A Fraternity of Warriors Fighting for Our Freedom meet Retired U.S. Navy SEAL Robert Ekoniak
Senior Chief Petty Officer Robert Ekoniak served twenty-five years in a highly-decorated career in the U.S. Navy SEALS. He completed multiple combat operations in both overt and covert tactical environments. From 2008-2016, he was part of Navy Special Warfare on a strategic and operational level leading, managing and training nearly four hundred SEAL and support personnel responsible for providing advanced level operations overseas. Ekoniak would never tell you this; humility and discretion are non-negotiables in his field, and he’s perfectly content keeping the majority of his career under wraps. Transitioning from more than two decades in a highly physical and strategic setting is no easy task. Risen sat down with the husband and father to talk about his upbringing, faith, brotherhood, and being comfortable in the uncomfortable.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: What was your childhood like? When did your desire to become a Navy SEAL develop?
Robert Ekoniak: My childhood was very interesting. My mother divorced when I was eight years old and my younger brother was born, so I had to help take care of him. My mom worked really hard, she had a couple jobs and it was a good childhood despite not having my father. She worked and provided everything for us and it was such a blessing to know that much, but not having that male figure in the house really had its implications because I was a rebel.
It was a different time too. I’d come home from lunch and my mom would say, “Be home when the streetlights come on.” I would go out in the woods, play with my buddies, have BB gun fights, play sports, and run around just being boys; climbing trees and doing other things. There was a real blessing to that lifestyle and it really kind of brought about a lot of the innate skill sets, if you will, that I have. But overarching, as I got older, sports taught me so much about who I had to be.
Coaches were such a stronger influence to kind of guide me through right and wrong and the idea of being accountable to something bigger than you. Even though there were the strengths going through sports, my childhood lacked fundamental disciplines, which was a huge awakening once I went out into the world. So that’s where it kind of started to shift. I worked, and struggled going back and forth in school and then went to work for an institutional stock brokerage house. During that time, I read this article about the SEAL Teams and it was about Hell Week were these guys stay up for a whole week and just get beat up, and deep down I’m like, oh my God, these guys are crazy! I threw the article aside and on that next Wednesday I had the guys over at the house and we were playing poker and hanging out and I asked if they had ever heard of these guys [Navy SEALS], and none of them had. I said, “check this out,” and they were pretty fired up and it really got me excited and I ended up drunk dialing the Navy recruiter around midnight and then kind of forgot about it. But the next morning, I got a call to the house with my roommates and it was the recruiter asking if I would like to come check it out. I thought, I would like to check it out.
And there was my moment of clarity. When he [the recruiter] started showing me what they [SEALS] did and what they were about; I had that of moment of clarity that this is what God has put me on earth to do. I put all my eggs in one basket and simultaneously while this is taking place, Char [wife] was coming back into my life. We were friends. I was up in Northern California, she was in Southern California. And we started reengaging our friendship, which soon turned into her becoming my girlfriend and we’ve been together ever since. That’s my rock still.
RM: Share a little bit about the process to earning a spot in this elite group. Most people know it is difficult and only a few rise to the top, but give us a glimpse of what that actually means.
RE: There’s a very intense screening process just to get to BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL). There are mental, physical, psychology tests and a full spectrum of medical. Now, compared to when I went through, these guys are professional military athletes. When you go to boot camp today, we have that building in Great Lakes and you spend I think a month or three months there. We have Olympic athletes, weightlifting coach, psychologist, nutritionist, and they go through a whole process of training these guys up before they even show at the BUD/S.
There are three phases in BUD/S. The first phase is just physical. You’re working out all the time. On Monday, you’re doing a four-mile timed run with boots in the sand. Tuesday is just a strong workout. Wednesday, you have to do the obstacle course for time. I think Thursday is the two-mile ocean swim and Friday another workout. Outside of that you’re learning different skill sets. Then about week six, there is “Hell Week” and that usually weeds out a lot of people. Classes vary in size, but you can’t mass produce special operations. The numbers pretty much are about 85 to 90 percent attrition rate of the class. I had 120 people in my class and nineteen graduated.
You don’t ever not have fear, you just know how to compartmentalize it and still be in that environment. You build a mindset of being comfortable in these very extreme circumstances.
If you make it through the first phase, you move into the second phase where you learn scuba diving and dive physics. You’re continually growing, doing the workouts, but the times are much faster and grueling. Then you go through phases getting more comfortable in the water, but before you can graduate to the closed air oxygen system that doesn’t offer gas, you have to do what’s called a “pool comp” in about nine feet of water. You sit at the bottom of the pool with your air tanks, then you crawl along the bottom of the pool, and then the instructor will come down and proceed to pummel you. He’ll take out the respirator, tie knots in it, get you disoriented, and then you have to work the problem out to try to reestablish your airways and get your air tanks going again.
