Saturday, January 01, 2005
Wednesday, December 29, 2004
NewsWeek correspondent who went along.
By Douglas C. Waller
THE RESORT TOWN OF CORONADO HAD settled down for the evening. A strand jutting just across the bay from San Diego, Calif., Coronado was the ultimate in exclusivity. All week, yachts competing in the America's Cup trial races had sailed off Point Loma. Late diners finished their pricey meals at the historic Hotel del Coronado, where the movie "Some Like It Hot," with Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe, had been filmed. It was Sunday, 9 p.m.
KABOOOOOOOM! From the south side of the strand came the deafening noise of artillery fire. Machine guns ratatatated. Sirens blared. Piercing screams. KABOOOOOM! More artillery fire, machine-gun fire, screams. Dessert forks dropped at the Hotel Del. South along the strand, the Naval Special Warfare Center, ringed with barbed-wire-topped fences and NO TRESPASSING signs, had erupted into a mock battle zone. It signaled the start of the most physically demanding - and carefully choreographed - week of training in the US military. Hell Week for the Navy SEALs, Sea-Air-Land commandos.
The SEALs, along with Army Green Berets, Air Force commandos and Delta Force operatives, are part of the US Special Operations command, 46,000 - strong, headquartered in Tampa, Fla. These forces launched clandestine operations and fought behind enemy lines during the Desert Storm war. But they are misunderstood warriors, their unconventional tactics often distrusted by conventional commanders.
Perhaps nothing better demonstrates what separates special operations commandos from regular soldiers than Hell Week, which Navy men must endure to become SEALs. The most ferocious warriors in the American military, SEALs specialize in commando assaults, unconventional warfare, counterinsurgency operations and dangerous reconnaissance or intelligence collection missions that other units turn down. Their roots are in the Navy frogmen of World War II. Their forte is waterborne operations: scuba diving, underwater demolitions, coastal raids, river combat.
Part of the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training course, Hell Week is a sacred rite of passage for becoming a SEAL warrior. SEALs believe that a man driven to the limits of his endurance during Hell Week - no women are allowed in the force - can withstand the rigors and horrors of SEAL combat. These who quit during Hell Week - and often, more than half do - are the ones Navy SEALs believe would quit on their real-world missions. Hell Week teaches a commando to turn off pain and focus on his mission.
The large black asphalt courtyard of the SEALs' Special Warfare Center, nicknamed the "grinder" because students spend countless hours there each day exercising, had been transformed into what looked like a Hollywood set for a war movie. A string of glowing green chemical sticks lined the yard. At the south end, two barrels ringed with sandbags served as grenade pits into which a hundred artillery simulators were dropped, one after another, detonating with the whistling of an incoming round then an earsplitting explosion that sent plumes of smoke high into the dark blue sky.
From the southern two corners of the grinder, fog machines like the ones used in rock concerts belched out billowing smoke that filled the courtyard with a layer of ground haze that smelled sickeningly sweet, like a tropical fruit punch. John B. Landry Jr., a SEAL instructor whom the students had nicknamed "Wild Country," raced around the grinder screaming at the top of his lungs, firing blanks into the air from an M-60 machine gun on his hip. Landry seemed almost psychotic during Hell Week. It was all an act, soft spoken and shy off duty, it took the 31-year-old Connecticut native almost an hour of psyching himself up before his shift began to become the maniacal character he wanted to portray.
Atop a podium at the north end of the grinder stood SEAL instructor Joe Valderrama. "On your belly! On your feet! On your backs!" He barked out commands through a megaphone so fast that the students had no hope of keeping up.
The instructors pretended to be enraged. One had a laugh box attached to his bullhorn that blared out a fiendish chuckle. Other trainers carried M-60 machine guns, spewing blanks into the air.
The students were ordered back to their barracks just outside the courtyard. "Strip off your fatigue shirts. Leave your undershirts on. Be back in five seconds. "Move!" Valderrama roared.
Thirty seconds later - Valderrama had timed it on his watch - the students raced back into the grinder out of breath. But one galloped in without his "swim buddy," and the instructors were all over him. From the beginning of their training, students had been drilled never to leave the partner they'd been assigned as a swim buddy. There was a reason: in 30 years, Navy SEALs have never left a fellow SEAL behind in combat- dead, wounded or alive. A Navy SEAL has never been taken prisoner. Never.
10 P.M., SUNDAY, APRIL 12, 1992
Navy Lt. Tom Rancich lay flat on his stomach in the grinder, his hands laced behind his neck, his feet crossed. Valderrama had just taught the trainees whistle drills. If an instructor blew his whistle once, Rancich and the other BUDS students had to dive to the ground, cover the back of their heads with their hands, keep their mouths open, and cross their legs to simulate the position they would take with an incoming artillery round. After two blows of the whistle, the students would begin crawling to whoever was tooting it. Three blows of the whistle, they would stand.
Rancich was the leader of BUD/S Class 183 now going through Hell Week. Class 183 had started with 104 officers and enlisted men. Now, after five weeks of grueling training before Hell Week, almost half had dropped out or been rolled back for physical ailments. At 29, Rancich was the senior officer in the class. In fact, he was almost too old for BUDS. Yet he wasn't about to pass it up. Screw the career paths and ticket-punching. Rancich would have been miserable if he hadn't grabbed at the chance to become a SEAL.
Rancich had actually started BUDS with the previous class, 182, but two days before Hell Week was to begin, he caught pneumonia. He tried to hide it from the doctors, but couldn't. He pleaded up and down the Warfare Center's chain of command to be allowed to go into Hell Week pumped with antibiotics. The instructors refused. Rancich was rolled back to repeat the first part of BUD/S training with the next class, 183. He had now spent 10 weeks swimming, running and doing push-ups to get to Hell Week instead of the normal 5.
It was getting old fast. His knees ached from running in the sand. His lips were chapped, and his eyelids drooped over brown eyes bleary from too many exhausting days and sleepless nights. His hands were swollen and rough from clawing over obstacle courses. His voice was gravelly from shouting "Hoo- yahs"-the cheer BUDS students yell to show that an exercise hasn't beaten them down.
Lt. Michael Reilly stood on the berm, the sand embankment overlooking the strand's Pacific coast. At the shoreline, the 57 students of Class 183 lined up in the push-up position facing the Pacific ocean. Instructors began shooting flares into the clear black sky, lighting up the shoreline and ocean and casting eerie shadows over the students.
