The 28-year-old Navy SEAL who was shot and killed rescuing a kidnapped American physician from his Taliban captors in Afghanistan over the weekend visited the 9/11 Memorial with his team just six months ago.
Nicolas Checque was just starting his senior year at Norwin High School in Huntingdon, Pa., when the World Trade Center was attacked. He had followed two-hour workouts with the wrestling team by swimming laps for an hour and going on four-mile runs. He even got corrective eye surgery so he would have the 20/20 vision he heard he needed to become a SEAL.
He enlisted shortly after graduation and achieved his goal, getting deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and earning a Bronze Star. He had been in the Navy for 10 years and a SEAL for almost as long when he and his team made the pilgrimage to the site where jihadist attackers murdered thousands of innocents and triggered a war on terror that continues more than a decade later.
Nearing 30, he was about the age of many SEALs who had visited the site in the past. But a new generation was joining the team and many of the SEALs who came with him were younger. One was just 21, but had those same SEAL qualities of intense awareness and self-control, right down to the rate of their breathing.
“Focus,” says someone close to the team.
We had pulled out of Iraq and we were pulling out of Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden was dead, but the SEALS were being deployed for even longer stretches. Checque’s team is said to be scheduled to be away for more than a year, when it might have been half that at one time.
A heartrending reminder of the danger they continue to face came on Nov. 3, when one of the younger SEALS who visited the 9/11 memorial was killed in Afghanistan.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Kantor had been just 22. He was only 11 on 9/11. He had gone on to run track at Watchung High School in Warren, N.J., and to become ranked 21st nationally in fencing. He graduated in 2008, winning the annual award for the most determined and dedicated athlete.
The New Jersey Institute of Technology offered him a full academic scholarship, but he chose to enlist in the Navy in 2009. He became a SEAL 14 months later. He also had been awarded a Bronze Star.
“The epitome of the new generation of Navy SEAL,” his comrades said in a letter they sent to his family from the war zone where they remained deployed. “A brave, selfless warrior who put others’ needs above his own time and again. Matt faced and overcame every possible obstacle to achieve his goal. Matt never let anyone down.”
The letter, passages of which his father, Ken Kantor, read aloud at the funeral, described him as generally a SEAL of few words.
"But when he had something to say, people stopped and listened, because they knew it would inevitably be something extremely profound or something exceedingly funny,” the letter said.
The letter went on to say that in the final moments of his too-brief life, Kantor had remained “true to form,” making himself “the first line for defense for his team.”
"While on patrol, several insurgents mounted a complex machine-gun attack on Matt and his team,” the letter said. “Without fear or hesitation, Matt moved to protect his teammates and was mortally wounded by the bevy of machine-gun fire. His actions were directly responsible for saving the lives of his [comrades] and protecting the main body of the patrol.”
On Nov. 24, another SEAL was killed in Afghanistan. Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Ebbert of California was 32, and he had just gotten married on New Year’s Eve of 2011. He loved to read, and had a degree in music with a minor in jazz from the University of Santa Cruz. He was the son of a retired SEAL and had enlisted after his father died in 2003. He had been awarded two Bronze Stars and was nicknamed “Ice-Cold Kevin” for his precision and attention to detail, shown in earlier years when he used a metronome to practice guitar.
Ebbert often had demonstrated the warmth of his heart as a medic of uncommon skill. He had more than once exposed himself to enemy fire to aid a wounded comrade. He’d planned after his latest deployment to go on to medical school and spend the rest of his days working in clinics in parts of the world that most need a doctor.
“He was a caring, focused individual from the time he was born,” his mother, Charlie Jordan, told mourners at his memorial.
Then, on Dec. 8, came another death. Checque was fatally shot in Afghanistan while his team rescued Dr. Dilip Joseph, who had been doing the kind of work Ebbert had dreamt of doing.
Checque’s death prompted President Obama to say, “He gave his life for his fellow Americans, and he and his teammates remind us once more of the selfless service that allows our nation to stay strong, safe, and free.”
In New York, word of this latest loss reached those who had met the SEALs when they visited the 9/11 memorial six months ago. One official who counts himself forever lucky to have spent time with the SEALs said news that another of them had fallen was always accompanied by a feeling of unreality.
“You talk to them and start to get a little glimpse of how extraordinary they are as people,” the official said. “And they go off and you read they got killed.”