Strength and Honor
Ivan Trent's Odyssey
Ivan Trent, Virginia Beach. Photo: Harry Taylor
Before I publish part 2 of Sour Milk’s 9/11 Memorial issue, I want to introduce you to one of the men whose life was forever changed by America’s Global War on Terror. Days after 9/11, retired Navy Seal Ivan Trent reenlisted and deployed to Afghanistan at the age of 44 with many of the young Seals he had trained at Basic Underwater Demolition School (BUDS) in Coronado.
I first met Ivan Trent when we were both working as defense contractors in 2009. He was interested in the Greenough Advanced Rescue Craft (GARC), the boat that I co-invented, prototyped, tested in Australia with legendary surfboard and boat designer George Greenough, and then marketed and sold to the U.S. military. Ivan was interested in the GARC for maritime security work and convinced his employer, a major defense contractor, to allow him to test and evaluate our boat. Although we had spoken on the phone and had an extensive email correspondence, we met for the first time on a cold winter morning in Dam Neck, Virginia, where a group of retired DEVGRU (SEAL Team 6) operators had gathered to discuss recent trends in piracy and maritime security. While the others sat in the warm conference room drinking coffee, Trent was lying under the GARC in an unheated warehouse carefully examining the hull’s soft curves. “Only Mr. Greenough could have come up with this,” he said by way of introduction, “It reflects not only a lifetime on the sea, but more importantly, in the surf.”
Peter Maguire and George Greenough test GARC Prototype I in Australia.
Although the temperature was in the 40s, Trent wore no coat, only state of the art running gear and a skintight Lycra T-shirt. His ultra-fit frame in no way offset his weathered face, hard dark eyes, and long unruly beard. Ivan Trent’s Osama bin Gump exterior is every bit as misleading as George Greenough’s Robinson Crusoe bearing; in both cases, what you see is not what you get. “If still waters run deep, then my brother Ivan is the deepest sea,” wrote his sister Anna Trent, “Ever gracious with a certain air of humility, he has surfed waves all over the world that were equally as big, if not bigger than those surfed by our father Buzzy. Having seen more in one life than most people see in a hundred, he is never one to talk or boast.”
Following a few days on the water with the GARC, Trent penned this evaluation: “After two decades as a Naval Special Warfare operator and instructor, I’ve tested, evaluated, and utilized most of the small waterborne craft in the American military arsenal. Quite simply, there is no substitute of experience and nobody has more experience running boats in the surf than legendary waterman George Greenough. Greenough’s Advanced Rescue Craft (GARC) is the finest small boat in the world.” Trent’s words of praise meant a great deal to me, and the team who built the GARC. Although he was a Seal, he was a waterman first. I knew that while he was on active duty, Trent had a fearsome reputation for identifying and uncovering wasteful government spending. “I take it personally,” he explained, “as every American taxpayer should.”
At that time, the fate of the GARC was uncertain. Not only was the American economy in the worst shape since the Great Depression, the long-promised military contract for it kept “slipping to the right” as I slipped further into debt. True to his Hawaiian roots, Trent became a trusted friend. During my frequent trips to Virginia Beach, he showed me true aloha. Not only would he take days off work to help me fix broken boats and trucks, his suburban hale became my home away from home. At the Trents I debated international law with his eldest son Ivan Jr., had Jiu Jitsu matches with his youngest son Bud, and fended off the attacks and amorous advances of “Dinky,” his incongruously hung Chihuahua.
More than anything else, Trent and I discussed maritime security. We both believed that the expensive and frail technology designed to monitor harbors was doing little to deter forces who were growing increasingly comfortable with small boats and seaborne attacks. Osama bin Laden himself said in a poem he penned after the USS Cole bombing in 2000: “A destroyer: even the brave fear its might. To her doom she moves slowly. A dinghy awaits her, riding the waves.” The 2009 attack on Mumbai tragically validated many of our assumptions. Pakistan-based extremists (Lashkar-e-Taiba), used motherships and fast inflatable boats to infiltrate Mumbai’s urban peninsula and launch a series of grenade and machine gun attacks that left 166 dead. More than anything else, Mumbai showed the world what smugglers, combat swimmers, and al-Qaeda already knew: ports, coastal regions and the big, cumbersome craft that protect them, are the soft, watery underbelly of asymmetric warfare. Trent and I teamed to offer a more traditional maritime security plan that drew more from combat swimming and the waterman’s tradecraft than high technology.
