Holy crap. I jumped into the balmy California water. It wasn’t balmy—especially in comparison to the Florida gulf waters I’d trained in.
That’s freezing. I popped out quicker than I’d jumped in. Wonder how much time we’re going to have to spend in that.
During the days leading up to training, SEAL Master Chief Rick Knepper helped prepare us with early-morning swims in the pool and late-afternoon calisthenics on the beach. Master Chief looked like an ordinary guy in his 40s, calmly exercising as we grunted and groaned. He didn’t seem to break a sweat.
Master Chief didn’t tell us about his experiences in Vietnam. We would have to find out about them from others. Master Chief had served with SEAL Team One, Delta Platoon, 2nd Squad. His squad thought they knew about Hon Tai, a large island in Nha Trang Bay. From a distance, the island looked like a big rock sitting in the ocean for birds to take a crap on. Then two Vietcong, tired of fighting and being away from family, defected from the island and told U.S. intelligence about the camp full of VC they left behind.
Under the cover of darkness, Master Chief Knepper’s squad of seven SEALs arrived by boat. Not even the moon shone. His squad free-climbed a 350-foot cliff. After reaching the top, they lowered themselves into the VC camp. The seven-man squad split into two fire teams, taking off their boots and going barefoot to search for a VIP to snatch. Going barefoot didn’t leave behind telltale American boot prints in the dirt. It also made it easier to detect booby traps, and bare feet were easier to pull out of mud than boots. In the camp, though, the VC surprised the SEALs. A grenade landed at Lieutenant (j.g.) Bob Kerrey’s feet. It exploded, slamming him into the rocks and destroying the lower half of his leg. Lieutenant Kerrey managed to radio the other fire team. When the team arrived, they caught the VC in a deadly crossfire. Four VC tried to escape, but the SEALs mowed them down. Three VC stayed to fight, and the SEALs cut them down, too.
A hospital corpsman SEAL lost his eye. One of the SEALs put a tourniquet on Kerrey’s leg.
The SEAL squad snatched several VIPs, along with three large bags of documents (including a list of VC in the city), weapons, and other equipment. Lieutenant Kerrey continued to lead Master Chief Knepper and the others in their squad until they were evacuated. The intel received from the documents and VIPs gave critical information to the allied forces in Vietnam. Lieutenant Kerrey received the Medal of Honor and would go on to become Nebraska’s governor and senator. Our mentors were among the best in the business.
On the first morning of indoctrination into BUD/S, we had to do the physical screening test again. After a cold shower and some push-ups, we began the test. Afraid of failing the swim, I kicked and stroked for all I was worth. Somehow, I completed it in time. Then we did the push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups, and run. One guy failed; he hung his head as the instructors sent him packing.
That evening, the SEAL instructors stood before us and introduced themselves. At the end, Lieutenant Moore told us we could quit if we wanted to by walking outside and ringing the bell three times.
“I’ll wait,” Lieutenant Moore said.
I thought the lieutenant was bluffing, but some of my classmates began ringing the bell.
A number of my remaining classmates were impressive: an Iron Man triathlete, a college football player, and others. One evening in the barracks, I looked at myself in the mirror. These guys are like race horses.
What the hell am I doing here?
“Some of you look sleepy. All of you drop and push ’em out.
After push-ups and more instruction, we went outside, where the sunshine had dimmed. Soon we stood by our boats facing the ocean.
Bulky orange kapok life jackets covered our battle dress uniforms (BDUs). We tied our hats to the top buttonholes on our shirts with orange cord. Each of us held our paddle like a rifle at the order-arms position, waiting for our boat leaders to come back from where the instructors were briefing them.
Before long they returned and gave us orders. With boat handle in one hand and paddle in the other, all the crews raced into the water.
Losers would pay with their flesh—it pays to be a winner.
“Ones in!” our boat leader, Mike H., called.
Our two front men jumped into the boat and started paddling.
I ran in water almost up to my knees.
Two more jumped in and started paddling.
I jumped in with the man across from me, and we paddled. Mike jumped in last, using his oar at the stern to steer. “Stroke, stroke!” he called.
In front of us, a seven-foot wave formed. I dug my paddle in deep and pulled back as hard as I could.
“Dig, dig, dig!” Mike called.
Our boat climbed up the face of the wave. I saw one of the other boats clear the tip. We weren’t so lucky. The wave picked us up and slammed us down, sandwiching us between our boat and the water.
As the ocean swallowed us, I swallowed boots, paddles, and cold seawater.
I realized, This could kill me.