The thing that makes it a little harder is that the instructors watch your breathing and when all your air is out, that’s when they hit you. And so, you go through this and multiple phases, then you move on to the closed air system, and then you’re out in the ocean, you’re out diving, you’re learning compass boards, you’re starting to learn math, all these different elements. Then you go to the third phase – land warfare, weapons and explosives training. We don’t traditionally lose as many people [in that phase], however, we have an island that’s about twenty miles east of San Clemente and we do a lot of our night dives, night swims, beach insertions, and training to start really learning the beginnings of being SEALs and being very cold.
RM: Obviously, your body must physically be in incredible shape and able to withstand all that the job entails, but how much mental ability plays into this? How do you mentally get to the level needed, and maintain it?
RE: It comes down to systems, habits, mindset and discipline. There are thousands upon thousands of dreams that have been crushed on the Coronado beaches of the people that really thought that they wanted to become SEALs. Perhaps they were gifted athletes, but there are a lot of elements that go into play. When you get into BUD/S the equalizer is cold water. I’ll try to draw the best analogy like, all mountains make men equal if you reach high enough. You are doing great, but it’s a different story as you start getting about 14,000 feet and there’s only a little bit of oxygen and you can’t breathe. The question is, do you have what it takes to keep climbing that mountain or do you want to come down with the masses? This mindset is something that is constantly instilled in us every day. It’s in the ethos, it’s in everything. It’s in all that we do in our training. I mean we never ever stop being tested in what we’re doing. We use statements like, “The only easy day was yesterday; every day you earn your Trident.”
RM: How do you combat fear?
RE: That’s a very good question because, I don’t think you ever actually combat fear. It is more about how you deal with it. When we fight, we have what’s called “the box drill”, and you will have to do 50 pushups and you’re already smoke checked. You have to stand in a 12-inch by 12-inch box drawn on the ground with duct tape. And then a hood comes down on a pulley over the top so you can’t see anything. And then guys with rubber knives, or fists, are right in there, you’re trying to breathe and then the hood comes off and you have to figure out, through the mercy of circumstances, how to best ascertain what to do during these situations. That kind of lends itself into how we work into combat. You don’t ever not have fear, you just know how to compartmentalize it and still be in that environment. You build a mindset of being comfortable in these very extreme circumstances. This works in two ways, not just physically, but it slows your mind down and you really become more comfortable under stress and in these engaging violent situations, slowing everything down.
RM: What was your faith like prior to entering into the military, while you were a SEAL and what does it look like now?
RE: I’ve always known God to be real, I knew He existed, but before I was in [the military] I did not have a relationship with Him. It was a very interesting path because events took place while I was deployed in combat and when I prayed in mission, I knew the presence of God was with me and I could see His comforting of me, but there was so much more that I had to make in that battlefield of my own. I wasn’t just hiding in some supernatural state that couldn’t be touched, but I still knew that I had Him. And so, Char and I both got saved while I was in and it was interesting because once I did get saved, I could see how God took me through this path to grow me through BUD/S.
He took me through these things to make me stronger and to help me understand greater who I was in Him and forging me into the individual that I am. It’s a tough environment in the SEAL teams, at least when I was going through, not a lot of SEALs are saved [given life to Jesus]. Just as I grew up in my childhood, a lot of these guys grew up without two parents and they did everything on their own and they really have a mindset of controlling their own destiny. As I got out, I had to rely so much in the chaos and the constant state of being stretched. Having to deploy and be away from the family, I always had faith in God, but I never really got into the elements of understanding God in His power.
As of the last couple of years since I’ve been out, I’ve been able to kind of settle in and kind of get back and start turning into a civilian once again, and it has really provided me new insights into how great God is and the power of Jesus. For example, if I can, I’m part of the master’s program with the men at my church. For me, the big Ah-ha moment, was reading Matthew 25 and we start talking about the talents and how they were multiplied. And then the last one buried his talent. I don’t ever want to be a part of that. Who wants to be defaced with judgment from God by burying your talents. And then they hand you an envelope and you’re like, “Oh, what’s this?” I opened it up and it’s one hundred dollars and they say, “You are now tasked with going to go build the kingdom with your talents, with this one hundred dollars.” They start sharing what all these people have done and it really kind of sets everything into perspective.
I’ve lived my life, in many respects, to what God wanted me to do and I’m still processing where it’s going next. I know that today we need to be executing in such greater confidence in who we are as Christians and who we are with our talents. So now, having been blessed enough to have all my body parts [after my deployments] and to have my mind, I’m looking into how I best can serve God.
I know that today we need to be executing in such greater confidence in who we are as Christians and who we are with our talents.
RM: Whether you are in the military, know someone in service, or even just seen a story portrayed on screen, the word “brotherhood” is often used. How does this differ from a group of guys that work together and are friends?
