A hero worthy of honor: Chief Petty Officer John Faas (’98)
By Frances Hoekstra
A friend, an athlete, a student, a Christian, a warrior. Chief Petty Officer John Faas (‘98), who graduated as class valedictorian, is one of Minnehaha’s most distinguished and honorable graduates in the past quarter century, but one who most current students have never heard of.
His story is worth knowing.
From the time he was a child, John Faas dreamed of becoming a Navy SEAL. Immediately following graduation, John began to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a Navy Seal. He enlisted in 1999, began official Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUDS) training in 2000 and joined an East-Coast based SEAL team in July 2001. John was eventually selected for SEAL Team Six, after a grueling eight-month interview, training and selection process. Team Six is the most elite group of Navy SEALs, and they are the most well-trained warriors in the U.S. military.
However, John’s dreams were tragically cut short on Aug. 6, 2011 when he and 30 other U.S. troops were killed when the CH-47 Chinook helicopter they were riding in was shot down by Taliban forces. The day was recorded as the deadliest single-day loss of U.S. life since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001. John was 31 years old.
John impacted innumerable lives, and somehow left something of himself within everyone he knew. Years later, his presence is remembered as distinctly as it was felt in life by those who had the honor of knowing John.
The relationships between students and teachers can be challenging to navigate. Students want to be well-liked by their teachers, but all too often seem to lose their favor by having a lackadaisical attitude about their schoolwork. However, this was not the case with John.
As class valedictorian, John took his studies seriously. He took challenging classes and excelled in them, and had his pick of colleges when graduation rolled around. He worked hard in school and was also remarkably well-read, eager to learn outside of the classroom.
“He was a voracious reader so he always found more and more things to substantiate his beliefs,” said former Minnehaha football coach Ron Monson. “Not that he only read the things that aligned with what he thought, but also what challenged him.”
John’s commitment to his studies put him in high regard with his teachers, some of whom knew him even before high school.
Math teacher Rich Enderton admired John’s work ethic as a student, and taught John in both middle school and high school. However, Enderton also had the unique experience of getting to know him outside of the classroom. Enderton’s son, Daniel, was friends with John.
“John was comfortable to be around both in the classroom and outside of it,” said Enderton. “He had no problem moving between those two ‘worlds.’ For lack of a better phrase, he was a ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of guy, and what you saw was genuine and of great integrity.”
Knowing John and what he stood for, Enderton wasn’t surprised when he found out John would be training to become a SEAL.
“My first thought was, ‘Wow, that’s a tough challenge to take on,’” said Enderton. “My second thought was, ‘Well, if there is someone who has a shot at achieving that, it’s John.’”
John did go on to achieve his goal of becoming a SEAL, but still had the same approachable demeanor when he came home between deployments. However, something had changed: he was part of what many consider the world’s most elite military unit.
“I can remember chatting with John along the sidelines at an MA football game [after John became a SEAL],” said Enderton. “I was teasing him about something and gave him a backhand slap to his midsection and it was like slapping a brick wall. I remember it somehow registering for me exactly what he was involved in, how highly trained he was and how much respect I had for what he had accomplished and what he was doing.”
The respect John earned reflected not only on him, but on his country.
“I felt better about the state of our country and the military knowing that there was a young man like John involved,” said Enderton. “I have great respect for his achievement, dedication and selflessness.”
There is a special bond that develops between coaches and athletes, especially when those coaches see their athletes grow up. They watch scrawny, awkward boys miraculously transform into strong, confident men who have the ability to achieve previously impossible goals.
John was Minnehaha’s quarterback, and former Minnehaha football coach Monson saw John through the entirety of this stage. However, when Monson, former football coach, met John as a middle schooler he realized that John’s game plan extended far beyond the end zone.
“[Dean Erickson and I] would stand on the sidelines after I’d been done coaching [high school] practice watching a middle school game, and [Dean] would say ‘That kid wants to go into the Navy SEALs and he talks about it all the time.’”
Monson described John as being “intense, attentive, focused [and] amazingly poised for a kid,” and anyone who knew John knew that he had tunnel vision when it came to his goals for the future.
“He was very singularly focused throughout high school,” said Monson. “Apparently this focus on being a Navy SEAL started as a 10- or 11-year-old boy. He had the capacity to be an officer, go to any of the academies. His choice was to enlist and be a Navy SEAL.”
This focus was one of the characteristics that made John an obvious leader on and off the football field. John did not demand respect, but rather he earned it through his quiet leadership.
“Was he the loudest guy in the room?” Monson asked hypothetically. “No way. Was his presence obvious? Absolutely. He was that presence which had gravitas.”
John’s self-composure stemmed from his intense passion for and dedication to his values, and it was this dedication that drew him to life as a SEAL.
“It was the values of our country, defending our freedoms,” said Monson. “He held those freedoms so dear I think that he couldn’t separate supporting those from who he was.”
As John started down the road to the Navy SEALs, he began to prepare his mind and his body for the trials ahead.
