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“Nigeria to the Navy SEALs: A Conversation with Remi Adeleke”

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To start off, could you tell me a little bit about your background, where did you go up? What was your childhood like?

“So I was actually born in Western Africa; I lived in Nigeria until I was five. My father was a well-known Nigerian engineer and very successful businessman and entrepreneur and because of his success we were very, very wealthy – I traveled the world, had nannies, cars, drivers, we lived on a compound. And then when my father died the Nigerian government stripped our family of everything, so we went from rich to poor. My mom and I and my brother relocated to the Bronx, and that’s where I essentially grew up.  From there in New York City I started getting involved in some not-so-good activities when I was in my early to mid-teens, that’s kind of a quick little short snapshot of my early beginnings.”

Did you do high school in the city up until you joined the military?

“Yeah, I went to DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx right off of Mosholu Parkway. Prior you that I went to PS 143 Middle School and prior to that I went to PS 122 Elementary School.”

Got it. And in terms of the military, when did that come up on your radar? Was it one certain event, person, or thing that drove you towards that? Just talk me through that decision and process.

“I think this has a two-part answer to that.  I think the first part would be why I got into the military; the second part would be why I specifically chose the SEAL Teams in the Navy.  I’ll deal with the second part first. When I was 15, I saw a movie called ‘The Rock’ and that was the first time I was exposed to Navy SEALs-  it’s a classic man. When I saw them sneaking onto the island and going to rescue the people and coming out of the water and the guns I was just like ‘Wow, who are these guys?’ You know, growing up in the Bronx you don’t hear about Navy SEALs, or Delta Force, or Special Forces, you don’t hear about that kind of stuff.  So I watched that movie, and I kind of had this far-fetched dream that maybe one day I could maybe be a SEAL, but as time passed, I buried that dream deep down within me.”

“I started going into the streets, that’s when I got involved in selling drugs and running high-level scams and all the other stuff that I did. But what led me into the Navy ultimately was I was involved in a lot of bad stuff. A deal with a drug dealer went really, really bad. I sold him a product that was supposed to last a certain amount of time, and it lasted for a fraction of that time, and he threatened my life. So I made him his money back and then I laid low for six months and did absolutely nothing, just nothing at all. And then one day I was just lying in my bed, and I heard this voice speak to me and say ‘You need to get out of here. You need to join the military’. I kind of argued back and forth and finally, you know, I looked around my bedroom and said: ‘What else do you have?’ I had nothing else going for myself; there’s nothing else for me to do, why not join the military?  So that’s essentially what kind of led me to join – it was more to kind of shift the path that I was going down – because the path that I was on I was either going to end up dead or in prison. And so that’s why I joined. I joined to get out of that environment that I was in and try to get myself a fresh start and a new life.”

And once you were in the military, what type of training were you put through, from basic training onward?  When did you make the shift to join the SEAL Teams?

“Yeah so Boot Camp was really easy – I don’t even want to call Boot Camp. I pretty much learned how to fold clothes and march all day long and maybe a run here and there, but it wasn’t as challenging as one would expect.  While I was at Boot Camp, there was a SEAL that came, and he did a presentation on what SEALs do. He showed us a video and when I watched that video that’s when I can say that dream that I had years earlier from ‘The Rock’ kind of bubbled back up in me. That’s when I made the firm decision to be a SEAL. But there were three issues: I couldn’t swim, I didn’t have the academic scores – my Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) scores weren’t high enough – and I was super skinny. I could barely do a push-up. I couldn’t do any pull-ups; I was not in shape at all.  So I went to my first command which was Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton, and I was there for a year. In that year, that’s where I really put the pedal to the metal. I was making up workouts, eating as much food as I could eat. I would run three miles to the pool and jump in the shallow end and try to figure it out, and then I would run three miles back home back to the barracks. And then I had an ASVAB for Dummies book, and I studied that. I checked into that command January 2003, and I checked out of that command to go to BUD/S in January of 2004, so that was the transition.”

