Stayin’ Frosty: A Commando’s Unlikely Journey From SEAL Team to Ice Cream
When Navy SEAL Chris Fettes first deployed to Iraq in 2006, he brought along his most prized possession from home: a high-end, Italian-made ice-cream machine.
For other deployed service members, more common recreational items, such as guitars, weights, and baseball gloves, were sufficient to provide a mental escape from the daily grind of combat. But Fettes was different. Sure, he enjoyed music and pumping iron just as much as the next guy, but nothing brought him more joy — and peace of mind — than making delicious frozen desserts with his beloved Lello Musso 5030.
Fettes served 13 years with SEAL Team 10 and Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU). He deployed numerous times to combat zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, conducting missions day and night. Yet, somehow, he still managed to find the time to master the art of ice-cream making. And that was just the beginning. In time, his love for the craft grew. Eventually, he realized that making ice cream was his life’s calling.
Upon leaving the military in 2016, Fettes enrolled in the weeklong Ice Cream Short Course held at Penn State University to refine his techniques and get a better understanding of the business side of things. Then, in 2022, he started Be Free Craft Ice Cream, an artisanal, small-batch ice-cream company that Fettes operates out of Virginia Beach. Remaining true to its special operations roots, Be Free’s menu features a variety of military-themed flavors, such as Cookie Commandough and Pointman Pistachio.
Adaptability is key to surviving in the food industry, and ice cream is no exception. Whether he’s pairing his signature flavors with a restaurant’s port wine list or adding the favorite fruits and candies of fallen teammates to create unique recipes in their honor, Fettes is constantly having to rely on his intuition as he works to grow his business. That aspect of the job has come naturally to Fettes, thanks to all those years he spent honing his craft on the front lines of the Global War on Terror. Whereas a typical stateside ice-cream operation has adequate equipment, ingredients, and a dedicated staff of workers, while overseas, Fettes learned to make frozen desserts with limited resources, improvising scrumptious recipes from whatever ingredients happened to be available.
Fettes recalled that, when he deployed as a SEAL, he would usually pack his Lello Musso 5030 into a Pelican case along with bowls and other dessert-making materials. In Iraq, during his downtime between missions in Sadr City and other volatile parts of Baghdad, Fettes sourced his fruits and dairy from the chow hall on base. He was able to “borrow” a couple gallons of cow’s milk every other week before the mess hall workers politely asked him to stop. Being the resourceful frogman that he was, Fettes recruited an Iraqi interpreter known as Johnny Walker to help him find certain ingredients. Johnny Walker, a legend in SEAL circles, volunteered to go to a local market and returned with camel’s milk. It wasn’t ideal, but extreme circumstances call for extreme measures. Once Fettes had all the necessary ingredients, he would seclude himself in his hooch and get to work, mixing tasty ice creams and sorbets like a mad scientist. His confections included clementine gelato, apple ice cream, and banana ice cream.
Fettes will be the first to admit that he wasn’t the most prolific ice-cream maker while overseas — which is understandable. After all, he was fighting in a war. In Iraq, his team would go on missions five, six, sometimes even seven nights a week. When he later deployed to Afghanistan, he again brought along his ice-cream machine; however, according to Fettes, the machine was really only for himself and another SEAL, because he didn’t want it to be a distraction for the rest of the team.
“I was kind of afraid to break it out and bring it over to the DEVGRU guys because I just didn’t want undue attention on myself,” Fettes told Coffee or Die Magazine. “I don’t want them to be like, ‘What the fuck is with this ice-cream guy when we just need a comms and JTAC augment?’”
Fettes also made sure that ice cream, freeze pops, and other frozen delicacies didn’t go to waste or get left uneaten in commercial freezers at the chow halls. So whatever his teammates didn’t eat, Fettes would give to local children. Some of the kids had never had ice cream before they tried the treats that Fettes brought them. It was probably also the first time they had been served dessert by a battle-hardened American commando.
“Depending on the conflict going on there, a lot of these local kids were displaced from the war,” Fettes said. “There was a few times I snuck in the middle of the night with a huge trash bag, emptied that freezer, and then the next day we would go out to the orphanage to hand out ice-cream pops.”
Like many veterans, Fettes had a difficult transition into civilian life after leaving the service. He had to find a job to support his family. But he also wanted to take his ice-cream making to the next level. So, ultimately, he decided to attend the ice-cream school at Penn State. The course was established way back in the 1890s, and industry leaders, from Ben & Jerry’s to Baskin-Robbins, send executives and employees there to familiarize themselves with the science, technology, and business of ice cream.
“You get to visit the dairies and everything at Penn State and learn about small-scale and large-scale ice-cream [operations],” Fettes said. “I went to that, and that’s what allowed me to start experimenting and developing my formulas over time.”
Upon graduating from the course, Fettes purchased a commercial-grade ice-cream machine and set up shop in his house. While he worked part time as an instructor for GBRS Group — a tactical consulting company founded by former DEVGRU operators to train federal, state, and local law enforcement — to pay the bills, Fettes worked toward launching his own brand of ice cream. His hard work paid off.
In 2022, Fettes launched Be Free Craft Ice Cream, and news of the company spread like wildfire through word-of-mouth and social media. Currently, his products can usually only be found at military retirement ceremonies and private events and via limited-supply drops. That might change soon, however, as Fettes is now working toward opening a brick-and-mortar shop in Virginia Beach.
As for the ice cream, Fettes’ recipes speak for themselves. Cookie Commandough, for example, has a base of vanilla bean ice cream, sprinkled throughout with handmade chocolate chip cookies, chocolate chip cookie dough, and dark chocolate shards. The French Connection is made with Cinnamon Toast Crunch ice cream, brioche French toast, Canadian maple syrup, and white chocolate shards. The list of delicious flavors goes on.
An important tradition Fettes has started is working with families of his fallen friends and teammates to make ice-cream flavors in their honor. Zackary Miller, a Navy SEAL who died of a brain tumor in 2021, loved blueberries. Thus, in his honor, Fettes created Ill Mill, a blueberry-cobbler vanilla ice cream in remembrance of his dear friend.
“Kyle Milliken was another one that I was really close buddies with,” Fettes said, describing Senior Chief Kyle Milliken, who was killed in a combat operation in Somalia in 2017. “He was like a sweet-tooth mentor, and I named one of my first flavors after him, called Milliken Mint Chocolate Chip. I’ll keep those names indefinitely, and I can memorialize them in my own way forever.”