“The year following his graduation, he just trained,” said Monson. “I live along the River Road and I’d see him in military boots and fatigues, full gear. It could be 95 degrees in July. He’d have a backpack and I’d see him running. He was preparing so that when he got into Navy SEAL training it wasn’t easy, but he was prepared.”
The two were close beyond John’s time at Minnehaha and his enlistment, and after John’s funeral Monson had a gathering at his home to commemorate John’s life.
“After his funeral, we had a gathering at our home for all the Navy SEALs that had come,” said Monson. “That was John’s wish. We had 106 Navy SEALs in our home and backyard. To a man, everyone I spoke with had a story about how John had put his life on the line for them or another member of the group, [and] of what a great guy he was. One family, John was the godfather of a couple of their children. So not only was he a great military man, but a great friend.
There is a simplistic purity in childhood friendships that often carries over into the complex relationships of friends who get to know each other over the course of a lifetime. John was a complex man, but his friendships were straightforward. He was reliable and kind, something Matt Kretzmann (‘98) noticed immediately after meeting John in fifth grade.
“He was definitely one of the first kids [at Minnehaha] who reached out to me and invited me over,” said Kretzmann.
Kretzmann said that he and John were “very reliable friends.” As children they played baseball and football together, watched movies and played chess. As they got older, Kretzmann realized how academically gifted John was.
He was really committed to whatever he was doing,” said Kretzmann, “[and] he appeared to have no academic weaknesses.”
Though John was extremely intelligent, he was light-hearted as well.
“He was silly and liked to joke around,” said Kretzmann. “His commitment to academics didn’t mean he was serious in all aspects of his life.”
Though John was lighthearted around friends, Daniel Enderton (‘98) remembers John’s resolve when it came to kindness and consideration.
“He always looked out for those around him, strove to be inclusive and never spoke about others in a mean-spirited way,” said Enderton. “Pretty amazing for a junior higher. He taught us all something about how to treat friends and strangers alike.”
John’s integrity and commitment to his values contributed heavily to his desire to become a SEAL, and his friends were not surprised.
“I wasn’t surprised because he’s always been into strategy,” said Kretzmann. “We’d play games of Capture the Flag, and John would take that to another level. He just had this kind of instinct.”
John’s mental faculties did not end with academics or knowledge of life in the military; he also had an incredible capacity for mental strength.
“He had a drive for excellence and to be the best,” said Kretzmann. “He wasn’t the fastest or strongest guy in our class, so I think a lot of people were surprised that he could [become a Navy SEAL]. I think that just goes to show how much mental fortitude it takes. That’s probably why John was so good at it.”
John developed new friendships as he passed through each phase of his life, and after he became a SEAL was the same man of integrity that his childhood friends knew him as. Amy K. met John through her husband, a SEAL teammate of John’s (names have been protected for safety purposes).
“It was right after he died when I was reading his obituary that [I realized] what people from Minnesota had said was exactly the same thing I had always thought about John,” said Amy. “He was always good-hearted and a kind person and he never changed his ways for anybody. He wasn’t willing to compromise who he was as a person and what he believed in for anybody.”
John lived with Amy and her family for a time, and they became extremely close. He taught the Amy’s oldest son how to play chess, and was her daughter Gracie’s godfather.
“He would come over, even when my husband wasn’t here, to have dinner with my family,” said Amy. “All the kids would be climbing all over him and want his attention, and he made sure to take Gracie aside and read a book with her or just talk right to her for a while before anybody else. He’d always give her a big hug and say ‘I love you’ before he left.”
Faas was not only a strong figure in Amy’s household, but in many other SEAL homes as well.
“He was a part of everybody’s family,” said Amy. “With all the other SEAL families, all the kids called him ‘Uncle John.’ A lot of the guys on his team had gotten killed, and he would spend time with their families, staying with them as long as he could and spending time with their kids. He took care of them.”
People often think that to be a Christian, one has to fit a certain mold. A Christian needs to be mild and turn the other cheek. People do not often think of a Christian as defensive, intensely passionate and confident. John’s faith was an integral part of his life, and while he had great knowledge of the scripture he modeled his Christianity through actions rather than lengthy speeches or proclamations.
“As serious as he was and as passionate as he was, there was a warmth about him too,” said the Rev. Dan Bergstrom, Minnehaha’s chaplain who knew John from Bible class. “There was an image of God within John. Another way to put it would be love. Love of life, love of people, love of God.”
John’s inclination toward love did not detract from his determination. Bergstrom said that John was “very highly principled” and that John remained true to himself no matter who surrounded him.
“What you saw was what you got, and there was no facade,” said Bergstrom. “He didn’t need that.”
It is no secret that the nature of John’s work called for an elite skill level in combat, and how one reconciles that work with Christian doctrines is no small question. John, however, carried his faith with him and was not machine-like, as SEALs are often portrayed.