Eventually, the ocean spit us out onto the beach along with most of the other boat crews. The instructors greeted us by dropping us. With our boots on the boats, hands in the sand, and gravity against us, we did push-ups.
Then we gathered ourselves together and went at it again—with more motivation and better teamwork. This time, we cleared the breakers.
Back onshore, a boyish-faced trainee from another boat crew picked his paddle up off the beach. As he turned around to face the ocean, a passengerless boat filled with seawater raced at him sideways.
Instructor Blah shouted into the megaphone, “Get out of there!”
Boy-Face ran away from the boat, just like the instructors told us not to. Fear has a way of turning Einsteins into amoebas.
“Run parallel to the beach! Run parallel to the beach!”
Boy-Face continued to try to outrun the speeding boat. The boat came out of the water and slid sideways like a hovercraft over the hard wet sand. When it ran out of hard wet sand, its momentum carried it over the soft dry sand until it hacked Boy-Face down. Instructor Blah, other instructors, and the ambulance rushed to the wounded man.
Doc, one of the SEAL instructors, started first aid. No one heard Boy-Face call out in pain. The boat broke his leg at the thigh bone.
As training progressed, dangers increased. Later in training, instead of landing our boats on the sand under the sun, we would land our boats on boulders at night in front of the Hotel del Coronado while ocean currents cut at us from two directions. Legend has it that those boulders used to be one rock before BUD/S trainees cracked it with their heads.
The sun lay buried in the horizon as we marched double-time through the Naval Amphibious Base across the street. Wearing the same green uniforms, we sang out in cadence, looking confident, but the tension in the air was thick. If anybody is going to die, this is going to be the time.
We arrived at the pool located at Building 164 and stripped down to our UDT swim shorts. An instructor said, “You are going to love this. Drown-proofing is one of my favorites. Sink or swim, sweet peas.”
I tied my feet together, and my swim partner tied my hands behind my back.
“When I give the command, the bound men will hop into the deep end of the pool,” Instructor Stoneclam said. “You must bob up and down 20 times, float for five minutes, swim to the shallow end of the pool, turn around without touching the bottom, swim back to the deep end, do a forward and backward somersault underwater, and retrieve a face mask from the bottom of the pool with your teeth.”
The hardest part for me was swimming the length of the pool and back with my feet tied together and hands tied behind my back. I had to flip around like a dolphin. Even so, I’d rather be doing this than being awakened from a dead sleep and slapped around.
Although I did my duty, others didn’t. We lost a muscular black guy because his body was so dense that he just sank like a rock to the bottom of the pool. A skinny redheaded hospital corpsman jumped in the water, but instead of swimming straight, he swam in a horseshoe.
An instructor told him, “Swim in a straight line. What the hell is wrong with you?” The instructors found out later that Redhead was almost blind. He had forged his medical records to get to BUD/S.
For every guy who would do anything to get in, there were guys who wanted to get out. Stoneclam wouldn’t let them.
“You can’t quit now!” Instructor Stoneclam screamed. “This is only Indoc. Training hasn’t even started yet!” We were still only in the indoctrination phase.
After three weeks of Indoc, we began First Phase, Basic Conditioning.
Our class continued to shrink due to performance failures, injuries, and quitting. I wondered how much longer I could continue without being dropped because of a performance failure or an injury. Of course, most evolutions were a kick in the crotch, designed to punish us. Woe to the trainee who let the pain show in his face. An instructor would say, “You didn’t like that? Well, do some more.” Likewise to the trainee who showed no pain. “You liked that? Here’s another kick in the crotch.”
The torment continued throughout each day—push-ups, runs, push-ups, calisthenics, push-ups, swims, push-ups, O-course—day after day, week after week. We ran a mile one-way just to eat a meal. Round-trip multiplied by three meals made for six miles a day just to eat! We never seemed to have enough time to recover before the next evolution hit us.
On top of everything, the instructors poured on the stress with verbal harassment. Most of them didn’t need to raise their voices to tell us, “Grandma was slow, but she was old.”
Each one of us seemed to have an Achilles’ heel—and the instructors excelled at finding it. The hardest evolutions for me were the four-mile timed runs on the beach wearing long pants and jungle boots. I dreaded them. Soft sand sucked the energy out of my legs, and waves attacked me when I tried to run on the hard pack. Some guys ran out in front, some stayed in the middle, and others like me brought up the rear. Almost every time, at the two-mile marker at the North Island fence, an instructor would say, “Wasdin, you’re getting behind. You’re going to have to kick it on the way back.” With each run, the time demands became tougher.
