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Jesse Pittman dies at 27; Navy petty officer first class (SEAL) from Willits

When he was in kindergarten, he would answer only to the name John Wayne. After high school, he battled wildfires in the rugged mountains of Northern California. And as an elite Navy SEAL, he went on nighttime raids in Afghanistan, missions both dangerous and top secret.

Equal parts daring, determined and goofy, Jesse Pittman was as renowned for his practical jokes — often elaborate and largely unprintable — as he was for his bravery and discipline.

Pittman, who spent most of his life in the small Mendocino County town of Willits, died Aug. 6 in Taliban territory when the Chinook helicopter that carried him and 29 other American troops was shot down. It was the deadliest incident for U.S. forces since the war in Afghanistan began a decade ago.

He was 27, a Navy petty officer first class and a member of San Diego-based SEAL Team 5, where he was affectionately known as “Pitt.”

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“Pitt led from the bottom,” said Chief William Lyman, who was Pittman’s immediate supervisor in Fallouja, Iraq, west of Baghdad. “If you were in charge of Pitt, you had to do your absolute best to keep your performance level as high as his.”

The young man was “awesome, in great shape and a fantastic [special warfare] operator,” Lyman said. But “we had our run-ins. Sometimes Pitt argued, and I was forced to change my mind. Sometimes Pitt argued out of pure sport.”

Hundreds filled the stands at the Redwood Empire Fairgrounds here one recent Saturday to hear Lyman and others remember the spirited SEAL. A giant American flag, held aloft by two fire ladder trucks, formed the backdrop for the memorial. A machine gun salute, taps and a pipe and drum corps wove the mournful soundtrack.

Flag-waving residents lined State Street in Ukiah to greet Pittman’s grieving family members as they drove into the fairgrounds and speedway, escorted by a phalanx of Patriot Guard Riders.

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The bleachers bristled with uniforms — sailors, a Marine or two, California Highway Patrol officers, firefighters who worked alongside Pittman during two seasons at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, a little girl in a cheerleader skirt.

The day was somber, sweet and a fitting goodbye to a young sailor remembered for what one speaker called his “sly innocence and his constant grin.”

Pittman was born in Arcata, near Eureka, but his family soon moved to Willits, a lumber town along the Redwood Highway in Mendocino County. Pittman’s mother, Ida, calls Willits “a working community,” where physical labor was valued more highly than sport.

“He split all our wood one year by hand,” she said of her son, noting that the family’s home is heated only with wood. “He worked in a mill. He hauled hay. He worked for a man who delivered hay to commercial people…. [In school] he was smart, but didn’t apply himself. He’d rather work, do wood shop, do auto shop.”

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Ida Pittman would take her rowdy young son to the park for her own Sunday school lessons “because he gave the teachers such a hard time,” she said.

She also home-schooled him briefly during his elementary years. But his science fair project at the time was noticed by the judges; it concerned “automobiles and centrifugal force,” she said. “It was impressive.”

Throughout his life, cars were a particular love. He built a race car with his older brother and won his first race. He spent long hours with friends and family at the Ukiah Speedway, where he eventually would be memorialized.

Willits was small and rural, and also tight-knit. Pittman graduated from Willits High School in 2002. Principal Keller McDonald lived near the Pittmans and remembers when the young man was learning to drive.

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“The only way in and out of the neighborhood was right past our house, which was located on a really tight S curve,” McDonald said during the memorial service. “Jesse mastered that S curve. Let’s just say he didn’t find much use for the brakes on the way downhill, and he was convinced that he needed to show the accelerator who was boss when going uphill.”

But Pittman also was hardworking, respectful and funny, the kind of boy who “could squeeze a smile out of a rock,” said his father, J. Terry Pittman.

The Pittmans are not entirely sure why their son wanted to be a SEAL; perhaps, his mother said, it was because he wanted the challenge and hoped for a life beyond their small town.

After two seasons with Cal Fire, where his father is a heavy equipment operator, Pittman joined the Navy and set his sights on becoming a SEAL.

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He was in good shape, but he wasn’t a strong swimmer. So after he enlisted in 2005, he asked his friend and fellow firefighter Frank Hunter to help him learn to swim.

“On our first day … when Jesse got in the pool and started to dog paddle, I told him, ‘You might have made a mistake. Maybe you should see if you can get out of this thing,’” Hunter recounted during the memorial as Pittman’s friends and family laughed in appreciation.

“Jesse just looked at me and said, ‘Look, Frank, you get me to pass BUDS [Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training] and I’ll take care of the rest,” Hunter said. “At that moment, I saw how determined Jesse was to become a SEAL.”

Four of every five enrolled in the six-month course drop out, Lyman said. And that program is followed by six months of additional training before prospective SEALs earn their trident, the group’s insignia.

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Pittman, who was single, was buried Aug. 30 at Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego. His survivors include his parents and his brothers, Corey and J. Terry Pittman Jr.

Wise beyond his years, Pittman “pursued careers that would let him do the things he loved,” McDonald, the former principal, recalled. “In Cal Fire and the military, Jesse chose careers that demanded skill and physical excellence.… He embodied the part of the SEAL creed that said SEALs are common men with an uncommon desire to succeed.”

maria.laganga@latimes.com


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