March, 1999. Naval Special Warfare Training Center Coronado, California. Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training.
Her vision started to go blurry as she felt what it must like to be trapped under ice with no way out. The light in her eyes gave way to darkness as she pushed forward with all her might. Another stroke, just focus on one more, almost.
“Can’t go up, just a little bit further and I’m there. You can fucking do this JJ.”
Before she jumped in the pool and could take a full deep breath for the 50 meter test someone had shoved her. She didn’t know who it was but had a damn good idea. She was an excellent swimmer, turned down a full swim scholarship for a shot at the Navy SEALs. She continued to press on even though she’d only taken half breath at most. “Keep going, fuck him.”
There was no push off the wall allowed for the fifty meter underwater swim.
SEAL candidates had to enter feet first, do an underwater front flip and start swimming with no push off the wall for a full fifty meters underwater.
At the halfway point she felt the urge to breathe getting stronger as she stroked and tried to push the natural instinct to gulp for air out of her head.
The human body starts to shut down at a certain point and she was definitely at her limit and she knew it. Then all faded to black and she went limp.
When Instructor Ortega, and Gammon yanked the body out of the pool there was no pulse.
Four weeks earlier…
I hope wherever you are right now this story gets to you. It’s my story, all the dirt, bumps, bruises and aching bones of it.
You were right, it was incredibly tough but so rewarding as most difficult things are.. I hope you enjoy, and I make you and mom proud. .
Monday morning October 30th, the day before Halloween, I walked into the Naval Special Warfare training command quarterdeck, in my full dress blues. Four years after starting the US Naval Academy I was finally here, to check in for Navy SEAL training as the first woman officer with BUD/S class 222.
“Hold nothing back.”, they said.
So here I was. A mixed race girl from Brooklyn with problems and dreams like the rest of my class.
I guess I was just lucky enough to be born at a time when women’s equality in America was finally being addressed at all professional levels.
What I think most people don’t realize in America is how the military really doesn’t care what color, race or sex you are, they just want the job done well. It’s one of the few places I’ve experienced as a true meritocracy.
It’s the politicians that force crazy policy on us that serve but, I can tell you from personal experience that the men and women I’ve served with are some of America’s finest.
I was grateful the navy gave me the opportunity to be one of the first women to try out for the Navy SEALs, one of the best Special Operations forces in navy, the world for that matter.
I hope by sharing my story it serves as inspiration for other young women to take their shot, whatever it is you dream about late at night with the lights out.
SEAL Training Command, Coronado, CA present day
“What in thee fuck are you fucking looking at? You think you’re going to get some special treatment and some pronoun recognition around here fuck face? Don’t count on it one God damn second you waste of fucking sperm that somehow made it into the gene pool!” said the NFL sized instructor with wild and crazy eyes.
“Hooyah instructor Yetka,” Parks replied.
Hooyah could mean many things I would come to learn.
Typically it meant “yes” but oftentimes it meant many more like, fuck you, fuck me, we’re fucked, this water is fucking cold, and so on. I learned that “Hooyah” was a catch all phrase that somehow the folks at Webster dictionary left out of their book of words.
Something about Yetka made my neck hair creep up every time he looked my way.
I just know this guy is going to be trouble for me.
“Don’t let’em get to yah ma’am.”
“Joe Hardin nice to meet you.”, as he stuck out his hand.
I was a bit taken back.
“Thanks, I’m JJ, nice to meet you Joe.”
I liked Joe Hardin immediately, just the touch of his strong grip as they shook hands gave me a warm feeling inside.
There was something genuine about Hardin that I really liked. He was tall, lanky and even with his large crooked nose he was very handsome. A rugged guy next door kinda way.
“Good luck ma’am I’m off to medical to turn in my records, nice to meet you.”
“See you around Hardin and thanks for the kind words.”
I knew he didn’t have to say anything to me but he did. He took a risk that most in my experience wouldn’t. Too bad he was enlisted or else there might be something interesting with him in the future. And too bad the navy has such a strict policy against officer and enlisted relationships.
Julia Jones Parks, or “JJ” as my dad nicknamed me. It stuck ever since.
All my friends called me JJ.
I started this journey over four years ago when the navy recruiter came to my high school. He said I could be among the first group of four women to pass the grueling Navy SEAL pre-selection, and get a shot at becoming a Navy SEAL at BUD/S training in Coronado, California.
He left off that ninety percent don’t make it. I had to learn that at the Naval Academy.
