U.S. NAVY SEALs: WHAT IT TAKES!

(October 1993 issue of SOF)

by Capt. Larry Bailey

What does it take to become an elite U.S. Navy SEAL commando? You might think I would have the answer to this question, having been for three years the commanding officer of Naval Special Warfare Center (NSWC), the SEAL (Sea, Air Land) school in Coronado, California; however I don't.

Fact is, there simply isn't a quick and easy answer to the question, despite the efforts of scores of social and biological scientists of all persuasions to identify those qualities most desirable in a candidate for SEAL training. For three years I personally strived to discover what I called the mysterious "golden key" to becoming a SEAL, but to no avail. There was simply no way to predict who had the guts to go through the six months of hell we call Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (or "BUD/S" for short).

However, while I'm convinced that such a golden key does not exist, there was one characteristic common to every BUD/S graduate I ever knew: the trait instructors call "fire in the gut." While this attribute cannot be precisely defined, in the aggregate it includes courage, desire, oblivion to pain, obedience to instructors, cooperation with fellow trainees and the attitude of "Graduation's out there somewhere and there's no way I ain't gonna be around when it happens!" What this means, in a nutshell, is the ability to subordinate pain, fatigue, anger and sensory overload of every description to the long-range goal - becoming a U. S. Navy SEAL.

BUD/S training

During first phase of BUD/S training, SEAL candidates maneuver underwater without using hands, readying for "drown-proofing" at Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California. Photo: Pressens Bild/Gamma Liaison

You might have noticed that I didn't include physical gifts as part of the "fire in the gut" syndrome. While it's obvious that a potential SEAL must be able to measure up in a physical sense, BUD/S doesn't require superhuman strength or endurance. As a matter of fact, many's the time when the most physically talented members of a particular class were the first ones to "ring the bell," or quit.

For example, I will always remember Farmer, Jadrnicek and Stants, three men who in 1963 began training with me in what was then called UDT (Underwater Demolition Team) Replacement Training in Little Creek, Virginia. Besides being all-around good guys, they were tremendous athletes. All three could run and swim circles around the rest of us in Class 30 and do three times as many push-ups and pull-ups as well. Yet Farmer, Jadrnicek and Stants all quit early on in "Hell Week." To this day I can't explain why a relative klutz like myself completed UDT training and they didn't, except in terms of desire; I simply wanted it more.

I'm sure that Farmer, Jadrnicek and Stants also look back to 1963 and wonder what happened, but I don't think anyone would ever give them any answer other than they lacked that fire in the gut, which enabled lesser physical specimens to persevere when the hurting go serious. One might say they simply had other priorities, while a successful trainee had only one - becoming a SEAL. I would love to talk to those guys today and hear from them why they didn't stick it out, but I think I know what each one's answer would be : I didn't want it badly enough.

As CO of NSWC, I was often asked during interviews what I looked for in a SEAL candidate. I always answered by telling my questioner what I didn't like to see in a trainee, to include being too self-centered, or overly concerned with physical appearance, or excessively individualistic.

Still, knowing nothing else about a trainee, I would prefer the kid of average build and physical ability over the athletic superstar who has spent half his life in the gym, on the track or in the pool. I can't say why, but beyond a minimum level of athletic ability and stamina, there is little or no relationship between physical prowess and success in BUD/S training. Many's the time when a BUD/S honor graduate was the last guy expected to even complete training! Put simply, there ain't no formula for picking future SEALs.

As a fascinating sidelight to the business of predicting BUD/S success, there is the work of Dr. Rob Carlson, chairman of the Department of Physical Education at San Diego State University. As part of NSWC's effort to optimize the selection process for potential SEALs, he was contracted to develop a testing instrument to predict failure for 10% of each class. Not only was Dr. Carlson able to do this with 95% accuracy, but he was also able to identify with 80% accuracy the 10% of class members most likely to graduate. Key indicators in the latter assessment included a strong sense of patriotism, deeply held religious beliefs and a solid sense of values. Conversely, a lack of these elements was the most important factor in predicting failure.

