Special Operations News

From Enlisted SEAL to Admiral

There are a finite number of Navy admirals who began their careers at the bottom of the rank totem pole, navigated their way through the enlisted ranks, earned a commission and rose to the top. One of the select few, who went from being the newest of new guys to earning ruffles and flourishes, walks amongst the NSW ranks –
actually leading the community he has served for more than four decades.

Rear Adm. Garry J. Bonelli, former Commander, Naval Special Warfare Command, is a Bronx street urchin and proudly claims his native New York City. He grew up in a predominately Catholic Italian/Irish neighborhood known as Woodlawn and McLean Heights.

On Nov. 26, Bonelli turned over the reigns as NSW’s deputy commander to Rear Adm. Scott Moore. Bonelli’s career is not only full of occupational milestones, but historical ones as well. He has served in every major U.S. conflict since Vietnam and has worn a variety of Navy hats over the years. He served as an undesignated Seaman, a Commissaryman, now known as Culinary Specialists, an enlisted SEAL, a public affairs officer and a SEAL officer. As he has watched the NSW Enterprise evolve during the last 45 years, his perspective, goals and outlook on life have changed as well, making him one of NSW’s most diverse commanders.

“Ad astra per aspera” is Latin for “To the stars through difficulty.” This is the motto of Mount Saint Michael Academy, an all-boys high school in the Bronx where Bonelli spent his teen years. It serves as a fitting maxim for a Sailor who chose a challenging path and became a Navy SEAL flag officer, although initial signs might have pointed to a life as a man of the cloth.

“The Marist Brothers who taught at the Mount had me seriously thinking about the priesthood; however, I discovered girls by my sophomore year,” Bonelli said.

After high school graduation, Bonelli began college at Pace University in New York, and at the time, had never given the military much thought. After two semesters he, in his words, “flunked out” as an accounting major in 1968. By that time, the Vietnam War was raging and the U.S. had instituted the draft. Not knowing if he would be drafted or not, Bonelli decided to join the Navy. Years later he discovered that his number would not have been selected in the draft.

“I had two neighborhood buddies, Paddy O’Keefe and Bobby Geary, who enlisted in the Army. Both men made the ultimate sacrifice,” he said. “So to avoid the Army, I decided to join the Navy to see the world.”

After shipping off to boot camp in Great Lakes, Ill., he was there less than 24 hours before a Chief showed his boot camp company a grainy 16mm film depicting Navy frogmen SCUBA diving.

“It never dawned on me that the Navy could teach a Sailor how to dive. I was into the frogman program hook, line, and sinker,” he said. “I took the PT test and became
a member of the first ever UDT/SEAL boot camp company. We graduated from boot camp in greens, jump boots, and black berets much to the consternation of our other boot camp company contemporaries who wore service dress blues. We all thought we were Navy SEALs. Little did we know the real and only test was BUD/S.”

Bonelli classed up with BUD/S Class 50 to begin training. On the very first day, the instructors addressed the entire class and ordered all the members of Bonelli’s former boot camp company to fall out and form up separately. Bonelli and his counterparts proudly strutted away from the rest of the class. Little did they know that the instructor
cadre’s only intention was to identify them.

“Being in that first ever UDT/SEAL boot camp company really kind of worked against us,” said Bonelli. “The instructors went down the line and memorized every one of our names. Most of the guys dropped within a few weeks.”

One week after completing “Hell Week,” Bonelli broke his collar bone during as obstacle course mishap and was rolled back to Class 51. Much to his chagrin, after recovering from his injury and being deemed fit for duty, he was placed at the beginning of the training pipeline and had to survive Hell Week a second time.

“With solid student officer and enlisted leadership, I made it through training and graduated with Class 51. As it turns out, when I started day one again, I was in a lot better physical and mental shape the second time around,” he said.

In the spring of 1969, Seaman Apprentice Bonelli reported to Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) 12 and immediately deployed to Vietnam. Once in country, he began asking questions about the Navy’s promotion process. He remembers asking one of the petty officers how to earn a crow and chevron on his sleeve. The petty officer responded by saying, “Well, you got to make seaman first.” After making the joke, he explained to Bonelli that he would have to pick a rate and test to advance. After looking at the three available rating manuals there, Bonelli picked the thinnest book and began studying to become a Commissaryman.

By the end of 1971, Bonelli had completed two deployments in Vietnam and was proud of his service in the war.

“I listened to my LCPO and platoon commander and felt I had made a difference for my country. Many of my civilian peer group at that time, including some of my boyhood friends who completed college saw the world and the war in Vietnam quite differently,” he said. “It took a lot of years but most of my enduring childhood friends
now have a deep appreciation and respect for the military service of Vietnam vets as well as today’s vets.”

After four years of active duty service, Bonelli left the Navy in 1972 as a commissaryman 2nd class and returned to college using his Vietnam-era GI Bill to earn two
undergraduate degrees in journalism and marketing. He would later earn a Master of Science degree in mass communications from San Diego State University.

“It never dawned on me before to be a Navy officer because officers had college degrees – something I had failed to achieve,” he said. “Toward the end of my first enlistment that perspective changed. In fact, the responsibilities and decisions given to junior officers didn’t seem much greater than those of senior enlisted – the only difference was the college degree.”

In 1974, Bonelli volunteered for the first ever Reserve augmenting unit in NSW and began asking how he could get a commission to become an officer.

