Former Alum, Navy Seal and CIA Agent
Killed in Ambush Honored in Campus Memorial
Ioana Patringenaru | November 24, 2008
Christopher Mueller on Coronado during a Navy Seal publicity show.
As a boy, Christopher Glenn Mueller often staged war games in the family’s backyard. As a young man, his passion lead him to become a Navy Seal and later a CIA agent, deployed first to Iraq, then to Afghanistan, a few months after he graduated from UC San Diego.
But on Oct. 25, 2003, Mueller’s mission came to an end during an ambush in the remote border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. That day, he saved the life of an Afghan commander, before losing his own.
“He was where he wanted to be and he was doing what he wanted to do,” said Mueller’s father, Glenn. “That was comforting to me.”
After Mueller’s death, friends and family approached UCSD officials to create a memorial for him on campus. This month, the campus’ Veterans Association unveiled a plaque and a bench dedicated to Mueller and to all UCSD veterans, at the new Price Center East, overlooking Matthews Quad.
“I felt very proud,” said Mueller’s father, who came from Arizona for the unveiling.
It’s important for the university to have a place to remember all veterans, including Mueller, said Karen Roberts Gardner, chair of the UCSD Veterans Association. “It was an honor to be able to do this,” Gardner said. The memorial was financed with funds from the Chancellor’s Office. “It’s important to remember that freedom isn’t free,” said Glynda Davis, director of Campus Diversity Initiatives after the Nov. 13 ceremony.
The UCSD memorial isn’t the first to honor Mueller’s service to his country. In May 2004, the CIA held a ceremony to recognize 83 employees who died in the line of duty, including Mueller and William "Chief" Carlson, another civilian contractor killed in the ambush in Afghanistan.
"The bravery of these two men cannot be overstated," Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet said at the time, according to a CIA press release. "Chris and Chief put the lives of others ahead of their own. That is heroism defined."
A hero and a friend
Mueller, who died at age 32, was a hero to many, including the two young sons of Chris Cronin, a close friend. After his death, Cronin got involved with the construction of the memorial at UCSD. It would be, he said, a place where his two boys could remember their now fallen hero. To this day, Cronin and his family can’t watch war movies, because they bring back memories of Mueller.
Chris Cronin (third from left) poses with his wife and children at the memorial dedicated to all UCSD veterans, including his friend, Christopher Mueller.
They met shortly after Mueller left the Navy Seals. Impressed by his skills and his smarts, Cronin hired Mueller for his security company, which rents walk-through metal detectors. When the company was hired to provide detectors for the Dalai Lama’s visit to the San Francisco Bay Area, Cronin sent Mueller to supervise.
The two became fast friends. “Chris was the kind of guy you cold trust with your wife and your life,” Cronin said. Mueller turned Cronin’s eldest son, J.J. into a strong swimmer in just one week. “My son worshipped him,” Cronin recalls. Mueller didn’t have any children of his own. He hoped to get married and start a family one day. But he would not allow himself to develop a serious relationship while he engaged in a high-risk career, friends said.
After Mueller graduated, Cronin tried to talk him out of joining the CIA because he feared for his safety—to no avail. To explain why he was going to join, Mueller used an analogy that Cronin, a former college football player, could easily grasp. “Imagine you had practiced football all your life, but never got to play,” he said. “I’m going to the Super Bowl.” Mueller wasn’t acting out of blind patriotism, Cronin added.
“He was a thinking man’s soldier,” he explained. “He was very, very intelligent.”
Iraq and Afghanistan
A few months after Mueller joined the CIA as a paramilitary officer, he left for Iraq. He spent the better part of a year living out of a French SUV, “rocking n’ rolling” throughout the country, as Cronin put it. He helped secure a number of towns in Western Iraq and blew up anti-aircraft positions. His reports went directly to the White House, Cronin said.
Glenn Mueller, Christopher Mueller's father, during his visit at UCSD this month.
Mueller then deployed to Afghanistan from May to July 2003, and again, for the last time, in September of that year. Cronin and Mueller’s father would hear from him via satellite phone every once in a while. His missions were classified, so he couldn’t say much. “He just wanted to tell me that he was okay,” Glenn Mueller said. During one conversation, Mueller gave Cronin a hint about what he was doing in Afghanistan. “We’re looking for the golden ring,” he said. Cronin took it to mean that Mueller was hunting Osama Bin Laden and his top lieutenants.
He later found out that Mueller’s job also included forging a relationship with an Afghan commander who was helping U.S. troops. The two had become friends. On Oct. 25, 2003, they were ambushed in Taliban-controlled territory. The Afghan commander was wounded. Mueller left cover to pull him to safety. He saved his friend but was shot in the chest.
News of a death
That day, two CIA officers came to Glenn Mueller’s home and told him his son had been killed. Mueller said he doesn’t remember much of the conversation. “Once they told me that my son had been killed, after that, I don’t think I heard much,” he recalled. He called Cronin in San Diego to tell him the news.
The call woke Cronin up. He then tried to reach Christopher Mueller’s friends by phone but they wouldn’t answer. Cronin went outside, planning to drive around and spread the bad news. That’s when he realized that fires had started burning in San Diego County that very day, blackening the sky and turning the sun into a blood-red circle. “It was very surreal to wake up to the news that Chris had died,” he recalled.
“I never really thought that Chris could be killed,” he added later. “He was just too smart.”
His life before the CIA
Mueller in Malaysia, where he acted as a Navy Seal ambassador, working with other countries' units.
Mueller’s childhood didn’t always foreshadow his brilliant career. He struggled in school and had trouble making friends. He also was diagnosed with asthma, dyslexia and severe allergies. After his parents divorced, he lived in four different homes and attended five different schools over six years. One constant during that difficult period was Mueller’s love of all things military, friends and family recall.
In March 1991, Mueller took that love one step further and enlisted in the Navy. It changed his life, his friends and father agree. “The military really brought a lot of discipline and direction into his life,” Glenn Mueller said. “He really found his home there.” Christopher Mueller graduated from boot camp and was accepted in the elite Navy Seal program. He graduated from that training November 1993 and took an assignment in Coronado.
For the next five years, Mueller deployed with three different Seal team platoons. He trained troops all around the Pacific Rim, from Korea, to Thailand, to Australia. He also trained with British special forces, known as the SAS. During that time, he started talking to CIA recruiters, who were interested in his skills. But he needed a college degree to join.
Mueller poses in his cap and gown during his Revelle College graduation in 2002.
In March 1998, he left the Seals and turned his focus to education. The transition wasn’t easy, his father recalls. “Chris was a very intelligent guy, but oftentimes, book learning was difficult for him,” Glenn Mueller said. “He really had to apply himself.” He first wanted to become a doctor, but didn’t do well on the Medical College Admissions Test. He then chose to major in Chinese studies, with a double minor in organic chemistry and religious studies. He really enjoyed the UCSD campus and had an uncanny ability to fit in, Cronin said. “I think you could drop him on Mars and he would be comfortable with the Martians,” he added.
But in a way, Mueller’s life on campus didn’t feel real, Cronin recalled. “I called it the soft world of books,” he also said. On a recent November afternoon, Cronin, his wife and his two sons came back to that world to honor Mueller. They sat on the bench that was part of the memorial the Veterans Association unveiled Nov. 13. “It’s a place to remember, to reflect—and for my children not to forget,” Cronin said.