With the release of the film Act of Valor, and the recent success of SEAL Team members in killing Osama bin Laden and rescuing hostages from the clutches of Somali pirates, a lot of attention has been focused on our most elite U.S. special forces.
Having grown up in Imperial Beach, just down the beach from where SEALs train at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, I have observed their ocean training first-hand.
Although I work out or surf with many current or former SEALs, I knew very little about what it takes to be a member of the world’s toughest team.
To get more of an idea of what it takes to become a SEAL and how they train, I checked in with an active-duty SEAL who has worked as a BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) instructor. In recognition and respect for the SEAL ethos not to seek recognition, he requested he remain anonymous.
Patch: Why did you become a SEAL?
SEAL: I joined for the excitement and the challenge. I liked the idea of getting paid to work out. I didn’t expect to stay in as long as I have. I have always said that I will get out when I quit having fun or didn’t enjoy the work anymore.
The caliber of men that you are associated with is a big draw as well, obviously due to the selection process to become a SEAL. The work is always challenging and the opportunity to lead SEALs is very rewarding. I also stay in with the commitment that I will stay in as long as I can effectively contribute to the war on terror with the hope that our kids won’t have to deal with it.
Patch: With the Department of Defense looking to increase the presence and numbers of special forces, the Navy will want more SEALs. What type of recruit makes an outstanding SEAL candidate?
SEAL: In the last decade, there has been a great deal of research to determine what kind of background successful SEAL graduates have that would make them more likely to graduate so as to target those types of BUD/S candidates.
Studies have shown that those individuals that have participated in high school sports such as wrestling, swimming, water polo and track and field have a higher probability to make it through BUD/S training. Essentially, any type of endurance athlete has a greater probability to make it to graduation. Much of what we do requires a strong athletic ability with strong cardiovascular system.
Patch: What are the physical requirements to become a SEAL?
SEAL: The Physical Screening Test (PST) is only a test to ensure you are fit enough to start physical training as part of the SEAL training process. The PST is strictly administered with no waiver allowed and no deviation from the format. The test is strictly enforced – no exceptions.
Patch: How do SEAL instructors know how to push recruits to the edge without going over the edge?
SEAL: Having been through the exact same training themselves, as well as being recent combat veterans, the instructors have a keen sense of knowing the limits that the human body can take and regulate accordingly. There are always medical personnel on hand during all training evolutions to keep a close medical eye on the condition of students during training, especially during Hell Week. They pick up on initial signs of potential injury and treat as appropriate to avoid aggravating further.
Patch: Is training more advanced now for SEALs than it was a decade ago? It seems as though SEALs must have to master fairly advanced and high-tech equipment.
SEAL: Training is definitely more advanced now than a decade ago. This is largely because of the advanced technological equipment available and used by SEALs today, giving them the tactical advantage. To adapt to the complex nature of our missions today, tactics, techniques and procedures have also advanced to be able to more effectively find and fix our enemies that hide among the population.
Patch: With the release of Act of Valor and the recent success of SEALs in killing Osama bin Laden and hostage rescues off of Africa, do you think SEALs run the risk of being viewed as modern day superheroes that can do anything? Could that help set the SEALs up for future failures if they somehow don’t continue to do the impossible?
SEAL: I don’t think the release of Act of Valor, taking out Bin Laden, or counter-piracy successes off Somalia will put SEALs at risk of being viewed as something they are not. If you talk to any SEAL today, you will find that they don’t view themselves that way. Most look at what they do as “just a job” that they enjoy because of the challenging work, patriotism, fighting terrorism to preserve democracy and our way of life, and the camaraderie from tightly knit teams.
Act of Valor was in the works before the bin Laden raid or the piracy hostage rescue. It was made with the permission and oversight of Naval Special Warfare Command and the Navy to be a recruiting tool as we continue to grow our force.
It was seen as an opportunity to portray SEALs accurately, unlike previous Hollywood productions, using real SEALs without divulging close held tactics, techniques and procedures as well as how their personal lives are affected by their chosen profession.