Reilly grabbed a bullhorn. "Surf torture," he announced.
From the push-up position, the students were ordered to begin a "bear crawl" to the edge of the water, where the temperature was 63 degrees. They lumbered forward, bent over on their hands and feet. At the shoreline they were ordered to halt. They stood up. Arm in arm, they marched slowly out to the crashing waves. The first cold wave hit them. It took Rancich's breath away. He and the other students staggered back briefly, but continued to march.
Reilly ordered them to halt and sit. More waves knocked them back. With their arms linked, their legs flew up in the air, like Rockettes doing high kicks as the flares above spotlighted them.
The instructors set their watches.
A man could quickly freeze to death in truly icy water. At least it would be a quick death: no more than 15 to 20 minutes of painful gasping, he would become giddy and blank out. The longer, more painful torture is to be immersed for extended periods in water that is simply cold. A man wouldn't necessarily die in cold water- not quickly, at least - yet the misery and discomfort of being not just cold, but cold and wet, could almost drive him insane.
The instructors weren't being sadistic. When the students who made it through the training finally got to SEAL units, they would find themselves swimming for hours in frigid waters off Korea or in liquid ice off Alaska. Hell Week was supposed to teach them at least to cope with the madness of cold water.
When 15 minutes were up, Ron Cooper, the enlisted shift chief for the evening instructors, ordered the class to stand, turn around and walk out of the surf. The students began to shake from the cold. Their olive-drab uniforms and caps were now dark green and sagged on their bodies from being soaked for so long. Their pants had filled with sand that now trickled down from their legs. Their faces seemed drained of blood. They looked like ghosts, biting their lips, clenching their fists to control the shivering.
Lt. Bruce Thomas, one of four Navy doctors monitoring the class around the clock, walked down the line of students with a flashlight. He stopped before each man and shined the light in his face, searching for signs of hypothermia: short-term memory loss, slurred speech, clumsiness, a far away look.
Their allotted five minutes out of the water were up. It seemed to the students like just five seconds.
Valderrama ordered them back to the surf. They turned around. Arms locked, they marched again into the crashing waves.
"You're wet and you're cold now," Valderrama said through his bullhorn. "You're going to be wet and cold for one whole week. I want to see some laughing."
The students started laughing.
"Keep it up!"
The students howled like hyenas.
"The more you laugh, the more heat you expend," Valderrama said.
The students went silent. The waves came crashing over them. Some students groaned as the cold became unbearable.
"Hang on," Rancich kept whispering to himself over and over again. It will end. Don't think too far ahead. I can endure this.
Some students began urinating in their pants, hoping the warm liquid would bring temporary relief from the cold.
"Remember, this isn't for everybody, gents," Reilly said politely over his bullhorn. "It's voluntary. This is exactly what every day on a SEAL team is like."
It was too much. A student wiggled his arms free from the two men holding them on each side and stood up in the water. Rancich knew immediately what was happening and lunged to grab him. Other students did the same. Too late, he broke free.
The student was sent to Reilly.
"Are you going to wake up tomorrow and regret what you've done?" Reilly asked him gently.
"Yes," the young man said, shaking uncontrollably and nearly in tears. "But I can't take five days of the cold."
"Go back to the barracks," Reilly quietly told him.
A hemorrhage erupted. A second student broke free from the line in the water. This one was an officer. Not a good sign. A third student quit. Then a fourth. A fifth. The instructors became worried. Panic set in along the line of students as they frantically tried to hold back the quitters.
MIDNIGHT, SUNDAY APRIL 12
The students now faced something even more fearsome.
The night shift.
The evening instructors - Valderrama, Cooper, Reilly, Wild Country - were all noise and cold and push-ups, yet, at least so far, it had been short and bearable.
But the long dark night awaited the students. And the night belonged to the nocturnal SEALs who now stood outside the barracks with their arms folded.
The students stood at rigid attention by their rubber rafts - or as rigid as they could with the shivers lingering from the surf torture. The night - shift instructors stalked them silently - like Darth Vaders, growling out commands occasionally, swarming around boat crews that showed the slightest signs of weakness, snarling at them, then dropping them for push-ups, the menacing glares never leaving their faces.
Ken Taylor, one of the instructors on the night shift, was the first to grab a bullhorn. Taylor would be the night shift's Tokyo Rose, its Baghdad Betty, the instructor who would try to break the students' morale with soft words and veiled threats and grueling "evolutions." (The training schedule was divided into evolutions, the term used for each event.)
Before the students could begin their next evolution, they faced another painful exercise: walking out of the Special Warfare Center, across Silver Strand Highway, to the Naval Amphibious Base on the other side. The challenge: they had to carry their 150 - pound rubber rafts on top of their heads with all the ropes and their wooden paddles inside. During BUDS training, the students performed special neck exercises so they could withstand the constant bouncing of the heavy rafts on their heads. But it still felt like a jackhammer was pounding the tops of their skulls. Instructors had seen students with bald spots on their heads from the constant bouncing and scraping of the rafts.
Walking was made more difficult because the pace could never be coordinated among the half dozen men under the raft. They looked like crippled crabs.
6 A.M., MONDAY, APRIL 13
Dawn broke. The push-up and whistle drills stopped. The students walked to the mess hall for their first meal in nine hours of Hell Week - the rafts, of course, atop their heads as they walked.
The instructors fed the students four times a day: breakfast, lunch, dinner and a midnight ration called mid-rats. The meals were heavy, loaded with carbohydrates, proteins and fats. The students were urged to eat as much as they wanted. Food meant energy. Food compensated for lack of sleep. Food replaced warmth.
The students were ravenous. They heaped the plates on their trays with scrambled eggs, stacks of pancakes, sausage, bacon, grits, cereal. Every free space of every tray was covered with food, the sides lined with mugs of milk and hot coffee and cocoa.
7:30 A.M., MONDAY, APRIL 13
Back at the barracks, Lt. Jeff Cassidy, the night-shift officer, huddled over his Hell Week log with Lt. Pete Oswald, the officer in charge of the morning shift. The morning shift had the most dreaded combination of instructors in all of Hell Week: Jaco, Mccarthy and Instructor Blah.
