Paul McHugh / San Francisco Chronicle – 2006-05-15 00:28:17
There’s a nurturing side to SEAL training, but it’s low-key and unsentimental. When it pops into the open, it’s almost a shock.
In the midafternoon, recruits hit the obstacle course — a circuit with parallel bars, tall jumps, jogs on rolling logs, a 40-foot-high cargo net, wall climbs and a simple rope swing up onto a trestle.
A recruit named Bob stalls at the swing. (Because SEAL missions are classified, the Navy has asked that no last names be used.) Faster guys, intense and wiry, whip through the O-course like sports cars. Bob is thick and muscular. He rumbles around like a 1-ton truck. If you need somebody to load a pallet with .50-caliber ammo boxes, Bob would be your guy.
He just can’t make the rope swing. A thick line hangs from an arch; recruits need to run full speed, grab it and haul themselves up as they swing out over another trestle, about 4 feet high; then land on their feet, let go of the rope, and run down a log to the ground.
But Bob doesn’t go fast enough, he doesn’t grab the rope high enough, his feet aren’t under him, he lands on his butt in the sand. Six times, he tries. Blue-shirted instructors gather.
“Come on, Bob. Push it. This counts. Get it right once, it’ll never go wrong for you again.”
Their tone seems almost kind. Something about Bob has earned their respect.
Eight, nine times, Bob backs up and tries again. He looks at the torn-up skin on his palms. He mimes the movements of grabbing the rope properly. He charges, he fails. Ten, 11, 12. His forearms are pumped, his lungs wheeze. But he’s one of Gearhart’s mutts. He just will not lay down and die.
“Bob, you’re almost there. Run through that rope. Don’t turn your hips for the landing until you’re above the log.”
Thirteen. He makes it. The instructors faintly smile. Bob polishes off the next four problems. Then he drops to do 20 push-ups, and leaps to his feet.
“Hoo-ya, O-course!” Bob yelps.
Instructors have a complicated job. They must offer support and yank it away, building an emotional gantlet that eliminates anyone lacking proper chops. Recruits find out virtue may be punished, not rewarded. Being blindsided by extra challenges just when you thought you were done is routine. A blast of verbal abuse or a hosing with cold water can crop up instantly for no additional charge.
“We can’t really simulate the stresses of combat,” says Cmdr. Chris Christenson, 43, a 19-year veteran who is director of training. “But we can set up a situation that tests for resilience and fortitude. We do know that mental capability is even more important than physical capability. The Navy still possesses no profile to predict success at BUD/S (the Navy’s name for the SEAL school). No test can tell you who has that inner light switched on, or who’s able to turn it on. After a guy passes training, then you know he can get through.”
Recruits understand, at any point, they’re welcome to step up to a polished brass ship’s bell at the edge of the Grinder. It was a gift to the SEAL school from Jesse Ventura’s class, No. 58, in 1970, and is named Mother Moy’s Bell — after a legendary training supervisor from that period, Master Chief Petty Officer Terry “Mother” Moy. Ring it three times, and you’ve formally made a DOR (drop on request).
Immediately, you’re pulled from training to receive counseling. First to make sure you mean it, and secondly to assure you there are other valuable roles in America’s military. Amid Hell Week, Moy’s Bell follows recruits around in a pickup truck — a gleaming temptation to bail out.
A tough humor also pops up at various spots around the SEAL compound. At the edge of the Grinder exercise yard stands a fiberglass statue of the Creature From the Black Lagoon. A gift from class No. 63, this movie monster wears a combat knife and belt, and a sign around its neck: “So you wanna be a frogman.”
Between the Grinder and the beach zone where “surf conditioning” occurs is a sofa-size granite boulder, a gift from class No. 250, bearing a bronze plaque that says, “The secret to BUD/S is under this rock.”
Far less saluting takes place at the Special Warfare Center, compared with other parts of the Naval Amphibious Base at Coronado. It’s part of the effort to build the informality of a true brotherhood.
Another part of the formula for the SEAL community surfaces at the compound pool. At midday, a collection of SEALs of all ranks and ages, instructors, top officers and combat boat crewmen, gather for a game of underwater hockey. The compound’s Olympic-size swimming pool is called the Combat Training Tank, just to ensure everyone knows it has zero connection to lounging around on a beach towel to polish your tan.
