On Friday morning, June 14, 1997, two days after my twenty-third birthday, I arrived in my dress whites on the main quarterdeck of the pre-training office in Coronado to check in for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. It had taken me more than four years to get this far, and I was aware that the odds of making it through the course were somewhere between 1 and 3 out of 10. I was nervous as hell.
The grunt on duty handed me a check-in sheet with a list of signatures to collect that would grant me admission, signatures for such items as Medical, Dental, Admin, and Physical Training Rest and Rehabilitation, or PTRR. As I scanned the page I heard a roar like the crash of a gigantic surf coming from outside. The sound practically shook the building.
“Forty-nine! Fifty! Fifty-one!”
It was a BUD/S class doing their PT on the grinder, the legendary concrete-and-asphalt courtyard just outside the quarterdeck doors where BUD/S calisthenics take place. I can still feel the shivers that ran up my spine as I stood there in the sweltering June heat, hearing the thunder those guys produced.
Walking outside, I saw about thirty hard-looking guys in brown shirts and tan UDT shorts doing PT in the courtyard with a chiseled blond instructor leading them through the exercises. The students were lined up on the black concrete, their feet positioned atop staggered rows of small, white frog-feet outlines painted onto the grinder’s surface. Just off the edge of the concrete, there hung a shiny brass ship’s bell with a well-worn braided rope trailing down from the ringer. At the foot of the bell, more than a hundred green helmets lined the ground in a neat, mournful row, each helmet inscribed with the name and rank of one more would-be SEAL who would never go on to graduate training.
“Sixty-one! Sixty-two! Sixty-three!”
This was the infamous brass bell, one of the most dreaded symbols of SEAL lore. If you reached the point where you decided you just couldn’t take it, I’d heard, where the training was just too brutal to go on, you would signify that you were stepping out by leaving the grinder and ringing the brass bell three times. You would leave your class helmet behind. The brass bell was a one-way street out of BUD/S.
It was good to finally see that thing, sitting there silently suspended in the air as if it were taunting me. “Go on, sit there and wait,” I almost murmured out loud. “I’ll be damned if I’ll ever touch you.”
I walked to the PTRR check-in office to get my processing started. The door was closed and I had to knock quite loudly to be heard over the roar of the class as they counted out their push-ups.
“Eighty-five! Eighty-six! Eighty-seven!”
“Have a seat,” said a guy about my age, sitting on a bench outside the door. “They’ll be right with us.” I sat down next to him and asked him what duty station he was from. He told me he’d come here right out of boot camp. He nodded at the guys we were both watching.
“They just finished Hell Week,” he said. “That’s why they look so hard and fired up.” We both sat and watched the thirty guys pounding out their PTs. “That’s why they’re wearing those brown shirts,” he added. “They give you those when you survive Hell Week. If you survive Hell Week.”
Everyone in the Navy knew about Hell Week, which comes near the end of Phase One, typically starting on a Sunday evening and ending the following Friday. Hell Week is where you are pushed hard for five and a half days straight, with scarcely more than an hour’s sleep per day, right up to the limits of physical and especially mental fortitude.
I sat there gazing at these guys who were in a place I envied, chatting with my new buddy, swapping bits and pieces we’d heard about Hell Week, when I was suddenly snapped to attention by a voice that sliced the air like a steel blade.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?!” The blond instructor had focused his attention on the two of us. “What are you looking at?!” Clearly this was a rhetorical question and I didn’t even try to answer.
“You are not fit to breathe the same air as this class!” he yelled at us. “If you know what’s best, you will turn the fuck around and shut the fuck up, or I will personally ensure that you are on the first boat leaving San Diego Bay for the western Pacific ocean this week!”
Jesus. I hadn’t even started checking in, and here I was already being faced with the threat of going back to the fleet. I quickly turned the fuck around and shut the fuck up and my bench mate followed suit. A few minutes later we were let into the PTRR office and given our room assignments. We would be starting the following week.
BUD/S Class 215 consisted of 220 men, at least at the outset. That number wouldn’t hold for long. BUD/S training is broken into three phases, preceded by a five-week indoctrination phase, called indoc. The six weeks of First Phase focused on physical conditioning and included the infamous Hell Week. Second Phase consists of eight weeks of diving and water skills, and Third Phase, nine weeks of land warfare. The whole thing adds up to more than seven months, the whole purpose of which really boils down to one of two things: to prepare you for the real training, which comes after you graduate—or to spit you out.