In our paper “False Paradigms in Maritime Security,” we challenged the Navy’s “false assumption that Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs) can detect and engage maritime invaders the same way that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles engage land-based targets.” When Trent and I attempted to present our views at the Navy’s Multi Agency Small Craft Conference we were told by a spokeswoman that our abstract was “unsuitable” because our “proposed topic lacked clarity.” Despite the Navy’s disinterest, other government agencies were responsive. One spring day in 2010 we briefed two intelligence officials in Virginia Beach.
The older man was a former field operative, a seasoned pro with experience dating back to the Vietnam War. His cohort was a young patrician, smartly dressed in a preppie sailing outfit that he rounded out with fake Oakley sunglasses that I suspected he had just picked up at Walgreen’s, because they still bore a “UV Protection” sticker on the lens. Whoever they were, they weren’t surfers. After a few minutes of conversation it became clear that nothing could shake their belief that improvements to technology could both replace and defeat humans. Ivan and I held the view that the technology was only as good as the man sitting behind the screen or holding the joystick.
As condescension began to creep into the young spook’s questions, Ivan interrupted him and pointed to his fake Oakleys, and said, “Hey, those work better when you take the ‘UV Protection’ sticker off the lens.” His partner even started chuckling and said, “I was going to wait until we got back to Virginia to tell him.” Even though they didn’t buy a boat, we savored the Pyrrhic victory. For a brief moment it felt as if we were back in the Makaha parking lot.
Strength and Honor: Ivan Trent’s Odyssey
The most dangerous man in surfing does not live on the North Shore. He does not drive an oversized pickup truck, has no visible tattoos, and prefers Chihuahuas to pit bulls. The quiet, coiled 54-year-old has the face of a Hawaiian Kahuna, the beard of a Pashtu tribal elder, and a body so youthful that it is still capable of running four miles in 28 minutes flat. Born and bred at Makaha Point, not only was Ivan Trent inducted into the break’s most elite club (“The Makaha Screamers”), when deployments allowed, he was a regular at Waimea Bay and among the first to paddle out to outside Log Cabins. Nonetheless, the Navy SEAL chief’s most remarkable feats in the water will never appear on YouTube and will probably remain classified state secrets long after his death. Trent’s values are closer to those of a Spartan syssitia or the Roman Legion than modern day America. “As far as life, there is no unfairness,” he said, “just circumstances one simply has to deal with.”
Although Ivan Trent’s story culminates in the Afpak frontier, it begins more than five decades ago on the Westside of Oahu. The son of legendary big-wave surfer Buzzy Trent and local Westside beauty Violet Rodillas was born in a Quonset hut on Makaha Point. A stoic who walked his talk, the elder Trent lived for the challenge of giant surf. “He was a true minimalist,” said his son. “He would have impressed Marx. Material objects were just that to him, objects with little importance.” Goodwin Murray “Buzzy” Trent was born in 1929 into an upper-class California family. His life changed forever when his parents moved from their Pasadena ranch to a house on San Vicente Boulevard in Santa Monica. While he learned to surf in Santa Monica Bay, Trent was soon riding his bike all the way to Malibu to surf the point with Matt Kivlin and Bob Simmons. He was also a Golden Gloves boxer and one of the most promising football players to ever graduate from Santa Monica High School. The all-CIF halfback ran a sub-10 second 100, and was recruited by USC. But after a knee injury during preseason training of his freshman year, Trent moved to Hawaii and never looked back.
Buzzy Trent believed that big-wave surfing developed the two most important qualities a man could have: dignity and courage. “A million bucks won’t buy you an ounce of either,” he said. No job was beneath the Californian as long as it allowed him the freedom to surf big waves. Although Trent worked as a fireman, it was as a construction worker that he established his reputation as a modern day John Henry. After a coworker at the Hawaiian Dredging Company accidentally knocked him off a 14th-floor concrete slab, Trent fell two stories (approximately 50 feet), grabbed a 12th-floor girder, and swung himself back into the building. “He came home and talked about it real casual,” recalled his son. “He was a caveman, just dusted himself off and went surfing.”