In underwater hockey, two teams of skin divers battle on the floor of the pool, trying to shove a puck through a goal with short, Y-shaped sticks. They know how to dive, and how to fight. Amid the melee, one diver almost reaches the goal, but is nearly pantsed when another grabs his swimsuit and roughly hauls him back. Then a teammate, who already has one swim fin yanked off, snakes through the pack using a full-body dolphin wriggle, controls the puck and scores the winning goal.
A tall, muscular man with thinning gray hair comes out of the water to stand poolside. Threads of blood drip off his bashed knuckles. This is Capt. Chris Lindsay, 48, a 26-year SEAL veteran. He’s also the base commander.
“Underwater hockey is a good morale booster,” Lindsay says. He explains that once a month, all force personnel are invited to join in a group exercise, be it a beach run, a long swim, or a hockey bout. “It’s our team-building thing. Still, competition always seems to wind up being part of it. The type of guy who makes it through training always is competitive. But we try to retain a close sense of community. We want them all to feel they’re part of our brotherhood, because it’s a very rough road to it.”
SEALs inhabit one of the few military forces where a grunt can draw blood on his commanding officer, and make him like it.
At the end of a surf conditioning session for the class No. 259 recruits, Gearhart abandons all ploys and provocations. For a moment, he seeks to make SEAL life crystal clear. He calls them out of the surf and has recruits stack themselves like cordwood on the sand. This maneuver is a “puppy pile.” It’s a visceral lesson in combat tactics: body heat is precious, there are only a few ways to retain it, and it’s dumb to be squeamish.
“Anybody can talk smack, sitting on a barstool,” Gearhart tells them. “But it takes a genuinely bad dude to lay out there in the surf with no complaining, and no chance of winning any medals or ribbons. Be that man all the time, not some of the time.
“You men are all volunteering at a scary period in our nation’s history. You’re about to risk your lives for nothing other than the admiration of these guys around you. They’ll be the only ones who ever know what you did.”
Strangely, Gearhart seems to suggest that an equally respectable path of virtue might be to go straight past the Grinder to Moy’s Bell.
“If you want to quit, go ahead,” he says. “Admit it. Be a man.”
His sermon ends. Suddenly, another blue-shirted instructor hollers, “You have 10 seconds to get off my beach!”
The men leap up and scramble pell-mell over the dunes. Gearhart watches them go.
“I came into the SEALs during peacetime,” he says. “These guys are volunteering during a war. I take my hat off to them for that.”
Note: SEAL class No. 259 entered Phase I training with 177 members fresh from Indoc and then added 11 more members. These 11 were recycled from previous SEAL classes — usually due to their need for time to recover from injuries sustained amid training. Of this total of 188 recruits, 121 remained in class by the start of Hell Week.
When Hell Week ended May 5, only 75 members were left. Still, nearly 40 percent is the highest portion of one recruiting class to make it through Hell Week in SEAL history.
WHAT IT TAKES
General: A US Navy SEAL candidate must:
• Be male.
• Be age 28 or younger (servicemen can be 30).
• Have good or correctable eyesight.
• Score well on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery tests.
Physical: A screening test requires that candidates:
• Swim 500 yards using breast or sidestroke (or military underwater recovery stroke) in 12.5 minutes or less, then rest 10 minutes.
• Perform at least 42 push-ups in two minutes, rest two minutes.
• Perform at least 50 sit-ups in two minutes, rest two minutes.
• Perform at least six pull-ups (hands face forward), rest 10 minutes.
• Run 1.5 miles in boots and BDU trousers in less than 11.5 minutes.
To become combat ready, candidates endure 2 1/2 years of preparation:
• Indoctrination: “Indoc” is six to eight weeks of what is now called Advanced Training Phase (ATP).
• Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL school (BUD/S): Phase I is eight weeks of swiftly intensifying training, culminating in Hell Week — 5 1/2 days of continuous physical challenge during which recruits score a miserly total of four hours of sleep; Phase II is eight weeks of dive and combat swim training; Phase III is nine weeks of land warfare training, with emphasis on weapons and tactics.
• Additional training: Subjects include parachuting and winter mountain warfare before the graduate can win his trident pin, join a SEAL team — and cash a $40,000 bonus check. A new SEAL commits to a six-year hitch, and at rank E-5 starts at $56,000 per annum, with added enhancements for combat deployment and family separation.
E-mail Paul McHugh at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2006 San Francisco Chronicle
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