Published 26 September 05
[Originally published at NavySEALs.com, 23 Sep 05]
W. Thomas Smith Jr.
"Welcome to hell, gentlemen!"
An inside look at the Navy SEALs' five-and-a-half-day pressure cooker that finds the warrior within the man "who would rather die than quit"
Hell Week! To the uninitiated, those two words evoke images of everything from college fraternity rituals to the Hell Week and Hell Night rites-of-passage associated with acceptance into elite or special military units.
For Navy SEAL candidates, however, Hell Week is far more than simply crossing the bar into the ranks of what is arguably the world's best-trained force of Naval commandos. Hell Week is only a fraction of the first of three make-or-break phases of training for a SEAL candidate. But it is a deadly serious five-and-a-half-day immersion into the life of a combat frogman where both SEAL instructors and the SEAL candidates themselves determine which men "would rather die than quit."
For those who have been there, Hell Week is a sleepless, bitter cold, gritty, soaking wet, hell on earth where exhausted candidates – pumped full of antibiotics to ward off a variety of infections – survive on sheer heart, tenacity, seemingly incomprehensible physical courage, and about 5,000-7,000 calories per day (given they can muster enough strength to consume them). Hell Week is a short span of eternity at Coronado, California where the SEAL hopeful comes to a reckoning of the soul. Here, he "realizes," according to Commander Richard Marcinko (USN, ret.), "the body is only tissue and the mind/brain can overpower and drive it on."
Marcinko should know. He endured Hell Week during his UDT (Underwater Demolition Team) training at Little Creek, Virginia back in 1960 when Hell Week was also conducted on the East Coast. Years later, he founded and became the first commanding officer of SEAL Team Six (a counter-terrorist force that has been reconstituted as Naval Special Warfare Development Group) and RED CELL (a SEAL unit tasked with testing Naval security forces throughout the world) before becoming the best-selling author of the "Rogue Warrior" book series.
"Hell Week was designed to place the candidate in as close to combat conditions as possible through sleep deprivation; physical and mental stress and the introduction of explosives being detonated alongside tired bodies," Marcinko tells NavySEALs.com.
It was also a means by which the Navy could "filter out those who really wanted to be frogmen," he adds.
Little has changed in that regard since Marcinko found himself and other fellow "tadpoles" running endlessly in the sand and surf, some 45 years ago. Nor since the summer of 1943 when – taking pages from the physical training regimen of the Navy Scouts and Raiders – Lt. Commander Draper L. Kauffman (destined to become a rear admiral) boiled eight weeks of tough physical training into a week-long trial by torture.
"Those guys operated under the philosophy of 'Let's get people in here and beat the shit out of 'em,'" says Captain Dick Couch (USN, ret.), a former SEAL Team commander turned CIA maritime operations officer who has written SEAL-based novels and chronicled the BUD/SEAL training experience. "They said, 'Let's see who's tough enough. Then we'll train the tough guys.' It was a really hard week that morphed into what it is today."
Hellish during World War II: Equally so in the Global War on Terror.
In his book, The Warrior Elite, Couch describes the first moments of modern Hell Week, as instructors on a quiet Sunday night burst in on a locked-down classroom where nervous candidates have been waiting – reading, praying, watching videos, some trying to sleep – since noon:
First there are the whistles – shrill police type whistles. Class 228 has been told what to do when they hear a whistle. They hit the deck, cross their legs, and cover their ears with the palms of their hands. The six men move in, three from each open door, and the shooting starts.
"Hit the deck!"
"On the floor! Get your heads down!"
"Welcome to hell, gentlemen!"
The Mk-34s, a SEAL version of the M-60 light machinegun, begin to bark. The 7.62mm blank rounds don't have the brisance of live rounds, but the noise is still deafening. More whistles, more shouting, and lots of shooting ...
This is just the beginning. For the next five days, candidates will swim for miles, paddle inflatable boats through the surf, run with the boats, negotiate an obstacle course time-and-again, and perform myriad other exercises without stopping, and with only four-to-five hours of sleep: Not per day, but for the entire week. Their muscles will ache with far more intensity than they could have imagined. Their teeth will chatter uncontrollably from the cold. And some men, from lack of sleep, will begin to lose the ability to reason, thus the ability to perform.
As the days and nights go by, scores will quit, be dropped back for medical reasons, or wash out because they do not pack the gear to be SEALs.
