The word “hero” is widely used these days. A hero is a person who shows extraordinary bravery, putting himself in danger to save the lives of others. Today, the term is often misapplied, for example, to people who are victims of crime or to teachers who are only doing their job.
Police, firefighters and paramedics often perform heroic deeds, but they live in our world, not the world our silent Special Forces warriors live in. Our special forces – Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, Marine and Air Force Special Operators – comprise only about 2% of our military forces, but they take more than half of the casualties.
These people avoid publicity as much as they can, even when a president exposes them, as former President Barack Obama did in 2011 when SEAL Team Six killed Osama bin Laden.
My friend, Retired Rear Admiral George R. Worthington, who died on December 18 at the age of 84, was one of those warriors. It’s hard to describe his heroism because for most of his 31-year career in the Navy he was a SEAL and his exploits are ranked. Part of what you read here is recounted in his autobiography, “Runnin ‘With Frogs”.
Worthington was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and raised in Tucson. As he wrote, he has always been a fitness fanatic and a strong swimmer. After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1961, the then ENS Worthington was assigned to a destroyer in San Diego. He quickly discovered that life on board was not enough and volunteered for what were then the Navy’s underwater demolition crews.
UDTs were created during WWII after the Tarawa invasion in which much of the Marines’ landing force got stuck on the reefs before they could reach the beach. Hundreds of people were killed splashing through the waves under Japanese machine gun fire. UDTs were trained to conduct operations that would blow up such obstacles and open the way for landing forces.
UDT training was – and SEAL training is today – a dangerous undertaking. In mid-December, the commanding officer of SEAL Team Eight, Cdr. Brian Bourgeois, was killed in a training accident. ENS Worthington qualified and was assigned to UDT 12 in 1965.
In 1971, then Lieutenant Worthington was a member of SEAL Team One and deployed to Vietnam. The first team’s job was to capture or kill senior Viet Cong officers and disrupt the VC’s ability to function. He led or participated in several of these missions. He spent a year in Saigon, helping train South Vietnamese sailors to operate a riverine force.
After the Vietnam War, the rising naval officer served in many countries, including Jordan and Kenya, where he helped train their sailors in SEAL warfare methods. He continued to rise in rank, his operational time interrupted by staff tours.
When I met him around 1995, he had retired from his last Work in the navy, commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command, ie “boss SEAL”. We met every now and then for scotch and steak at a restaurant in Washington. We talked politics and he let me choose his huge brain on military and foreign affairs. The depth of his knowledge has never ceased to amaze me.
The best tributes to Worthington have come from two of his closest friends. One is Dr. Steve Phillips who has known him for almost 50 years. He remembered “George” as a man who cherished his family and friends above all else except duty.
Dr Phillips recalled a phone call from George on the doctor’s 50th birthday. It was something like this: “Happy birthday, Steve.” “Where are you?” “In Panama. We just caught Noriega and I remembered it was your birthday.
In 2003, when I told Worthington that I was going to Israel, he told me that I was to visit someone by the name of Ze’ev Almog, who he said was a “historical man” . That it is.
Very young officer, Ze’ev Almog defected from the Israeli army to the Israeli navy. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, while still a junior officer, he was tasked with creating the Israeli equivalent of the SEALs, a unit eventually called “Flotilla 13”. In the years that followed, he and George swam together, ran together, counseled each other, and became lifelong friends.
Later, promoted to Vice Admiral, Almog became the Israeli equivalent of our Chief of Naval Operations, Commander of the Israeli Navy. We met and I spent a few memorable hours with him learning how he created Flotilla 13 in the midst of an ongoing war of attrition.
Perhaps the retired Vam. Ze’ev Almog paid the best tribute to Worthington. In an email he sent me he wrote: “My heart was filled with sorrow to learn of the death of a great American hero and an honest man, my friend Cam. Worthington. As a Senior Commander First Class and Warrior of the Navy SEALs, I had the privilege of knowing and admiring him, his intelligence and integrity as a leader, a great American patriot and a great friend of the State of Israel… Cam. Worthington will forever be an exemplary warrior and good friend, and he will be sorely missed. Me too.
Cam. Worthington is survived by his wife, Veronica, two daughters, Maddie and Mackenzie, and two sons, Rhodes and Graham. The value is apparently in the family. Rhodes Worthington is an active duty SEAL.
• Jed Babbin, Assistant Under Secretary of Defense in the administration of George HW Bush, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies”.