Dirt Sailor: The Story Of A Farmer Who Found Purpose As A Seabee In The United States Navy

Born and raised in Dunn, North Carolina, Michael Ivey is from a long line of farmers. He grew up on a sweet potato farm in a low-key town where no one was ever encouraged to live a life out of the ordinary. The last person from the Ivey family to voluntarily enlist in the Armed Forces was a distant relative who fought the War of 1812. How could this young man possibly escape the mundanity of rural America to become a hero of his country?






“If someone wrote a book about your life, would anyone want to read it? That one question still sticks with me today.”

– Michael Ivey

As a morbidly obese and shy teenager, Michael spent most of his days dreaming of an escape from the mundane existence of rural life.

The monotony of Dunn wasn’t going to cut it for much longer. There was something burning inside Michael to do something bigger, one which could have a lasting impact on his life.

At age 19, Michael had one of those profound wake-up moments in life after seeing a Navy advertisement in a local newspaper.  It asked the question “If Someone Wrote A Book About Your Life, Would Anyone Want To Read It?”

Stirred by the ad, Michael quickly met a recruiter from the US Navy, a moment which he still recalls to this day with a faint smile. This was the day which would change the course of his life forever. There he was, a 19-year old kid itching to get out of Dunn, sitting there with a recruiter desperate for any opportunity to escape.

“Give me whatever you have, as long as it leaves soon,” Michael pleaded.

Sensing Michael’s eagerness to leave Dunn, the recruiter offered him a job as an Equipment Operator (affectionately known as a Seabee), a position in the United States Navy that meant he could get off the farm within ten days.

“I’ll take it!” shouted Michael, before filling out the necessary paperwork.

And so the adventure began.

What Is A Seabee?

The Navy Construction Battalion, comprised of Seabees or “Dirt Sailors” as Michael jokes, work together to build almost anything permanent or portable.

As a Seabee, there are a diverse number of tasks involved, including  grading at a critical airstrip location, conducting soil tests for an amphibious landing zone, or erecting the framework of a new barracks facility. Seabees may also be called upon to assist engineers with final construction plans; prepare land surveys, maps, sketches drawings and blueprints, as well as operate bulldozers, backhoes, forklifts, cranes and asphalt equipment.

Seabees perform finish work, including installing drywall, paneling, ceramic tile, ceiling and floor tile, as well as millwork and trim. Some will be required to install, operate or repair heating and cooling systems, power production, electrical distribution and plumbing systems.

Michael began his career just north of Los Angeles in Ventura, CA. Stationed there for a little over a year, a twenty year-old Michael found himself sitting in a Dodge pickup truck filling out paperwork for his first deployment: Iraq.

Iraq turned out to be a life-altering experience for Michael. Witnessing war for the first time and the awful conditions that millions of people lived in quickly started to make Michael re-think his life. Gone were the petulant days dreaming of an escape from the sweet potato farm. This was real life – and it was anything but quiet and safe.

The motto of the U.S. Navy Construction Battalions is “With compassion for others, we build — we fight for peace with freedom.” Seabees taught Michael unselfishness. For many years as a teenager and early adult, he’d constantly thought about himself; about how to make decisions that would impact his life. Within a few years, this selfish attitude had been turned on its head.

“Being a Seabee is about being selfless. It’s silent professionalism at its finest.”

The awkward, somewhat selfish teenager had disappeared after deployments such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Michael had to face the hardships of war and the struggle of innocent children whose lives were being shattered by ruthless regimes. If there was ever such a thing as a wake-up call, this was it.

Michael always knew on those long afternoons on the farm that he wanted to reinvent himself – he just never imagined it would be in this way.

“The Navy makes you take a hard look at yourself.”

The Navy made Michael confront the issues that plagued his early years; the notion of wanting to escape. He’s now discovered something profound in himself: he exudes confidence, he is a team-player, he is more empathetic. Every day, Michael finds himself working with an extraordinary group of people that are committed to making the work of those on the front line possible.

“If we are the sum of our experiences, we are hurting no one but ourselves by limiting our experiences.”


Michael Ivey has come full-circle. The Navy has built him into the man he is today, but it’s also reconnected him to his childhood. Ironically, Michael works with an EOD Mobile Unit, where his job is to literally bring people home. These kind of experiences have brought Michael closer to his own home, which for so long he was trying to escape from. 

Once a month, Michael drives four hours from Norfolk, VA to Dunn, where he spends time on the farm, reconnecting with his roots. Simplicity is where he finds his inner peace; where he can escape for a moment from the high-pressure job he finds himself in.

To say the US Navy changed Michael’s life is an understatement of epic proportions. To those that know Michael as the sweet potato farmer, it might appear that he leads a simple life. But if we are the sum of all of our experiences, Michael Ivey’s life in anything but simple; it’s extraordinary. He is a role model for millions of people who are still searching for meaning in their lives.

“The military isn’t like a civilian job. You can’t just put in a two-week notice when something happens that you don’t like; and boy, there will be some things that happen that you don’t like. It is up to you to decide if you are a victim of circumstance or one who stands in the face of that adversity. You are going to give up some personal freedoms, but in turn you become a part of something oh so much greater. And you become greater for it. Better. Stronger. The US Navy is a life-changing experience.”

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