Buzzy and Violet Trent. Photo: Trent family collection
Ivan Trent was born to the manor of big-wave surfing and counts many of the sport’s true pioneers—Buffalo Keaulana, George Downing, Greg Noll, and Peter Cole—as his hanai uncles. Some of Trent’s earliest memories are of driving to the North Shore in his father’s VW bug with a Dick Brewer gun strapped to the roof. He and his sister Anna would play army on the beach in front of Val Valentine’s house, but if their father’s board washed in, they dropped everything to drag it up to the dry sand. Trent remembers pulling up to Makaha Point with his dad during the winter of 1969. “Uncle Greg Noll ran up to my dad,” said Trent. “He was definitely shaken as he talked about his life-changing ride” (As large as Noll’s wave was on that swell, Trent believes that his father, George Downing (1958), and Brian Keaulana (1983) all rode larger waves at Makaha). Buzzy Trent famously acknowledged the role of fear in big-wave riding. “Only a fool is fearless,” he said. “Everyone has fear. It’s natural. But the secret to fear is knowing how to control it and make it work for you.”
Even as a young child Ivan Trent tested his fears with quiet determination. At 9, he walked five miles alone to the forbidden Makua Cave that, according to Hawaiian lore, was the home of Kaneana, the shark man. According to the legend, Kaneana would transform himself into a man, capture his victims, and eat them in Makua Cave. When his sister Anna asked him what possessed him to take the walk, he replied simply, “I wanted to see if I could.”
Today, the expression “waterman” has been reduced to a marketing cliché used to sell stand-up paddleboards and other detritus of the so-called “surfing lifestyle.” There was, however, a time when the word carried great weight, designating the maritime equivalent of a black belt in a great martial art. It was not enough to just surf. A waterman had to have mastered all the aquatic arts: he was a skilled diver, canoe surfer, oarsman, meteorologist, sailor, ocean swimmer, bodysurfer, lifesaver, fisherman, and board/boat builder who could ride any size surf on any craft put underneath him. Buzzy Trent forged Ivan into a waterman during a period of American history when “self-esteem” was earned and not mandated by the state.
Many of the underwater training methods used by modern big-wave riders were pioneered by Buzzy who believed that if he could hold his breath for three minutes free diving, a 30-second pounding in big surf was no big deal, “Dad was a fantastic free-diver and swore it was the best conditioning for winter surf.” Although the father and son regularly surfed Makaha and Maili Point, their free-diving sessions at Yokahama Bay, Sunset Beach, and Kaena Point were just as important. Ivan’s mother Violet did not like the beach, but she made sure that Ivan joined his father on all of his dive trips, “I would often wait ashore for hours on end at Sunset, Lanis, and occasionally the Bay,” Ivan remembered. “[My dad’s] standard order to me was ‘Son, don’t get near the water.’ The great Jacques Mayol would have been in awe of Pops; the man had finesse, grace, patience, and power as a skin diver. He also had an incredible ability to slip into the deep caverns, crevices, and cracks. He had immense breath-hold capability.”
Growing up on the Westside during the 1960s and ’70s, Ivan’s peers were some of the unsung heroes of Hawaiian surfing. Long before Buttons and Mark Liddell, there were Hawaiian performance surfers like Craig Wilson and Sammy Alama. “Craig ‘Kanak’ Wilson was Makaha’s pride,” recalled Trent. “He had the smoothest rail-to-rail turns at Makaha and maxed out Yokohama. Above all, he was a humble and gracious athlete and a great example. Sammy Alama was a local icon in small-to-mid-size surf. His powerful roundhouse cutbacks were the best in the world.” All of the surfing and diving were preparation for only one thing, giant Makaha Point surf, what Buzzy Trent considered the greatest big wave in the world. “I might draw rounds for this statement,” wrote Ivan, “But plenty of North Shore regulars have a difficult time surfing big Point surf because it is a whole different animal. I state this not out of arrogance, but with humble respect for one of surfing’s greatest rides. Heavy places like Sunset and real Waimea Bay entail a hairy drop with a slightly angled takeoff, followed by a sweeping bottom turn.” Not all set waves at Makaha are makeable, so wave selection is critical. Big Makaha demands an aggressive, angled takeoff. A surfer’s line of attack must be high enough to acquire sufficient speed and maintain pace with the growing wall ahead. After slipping down the face, completing the ride still requires threading the bowl section. Big Makaha is one of the few waves that will stall a chattering board and send it back up the face as the wave draws. According to Ivan, Waimea is “a powerful, mutated peak, whereas Makaha Point surf is completely different. It is an ultra-steep, fast, vertical wall that ends with a meaty, horseshoe-shaped bowl. I liken Makaha to giant Laniakea with a Waimea at the end.”