It started spitting us out right away.
That first week of indoc we all did the initial BUD/S PT test over again, and not all of us passed. Just during indoc, we lost twenty guys. Boom. Ten percent of the class, gone, and we hadn’t even started First Phase yet.
There were two guys in my BUD/S class whom I already knew from that pre-BUD/S course we’d taken in Great Lakes a year earlier: Rob Stella and Lars the blond überdude with the tree-trunk thighs. Stella was quite the comedian and became a good friend. Lars I never had the chance to know well: in our first week of First Phase, he quit.
Our first week. This completely flipped me out. Seeing guys like Lars quit, especially so early on, was a revelation. This was not about who could do the most push-ups or the shortest run times. This was about persevering, about not quitting. These guys might be able to knock out twice as many pull-ups as I could, but that didn’t necessarily mean they could handle the mental stress—being constantly yelled at, ripped apart, and put down, at the same time that we were being put through physically punishing environments.
Over the coming months, I saw guys who looked like Conan the Barbarian, accomplished athletes who had been at the top of their game in professional sports, who had qualified for Olympic trials, seriously tough, mean-looking dudes, cry like babies as they walked across the grinder to go ring that brass bell. And I saw guys who weighed barely over a hundred pounds take the most brutal physical and psychological punishment and keep on trucking without complaint.
However, there was little time or cause to feel smug about any of this. Frankly, I was relieved to have made the first cut. I knew that the first six weeks was a weeding out process—and that I was already a pretty good candidate for being one of the early weeds. As I had feared would happen, my long months on the USS Kitty Hawk had made me soft. Before checking in to BUD/S I had taken a thirty-day leave, and I spent a lot of those thirty days trying like hell to get back into some kind of condition. By the time I got to BUD/S, I thought I was in pretty decent shape. I quickly learned that I was wrong.
In fact, I learned it on the first Monday morning of First Phase.
Our PTRR instructor in charge said a few words and turned us over to the First Phase instructor staff. Everyone in the class knew that we were about to enter a world of hurt, and the moment we were handed over to the First Phase staff on that warm mid-July morning, we did. All two hundred of us had lined up on those staggered white frog feet painted on the black grinder, and we now faced someone we would quickly recognize as our worst enemy.
The men who gravitate to become First Phase instructors are among the most physically fit people on the planet. They see themselves as guardians of the gate, and they are there to punish and bring the pain. They are the most feared, the meanest, ugliest, most physically conditioned guys you’ll ever meet. We had eight instructors for First Phase, but four of them comprised the A list, the ones who would be a constant abrasive presence in our lives until we either made it on to Second Phase or rang that damned brass bell.
Instructor Gillespie was a monster of a guy, six-foot-four, pushing three hundred pounds and all of it muscle and bone.
Instructor Getka, a menacing Irishman with strawberry-blond hair, six-three and completely ripped, looked like he was carved out of a freaking piece of granite.
Instructor Buchanan was slightly younger and not a monster in appearance: smaller, with a more average build. But he had a cocky swagger and the excellent conditioning to back it up, a tremendous athlete and mean as hell.
And finally, there was Instructor Shoulin.
In Greek mythology Nemesis was the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris, that is, arrogance before the gods. Nemesis was a goddess without remorse, a deity whose sole motivating force was exacting vengeance. In modern usage, the word has come to mean archenemy. Sherlock Holmes had his Moriarty, Superman had his Lex Luthor.
In BUD/S, I had Instructor Shoulin.
I never knew Instructor Shoulin’s first name. He was a small guy, Norwegian, with ice blue eyes and an ice cold heart. He was all business. Of the four he had perhaps the least imposing appearance, at least superficially—and appearances most definitely are deceiving. All our instructors were incredibly tough on us, but if they were demons from hell, as far as I was concerned, Instructor Shoulin was Satan himself.
I would learn about Instructor Shoulin in time. Today it was Instructor Buchanan who gave us our initiation. Shirtless, cut like a jungle tiger, he stood on his four-foot podium looking down at us, ready to stomp us all, his vantage point ensuring that any weakness would be immediately identified and dealt with accordingly.
Then it started. First evolution, as they call it, was grinder PT, and he truly brought the pain: two hours of grueling punishment.
“Push-ups! Are you ready?”
“One! Two! Three! Four!”
After we passed a hundred I started to shake. I couldn’t support my own body weight, my arms were on fire and giving out.