I learned that the majority quit and a slim percentage actually get medically disqualified for injury or worse.
There was no idea I knew what was in store for me. No amount of videos could come close to what I am about to share with you, my attempt to make it through the toughest training the military has to offer.
When I first checked in one of the on duty students told me there were three other women in my class, 222.
To make things even more stressful for me, my father had a stroke back in Brooklyn the week before I classed up. I kept trying to push to the back of her mind.
I told my dad to take it easy but he would have nothing of it. He had it out for one of the local drug pushers had moved into our Crown Heights neighborhood and started pushing his product on the young kids on the block. Their parents, part of the gentrification, had more than enough money to spend on extracurricular activities that most young Manhattanites dabbled in.
My dad wasn’t taking it sitting down, and he confronted the dealer and since have had regular run-ins with him.
I couldn’t help imagining my dad as the old man Clint Eastwood played in the movie, Gran Torino. Only my dad, also a widower, and a veteran, but a lot tougher than Walt Kowoski! He was not one to back down.
“Don’t you worry about me JJ. Aint nothin I can’t handle. You focus on being your best self.”, her dad said on the phone after his stroke.
“Love you dad.”, she said as they hung up.
If had any idea what was coming for me in the months ahead maybe I would have just quit day one and saved myself the humiliating punishment that was coming my way.
I tried to keep dad out of my mind for the time being but something wasn’t sitting right about that drug dealer. I learned to trust my instincts back home on the streets of Brooklyn. Some instincts you get growing up on a farm and some you get living in the concrete jungle.
New York had a way of speeding up the learning curve for the young compared to the rest of the world.
I know that most of the SEAL instructor staff would be elated if I quit, most weren’t keen on the extra work and political spotlight shining on them. I know this because the President’s office called me before I shipped off to training.
She had taken a keen interest in my training slot as the first women, and first women officer to go through BUD/S.
The Oval office felt like the eye of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings to me. Just peering down on me and the historic Coronado training base as myself and the other qualified female candidates classed up with 222. I felt like it could melt a hole through solid steel ten feet thick let alone burn a few careers in the process, mine included.
Back at the academy I read all about BUD/S or what was called, Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL training. I would come to learn that it was among the toughest, if not the the hardest, military selection courses in the world and had a 90 percent failure rate, that part my high school recruiter left off. I guess he needed to meet his quota and later I learned got some big bonus for signing up a woman candidate to the program.
That meant what the over 200 who would start my class would finish with around twenty. I’d be lying if I said I liked those odds.
I heard about one class that didn’t graduate anyone at all! They had less than a handful of students left and had to merge them with the class behind them.
Apparently BUD/S is one of the few military courses where the Pacific Ocean, served ice cold, was used to make hardened steel, and I wanted it pretty badly.
The US and the World’s Army, Air Force and Marines all had great Special Operations programs but I’d learned that nothing compared to SEAL training, not even close. I wanted to be the best.
My SEAL professor at the academy would tell stories about the water being the one ingredient that separated the SEAL Teams from the rest. He’d say that other units always compared themselves to the SEALs but they all knew deep down it was no contest.
“They always had to say something about the SEALs and most of the guys on the Teams just knew that the water was the one thing that separated them and really didn’t have much to say back.”
It was 0700, at the BUD/S quarterdeck.
“The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday,” sign hung over the entrance to the main training compound in blue and gold letters.
The student on duty told me to muster and wait for the other three women outside the second floor above the main compound outside the Commanding Officer’s (CO’s) office.
“Up there.”, he pointed.
I had no idea why the CO would want to see us but I’d been in the navy enough now to assume we were probably going to get a lecture.
I walked up the stairs and from where I was standing I could see a big green monster. It was a replica from the Creature of the Black Lagoon movie I’d later learn.
A sign hung around his neck that read, “So you wanna be a Frogman…”, it dared all onlookers.
“Yes I do…a frog woman.”
First of the Best, is former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb’s first solo debut novel. It follows the story of Julia “JJ” Parks as she goes through Navy SEAL training (almost drowns) as of the first women, and the first female officer.
I started working on this project last year and shared a few crazy excerpts on SOFREP and the feedback has been incredible. I want to thank the SOFREP community for inspiring me to finish this book. Yes! I’m done climbing literary Everest with no oxygen tanks! Thank you for all the support and look for the book on shelves next year.
Let me know what you think and the title.
As we say in Lisbon, Obrigado!