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For those who are not familiar, can you explain what BUD/S is?

“BUD/S is Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training. It’s the program that every Navy SEAL has to go through in order to be a SEAL – enlisted or officer, doesn’t matter.  It’s considered the toughest military training known to man. It’s six months long, but even after you graduate BUD/S, you still have to go through SQT, which is SEAL Qualification Training, before you go to SEAL Team. It’s not fun. The average attrition rate per class is 85-90%. The class that I eventually graduated with started with 270, and only 29 of us graduated. So BUD/S is literally a kick in the nuts every single day. They torture you in every way that they can to break you down mentally. I mean really, really break you down mentally.”

So you mentioned that high attrition rate: what characteristics or traits separate those who drop out from those that make it through BUD/S and eventually become Navy SEALS?

“I would say the mind. Every single guy that shows up to SEAL training has what it takes physically, because you have to pass what we call a PST, or a Physical Screening Test, where you have to do a mile and a half run in a certain amount of time, do a swim in a certain amount of time, do push-ups and sit-ups and a certain amount of pull-ups. And if you can pass that test, you have told the Navy that you have what it takes physically to make it through SEAL training. So every guy that shows up to SEAL training has checked that box. The question now is do you have the mental fortitude and the mental capacity to put up with mind games and put up with the mental torture that you go through in the program. And so you know what separates the guys who don’t make it from the guys that do make it is that phrase ‘Mind over Matter.’ I remember there were guys in my class who were triathletes, I mean they were world-class athletes. They could run a mile in 5 minutes; they could swim a 500 in 7 minutes. They were just Adonis’s. But they quit. And here I was, I had nowhere near their athletic skills or the aquatic skills these guys had, and I was still standing. So what it was for me and what I recognized in other guys who did make it is just that mind. The strength of the mind.”

And what year did you graduate BUD/S?

“I graduated from BUD/S in 2007.  So there might be a bit of confusion, I went to BUD/S in 2004, and I made it to Second Phase. I had made it through First Phase, Hell Week, and then after Hell Week, I got performance dropped in Second Phase. After that, I got sent to the fleet, and then after the fleet, I went back two BUD/S 2 years later and made it through.”

Ok so around 2007 – when you got out of BUD/S, what team were you assigned to and what were some of the missions you were conducting at that time?

“When I got out I was at Team Three; I love Team Three. I did a brief stint it was called SA One at the time, but it’s a different team now, goes by a different name. But man I’ve done a lot – a lot of direct action missions, we call them DA’s, but some people refer to them as Capture-Kill missions. It’s essentially going after a guy to capture him, and if he fights back, you do what you have to do. So I’ve done DAs, I’ve done reconnaissance missions, I’ve done recovery missions. One of my specialties in the teams, I was a HUMINT guy, which stands for Human Intelligence.  I’ve done a lot of Human Intelligence kind of stuff, where I met with informant and sources and carried money and collected information and met with Sheikhs and did all kinds of different things. I was that guy who was in civilian clothes, going out and meeting on my own or with an interpreter. I’ve done a little bit of everything.”

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So primarily deployments to the Middle East?

“Yeah, all my deployments – three deployments to the Middle East. I wanted to go to Africa. I always wanted to go and operate in Africa because of my background, but I never got the chance, so pretty much all my deployments were in the Middle East.”

Who were some of the service members, whether sailors you worked with before you were in the Teams or SEALS you worked with, that had an impact on your service?

“I’ve got a whole list man, so many guys.  The first one that comes to mind is Mikey Monsoor; he won the Medal of Honor. The first time I was at BUD/S we were in the same boat crew together, he was just such a selfless guy, always encouraging.  I remember the first time I went through Hell Week I got medical rolled for pneumonia and had to start First Phase all over again. And I just remember him just encouraging me because he had been to BUD/S before so he knew what it was like to see your class move on, so he just really, really encouraged me during that time. And I never forgot that. And you know he went off to win the Medal of Honor for sacrificing his life by jumping on a grenade protecting his guys, so that was one person who always had a huge impact on me.”

