If you’re looking to fluff up your resume, maybe consider stealing a line or two from Andy Stumpf’s because he has some to spare. Here’s a rundown:
- Joined the Navy at age 17
- Spent 17 years in the Navy, the entire time as a SEAL
- Naval Special Warfare Development Group, aka SEAL Team 6
- BUD/S instructor
- Five Bronze Star Medals (four with Valor)
- Purple Heart recipient
- Skydiver/BASE jumper
- 2015 Guinness World Record holder for “furthest absolute distance traveled in a wingsuit”
- Public speaker
- Podcast host for Cleared Hot
And that’s an abbreviated list. Coffee or Die Magazine sat down with veteran Andy Stumpf to learn more about his awe-inspiring career trajectory.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
COD: Can you tell me about where you grew up? And what was your childhood like leading up to joining the military?
AS: I would describe it as solidly middle class. I grew up in Santa Cruz, California. It’s pretty sleepy — or it was at least when I lived there, and I haven’t lived there for a while — but a sleepy beach town in the Monterey Bay. You’ve got Monterey to the south and Santa Cruz to the north and San Francisco even more to the north. It’s a great place to grow up. My family had pretty long roots in that town. My dad’s dad built the high school that my father went to, which has its pros and cons. I mean, I got rides home in fire trucks and police cars, front seat not to the back. So, it’s a great place to grow up. My dad was a masonry contractor. I worked with him when I was young, which was hugely beneficial, at least in my opinion, when it came to work ethic and just being exposed to hard work at a young age.
My dad’s side of the house is all Navy, my father, my dad’s dad, his dad. And my mom’s side of the house was Army. She was one of four sisters, but her mom and dad were both officers in the Army.
I think neither of them probably wanted me to join the military. They weren’t sitting around like, “Yay, he’s gonna do it.” My dad had some pretty gnarly experiences in Vietnam and some gnarly issues that he had to work his way through post-Vietnam. So, I guess all that is to say, they probably were hoping I might have made different choices. But I decided I wanted to pursue the SEAL pipeline, which I originally heard about from my dad. He was not a SEAL, but he worked with them a little bit in Vietnam. I was about 11 when I made that decision, and they never tried to talk me out of it. More than anything, they were supportive. All they ever tried to do was support me in that goal and try to get me in front of as many people as I could from an educational perspective.
I joined the Navy when I was a junior in high school through the Delayed Entry Program, and I was out the door. So, both of them had to sign the waiver because I was still a minor in the eyes of the law. And shortly after high school, off I went in the Navy with no contract for the SEAL pipeline. That wasn’t really a thing back then. But I at least had a plan to sequentially work my way directly there, which worked out in my favor. And I was able to do that.
COD: Obviously you had a long career in the military, but could you sum up your experience as if it were stats?
AS: If they were stats — well, I got to the SEAL teams in ’97. Sept. 11 was obviously in 2001. So, call it four and a half, close to five years of pre-9/11 time and then 12 years of post-9/11 time. Pre-9/11, there are no real stats to speak of, you know, there were two pre-9/11 deployments. But basically we would train for 18 months in the United States and then go overseas for six months and train. Post-9/11 was a different story. I went to Development Group through selection in 2002, and I did seven of the eight combat deployments that I did while I was there. I got injured on the last objective that I did at that command. Then I went back to the West Coast and did my final tour with SEAL Team 3 in 2010. So, I had 10 total deployments. I have no idea how many objectives I went on during that time period, I mean, hundreds of them back and forth between Iraq and Afghanistan.
COD: And what made you decide specifically to be a SEAL?
AS: I don’t have a good answer for that. I really don’t. And I get asked that all of the time. I suspect, knowing who I am as a person, it was partly the way my dad first brought it up to me. He was talking about the things that they were doing in Vietnam. He was talking about a super tight-knit organization of individuals doing things that were extremely difficult in nature. And then as I started taking a look at it, the odds were not in my favor. There certainly was a level of exclusivity, the challenge, and the fact that people were telling me that there’s no way that I would be able to do it. I think it’s all those things, and that the job to me seemed super fascinating.
It’s obviously not an original thing for young men, specifically, to want to play soldier when they grow up. And I don’t know what it was about that job occupation. I’ve always loved the water, that probably had some aspect of it as well. I played water polo in high school, and was a junior lifeguard since, shit, I was probably 10 years old in Santa Cruz. I was always around the water. So, I’m sure that was a portion of it as well. But all of those things combined somehow got their hooks in me, and I never really looked back.
COD: Can you tell me about the time that you were shot with an AK-47?