When I reported to NSWC in late 1985, I received explicit tasking to graduate more SEALs in order to accommodate the 50% growth projected for SEAL teams in the subsequent few years. We started with a graduation rate of 26% and did everything we could to retain good candidates (without compromising training standards); by mid-1987 our graduation rate had risen to over 50%. It was still at this level when I was transferred 18 months later, though we had strived to raise the graduation rate still higher.

Today, some five years after my departure, the graduation rate remains at around 50% and I am convinced this rate is sustainable only by a Herculean effort on the part of the BUD/S staff to keep good trainees in the program.

Out of 52 candidates starting BUD/S training in fiscal year 1988, a total of 248 graduated as SEALs. The following year reflected roughly the same amount of success, with 229 SEAL graduates out of 570 BUD/S candidates. For 1990, 314 out of 542 aspirants graduated - a marked improvement which carried over into 1991, when 222 graduates came out of a field of 389 BUD/S entrants. Fiscal year 1992's results reflected a drop in the graduation rate, however, with 247 SEALs emerging from a group of 540 BUD/S hopefuls.

The key element in keeping graduation rates around 50% while retaining the training program's integrity is what is informally referred to as the "Fourth Phase." This was an idea conceived by Master Chief Boatswain's Mate Rick Knepper (and quickly appropriated as my own - officers are supposed to act that way, you know) midway through my tenure as NSWC.

Fourth Phase is a "holding pattern" for those trainees who have either reported aboard in less-than-satisfactory physical condition or who have been injured during BUD/S training.

In years past, any trainee who could not pass the BUD/S physical training (PT) test shortly after reporting aboard got sent back to the fleet. Such also was they fate of a trainee who experienced an injury requiring treatment of more than a few days. Designed to salvage trainees who would otherwise leave the program without having had a chance to prove their mettle. Fourth Phase allows them to recoup and either start BUD/S at the proper level of physical conditioning, or re-enter upon recovery from illness or injury.

Second Chance At Hell

While some of the old-line instructors objected to incorporating Fourth Phase into BUD/S, it is now viewed as a vital part of the constant effort to ensure that every qualified trainee graduates. And for those trainees who enjoy life on Coronado's "Silver Strand," Fourth Phase gives them the opportunity to get to know that place intimately, with some of them being assigned to it for up to a year before re-entering training.

It takes a special kind of guts to work through Fourth Phase's tedium of physical therapy and conditioning exercise, only so one can again subject oneself to the rigors of BUD/S; it's sort of like practicing for the proverbial kick in the backside.

Nevertheless, scores of present-day SEALs are graduates because of Fourth Phase. It's not surprising that the winner of the "Fire in the Gut" trophy awarded to a deserving graduate of each BUD/S class is consistently an alumnus of Fourth Phase - he will have had to show more tenacity and desire than his compatriots, who have merely spent six months in hell.

Thirty-two weeks is the absolute minimum time required for a student to graduate; time spent in Fourth Phase is in addition to the schedule outlined here:

Weeks 1-7 ...Pre-training: Medical and physical screening, PT, basic running and swimming techniques, nutrition/hydration and the basic military values of honor, discipline and integrity. (It should be noted that the level of performance in PT, running, swimming and the other basic skills acquired in pre-training and First Phase will be enhanced throughout BUD/S.)

Weeks 8-16 ...First Phase: Small boat handling, first aid, drown-proofing, Hell Week (see below), teamwork and hydrographic reconnaissance. It is during First Phase when the most candidate attrition takes place; very few trainees quit after this period of exposure to what the SEAL profession is all about.

Weeks 17-23 ...Second Phase: Longer ocean swims (up to five miles), 1 14-mile beach run, diving physics and medicine, open- and closed-circuit diving, also combat swimmer techniques. After completing Second Phase, trainees know the rudiments of combat diving and the dangers associated with breathing air and oxygen under pressure. While they are not yet up to SEAL team standards, it is already certainly accurate to refer to them as expert divers.

......to be continued

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