Mike Jaco was the morning shift's enlisted chief. He was 31, a native of Columbia, S.C.., and his biceps and shoulders bulged from 11 years in the SEALs. On long marches over beaches and berms Jaco could run students into the ground without breaking a sweat himself.
Mike Mccarthy, 31, had a gentle face. His hair was prematurely gray. Among his hulky companions he looked bookish and reserved, almost out of place. But he was the terror of Hell Week. The students had nicknamed him "the antichrist."
Instructor Blah was the nickname for Ivan Trent, a 33-year- old Hawaiian who was a master of megaphone warfare, playing straight man to the tortures Jaco and Mccarthy could dish out.
Soaked and shivering again from the surf, the students ran back to the barracks. Jaco and McCarthy stood motionless with their legs spread, hands on their hips and scowls on their faces. It was time to go to work.
Jaco warmed them up with whistle drills. Up. Down. Crawl. Up. Down. Crawl.
McCarthy began "sugar cookie drills," a combination of surf torture and whistle drills that left the trainees with sand over every inch of their bodies. It was all preparation - if you could call it that - for the new evolution: the four-mile run up and down the beach.
McCarthy hopped into an ambulance as the students began their run and followed them. He hooked his bullhorn to the side mirror and attached a laugh box to it to harangue them along the way. McCarthy, the shift's medic, also used the ride to look at each man carefully to spot injuries.
He pulled the ambulance up beside one boat crew running together and reached for his bullhorn.
Lt. (j.g.) Tom Walsh, a 26-year-old Chicagoan and the boat crew's leader, was limping as he ran.
"One man's going to slow the whole boat crew down," McCarthy taunted. "You can't lead from the rear, Lieutenant Walsh. There's no such thing as a bad team, just a bad leader."
McCarthy tried to talk the crew into running ahead and abandoning Walsh. The crew refused, even though it was falling farther behind the pack. Walsh's face was covered with sand and sweat. His eyes squinted. He gritted his teeth. The pain in his leg was becoming unbearable. His crew mates formed a cocoon around him as they ran to protect him from McCarthy's taunts.
McCarthy was impressed. Walsh must be popular among his crew members. If they didn't like him they would have dumped him.
Still, McCarthy had to pull Walsh aside to the ambulance to check his leg. He would be sent to the doctor.
Walsh turned away. In a rage, he slammed his fist against the side of the ambulance. He would not return. The doctors found that his leg had a stress fracture. He would be on crutches.
1:30 P.M., MONDAY, APRIL 15
The afternoon began at the Warfare Center's obstacle course, one of the toughest in the US military. Allyson Rancich leaned against her car along Silver Strand highway, which paralleled the obstacle course about a hundred yards away. She strained to catch a glimpse of her husband. Tom had left her a handwritten schedule of when he might be marching to the mess hall and the times he thought he might be near the highway.
The instructors strictly forbade any friends or relatives from hanging around the students. But Rancich didn't know if he could survive Hell Week without these stolen moments. Allyson finally picked Tom out of the crowd of green figures slumped and wrapped up in their orange life vests. She cried. He looked awful. The trainees reminded her of a chain gang.
Rancich saw her. He managed a weak smile. He hoped she had seen it. He sneaked a short wave. He hoped the instructors hadn't spotted it or they would be all over him. For the first time in Hell Week, a warm feeling came over him. He'd make it, he thought.
6:30 A.M., TUESDAY, APRIL 14
Sitting at the long mess-hall tables, the students struggled to keep their eyes open through the meal. They fumbled with their forks because their hands were too stiff to form a fist. They rolled their aching necks to bring some circulation to them. They stared vacantly. If they waited too long between bites, they nodded off.
Rancich set down his tray. On it he had chipped beef on toast, scrambled eggs, French toast, two bowls of cereal, toast, grits, a chocolate doughnut, cocoa, grape juice and a glass of water. He polished it all off in a half hour.
Everything about Hell Week seemed to be getting worse for Rancich. He was becoming more irritated. The painkillers weren't helping his knees. The raft was feeling heavier. The mile and a quarter walk to the mess hall was now a death march.
Shortly before 10 a.m., the instructors lined the students around the bottom of a mud pit. Their bodies were immersed in the water and their heads were sprouting out and resting on the muddy bank. Instructor Blah laid four bullhorns down on the upper rim of the pit and tuned them all to different pitches of a loud, high whine. It was like being in the middle of an air raid.
The students' first sleep period had begun, part of only four hours they would be allowed all week. The instructors wanted to test the students' ability to steal it under the worst conditions. It was a skill SEALs and other special operators must learn. Hell Week students jumped immediately into what the instructors called "instant REM" sleep with its jerky eyeball movements, body twitches and irregular heart rates and breathing.
5:45 P.M., TUESDAY, APRIL 14
The students were crammed into a stuffy, first-floor classroom off the grinder. Walking in, a visitor was almost knocked over by the odor. The room smelled like the bottom of a swamp. The combination of three days of body sweat, open sores, grimy, mildewed uniforms soaked in sea water 24 hours a day, plus urine from the students to keep warm, was overpowering.
Cooper stood at the front of the class trying to hold his breath because of the smell and gamely gave a safety class on the next evolution, the most dangerous in Hell Week: "rock portage."
One of the skills a SEAL must learn was to land his raft anywhere, including jagged rocks off a coast. That type of landing, called rock portage, was the most difficult of all. Crashing waves would whipsaw the rafts into the rocks, breaking bones and even crushing backs if the paddlers weren't careful. At night - the only time the SEALs ever infiltrate onto a coast - the ride in could be terrifying, with the almost deafening noise of the waves slamming against the rocks and with the boat crew being hurled at breakneck speeds as if on a roller coaster.
The rocks the SEALs use for training during BUDS and Hell Week were the black behemoths in front of the Hotel Del. The sharp-edged boulders stood 50 feet high and protruded out some 75 feet from the shore. The joke among the students: it used to be one big rock at the Del, but it was broken up onto boulders by successive BUDS classes slamming against it.
"You people are groggy and you may not be thinking straight," Cooper warned in a loud voice. "It's time to pull your head out of your ass now or you won't be in Hell Week long." It was no idle threat. The instructors expected injuries from rock portage.
Two hours later, the first boat went speeding to Valderrama's position. Each paddler kept one leg hung over the lip of the rubber raft as he stroked furiously to control the vessel in the fast current approaching the rocks. A wave tossed the boat high into the air. The paddlers yanked up their legs as the wave sent the boat crashing against the rocks. A second wave beat the boat against a low rock another time. The man at the front clutching a bowline attached to the raft leaped for the rock, clawing at its slippery surface to climb up.