I failed one four-mile timed run by seconds. While everyone else went back to the barracks, the four or five others who also failed joined me to form a goon squad. After having spent nearly everything I had on the run, I knew this was going to suck. We ran sprints up and down the sand berm, jumped into the cold water, then rolled up and down the sand berm until our wet bodies looked like sugar cookies. The sand found its way into my eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. We did squat thrusts, eight-count bodybuilders, and all manner of acrobatic tortures until the sand rubbed our wet skin raw and nearly every muscle in our bodies broke down. It was my first goon squad—and the only one I ever needed. I may die on the next timed run, but I ain’t doin’ this crap again. There was one guy who swam like a fish but ended up in goon squad time and time again for not keeping up on the runs. I wondered how he ever survived all the goon squads.In First Phase, one thing sucked more than the four-mile timed runs:
Hell Week—the ultimate in train the best, discard the rest. It began late Sunday night with what is called breakout. M-60 machine guns blasted the air. We crawled out of the barracks as an instructor screamed, “Move, move, move!”
Outside on the grinder, an asphalt-covered area the size of a small parking lot, artillery simulators exploded—an incoming shriek followed by a boom. M-60s continued to rattle. A machine pumped a blanket of fog over the area. Green chemlights, glow sticks, decorated the outer perimeter. Water hoses sprayed us. The smell of cordite hung in the air. Over the loudspeakers blasted AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.”
Terror covered the faces of many guys. Their eyes looked like two fried eggs. Only minutes into it, the bell started ringing—people quit.
You can’t be serious. What the hell’s wrong? Yeah, instructors are running around shooting off machine guns and everything, but no one has smacked me in the face or beat me with a belt yet. I couldn’t comprehend why people were quitting already.
One legendary Hell Week event occurs on a steel pier where the navy docks its small boats. We took off our boots and stuffed our socks and belts in them. My fingers were so numb and shaky that I had a tough time taking off my boots.
Wearing our olive-drab green uniforms, we jumped into the bay with no life jackets, shoes, or socks. I immediately laid out in a dead man’s float while I undid the fly on my trousers. Still in a dead man’s float, when I needed air I’d bring my face out of the freezing water and take a quick bite of oxygen, then resume my position facedown in the water. When I started to sink too much, I kicked a couple of strokes.
Meanwhile, I pulled off my trousers. Then I zipped the fly shut.
With my trousers off, I tied the ends of the legs together with a square knot. Then, using both hands, I grabbed hold of the waist and kicked until my body straightened up from its float. I lifted my pants high in the air, then slammed them forward and down on the water, trapping air in the trouser legs.
As my upper body hung over the valley in the V of my homemade trouser flotation device, I felt relief. I had been so concerned about drowning that I had forgotten how frigid the water felt. Now that I wasn’t drowning, I started to remember the cold.
Some of our guys swam back to the pier. We tried to call them back, but they’d had enough. Ring, ring, ring.
Instructor Stoneclam said, “If one more of you rings the bell, the rest of you can come out of the water, too. Inside the ambulance we have warm blankets and a thermos of hot coffee.”
After one more ring of the bell, Stoneclam said, “Everybody out of the water!”
We crawled out of the water and onto the floating steel pier.
Instructor Stoneclam said, “Now strip down to your undershorts and lie down on the pier. If you don’t have shorts, your birthday suit is even better.”
I stripped down to my birthday suit and lay down. The instructors had prepared the pier by spraying it down with water. Mother Nature had prepared the pier by blowing cool wind across it. I felt like I was lying down on a block of ice. Then the instructors sprayed us with cold water. Our muscles contracted wildly. The spasms were uncontrollable.
We flapped around on the steel deck like fish out of water.
The instructors took us to the early stages of hypothermia. I would’ve done almost anything to get warm. Mike said, “Sorry, man, I gotta pee.”
“It’s O.K., man. Pee here.”
He urinated on my hands.
“Oh, thanks, buddy.” The warmth felt so good.
Most people think it’s just gross—they’ve obviously never been really cold.
Wednesday night—halfway through Hell Week—was the one time I thought about quitting. The instructors wasted no time beginning Lyon’s Lope, named after a Vietnam SEAL. We paddled our black inflatable boat about 250 yards out to pylons in San Diego Bay, turned the boat upside down, then right side up (called “dump boat”), paddled back to shore, ran half a mile on land carrying only our paddles, tossed our paddles into the back of a truck, sat in the bay to form a human centipede, hand-paddled 400 yards, ran 600 yards, grabbed our paddles and used them to centipede-paddle 400 yards, grabbed our boats, and boat-paddled out to the pylons, then back to shore. We all had Stage Two hypothermia. Stage One is mild to strong shivering with numbness in the hands—most people have experienced this level of hypothermia. Stage Two is violent shivering with mild confusion and stumbling. In Stage Three, the core body temperature drops below 90 degrees, shivering stops, and a person becomes a babbling, bumbling idiot. There is no Stage Four—only death. The instructors calculated air and water temperatures along with how long we stayed in the water in order to make us as cold as possible without causing permanent damage or killing us.
