SEAL stories originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle in May, 2006.
NAVY SEAL TRAINING PUSHES MEN TO LIMIT TO PREPARE FOR EVER-TOUGHER MISSION
Coronado, San Diego County
A neat line of 177 Navy SEAL recruits link arms and wade into the sea. The day is stormy, with 7-foot breakers and 61-degree water. But instructors order them to turn and lie on their backs in the surf.
The young men soak their boots, battle dress uniform trousers and white T-shirts. Their bare, crew-cut heads must stay immersed as waves bat them around. Eight minutes later they rise, race to the sand dunes, drop and roll to become “sugar cookies.” This rinse cycle repeats five times. Faces grow flushed and mottled with cold, some men violently shiver, a few abdomens start to convulse.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Dan Gearhart, in charge of Phase I training for Navy SEAL commandos, enigmatic and imposing in wraparound shades, stalks the beach. Other instructors deploy language as salty as the sea breeze. Gearhart doesn’t need to.
“Lay in that water ’til you figure out — it matters how fast you move during this training,” he intones through a bullhorn. “You guys asked for this. You will learn to move. I guarantee it. Or you will be gone.”
This is ground zero for America’s plan to build forces which can better execute the global war on terror. It’s the Special Warfare Center, West Coast home of U.S. Navy SEAL commandos, part of the sprawling Naval Amphibious Base on San Diego Bay. It’s the gateway for recruits eager to find out if they’ve got the right stuff for the Navy’s elite, Sea-Air-Land (hence SEAL) warriors.
Fewer than half of these guys will graduate from the grueling training that prepares them to grapple with a risky reality. Casualties amid current operations include 16 SEALs killed in Afghanistan since the war on terrorism began, including 11 last June 28. Eight SEALs were lost along with eight Army Night Stalkers when a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade shot down their helicopter. This chopper mission was attempting to rescue a fourman SEAL reconnaissance team involved in a firefight. Three of the four on the ground were killed. The fourth evaded the enemy and was rescued days later. No SEALs have been lost in Iraq.
Among Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s key initiatives is the modernization of America’s military by building up flexible, fast-response clandestine forces.
Special Operations Command for the U.S. military in Tampa, Fla., plans an increase of 13,000 troops in the Green Berets, Delta Force operators, Navy SEAL commando teams and support groups over the next four years. Such highly trained personnel are now seen as more useful than exotic military hardware in the war on terror.
SEAL missions span a gamut, from clandestine reconnaissance to combat raids to protection of important individuals and even drug interdiction.
Recruitment in general is problematic. Declining public support for the mission in Iraq is reducing signups. Last year, meeting enlistment goals proved tough for the Army, Army Reserve and National Guard. (The Navy, Air Force and Marines still did reasonably well.) American youth in general lack fitness and carry more flab than any previous generation. This means it’s harder to find soldiers with high strength, endurance and tolerance for hardship.
A challenge for the SEAL force is keeping its testing, training and performance standards high at the same time it seeks to expand. There are 2,450 active-duty SEALs now. The Bush administration wants 500 more.
“The war on terror is a demanding one,” says Cmdr. Duncan Smith, who directs the SEAL recruitment office. “Retention is fine, as good as ever. But we still need more recruits. Since 9/11, SEAL teams have gotten deployed for six months out of every 18. That has real impact on other parts of their lives, particularly family and community time. We want deployments to occur more like every two years.”
Thirty percent of SEAL recruits come from current sailors; 20 percent are enlistees who opt for SEAL training at boot camp. Half enter from civilian life with contracts to pursue SEAL status. Young civilians who value physical fitness and endurance sports are being courted; Navy statistics show they have the best chance to finish training. Navy SEAL instructors, such as triathlete Mitch Hall and adventure racer Ron Harrison, now do low-key recruiting at civilian events like marathons, triathlons and rugby matches.
Still, few recruits of any background feel fully ready for this program, famed as the world’s most rigorous. Admission to this brotherhood has been tough ever since Underwater Demolition Teams of World War II undertook missions such as clearing obstacles and German defenses to prepare for landings at Normandy on D-Day, and sustained 52 percent casualties in the process. These frogmen became the SEALs in 1962.
In April, The Chronicle secured rare permission to observe SEAL training.
The 177 men wallowing in the sea, fighting off hypothermia during “surf conditioning,” are not even in real training. Not yet. They’re being toughened up for it. They’re doing “Indoc” or indoctrination, a six- to eight-week preparation before entering the first phase of SEAL school. Then they get to call themselves SEAL class No. 259. Each class’ number becomes its icon, as they take a place in the memorable SEAL tradition.
Recruits for class No. 259 began their day at 5 a.m. They were given 15 minutes to prepare for a 4-mile run on the beach in deep sand, wearing boots and uniforms. Then they ran to breakfast, and ran back.