The trick for the man leaping with the bowline was not to get caught between a rock and the l50-pound raft. A wave could come in and crush him. In real SEAL operations the boats would be loaded down with weapons and equipment and would weigh even more.
A crowd of curious spectators from the Hotel Del had gathered at the rocks to watch all the commotion at sea. Hidden in it was Allyson Rancich. As the boats came crashing into the rocks, Allyson found herself explaining the evolution to the tourists around her, remembering what Rancich had told her about it, and telling them proudly that her husband was in one of those rafts.
An elderly couple from the Hotel Del, with whom Allyson had been talking in the crowd before, now came up to her. The husband pressed two $20 bills into the palm of her hand. "We want you to take your husband out to dinner when they finish," he said.
MIDNIGHT, TUESDAY, APRIL 14
Hell Week was becoming weird for the students. Rancich's eyes were playing tricks on him. Shiny objects suddenly had intricate designs like crystals.
The cold was driving them all batty. Rancich now began shivering just at the thought of going into the ocean. He drank a glass of cold milk and it caused him to shake.
Shortly before 1 a.m. Wednesday, the students launched their boats from Foxtrot Beach at the Naval Amphibious Base and paddled northwest up San Diego Bay under the tall bridge connecting San Diego to Coronado. The water was peaceful. But full of demons.
Sailors at sea on lonely night watches sometimes see them. Apparitions. Mirages. The sea at night can play tricks with sleepy eyes. Hell Week students, by midweek, would hallucinate even more in the ocean. Some saw Indian totem poles sticking up out of the water. Others saw automobiles on top of rubber boats.
6:15 P.M., THURSDAY, APRIL 16
The students lined up naked in the barracks for their third and final hygiene inspection. It was almost impossible now for the students to function individually. Arms were slung over one another's shoulders for support. A student's good leg became a crutch for another's bad leg. It was as if each boat crew was pooling the parts of each body that still worked.
There was no use hiding injuries at this point; by now their symptoms were too pronounced and the doctors could easily spot them. Blisters had become ulcers. Necks and shoulder blades were rubbed raw from the life vests. Chafing had inflamed testicles. Limbs swelled with cellulitis, which occurred when the skin became severely infected by cuts and gashes. The question the medical team now had to answer for each student: could he make it for another day of Hell Week without doing serious damage to his body?
Both of Brett Chappell's feet were so swollen that he had taken the insoles out of his boots to relieve some of the pressure. Chappell, a 24-year-old former college baseball player from Colorado, now thought he had hydrophobia. He would start shivering just thinking of water.
Rancich had welts inside his thighs. His feet were swollen. His toes felt like they were falling off. A gash on his left calf festered.
Ensign Travis Schweizer, a 23-year-old Northern Californian, had to drag his swollen right leg with his hands in order to walk. The doctors laid him down on the floor. He could not extend his leg. His knee felt hot. He couldn't bend his ankle. The pain was excruciating.
The doctors went to the corner of the room to confer with Reilly. Schweizer stared at them intently. He could feel a rush of fear sweep his body. Was it going to end here? This close?
"You'll ... be rolled forward with the class," Reilly told him quietly. Schweizer let out a sigh.
"No problem," Reilly explained. "It happens every Hell Week." Students injured after Thursday are often allowed to cut Hell Week a day short and continue with their class to the next phase of BUDS training, particularly if they were good students and the instructors wanted them as SEALs.
5:20 A.M., FRIDAY, APRIL 17
The students dragged their boats out to the surf for the last paddle.
The surf was rough. The weak students barely made it past the breakers. A swift current ran against them. An hour later they had made little headway up the coast. Jaco signaled them to return to shore. The students would have to travel on land, where the slightest step, every movement, was painful.
His feet now badly swollen from cellulitis, Chappell had to be carried ashore.
Jaco ordered boats on heads. He moved out at a mercifully slow pace.
Chappell now hung on to the boat straps, letting his crew mates drag him along.
"You're not pulling your load," McCarthy told him.
"Yes he is," Rancich said, his raspy voice barely audible. With the boat still bouncing on his head, Rancich wrapped his left arm around Chappell's waist to help him along. But he knew Chappell was not going to make it much further.
A mile down the beach, Rancich's boat and crew were ordered to peel off from the line. Oswald ordered them to the surf, then 10 more push-ups.
They took several steps. He stopped them.
"Do you think you can catch up with the rest of the men?" Oswald asked.
"No" was all Rancich could manage to say, pointing to Chappell's leg.
"Okay," Oswald said with a smile. "You guys are secure."
The words took a while to be processed by their brains. "Secure" meant their Hell Week had ended - successfully. Slowly the six men hobbled together and wrapped their arms around one another in a giant hug, like survivors of a shipwreck rejoicing to be found alive.
"Good job, Lieutenant Rancich," Oswald said.
Thirty-eight students from Class 183 had made it. The next week, five of them would be laid up with post-Hell Week injuries that delayed their graduation. The remaining 33 members of class 183 had really just begun their SEAL training. They had 10 more weeks of physical training and scuba-diving instruction. Then they would head to nearby San Clemente Island for nine weeks of light-infantry tactics and commando training. Afterward, they would be packed off to the Army for parachute training and Ranger school. The instructors said the Navy would be lucky if just 24 students from Class 183 completed all the training the first time around and didn't have to drop out or be recycled. Rancich was one of those who succeeded. He is now a Navy SEAL stationed in Norfolk, Va.
From "The Commandos," by Douglas C. Waller. To be published by Simon & Schuster. (c)1994 by Douglas C. Waller.
JANUARY 10, 1994 NEWSWEEK
Reprinted with permission from the August 1999 Reader's Digest.
Copyright (c) 1999 by The Reader's Digest Assn., Inc.
It is a cold, windy January night on Coronado Island, opposite San Diego. The only sound is the rumble of surf on the island's dark sand. Suddenly the beach erupts in a nightmare of explosions and bursts of machine-gun fire. "Move it!" a voice roars through the bedlam. "Go, go, go!" Heart thudding, Seaman Jeff Wright dashes from a large tent with a group of 55 men sprinting along the beach. They stop at the Grinder, an exercise yard with all the charm of a maximum-security prison, where fog machines spew blinding mist over them. "Get down!" an instructor roars through a bullhorn. Wright and the others drop to the asphalt.