It was standing room only at the bell. My classmates rang it like Coronado was on fire. The instructors had backed up ambulances and opened the doors. Inside sat my former classmates wrapped up in wool blankets drinking hot chocolate. Instructor Stoneclam said, “Come here, Wasdin. You’re married, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Instructor Stoneclam.” My muscles felt too exhausted to move, but they shivered violently anyway.
“You don’t need this. Come here.” He walked me to the backs of the ambulances, so I could feel their warm air hit me in the face. “Have a cup of this hot chocolate.”
I held it in my hand. It was warm.
“If we’d wanted you to have a wife, we would’ve issued you one,” he explained. “Go over there and ring that damn bell. Get this over. I’ll let you drink that hot chocolate. Put you in this warm ambulance. Wrap you up in a thick blanket. And you don’t have to put up with this anymore.”
I looked over at the bell. It would be that easy. All I have to do is pull that mother three times. I thought about the heated ambulances with blankets and hot chocolate. Then I caught myself. Wait a minute. I’m not thinking clearly. That’s quitting. “Hooyah, Instructor Stoneclam.” I gave him back his hot chocolate.
“Get back with your class.”
Handing him back that cup of hot chocolate was the hardest thing I’d ever done. Let me go back and freeze while I get my nuts kicked some more.
Mike H. and I had a six-man boat crew before the other four quit. Now it was only the two of us struggling to drag our boat, weighing nearly 200 pounds, back to the BUD/S compound—instructors yelling at us for being too slow. We cussed at the quitters. “You sorry pieces of crap.” When Mike and I arrived at the compound, we were still angry.
Mike and I had gone from being their comrades to cussing them out for abandoning us. It’s why the training is so brutal. To find out who has your back when all hell breaks loose. After Wednesday night, I don’t remember anyone else quitting.
Early Thursday morning, I sat in the chow hall. They’re going to have to kill me. After everything I’ve been through, they’re going to have to cut me up in little pieces and mail me back to Wayne County, Georgia, because I’m not quitting now. Inside me, something clicked. It no longer mattered what we did next. I didn’t care. This has got to end sometime.
Deprived of support in our environment and the support of our own bodies, the only thing propping us up was our belief in accomplishing the mission—complete Hell Week. In psychology this belief is called self-efficacy. Even when the mission seems impossible, it is the strength of our belief that makes success possible. The absence of this belief guarantees failure. A strong belief in the mission fuels our ability to focus, put forth effort, and persist. Believing allows us to see the goal (complete Hell Week) and break the goal down into more manageable objectives (one evolution at a time). If the evolution is a boat race, it can be broken down into even smaller objectives such as paddling. Believing allows us to seek out strategies to accomplish the objectives, such as using the larger shoulder muscles to paddle rather than the smaller forearm muscles. Then, when the race is done, move on to the next evolution. Thinking too much about what happened and what is about to happen will wear you down. Live in the moment and take it one step at a time.
On Friday, the instructors took us out into the surf zone. We sat in the frigid ocean facing the sea with our arms linked, trying to stay together.
Instructor Stoneclam stood on the beach talking to our backs.
“This is the sorriest class we’ve ever seen. You couldn’t even keep the officers in your class.” Officers and enlisted men undergo the same training together. “You didn’t support them. You didn’t back them up. It’s your fault you don’t have any officers left. This last evolution, you had the slowest time in history. We have just received permission from Captain Bailey to extend Hell Week one more day.”
I looked over at my swim partner, Rodney. He seemed to be thinking what I was: Damn, we got to do this for one more day. O.K., you’ve been screwing us for this long, stick us in the ass for one more day.
Somebody else, I don’t remember who, wasn’t going to do an extra day. He would rather quit. Fortunately, he didn’t have to.
“Turn around and look at me when I’m talking to you!” Instructor Stoneclam said.
Like a platoon of zombies, we turned about-face.
There stood our commanding officer, Captain Larry Bailey. He had led one of the first SEAL Team Two platoons in Vietnam. He also helped create the SEAL Team Assault Boat (STAB). “Congratulations, men. I am securing Hell Week.”