While we have been fortunate to enjoy many highly visible successes, there have been some missions in the last decade that were not so successful, where many SEALs have given the ultimate sacrifice. In the end, SEALs don’t look for the visibility or accolades for their work. In my humble opinion, the visibility comes from the press and their insatiable desire for sensational headlines and those seeking political gain.
Patch: The most infamous part of SEAL training is “Hell Week”. Can you describe what that involves and what the purpose is of this week that I have heard described as “endless days of pain, cold, and misery.”
SEAL: The first three weeks of training prepares the students for Hell Week (fourth week) where they go through five and a half days of continuous training with only a maximum of four hours sleep. This is designed to test one’s physical and mental motivation. This week proves to those who make it that the human body can do ten times the amount of work the average man thinks possible. During this week the students learn the value of cool headedness, perseverance, and above all, teamwork.
Patch: What does the basic SEAL training involve in terms of physical activity and combat preparation?
SEAL: The comprehensive SEAL training process prepares students for the extreme physical and mental challenges of SEAL missions. The standards of qualification require the kind of mental and physical fortitude that few possess. For those making the cut, immense challenges and constant training are a way of life.
The first phase of BUD/S assesses SEAL candidates in physical conditioning, water competency, teamwork and mental tenacity. Physical conditioning utilizes running, swimming and calisthenics and grows harder and harder as the weeks progress. Students participate in weekly four mile timed runs in boots and timed obstacle courses, swim distances up to two miles wearing fins in the ocean and learn small boat seamanship. The second phase of training is the diving phase of BUD/S that trains, develops and qualifies SEAL candidates as competent basic combat swimmers. Physical conditioning continues and becomes even more intensive.
Students learn two types of SCUBA: open circuit (compressed air) and closed circuit (100% Oxygen) including basic dive medicine and medical skills training.
Emphasis is placed on long-distance underwater dives with the goal of training students to become basic combat divers, using swimming and diving techniques as a means of transportation from their launch point to their combat objective. This is what separates SEALs from all other Special Operations forces.
The third phase of training is Land Warfare that trains, develops and qualifies SEAL candidates in basic weapons, demolition and small-unit tactics. Physical training continues and becomes even more strenuous as the run distance increases and the minimum passing times are lowered for the runs, swims and obstacle course. This third phase concentrates on teaching land navigation, small-unit tactics, patrolling techniques, rappelling, marksmanship and military explosives. The final three and a half weeks are spent on San Clemente Island, where students apply all the techniques they have acquired during training.
Patch: SEALs spend a considerable amount of time in the ocean. Is there specific ocean related training that occurs in terms of how to navigate large surf, rip currents, and/or storm conditions, or is it “sink or swim?”
SEAL: First phase of training involves an extensive amount of surf passage training; both individually as a swimmer and with Inflatable Boat Small (IBS) rubber boats, manned with seven students with paddles. Although there is initial classroom training in navigating surf, dealing with rip currents and storm conditions, the true learning/training to navigating the surf is through practical experience in the ocean. During hydrographic reconnaissance training in the first phase, the students learn about tides, currents and wave shape and duration to be able to include that in their hydro reports that go to the Amphibious Ready Group for potential beach landings.
Patch: It appears that quite a few SEALs are surfers. Are surfers attracted to the SEALs or do you think that SEALs become surfers after spending so much time in the ocean?
SEAL: It has been my experience that more SEALs become surfers after they become a SEAL, most likely because of their increased familiarity with and exposure to the ocean. Many SEALs come from the Midwest and haven’t had that much exposure to the ocean. Being based in coastal communities also lends to SEALs wanting to surf.
Patch: According to the SEAL ethos, a SEAL’s training is never complete. How do you motivate team members to continue performing at the highest level over the course of their career?
SEAL: Many SEALs come and go in the teams. It is my experience that SEALs that choose to make a career in the Navy continue to be motivated because the teams attract men that fall into a “warrior class” type of individual. They live a lifestyle of fitness. By the time they start to get operational burnout because of a high op tempo, they take a shore duty job that will give them a break to recharge. Additionally, the more senior a SEAL gets, the more leadership positions they gravitate to where their experience is used to bring up younger SEALs.