Early life and joining the Navy
I was born in Tucson, Arizona, but quickly at the age of two, moved to Yuma, Arizona, where my dad got a job as a pharmacist. So I moved out there with my mom, dad, and two brothers. I grew up in a pretty cool middle class home, and I was really interested in playing sports, not so much the classroom. It’s funny because my Mom loves to tell people now that she used to go to parent teacher conferences, and the teachers would say “You know Mrs. Crane, Eli is definitely the president of the classroom, but he’s not really here with us. He definitely daydreams a lot.” And looking back on it there is a lot of truth there; very little in school ever really lit my fuse or caught my attention. As I grew up, my goal became to play football at a higher level, and that was one of my earliest experiences with failure, as I wasn’t good enough to go on and do that.
I think that that disappointment was one of the many things that would go on to help shape who I would become. I started to realize that successful people don’t let that fear of failure define them. My parents did end up getting divorced when I was around seventeen, which really sucked and blew up my entire life, but I found the good in that, and I’ve used it as motivation to make sure my personal family is stronger and tighter. I didn’t want my kids to go through some of the things that I went through late in my teenage years.
After that I started going to college. I was going to Arizona Western, and I started to actually get excited about school and my grades started to pick up. I was studying criminal justice, and I thought it was really cool to study the criminal system and crime and law enforcement. I went of the University of Arizona to finish off my degree, and unfortunately I found that a lot of the criminology that I was studying at Arizona Western, they didn’t have at the University of Arizona. I started to study sociology, because my real goal was to join the military eventually, and I knew that I just needed a degree. It was right around that time that I got pretty excited about the military, because I was in a Barnes and Nobles and I read a book about Navy Seals. It seemed like the coolest job ever, and I looked at the minimum physical scores and said to myself “I think I can do this.”
My Dad gave me a really good piece of advice when I was in High School, which was that the truth to being happy in life is to pick something that you would do for free. And as I was reading that book in Barnes and Nobles about Navy Seals I said “Shooting all these guns, going after bad guys, jumping out of planes, and diving; that sounds really cool, and it’s probably something I would do for free.” That put me down a path of trying to achieve that. I was trying to finish up my degree; I was starting my senior year at the University of Arizona, studying a subject which really wasn’t lighting my fuse anymore, and then 9/11 happened which rung my bell hard, like it did a lot of Americans. The next week I decided to enlist in the Navy. I know there were people who weren’t exactly thrilled about that decision, I know that people wished I would have stayed, finished my degree and then joined, but as I watched those planes fly into those buildings, I knew that this was a time where the country needed men and women to roger up and go serve. Within seven or eight days I was on a plane headed to Chicago to start boot camp.
I know you enlisted in 2001, but didn’t become a seal until 2005, what happened in that 4-year interim?
I’m glad you brought that up, because it gives me another opportunity to talk about failure. I got a Seal contract in boot camp; I did well enough on the PST, and by that I mean I barely passed and did the minimum because I was a knucklehead and that was how I was going through life at the time. I found out the hard way that that isn’t how it works in Seal training. I got there, to the toughest training in the Department of Defense, and I realized quickly that I was outclassed by much of my class. A lot of these guys had been working tirelessly to be the best they could be, and while I was definitely putting in effort I wasn’t as physically or mentally mature. I actually made it through hell week, which is the most brutal thing I’ve gone through in my life, and then a week and a half later I got performance dropped from training. The instructors pulled me into a room, and said “Look, we know your tough, but we need the best of the best here and you’re not measuring up. You failed this and that evolution and you’re ranked in the bottom twenty-five percent of your class by your peers. So we’re recommending you to go out to the fleet, think on it, improve, and come back in a year.” It was brutal, especially after making it through hell week; my burns and my toenails, and all the skin that was chafed off hadn’t even recovered yet. I was heartbroken, but honestly, I deserved it and I’m glad they held that standard with me, and I hope they always continue to hold that standard.
I was sent out to the fleet, and unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get back in a year, it actually took two and a half. Once again, I see that as a blessing in disguise and a time for me to grow up and to pay the man as we say. I got the opportunity to come back with class 256, and we started with 220 guys, and we graduated 24 originals that started with us. Some of the 220 guys that started rolled back because of injuries or failures.