Before cell phones and Internet surf reports, the Trent’s Quonset hut on Makaha Point was a gathering place for the era’s best surfers. Ivan still remembers when Mike Doyle and Nat Young showed up the day before the 1971 Smirnoff Contest at the break. Buzzy lectured them for hours about big Makaha and even drew them a map of the lineup. “We called in for a beer,” wrote Young, who went on to win the contest, “and ended up staying up late being thoroughly entertained by Buzzy’s stories about surfing Makaha. His understanding of how to best surf all the different breaks was very deep and he even told me how many paddles to take, in exactly which direction, to get the best takeoff when the waves were 12, 15, 18, 20, or 25 feet, either on the Bowl or the Point.”
Buzzy Trent. Photo: Trent family collection.
Ivan grew into surfing on his own. It was not until much later in his life that his father shared his knowledge and advice. One day during the winter of ’73, the surf jumped from 10 feet to 15 feet and the 120-pound, 15-year-old, paddled his 7'2" out to the point. He remembered the map of the Makaha lineup that his father had drawn for Nat Young and positioned himself just to the south of the Beal house on the point. When the first giant set came around Kaena Point and the long walls approached, boils began to erupt around him. Although Trent was nervous, he held his ground, let the first wave pass, swung around and paddled for the next one. He made the drop but instead of taking the high line he went to the bottom and got hammered. Ivan and his lifelong friend Reynolds Ayau got longer boards and began to work their way up the pecking order. Their goal was to ride a 20-foot wave from way outside all the way through the bowl, which was inspired by the example of Brian Keaulana who Trent describes as simply “the greatest big-wave rider of all time.” “Ivan was very much like his Dad,” wrote Peter Cole Sr. “He really enjoyed large surf. Brian Keaulana used to tell me how Ivan would come out on big Makaha days supercharged and yelling from sheer pleasure while he sat inside of everyone and took off on some of the biggest waves. Brian would tell his dad, Buffalo, about Ivan, and Buffalo would say, ‘It’s Buzzy Trent’s son for sure!’”
Although Ivan played football and wrestled in high school, he was not a star athlete like his father. When he graduated from Pearl City High School in 1977, he enlisted in the Navy and was sent to the Naval Training Center in San Diego. He planned on becoming an aviation mechanic until the afternoon he was surfing Coronado’s North Beach and a group of super-fit men with shaved heads ran by. He found out they were trying to become Navy SEALS and signed up for Basic Underwater Demolition School (BUD/S) Class 104.
A crucible that all SEALS must pass, BUD/S is both a training program and testing ground. “First of all, it is an elaborate, tradition-bound screening process that seeks to find men who would rather die than quit,” wrote retired SEAL Dick Crouch in his book The Finishing School. BUD/S is broken into three phases, but the first—and in many ways the most important—is physical conditioning. For eight weeks, the aspiring SEALs are kept wet, cold, and sandy as they undergo “evolutions” in innocuous sounding things like drown proofing, cold water conditioning, log PT, rock portage, and surf passage. “Water is the great equalizer,” wrote decorated SEAL Kyle Defoor. “More guys rang the bell [quit] because of water than anything else—whether it was cold, they were under it too long, in it too long, whatever.”
Ivan not only completed BUD/S, he finished at the very top of class 104. His first platoon was Underwater Demolition Team 12. And for the next four years he did everything from playing Cold War cat-and-mouse games with Soviet ships trying to retrieve US missiles in the Pacific, to a rescue attempt of the American hostages in Iran. By 1983 Ivan Trent had proven himself a rock-solid operator and was summoned to a secret meeting. When the Hawaiian entered the appointed room at the appointed time, he saw a longhaired, bearded man with a large scar on his cheek sitting at a table. Richard Marcinko looked more like a Hell’s Angel than a decorated SEAL and that was exactly the point. After the failed attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages in 1980 (Operation Eagle Claw), the Navy ordered Marcinko to form an elite commando team to fight terrorism. The heavily decorated Vietnam era frogman only wanted operators who had already distinguished themselves in combat, handpicking the best of the best from the Navy SEALS and Marine Recon.
