to paraphrase, a greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend.

Each and every one of us who joins the service - that's what we are prepared to do and this Memorial Day weekend, I'd like to say to all of my brethren, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force around the world who's serving, who is away from home right now, God bless you and keep you and keep your heads down.

MARTIN: Scott Williams, anything you want to add?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. Pretty hard to follow that up, but I was going to reflect some of what Joe said. You know, I joined because of a sense of duty, that it was my turn in my generation to serve my country and I never regretted it. I got my education from the military and I got a deep sense of really giving back to my country and that's why I did it and that's why I respect and pay tribute to those who have gone before us, those who have lost their lives in action and those who have served honorably and retired and those still in active duty now.

MARTIN: Scott Williams is a retired Naval Senior Chief. He's now marketing director of the Navy SEALs Scout Team. He was kind enough to join us here in Washington, D.C. Also with us, Senior Chief Joseph Jones. He is an active duty Navy SEAL and he joined us from Norfolk, Virginia, or so he says.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: Thank you very much, Michel.

JONES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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