RE: I’ll tell you, it’s got so much more context. I’m so tight with guys that they’re just like family and I can talk about stories where I can see a guy walking on a ridge and know who it is by his gait. We go through so much together and a prime example is like in BUD/S, during Hell Week, there’s a gradual progression that is utilized in how we discern between individuals that think beyond just themselves and identify who has a purpose greater than just themselves.
To describe the brotherhood, I guess the best way I could explain is to draw a parallel to the gray zone. It’s a runner’s term for when you don’t run fast enough to get your heartbeat high enough to where you’re improving your cardio and you’re not running slow enough to actually recover. So, they call it the gray zone. What it is in the SEAL teams by comparison is the collective average of excellence; you’re all competitive. You all have these elements of success and strength, but you’re equally challenged. Some people have [different] talents and that complements as a force multiplier. When we do our training, we’ve got certain guys that are better at certain things than others and so rank doesn’t matter as much as who’s most qualified. We could have the youngest ranking guy who has a talent and you will give up your rank and place him in charge and you’ll follow him regardless of what your rank is. You really don’t see that element in a lot of the other branches of the military and you certainly don’t see it in many sports teams.
I think with these elements we are always falling into this gray zone so we’re always having to expand and push ourselves even further and then we get to the result of what you see, the brotherhood. In combat you’ll hear statements like, “I’m never afraid to die. I’m more scared that I don’t do my job and one of my brothers gets shot, because I was supposed to cover for them.” This brotherhood carries as a force multiplier that is beyond. I have not experienced everything in life that I could articulate what level we are, but I would give anything and everything, and I would give my life for my brothers in a heartbeat because we are so tight.
RM: With this tight brotherhood, and as a man of faith, how do you cope with loss?
RE: I don’t think you do; for men it’s a lot easier to compartmentalize it. You never get over it and I’m already tearing up thinking about some of these guys. It weighs so heavily. I guess it will always haunt you. But we all wanted to go fight, that’s what our job was. It was to go do violence for a nation of people that don’t have to go fight; we will take the fight to the nation’s enemies. Everybody goes out there doing what they love. There’s so much passion, and guys give so much of themselves on such a continual basis. They think beyond just themselves and about the team; about what the brotherhood needs. I don’t even have to say my weakness, he knows me so well that he’s going to cover down on my weakness just as I’m going to do it with his. So, to [answer] your question, you don’t, you never do cope with loss.
By the time I got out, it was about seventy-five SEALs that had been killed. Some I knew from training [as their instructor], some I knew operating with, some I didn’t know, but they were all still my brothers. Most people don’t even recognize the sacrifice they made or what they gave up to protect our nation’s freedom. In fact, I’m not trying to get political here, but our nation’s lived so long under the umbrella of freedom that there’s so many now that don’t even recognize what the cost is for freedom. The fact that we live it, carries out much more emotion for us and what they gave for our nation.
RM: Throughout the Bible we read about God being with us in battle. I’m so curious about what that looks like for you. When have you seen the Lord show up in your missions?
RE: I was in Iraq and I believe in God and I know that there’s a presence, but I wouldn’t say I was saved yet. We had a mission that night pretty deep into this rackety village that was almost circular, and to get into the nucleus of that village, it was almost like three miles deep and it was all enemy territory. We were going into the center to go grab a guy. It was almost going to be like a one-way mission. And you’re like, “Oh man.” But we got to go get this guy because of certain things I can’t talk about.
All I did was make a simple prayer to God saying that I want to go home to my beautiful wife and my son. I just want to know them in the greatest way. And if You’re there let me know Your presence is with me. And then when I stepped off that Humvee I had like a white ring around me. It was the most bizarre thing and it didn’t make me super human, but I could almost see this white ring that was probably about twelve inches and the further out it went, it began to fade away. And I’m talking to this guy like, “Do I have lights on?” I’m thinking like, “Hey is my flashlight on?” “No, no, you’re good.” “Night vision?” “No, you’ve got nothing on.” I’m like, “Oh my God.” And so, the first area that we went in, the breacher overloaded the charge because it was a heavy door and I mean, BOOM! It just knocked the snot out of me. It was like a punch in the face. But we started rolling in and I was comfortable; fear had nothing on me.
For me it was just this differential that can’t really be articulated, but can definitely be felt. I can’t really say how comforting and strong it was. If I died, I died, but I had this utmost confidence. Throughout the rest of my career, I should probably be dead six times over, but I’ve had a voice inside me say, “Not this way. Go the other way. Something doesn’t seem right.” I’m not a master at articulating this and sharing it with the team because these guys are so strong in who they are that it was hard to share what that was. I can share it with Char and I shared it when I was around Christians. Towards the end of my career knowing that other guys were Christians, and also SEALs, I was able to articulate and then share much deeper.