This interview was conducted with Claudia Suh, the sister of Navy SEAL James Suh, in June 2010. James was part of the rescue team going in to save Michael Murphy’s four-man SEAL team that was pinned down by an overwhelming number of Taliban fighters in the remote mountains of Afghanistan. He was killed in action when his helicopter was shot down by an rpg. This is his story…..
MilitaryMovies@News: Your parents immigrated to the U.S. from Korea, is that correct?
CS: They did, yes. I think they came over when my mother was pregnant with me so that would have been 34 years ago, but they divorced when we were fairly young….I was six and my brother was four and my mother has been 100% out of our lives since that time so it was really my father that raised the two of us. We first lived in Chicago and then a little bit after the divorce was finalized we moved to South Florida with my father….Deerfield Beach.
MM&N: So what was James like as a kid, what kind of hobbies and interests did he have growing up?
CS:He was a pretty typical boy I guess. In Florida, he had a pretty good consistent group of friends throughout his entire childhood and I remember them doing a lot of skateboarding, fishing, playing football, basketball….just anything that involved being outdoors and running around. He loved animals….any kind of little creatures that he could study or play with. I remember he and I would spend a lot of time trying to catch little lizards around the outside of our house, or baby frogs in a nearby pond. He was just an active little boy.
MM&N: I read that James was very good at math, is that something he was good at his entire life, even as a little kid?
CS: I don’t know how much of it was just a natural talent but my dad did push us from a very, very early age to hone our math skills, so he and I were both pushed to do well academically and because my dad gave us a headstart when we were young in terms of learning math we were a few years ahead of where we would have been in school and I think that really helped my brother have a handle on math to the point where it became more easy for him as he got older.
MM&N: I understand family was very important to him, he was very close to his family?CS: Yes, he was very close to his family. Even though our little nuclear family consisted of just my father, my brother and myself, we were really fortunate to have a lot of cousins, aunts and uncles. My dad came from a family of eight kids so we had a lot of cousins whom we grew close to throughout our childhood. We were lucky to spend extended amounts of time with different cousins to the point where they really felt like siblings to us. So yes, family was very important to James and a big part of his life. He just loved his cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents very much and genuinely enjoyed being around them.
MM&N: I believe James lost a very good friend when he was a teenager?
CS:Yes. When James was in middle school his best friend Eric was in an accident involving a handgun. Eric was from a family that was very outdoorsy and did a lot of fishing and hunting and that kind of stuff so Eric had some familiarity with guns but in this particular incident he was at a friend’s house and a gun went off unexpectedly. Eric didn’t survive. It was a traumatic loss for my brother to lose his best friend at that young age. Not only had Eric had been a great friend to James but he had been a really amazing person in his own right – even at such a young age, there was something about Eric’s character that would immediately impress you. He was loved and admired by so many people and our whole community mourned his death. Losing Eric was a defining moment in James’s life. My brother went by his Korean name, Sung Gap, for the better part of his childhood but when he legally changed his name to James, he added Eric as his middle name in memory of his friend.
MM&N: Now growing up, did James show much interest in the military?
CS: From a very young age he was kind of obsessed with G.I. Joe. but that’s not unusual for boys and I think that kind of stayed with him as he got older but he was especially interested in Navy SEALs, so it wasn’t just any branch of the military. He had a particular interest in the Navy SEALs from an early age.
MM&N: Do you know where that interest came from….a movie or books?
CS: It could have been from a movie….I know that he read books on Navy SEALs. I actually don’t know what initially sparked his interest in it…..I think just the allure of how very specially skilled they were and then having those skills and being able to fight for your country….I think that’s something that appealed to him.
MM&N: Was he a very strong swimmer before he became a SEAL? Was that something he was already good at?
CS: I think swimming was something that he excelled at because we grew up about two or three minutes from the beach and from the time that we were in elementary school my dad…..it was kind of like this regimen that he had us doing where we would be at the beach at every afternoon swimming laps back and forth between these two little landmarks, so my dad really wanted us to become good swimmers and then eventually we joined the swim team in high school. My brother did well on the swim team and when it came to trying out for the SEALs I think that was something that was an advantage for him. He may not have been the fastest runner or really stood out maybe in strength skills tests but in swimming he did fine.
MM&N: He went to the University of Florida to study math. Was he seriously considering joining the SEALs at the time he went to college?
CS: He was and I think there was maybe a little bit of confusion or….it wasn’t real clear in the beginning because he went to college and he had an ROTC scholarship going in there and the track that he was on he found out in his first year of college that basically it would lead him on the officer’s track after graduating from college and it would bypass a chance to try out for the SEAL program because from what I understand you can’t be attempting to do both things. I don’t know if that is actually the case but the way it was explained to me, and you have to realize this was many, many years ago, was that he was going to walk away from the ROTC scholarship in order to do what he really wanted to do which was try out for the SEALs.