“I asked many times, to as many Navy people who would listen to me if I could get a direct commission as a Navy SEAL and the answer was always, ‘No!’ At the time, there was no such program; however, I kept asking,”Bonelli said. “Finally, a yeoman master chief at the Reserve Center took me under his mentorship. The master chief told me that with my educational background and experience, he could get me a direct commission as a public affairs officer (PAO). I was stupid enough to tell the master chief that I wanted to be a SEAL officer not a PAO. He took me by the scruff of my collar and let me know that once I became a PAO, he could change my designator to a Naval Special Warfare officer. That’s all I needed to hear, and in four months, I went from an E-5 SEAL to O-1 PAO to O-1 NSW officer in the Naval Reserve,” he said.

Bonelli’s aspirations as an Ensign were very straightforward – he looked forward to drill weekends so he could dive, jump, shoot, blow things up, and most importantly, hang out with his teammates. Advancement however, was not high on his priority list.

“My goal was to be promoted to the rank of lieutenant and retire from the Navy Reserve with 20 years of combined active and reserve service,” he said. “However, the world would change for all of us in 1990. Many of us reservists were mobilized to join our active duty teammates for the first Persian Gulf War.”

In response to that crisis, Bonelli received a call to return to active duty and returned to SEAL Team Five after leaving there 18 years earlier as an E-5. This time, as a commander, Bonelli would report as the commanding officer.

“I remember walking across the Quarterdeck and then, Master Chief Radiomen (SEAL) Chuck Miller, handed me a big, ladies hat pin. I said ‘What’s this for Master Chief?’ He said, ‘to poke you in the head if it becomes too inflated,’” said Bonelli.

As a Navy Captain, Bonelli was called upon once again. The Global War on Terror was in full swing and he was requested by Rear Adm. Joe Maguire to take the position as Naval Special Warfare Command’s (WARCOM) chief of staff. That four-month job morphed into a seven-year tour that saw Bonelli promoted to rear admiral take over as WARCOM’s deputy commander, and eventually Force Commander, and rise to the rank of rear admiral (upper half).

During the course of a 45-year career, Bonelli has much to be proud of, but he is most pleased by the evolution of NSW’s Reserve component, which he helped shape into what it is today.

“Since 1990, our Reservists have answered the call time and time again,” he said. “They have forgone their jobs and professions to man our ranks at all echelons. Our
Reservists are combat proven, seamlessly integrated and value-added. The NSW Reserve is a model every reserve component seeks to emulate.”

As an officer, the time spent in command is often a special one. For Bonelli, it’s no different.

“Two active duty command tenures truly stand out – serving with teammates as the commanding officer of SEAL Team Five during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990/1991 and having the SOCOM Commander, Adm. Eric Olson, fleet-me up from the deputy position to serve as the ninth force commander of NSW for a brief duration in 2008.”

After four and one-half decades of service, Bonelli is on the brink of retirement and has no regrets. He has treasured his time spent in the community and the experiences that have shaped him.

“I wouldn’t do anything different. Every day in the teams has been special. Whether hot or cold, wet and sandy, exhausted, just plain miserable or scared shitless; it’s been a blast,” he said. “Few have felt the exuberance derived from a successful mission. Few have felt the depths of sorrow during a memorial service when handing an American flag to a mother who has lost her son in combat. It’s been a lifetime of experiences few can truly understand and fewer can live guided by our SEAL Ethos.”

Parting Thoughts

How has your perspective changed regarding the community over the years?

As a young team guy, I had the wrong-headed notion that if you weren’t a SEAL, you weren’t much. Today, the professionalism and pride now imbued into all NSW military and civilian personnel clearly manifests itself on the battlefield because we are all about “teams.” The team truly encompasses our mission specialists – combat support and combat services support NSW personnel. The team includes our civilian subject matter experts, who help provide continuity and enhance our professional relationships across the joint, combined, and interagency arenas.

But I definitely have a new hero – the Navy SEAL and SWCC wife. These magnificently courageous women will never truly be appreciated for the sacrifices they make daily
on behalf of our Nation. NSW wives are the bulwark that keep our operators resilient and in the fight, time and time again. They bear the children who will raise their hands to defend our freedoms in the future.

In addition, NSW now enjoys and cherishes the benevolence of civilian, non-profit support organizations such as the Navy SEAL Foundation, the SOF Care Coalition, and the NSW Family Foundation. Made up of mostly volunteers, these organizations help our teammates and their families during casualties, with educational support, and promote our rich history and heritage.

What advice would you provide the youngest SEAL in the community today?

Show up 5 minutes early to musters, ready to go, with the right gear, in the right uniform, no matter how much it hurts. Listen to your Chief and carry out his orders; ask why later. As the beer commercial says – “stay thirsty!” Remember, the Trident you have to earn every day has an American bald eagle with a bowed head. It’s good for a
SEAL to be humble.

What advice would you provide to a young officer?

Listen to your Chief. Then lead from the front. Take care of that junior enlisted SEAL in your platoon. Who knows – he may someday become the NSW Force Commander.

What would you say are the strongest leadership traits in today’s NSW operators?

For SEALs and SWCCs, it’s to be a culturally-attuned warrior, diplomat, and problem-solver, a military professional who continually hones his education and training, and actively learns from his real-world experiences.

Is there a message or messages you would like to send to the Force today?

In our Navy, and especially in the teams, it’s all about opportunities: opportunities to serve our Country in places most Americans only see on TV; opportunities to get to
know people who see the world differently from us; opportunities to make a real difference for our national security; opportunities to have a blast!

Is there anything you would like to add?

Today, the teams have never been better resourced, equipped, trained, and lead. Our Force Commander, RADM Sean Pybus, Force Master Chief Steve Link, and new
Deputy Commander, RDML Scott Moore, form a leadership triad and brain-trust that will keep Naval Special Warfare at the forefront of our national security strategy.
It’s been an honor, a privilege, and a blast! Hooyah – Naval Special Warfare!

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