By Jug Varner
On my way to the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, across the bay from San Diego, the familiar sight of Pacific Ocean waves washing over the beach reminded me how cold that Alaskan current water can feel - not just in January, but in August as well. Being in “sunny” California doesn't seem to make much difference to the water.
The purpose was to follow-up on my review last year of Roy Boehm's book, FIRST SEAL — his personal account of how the Navy's elite SEAL (SeaAirLand) program got its start. I wanted an up-close-and-personal look at its rugged BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training and the men who attempt to conquer it.
One thing I knew going in was that I could forget about one Hollywood film version of the SEALs, G.I. JANE. In the first place, women are not accepted as students here. The movie stretched other realities as well, for the “sake of entertainment.” It was typical film maker's “faction” — fiction based on fact — but the closest it came to the truth was how difficult it is to become a SEAL.
Getting through week five is no guarantee for successful completion of the rest of the course, but the possibilities are improved for those with an intense desire to succeed. They've now learned the human body can perform ten times more work than the average person thinks possible. Nothing is certain, however, until all the mental and physical obstacles have been overcome in all three-phases of this fast-paced 25-week course. As the sign on the wall implies, each succeeding day becomes more of a challenge.
Physically, the ideal applicant is one who excels in running and swimming, but just being a model of physical excellence is not enough. Even top-notch athletes fail here if they lack the mental toughness, motivation, perseverance and other such requisites.
In conversations with students and staff members in each phase, I sensed the intensity and goal orientation of each participant. Officer and enlisted students go through the same courses and classrooms together as a unit. The training staff members are assigned here after several years on SEAL teams and other advanced experience. Enlisted men serve as instructors and officers are in charge of each phase. All of them show by example and do everything they expect their students to do. As Yogi Berra once said, “Its deja vous all over again.”
RM2 Andrew Buchanan is in his second year as an instructor. I asked him to compare then and now. His response was: “Coming back here after seven years of SEAL experience, I understand the reasoning behind what the students go through, but as a student I was unaware. Today, I have noticed maturity is higher. We have more enlisted students with college degrees. I was not quite 18 when I attended training, so I had a lot to learn, the hard way. I played sports in high school and was a fairly good swimmer, but I had no idea how tough and demanding this would be. My advice to those interested in coming here is to learn all you can about it beforehand and prepare yourself physically. Don't just come in blindly hoping for the best.”
Phase I includes physical conditioning through weekly four-mile timed runs in boots, timed obstacle courses, and swimming in the ocean with fins for distances up to two miles. Small boat seamanship is also a part of this phase. The first four weeks prepare students for Hell Week and its hard-earned values of motivation and teamwork. They devote the remaining three weeks to conducting hydrographic surveys, preparing hydrographic charts, and more physical training.
To a man, Hell Week is considered the toughest challenge, although none would admit that any week was not difficult. LTJG Allyn Sullivan, Providence, R.I., came here from duty as a surface warfare officer aboard an LSD. His pre-Navy sports included cross-country running, wrestling and martial arts. He considers himself an above-average swimmer, but a better runner. He said, “Hell week was absolutely the hardest thing I've ever done, but I'm glad I went through it. I proved a lot to myself in the process.” Sullivan is the senior rank in his class and serves as its officer-in-charge. He believes the course has helped him in leadership, organizational skills, and handling stress.
ENS Brad Truesdell, Boca Raton, Fla., enrolled in NROTC at the University of Colorado and spent his junior and senior summer training at the Mini-BUD/S screening program to secure the opportunity to come here. “I'm just in my third week now, so I still have Hell Week ahead of me,” he said. “My brother, a GM2, is a SEAL. He told me all the “horror stories” about it, but I'm determined to make it no matter how tough. I figure if he made it I can, too! I'm fortunate to have gone through Mini-BUD/S, and have prepared myself physically, so I'm in good condition — so far.”
Truesdell's good preparation, positive attitude and strong desire impressed me, but nothing is certain in BUD/S. A telephone call to headquarters after his week in Hell satisfied my curiosity and confirmed my belief that he would pass.
One who had been there and done that, STG3 Stephen Kupcha, Deptford, N.J., remembered Hell Week as being appropriately named. “No matter what you read or hear about it, the actual experience is unlike what you expected.” Kupcha was in the final phase, looking forward to completion. “Phase one was an awakening for me. In school I was good at track and football, but I was a weak swimmer and ocean swimming here was a real problem early on. So were those “drown proofing” exercises. Then, after initial difficulties in Phase II, I actually began to enjoy swimming.”
Physical training continues in Phase II, as BUD/S students spend the next seven weeks learning Combat SCUBA Diving — both open circuit (compressed air) and closed circuit (100% oxygen) procedures. Progressive dive schedules emphasize basic combat swimmer skills in tactics to complete a combat objective. This phase qualifies BUD/S students as combat divers — a skill that sets SEALs apart from all other Special Operations forces.
Phase II Diving Instructor BM1 Joseph Perez, Humble, Tex., told me he saw a SEAL presentation while he was in Recruit Training ten years ago. “When I found out I was qualified, I signed up and went straight to BUD/S from Boot Camp. My dislike for water and heights was a big challenge, but I hung in there and made it through. Being a member of a SEAL Team gave me confidence, self-discipline, appreciation for my teammates, and a sense of accomplishment that has changed my life. I enjoy being an instructor here, setting the example.”
In the isolated environment of San Clemente Island several miles off the coast, students spend seven-days-a-week in hands-on training. They use explosives, M-60 machine guns, M-14 rifles, and M-20 grenade launchers. They practice patrolling, live fire, movement, ambushes, mock missions, mission planning and rehearsals. Ryan said the attrition rate in this phase is about ten percent during this phase averages about ten percent, mainly due to injury or safety problems. The highest attrition is in Phase I.
On average, for every 100 officers who enter, 30 won't complete the course. For every 100 enlisteds, 70 will not finish. I asked why there was such a difference, since they all go through the exact same training. There was no specific answer, because physical ability, mental toughness and desire can change the equation. Officer students are older, more experienced and better educated. The screening process is more complex of officer applicants, so they are initially better qualified. Generally, enlisted students are younger, less mature, and have less classroom experience. Those who come here from the fleet, or with higher education, or both, are more likely to succeed.
Graduation is a well-deserved, proud moment to savor, but it's only the beginning - a mere interlude until the next level where they pick up where they left off.
“The fat lady never sings for the SEALs” might be another appropriate sign for the training building's wall, because it never ends for the SEALs. From here they are assigned as members of a SEAL Team or SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team, continuing the perpetual cycle of physical training and advanced training. It is ever onward and upward, honing their skills to the ultimate level possible. Their total numbers represent less than one-percent of the Navy and their jobs are the most demanding of any military special force. Anyone can claim to be #1 — but a SEAL knows he is! Pride in that fact lasts a lifetime.
Before leaving this beehive of activity, I met Master Chief Bob Bender, then in the paper process for Navy retirement. His first assignment after becoming a SEAL was with UDT-12 , and is still indelibly etched in memory. “In that group was a big hulk of a man who took it upon himself to look out for me and help me along the way, because I was the smallest guy there. He was a heck of a nice guy and really helped me a lot. His name was Jim Janos and he eventually became famous. You probably know him as Jesse 'The Body' Ventura, Governor of Minnesota.”
To find out more call toll-free1-888-USN-SEAL.