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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The New SEAL Deal

Navy Times, 8/7/00
The New SEAL Deal / Navy Hopes To Lose Fewer Trainees But Not Water Down Seal Course


CORONADO NAVAL AMPHIBIOUS BASE, Calif. -- Many a hometown football hero, neighborhood tough guy and health-club muscle man has come here with a dream of being a Navy SEAL.

And seven out of 10 who entered the famously punishing 25-week training were sent packing early.

Banged up. Beaten down. Washed out.

When times were flush, the Special Warfare community could afford to let the hopefuls go. But today, struggling with all the services to attract enough interested people, Spec War leaders find they have to bring more people through the door -- and then keep them from exiting.

In a bid to recruit and retain more candidates, Spec War leaders are overhauling the training pipeline to earning a SEAL warfare pin.

That does not necessarily mean that the extreme physical and mental testing that potential Sea-Air-Land commandos will go through won't be as tough as it has been.

SEAL leaders promise it will be.

But they say it also will be smarter, designed to reduce the loss of candidates worth hanging onto while molding better-trained warriors, commandos who will be mission ready when sent to SEAL teams in the fleet.

"We're trying to train smarter, both in the physical conditioning we are doing and in the skills that we're teaching," said Capt. Edward C. Bowen, commander of the Naval Special Warfare Center. "We're updating some skills here so that they're more pertinent and ... the training has more of an operational tone to it."

The program still will consist of two to five weeks of indoctrination, 25 weeks of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training spread over three phases, then Army Airborne School, as well as other special training for Navy corpsmen. However, there are several key changes in the program, including:

* Instructors must take more responsibility for helping candidates through training. Among the changes is a weeklong mentoring course for instructors.

* "Hell Week" is moved up. Spec War leaders have shifted the infamous make-or-break crucible from week five of BUD/S training to week three, to help stem injury attrition.

* Much of the post-BUD/S training conducted by the SEAL teams on both coasts will be taught during BUD/S.

* Starting this October, the Naval Special Warfare Training Center here will conduct a post-BUD/S SEAL Training and Tactics course that focuses on SEAL mission training.

* The probationary period is dead. Candidates now will get their SEAL warfare pins after completing BUD/S and STT, then be assigned to SEAL teams as full-fledged members. Previously, BUD/S graduates had to pass a six-month probationary period and training with a fleet team before earning their pins.

Hurting for people

Because the famously tough Special Warfare training has such a high attrition rate -- 71 percent of 3,936 students reporting to BUD/S from 1993 to 1998 washed out -- having a large pool of candidates is critical.

The Spec War training center can accommodate 960 candidates a year, but only about 500 to 600 men apply annually.

Spec War leaders don't have a ready explanation for the low interest level but say that, ironically, the well-honed hell-on-earth reputation of SEAL training might be undercutting efforts to find new candidates. Many potential SEALs falsely believe they don't have a chance in Hades of passing the rigorous training.

That's wrong, Bowen said.

"You don't have to be Superman to be a SEAL," he said. "I believe that in some ways, we've become victims of our own press." Bowen and other Spec War leaders want to tone down the SEALs' sometimes intimidating image to encourage more young men to apply for the program.

"I'm trying to give BUDS more of an operational focus," said Bowen, a former sailor. "I don't want BUDS to be a 25-week [physical training] event."

"Our job is not to train people under stress," said Bowen, the Navy's longest-serving active SEAL -- since 1966 -- and a Vietnam veteran. "Our job is to train them to operate under stress."

"I want [training] to be as operational as it can be from the day these kids get here."

Bowen said he is emphasizing unit cohesion; any "rollback" of a member of one class, whether for injuries or performance shortcomings, to a following class has to have his approval.

"I try to look at the whole-man approach," he said. "Can his weaknesses be fixed?"

Spec War leaders insist, however, that SEAL training isn't going soft.

"BUD/S is a great crucible," said Rear Adm. Eric Olson, commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command. "There is a great deal of tradition that we want to hold onto."

BUD/S "is definitely hard, is meant to be hard, and I intend for it to always be that way," Bowen said.

The statistics of two BUD/S classes, one now in training and one recently graduated, underscore how tough it is to make it through the program. Only 16 of 127 candidates in Class 229 graduated June 26; in Class 230, just 49 of 108 candidates have made it into the second phase of BUD/S, now under way.

