On Leadership

Within Naval Special Warfare, a foundational principle is that one leads from the front. True leadership brings greater responsibility, not more privilege, and this is reflected not only during missions, but in one’s everyday actions.

I was on a deployment with my SWCC detachment and we had spent several weeks running maritime interdiction ops and had to hoist our boats onto a large Navy ship so that it could transport us a few hundred miles to our next target. The pace of the ops we had been doing was relentless and we’d been getting two to three hours of sleep most nights.

As enlisted men, our sleeping quarters were at the very bottom of the ship, right above the heat of the pulsating engines. The air conditioning was perpetually broken and the fumes from paint, oil, and whatever else was on the ship drifted down into it, the stifling air stagnant and thick. Sleep was impossible, so at night we’d take sleeping pads and hammocks up to the deck, where we’d sleep soundly until people started working around six, which typically gave us a few scant hours of sleep per night.

Our detachment at that time was being led by a guy who did not particularly follow the “lead from the front” ideal. He had selected for himself a small berthing somewhere above ours with air conditioning and a fan over each rack. Other than on the boats or when he dropped by to give us orders of some sort, we seldom saw him.

The second day on the ship we picked up several SEAL team guys, led by Lieutenant Dan Cnossen. They got to our berthing and began the somewhat futile task of selecting the racks with the fewest stains on them. Just then our chief came down and spoke to Cnossen.

“Hey, I’ve got a different berthing up here for senior enlisted and officers.” He glanced around our quarters. “These guys wouldn’t mind the extra space.”

Lt. Cnossen looked at him, then tossed his bag on the rack in front of him.“Fuck that,” he said, “I’m staying right here.”

Those were the only words Lt. Cnossen ever said about that. He preferred to let his actions speak for him. He made sure that if the guys below him in rank were doing something miserable, he would be right alongside them.

The enlisted galley (Navy-talk for cafeteria) always reminded me of something from a prison movie. Large, crowded and with long lines of tired looking people in identical blue uniforms shuffling along as food was slopped onto their trays.

In contrast, the officers mess had padded booths, the ever-sought-after air conditioning, and a menu presented by a lackey pushing a dessert cart. Our chief would eat by himself in the officers mess while the rest of us stood in line in the galley.

The day after the SEAL team guys arrived,  I looked behind me in line to see Lt. Cnossen standing there with a tray, waiting. In front of him were the enlisted team members under his command. This continued for the entire time that Cnossen was on the ship. Not only did he eat with us, but he was always last in line.

Quartering with the “grunts” and standing at the end of the mess line—these are small gestures, but they speak volumes about a man’s character and integrity. After working with Lt. Cnossen for much of the deployment, any one of us would have immediately done anything he said. If we saw him working on something when we had time off, we’d ask him what we could do to help.

I seldom saw Lt. Cnossen again after that deployment. Several years later I heard that he was on another deployment, this time in Afghanistan.

On September 8th, 2009, Lt. Cnossen was leading his platoon on a patrol. He stepped on a pressure plate and the explosion ripped much of his lower body apart. His teammates gave him immediate care and got him on a helo. He was flown to Germany and then the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

His legs had to be amputated below the knee and he had an open-book fracture of his pelvis and extensive deep tissue and internal damage in his lower body. Eventually the amputations had to be moved above the knee.

Shortly after his arrival in Bethesda, another wounded SEAL who had been shot in the face multiple times in Iraq in 2007 posted this on Lt. Cnossen’s door.

“ATTENTION: To all who enter here; if you are coming into this room with sorrow or to feel sorry for my wounds, go elsewhere. The wounds I received, I got in a job I love, doing it for people I love, supporting the freedom of a country I deeply love. I am incredibly tough and will make a full recovery. What is full? That is the absolute utmost physically my body has the ability to recover. Then I will push that about 20% further through sheer mental tenacity. This room you are about to enter is a room of fun, optimism, and intense rapid regrowth. If you are not prepared for that, go elsewhere.”

Lt. Cnossen is fulfilling the full recovery promise. He has since been fitted with prosthetic legs, regained his ability to walk and run and is now competing in endurance events.

He remains, as he always was, a true leader.

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