AS: The reality is, in the profession that I was in and the things that we were doing, you accept some level of risk every night that you go out the door, and you get your stuff on, and you go on target. I refuse to gamble with my life or the life of other people, but I am willing to take calculated risks. I was on my seventh deployment at the time, and we had been working almost every single night on all of those deployments. And I’m not a statistician by any stretch of the imagination, but stats are what they are, odds are what they are, and the longer that you play in that environment, the odds are more likely that that environment is going to touch you back.
So, I don’t think anything necessarily happened wrong on our side of the house. It was more just, in that precise instance, a guy basically lifted his head up when I wasn’t looking at the window that he lifted his head up through. He saw me before I saw him and got the jump on me. I mean, that’s really all that it was. I’ve thought a lot about that night. It wasn’t any mistakes that I made. I was just on the wrong side of the math. I wish there was a sexier story than that. But the reality is, hundreds of objectives down the road of having been overwhelmingly successful, I finally found myself in a spot where I no longer was.
What did it feel like when it happened? I mean, it was devastating. The best description that I can think of is taking Jose Canseco, in the prime of his steroid, bat-swinging career and taking about a 9-inch nail and putting it in that bat, and letting him tee off on your hip. That’s about what it felt like. It hurt really badly in the moment, and then actually didn’t hurt that badly right afterward. But it caused some nerve damage down my left leg. And actually, by the time I got to the hospital, my major complaint was pain in my ankle. I thought as I was being medevaced out, How did I hurt my ankle? Did somebody step on it? Did something roll over the top of it?
So, by the time I got to the hospital I was like, “Hey, yeah, I have a bullet hole in my hip, but can you guys do me a favor and check out my ankle because it really hurts?” And they were super ginger with it. They cut my shoe off, and they were looking at my ankle and they took X-rays and they’re like, “Dude, it’s totally fine.” Well, it was from the nerve damage because the round had interacted in some way with my sciatic nerve and it was just completely fried it and short-circuited.
If you’ve never experienced nerve pain, it is a special little treat the likes of which I hope most people don’t have to experience. It was excruciatingly painful. And then for about a year and a half, it felt like somebody had dipped my leg in gasoline and lit it on fire.
COD: What was going through your mind when it happened? Or was it all a blur?
AS: Far too much was going through my mind as it happened, as I was falling to the ground. I remember grabbing my leg with my left hand for direct pressure before I hit the ground. And of course the first thing that comes to my mind is the medical training that we had received multiple times, talking about how you can fit the entire blood volume of the human body in the quad space of your leg. So, you can basically bleed out into your leg. And that’s essentially what I thought was going to happen in the next five minutes. So, I was already thinking about that before I hit the ground.
COD: What did doctors tell you about how your recovery was supposed to go?
AS: I have never been told “I don’t know” more by educated professionals than in the days, weeks, months, and years after that. And the reason was, from an X-ray perspective, my body looks fine. There are still hundreds of pieces of metal inside of my leg, and the lead penetrator of the round is still in my body. They never took any of it out. When the guy shot, it actually clipped a piece of rebar on the way out. So, as it was spinning toward me, it was coming apart. It spackled my leg. Some of it penetrated deeper than others, but from an X-ray perspective — still I’ve never broken a bone, I’ve still never had surgery — but the nerves don’t show up on an X-ray.
So, I had drop foot. I wasn’t able to walk. I wasn’t able to dorsiflex my foot or pull it back toward my nose. And doctors would just say, “Well, it’ll get better or it won’t.” And I’d say, “How much time?” And they’d say, “I don’t know.” And I’d be like, “Hey, man, fuck you. I didn’t go to medical school, and I can tell you that I don’t know, too.”
And I think it’s just — it’s 2020, and people think that we know everything about everything. There’s so much we don’t know about the human body, and doctors just didn’t know whether or not it was going to get better. I was told that nerves can regrow a millimeter a day, which is about an inch per month. So, if it wasn’t better in somewhere between three to five years, which is how long it would take from the point of impact all the way down to my foot, somewhere in between that time period, that it would be what it was. And that was it. And I never got definitive answers because there was no definitive answer that they could give me.
COD: What did you do for recovery?
AS: I rehabbed on my own. That’s actually how I found CrossFit. I spent a good period of time working on my weekends while I was active duty, and then I went full time for CrossFit. But before that, I was doing the traditional back and bis, chest and tris, and run. Rinse, lather, repeat times seven or eight years. And I wasn’t able to do really any of that. And a buddy of mine was sitting there and I was just completely depressed because my body wasn’t allowing me to do any of the things that I wanted to do. But my buddy randomly made a suggestion to check out CrossFit. I had just gotten a laptop, one of the first laptops I’d ever owned, and logged on, checked it out, went to the gym, and I kind of taught myself. And through exercise, I was able to exhaust myself enough that I was able to sleep. And once I was able to start sleeping, I think that’s really when rehab, you know, or recovery really started happening.
