The word “hero” is vastly overused these days. A hero is a person who exhibits extraordinary bravery, putting himself in danger to save others’ lives. Today, the term is often wrongly applied, for instance, to people who are victims of crime or teachers who are just doing their jobs.
Police, firefighters, EMTs often perform heroic acts, but they live in our world, not the world our quiet warriors of the special forces 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 suffer more than half of the casualties.
These people shun 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, the retired rear admiral George R. Worthington, who passed away on Dec. 18 at the age of 84, was one of those warriors. It’s difficult to describe his heroism because, for most of his 31-year career in the Navy, he was a SEAL and his exploits are classified. Some of what you read here is recounted in his autobiography, “Runnin’ With Frogs.”
Worthington was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and grew up in Tucson. As he wrote, he was always something of a physical fitness fanatic and strong swimmer. After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1961, then-ENS Worthington was assigned to a destroyer in San Diego. He soon found shipboard life wasn’t enough and volunteered for what was then the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams.
The UDTs were established in WWII after the invasion of Tarawa during which much of the Marine landing force got stuck on reefs before they could hit the beach. Hundreds were killed wading through the surf under Japanese machine gunfire. The UDTs were formed to conduct operations that would blow up such obstacles and clear the way for landing forces.
UDT training was — and SEAL training is today — a dangerous business. In mid-December the commander of SEAL Team Eight, Cdr. Brian Bourgeois, was killed in a training accident. ENS Worthington qualified and was assigned to UDT 12 in 1965.
By 1971, then-lieutenant Worthington was a member of SEAL Team One and deployed to Vietnam. Team One’s job was to capture or kill senior Viet Cong officers and disrupt the VC’s ability to function. He led or participated in many of those 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 nations, including Jordan and Kenya, where he helped train their sailors in the ways of SEAL warfare. He continued to rise in rank, his operational time interrupted by staff tours.
When I met him in about 1995, he had retired from his final Navy job, commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, i.e., “boss SEAL.” We met occasionally for scotch and steaks in a Washington restaurant. We talked politics and he let me pick his enormous brain on military and foreign affairs. The depth of his knowledge never ceased to amaze me.
The best tributes to Worthington came from two of his closest friends. One is Dr. Steve Phillips who knew him for almost 50 years. He recalled “George” as a man who cherished his family and friends above everything except duty.
Dr. Phillips recalled a phone call from George on the doc’s 50th birthday. It went 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 I was going to Israel, he told me I had to visit someone named Ze’ev Almog, who he said was a “historic man.” That he is.
As a 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 to create the Israeli equivalent of the SEALs, a unit eventually called “Flotilla 13.” In the years that followed, he and George swam together, ran together, advised each other and became lifelong friends.
Later, promoted to vice admiral, Almog became the Israel’s equivalent of our chief of naval operations, commander of the Israeli Navy. We met and I spent a memorable few hours with him learning how he created Flotilla 13 amid an ongoing war of attrition.
Perhaps the retired VAdm. Ze’ev Almog gave the best tribute to Worthington. In an email he sent me he wrote, “My heart was filled with sorrow to hear about the death of a great American hero and an honest man, my friend RAdm. Worthington. As a first-class senior commander and a warrior of the Navy SEALs, I was privileged to have known him and to admire him, his intelligence and integrity as a leader, a great American patriot, and a great friend of the State of Israel … RAdm. Worthington will forever remain an exemplary warrior and a good friend, and I will miss him greatly.” So will I.
RAdm. Worthington is survived by his wife, Veronica, two daughters, Maddie and Mackenzie, and two sons, Rhodes and Graham.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”
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