"Flutter kicks!" orders the instructor. Wright and his fellow trainees are beginning Hell Week, a brutal five-day ordeal at what many consider the toughest military school in the world. Trainees who enter the six-month Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) course are already in top physical condition and highly qualified. Each year these courses attract about 650 young volunteers, several from Allied navies, but only a quarter of them make it through to become SEALs, the Navy's elite Sea, Air, Land commandos.
From the start of his training, six weeks ago, Wright and his buddies in Class 223 have been building up to this moment. He is in the best physical condition of his life. He doesn't know what lies ahead, only that in the next five days he will be tested to the limits of his endurance. Wright gasps as he is hit by a jet of icy water from a fire hose. "Get used to it," he mutters to himself, shivering.
Broken into seven- and eight-man teams, some sailors are sent sprinting toward the beach over a high berm of loose sand and into the cold surf. Blinded and confused by the fog, several men stumble into an instructor, who yells, "Where are you knuckleheads going? Fifty sit-ups, now!"
Class 223 is already degenerating into a confused herd, exactly the type of chaos the instructors are trying to create. SEALs need to show they can operate coolly under extreme stress. Created in 1962, the SEALs conduct reconnaissance behind enemy lines. In Vietnam, SEALs were awarded three Medals of Honor, including one to Sen. Bob Kerry (D., Neb.). During the Gulf War a SEAL team simulated an amphibious invasion, luring two enemy divisions from the front. In Bosnia, SEALs dived in the icy Sava River to aid U.S. Army bridge builders as a vicious current swept down unexploded ordnance. Today in the Persian Gulf, SEALs reportedly engage in super-secret missions, using satellite-linked cameras to pinpoint Iraqi missile positions. No SEAL has ever surrendered or left behind a wounded or dead comrade.
Best of the Best
The SEAL mystique appeals powerfully to men such as Jeff Wright, who served four years in the Marines, volunteering for a tough Force Reconnaissance unit in the Far East. He first encountered SEALs while parachuting at Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines. A squad of confident young men in black suits were boarding a plane at sunset for a risky night high-altitude, low-opening jump. They would free-fall from above 25,000 feet, breathing bottled oxygen, plummeting through the dark sky to less than 4000 feet before opening their parachutes. Wright was hooked. The idea of being among the "best of the best" was greater than anything he could imagine in civilian life. After his hitch he graduated prelaw from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Then he joined Class 223 at BUD/S.
On the beach with the class, finally free from the torture of the Grinder, Wright now faces one of Hell Week's most perilous tests, the rock portage. Crews will launch rubber boats through crashing surf and paddle 2000 yards against the tide until they are abreast of a jetty that protects the beach of a luxury hotel. Then they will battle back through the surf to reach the jetty, swarm out and haul their clumsy boats over slick, jumbled boulders to the beach. Each crew has to complete four portages in this evolution, as each training event is called.
"You have 20 minutes to get up there," an instructor warns. "God help you if you're late."
"Hoo-yah!" the crews roar, using a response dating back to the SEALs roots with the legendary frogmen of World War II.
"Let's do it right," adds Lt. Joshua Lasky, coxswain of Wright's boat crew. Officers like Lasky train side-by-side with their enlisted colleagues and cannot rely on rank to achieve results; they must earn the respect of the men they lead.
Plunging into the surging swell, Wright's fellow crewmen dig their paddles deep. A wind-chill in the 20s knifes through them as the boat rears up a steep wave face. Cold will be their greatest challenge. On the slog to the jetty, Lasky reminds the crew yet again of their assigned tasks. "Bowman goes out first, hauls right on the line and keeps us from flailing. Remember, work together."
As they draw parallel to the jetty, an instructor's red flashlight signals them in. They have practiced this maneuver, but in calmer water, in daylight. Now the dark surf seems like a herd of stampeding animals. "Keep her steady," a voice calls desperately. But it's too late. A rumbling white crest surges over them. Wright and the others spill into the roiling foam. Helmets smack into granite and paddles scatter like driftwood. The backwash lifts several men and slams them hard against the boulders, gouging elbows and knuckles. They drain the flooded boat and manhandle it over the boulders and down the other side.
A scornful instructor gives them "remediation" -- a long session of wearying boat lifts, arms stretched high overhead with the 170-pound burden, followed by boat push-ups, boots braced up on the rubber flanks and hands sinking into the tide-washed sand.
"Back in the water and do it again," orders the instructor.
Word has spread among the nearby hotel's guests that the Navy SEALs notorious Hell Week is unfolding on the beach, and a thirtysomething couple wander down to watch. As exhausted trainees tumble back into the surf, again banging their helmets on the rocks, the male guest shakes his head. "That's too dangerous," he tells his companion.
"Back in the water," an instructor shouts.
"This is just hazing," the woman says indignantly. "You can't teach people this way." The Navy thinks differently. Hell Week is deemed to be the ultimate test of the student's endurance and motivation.
Misery Loves Company
Over an hour later, when the couple are back in their hotel, Wright and the other men are still battling through the surf and manhandling their boats. Instead of easing off on the exhausted men, the instructors heap on still more punitive calisthenics. The more battered a man becomes, the more likely he'll slip on the boulders and the greater his crew's chances of failing the next portage attempt. This is a precious lesson: SEALs go to war in small units; men who cannot master teamwork now may not survive later.
Finally, the punishment at the jetty ends. Back at the BUD/S compound an instructor says, "You guys look cold. We'll warm you up." In the predawn dark, the men begin "log PT." In this two-hour session of physical training-cum-torture, each crew shares a 200-pound telephone-pole section. "Ready, lift," the instructor orders. The men grimace as they hoist the dead weight head-high. "Ready, shift." Wright lowers the pole to one shoulder.
Sit-ups with the log cradled in his arms follow. Wright's hands sting. After so many hours in the cold sea, hard-won calluses are beginning to rip. Wet sand works into his waistband and boot tops, grinding his flesh raw. Don't think about the pain, he tells himself. Each man has to stay sharp, holding his weight, or a crew mate might be injured. Not only that, poor performance by one could earn the whole crew a session with Old Misery -- a 300-pound monster log emblazoned with the taunting words, "Misery Loves Company."