Was there ever a point after you got performance dropped where your desire to be a Seal diminished?
It was definitely always a drive in me. I remember praying a lot when I was on my ship and saying “God, I don’t have any other desire in my heart but to do this. If this is not what you want for me, please take it and shut the door on it, because I’m too stupid to know otherwise.” And the desire never changed, even when I had to make a tough decision. When I got orders on my very final bay on the USS Gettysburg, I still had a year left on my current enlistment. They could have let me go back to Seal training and if I made it, reenlisted then, but the Navy said that if they were going to send me back to BUDS, they were going to use it to their advantage and that I had to reenlist prior. I knew that if I had gotten hurt, washed out, or failed again, I would have to come right back to that ship that I hated so much, which was a floating prison to me. I remember that day and feeling bummed about it and that they were screwing me over, but I prayed and signed that paper, and I’m glad I did, even though it was scary.
What inspired you to stay in the Navy for 13 years, and the Seal Teams for 9?
I remember when I was kid I looked up to the military men and women. I lived near a Marine Corps air base and I just have a lot of respect for the young men and women my parents would introduce us to who were Marines or in the military and I was impressed by the way they carried themselves, how they spoke to others and how others spoke to them, and my parents had taught me from a young age that freedom isn’t free and that meant something to me. I know it’s cliché, because it gets thrown around a lot, but I knew from what they taught me and my limited exposure to the rest of the world that these freedoms we have weren’t universal.
It was one of those things that when I got an opportunity to do it, and see what it was like overseas and how much we did for other people, it really filled that void in my heart that desired to serve others, my country, and foreigners. I can’t tell you how many operations that I went on with Iraqis trying to make sure that they did live a more free life, and that they would have the opportunity to vote and live in a democracy. Even though it didn’t happen, it doesn’t change the fact that there men and women trying to make sure they had freedom from a tyrannical dictator.
While I realize doing that work, and I realize that the USA has done some dumb things and we’ve had our fair share of scandal, I saw first-hand how we were trying to help other countries by building them wells, giving them generators, food, water, and protecting them. That was one of the reasons that I stayed in as long as I did, because I felt like I was making a difference. I definitely felt like I was making a small difference in the fight between good and evil because a lot of the guys we were going after were just plain, straight up evil. They were murdering all sorts of, not only US personal, but their own countrymen; they were as violent as they came. The fact that I felt like I was able to put some hurting on some evil every once in a while that made me feel pretty good.
In 2015, you were donating to more than 50 non-profit veteran service organizations. What was the initial reason behind you wanting to do that?
To be transparent, it’s not always money. In fact, a lot of the time we donate product for their raffles, or auctions. What I came to realize is that there was a void in my life, and I think a lot of veterans have this when they get out, where we feel like we’ve abandoned the brotherhood and turned our back on the people still in uniform. And you can’t understand what that’s like until you get out. I actually thought I was going to isolate myself a little bit and go off and do my own thing while focusing on business and family, but what I came to realize was that there was emptiness and a fear of leaving behind the boys and what that said about me as a man and my own character. What I realized is, is that my service didn’t have to end when I took off the uniform. The moment I realized that I could continue to serve in a different way, I got filled with joy and excitement.
Like we say in the Teams all the time, “Look for work. Don’t be the guy standing around with his hands in his pockets doing nothing.” So we started looking for all types of ways to give back. The service doesn’t need to end when you get out, in fact, in many ways, the things you do now can be more important than what you were doing in uniform.
Is it possible for you to list a few of the charities that you support and work with?
America’s Mighty Warriors, which was started by Debbie Lee, her son, Marc Lee was the first Seal killed in Iraq, that’s one that I really like. Wishes for Warriors was one of the first that we started working with, and they take veterans that are really struggling to acclimate and they take them on hunting and fishing trips with other veterans. Hire our Heroes is one that we’ve worked with in the past, as well as Folds of Honor. There are almost too many to list. Like I said, it’s always about looking for work and living a service driven life. You can chase money and chase all these things that the world says is going to fulfill us all day long, but you are going to continue to come up short when it comes to fulfillment and joy. Capitalism is great and I love having a business, and I love being able to pursue a lot of the things I enjoy doing, but I have found that if I am not doing stuff that directly benefits and blesses other people then I’m not enjoying life at all.
