Bill Underwood’s predicament wasn’t unusual in many facets. His wife was pregnant and his work had him not only away from home, but away from home during the holidays. This particular holiday was Christmas and Underwood wondered what the future held for him and his family. What he didn’t wonder was that his career path would have to change if he wanted any semblance of a family life and to keep the edge of energy he had found in his current occupation.
There were, however, circumstances that made Underwood’s predicament highly unusual. It was 1989 and Underwood was away from home while assisting in the unseating of Panamanian Dictator Manuel Noriega. He was no rank and file military officer. Underwood was taking part in the operations that finally disposed of Noriega’s rule as a Navy Seal. And it wasn’t just as any Navy Seal. Underwood was serving as a member of Navy Seal Team 6.
That was more than two decades and what seems like a world ago. Today, Underwood finds himself as a Neurosurgeon at Bridgeport’s United Hospital Center, a resident of Harrison County and with two of his three kids soon to be in the Bridgeport education system.
The journey from the heart of Central America with a weapon in his hand to Bridgeport where he’s more likely to have a scalpel in his hand is indeed a unique one. To this point, his current stop on the journey is one he likes.
“My wife and I are outdoor people and we wanted to live in the country … When we came here the people were wonderful,” Underwood said.
The 52-year-old may have never envisioned living in the hills of West Virginia and being part of Bridgeport as a youngster. Born in Ann Arbor and growing up in New Jersey, Underwood did have military ties as a youth through his father. The elder Underwood was a bomber pilot in the Air Corps during World War II.
“That was my military connection. Still, it wasn’t until I was eight 9- or 10-years-old when one of my brother’s friends knew somebody that was a Navy Seal and told stories about what was likely the Vietnam time,” Underwood said. “It struck me as interesting and I decided I should do some research on it.”
What Underwood found as someone not even sniffing his teenage years was that there wasn’t much information out there. In the pre-internet, pre-computer era, the only real information gathering location was the local library.
“There were no books on Navy Seals and what I found was just here say in little articles here and there,” Underwood said. “I scoured the Earth for those things to find out more about the Seals. I set my mind, at the age of 10, that’s what I wanted to do.”
That pledge as a 10-year-old kid became reality when Underwood was in college. As he neared the end of his undergraduate run at the University of Michigan, he told his parents of his plans. While there was initial trepidation on the part of his parents, they were eventually won over. The plan, though, had more paths to cover before Underwood could become a Seal.
In order to become a Seal, Underwood had to join the Navy. If he failed at his Seal tryout, he still had to keep his commitment to the Navy.
“If I didn’t make it I was stuck in the Navy. That was a risk. That was always on my mind,” he said.
In order to qualify to make it to the training portion of the Seal gauntlet, Underwood first underwent a series of tests including a review of his general health, aptitude testing for acceptable levels of intelligence and physical tests that included running, swimming, push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups.
Underwood passed them all. With that behind him, the next hurdle – a high one – awaited for him in the actual training.
“The training was brutal, but in a sense, looking back, it’s all fond memories despite it being so rigorous,” Underwood said. “You had others going through the training with you and you built camaraderie with them. I developed very close friends; friends that I have to this day.”
Underwood’s drive got him through the training. Once complete, he was assigned to Navy Seal Team 4. For Underwood and his high motor, it wasn’t what he thought it would be. There were no “movie scene” moments, and mainly normal moments as he went about his day-to-day business. The hopes of getting all of the special weaponry and gadgets, or “toys” as Underwood described them, weren’t part of his Seal Team 4 wardrobe.
“Being a Seal in the Navy, you’re almost at rock star status. At the same time, you’re still military … Even with all of that, it was kind of strange and, honestly, I was a little disappointed when I got there,” said Underwood.
There was one thing Underwood would take from his Seal Team 4 experience that wasn’t disappointing. It was during those four years he learned all about Seal Team 6.
“Sometimes (Team 4) felt like we were second string. The perception was Seal Team 6 was first string,” Underwood said.
If that was the case, then Underwood wanted a shot in the starting lineup. After his first enlistment was over, he interviewed for Navy Seal Team 6 and was accepted. Before it became official he started the process all over again. There was more interviews and testing and even more brutal training that lasted six months. This time, however, everything was what he hoped it would be as a Seal.
“This proved to be a little more like the movies,” said Underwood. “You had lots of toys and unlimited support. You’re on a wartime footing, meaning that you had a beeper and you were on call. If your beeper went off you had a certain amount of time to get there. Your bags were always packed and the plane was always fueled and ready. That was life.”
And how was life?
“There’s nothing I can compare it to. It was the best job I ever had. If I could do that for my whole life I would have, but that’s not reality,” Underwood said.
Life and reality, particularly the reality of his future, found themselves colliding often. Time spent in Panama, El Salvador, hot spots throughout Central American, in Europe, Korea and other places worldwide began taking its toll mentally and physically.
“When I went to Panama my wife was four months pregnant. She’s home alone on Christmas pregnant and I’m in Panama and she’s watching CNN,” he said. “It weighed on me.”
