One year after the training death of SEAL candidate Kyle Mullen, a harsh spotlight remains on the Navy’s elite special force assigned to perform America’s most daring military missions. SEALs are a carefully selected group of combatants, but now the methods of forging this elite group are being widely questioned.
In the year since Mullen’s tragic death, the Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS), the Navy’s law enforcement agency, has not completed its investigation. An administrative investigation by the Naval Special Warfare Command (NSWC) did cause changes in medical protocols and practices for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training for all SEAL candidates.
Meanwhile, some members of Congress, and especially the news media, have pointed a finger and castigated the SEAL program. Any organization that requires its members to perform under the most extreme and stressful conditions one can endure will likely suffer some flaws. Despite their legendary status, SEALs are human, not superhuman. Continuous review and wise reforms are essential to safeguard and improve any program.
But lost in today’s debate over the SEALs, are two questions.
Why does the United States need a Navy SEAL program? How to prepare the few best warriors to carry out the necessary and incredibly demanding assignments?
As a former Navy SEAL (BUD/S Class 115), and former NCIS agent, I can assure you regardless of the outcome of the Mullen death investigation the BUD/S training program is vitally important to our nation’s security, and lessening the program’s rigorousness will only benefit America’s enemies.
The grueling six-months training is designed to produce the physically and mentally toughest combatants. These combatants will deploy to complete the most difficult missions in the most difficult locations under the most difficult circumstances where failure is not an option.
Usually operating in small platoons, these teams cannot afford a single weak link.
Secondly, every BUD/S trainee must decide to push beyond what they thought was their physical and mental limits, and possibly die for what they believe in or: ring out and quit, and most do. With an attrition rate of 80 percent, one of the training’s intentions is to reveal those who are willing to sacrifice themselves for their country and for their teammates. In this most extreme environment, it is the responsibility of the Navy to ensure that trainees do not sacrifice themselves.
With that mindset, how can trainees be responsible for their own well-being, and their own safety? The simple answer is they cannot.
I attempted to hide my injuries in BUD/S and with two fractured legs and a pulled groin muscle I ran four miles on the beach in jungle boots, dragging my weakest leg in the sand to finish, because that’s what SEAL trainees do, they finish the evolution no matter what. I was “rolled back” to the next class by a review board. An option Mullen never got. I never gave up; Mullen never gave up and that
is what Naval Special Warfare looks for in its trainees.
Mullen died suddenly on Feb. 4, 2022, just hours after completing “Hell Week,” the grueling five-day evolution that is the fourth week of training. He was 24, and a fit, athletic, and mentally strong former college football star. Like every man who goes through Hell Week, he got little to no sleep and was exposed to long periods in frigid ocean waters. It was so designed to push the limits of human endurance and test dedication to the team and mission. Sadly, he succumbed to acute pneumonia and died despite medical intervention.
Did the instructors know Mullen was sick or injured? Will classmates or other witness statements establish evidence of wrongdoing, or will the evidence exonerate anyone accused? I believe NCIS will leave no stone unturned to find the truth and present unbiased findings to the appropriate authority. Unfortunately, freedom is not free, and Kyle Mullen paid the ultimate price by sacrificing himself for his country. The incident has put NSWC and BUD/S training on trial but for now, Kyle Mullen’s family, and the Navy, must wait for NCIS to complete its investigation.
Regardless of the investigation’s outcome, the process of forging the toughest Navy combatants must go on, keeping its rigor without sacrificing its own.
David Brown lives in Sanford, FL, is a former Navy SEAL and NCIS Special
Agent, and a retired federal government Senior Executive
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