From best-selling books to new action movies, the Navy Seals are seemingly everywhere in the recent public eye of entertainment. In the last year their accomplishments repeatedly made international headlines. Yet for all of the publicity, the elite maritime force truly remains one of the most secretive in the United States military.
The public does not know when top secret Navy Seals leave or return from battle. These supreme soldiers are not given the ceremonial send-offs or heartwarming homecomings that we see so frequently for other service members.
However, an East Tennessee artist recently carved a rare opportunity to greet a group of Navy Seals returning from war in Afghanistan. Those elite servicemen include a native of Blount County.
"A very close friend of mine is extremely proud of his son who is a Navy Seal," said Dave Lavoie, owner of Capt'n Dave's Little River Artistry in Townsend. "He asked me to do this project in honor of the Seals who are coming home."
Dave Lavoie served in the Navy during Vietnam, but the nickname "Capt'n Dave" comes from decades of service as a fire captain. The former firefighter is now a fulltime chainsaw artist who frequently carves trees into the form of bears, raccoons, or a batch of patriotic bald eagles.
The most patriotic creature carved in Dave's wooden wilderness is arguably a three-headed canine known as Cerberus.
"Cerberus is the mythological creature that guarded the gates of Hades. It's a three-headed dog. You were allowed to get into Hades but you weren't allowed to leave or this creature would devour you," said Lavoie.
For several months the materials for the Cerberus carving have entered Dave's office, but not a peep about the project has left the shop. The assignment is Lavoie's top secret mission to carve a salute to the Navy Seals.
"This Cerberus creature is on the crest for some of the Navy Seals. I was given a picture of it that was drawn by a Navy Seal who has passed away. That is what I'm carving for the current Seals returning from Afghanistan." Lavoie added, "I'm chewing at the bit to tell my friends what I'm doing but I can't say anything. I have not put anything on Facebook about it. It's all a surprise for the Navy Seals."
The current crop of Navy Seals just spent a full year deployed in Afghanistan. Their return ends the longest continuous deployment in a warzone for the Navy Seals since Vietnam. In the last year they've successfully completed high profile missions ranging from the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden to rescuing hostages in Somalia. However, those are just two of a record number of more than 2,400 night missions the teams have successfully completed during the last year.
For all of the headlines and historic accomplishments, their secrecy requires a return home in obscurity.
"I was in the Navy during Vietnam. To know how poorly the veterans were treated when they came back at that time, I always want any military person to feel thanked for their service. But to be able to do something for the Navy Seals is the frosting on the cake. They are my superheroes. I was a fireman for 29 years when 9/11 happened that tore me up. When [Navy Seals] took out Osama Bin Laden, they were my superheroes. To be able to do a tribute for them, it was something I was just compelled to do."
Lavoie will be able to privately greet the Navy Seals with the canine crest when they arrive home at their headquarters in Virginia.
"I'm going to get to meet all of the Seals and maybe get to shake the hand that did the incredible deed for us. I'll never know which hand was the one and I don't want to know. I would not want to live with that burden," said Lavoie.
The sculpture not only serves as aesthetic artwork. It is also a memorial in honor of a Navy Seal who now lives in the nation's memory.
"We have a plaque attached with the photo of Caleb Nelson. He was a Navy Seal who died during the last year. He is a handsome young man. You look at him and realize that just two hours after that picture he was blown up. It's just a sad feeling," said Lavoie. "This project is a memorial for him and surprise for his parents. It is a tribute to the whole team that served this period of time in Afghanistan and the things they have accomplished."
After countless hours of sanding and shaping the three-headed beast, the driving force for Lavoie has remained a devotion to family and country.
"This whole thing is the result of a man's love for his son. I walk around and look at this finished sculpture and it gives me shivers to see it sometimes. The Navy Seals, I can't wait to see the expression on their faces when they see this," said Lavoie.
Lavoie encased the Cerberus in a custom plywood box and covered it in a blue tarp to protect it from the elements during the 10 hour drive to Navy Seal headquarters in Virginia. When the grand gift was completely packed and ready to roll, Lavoie estimated the donated time and materials for a sculpture of this type would normally cost more than $12,000. Yet the monetary value was an afterthought as he reveled in the successful completion of his secret mission to sculpt a homecoming salute to the Navy Seals.
"This is such an honor. I'm just dumbfounded that I was chosen to do something like this. I feel like I'm losing my best friend with everything I've put into this piece, but I'm glad it is going to be there [with the Navy Seals]. I'm really happy. God bless America and the Navy Seals."
Reporter's note: To protect the safety and the secrecy of our servicemen, no names of active Navy Seals or their family members were used in this report. This report was also scheduled for two weeks after the Navy Seals safely returned home. There were no televisions cameras to capture the homecoming, but we are told Capt'n Dave's sculpture was so greatly admired it will be placed in a Navy Seals headquarters museum. As with many things dealing with the Navy Seals, the sculpture is currently in an undisclosed location.