During his last few years as a Seal, Underwood also spent more time than he cared for in a hospital. He wasn’t nursing anything he considered serious, but was bound down by what he called “orthopedic injuries.”
His stays in hospitals, along with his college roommate who had become a Neurosurgeon, aided in his thinking on what to do when he got out of the Seals. Underwood knew he needed to find something challenging and becoming a Neurosurgeon would provide it.
“I think it’s the most challenging medical field. I kind of thrive on that. It’s not a total love of the nervous system and I love being and doctor and helping people, but the challenge of doing it is what keeps me going,” he said.
It’s also the type of career he can do well into his later years. He knew a job as a Seal was winding down and by the time he reached his 50s the best he could hope for in the CIA, FBI or other type of government law enforcement would be a desk job.
“I looked at my entire life. I needed a career path that would keep me energized,” Underwood said.
The end came in 1992. At the end, he said he and his Seal Team 6 comrades sat on the sidelines of the Gulf War waiting for the “whole world to erupt.” It never did, and for Underwood, a major chapter of his life was ending and another was about to begin.
Starting a new chapter meant heading back to school, eventually attending Wayne State University in Detroit where he earned his PhD and did his residency. For years, he did his work with his status – and celebrity – as a Navy Seal Team 6 member not much of a big deal. That, however, all changed May 2, 2011.
When President Barack Obama announced to the world that Osama Bin Laden was killed, he also announced to the world that it was done by members of Navy Seal Team 6. A once relatively anonymous group was now not only known in their homeland, but worldwide.
“My first thought was that I hope to God they used the Seals. There are Army units and other ways that could have gone down so when I first heard Navy Seals I knew it was Seal Team 6,” he said. “At first I was happy about it, but I didn’t realize the media storm that was coming. Now, I’ve got people telling me about Seal Team 6. It’s very irritating.”
In a perfect world, Underwood would prefer the Seals, particularly members of the elite unit he once belonged to, were not part of the modern diction. He said it’s best to leave the Seals to their own wares.
“These guys are not puppy dogs and if they came to your house they’d take your food, your booze, your daughters and your wife. That’s the way it is. They need to be left alone,” the doctor said. “These guys are in shape and they’re cocky. They have a swagger just like any well-trained athlete.”
Perhaps it’s the swagger that has aided Underwood in his transition from military to medicine. He said it wasn’t as difficult as one might imagine.
“It’s high energy. Doing neurosurgery keeps you on your toes … I just finished rebuilding a guy’s neck by plugging bone fragments off his spinal cord,” said Underwood as his eyes widened. “That’s not jumping out of an airplane, but it’s got its moments because you have this guy’s life in your hands.”
Even with his skill and experience, Underwood found things stale in the Detroit area, primarily on the economic front. For someone in a private practice, it was a struggle and that led him to look for a new job opportunity. The search included everywhere east of the Mississippi. And with hundreds of openings, he could have ended up anywhere - anywhere turned out to be Bridgeport’s United Hospital Center.
“The number one reason I’m here is because of (UHC President and CEO) Bruce Carter. Plus, this hospital is brand new and the facility is beautiful,” Underwood said.
Already, Underwood and his wife, along with his youngest daughter, have relocated. His son, who is finishing his junior year of high school, will transfer to Bridgeport for his senior year, while his oldest daughter is attending the University of Michigan. Part of the relocation into the Mountain State is discovering its beauty.
“We hit Cooper’s Rock, Seneca Rocks, Spruce Knob all in the same day,” Underwood said. “I think it’s just the beginning of a lot of experiences here.”
Another experience will come Memorial Day. While Underwood doesn’t go out of his way to do anything special, for someone who has lost friends in combat, he believes it’s a special day.
“Those losses (while in the military) were hard losses. It’s a bad, bad feeling, and it’s a scary feeling because you know it could be you,” Underwood said. “It would make for hard days … (Memorial Day) isn’t necessarily a special day to me, but Memorial Day is important for those who have earned it. It’s absolutely a day that’s well earned.”
As for his days in Bridgeport, Underwood said he and his family are just getting started. He thinks the future here will be all that he wants it to be.
“Coming here is a step up to me, not a step down. This was the right direction,” Underwood said. “I’m at peace here and I’m happy.”
Editor's Note: Connect-Bridgeport would like to thank Dr. Underwood for sharing his experiences with us and for his service to our country, while also welcoming him to Bridgeport. We'd also like to thank Matt Chisler, director of public relations at UHC, for his assistance. Pictured on the cover is a photo of Underwood during his time as Seal. Inside top photo is of Underwood (far left) with Seal team members prior to an exercise, while the second photo is of Underwood working with firepower, or "toys" as he referred to them in his interview. The group photo shows Underwood, far right, at UHC with Dr. Richard Douglas, center, and Arthur J. Ross III, M.D., the Dean of the School of Medicine at West Virginia University. The individual photo is of Underwood shortly after doing major neck surgery on a patient, while the bottom photo is of Underwood receiving some type of citation for his efforts as a Seal team member.