Richard Marcinko, founder of DEVGRU (Seal Team 6).
After a brief conversation, Ivan was invited to participate in the selection process—a SEAL’s equivalent of an invite to the Eddie Aikau contest at Waimea Bay. Among this elite group, half of the candidates were not chosen and one died. Those who survived formed the original Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU) or SEAL Team Six. “At the moment of its birth,” wrote Marcinko, “Six was made up of 72 seasoned shooters with a well-defined, single-purpose mission: counterterror. Translation: hit the bad guys before they hit us.” Most of Trent’s work with DEVGRU remains classified. Suffice it to say, he was hovering above the airport in Sigonella, Sicily, in a littlebird chopper the day seven F-14 Tomcats forced the Egypt Air 737 carrying Abu Abbas, the Palestinian Liberation Front leader, to make an unscheduled landing. (Abbas killed Leon Klinghoffer during the hijacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985.)
After three years with Team Six, Ivan was transferred back to Hawaii. James Jones shaped him 10'6" and 11'6" guns and the experienced goofyfoot focused his big-wave efforts on Makaha and Waimea Bay. As important to Ivan as the big waves he surfed were the unsung heroes that the sport attracted. “No media, no photos, no glitter or hype,” he said, “just honor, courage, and commitment.” During the winter of 1986 Mel Pu’u, Brian Keaulana, Leonard Brady, and Ivan surfed Makaha on a clean 20-to-30-foot day. Leonard Brady described the session as “life changing” and although he did not know it at the time, “All those days at Waimea were preparation for that session at Makaha.”
Ivan Trent, Waimea Bay. Photo: Gordinho
The entire North Shore was closed out and the waves were washing over the Kam Highway at Laniakea and Pipeline. It was dark and rainy when Brady pulled into the Makaha parking lot. Brian Keaulana was the first out, followed by Mel Pu’u, Dennis Gouveia, and Ivan. Brady followed them way outside—to a section of the wave he had never seen break. Although the waves were solid 20-foot by anyone’s measure, both he and Ivan took great comfort in the fact that Brian Keaulana and Mel Pu’u were out, coaching them on the lineup. “The calmest and coolest of men,” said Ivan of his big-wave mentors, “Brian and Mel—true grace under pressure. The more I talk about that day, the stoke replicates, even after all these years.” Although Brady rode four waves from the point to the channel what stood out in his memory is one wave ridden by Ivan and Mel Pu’u. “The biggest wave I’ve ever seen ridden,” he said. “The takeoff was super late and they were very close to each other, only those two could do it because they were so skilled.”
Ivan also enjoyed surfing “real” Waimea Bay, which he says is not “real” until the water draws and the wave goes beyond vertical before it unloads. There’s a pause and you can catch the wave. “You wait, check your lineup and wait,” he wrote. “You see the sets marching around the point. Nervous surfers stop talking. Your heart is racing. Again, check your position while the big boils start bubbling. The first set approaches and the Bay is alive. When you swing around and paddle there is no backing out.” Florida surfer Trip Freeman lived at Waimea Falls Park in the late ’80s and surfed the Bay regularly. He remembers one big December morning when a Hawaiian on a gun paddled beyond the pack, sitting way outside. “Very few have the oversized equipment and oversized coconuts to sit out the back in search of the biggest sets,” wrote Freeman. “The big guy was none other than Big Ivan Trent. We traded bombs for hours on end.” On another day with Ivan, when a giant west-northwest swell was pushing hard, Freeman and Trent took off way behind the peak on a monster wave. “The sound of thunder is the only way to explain the sound of a set that size.” Although Freeman took off in front of him, he was also too deep and pulled into a dark west bowl with no exit. Both men were pushed deep under water. After Freeman scratched through yards of foam to reach the surface, Ivan was next to him, holding his bloody foot. “Hit the bottom?” Freeman asked. Both men laughed. “Think that’s funny?” said Ivan, “You’re bleeding out the side of your head.” “Of course, we paddle those rhino chasers out past everyone and were ready to do it again,” recalled Freeman. One surfer who impressed Ivan at Waimea Bay was fellow combat veteran Roger Erickson. The former Marine who survived the North Vietnamese siege at Khe Sanh seemed immortal. “Nobody rode the Bay with more passion and finesse,” wrote Ivan. Another of his favorite surfers was his father’s childhood friend and hanai uncle Peter Cole.