As the sun rises, the shivering men trot to the mess hall, boats held above their heads. Wright fills up on oatmeal and pancakes, stowing away calories for the grueling day ahead.
Unable to face returning to their ordeal, several of Wright's classmates simply leave the mess hall and quit. Their helmets will be added to those lined up at the side of the Grinder.
"Pace yourselves," Wright tells his buddies between mouthfuls. "Keep something in reserve." But the latest Dropped on Request, or DORs in SEAL parlance, affect more than the class's morale. Crews have to be reshuffled, and each man has to adjust quickly to new crewmates, on whom his ultimate success in Hell Week will depend. This is another harsh lesson for the fledgling warriors: when casualties deplete the ranks, teams must bond quickly to complete their missions.
The next test is again in the unforgiving cold of the sea. Class 223 will don wet-suit tops and swim a hard, fast two-mile course, half of it against the tidal current. Some of the men are so exhausted that they drag themselves onto the beach and vomit, losing precious nutrition. The instructors offer no sympathy. They give the students ten minutes to hose off the salt, put on their cold, wet uniforms and muster for the next challenge -- the daunting surf passage, a test of seamanship, teamwork, and determination.
An instructor, Chief Petty Officer Joe Ulicny, reminds the crews that they have already practiced this exercise. But that was when they were relatively fresh. Today they are spent from the hard night, hands bruised and blistered, the warmth of the mess hall a distant memory. Worse, Ulicny has chosen a section of shoaling beach where the surf is curling over six feet. Unless the crews paddle as a well-coordinated team, the boats will capsize. "You guys work it out," he tells them.
Minutes later the boats launch in a line abreast, and several are soon in trouble. The ebbing tide drags them sideways to the waves, and the tired crews can't control the boats, which flood, capsize and are swept farther down the beach. "Get down!" comes the order, and the errant crews do more punishing sets of push-ups before trotting back to the launch point and starting again.
Other crews manage the first set of breakers, only to see a man swept overboard in the second. The safety rules are inflexible: if a man goes in, his swim buddy follows. But this cuts the paddlers by two and the boats are driven back toward shore.
It takes a while for Jeff Wright's new crew -- who have not trained as a unit but have been thrown together because of DORs among other boats -- to coordinate their efforts. But the men all know they must follow their coxswain's orders and now pull together. The only boat to make a clean passage through the crashing surf is the one with the "Smurf" crew, who are the shortest men in the class. In an excellent display of teamwork, they paddle in unison, wait for the lowest swells, then dig in hard to break free of the surf. On their return to the beach, they are rewarded with a warming huddle-up, sheltered from the wind by the sand berm. For a SEAL, endurance and teamwork are more important than individual strength.
Instructors prowl the water's edge, scanning the miserable ranks for the blue lips and disorientation that mark hypothermia. In 1988 a trainee died on an ocean swim. These days BUD/S staff regularly check trainees' body temperatures. On this first morning, the instructors see a lieutenant from the Royal Thai Navy, a wiry young man almost devoid of body fat, shivering uncontrollably. He is too stoic to complain, but his temperature has dropped dangerously. Medical corpsmen carry him to sick bay, where he is immersed in a hot tub.
During the long first night and over the endless day that follows, stress, savage cold and painful exhaustion overwhelm the resolve of seven more men. Among them are an officer and a petty officer who did well in the first month of training. The SEALs can ill afford to lose men of this caliber. "Skipper, what should we do?" an instructor asks Capt. Joseph Maguire, the commander of the center.
Maguire knows that SEAL teams deployed worldwide are short of junior officers and experienced petty officers. But he would not ask his NCOs to lower their standards. He abides by them. As a young officer, he broke his back and pelvis "fast-roping" from a helicopter. In six months he was back on combat-ready status. The rest of the Navy might need adept technicians; the SEALs require warriors. The men who want to quit are quietly removed.
It's Tuesday afternoon, 40 sleepless hours into Hell Week, and the students assemble at the big combat-training tank for a hygiene check. Beyond bruises, abrasions and ripped blisters, several trainees have developed stubborn coin-size sores, and doctors fear the class has encountered an infestation of flesh-eating bacteria, either in the beach sand or the ocean. This situation would bring many other military training programs to a halt. Here at BUD/S, Hell Week continues. At the windswept poolside, the shivering students strip down and are hosed with cold water, then given a clean set of fatigues. But morale is slipping. A man Wright considers the class's best athlete steps forward, his hand raised, to DOR. If he's giving up, Wright asks himself, can I make it?
By Wednesday morning, three more men have quit. "DORs running a little above average, Skipper," instructor Ensign Joe Burns tells Maguire. Standing on the windy sand berm, Maguire and Master Chief Andrew Tafelski, the senior enlisted man in the entire SEAL force, watch the 30-odd survivors of the class jogging rigidly along the beach toward the hated obstacle course. Tafelski studies the remaining dirty, sand-crusted men. "Most of these will make it," he says. "They'd be fools to quit now."
For years, SEALs have operated from submerged submarines using SEAL Delivery Vehicles (SDVs), open mini-subs that carry a crew of two, and four combat swimmers. In the Cold War, SDVs deployed SEALs into the chill confines of Soviet-bloc harbors on reconnaissance missions. Launching and recovering these vehicles from the host submarines' Dry Deck Shelters in icy, claustrophobic darkness is no picnic. Almost every BUD/S class loses a few students who can't master their innate fear of the depths. As part of their training, early in BUD/S, they are tested in an exercise called drownproofing. Two weeks before Hell Week began, Wright's hands were tied behind his back and his ankles tightly bound. He and the others in his class swam, sank and bobbed for 30 minutes in the combat-training tank, pushing off the bottom hard enough to make the surface and gasp a breath.
Wednesday afternoon arrives. The instructors allow Wright and the others to huddle up on bare cots in tents beside the ocean. Wright listens to the wind rattle the sagging canvas overhead as the warmth of the men around him seeps through his wet uniform. Must be too exhausted to sleep, he tells himself before slipping into a dark tunnel of oblivion.
Less than an hour later, he is awakened by the piercing shriek of an instructor's whistle. "Everybody into the water!"
Wright groans, still warm from sleep, and staggers into the sea. "Form a line," a voice crackles through a bullhorn. The shivering men link arms and march chest-high into the waves as the sunset colors the western sky. "Wave 'Good-bye, sun'" an instructor orders.
