HELL WEEK IS HELL: AND IT HAS TO REMAIN THAT WAY

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.