Ivan Trent, Waimea Bay. Photo: Romerhaus
One of his fondest big-wave surfing memories is of a big, crowded, day in 1988. “Suddenly an outside beast marches in and Uncle Peter is in prime position.” The greedy pack began to scramble to snake the highly respected 55-year-old, but Ivan wasn’t having any of it: “Dennis Pang, then Booby, me and a few others verbally cleared the path and hooted for Peter to launch. After that no one dared to swing around. Truly, it was all Uncle Peter’s. He swung around with the glare and absolute focus and scored the biggest wave of the biggest set of the day.” “I really enjoyed surfing with Ivan in the late ’80s and ’90s,” wrote Cole. “It was like going back 30 or more years when I surfed with his dad.” Although he quit surfing Waimea Bay at 65 due to the crowd, the highlight of his final session at the Bay was “watching Ivan turn around on the biggest wave that day and charge down the face,” he remembered. “Needless to say, he took an unbelievable wipeout and had a very rare two-wave hold down.” When Ivan finally surfaced, he was 100 yards inside of the pack and “hooting from having such a wonderful experience. He wasn’t fazed a bit. The free-diving that Ivan and Buzzy both excelled in—when you are 100 feet deep for more than three minutes—a large wave wipeout is nothing.”
Once, when caught inside by a 20-foot set, Ivan recalled something his father had once said to him, “Ah, don’t worry. What goes down must come up.” Those words became a guiding piece of advice for Ivan. “To live, and not simply exist, that’s the key,” Ivan explained. “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely with a well-preserved body. Rather, you should skid across the finish line sideways, favorite beverage in hand, body totally used up and worn out, and screaming, ‘Hooyah! What a ride!’”
The morning of the 1990 Eddie Aikau contest Ivan made the most audacious decision of his big-wave surfing career. He and Alec Cooke decided to surf Outside Log Cabins. The northwest swell was 20-to-40-foot with stiff trade winds grooming the thunderous rights. “To add an arduous and challenging touch,” the two surfers decided to paddle into the giant waves. Eager to practice navigation and personnel recovery in massive waves, two of Ivan’s SEAL teammates supported the surfers in a Zodiac. He paddled out on his 11'4" James Jones gun. For three hours, the two men attempted to catch a wave, but the swells were moving too fast. “These monsters rolled under us,” recalled Ivan. “That’s when we realized the true size—beyond 30-plus.” They were already a mile offshore but a massive set broke 300 yards outside of them, and the mountain of whitewater did not dissipate as it approached. Trent took off his leash and dove as deep as he could. When he finally reached the surface, it was difficult to get a breath because there was a foam layer so dense that it was like attempting to swim in soapsuds. Although their Special Warfare support team performed admirably and picked the surfers up without incident, the experience left Ivan shaken. Regretting his decision to paddle out on an un-rideable day reinforced his belief in trusting his instincts. Ivan was out the day Donnie Solomon drowned at Waimea. Not only does he remain “haunted by that fateful day,” it also served as a reminder of what can happen while riding big waves. The day after his Outer Log Cabins session, pieces of his board washed up on the beach. Although he was even more shaken, he regained his equilibrium by surfing 20-foot Waimea. Days later, he left the Islands, collected his family, and headed to his new duty station, the Republic of the Philippines.