COD: Then when did you retire out of service?
AS: I was medically retired the last day of June 2013. And it wasn’t really my choice. By then I switched over to be an officer, at the 12-year mark. And in 2010, I did a deployment as an officer and actually ended up relieving the officer in command that I was working for. I took over that position for a little bit. Then the team that I was with surged another more senior officer over from Iraq, who took over, which was a good call. But I got back from that and I was talking to the officer detailer, and just like on the enlisted side of the house, there are these mandatory career wickets. So, if you want to advance you have to do this, this, this and this in order. And I was an ensign at the time, an 01. And the officer detailer said, “What we need to do is two more deployments, back to back. The job you just did, well, they didn’t write this particular title on the paperwork, so it doesn’t count. So, you’re going to need to do this one, and then this one, and then this one.”
And my ankle was giving me a really rough time, in 2010. I was rolling it on target to the point where a few times I considered calling a medevac for myself. And listening to the description of what she said I needed to do, I realized it was not possible for me to do that. I would have been a risk to myself, but more importantly, a risk to other people that were out there. So, I was actually just going to get out of the Navy.
I was five days from discharging from the Navy and I went to go get my discharge physical, because why not wait until the last moment? And the doctor wouldn’t sign it. And I was furious, because I had plans. I had shit that I was going to do. But in him not signing it, it initiated the PEB [Physical Evaluation Board] / MEB [Medical Evaluation Board] process. I had to get an extension for about a year, which actually was only one phone call, because then the officer detailer had become a guy that I used to work with, and he went in and did his magic on the computer. I got a one-year extension. And it was basically the military’s decision to medically retire me, not my decision to be medically retired, because I was just going to leave. I knew I couldn’t do the jobs that I wanted to do physically. So, I wasn’t going to sit there and put anybody else in harm’s way or jeopardy. Now I look back, and I’m so thankful that that doctor didn’t sign the paperwork because it maintained my benefits and my pension.
COD: Well, that works out.
AS: Yeah, but I was pissed at the time.
COD: What did you do after retiring from service?
AS: I was working for CrossFit on the weekends. So that was super helpful for me, because at least I had an economic answer for where money was going to come from. Then I started working for CrossFit and realized it was the most morally decrepit organization on the face of the planet, and I just quit one day with no jobs on the horizon. Nothing. And shortly after that, a buddy of mine called me and offered me a job to go teach skydiving, of all things, to Air Force guys who are getting out of their CCT [Combat Control Team] in PJ [Pararescue Jumper] Green Team, out of their pipeline.
So, it was basically to refine the training, very basic stuff. But I always loved skydiving. And in doing so I really got to dive back deep into my love of skydiving, but I was able to jump the way that I wanted to jump, which led to some sponsorship and endorsement contracts. And at this time period, as I was getting out, companies were starting to hit me up to do some public speaking. A few years later, I met Joe Rogan through some fundraising stuff. He recommended that I start a podcast. So, all the seeds were sprinkled of the things that I do now. It just took a couple of years and many, many baby steps along the way to bring everything to fruition.
COD: That was something I wanted to ask you. How does someone become a professional skydiver? How does it go from a cool and fun hobby to something you do for money?
AS: Making money from skydiving is going to be tough, except for a very small handful of people. Most professional skydivers, and I’ll use the word professional with air quotes, they’re getting free gear, but parachutes and helmets. They don’t pay the fucking bills. So, the answer to that is very slowly and very incrementally.
The big thing for me that helped was my military background. Because for better, for worse, people are attracted to the SEAL title. It opens some doors for you. And then, you know, the fact that I had been jumping consistently for a long period of time, over nearly two decades, coupled with that background. And while I was in the military, I got to train with some world-champion skydivers and people in that industry, because we could contract them to come train us. I saw I had that benefit.
For anybody else, you’re going to need thousands of skydives, which is going to take years. You’re going to have to have the ability to capture content in the air, which is difficult in and of itself. It’s different than regular skydiving because you’re basically directing a movie now, while you’re jumping, and still trying to execute all these things. And it just, it takes a long period of time and the market is very saturated. So, my No. 1 piece of advice for somebody who wants to be a professional skydiver is: go pick a different hobby or profession.
COD: You’re also a wingsuit world record holder. How did that come about?