Some of the others jumped for joy—I was hurting too bad for that kind of celebration. Randy Clendening cried tears of relief; he’d made it through with walking pneumonia. I stood there with a dumb look on my face. What am I doing here? I looked around. Where did everybody go? We’d started with 10 or 12 boat crews, six to eight men in each. Now we only had four or five boat crews. Why did those guys even start Hell Week if they knew they didn’t want it? They didn’t know they didn’t want it.
The next day, I rolled over on the top rack of my bunk bed and jumped off the way I always did, but my legs weren’t working. My face hit the deck, giving me a bloody nose and lip. A driver took us over to the chow hall in a van. People helped us get out of the vehicle. As we hobbled into the chow hall, all eyes seemed to be on us. We were the ones who had just made it through “the week.” It had been the coldest week in 23 years; hail had actually rained down on us at one point. While eating, I looked over at the tables where the guys who had quit during Hell Week sat.
They avoided eye contact.
Training resumed slowly, starting with a lot of stretching exercises.
Then it picked up speed. Time limits tightened. Distances increased.
More swims, runs, and obstacle course trials. Academic tests continued.
Pre–Hell Week, we had focused on topics such as first aid and boat handling. Now we focused on hydrographic reconnaissance. Enlisted men like me had to score 70 percent or higher. Although we had lost all our officers, officer standards were 80 percent or higher.
A new evolution we had to pass was the 50-meter underwater swim. At the pool, Instructor Stoneclam said, “All of you have to swim 50 meters underwater. You’ll do a somersault into the pool, so no one gets a diving start, and swim 25 meters across. Touch the end and swim 25 meters back. If you break the surface at any time, you fail. Don’t forget to swim along the bottom. The increased pressure on your lungs will help you hold your breath longer, so you can swim farther.”
I lined up with the second group of four students. We cheered the first group on. “Go for the blackout,” some of us said. It was a new way of thinking that would influence future activities—pushing the body to the edge of unconsciousness.
When it was my turn, I hyperventilated to decrease the carbon dioxide in my body and decrease the drive to breathe. During my somersault into the pool, I lost some breath. I oriented myself and swam as low as I could. After swimming 25 meters, I neared the other side.
During my turn, my foot touched the wall, but I didn’t get a great push-off.
My throat began to convulse as my lungs craved oxygen. Go for the blackout. I swam as hard as I could, but my body slowed down. The edges of my vision began to gray until I found myself looking at my destination through a black tunnel. As I felt myself begin to pass out, I actually felt peaceful. If I’d had any lingering thoughts about drowning, they were gone now. I tried to focus on the wall. Finally, my hand touched it. Instructor Stoneclam grabbed me by the waistband of my swim shorts and helped pull me out. I passed. Others were not so lucky. Two failed their second chance and were expelled from training.
(Note: Do not practice underwater swimming or breath holding at home because it will kill you.)
In Second Phase, Land Warfare, we learned covert infiltrations, sentry removal, handling agents/guides, gathering intelligence, snatching the enemy, performing searches, handling prisoners, shooting, blowing stuff up, etc. In Third Phase, Dive Phase, we learned underwater navigation and techniques for sabotaging ships. BUD/S prepares us to believe we can accomplish the mission—and to never surrender. No SEAL has ever been held prisoner of war. The only explicit training we receive in BUD/S is to look out for each other—leave no one behind. A lot of our tactical training deals with retreats, escape, and evasion. We are taught to be mentally tough, training repeatedly until our muscles can react automatically. In my encounters with the army, navy, air force, and marines, I’ve only seen Delta Force brief as well as we do.
A SEAL’s belief in accomplishing the mission transcends environmental or physical obstacles that threaten to make him fail. Often we think we’re indestructible. Forever the optimists, even when we’re outnumbered and outgunned, we still tend to think we have a chance to make it out alive—and be home in time for dinner.
Nevertheless, sometimes a SEAL can’t find his way back to Mother Ocean and must make a choice between fighting to the death or surrendering.
For many brave warriors, it’s better to roll the dice on surrendering in order to live to fight another day—SEALs have incredible respect for those POWs. As SEALs, though, we believe our surrender would be giving in, and giving in is never an option. I wouldn’t want to be used as some political bargaining chip against the United States.
I wouldn’t want to die in a cage of starvation or have my head cut off for some video to be shown around the world on the Internet. My attitude is that if the enemy wants to kill me, they’re going to have to kill me now. We despise would-be dictators who wish to dominate us—SEALs steer the rudders of their own destinies. Our world is a meritocracy where we are free to leave at any time. Our missions are voluntary; I can’t think of a mission that wasn’t. Ours is an unwritten code: It’s better to burn out than to fade away—and with our last breaths we’ll take as many of the enemy with us as possible.