Ivan moved to San Diego in 1991, where he would become a legendary BUD/S instructor, best known as “Instructor Blah.” Active duty SEALS play a huge role in both the training and selection of their future teammates for the very simple reason that their lives will depend on them. According to Ivan, death is not a SEAL’s greatest fear. “It is not being tested, proven, and accepted by their peers,” or, put another way, being “simply vetted by da boys.” Trent would train many of the SEALs who distinguished themselves in combat after 9/11. According to his former pupil, decorated SEAL Kyle Defoor, Instructor Blah made sure his students “were as close to ‘watermen’ as possible, just like the big-wave guys on the Islands,” adding, “Blah and his contemporaries who were first phase BUD/S instructors at the time are the guys who selected and taught the majority of the SEALs who would later fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s weird that no one has really acknowledged him/them yet considering the overwhelming performance of the guys in combat, especially our ‘all-star’ Team, which Blah was a part of.”
Howard Wasdin, former SEAL Team 6 operator and author of SEAL Team Six, learned surf passage from Instructor Blah and described his unique pedagogic style: “Danger or no danger, one of our instructors always spoke in the same monotone. In a classroom at the Naval Special Warfare Center, Instructor Blah’s jungle boot stepped on a 13-foot-long black rubber boat resting on the floor in front of my class.” Next, Ivan drew stick figures of men on the chalkboard and said, “This is one of you after the ocean spit you out. And guess what? The next thing the ocean is going to spit out is the boat.” He grabbed the eraser and mowed down the stickmen on the board. “Now the 170-pound IBS [inflatable boat small] is full of water and weighs about as much as a small car, and it’s coming right at you here on the beach. What are you going to do?”
Ivan’s favorite part of being a BUD/S instructor was “Hell Week.” Douglas Waller described Instructor Blah as part of “the most dreaded combination [of instructors] in all of Hell Week” in his book Commandos: The Inside Story of America’s Secret Soldiers. Typically, it begins sometime on Sunday and ends the following Friday. “Breakout” marks the official start as instructors armed with blank-filled automatic weapons, smoke bombs, and sim grenades, invade the barracks, fill the room with choking smoke, gunfire, and loud music; when the coughing recruits stagger out of their quarters, they are blasted with fire hoses. The point of the exercise is to create sufficient confusion and chaos as to destroy unit cohesion. Although the recruits go through their regular physical training, they are kept awake by three shifts of instructors. Once the recruits in Steve Templin’s BUD/S class fell into ranks after breakout, they failed to notice that one man was missing. Suddenly the instructors frog-marched their classmate out. He was now blindfolded, gagged, and plasticuffed. Templin remembered Ivan calmly saying, “No SEAL has ever been captured as a prisoner of war but you left seaman Nelson behind, didn’t you?”
Those who survive Hell Week move on to phase two of BUD/S and begin diver training with the goal of becoming combat swimmers. During the dive phase instructors and their students work closely together and the relationship becomes less adversarial. This very dangerous form of diving requires great attention to detail and team work with a “swim buddy.” The aspiring SEALs will learn to navigate underwater by pacing themselves and counting their kicks. Finally, they are introduced to the Drager LAR (lung activated rebreather), a closed circuit, and pure oxygen system, which releases no telltale bubbles. Although Ivan Trent was “a master of megaphone warfare” and a psychological operator of the highest order, it was obvious to all those who came into contact with him that his skills in the water bordered on the supernatural.
If there was ever a frogman to fear, it was Ivan Trent.
Combat swimmers in transit. Photo: Trent family collection.
In addition to serving SEAL Team 6, the Hawaiian served exchanges with the world’s best combat swimmers: France’s Commando Hubert, Italy’s Icurosori, Germany’s Kampfschwimmers, Spain’s Unidad Especial Buceadores de Combate, and the Israeli’s Shayetet 13. Like Greenough discussing fins, boats, or fishing, Ivan grows beatific when describing Jacques Mayol’s esoteric theories on free-diving. More than anything else, the Hawaiian “instilled in us a love of the ocean and water in general,” wrote his former student Defoor. “You can see the results of this from the number of guys who still surf, swim, paddleboard, etc. As any true waterman knows, the water is the great separator of performers in the outdoors.” After 21 years in the Navy and deployments on nearly every continent, Ivan retired to Virginia Beach in 1998. He was surfing a hurricane swell with his wife on September 11, 2001. While the scale of the attacks stunned him, he was not surprised. He had crossed paths and locked horns with Hezbollah, Lashkar e toiba, Hamas, Islamic Jihad union, the Tamal tigers, Abu saef, the Iranians, the Syrians, the Chechens and many other Jihadists over the course of his career. While typically reluctant to offer his subjective opinions, he makes an exception for the Jihadists he encountered on the battlefield. “I saw the enemy up close and personal. Nothing but hate in their eyes, nothing less. Human decency irrelevant of ideology is simply human decency. Masking ominous intentions behind religion is dark hearted.”