“There’s so many. You know, Jocko Willink. He put my platoon through Land Warfare right before we deployed, and man, he hammered the dog piss out of our platoon during Immediate Action Drills. What I loved about him is, he was always pushing. His expectation for Frogmen was excellence; you will do what you’re called to do with excellence. That always stuck with me, whatever you do you, do it right, go above and beyond. Jocko had beat that into my platoon.”

“Another guy that comes to mind is, and there are so many people, but Aaron Vaughn. Aaron was another SEAL who died in Extortion 17, a helicopter that got shot down. I remember I was going through Close Quarters Combat (CQC). He was running my platoon at CQC before we were getting ready to deploy, and I remember I was a quasi-new guy and it was super encouraging to me. We are doing our final Field Training Exercise, and the room had a barricaded shooter. And he had this paintball machine gun, and he was just lighting up a platoon, and we were all just fed up. Finally, I just pulled this grenade, this fake blue ball grenade that has a little fake explosive inside of it. I threw it in, waited for it to explode and rushed down the hall and started lighting up the fictitious character. After that Aaron Vaughn debriefed us. He said ‘Wherever you go, that’s what we look for, guys who are going to go in and crush the world.’ He said some other things to me, but he was just really, really encouraging – as the new SEAL in the platoon he really encouraged me. And later to find out that he passed away was pretty crushing.”

When you hear the term “leader” who’s the first person that comes to mind?

“I would say my mom. When my dad died, my mom went from living a life of luxury to being poor. People ask me all the time: where do you get your perseverance from, where do you get your resilience from? And my answer is always the same; I get it from my mom. When my father died, my mom literally went from having everything to not having a penny to her name. She could have easily given up, she could have easily quit, but she didn’t.  She would just figure out a way when there wasn’t a way.  I remember times when she didn’t have enough food to feed herself; she just had enough food to feed my brother and I because she was just dead broke. Just having that living example, to me that’s selfish leadership you know?  My mom exuded that. So when I hear the word leader, the first person that comes to mind is my mom. She’s hardcore man. People always think she’s my sister because they see her now and she looks so young, but my mom is 66. But every day she gets after it, she works out every day really hard. She eats healthy to this day. She’s always trying to set that example for my brother and I.”

That’s awesome man. Moving to a broader question now, if you don’t mind sharing with our readers: What was your most profound experience while wearing a uniform?

“This is actually something I talked about this in my book – the name of my book is ‘Transformed’; it comes out May 14th. I’m encouraging people to go pre-order it now, if you pre-order now you get access to exclusive video content and video stories that didn’t make it into the book.”

“But the first year at my team I was awarded Navy SEAL of the Year, and that was really important to me especially coming from where I came from. When I went to go join the Navy, the recruiter ran my background, and she found out that I had two warrants out for my arrest. I had a warrant in New Jersey, and I had a warrant in New York. I got up, and I got ready to leave, and she stopped me and said ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘I’m getting out of here – I don’t wanna get arrested!’”

“She stopped me, and she asked me if I had a suit and I said ‘No, I don’t have a suit.’ She asked if I had a tie and some nice pants and I said ‘Yeah.’ So she said ‘Come back tomorrow.’”

“And I came back the next day, and she took me to both judges, she took me to the judge in New York and the judge in Jersey. She was in her dress uniform, and she advocated on my behalf to get my record expunged. Both judges unanimously expunged my record, because they saw my decision to join the military as patriotic. 9/11 had just taken place. Even with my record expunged, I still wasn’t qualified to join the Navy. In one of the Military Entrance Processing Command questionnaires, you know one of those questionnaires that if you check ‘yes’ to anything you’re pretty much denied an opportunity to get into the Navy. And one of the questions on there was ‘Have you ever had anything on your record, whether expunged or sealed?’ and my recruiter told me ‘Don’t check ‘yes,’ because if I did you won’t be able to join the military, especially with what you did.’ So I checked ‘no.'”