“On your feet … On your back … Push-ups! Ready? Begin! One! Two! … Flutter kicks, are you ready? One! Two! Three! … One hundred five! One hundred six! …”
From that very first PT session I immediately stood out as a weak link. I kept falling behind in the cadence. All eight of our First Phase instructors were there to welcome us, and within minutes I had arrived at the very top of all their shit lists. It wasn’t just my physical condition. A lot of my classmates had come right from boot camp. Coming in as a fleet guy, I had a bit of seniority—and they really don’t like guys with a regular-Navy mentality. It’s culture clash, and they give fleet guys a little bit of extra business.
Between my fleet background and my sub-par physical shape, I was the one out of two hundred who stood out like a turd in a punchbowl. With our last names neatly stenciled on our white shirts, they knew exactly who we all were, and all I kept hearing was our instructors shouting my name in conjunction with obscenities.
“Webb, you fucking piece of stinking dog shit! How the fuck did you make it through the door?! If you look up weakness in the dictionary, they have a picture of you next to the text!…”
Soon I couldn’t even tell what evolution I was supposed to be on.
I remember hearing “Hit the surf zone!” multiple times. Hitting the surf zone involved running about five hundred yards out of the compound and down onto the beach, getting completely wet and sandy (and if the instructors found a dry spot, you were back down there immediately to do the job right), and then sprinting back to the grinder for more punishment. The ice cold Pacific ocean was actually a welcome break—but soon I was shivering uncontrollably and had sand in places I never thought possible.
Off to the side of the grinder there was a podium that held a roster book in which we signed up for remedial PT training sessions if we were so instructed. At the end of that first session, I was so instructed. I limped over to the podium and wrote my name in the book. Remedial PT was held every morning, which meant that each morning I would have to finish wolfing my breakfast earlier than everyone else and run back to start in on the remedial fitness training session and then join in on the regular evolutions with everyone else.
Our day started at 5:00 a.m. on the beach with grueling PT and from there on was a never-ending endurance contest of both flesh and will. By the second week my hands were shredded. I developed two calluses on my left hand and three on my right, all five of them soon ripped off with a half-inch of flesh exposed from doing those wet and sandy push-ups on the beach. When the class corpsman applied tincture benzoate to seal the wounds and prevent infection, it felt like someone was sticking a hot iron into each wound. I could barely stand up in the morning. My arms were aching. My body was in complete breakdown.
It didn’t matter: they would still single me out. I was marked. They have a saying in BUD/S training, “Don’t be that guy.” That guy is one the instructors pick on, the one who’s always on the receiving end of the worst punishment. Whatever you do, you do not want to be that guy.
I was that guy.
The following four weeks were utter misery. Everyone in the class quickly came to know me by name, because it was the name our instructors typically called out to do an extra hundred push-ups before dismissing the class and allowing us to run across to the other side of the base for chow. It was humiliating, degrading, and painful. I would get up to forty-two! and suddenly hear, “Webb, you piece of shit! Start over!” While this was going on, the rest of the class was forced to remain in the lean and rest (that is, push-up) position and participate in my wretchedness. I can still hear the plaintive sounds of Class 215 pleading with me, “Webb, for Chrissakes, do a hundred good ones so we can get the hell out of here!”
It was terrible to see those guys suffer because I was so out of shape. I quickly learned that as a team you are capable of great feats—but ultimately you are only as strong as your weakest link. Unfortunately, the weakest link in this case was me.
To the standard PT routines we’d done in our entrance physical (two thousand push-ups, one thousand flutter kicks, et al.), our instructors now added new punishments: a one-mile base swim in under seventy minutes, then another one-mile base swim in under fifty minutes, then a one-and-a-half mile ocean swim in under seventy-five minutes, working up to a two-mile ocean swim, which was the standard for the rest of BUD/S. A fifty-meter underwater swim. A four-mile timed run, in boots and pants on soft sand, in thirty-two minutes or less.
Those four-mile conditioning runs just about killed me. Since we were running five miles to and from breakfast, five more for lunch and five more for dinner, we were now running a total of nineteen miles a day. On the four-mile I kept ending up in the back of the pack, aka the Goon Squad. Being in the Goon Squad meant that while everyone else was stretching, drinking water, and having a brief recoup, we few unfortunate dregs were getting destroyed doing bear crawls up and down the beach and push-ups in the surf. Day after day, I got Goon-Squaded every time. Soon I learned to push myself so hard in that damn conditioning run that I would throw up as I ran. Eventually I began just making the cut-off to keep myself out of the Goon Squad.