More challenges in their training mix include a 25-meter underwater swim. Vigorous bouts of calisthenics on the “Grinder” — a big, asphalt exercise yard at the center of the compound — ready them to endure the fatigue of combat. They must swim half the length of an Olympic pool (25 meters) with bound hands and feet — “drown-proofing” that gives them a method of escape from capture if any body of water lies near. Focus is learned by tying a series of knots while 6 feet underwater, skills needed to place underwater demolitions. They must swim 1½ miles in the bay with wetsuits and flippers, and perform timed workouts on a 20-station obstacle course. At nearly any moment of night or day, they may be called on to “drop and give 20” push-ups.
These rigors steadily build action hero physiques. They also provide plenty of inducement to quit for those who lack will or mental toughness. There’s a brutal simplicity to workouts. However, they also contain subtle messages meant to foster virtue and teamwork.
Out in the surf zone, an interesting moment comes for the trainees of class No. 259. Once more, they’re ordered out of the water by instructors and told to roll in the sand.
“And tuck in your shirts!” one instructor yells. Even in this cold, gritty purgatory, neatness counts.
Gearhart, 37, the son of a Vietnam-era SEAL and a 20-year SEAL veteran himself, inspects the shivering line.
“Why’s there no sand on every inch of you? Don’t want to act like men? Fine. Back in the water.”
During the final 10-minute soaking, Gearhart asks for people who feel cold enough to quit. None volunteers. But the fact these men remain willing to steep in the surf this morning isn’t good enough for him. Where’s their enthusiasm for the mission? Among them lie men of rank who have transferred from other parts of the service. Gearhart picks on them.
“Officers, motivate these men! It’s your obligation,” Gearhart says. “Do not, repeat, do not just lie there and suffer in silence. That’s a pathetic level of performance. I am pissed!”
From the line of men washing back and forth in the breakers, a howl soon arises. It’s initiated by officers, then picked up by all. It’s an answer to their instructors, maybe a challenge to the ocean itself, a long, drawn-out, “Hoo-ya” — the SEAL affirmation and battle cry — lengthened into a sound resembling Gregorian chants.
SEAL commanders like to say old-school frogmen would find today’s training program just as tough as theirs. Still, Smith says, there’s been a philosophical shift. Recruits no longer simply rise or fall on their own. There’s fresh emphasis on bestowing the tips and encouragement recruits need to get through training. Even a 1 percent improvement in graduation rate makes a difference in eventual size of your force.
“A lot of heart, ambition, good intentions and hard work are on display out there,” Smith says. “It’s too bad most will leave. We don’t want to lose guys. But we do have to maintain standards.”
“We spend 80 percent of our time on the bottom 20 percent of each class,” Gearhart says. “But it’s not a lost cause. A guy may flunk a given exercise. All of a sudden, his light comes on.
“A ‘racehorse’ — an Olympian or world class athlete — may roll over when his physical gift won’t carry him. It just stops being fun. Meanwhile, a real ‘mutt’ who’s lived with adversity every day, a guy who sees this training as more of the same, who only knows how to slug on through, well, he’ll steadily become more fit, then surprise you at how well he makes it.”
In the mid-afternoon, recruits hit the obstacle course — a circuit with parallel bars, tall jumps, jogs on rolling logs, a 40-foot-high cargo net, wall climbs and a simple rope swing up onto a trestle.
A recruit named Bob stalls at the swing. (Because SEAL missions are classified, the Navy has asked that no last names be used.) Faster guys, intense and wiry, whip through the O-course like sports cars. Bob is thick and muscular. He rumbles around like a 1-ton truck. If you need somebody to load a pallet with .50-caliber ammo boxes, Bob would be your guy.
He just can’t make the rope swing. A thick line hangs from an arch; recruits need to run full speed, grab it and haul themselves up as they swing out over another trestle, about 4 feet high; then land on their feet, let go of the rope, and run down a log to the ground.
But Bob doesn’t go fast enough, he doesn’t grab the rope high enough, his feet aren’t under him, he lands on his butt in the sand. Six times, he tries. Blue-shirted instructors gather.
“Come on, Bob. Push it. This counts. Get it right once, it’ll never go wrong for you again.”
Their tone seems almost kind. Something about Bob has earned their respect.
Eight, nine times, Bob backs up and tries again. He looks at the torn-up skin on his palms. He mimes the movements of grabbing the rope properly. He charges, he fails. Ten, 11, 12. His forearms are pumped, his lungs wheeze. But he’s one of Gearhart’s mutts. He just will not lay down and die.
“Bob, you’re almost there. Run through that rope. Don’t turn your hips for the landing until you’re above the log.”
Thirteen. He makes it. The instructors faintly smile. Bob polishes off the next four problems. Then he drops to do 20 push-ups, and leaps to his feet.
“Hoo-ya, O-course!” Bob yelps.
Instructors have a complicated job. They must offer support and yank it away, building an emotional gantlet that eliminates anyone lacking proper chops. Recruits find out virtue may be punished, not rewarded. Being blindsided by extra challenges just when you thought you were done is routine. A blast of verbal abuse or a hosing with cold water can crop up instantly for no additional charge.