What remains to be seen is whether attrition numbers will improve with the new training guidelines, and whether the new training will make SEALs as tough and mission-capable as always. Spec War leaders insist it will.

Officials say the training will continue to be tough but reorganized to emphasize combat skills vs. pointless physical drilling.

They expect the training changes will cut needless attrition that comes in Hell Week, the notoriously grueling Phase-One crucible that results in more dropouts than any other week. By moving up Hell Week's five sleepless days of running, paddling, push-ups and harassment from the fifth week of BUD/S training to the third, leaders believe they can reduce the number of people who wash out because of wear-and-tear injuries.

Although officials have moved Hell Week up, it remains as it has been, with only four hours' sleep -- total --over 51/2 days of fast-paced, noisy, intense physical training in cold, wet conditions.

Bringing everyone on board

Spec War leaders are calling on instructors to take a more personal role in helping candidates through the program. Since January, the command has been sending the instructors through a course in leadership and mentoring, taught by a retired SEAL -- Adm. Howard Roop.

Realizing that such changes might not go over well in the tradition-bound community, Spec War leaders have talked with instructors about the training changes and point out that some changes come from feedback from the SEAL community.

Spec War leaders not only hope the changes will help fill the ranks, they want them to attract more sailors from the fleet.

Of the 2,854 candidates in classes 204 through 228, active-duty Navy personnel accounted for 1,080. Of those, 273 came out of the fleet -- vs. boot camp or A schools -- and Spec War leaders like what they brought to the SEAL teams.

The E-4 and E-5 sailors "bring a lot of leadership skills with them," said Bowen, who was 19 when he entered BUD/S and rose to chief petty officer before earning his commission.

Bowen said he wants candidates "with attitude, aptitude and motivation," qualities he said will get them through BUD/S.

SEAL shaping

Over the years, officials said, BUD/S training hasn't kept up with the real-world demands of SEAL and SEAL Delivery Teams. The result: a disconnect between what men learned during BUD/S and what the six fleet SEAL teams, three SEAL special boat units and two SEAL delivery vehicle teams needed from their new members.

Along the way, officials came to believe that students needed more operational training before being sent to SEAL teams.

"Our BUD/S students are capable of much, much more," Bowen said. "We're pushing them."

Now, much of the training that was conducted in and by the SEAL teams is moved into post-BUD/S training so that graduates, who will get advanced training at the new, follow-on SEAL Tactical Training Program here, hit the ground -- or water -- ready to go when they get to the fleet."They all get to [train] as part of a more realistic SEAL mission," said Lt. Tom Greer, Naval Special Warfare Center spokesman.

For example:

The latter part of the first phase in BUD/S training will give students their first doses of helo-casting, in which SEALs in the making, outfitted with fins, jump from a helicopter into the sea; as well as basic patrolling and over-the-beach insertion from Mark V special operations craft.

Other training that will be moved up includes close-quarters defense and hand-to-hand combat, as well as marksmanship training.

Students also will do 50percent more diving during the second phase of BUD/S, with several more complex operational dives, Bowen said.A key addition to BUD/S third-phase training is special reconnaissance. Students learn to operate in the field in groups of two to four men.

It's "a major mission in the SEAL teams, but we haven't done it," Bowen said.

A Trident, then hit the fleet

Once trained and graduated from BUD/S, SEAL candidates attend the Army's Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga.

That's when the pipeline changes course somewhat.

After jump school, SEAL candidates begin SEAL Tactical Training, a long, specialized program that, starting this fall, moves from the fleet to a formal program taught here at the Naval Special Warfare Center.

Previously, BUD/S graduates reported to their assigned teams for the training, during which they were on a six-month probation. Those who passed were awarded "Tridents," the warfare insignia worn by SEALs and bestowed.by the teams.

The change, awaiting a final OK, will give the center here the mission of running STT, which can last six to nine months. The change eliminates the probation period candidates go through when they get to a SEAL or SDV team. Candidates who successfully complete STT will receive warfare pins here at the center and then report to a team as fully qualified SEALs.

By removing the training responsibility from the teams, the SEALs can put more time, money and effort into preparing for for operational deployments and ensuring combat readiness.

"I want the teams to be able to focus on war-fighting training, not STT training," Olson said.

Over the years, one official said, teams have taken on more missions and requirements, "but we haven't taken much off."

The first BUD/S students to go through the revised STT will be in Class 231 in January. It will be in early 2002 when the first students are awarded their Trident pins and sent to the fleet as bona fide SEALs.

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