Back in the summer of 1992, fresh out of my high school senior year, I had gone with my dad to pay a visit to the navy recruiter in Ventura. A few days after we talked with him, the recruiter drove me the roughly 100 miles down to Bakersfield to the Military Enrollment Processing Station (MEPS).
In Bakersfield, they gave me a full physical, followed by a placement test, similar to an SAT, then sat me down at a desk with Petty Officer Rosales. His name wasn’t really Rosales; I don’t know his real name. In fact, if you had pulled me out of that room and asked me his name right then and there, I couldn’t have told you. Petty Officer Rosales was from the Philippines, with an accent that was so thick I could barely understand a word he said.
I heard him say something that sounded like “Watchaw byuan?” He looked at me expectantly, waiting for my response. It took a minute for the penny to drop — then I got it. He had said, “What job you want?” Okay: This was a placement interview. I knew I had scored pretty high on their placement test, so I pretty much had my pick of tracks.
“I want to be a Navy SEAL.”
He looked me up and down, then began scrolling through his computer. It was so ancient I half expected to hear the sound of rusty pipes clunking as it went about its search. After a minute, he nodded and looked up at me.
“I get you into Aircrew Search and Rescue program.” His eyes grew big as he spoke these words like he was telling me I could be in line to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “You be search-and-rescue swimmer!”
Okay—wait. What? I wanted to be a SEAL, not an aircrew rescue guy. My face must have registered both confusion and disappointment because he nodded again and began speaking emphatically.
“This is a great puckin program, men — you get a puckin turd class petty officer outta goddamn program, men.”
I looked over at my recruiter. He smiled and nodded. “It’s a solid program, Webb, and there aren’t many who qualify.”
As I would learn, he was speaking the truth. For an enlisted person in the navy, aircrew search-and-rescue (SAR) swimmer is a plum post, one of the four or five top jobs there is.
For a regular navy guy, life on a ship can be hell: 12 hours on, 12 off, in some cases working some pretty nasty jobs. My recruiter was a “hull tech,” which is the navy’s fancy way of saying ship’s plumber. Imagine working on toilets and pulling shitty pipes for six months at a stretch. Whatever your rating (navy for “job”), if it’s your first time on the boat, you’re spending three months in the galley: slave labor (the kind Coleman saved me from). Not if you’re a SAR, though. As a rescue swimmer, I would be getting up each day and checking out the flight schedule, and I weren’t attached to a flight that day, I’d have ancillary duties, like keeping track of the aircrew logbooks — but I would basically have the day off. The next day, I might have a two-hour flight to drop off an admiral, and that’d be my day. A cherry posting.
But I didn’t know any of this at that point, and what he was describing sure didn’t sound like the track to SEAL training. I looked again at Petty Officer Rosales, still dubious.
“Issa great puckin job to get you inna SEALs, men,” he insisted.
Here was the problem: Petty Officer Rosales didn’t really understand how the path to SEALs worked, and because of that, he didn’t have a clear grasp of how to steer me in the right direction. In the years since then, they’ve improved the recruiting process. Today you can go right out of boot camp into the particular training school for your rating and then right into BUD/S. However, that’s not how it was then. Back when I was joining the navy, they had what they called SEAL source ratings — certain jobs that they routinely sourced for new SEAL candidates — and if you didn’t have one of those jobs, you had to go to serve in the regular navy fleet and then enter the long way around. I eventually realized that I could have gone a far more direct route into BUD/S, so in that sense, SAR turned out to be a lengthy detour.
Still, there could have been a hell of a lot worse detours. Petty Officer Rosales was right about one thing: SAR was a great puckin program. It meant I had guaranteed aircrew school and guaranteed Search and Rescue school, after which I could pick my aviation-related job on a plane or helicopter. Also, I would be accelerated from E-1, the entry-level rank for an enlisted sailor, to E-4, a noncommissioned officer (NCO) rank, which would mean a significant boost in both pay and stature. In time, I would be grateful for a number of reasons that I had gotten onto this track — but I had no idea how hard it would be to get out of this program and into BUD/S.