“We can’t really simulate the stresses of combat,” says Cmdr. Chris Christenson, 43, a 19-year veteran who is director of training. “But we can set up a situation that tests for resilience and fortitude. We do know that mental capability is even more important than physical capability. The Navy still possesses no profile to predict success at BUD/S (the Navy’s name for the SEAL school). No test can tell you who has that inner light switched on, or who’s able to turn it on. After a guy passes training, then you know he can get through.”
Recruits understand, at any point, they’re welcome to step up to a polished brass ship’s bell at the edge of the Grinder. It was a gift to the SEAL school from Jesse Ventura’s class, No. 58, in 1970, and is named Mother Moy’s Bell — after a legendary training supervisor from that period, Master Chief Petty Officer Terry “Mother” Moy. Ring it three times, and you’ve formally made a DOR (drop on request).
Immediately, you’re pulled from training to receive counseling. First to make sure you mean it, and secondly to assure you there are other valuable roles in America’s military. Amid Hell Week, Moy’s Bell follows recruits around in a pickup truck — a gleaming temptation to bail out.
A tough humor also pops up at various spots around the SEAL compound. At the edge of the Grinder exercise yard stands a fiberglass statue of the Creature From the Black Lagoon. A gift from class No. 63, this movie monster wears a combat knife and belt, and a sign around its neck: “So you wanna be a frogman.”
Between the Grinder and the beach zone where “surf conditioning” occurs is a sofa-size granite boulder, a gift from class No. 250, bearing a bronze plaque that says, “The secret to BUD/S is under this rock.”
Far less saluting takes place at the Special Warfare Center, compared with other parts of the Naval Amphibious Base at Coronado. It’s part of the effort to build the informality of a true brotherhood.
Another part of the formula for the SEAL community surfaces at the compound pool. At midday, a collection of SEALs of all ranks and ages, instructors, top officers and combat boat crewmen, gather for a game of underwater hockey. The compound’s Olympic-size swimming pool is called the Combat Training Tank, just to ensure everyone knows it has zero connection to lounging around on a beach towel to polish your tan.
In underwater hockey, two teams of skin divers battle on the floor of the pool, trying to shove a puck through a goal with short, Y-shaped sticks. They know how to dive, and how to fight. Amid the melee, one diver almost reaches the goal, but is nearly pantsed when another grabs his swimsuit and roughly hauls him back. Then a teammate, who already has one swim fin yanked off, snakes through the pack using a full-body dolphin wriggle, controls the puck and scores the winning goal.
A tall, muscular man with thinning gray hair comes out of the water to stand poolside. Threads of blood drip off his bashed knuckles. This is Capt. Chris Lindsay, 48, a 26-year SEAL veteran. He’s also the base commander.
“Underwater hockey is a good morale booster,” Lindsay says. He explains that once a month, all force personnel are invited to join in a group exercise, be it a beach run, a long swim, or a hockey bout. “It’s our team-building thing. Still, competition always seems to wind up being part of it. The type of guy who makes it through training always is competitive. But we try to retain a close sense of community. We want them all to feel they’re part of our brotherhood, because it’s a very rough road to it.”
SEALs inhabit one of the few military forces where a grunt can draw blood on his commanding officer, and make him like it.
At the end of a surf conditioning session for the class No. 259 recruits, Gearhart abandons all ploys and provocations. For a moment, he seeks to make SEAL life crystal clear. He calls them out of the surf and has recruits stack themselves like cordwood on the sand. This maneuver is a “puppy pile.” It’s a visceral lesson in combat tactics: body heat is precious, there are only a few ways to retain it, and it’s dumb to be squeamish.
“Anybody can talk smack, sitting on a barstool,” Gearhart tells them. “But it takes a genuinely bad dude to lay out there in the surf with no complaining, and no chance of winning any medals or ribbons. Be that man all the time, not some of the time. “You men are all volunteering at a scary period in our nation’s history. You’re about to risk your lives for nothing other than the admiration of these guys around you. They’ll be the only ones who ever know what you did.”
Strangely, Gearhart seems to suggest that an equally respectable path of virtue might be to go straight past the Grinder to Moy’s Bell.
“If you want to quit, go ahead,” he says. “Admit it. Be a man.”
His sermon ends. Suddenly, another blue-shirted instructor hollers, “You have 10 seconds to get off my beach!” The men leap up and scramble pell-mell over the dunes. Gearhart watches them go.
“I came into the SEALs during peacetime,” he says. “These guys are volunteering during a war. I take my hat off to them for that.”
Note: SEAL class No. 259 entered Phase I training with 177 members fresh from Indoc and then added 11 more members. These 11 were recycled from previous SEAL classes — usually due to their need for time to recover from injuries sustained amid training. Of this total of 188 recruits, 121 remained in class by the start of Hell Week. When Hell Week ended May 5, only 75 members were left. Still, nearly 40 percent is the highest portion of one recruiting class to make it through Hell Week in SEAL history.