Those who stay the course may suffer everything from cellulitis to tendonitis to genital and inner thigh chafing. Some will have knees swollen to the size of footballs. Others will have vomited blood and been in the pre-stages of pneumonia. A few may have had body temperatures that dipped as much as eight or nine degrees below the standard 98.6. One or two may have suffered broken bones and torn ligaments. Most all will have hands swollen to the point that they can barely hold a fork to eat. All of which is why every man will be examined by a fully trained physician at least once a day.
"Everyday they go into the clinic, strip down, shower off, and the doctors look them over very closely," says Couch. "Medical oversight is very comprehensive."
It has to be.
Though it is an unimaginably difficult ordeal, the Navy provides the candidates all the tools they need to endure Hell Week. "They give them time to eat food and drink water," says Couch. "The guys who get through it the best are the guys who eat a lot. They consume vast amounts of calories, but it gets really hard to eat when you get that tired. But you've just got to stoke that fire."
By midday Friday, the surviving candidates will have been reduced to physically injured, utterly exhausted shells of their former selves. Upon hearing the words, "Secure from Hell Week," some will be stunned; not quite believing it is truly over. Some will openly weep with joy, relief, or out of a basic emotional release. Others will simply smile through filthy faces. Now is the time for pizza and Gatorade; showers; clean, dry clothes; 12-16 straight hours of sleep; and of course medical attention.
Hell Week may be over, but certainly not training. Next week begins a brand new training evolution in the life of the SEAL candidate. But for the moment, the survivors relish in the fact that they have successfully crossed a major hurdle in their quest to win the famed "Trident" badge of a Navy SEAL.
"Hell Week cuts the class rather dramatically," says Couch. "Probably 80-to-90 percent of those who will quit [approximately half of the class will be gone by week's end] will do so within the first 24 hours. After a full day, it becomes a head game with the candidate thinking, 'Gee, this is one day. How am I going to get through four more?' And they mentally toss in the towel."
According to Couch, not all who are accepted into training are committed enough to become SEALs. They either want the title, SEAL, or they believe they are about to embark on some form of adventure training. Neither are enough.
"What they don't understand is that they are going to go someplace they've never been before," he says.
Indeed, as Commander Mark Divine (USNR) recalls his own experience, Hell Week is a means by which the soul is stripped bare. "It is mostly a mental and psychological test," says Divine, who graduated 'Honorman' of his BUD/SEAL class in 1990. "It is designed to break you down physically and emotionally to your core being. At that point, your character is devoid of the normal trappings of ego. You either survive because you are a survivor – or quit because you are not. It is that simple. What is not simple is what makes one individual a survivor, and another a quitter."
Couch agrees, pointing to Hell Week as a benchmark by which a man might measure future accomplishments in life. "It can be a powerful engine for future growth," he says. "It shows you just what you are capable of doing. The guy who has been through Hell Week may say, 'Boy that was hard, but it wasn't Hell Week hard.'"
Of those completing screening and indoctrination, roughly 10 to 15 percent of the initial candidates do not have the physical tools to stay the course of BUD/SEAL training. Which brings us to the question of why approximately half of the 85 to 90 percent who do have the physical tools fail to complete Hell Week (A full 75 percent of day-one candidates will ultimately be eliminated from BUD/SEAL training).
According to Couch, it's all about heart, or the lack thereof. "If there were a test for heart, there would not be a need for Hell Week," he says.
In the 5th Century A.D., Athenian General Thucydides wrote, "We must remember that one man is much the same as another, and that he is best who is trained in the severest school." Thucydides was surely talking about the discovery of heart every bit as much as the taxing of the physical body to strengthen that heart. Had he lived today, he almost certainly would have agreed that one of the world's "severest schools" is the five days of hell that must be endured by young American sailors who hope to become Navy SEALs. Those who survive do have heart. They also have many tough months to go – post-Hell Week - before earning the title.
— W. Thomas Smith Jr., a former U.S. Marine infantry leader, parachutist, and shipboard counterterrorism instructor, writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is an award-winning author of four books, the co-author of two, and his articles have appeared in USA Today, George, U.S. News & World Report, BusinessWeek, National Review Online, CBS News, The Washington Times, and many others.
W. Thomas Smith Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2005 W. Thomas Smith Jr.