“John would not promote the taking of life,” said Bergstrom. “Rather, if it was necessary, somebody had to do it and the situation demanded it he would be the best there is at it. But he valued life, and he did not look at it like a scorecard in this harsh, cold way.”
While the mystery of combat and Christianity coexisting remains in tension to many, John was certain that Christianity called for protectors “and standing up against evil, fighting it and overcoming it. One has to directly challenge, grapple with and overcome the worst evils and those who are perpetrating them,” according to John’s parents, Bob and Gretchen Faas. In his eulogy at Team Six Operator and close friend Adam Brown’s funeral (the subject of the nonfiction New York Times bestseller Fearless), John quoted a passage from a book that Brown showed him that reflected his attitude toward the Christian’s role in combat.
“The heart of the Warrior is a protective heart,” read John. “The Warrior shields, defends, stands between, and guards.”
Navy SEALs are warriors. They are courageous strategists who train relentlessly to become the most elite soldiers in the world, and their decoration is undoubtedly warranted. Navy SEALs strive to be the best of the best, and since he was a young boy John wanted to be one of them.
As graduation came and the time to begin training for BUDS rolled around, John’s father Bob contacted Pavel Tsatsouline. Tsatsouline brought the Russian training tool called the kettlebell to the west and was a Soviet Union special forces trainer before moving to the United States.
“I had a gym in an old bank vault in St. Paul, Minnesota,” said Tsatsouline. “One day I heard from John’s father and he mentioned that his son was training to become a Navy SEAL. He heard about me and wanted to come in and start training.”
John, who was already a black belt in tae kwondo, came to Tsatsouline with a goal that many men seek, but few achieve.
“John was still in high school at that time,” said Tsatsouline. “He was a very serious young man, a real gentleman. You hear that sort of thing from young kids a lot, ‘Oh I want to be a Navy SEAL.’ Yeah right. What was very surprising was how hard John did push himself.”
John endured grueling physical training with Tsatsouline designed to strengthen him and prepare him for the special forces. John was not the most naturally gifted athlete, but pushed his body to the extreme and trained his mind to withstand more and more physical pain.
“I pushed him very hard, and John threw up quite regularly,” said Tsatsouline. “He would drive himself to exhaustion.”
Though Tsatsouline was preparing John for the most challenging physical endeavor he would ever take on, the two developed a relationship beyond that of a trainer and trainee.
“As the time went by, John and I became very good friends,” said Tsatsouline. “He was an old soul. He was just not a young kid; he was mature way beyond his age, exceptionally well-educated, exceptionally well-read [and a] very profound person.”
John trained with Tsatsouline for around a year, and afterward John took the next step to achieve his goal of becoming a SEAL.
“To make a long story short, John accomplished what he set out to do,” said Tsatsouline. “During Hell Week he never questioned for a moment that he was going to make it. He made it and became a Navy SEAL, and later on he became a member of a particularly elite unit.”
After he made it as a SEAL, John would return home between deployments. He and Tsatsouline stayed in contact long after they stopped training together, and Tsatsouline noticed a change in John when he returned home.
“He was an old soul before, but this time he was not just an old soul,” said Tsatsouline. “He was a man, a warrior.”
Regardless of how his time in the military changed him, John was still the same man of strong character and integrity who liked to enjoy himself. Tsatsouline’s fondest memory of John was not of their time training, but of a pastime as friends.
“We’d play chess together,” said Tsatsouline. “He was a very good chess player. He would often visit, my wife Julie would make cookies and we’d play chess.”
Tsatsouline formed a very high opinion of John as they got to know each other, and Tsatsouline saw that there was nothing small about John’s life. John lived selflessly and passionately, and never shied away from what he was called to do. He embraced life in all its flux, and was the pinnacle embodiment of someone who was not only a warrior for his country, but for his beliefs.
“He’s a great American hero,” said Tsatsouline. “He’s a great role model for all the young. While they are living their small little lives on their little phones and all their nonsense, [they should] just open their eyes and see what a really big life looks like.”
So what exactly made John a hero in Tsatsouline’s eyes?
“Giving his life for his country first and foremost [makes John a hero], when he could have had a very comfortable life where he could have gone to an Ivy League school,” said Tsatsouline.
“Instead of focusing on that he chose to give his life for his country, for his God. John was a very devout Christian and had a great knowledge of the scripture. John was a crusader. That’s what John was.”
John had numerous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, one to Kosovo and one to the Horn of Africa.
During his 11 years of service, John received numerous awards, including:
- Bronze Star Medal with Valor (4), including one for extraordinary heroism
- Purple Heart Medal
- Defense Meritorious Service Medal
- Joint Service Commendation Medal with Valor (2)
- Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal
- Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal
- Combat Action Ribbon (2)
- Presidential Unit Citation (2)
- Navy Unit Commendation Afghanistan Campaign Medal (3)
- Iraq Campaign Medal (2)
- Global War on Terrorism Service Medal
He also was awarded numerous other personal and unit decorations.