And then, of course, the dreaded O-course, in fifteen minutes or less.
As I mentioned earlier, the BUD/S O-course was built for pain and suffering. It is one of the best-constructed obstacle courses in the world. In start-to-finish order, the course consists of the following:
• Parallel bars. You shimmy along a set of steel tubes canted at an upward angle for twelve feet.
• Tires. Multiple tires spread out that you have to step through rapidly.
• Low wall. An eight-foot plywood wall you jump up and swing over.
• High wall. This one is about double the height of the low wall; you use a thick rope to climb up and over.
• Low barbed-wire crawl. Exactly what it sounds like: stay low or hook skin.
• 100-feet-high cargo net. Climb up and over.
• Balance logs. You run along a series of rolling logs while keeping your balance (or trying to).
• Hooyah logs. Hooyah is the ultimate SEAL catch-all phrase, meaning everything from “Yes, Instructor!” to “Oh, fuck!” to “Fuck you!” This is a pile of three-foot logs that you step up and over while holding your hands up over your head.
• Rope transfer. Climb up one rope, transfer to another, then slide down.
• Dirty Name. Aptly named (yes, we actually called it “Dirty Name”), a double set of log beams: you jump up, grab the first log beam, and pull yourself up, then get to your feet and jump up and onto the higher log beam, swing around and over and drop down to the sand. This station is a rib-breaker, which is how it got its name.
• Weaver. Metal bars spaced about three feet apart and shaped like a shallow triangle. Weave over and under, all the way up, then down, and you’re out.
• Burma bridge. Fifteen-foot rope climb, then transition to an unstable rope bridge, cross the bridge and slide down a second fifteen-foot rope on the other side.
• Hooyah logs again.
• Slide for life. A four-story set of platforms with an angled rope that slopes down about 100 feet to the bottom. Climb up all platforms to the top, then mount the rope from the bottom with your legs wrapped around, hang with your arms and worm your way down. Next, transition to an assault style on top position (much quicker). Disrespect this one and you have broken bones, which happened constantly. Fall off and you have a good chance of getting medically disqualified from BUD/S.
• Rope swing. Grab the rope on the run and swing up, let go at just the right moment to hop up and onto a high balance log beam.
• More tires.
• Incline wall. Scoot up, slide over and down.
• Spider wall. A high plywood-and-log wall you climb up and shimmy along sideways. Similar to rock climbing, it’s all about finger and toe strength.
• Vaults. A series of logs set at intervals: jump up and over each one on your way to a sprint finish.
For the first few obstacles, I had no problem. Parallel bars, tires, low wall, high wall, barbed wire crawl … I was doing great, or at least keeping up. The first obstacle that gave me trouble was the Weaver. It slowed me down, and by the time I got to the top of the Slide for Life I was whipped. Soon I found myself hanging on for life by my legs, four stories up and upside-down. All my grip strength was gone and my hands were burning from the torn calluses. We’ve had guys drop off that rope and break arms and legs. In a last-ditch effort not to fall, I hooked both elbows over the top of the rope and attempted to recover some grip strength.
Within a few seconds Instructor Gillespie was screaming at me. “Webb, you big piece of shit!” (This was Instructor Gillespie’s habitual form of address for me.) “You have two seconds to let the fuck go of that rope with your fucking elbows, and you already used them up!” He ordered me to let go now and shimmy the hell down.
I unhooked my elbows and continued to hang upside-down by my legs, delaying the inevitable four-story fall. “Oh shit,” I thought, “this is going to hurt.” A memory flashed through my mind of a Hapkido class I’d taken when I was a kid, when we’d been taught the importance of knowing how to survive a fall. That memory, together with some dumb luck, saved me from getting too badly hurt. I let go, and a terrifying moment later I hit the ground like a sack of ready-mix concrete.
I lay there in pain for a few seconds.
Instructor Gillespie walked over, kicked me in the stomach, and said, “Hey, you alright?”
“Hooyah, Instructor Gillespie,” I managed to get out.
“Well then get your ass up and get going!” he yelled.
I got my ass up and got going.
When I had finished, one of the guys in the class said, “God, man, we all saw you fall from that thing, and we thought you were finished!” But I wasn’t, at least not yet…..