AS: That was somebody else’s idea. They were talking about trying to raise money and I was looking at what I was passionate about at the time, which was skydiving. I did a little bit of research on what was possible in that world, and then had a buddy [who] suggested wingsuit, because I was just getting into wingsuit jumping. He’s like, “Dude, why don’t you try to set the record for some wingsuit stuff?” And I said, “Okay, that sounds awesome.”
I pitched it to some brands and got the monetary backing. Now the wingsuit jump, the record jump itself, was not that physically arduous. But, getting the financial backing to be able to do something like that was, to pay for the airplane, to pay for the helicopter they brought up with the Cineflex video camera, for the crew for the pilot, for all that stuff. I can’t afford that stuff. But major brands can. So, I pitched it to some major brands, which led to more sponsorship opportunities, which was nice. And I trained for it on my own. Then I went up there for a week and trained out of the actual aircraft with the actual equipment. I woke up on the morning, it was go time, and I gave it my best effort, which is about all you can really do. And it worked out okay.
COD: How did it feel when you were done?
AS: I was glad to be done with it because it was extremely cold. I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt underneath my wingsuit because I’m an idiot. And you pre-breathe on the ground for an hour. You climb to altitude for an hour. You get an oxygen mask just jammed against your face so your sinuses are just smashed. It’s not fun. It might look cool on video, but it’s not fun to do. And that record has subsequently been broken by a Marine Corps helicopter pilot named Kyle Lobpries. And people have asked, like, “Hey, man, you gonna try it again?” And it’s like, “No. Absolutely not. I could care less. I really don’t give a shit and Godspeed to anybody else that wants to give it a try.”
COD: And you touched on your podcast, Cleared Hot. When did that start?
AS: We’re on episode 153, and I release once a week. So, that’s three years’ worth right there. There have been a couple weeks here and there where I haven’t been able to release. So, I would say I’m three years and change into it. And the whole idea for that was spawned by meeting Joe Rogan, and being able to be on his podcast, which is where I originally met him. And then we became friends over time, and I have been ridiculously lucky to have access to somebody like that. He’s had me on the show multiple times. I think it was the second time I was on there, afterwards he was just like, “Hey, man, you need to start something like this for yourself. You should start a podcast.”
I thought about it and was like, “Well, I think he knows a little bit about what he’s talking about, given his audience size is ridiculously large.” I researched it, and pitched the idea to a sponsor that I was working with for them to buy the original equipment, which was 1,500 bucks’ worth of stuff. They bought it. And that was it. I mean, that was the whole impetus behind it was somebody else’s idea. I’m actually a firm believer that I’ve probably never had a unique idea in my life. What I do is listen to people smarter than me, which is everybody. And if it makes sense, and they have a good idea, that’s what I go do.
COD: This might be a weird question, but what do you feel like you get out of the podcasts?
AS: I think about that one a lot, because now I have some ads and sponsors with the podcast, but I didn’t for probably the first two years. So, you’re sitting there dedicating your time and effort to something that you’re releasing for free. And you know, I would get feedback from people that said they got a lot out of my podcast, but I’m thinking to myself, “What do I get?” And I think the thing that I get that’s most beneficial for me is that it’s an exploration of who I am and what I believe. I have just tried to seek out people who are interesting, who have something in their life that I consider to be fascinating, whether it be what they do or what they did. And I have also tried to have conversations maybe with people that I don’t necessarily agree with. So, it’s an exploration of myself, what I believe, and the ability to be able to articulate why I believe what I believe. Most people could scream in your face and tell you what they believe. I think far fewer people could explain to you why they feel that way.
COD: What are some of your favorite or standout podcast episodes that you’ve done?
AS: It was really cool to finally have Joe Rogan back on mine, even though we did it in his studio. So, basically, I hijacked his time. But fuck Joe, he’s got enough time in the studios. I’m going to take advantage of the Starship Galactica if I get the chance. I’ve enjoyed talking with guys that I worked with, you know, a decade ago and reconnecting the dots and seeing what they have done afterwards. Guys like Bill Rapier, Jason Silva, and his wife, Jessica. Mike Glover was awesome. I know he’s a friend of Black Rifle Coffee Company. He and Evan know each other pretty well.
I just did a really cool one that I have in the can with Brian and Tiffany, who are from an organization called WarriorNOW. They’re trying to figure out ways to end veteran suicide. You hear a guy like Brian sit there and openly talk about his attempts on his own life — I mean, fuck. But I think listening to that or having people have those conversations are hugely beneficial to other people who might be feeling that way because there are a lot more people feeling that way than people want to admit. Those are the ones that stick out to me. Having my dad on was awesome, to be able to sit down and talk with him. Honestly, I enjoy them all. I can’t think of one that I have not enjoyed.