Wright's morale plummets. A wave breaks over him and sucks away the last pocket of warmth under the collar of his life jacket. Twelve more hours of sleepless agony before daylight and breakfast. Still, he stays focused on the goal of finishing the week. Nothing in the world will make me quit now, he thinks.
That night his resolve is even more sorely tested. A chill, windborne rain lashes Coronado Island as the crews run endlessly, boats held at arm's length above their heads, growing heavier as they fill with rainwater. Now the original crews have been so jumbled that even the best efforts to keep boats manned by uniform "height lines" are unsuccessful. Taller men like Wright get the heavier share of the load unless their shorter buddies make a concerted effort to help. Inevitably, stress gives way to anger as some claim that others are not carrying their share. Overcoming such friction is part of Hell Week. If a man can't handle the stress of BUD/S, he'll never make it on a SEAL team in combat. Better to find out now than later.
Hell Week brings out unsuspected weaknesses, but hidden strengths also emerge. Wright is surprised when a young, previously undistinguished seaman named Nathan Kohl becomes an anchor for the class. Whenever the instructors order the groaning men to drop their boats and go "cool off" in the sea, Kohl is the first one over the berm, urging the others forward. "Hey, come on, the water's great," he calls.
For Wright, time has begun to move in spasms, with minutes of intense effort dragging painfully, and hours slipping by in a blur. Meals are now the only reliable landmarks; each breakfast means another night behind them, another day to face.
The second rain-lashed night, Thursday, the students stumble into an endless, complex exercise called Lyons Lope. This includes a group swim, the class floating on their backs linked like a bizarre caterpillar, trying to kick and paddle in unison to negotiate a straight-line course. In their sleep-deprived, weakened state, they meander drunkenly across the dark waters of Coronado Bay, with voices of encouragement croaking down the shivering line. "Ease up a little." "Head right." Working together, the miserable composite creature somehow completes the course, and the exhausted young men manage a muted cheer.
Swaying like zombies, Wright and his classmates lug their boats into the sea for the around-the-world evolution, a long, heartless paddle up and down both sides of Coronado Island. Wright is so delirious from lack of sleep, he sees faces shimmering in the boat's wet rubber flanks. With cramps seizing his neck and shoulders, he clenches his teeth and swings his entire body into each clumsy thrust, willing himself to ignore the pain.
When the wretched students finally drag their boats ashore, the slowest are treated to yet more remedial PT. The instructor's apparent brutality is based on life-or-death need. They have come from SEAL teams and will return there to serve alongside some of the men they are now training. Captain Maguire and the other instructors went through Hell Week on this very beach, taught by SEALs who had fought in Vietnam, who in turn had been trained by Underwater Demolition Team frogmen from Korea and World War II. When the BUD/S trainees run, they count cadence with the chant, "We are the sons of UDT." In this fraternity you seldom hear the term "former SEAL." Minnesota's colorful new governor, Jesse Ventura, a SEAL in Vietnam, ended his inaugural address with an exuberant "Hoo-yah!"
Every SEAL feels an unbroken bond back to the fabled Naked Warriors, who swam into the coral heads off the invasion beaches of Saipan in 1944 and fought the fierce tides and minefields in the Korean port of Inch'on in 1950.
The ultimate lesson of Hell Week is harsh but simple: you push yourself to what you once thought were your limits, then you keep on pushing -- and you never quit.
In the bleak, drizzly sunrise, the class undergoes another medical check. Now the doctors detect hacking coughs and rattling wheezes as each student presents his bare chest to the stethoscope. The medics alert instructors to three suspected cases of pneumonia in the class. "Anybody want a medical rollback?" an instructor asks. "Negative," comes the weak but determined reply.
Friday morning begins with the demolition pit. One by one, the hobbling, red-eyed men try to negotiate a swaying rope bridge while instructors shake them loose. Wright falls into the cloying slime, repeating this silent mantra: "It's almost over." He picks himself up, and the men begin again.
The purgatory drags on. "You guys have messed up," an instructor taunts. "Everybody to the Grinder." Wright drops to the asphalt like a wounded man and begins a set of push-ups. "Open your eyes," a petty officer shouts into his face. "You finish this evolution, we'll go down to the surf and play," another instructor offers. "Howd'ya like that?" The men groan, but hang on.
In their pain and hallucinations the men are gradually aware another figure has replaced the PT instructor on the platform. It is Captain Maguire. He raises a clipboard. "When I call your name," he says, "come forward to form a line." He takes the roll of the 55 men who began Hell Week. As each student's name is called, he shouts "Hoo-yah!" and limps forward. When the roll reaches a man who's quit, the entire class roars "DOR."
Alphabetically, Wright is the last on the list. He steps forward. "Hoo-yah!" he yells, giddy with pride and exhaustion.
The 31 survivors stand shoulder to shoulder as Maguire points to the side of the Grinder and asks them, "Is your helmet there?"
"Negative!" they shout.
"Hell Week secured," Maguire announces, then leads his instructors, smiling now, down the rank to congratulate the survivors. As they shake his hand, Wright feels the warmth of the instructors' grip seeping into his icy fingers.
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.
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.
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.
Tuesday, December 28, 2004
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Six Navy SEAL special operations commandos and the wives of two of them sued The Associated Press and one of its reporters on Tuesday for publishing photos taken from a Web site that appeared to show the SEALs abusing prisoners in Iraq.
The suit, filed in San Diego Superior Court, said the pictures did not depict abuse and instead put the lives of the soldiers at risk by exposing their faces to the world.
"We haven't been served yet, so we haven't seen the complaint," said Associated Press attorney Dave Tomlin, who is representing the news agency and reporter Seth Hettena. "But we believe AP's use of the photos and the manner in which they were obtained were entirely lawful and proper."
The plaintiffs are identified only as "Six Navy SEALs and Two Jane Does," and the suit indicates they have been allowed to file anonymously by court order.
"By failing to conceal the identities of the Navy SEALs, Defendants Seth Hettena and the AP have jeopardized the lives of Plaintiffs Six Navy Seals and their families, as well as compromised their future missions and careers," the suit said.
An AP reporter discovered the photos, posted on the picture-sharing site Smugmug.com, during research on another set of photos that purportedly showed Navy SEALs abusing detainees.