I was put on delayed entry, which meant I wouldn’t be showing up for boot camp for a good ten months. I spent that summer, fall, and winter working at Mike Dahan’s retail dive shop in Ventura, working and waiting. It was a good time. Mike ran an excellent shop, and I got to be good friends with his shop manager, Keith Dinette, and Keith’s high school sweetheart, Nicole. (In fact, we are close friends to this day.) Still, I was impatient to get going and be on the path to becoming a Navy SEAL. Finally, in March, an airline ticket showed up in the mail. A friend drove me to LAX, where I was paired up to room with another guy who was headed for boot camp. The next morning, we were on the plane to Orlando.
And now here I was, just days away from graduating boot camp, trying to figure out how to hell to get myself on the track to BUD/S.
“Sorry, Webb,” the SEAL told me. “You have orders to Search and Rescue — and they’re undermanned in that program. We can’t just yank you out. You’ll have to wait until your final duty station and then apply for a transfer.”
Talk about taking the wind out of my sails. I pleaded with him to let me switch programs, but he said there was little he could do for me.
“Be patient,” he said. “You’re showing promise; you’ve got good traits. Keep at it. Just apply at your next command.”
I was not happy about this, but what the hell, I told myself. At least I wasn’t headed to a ship to chip paint. Search and Rescue would be a great program, SAR would be a great position — and besides, as soon as I got to my command, I could apply and get fast-tracked to BUD/S.
Hey, how long could it take?
My dad showed up in Orlando for my graduation from boot camp. It was a good feeling, walking out of there knowing I’d accomplished something significant. I could tell he was proud of me.
A year earlier, when he first heard I was serious about going into the navy, my dad had been there for me and cheered me along, even giving me a Ford Ranger to drive, as a combined high-school-graduation/congratulations-for-enlisting-in-the-navy gift. While so many other people were pooh-poohing my aspirations to be a SEAL, my dad had been totally supportive. Given our rocky history together, this had felt especially good to me.
Things had not gone well for my parents’ marriage. After returning from that ill-fated boat trip to New Zealand (minus one teenaged son), they had found themselves faced with irreconcilable differences and unable to work things out. Maybe the stress of coming back to reality in the States after their big boat trip exacerbated things. I’m sure finances were no help. Whatever the particulars and reasons of the moment, my dad decided to move out.
My mom was crushed, but in time managed to get past it (if not entirely over it), and eventually she met another guy. Within a few years, my dad must have realized what he’d lost because suddenly he was trying to win her back. It was a one-way bridge he’d driven her over, though, and she wasn’t going back.
Every now and then he would come visit me on the Peace, Captain Bill’s dive boat, and do a little scuba diving. Our relationship continued to be pretty much just as strained as it had been on the deck of the Agio. On one of these visits, soon after my seventeenth birthday, we went diving off Gull Island, a little pinnacle rock off the backside of Santa Cruz Island. We anchored up, and he was one of the first guys into the water. A half-hour later he headed up toward the surface to see where the boat was — and surfaced right smack into a big patch of kelp. It was a very bad spot, with the surf breaking over an especially rocky coast. He got tangled up in the kelp, panicked, and spit his regulator out.
At the time, I was serving in the role of rescue diver, so I dove in to help him out. I can remember the scene as if it were happening right now: I’m staring out at Jack Webb, this tough-guy hero of mine who is panicking and yelling for help, and I’m the one there to rescue him. It was hard to wrap my head around, but my training kicked in. I dove into the water, swam the 300 or 400 yards in a flash, and pulled his ass out of there. It put us in a weird situation, and we’d never talked about it, but it hovered there, making our already complicated relationship even more awkward.
Right after graduation from boot camp, I got my first military paycheck. I couldn’t wait to look at it. I ripped open the envelope and stared at the numbers. It a check for about $700. Considering I’d been there for two months, that came to a little more than 10 dollars a day. I’d been making better money than that working on the dive boat when I was 14! I didn’t care. It was something — and I was in the navy, on the road to becoming a SEAL.
