This past week one Navy SEAL candidate died and another was hospitalized almost immediately following the completion of “Hell Week.” Hell Week is considered the hardest week of the hardest military training in the world (For a great description check out SOFREP founder Brandon Webb’s article on his Hell Week). Hell Week occurs in the first phase of SEAL training known as Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL training or colloquially BUD/s. Few details have been released about the cause of death of the trainee. Seaman Kyle Mullen, who played three years of Varsity football at Yale before enlisting in the Navy, died during a medical check almost immediately following the completion of Hell Week. The second student was hospitalized with unknown status and conditions. While this is tragic for the families of the two candidates, Seaman Mullen’s death is not the first nor will it likely to be the last death to occur during the brutal selection process.

My Hell Week started in September of 2001, during BUD/s class 237. We, especially the officers, were keenly aware that just two hell weeks prior, class leader LT Jon Skop had died in the pool attempting a caterpillar swim during a grueling evolution. We had been told that LT Skop developed SIPE, or Swimmer Induced Pulmonary Edema, essentially drowning on the inside. According to the American College of Cardiology SIPE is “a form of hemodynamic pulmonary edema caused by an exaggerated increase in pulmonary vascular pressures in response to immersion in water, intense physical activity, and host factors.” As BUD/s students we were intimately familiar with ‘immersion, activity, and host factors which we took to mean cold water and lack of sleep. SIPE was an invisible enemy, and every time you coughed or swallowed a grip of saltwater, somewhere in the back of your mind, you wondered if the stealth assassin of fluid in the lungs was coming for you. It is unknown if Seaman Mullen suffered from a similar phenomenon, but it is a good guess that if he had SIPE, he did his best to conceal it in order to make it through one of the toughest tests on the road to becoming a SEAL. While many quit, nobody died during our Hell Week. During the course of training, we had a sailor pass out in the pool and be taken to the hospital to be put on life support (his fate remains lost to the annals of BUD/s history), we had another candidate ‘sand dart’ 30 feet to the ground with a broken back after falling off the O-course on an obstacle known as the ‘slide for life.’ More recently in 2016 Seaman Derek Lovelace died in the pool during training. In every one of these instances, including the most recent death of Seaman Mullen, the official reaction followed a familiar pattern. Appropriately, there is a call for an investigation, followed by an acknowledgment that SEAL training is dangerous, and while it is important to put safeguards in place, high-risk training is exactly that- high risk. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby acknowledged this with his recent statement “The training has to be demanding, given the work that our Navy SEALs do on behalf of this country every single day. So you would expect the standards to be very, very high for their readiness.”

The Economics Theory of Navy SEAL Training

In any organization and most endeavors, there is a tradeoff between risk and outcomes. In corporate environments, this is often thought of as a benefit-cost analysis. The potential benefits are considered against the costs (or risks) associated with a particular action. In corporations that risk is most often associated with the peril to profits or corporate reputation. In the stock market, investors must also weigh the risk ratio of a stock or sector in relation to its potential growth or performance. The most common investment methodology for doing so is something called the Sharpe Ratio, named after the Nobel prize-winning economist William Sharpe. The Sharpe ratio measures the risk of an investment versus the rate of return compared against a more stable asset like a treasury bill with a low but stable expected rate of return. In the profession of arms, or in SEAL training, similar calculations are made. The probability is weighed not in relation to profit but rather against the risk to life and limb versus the value of the training in taking such risks.

There is a cold and calculating methodology that policy officials often use to assess the ‘benefit-cost’ when there is a likelihood of injury or death. Surprisingly to some, the government calculates this risk of fatality versus cost all the time. It is referred to as the Value of a Statistical Life or VSL. Think of an engineer designing a curve on a new highway. The engineer has to calculate the bank of the curve in relation to the speed of traffic. A riskier curve might be less expensive than a shallow curve, but at some point, the engineer has to determine the optimum curve that balances risk versus cost. One of the ways that balance is determined is by looking at the VSL. Using economic estimates, the Department of Transportation used a VSL in 2020 of human life being worth $11.6 million versus the cost of making the highway curve we mentioned above even safer. This might feel callous. Isn’t the job of the government to protect people? Sort of, but like anything else there are trade-offs. We could have 100% security at airports but the TSA lines might take 24 hours. We could have the safest curve on the highway but it might cost too much or slow down traffic. So an engineer has to calculate the likely number of fatalities versus the VSL cost of those fatalities and factor that against the cost of his design.  In almost all domains of public life, we put this kind of risk management into place. In SEAL training leaders also have to balance the concept of risk versus output. SEAL training could be de-risked to the point of a perfect safety record. That zero risk strategy would likely result in a force that hadn’t been tested in extreme life-threatening situations (I would further make the argument that an untested force could be more costly in lives lost down the line in combat). In some aspects of training, it is exactly the danger threshold that tests a candidate’s mettle, their ability to succeed under duress and fear. SEAL training, and specifically Hell Week, is designed to be as close as possible an approximation of combat. Candidates are cold, tired, scared, wet, and yet still expected to perform at an optimal level during high-risk evolutions. While there are extraordinary safety protocols in place, it is unrealistic to expect a zero fatality rate while still trying to produce thousands of elite warriors over decades. Furthermore, losing someone in hard training occasionally is much preferred over the alternative: Losing an entire SEAL platoon accompanied by mission failure in combat because of an unrealistic zero-risk training program.

U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Eric S. Logsdon

“…no one does it for the money.”

While SEAL commanders thankfully do not have to calculate the risk-benefit of high-risk evolutions in economic terms (merely in terms of efficacious training), there is something instructive in the theory behind VSL that gives us even further insight into elite military selection pipelines. Traditionally VSL is calculated by a complex localized formula that includes an estimation of loss of lifetime income and medical costs associated with the death. Increasingly though economists and policymakers are using a different methodology to calculate VSL. Instead of measuring the loss of wage rates in the economy from a fatality, they use a measure of the change in wages relative to the risk in an occupation. Conventional economic theory holds that riskier jobs will be commensurate with higher salaries. This is known as the Hedonic Wage Equilibrium. Theoretically, higher-risk jobs will be compensated more, or corporations can add safety measures to reduce the risk and also salaries while attracting more workers. In what is a good illustration of the clash between classic economic theory and behavioral economics, the Hedonic Wage Equilibrium seems to break down when we think about SEAL training (or military service in general). Post BUD/s SEALs will be entitled to a series of Hazardous Duty Incentive Pays. Military Parachute duty pay is $150. Imminent Danger pay is $225 monthly. Essentially the military will pay you $475 a month to jump out of perfectly good airplanes and get shot at by the enemy. This defies economic theory, or rather it reinforces a SEAL maxim, no one does it for the money.

Hedonic Wage Equilibrium cannot explain why Seaman Mullen signed up for BUD/s training knowing fully well that this training could(and unfortunately did)result in his death. Instead, there is another factor at work. A willingness to run through fire to accomplish a goal, to complete a mission. It is worth noting that Seaman Mullen died after completing Hell Week. He embodied a meme-ish unofficial motto plastered on class T-shirts for generations of aspiring frogmen, “Die First, then Quit.” Seaman Mullen, did not quit. He was one of a small percentage of people to have ever attempted much less completed one of the most daunting tasks in military selection before giving his last full measure of devotion. While tragic, in the special operations community, that statistic has great value on the battlefield and will ultimately save more lives in combat than will be lost in training.

For this reason, we may grieve and mourn our losses, but then we have to don our web gear and hit the surf line again before dawn because it’s what we signed up for.