Confronted with the photos, the Navy said recently it launched an investigation. The plaintiffs said in their suit that the photos depicted regular special operations techniques and did not show abuse.
Jane Doe One, the lawsuit said, stored the photos on Smugmug.com, among a collection of personal photographs. The suit said the two Jane Does are wives of two of the SEALs, members of the elite Navy force Sea-Air-Land.
The AP reported that the unnamed woman said the photos came from her husband, who brought them from Iraq after his tour of duty. But the suit denies that that was the case, or that she told the AP as much.
Distributed around the world, the AP reported the photos showed Navy SEALs sitting on hooded and bound detainees, holding a gun to a detainee's bloodied head, and placing a boot on the chest of a prone man.
Other photos showed grinning U.S. personnel sitting or lying atop three hooded prisoners in the bed of a pickup truck.
The Dec. 3 AP story quoted a spokesman for the Naval Special Warfare Command as saying some of the photos could put the lives of the SEALs at risk.
The suit, which claims invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress, seeks damages and an injunction barring further distribution of the photos.
The attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 caused an immediate deployment of US special operations forces, and the SEALs were no exception. At least seven separate platoons from SEAL Teams Two, Three, and Eight served in Afghanistan as well as parts of SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team One.
Operating by themselves or jointly with other US or allied forces as part of the Coalition Joint Special Operations Task Force, SEALs were deployed to the mideast, operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Members of SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team One performed reconnaissance for a possible amphibious landing in Pakistan, gaining hydrographic intel as well as information on a nearby airport. VBSS missions were carried out by SEALs attached to the USS Shreveport LPD-12 to ensure no weapons were being smuggled into Afghanistan by sea. Members of SEAL Team 3 were inserted into Afghanistan by US Special operations aircraft and observed the small airfield that would later become Camp Rhino for four days prior to the Marines landing there. Just prior to the Marines' arrival the SEALs marked the airfield and provided security while the aircraft approached.
SEALs also operated with members of the US Army's 1st SFO(D) as part of "Task Force 11" hunting down members of the Taliban government and Al Qaeda leadership. SEALs performed reconnaissance missions, lying in observation posts or actively scouting in what were known as SSE (Sensitive Site Exploitation) missions. Platoons from SEAL Teams Two, Three, and Eight operated in Afghanistan, sometimes using Desert Patrol Vehicles carried in by helicopters but also patrolling on foot after helicopter insertion.
In January of 2002 a planned simple 12 hour intelligence gathering mission turned into a nine-day bonanza of exploration and destruction. Nearly a million pounds of ammunition and equipment was found in an extensive network of seventy caves and tunnels in a narrow valley at Zhawar Kili in eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border. Some of the tunnels were brick-lined and supported by steel I-beams and the entire complex, above ground and below, was so large and complex that Chenowth Fast Attack Vehicle were flown in to help provide support. The amount of intelligence was overwhelmingly more than expected, and the SEALs were reinforced by US Marines to provide protection while they focused on exploring and destroying the complex.
Some of the explosives and equipment were blown in place but the heavier vehicles had to be destroyed by precision guided munitions dropped by Navy aircraft. In all, more than 400,000 pounds ordinance was dropped on targets designated by SEALs and EOD members. In the end, the SEALs had helped deny Al Qaeda not only weapons and munitions, but also communications networks, training classrooms, living quarters, and office space filled with paperwork. This operation also proved again the high level of ability of the SEALs; due to the planned short nature of the operation the SEALs had gone in light and had to operate for over two days before they could be resupplied with water, food, and supplies.
SEALs partnered with Danish Special Forces in the capture of Taliban Mullah Khairullah Kahirkhawa in February of 2002. Operators of a Predator reconnaissance vehicle orbiting the hills in the Paktia province had seen the Mullah leave a building and radioed the headquarters at Camp Rhino. SEALs and Danish commandos quickly loaded a US Air Force MH-53M Pave Low and headed out within fifteen minutes with an Army AH-64A Apache as escort. An hour and a half after the first notice, the Mullah was on the ground in US custody.
Early March saw a batttle that caused the greatest number of US special operations forces casualties during Enduring Freedom, including SEALs. The battle at Takur Ghar began when two Army MH-47E's attempted to drop SEAL teams at observation posts on hills overlooking the Shah-e-Kot valley. One aircraft, call sign Razor 03, approached a landing zone on top of the Takur Ghar mountaintop at 0300 on March 2, 2002. Observing fresh signs of occupation, the crew and operators quickly began talking about aborting the insertion, but were quickly taken under fire but well concealed and dug-in enemy forces. An RPG round slammed into the side of the aircraft, followed by heavy machine fire which ruptured hydralic and oil lines. With lurching, rough motions the pilots managed to get the aircraft under control and headed away from the LZ but in doing so one SEAL and a helicopter crewmember were thrown off balance and slipped off of the aircraft's slick rear ramp. The crew member was attached to the aircraft and was hauled back aboard, but ABH1 Neal Roberts was not and fell five to ten feet to the snow below.
This started off a chain of events that ultimately saw five US dead and eleven wounded. Razor 03 had to be crash landed at close to where they had taken fire and a quick headcount revealed what the crew member had told them; he was not the only passenger than had fallen. The survivors of Razor 03 were picked up by Razor 04, another MH-47 and returned to the mountain top. Roberts' teammates were unable to locate him and then were taken under fire themselves. The Air Force Combat Controller was hit and mortally wounded by gunfire and two of the SEALs were wounded by enemy fire and grenades. With half of their force casualties the SEALs decided to break contact and retire. An Army Ranger Quick Reaction Force which landed soon after had one of their two helicopters shot down on the mountain top as well and took heavy casualties while clearing the mountaintop of enemy forces and preventing their reinforecement.
Casualties, while not as heavy as some of the losses in earlier actions, proved that Navy SEALs operate on the edge in a very dangerous environment. In addition to Roberts and the two SEALs wounded at Takur Ghar, another SEAL, CPO Matthew Bourgeois was killed and another SEAL wounded by an enemy mine on March 28, 2002 during breaching training at Tarnak Farms near Kandahar. Two SEALs were wounded September 1, 2002 in an intelligence gathering mission in the Oruzgan province of Southern Afghanistan.
SEAL involvement in Afghanistan is not yet complete and it will take many years before the full extent of their actions is fully known by the general public.