A few days after 9/11, the Hawaiian ran into his surfing and paddle-boarding friend Frank Lundy and told him that he had reenlisted, “to do what I was trained to do.” The retired SEAL felt “a strong sense of urgency to come back to my country’s and my brothers’ aid. Obligation is my ethos, no strings attached, just go back in and give more.” He described returning to the teams at age 44 as “an enlightening experience.” When he first arrived in Afghanistan, he was struck by the harsh expanse and the people who inhabited it. “They led hard lives, and I could see the pain in their eyes.” On one of my many visits to the Trent hale in suburban Virginia, I noticed a small gray gravestone with a weather-beaten Purple Heart attached to it. Engraved were the names Erik Kristensen, Danny Dietz, Jacques Fontan, Michael McGreevy, Jeffrey Taylor, Jeffrey Lucas, and “Afghanistan Kunar Province 2005.” All of the men were SEALs killed in the Korangal Valley deep in the Hindu Kush Mountains during Operation Red Wings. The four SEALs were conducting clandestine reconnaissance when they came under a fierce attack from 20 to 30 Taliban fighters. Eight more SEALs and eight aviators from the Army’s 160th Nightstalkers Aviation Regiment were killed after a Taliban RPG shot down their rescue helicopter; it was the deadliest day for US Special Forces since World War II.
Ivan Trent, Afghanistan, 2004. Photo: Trent family collection
Although the Navy SEALs have lived up to their reputation since 9/11, more than 80 Naval Special Warfare operators have been killed. “Ivan lost friends,” said Frank Lundy, who recalled one paddle he took with Ivan after he had just returned home from a deployment. They were more than a mile offshore just after sunrise, when he stopped paddling and asked if he could offer a prayer. “He quietly sits up on his board, looks eastward” remembered Frank. “Ivan turns and says, not in a holy roller kind of way, just pure gratitude, ‘Thanks for the grace given to me to have the life I have, the good things I am grateful for, and the men I have been able to serve with. Please look over them and their families while I have this great day in front of me here’—very thoughtful and moving. A very humble warrior.”
In addition to paddling, Ivan is a runner. As often as not, his daily runs cover three to five times their intended distance and although he regularly wins his age division in 5k races, he prefers much longer distances. While suffering from a bad outbreak of Lyme disease, the Hawaiian entered the 2010 UDT/SEAL Reunion Run. Not only did he finish the four miles in less than 30 minutes, he won his age group (50-54). When his father died in 2006, Ivan honored him by running from Makaha, around Kaena Point, through Haleiwa, and back to Makaha—a distance of 86 miles.
Although officially retired, Ivan worked with Rapid Response Technology—a team including George Greenough, Stan Pleskunas, and myself—fine tuning some of his maritime security inventions. Pleskunas worked directly with him on the project and called it one of the highlights of his career. “Even though I was a draft dodger and spent most of my surfing career riding creampuffs at Sunset Cliffs, he treated me like a peer,” Pleskunas commented. “I would follow that guy anywhere and do anything he told me to do. Ivan is the quintessential leader, waterman, fearsome warrior, technical specialist, teacher, husband, father, son, and brother. Surfing is a significant part of his life. However, it is just a footnote in his life’s experiences. Ivan is a national treasure.”
These days, Ivan trains young Seals. More than anything else, he is inspired by his pupils. “Not only are they pressed to fight hardened enemies abroad, but they unselfishly cast their personal lives aside to serve, over and over.” Ivan is typically closed-lipped and vague about what he is actually teaching. When asked, he responds in classic, antiseptic SEAL speak. “We further refine their war-fighting skills by infusing additional ‘tools.’” Although Trent reels off an alphabet soup of acronyms and euphemisms like “force on force,” “immediate action,” and my personal favorite, “tactical intimacy,” he is teaching them much more. Today, the Hawaiian Odysseus makes it clear to his young charges that irrespective of politics, foreign policy, and election cycles, in the end they will be fighting for each other.