The Navy SEALs have been in the news a lot lately, something they regard as a dubious blessing, I’m sure. Navy SEAL Team Six went in and dropped a hurt on bin Laden and created a legend. You know you’ve hit the big time when Disney tries to trademark the rights to your team. The Mickey Meisters backed off when they became the centerpiece of virtually every late night comic’s routine out there. It wasn’t a good move. When the troops you can muster on your side have names like Goofy, Ariel and Tinker Bell, you should think twice about messing with the SEALs, right?
I’ve worked out in Coronado with the SEALs a couple times, and was stupefied by the demands, the stress, and the resultant call to excellence. It’s a narrow funnel you pass through as a SEAL, and many don’t make it. I was one of the first journalists allowed to spend all of Hell Week with one class of hopefuls. (As my guide and adviser, himself a SEAL, told me, they had been reluctant to let the press into Hell Week, ’cause they “didn’t want America’s moms seeing what we were doing to their babies.” I gained entree by virtue of being on assignment for the National Geographic, doing a story on the limits of the human body. When you do a story like that, you pretty much have to make SEAL training one of your objectives.)
Just keeping pace with the week photographically was daunting beyond much of anything I had previously tried. I would hump cameras through various exercises and drills at all hours, then go back to the PAO office and grab a piece of linoleum floor and crash. I didn’t leave the base much during the week, and I got so tired that linoleum felt like a feather bed at a Marriott. But all I was doing was carrying cameras. I had breaks, and was often ferried about in a truck while they ran in wet fatigues. What they faced, night and day, was a schedule designed to break them.
That particular Hell Week started on a fairly easy going Sunday, in the very late afternoon. The class was summoned to a general meeting hall, and lulled into a sense of well being by being shown a movie. In the darkened room a DI walked in and started screaming at them to get outside. As they went running out of the room they were greeted with the din of machine gun fire into the air (dummy rounds) and flash bang grenades going off all over the place. The air was thick with smoke, and they were told to run over the berm and into the ocean. From that Sunday afternoon, until the following Friday, they all remained constantly wet.
They generally lose about 70% of the class during Hell Week. It is easy to see why. From Sunday through late on Thursday, they are generally allowed no sleep. They are constantly drenched in salt water, even when on land. Often times, they are actually in the water, and depending on what month your class is going through, the waters around San Diego can range from just plain cold to an ice bath.
During training like this, recruits are organized into boat crews, based on their respective heights. Tall guys with tall guys, and so forth, reason being that they carry their boats on their heads, so everybody’s gotta be in the same ballpark. The short crew generally gets dubbed “The Smurfs.” Interestingly, though, during the week I observed, the shorter crew did very well. In fact there seemed to be no actual body type that would guarantee success. A lot of the bigger, body builder types dropped out. My PAO confirmed that often happens. He chuckled and told me, “Yeah, when you see some of these skinny little guys make it all the way through, you know you got yourself one tough little motherf@##$%!”
One particularly difficult stretch involves a length of time staying afloat in San Diego bay at night, and then laying down, shirtless on a steel pier. From what I was led to believe, while embracing the pier, certain classes have chanted, “The cold steel is sucking the life from my body. The cold steel is sucking the life from my body.”
One really tough evolution is through an area called “Mud Flats.” Recruits basically have to perform maneuvers in muck so thick it can render them immobilized.
If you screw up, you meet Misery. Misery is a 300 pound piece of lumber emblazoned with the words “Misery loves company.” Boat crews who under-perform, or displease an instructor, do a round with this log.
While I was making this picture, the DI came up beside this struggling recruit and shouted at him, “Oh good, they’re gonna put your picture on the cover of Whiner magazine!” I felt bad, but I kept shooting. They do their job, and, as a shooter, you do yours’.
Protein intake is important, even though guys are literally falling asleep in their plates. The instructors move among them, pushing them to stay awake, and eat.
At the end of Hell Week, a handshake from the Bullfrog, the oldest active SEAL. It is a handshake well earned. In this week after Memorial Day, if it were possible, we should all shake their hand. More tk….