I had a week before I would be checking into Aircrew Candidate School in Pensacola, so I bought a plane ticket to go see my dad, who was now living in Jackson Hole, right on the Idaho-Wyoming border. I flew into Salt Lake, where he met me, and we drove up to his place, where we had a great time together. We went skiing, drank beer, goofed off. We drove around in my Ford Ranger, which he was keeping for me in Jackson Hole while I was going through my navy training. I had the sense that he was trying to reach out to me, and I appreciated it, even though things still felt a little strained between us.
The week came to an end and it was time for me to get back. I had a few uniforms I wanted to get dry-cleaned. I’d pretty much blown my whole paycheck on the ticket out and my return ticket to Florida, and I had no cash left.
“So Dad,” I said, “could you hook me up with a little cash so I can get these uniforms cleaned, pressed, and looking sharp when I go back?”
He looked at me for a moment without a word — and then started giving me a hard time, berating me for hitting him up for money.
What the hell? I stared at him, not believing what I was hearing. After all this time, after all we’d been through, he was going to make me feel guilty about helping me out with a little dry-cleaning? I’d saved his goddam life, for crying out loud, and he couldn’t help me make sure I had a clean uniform?
I lost it and started yelling at him — and before either of us knew what was happening I was sitting there behind the wheel of that Ranger, bawling my eyes out in anger and frustration.
Instantly he knew he had screwed up in a big way, and he felt truly terrible about the whole thing — at least so I would learn many years later. At the time, it sure didn’t show. A blanket of quiet hostility settled over us. He gave me the money. I vowed to myself that I would never ask him for anything again, ever. I left the Ranger with him and told him it was his now. I didn’t want it.
We did not part on good terms. Soon, though hardly soon enough, I was out of there and on a plane back to Florida for the next leg of the journey.
My next stop was Pensacola, way out on the Florida panhandle, where I would check-in for two months of training at the Naval Aircrew Candidate School.
Aircrew school was a much more relaxed environment than boot camp had been. While boot camp was all about physical conditioning, aircrew school was mostly about giving us an orientation, as well as screening to make sure none of us had any physiological problems with flying.
We’d get up early, put on our shorts and T-shirts, go do a little PT, eat breakfast, and then hit the classroom. They strapped me into a flight simulator, a big cylindrical chamber outfitted with a seat and handles. Once they shut me in, the thing started moving, spinning at different speeds, now faster, now slower, changing both speed and direction at unpredictable intervals; the whole time a voice was talking to me from some unseen speaker, walking me through the various maneuvers. Clearly, the thing was designed to put our inner ears to the test, to push the limits of our capacity to withstand acceleration and extremes of motion without getting vertigo. We called them spin-n-pukes.
Some guys washed out right then and there. A few others didn’t survive drug testing (I wondered how they’d gotten this far), and one or two had mental health issues that knocked them out of the running.
The PT standards in aircrew school were a bit more severe than we’d had in boot camp. Still, there wasn’t much of it. To me, the PT seemed pretty easy, and I could feel myself starting to get out of shape. For some of the guys, though, it wasn’t easy at all, and a few more washed out because they couldn’t meet the physical standards.
Pensacola was a great place to be young and in the navy. We were right on the border of Florida and Alabama, and things were fairly loose. Girls were everywhere and most places in town didn’t check your ID at the bars if you were military. I was in heaven.
Most of our class were headed to work in aircrew jobs or other navy jobs. Only a handful of us were going on to Search and Rescue, and when it came time to graduate we said, “Oh, shit.” We were excited but also somewhat terrified. We knew our next step was going to be a good deal harder.
After Aircrew Candidate School I headed down the block for four weeks of Search and Rescue school, and sure enough, here things kicked up a notch. Although it was just down the street, it might as well have been a thousand miles away. Search and Rescue school was a completely different world.
At SAR school they ran a tight ship, and the atmosphere was serious and professional. We showed up early every morning for inspection, and our uniforms had to be perfect. From there we went to PT, followed by a three-mile conditioning run, followed by some swims, then the classroom, and then we hit the pool for training.
