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Saturday, October 20, 2012
Updated: October 22, 8:23 PM ET
Remembering a hero

Glen Doherty
Glen Doherty in the midst of the kava ceremony on the island of Tavarua in Fiji.

Last weekend Glen Doherty was remembered by a crowd of hundreds who paddled out at Swami's in Encinitas, Calif. In the Hawaiian tradition of honoring a fallen friend or family member, his life was celebrated with everybody forming a circle and joining hands. Flower leis were set adrift and water splashed up to the heavens. The gathering then took to the Del Mar Racetrack to toast and reminisce.

On Sept. 11, Doherty and three other Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed in the now-infamous attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, by Islamic militants.

A former Navy SEAL, Doherty had served in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2005 he left the SEALs, taking up work in the murky field of private security contracting. This winter Doherty and friend and former SEAL Brandon Webb were set to release a book titled Navy Seal Sniper: An Intimate Look at the Sniper of the 21st Century. Webb vowed to "throw the biggest effing party we can" in Doherty's honor. He accomplished that mission last weekend.

Besides being one of the country's most skilled special ops combatants, Doherty was also a surfer. He was a lifelong friend of Nixon Watches cofounder Andy Laats and made regular pilgrimages to the Fijian surf resort of Tavarua, where he served a stint as the island medic. He was the consummate outdoorsman, working as both a rafting guide and a ski instructor. He was also an avid fisherman.

"Tavarua must have seemed like the complete opposite end of the spectrum when you think of the things he must have seen and been part of," remembers ESPN contributor Tom Servais, who spends a couple of months a year in Fiji and had gotten to know Doherty well over the years.

In 2007 I found myself on Tavarua with Doherty. With friends in common, we ended up talking story in the relatively benign Cloudbreak lineup. It was small, and between sets we spoke of surfing and his life after serving. He was from Massachusetts originally, and I'd gone to school in Amherst, so we talked about that for a while too. At his memorial last weekend somebody remembered him as their "best friend ... but he had a lot of best friends." Considering the friends he made on that trip, and how he diligently kept in correspondence with them, that's easy to see.

Glen Doherty
Fishing for a good time, Doherty on Tavarua in 2007 with MMA great Tito Ortiz, adult film star Jenna Jameson, good friend Nate and a resort boatman.

"He would send emails asking about the surf while he was on a roof in Afghanistan getting bombed," Servais says. "He cared a lot about his friends and how they were doing, even when he was in the thick of it."

One afternoon on Tavarua he stitched New Jersey's Mikey Gleason's leg together after he took the nose of his board to his calf. The two traded shots of tequila during the procedure and chalked it up to "island medicine." He also hoisted his wheelchair-confined friend Nate over his shoulder and carried him to one of the boats so they could go fishing together. He was good like that. "Do something every day" was a creed of his.

Over a bucket of Fiji Bitter in the pool, he recounted storming Saddam Hussein's palace, describing in detail the opulence of the deposed dictator's living quarters and the stark contrast they struck with the dungeon in the basement, complete with chains and blood on the walls. He was on the team that helped free Private Jessica Lynch, but he didn't say much about that. True to his jovial nature, he did divulge a story about SEAL training in which instructors subject trainees to several hours of great white shark video footage before sending them off on a five-mile swim through sharky waters. He thought it was funny, pointing out how the would-be soldiers from Kentucky were freaked out.

Last Christmas, Doherty chanced upon a party in La Jolla that was also being attended by presidential candidate Mitt Romney. "He talked about his life. He skied a lot," said Romney in a Oct. 9 story in the Huffington Post. "He had skied in a lot of the places I had and we had a lot of things in common. He told me that he keeps going back to the Middle East. He cares very deeply about the people there. He served in the military there, went back from time to time to offer security services to people there."

And now, Romney and President Obama's respective political fates may hang on how Doherty and his comrades' actions are told. The media-induced controversy is everywhere, from presidential debates to "The Daily Show" to page one of The New York Times. In the front of the new issues of Transworld Surf is a small postage-stamp-sized photo of Doherty. No explanation or birth or death dates, just his name and a fuzzy photo among a list of other surfers who have also taken off on that great wave in the sky. Maybe that's because there's no room in surfing for politics. Or maybe it's the other way around. Either way, Doherty never thought of it like that. God and country came first; riding waves was, as it should be, the release.

"You park your car. If the waves are good you sit and watch and ponder it for a while … And you jump in the ocean," said President Obama to Vanity Fair's Michael Lewis, talking about his formative years as a Sandy's Beach bodysurfer.

Whether carrying the weight of the free world on your shoulders, defending your countrymen from an enemy or just after a bad day at the office, as surfers we're able to gaze out to the horizon, search for a deeper meaning in the swirling currents and ever-moving tides, let the ocean temporarily carry our worries away and, for a moment, we're at peace.