MM&N: James had also expressed interest in becoming a veterenarian and also a statistician I believe but he decided to become a SEAL and he was kind of hesitant about telling your dad, is that right?
CS: He was, he was hesitant.
MM&N: How did the family feel about his decision to become a SEAL?
CS: I don’t think he cared about any opinion as much as he cared about my dad’s, so that was the most important opinion for him. My father was in the Korean army himself when he was younger and he ended up being a Major but for my father it was a bit of an adjustment to picture his son for whom he sacrificed and really tried to give everything that he could to give his son the best chance in life……I guess my dad felt like James had more opportunities than to enlist…..but that was back when the idea was so new to him. I think it came as a little bit of a shock to him. My dad wasn’t crazy about it at first but the more he got to understand what it was and that it was my brother’s dream the more my dad supported it. So, I think having to have that initial conversation with my dad was a little bit difficult but he got past it.
MM&N: Was it before or after 9/11 that he joined?
CS: It was before. He graduated college in 1999 and he went into the Navy right after.
MM&N: Did you all know very much about any of his activities before Redwing? Was he able to tell you much about what he was doing in Afghanistan or anywhere else?
CS: No. When he died in June he had only been deployed since March and that was his very first deployment. In the time before that when he was doing all of his training he didn’t let on too much about what he was doing. He would let us know how he was going to some other place…..but two things stand out, when he was in Afghanistan he was very careful not to give out any details about where he was or what he was doing. It was clear to us that there was no point in us asking. Before Afghanistan, in the training that he would do with the SEALs he would tell us stories every once in a while about how he was tested or some incident that stood out or was memorable but he wouldn’t go into too much detail about things that may have been confidential on one level or another.
MM&N: How did you all first hear about the crash?
CS: Well, for my father it was officers coming to the condo that he shared with my brother in Hawaii.
MM&N: James had actually moved your dad to Hawaii to take care of him, right?
CS: Yes. That’s right. When my dad finally retired from his job my brother invited my father to Hawaii to live with him. The plan was for James to take care of my dad in his golden years when in fact it ended up being the other way around in some ways. In Hawaii, my dad went right back to the role he had had for over 20 years, that of caretaker, father…cooking and cleaning and just basically tending to James however he could. At the same time, James was also taking care of my dad…making sure he had a comfortable place to live, proper medical attention and most of all, the continued friendship of his son. They really took care of one another.…but anyway, the question you asked about how he found out….what I understand is that officers along with someone who was trying to translate in the Korean language showed up at his door to give him the information about my brother. For me, I found out in a very secondary way. I was at work at the time and I got a strange voicemail message on my cellphone from my cousin who sounded very upset about something and just that he was really sorry to hear about my brother and I had no idea what he was alluding to and I immediately called my dad and he was very calm at the time. He had already gotten the news from the military but he was very calm at the time and he just told me that he wanted to talk to me more after I got home because I guess he was pretty concerned about how the shock of the news would affect me and he just wanted to make sure that I could drive home safely and be in a place where I could just sit and receive the news. So that’s what happened. I drove home and I found out….well, all they knew at that time was that the helicopter had been shot down.
MM&N: How long after the crash did you all find out that James had been killed in action?
CS: Well, we suspected right away just based on the fact that the helicopter had been shot down but I don’t think it was confirmed for several days afterward because I live in the Bay area in Californai and I had to get on a flight and go to Hawaii and then I was in Hawaii at least two, maybe three days, before our casualty assistance officer gave us the news that they had actually recovered the body but in our family’s minds, we didn’t want to believe anything fully until evidence to that degree had been presented and so that was still a couple of days from the time that we had the news about the helicopter having been shot down.
MM&N: Of the other SEALs there in Redwing, who was James the closest to? Was it Matt?
CS: It seems like it was Matt. My brother took a lot of photos with his digital camera and in most of the photos that we were able to review after his death the main guys from his platoon are the ones represented. It was usually my brother and Matt or my brother and a couple of other people like Shane Patton and Mike Murphy and Marcus is in some of them. But I think with those guys obviously being based in the same place and being part of the same team they had occasion to share a lot of time together but my impression was that he was closest to Matt. And from the stories that I’ve heard from my brother’s girlfriend at the time it seemed like he was closest to Matt Axelson.
MM&N: Did you know any of those guys? Did you ever have a chance to meet them?
CS: Since his death I’ve gotten to know surviving members of his team and I’ve gotten to know the guys that died by way of their families and meeting the surviving teammates and hearing stories about them. So it’s almost blurred in my mind the fact that I never actually met these guys because of how many personal stories have been shared and how many photos I’ve seen so I feel like I’ve met them but technically I never did.
