The man I'd like you to meet is Colin Supko, 35. He's been on the front lines of the War on Terror for more than a decade. He's seen 76 countries. He's working on his second master's degree at Stanford. Three months ago, perched on a peak above Machu Picchu, he proposed to his girlfriend, Stephanie Barker.
Last Friday he visited Douglas High School near San Diego and spoke to two groups of AP (Advanced Placement) English students, telling them how there are heroes all around them.He mentioned parents, teachers, coaches, firefighters and police officers. “You don't have to go to war and be a Navy SEAL to impact your community,” he said.
“I've been all over the world, and I'll tell you what, this is a wonderful place,” he said. “I'm so fortunate to have been brought up here.” Supko played football for his high school team, the Tigers. He still reminisces about former coach Mike Rippee, about graduation in 1994. His most fond memories are reserved for his parents. “I've recognized how amazing my parents are,” he said. “I wouldn't have achieved anything if not for the foundation they gave me.”
His parents have since moved to Sunridge. His siblings have left town. Supko himself is in the process of leaving San Diego for Palo Alto. Already armed with a master's degree in global leadership, he's pursing another graduate degree in business management under the auspices of a Sloan Fellowship. Eventually, he said, he wants to move back to Carson Valley and run a consulting company that focuses on leadership education.
And Supko knows a thing or two about leadership. He graduated from the Annapolis Naval Academy in 1999 and became a surface warfare officer. Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, he joined the Navy SEALs. The events of that tragic day would shape the course of his service among the most elite warriors in the world. “SEAL training is nothing compared to war,” he said, “but nothing trains you better for war.”
Supko served three combat tours of duty, mostly in Iraq, but also in Yemen, Africa and parts of Asia. As task unit commander, he was responsible for three platoons of Navy Seals, carrying out missions he can't talk much about. Later, as operations officer of Special Boat Team 12, he was third in command of about 350 Navy SEALs. “Every day, you try to show that you deserve the position to lead them,” he said. “Because they deserve someone who cares.”
When asked about the famed SEAL team who killed Osama Bin Laden, Supko was concise. “I know the guys on the team,” is all he would say.
A few weeks ago, Supko was granted a five-year reserve ticket that will allow him to attend Stanford. Now a reservist for SEAL Team 17, he left active duty as a lieutenant commander who had earned a Bronze Star and the Navy Commendation Medal, both for “heroism in combat.” “It's been the greatest honor and most humbling experience in the world,” he said. “These guys are true heroes for what they do for this nation.”
It was seven years ago, after his first deployment to Iraq, that Supko was asked to speak to students at his old High School.“I felt there was some miscommunication going on about the war, and that I had first-hand knowledge,” he said. “I've been asked to come back every year since then as a way to give back to the community.”
At the time, Supko said, the reality of the War on Terror was being distorted by pundits across the political spectrum. “The agenda set in the media by super liberals and super conservatives was polarizing,” he said. “The truth lies with those who experience what's really going on with the culture, the religion, and understanding that there are extremists on both sides — anyone who doesn't understand that intolerance has no place in humanity.”
During subsequent visits to DHS, Supko's theme became leadership development. “It became about the importance of serving one's community, one's country, serving humanity, as opposed to feeling entitled to hand-outs,” he said. “A selfless way of living as opposed to a selfish one.”
This definition of hero as servant, Supko said, is what he hopes to instill in the next generation of leaders. “Servants are humble, compassionate and loving people who are constantly seeking to better themselves through knowledge, experience and strong values,” he said. “The mantle of leadership is going to be on their shoulders next.”
I did not put a picture of LCDR Supko in the blog today because it is a bad idea to splash pictures of our SEALs across the internet. The Taliban and Al Qaeda both have "bounties" on all our SEALs and there is no point in giving them pictures of one.
We owe men like Colin a great big "Thank You", not only for their outstanding service in war, but for all they give back to our society. It is a privilege to know men such as these and America is a little better (and little safer) place because of them.
Live Long and Prosper....