The training environment revolved around a huge indoor pool that simulated sea state, the irregular swell of waves on the open ocean, in a space the size of a large gymnasium. They had huge spray machines to simulate helicopter rotor wash, and parachute-like devices hanging down from cranes, which they used to drag us through the pool. We learned the basics of lifesaving, then moved on to more advanced techniques for rescuing downed airmen.
Imagine you are a pilot and you’ve had to eject from your craft. It’s the middle of the night, and you’ve parachuted into rough water. You can’t see a thing, you’re weighed down and badly entangled in a web of parachute shroud lines, and the water is freezing cold. We’re the guys who jump out of helicopters into this environment to save your ass.
When people are plunged unexpectedly into the water, they tend to panic, and even though you’re the guy swimming out there to save their life, they tend to grab on to you and push you down. It’s not conscious, it’s out of pure panic. Still, conscious or not, they are doing their level best to drown you. So we did a lot of what they described as drown proofing.
The objective was to make sure we were ready for whatever conditions might be thrown at us. They taught us how to get the pilot out of his chute and then either clip him into a litter or fit him fast with a rescue strap device that slips under the arms. Then we would have to clip ourselves in and get us both hoisted up and into the waiting helo, all while the victim was panicking and trying to fight us off. There are dozens of different types of harnesses, straps, chutes, and other systems, and we had to know the procedures for every one of them — and we had to know them blind, backward and forward because we might be dealing with them in the worst of circumstances, with a panicked or incapacitated human being on our hands. We also had to master a range of first aid techniques, because you never know what kinds of injuries a downed pilot might have sustained.
Near the end of the four weeks was final exam time. We all filed into the locker room and sat down on benches to wait while they called us out, one by one, to go to the pool for our turn. When my name was called, I stood up and walked out into the open pool area.
The place was noisy and dimly lit, simulating a nighttime scene. The rotor chop simulator spray was on, the hoist equipment was up and running, and there below me was a downed pilot flailing around in the water, on the edge of drowning.
I leaped off the platform, eyes looking to the horizon as instructed, and felt myself splash down into the tank. I swam directly toward the panicked victim, trying in vain to sense when I was getting close. It was impossible to hear anything over the roar of the machinery and chop of the waves. Suddenly two huge arms wrapped around me like a steel bear trap, and we were both thrashing in the water. I could feel his panic. I knew it was simulated and that he was in reality a skilled instructor posing as a terrified pilot — but he was a good actor, and he was taking me down.
The shroud lines were everywhere. I knew I couldn’t let myself get tangled in those goddam ropes, but it was very difficult not to. For an instant I flashed on that picture of my dad, struggling to fight clear of that cloying bed of kelp and spitting out his regulator in panic. I wanted to say, “For Chrissake calm down — I’ll get you out of here!” But I knew that when someone is in a panic, there’s no talking to him. Finally, I managed to free myself from the guy’s grip, wrestle him into the harness system, and get him hoisted up onto the helo.
Once he was laid out on the floor, I saw that he was badly injured. His injuries were simulated, of course, but the special effects were very good — and I had to administer the correct first aid if I wanted to pass the test.
That exam was tough. Fortunately for me, my years of experience on Captain Bill’s dive boat had sharpened my water skills to a fine point, and I made it through okay. Not so for some of the others. The drown-proofing was where most people washed out. In that frantic, darkened, noisy environment, feeling themselves being dragged down by a crazy person, they would lose their grip and panic themselves. A few of our victims “drowned.”
Search and Rescue was an excellent training experience. Graduates of this program are an elite bunch. Howard Wasdin, the SEAL who fought in the “Black Hawk Down” battle of Mogadishu and went on to write the book SEAL Team Six, started out training as a search-and-rescue swimmer. I was proud when I finished the course, and I’m proud to this day to have belonged to the SAR community.
Brandon Webb is a former Navy SEAL who finished his career as the Navy SEAL sniper course manager, a course that has graduated a few legendary snipers of the modern century. You can read more of his books, like the Red Circle, here.