Also the Charlie Humphrey Keating IV Foundation is one we’ve worked with in the past. I don’t know if you know much about Chuck, but he was one of my new guys at Seal Team Three, and probably one of the most heroic men I’ve ever met in my life. Just one of the coolest, most down to earth dudes you’ve ever met and he lit up every room he walked into. Being able to help carry on his legacy is amazing.
That’s another cool thing we do at Bottle Breacher. It’s not a big seller for us, but we make Breachers called ‘Never Forgotten Breachers.” And we only make them at the request of the family because we don’t want to step on toes and offend people, and we know it can be sensitive. But when we do them at the request of the family, we do these memorable pieces that are functional, and really, they’re art. We take our products and we put their images on them. And the cool thing about them is that a percentage of the proceeds goes back to the charity of the family’s choice. It’s constantly looking for work, and sometimes we hit it out of the park, and sometimes we miss the mark.
I wrote an article about three years ago in the Huffington Post, called ‘If Cash is King, Having a Mission is Queen.’ I found that to be so true. You have to make money to keep things afloat, to pay your employees and keep the lights on, but if you really want that extra motivation that’s going to carry you through the hard times and keep you energized and working towards that next level- having a mission outside of the bottom line is a big deal, and is something I highly recommend.
What is the best part of the life you're living now and working at Bottle Breacher?
I sat under a pastor for some time, named Miles McPherson in San Diego and he used to, and still does, preach at the Rock Church. He said something so profound in one of his sermons and I felt like he was speaking to me. He was talking about money, and that’s not something a lot of people talk about. He said “Money doesn’t change you, it amplifies who you already were.” It was one of the most profound things I had ever heard, but I found that he was absolutely right. One of the things that I love about having a successful business and going from making next to nothing in the military to living a pretty comfortable life, is that it amplifies who I already was. It allowed me to give more back, and have more of a platform where I could shine that light back on the veteran community or help the veterans behind me who were coming up and getting ready to do some great things. I love the fact that we’ve been blessed with a platform that we can use to benefit others to give more back, and just to do things that I never thought I’d be able to do; it’s pretty surreal.
I also love that starting this company has given me a platform to continue fighting for my country. I realize that not only does service to the brotherhood not end when you take off the uniform, but service to the country and constitution also does not and should not end when you take off the uniform. In many ways, I can be more effective now than I ever could have been when I was in the military and I had to keep my trap shut. That’s been really awesome for me, because I get to make an impact all the time, whether people agree with me or don’t, I feel like I get to fight for things that are important in my life.
What kind of aspirations do you have for Bottle Breacher moving forward?
Right now we have twenty-two employees that are Americans here from Tucson, Arizona, and I not only want these people to continue having jobs, but I want their jobs to improve, the amount of money they make to improve, I want the stability to improve, I want their lives to improve, I want to continue to manufacture our products here so we can support both the local and national economies, I want to continue to make amazing products that when people give them to their loves ones for Christmas or father’s day, or the 4th of July, it has that “ahh” factor to it. And we see it all the time with our products- people are just blown away at the craftsmanship, and the quality. And when it has a special engraving or personalization on the back, it is a gift that becomes cherished for a lifetime, as opposed to a lot of gifts which go into the junk drawer, or find their way into the trashcan after a couple of years. So I want to continue to make over the top gifts for people.
At this point we’re reaching the seventeen-million-dollar mark in gross sales, which is cool and something I never thought we would do when we started this in a one car garage, a dremel tool and some spray paint. But sales is not on my list as to what I’m really looking for. For me, it’s all about legacy. What are people going to say at my funeral? What are they going to say about me as a man? About my character? So I’m going to continue to work on that my entire life and I know that if I do that, the pieces will fall into place as they will.