Lou Langlais was a Navy SEAL, a precision parachute jumper and a rock climber who scaled cliffs, sometimes without a rope. With a striking ability to suppress fear, he was known for leading his comrades into dangerous situations with a sense of calm, confidence and even fun.
Over a 25-year career, Langlais rose to become a troop leader in the Navy SEALs’ elite Team Six, the secretive unit that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. And he was one of 30 Americans who lost their lives when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan on Aug. 6 — the deadliest day for U.S. troops in the nearly decade-long war.
The deployment was to be Langlais’ last tour in Afghanistan before settling down to become a SEAL trainer. He was 44.
“He was a hero among the SEALs, the best that our country has,” said David Griffith, a rock-climbing instructor and close friend since the two were in middle school in Santa Barbara. Until a memorial Thursday, Griffith said, “I never realized how revered he was. He never bragged. The SEALs don’t talk much.”
Langlais also was an attentive husband and doting father of two young boys, calling home while deployed in Afghanistan to check in about even the littlest things.
“Even though he was a bad ass in his job, he was tender and funny with the kids,” said Anya Langlais, his wife of a dozen years. “He’s not what you’d imagine a Navy SEAL to be.”
Langlais’ family, just like his friends and fellow SEALs, was susceptible to his boundless quests for adventures. The 6-foot dad with a tattoo of Geronimo on his back would burst into the room: “I’m going to Magic Mountain. Who’s with me?”
His charm and mischievous smile, his wife said, “pretty much got him out of everything.”
“He could never keep a straight face,” she said. “When he was trying to discipline the boys — and that was his job! — he’d have to turn his back to them or they’d see it. And he’d start laughing. And they’d start laughing.”
Born in Quebec, Louis James Langlais was the son of Dr. Louis-Marie Langlais and Marguerite Langlais. The family moved to the U.S. when Lou was a toddler. They spoke French at home and lived on the East Coast until Langlais’ father, a cardiologist, died when the boy was 9.
The family relocated to Santa Barbara, where Lou quickly adopted a California boy’s passion for skateboarding, surfing, fishing, scuba diving and rock climbing.
After graduating from Santa Barbara High School, he spent much of the next two years at the state’s most renowned climbing sites: Yosemite National Park and Joshua Tree National Monument.
He scaled Yosemite’s big walls, but became a standout at “free solo” climbing — without a rope for protection — on 100- to 200-foot cliffs at Joshua Tree.
“He didn’t get scared,” Griffith said. “He has a mental capacity for suppressing fear that was just amazing.”
Joshua Tree was a place he returned to again and again, training SEALs in rock-climbing techniques, or just bringing his comrades along to a place he loved.
“Instead of them going on leave and partying, he would convince them to go to the cold desert to climb rock,” Griffith said. “I don’t know how he did it but he did: ‘There will be no girls, no food, no water and you just might get killed. Let’s go!” He’d show up with a car full of guys.”
Langlais joined the Navy by chance in 1986, his wife said. He was engaged in some mischief in a shopping mall and ducked into a Navy recruiting office to elude security officers. She recounted that a recruiter made him a deal: “OK, you enlist or you go straight to the mall security.”
He spent three years on a warship until he was accepted into a SEAL and underwater demolition training program in San Diego. Langlais joined San Diego-based SEAL Team 3 and fought in the first Gulf War. Later, he became part of the Navy’s precision parachute team, the Leap Frogs, grabbing headlines for one very public mishap.
It was opening day at Miami’s baseball stadium, and Langlais was to jump into the ballpark dressed as the Florida Marlins’ maniacally grinning mascot, Billy. At about 6,000 feet, the wind ripped away the top of the costume. “That is a really unruly head,” Langlais was quoted at the time. “It catches too much air.”
Always cool in a crunch, Langlais steered his chute so the headless mascot landed outside the stadium. Meanwhile, another Billy took his place inside.
A year later, he met Anya when the Leap Frogs parachuted into the ceremony commissioning a new warship in Savannah, Ga. “I was star-struck,” she said. They were married 18 months later on a Santa Barbara beach.
In 2000, they moved to Virginia Beach, Va., where he joined SEAL Team Six, now officially known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group. It is one of the nation’s super-secretive units deployed for special missions and counter-terrorism activities.
Nearly everything Langlais did for his job in the last decade remains classified.
“After 9/11, it got kind of crazy and I didn’t see him too much,” said Scott Cosgrove, a Hollywood stuntman and one of many celebrated rock climbers who knew him.
What is public is that Langlais rose to the rank of master chief, the highest possible for enlisted personnel. He spent multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, earning five Bronze Stars with “V” decorations for valor in combat, a Purple Heart, combat action ribbons and medals for service and expeditions in the global war on terror.
“He’s a legendary character, and I guess it’s only fitting for him to burn out [rather] than fade away,” said Darrell Logan, a former Navy diver and climbing partner. “I will miss him as long as I live.”
Some friends have questioned why a SEAL with his seniority remained in combat. At least part of the answer came in a video he left, just in case, for his wife and sons, Gabe, 9, and Jack, 7.
Speaking directly into the camera, Langlais addressed his boys: “I want you to know that Daddy’s over here fighting this war so when you’re older, Gabe and Jack, you won’t have to do this,” he said. “I don’t want you to fight this war on terrorism. I’m hoping it will be done with by the time you are old enough to join the military.”
In addition to his wife and sons, Langlais’ survivors include two brothers, Jean and Simon Langlais; and a sister, Lucie Langlais.
Langlais will be buried Aug. 26 in Arlington National Cemetery along with others lost in the helicopter crash. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be sent to the Lou Langlais Memorial Fund, P.O. Box 3100, Merrifield, VA 22119.