“But essentially what she was saying to me and what the military was saying to me, in general, was ‘Remi, because of these mistakes that you made as a young person you’re not qualified to join the military. There’s a potential that you’re a risk to the military because of the things that you did in your past’. Fast forward to my first year at my SEAL Team; I became SEAL of the Year. That was just a full-circle moment for me and I think it was the proudest moment for because, here I was, this person who was told by the government ‘You’re not qualified to join the Navy,’ and I was able to prove that wrong and show them that even though people make mistakes, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have potential. And I had tons of potential and obviously that potential was fulfilled. So I would say that was my proudest moment.”

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If you could give one piece of advice to future leaders, whether military or civilian, what would it be and why?

“The first thing I would say, and it’s something that comes to mind because I’m dealing with it right now with a company I’m partnered with, as leaders you have to be willing to own your mistakes. You have to be willing to say ‘I messed up’ or ‘I screwed up’ and ‘I’m going to fix it moving forward.’ I’ve just been partnering with organizations that have made lots of mistakes, and they have a hard time owning it. And because of that it just leads to a toxic relationship and so first things first: no leader is perfect. There’s no leader on this Earth that’s perfect. You have to be willing to raise your hand and say ‘I screwed up; I made a mistake, but I’m going to fix it.’ That’s the first thing, the second thing I would say is genuinely care about your people. Take an interest in those who you lead. It wasn’t until I got to the Teams that I encountered leaders who took a genuine interest in me and the guys in the platoon. That caused me to want to work harder for my leader. Because there are those leaders who just see you as a stepping stone to the next rank or they just see you as someone or something to use to get where they need to go. They don’t often see their subordinates as actual people. So that’s the second piece of advice I would give: see your subordinates as people, care about them, take a genuine interest in them, and I guarantee you will have more employees that will be willing to work harder for you, not just meet the standard.”

What should the average civilian know about the military?

“People in the military, whether you were in SOF or not in SOF, whether you were a pilot or a whether you were mechanic or whatever, being in the military, you gain so many life lessons. You gain lessons that you can’t gain in a college classroom. You gain experiences that you can’t gain by staying in the United States, you have to gain them by traveling outside of your bubble and experiencing other cultures and experiencing other foods and people and music and all of these other things the military allows us to experience as we travel the world. One thing that I would want people who are not in the military to know: take advantage of people who are in the military. Realize that they do have lessons, they do have experiences that you may not have. If you just take the time to listen and hear them out, you might learn something that might be a benefit to your company, to your non-profit, to your career, to your family. People who have served in the military we do have knowledge, we do have experiences that can definitely be beneficial. I truly believe that a lot of our experiences and the knowledge that we gain goes untapped.”

That’s tremendous, and I couldn’t agree more. Is there anything additional that you want to say in conclusion before we wrap this interview up?

“I would just say my book; I cover a lot about life. The way I tried to write my book I tried not to write it as a typical military book. I didn’t want to write it from the perspective of ‘Here’s this mission I went on and here’s another mission and another mission I went on.’ I just wanted to share a journey. So, you know, I also wanted to be open about my failures in life, because I’ve had so many failures in life, but my failures have led to me being where I am today. I just want to encourage people to go out there and pre-order the book, not just to give me something but to give yourself something, give yourself some lessons and some inspirations and perhaps some motivation that’s needed in your life or that you feel someone else may need. It’s called ‘Transformed’, if you go to https://www.thomasnelson.com/p/transformed/#aboutthebook you can pre-order it there or just go straight to Amazon.com, and you’ll see a picture of my mug and you can pre-order it there.”

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