Kevin Holland is the only publicly known member of both SEAL Team Eight, Naval Special Warfare Development Group (Red Squadron), and the U.S. Army Special Mission Unit 1st SFOD-Delta.
Mention Navy SEALs or Special Forces, and most of us think of elite, highly trained warriors serving multiple Special Mission Units to take down “bad guys” around the world.
Much of our understanding comes from action movies, books, and other media. Hook & Barrel spoke with a man who lived the reality of both Navy and Army elite world, Kevin Holland.
A History-Making Encounter with Saddam Hussein
Operation Red Dawn occurred on December 13, 2003. It was a covert special operations mission to capture Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein.
As part of that mission, Kevin Holland made history by pulling the infamous Ace of Spades, (so named in the military “Most Wanted” playing card deck used to ID Iraqi leadership) Saddam Hussein, to justice. He did so as part of a small joint force operations unit, which located and removed the leader from his spider hole hiding place.
They reached into the dark tunnel and literally pulled him out by his long hair and scraggly beard. Someone looked into his eyes and said simply: “It’s him.” Someone else yells “Gun!” several different times, and Holland pressed his rifle over the leader’s heart, safety off. Seeing no gun, back on safe. After capture, Saddam demanded to “negotiate.” Not going to happen.
Holland, then using two pistols, entered and cleared the spider hole alone.
Michael Holland’s Early Life
Born in the foothills of Wilkes County, North Carolina, Holland was a typical rural American boy. He hunted, trapped, and played high school football and baseball. Afterwards, he signed up for the U.S. Navy’s delayed entry program. He volunteered for SEAL training in 1988. His Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training began with 80 people and at graduation, only eight remained and were assigned to SEAL Team 8. He then attended U.S. Army Airborne School as the youngest member of a 300-person class.
He was assigned to a platoon where he underwent intense training including high-altitude jumping, diving, land warfare, survival, close quarter battle, and ship boarding. Deploying in 1990, Desert Storm began, and he was assigned to Northern Iraq completing reconnaissance and sniper missions. He was awarded the Navy Achievement medal and entered Sniper School, having proven his skill in real-world situations. Kevin also completed the Naval Special Warfare Sniper School as an honor graduate and top shooter.
In 1995, he left the Navy and for a short time, went into business with his dad in the textile industry. Following that, he joined the North Carolina Wildlife Enforcement Division as a Game Warden. He planned on enjoying family and home life and was content to retire as he says: “A fat old wildlife officer.” Then, life threw him a curve ball.
After 9/11, A Recommitment to Service
In September 2001, 9/11 happened. Holland immediately contacted the Navy to offer help. Fate has a way of changing course for us however. A friend with U.S. Army Special Forces suggested Kevin try out with them since they were already deployed to the Middle East. Trying out with 116 other candidates, after a month, only 16 remained, including Holland.
Being told by his friend, “It’s only a short and simple compass course…,” tongue in cheek, as it turned into a grueling eight-month session. He wound up serving in U.S. Army Special Operations Command from 2002 to 2013. After completing the Special Forces Qualification Course in 2005, he earned his Special Forces Tab, becoming a Green Beret.
Holland deployed 20 times to the Middle East while conducting an extraordinary 2,000 combat missions. He was wounded twice during this time, receiving his first injury when an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) detonated behind his vehicle, killing one team member and hitting Holland with shrapnel.
A Combat Mission Gone Wrong
It was one of these types of missions when Holland ran out of luck. In March 2011, Holland and his team watched as a patrol of armed foreign fighters approached a house and took over a villager’s home. The decision was made to launch. His team’s mission was to eliminate two individuals that had walked into a palm grove behind the house. Approaching by helicopter, the team received fire, which was returned with a grenade launcher wounding one combatant. The other ran deeper into the palm grove.
The team landed, eliminated the wounded individual that was still shooting at them, and pursued the other. Holland was directed to the insurgent’s location, and as he rounded the corner of the house, received fire from a PKM Machine gun (Soviet made, belt-fed 7.62 mm) at 20 yards. Holland was hit in the chest above his body armor, immediately paralyzing his left arm. Another round glanced off weapon magazines on his chest and another hitting his radio, breaking it in half. Diving into an irrigation ditch, Holland’s backpack was struck multiple times. The enemy combatant turned his attention to Holland’s team, firing in their direction.
Realizing he wasn’t being hit any more, Holland raised above the water in the ditch, laid his rifle on its side, using the surrounding dirt berm for support, and began firing at the muzzle blast. This drew attention back to Holland, and the insurgent began running at him firing his PKM; all the while Holland was firing at him. While lying in the ditch with bullets hitting his pack and under water, Holland became unexplainably calm and asked God to take care of his family. This was a true “religious experience,” Holland says. He also calmly thought: “This is going to ruin my bow season.”
Holland wounded the insurgent, causing him to almost fall on Holland. He hobbled out the gate where he was captured by the team. After about 10 minutes, Holland got out of the ditch and found his team, got “patched up,” and walked unaided to the helicopter where he was flown to the nearest base. Holland has been “re-habilitating” from the serious wound and trying to regain full-function of his left arm ever since that day.
In 2013 he retired from active military service. Over the course of his career, Holland received over 30 military awards, including SEVEN Bronze Stars, with two awarded for valor in combat, along with two purple hearts. Doctors then and since have told him they have “no real data” on the type of wound he received because “very few people survive being shot through the chest” so they can’t give definitive prognosis as to when or if he will fully recover. The bullet literally separated arteries without severing them. As Kevin puts it, “The Lord was watching out for me that night and has been ever since. I am thankful to be alive.”
A Lifelong Commitment to a Life Outdoors
As an avid hunter, trapper and outdoors, Kevin also volunteers his time to support wounded veterans through Wounded Warriors Outdoors (not to be confused with Wounded Warrior Project). He recently guided amputees on an Elk hunt in Montana. He continues his life-long passion for hunting and trapping, including one of his favorites, the wild turkey.
“How do you keep the passion for hunting alive since many returning servicemen lose the desire?” I asked. “Simple, hunting with family and friends and instilling the joy of hunting in others, especially young people and wounded veterans.
Special Mission: The Combat-Breaching Axe
Holland’s SEAL team leader tasked him with finding a combat breaching axe to use in combat. Having seen the movie “Last of the Mohicans” he noticed the axes being used by the Indian warriors. The film credits indicated the maker, Daniel Winkler, who conveniently lived near his hometown.
Winkler agreed to supply the first prototype. That axe was carried by Kevin on every deployment, both Navy and Army, during his career. Today, many Army, Navy, and Air Force Special Operations personnel carry Winkler knives and axes. Also, the axe is prominently featured in the 2022 television series The Terminal List, based on the 2018 novel written by former Navy SEAL Jack Carr.