MM&N: Do you still keep in touch with any of the other family members now?
CS: Donna and Corky Axelson live fairly close by and you already know about the memorial that she helped build so they’re pretty good about staying in touch and we see them at least a couple of times a year for different events usually related to the memorial. And a couple of guys from my brother’s team back in Hawaii have been really good about keeping in touch with us over the years, just checking in and letting us know that they’re still thinking about him.
MM&N: Is your dad still in Hawaii or is he with you now?
CS: He’s with us. As soon as we were able to kind of settle all of the affairs following the funeral and everything that needed to be sorted out we convinced my dad to move out here to be with us and he’s been here ever since which has worked out really well for us….and I think a lot of ways for my dad as well because I had my first child in the year following my brother’s death so dad has been in full grandfather mode and has just been an awesome caretaker here in our house and then he has that memorial about an hour and a half away from our house that Donna and Corky Axelson essentially built….you know, fundraised for and designed and created. That has been somewhat of a sanctuary for my dad because he will go down there almost every weekend at this point and just spend a whole day there at that park visiting the statue of his son so that’s a really special thing for him because my brother is actually buried in Los Angeles in a cemetery where other members of our family have been laid to rest.
MM&N: What are your thoughts about the Lone Survivor book? Was it pretty tough for you to read?
CS: I have not been able to read it and I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to muster the strength to read it. I actually have a real difficult time thinking in that much detail about what happened, so I don’t know if my position on this will change in the coming years….but five years past the incident now….I guess I’m still at a point where…..because nothing more that I find out about the incident will change the outcome of the incident it doesn’t make sense to me to delve into it because once you start thinking about it it’s a real hard thing to shake. I try to catch myself whenever I start spiraling into too much thought about what happened to James and his teammates…the thoughts can be all-consuming and usually come at pretty high cost, emotionally.
MM&N: Well, how do you feel about the movie that’s going to be made? Are you for it?
CS: I am for it to the extent that…..if it helps bring any kind of comfort or desired recognition to the families whose sons are going to be represented in it, then I’m for it. I’m sympathetic to the fact that it may be a meaningful project for the other families of the fallen. I hope their loved ones are representated in a way they would approve of. On a very personal level though, I find it hard to be enthusiatic about the production of this movie. I’m not sure how I’ll bring myself to watch the action unfold on screen when it’s hard enough playing it out in my mind. Also….I often think about the fact that all the lives lost in this event were ones that were central to the people who loved them. None of the 19 guys who died were supporting characters or extras in the lives of their loved ones and I cringe a little bit at the thought they they might be reduced to such in the course of telling this story. That said, I have faith that Peter Berg and Marcus will do their best to honor the lives of these guys.
MM&N: Have you been in contact with anyone from Hollywood? Have they contacted you yet?
CS: No, not anyone related to Peter Berg’s movie, but there was someone who contacted my father a couple of times about three years ago to try to make a movie for a Korean production company that would show the story of my brother’s life and I think initially my dad was excited about the prospect of that kind of project but I don’t know if you remember a couple if years ago the whole incident with the shootings at Virginia Tech?….because that involved a Korean person the film company got sidetracked for a bit and was following that story for a while and so they put the project that they wanted to start with us on hold and then it was like another year before we heard from them again and I think by that point my dad had kind of settled in his mind that it’s not necessarily a really good or healthy thing for him to keep re-living a lot of the details so he was ready to just kind of pass on the idea and not be involved with the project so that’s where we stand at this point. We told them that we weren’t interested any longer.
MM&N: I know you’ve got a ton of memories about James….is there maybe one favorite memory that’s most special to you about James?
CS: I was thinking about that because I thought you might ask me. As far as special memories go….he and I would both be home on our winter and summer breaks from college and even though we were college-age people and we were used to having a lot of freedom when we were in our dorms away from home, the rules would change once we got home. (Laughs) We still had a pretty early curfew and my dad would never tolerate us being out all night even though we were technically adults….so my brother and I would be home on these breaks and very late at night, maybe 10, 11 or 12:00 at night we would just be kind of holed up in one of our rooms playing Trivial Pursuit or Scrabble, just something to kill time because at that point we had gotten so used to staying up quite a bit later than what our curfew would be at home, so it would just be a way to pass the time and we just spend hours until like 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning playing these board games to try to get to the point where we felt tired enough to actually go to sleep. So I have a lot of good memories of that. I have memories of me stepping out to get a drink in the middle of a game of trivial pursuit and I’d come back and I’d see him looking at the cards that he had to see if he could memorize all the answers (Laughs). He was very competitive like that….it was fun and great. He was a really amazing person and that’s a term that’s sometime thrown around loosely and too often but in my mind he really defined someone that is pretty rare and is really impossible to replace……