There is a saying in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training: Ideally, you want to become the gray man. In other words, you become invisible, nobody notices you, because you do everything so perfectly that you never stand out.
I had gone from that guy to gray man.
This is not to say that Hell Week was easy. It was as brutal as all the legends say, and then some. From the morning it began, my classmates started winking out like cheap light bulbs.
The first night they disoriented us: We were up all night, and that was only the beginning because we were going to be up for five days and nights straight. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were the worst. If you were hanging in there by Tuesday night you didn’t have a lot of company, because most of the guys had already quit. They really brought on the cold and the punishment those first three days.
They had us do something they called steel pier. At two in the morning, they walked us into the ocean and threw us on a steel barge, where we lay half-naked, our body temperature dropping to hypothermia levels. Then, just as we didn’t think we could hang on to consciousness any longer, they had us get up, jump in the water — and then climb out and get back on the pier. This went on for four hours. It was pure misery. That first night we heard the air break by the doleful sound of that brass bell ringing through the dark, again and again, each ring indicating that a candidate had quit.
One way they kept us busy during Hell Week was by having us do log runs. Seven of us would lift a huge log — essentially a telephone pole — and heft it up on our shoulders, carrying it while being force-marched at a steady trot, sloshing through the surf, instructors right behind yelling at us. After six miles through the surf line, we put down our telephone pole, drank a little water, then picked the log back up, turned around, and headed back the way we’d come, back six miles… Then dropped the log, grabbed our rubber boat and swung it up onto our heads, and headed the other way again. Another six miles, up and back, and so on, for about eight hours. There was one especially huge log, dubbed Ole Misery by past BUD/S students, that had the words “MISERY LOVES COMPANY” carved into its side. This thing was an evil creature worthy of Stephen King’s pen: One class stole it and tried to torch it, but it refused to burn. It’s probably still there today, torturing each new class of BUD/S students.
As hard as this all sounds, the physical punishment wasn’t the worst of it. It was the psychological torture that broke so many of us and kept that brass bell ringing. We never knew what they were going to pitch at us next. The whole five days were designed to throw us off balance and keep us off balance, and it worked.
On day three they put us in a tent to get some sleep. We laid our weary bones down on thin, uncomfortable cots, but to us, it felt like heaven. We drifted off — until about 50 minutes later when my sleep was interrupted by the most unwelcome sound I’ve ever heard. I don’t know if I had been dreaming or was just immersed in the heaven of inky blackness, but all of a sudden lights were going on and I was hearing a voice shouting at me.
“Up, Webb, time to go hit the surf!”
We had just slipped into REM sleep when they woke us back up to start in on us all over again.
I’ll tell you what it’s like when you have just gone through three solid days of physical punishment around the clock, and then you finally have the chance to get to sleep, only to be yanked out of it again less than an hour later: It’s torture, and that is no figure of speech. In fact, this is one of the most common techniques used in the actual torture of prisoners of war.
I opened my eyes. Guys around me were completely disoriented, jerking upright and staring around desperately, literally not knowing where they were or what the hell was going on. Next thing we knew we were all running out to go lie on the freezing cold beach, right down in the surf, faces toward the ocean so the waves could wash sand and salt water into our eyes and noses and mouths. I’ve never had much problem with the cold, but that waking episode was hard.
The worst, though, was the chow runs. In the same way that they gave us just enough sleep to survive, they pared the experience of eating down to the bare minimum.
We not only ran for miles on the beach with those big rubber boats on our heads, but we also carried them everywhere. Some of the guys got cuts, scars, or bald spots from carrying those damned boats. We even had to carry them to chow. When it was time to eat, they raced us to the mess hall, where they had us run around a small building, carrying our boats, while they let a few crews in at a time to eat. I remember the feeling of my neck being jackhammered, my head in pain. Finally, it would come our crew’s turn to eat: we would quickly put our boat down, run inside, shovel down our food, then run out again.
Sometimes when we got back outside, we realized we were a few people short. “What had happened?” we would wonder. Those guys never showed up again. They were out. The instructors reshuffled the crew to compensate, according to our height, and off we went again.
Thursday night we did an exercise they called Round the World: Each boat crew paddled its boat out some 20 miles to a checkpoint and then back. It took about eight hours and was all done, of course, at night.
We ran out into the surf, carrying that damned boat on our heads, then heaved it into the water, clambered in, and started paddling like crazy. Hours later, we were still paddling. I looked around and realized that everyone was falling asleep. I whacked a few guys with my paddle and hissed, “Hey! You guys! Stay awake!”
By the time we had finished, it was deep in the middle of the night. We were the first boat to reach shore, and from out of the gloom came a voice: “Hey! Get over here!” It was Instructor Shoulin. He stepped into our boat like an evil George Washington crossing some Delaware in hell and told us to paddle him out to meet up with the rest of the guys, who were still coming in.
Suddenly I heard Instructor O’Reilly’s voice floating in from the direction of the shore. “Webb,” it growled, “if you dump boat right now I’ll secure you from Hell Week.”
What he was saying was, if I would dump Instructor Shoulin into the icy cold water right then and there, fully clothed, then he would give me an immediate free pass out of the rest of Hell Week.
Instructor Shoulin’s head swiveled and he stared at me. I didn’t say a word, but my face said it all: “Let’s dump this fucker!” Instructor Shoulin said in a terrifyingly quiet voice, “Webb, you sonofabitch, if you dump me, you will pay.”
I grinned. Looking straight at him, I muttered, “Let’s do it!” loud enough for the whole team to hear it. The team was too afraid of him, so it didn’t happen — but Instructor Shoulin saw it in my eyes. I was ready to dunk him. I wonder what would have happened if we had.
On Friday they put us in a fenced-off area on the beach which they had filled with seawater. They called this seawater swamp the demo pit, but it was nothing more than a muddy bog strung with rope bridges. We stood there, exhausted, caked head to toe with mud, barely able to stay on our feet — and they started firing grenade simulators at us.
At this point we were zombies. I don’t know how fast I moved, or even if I moved at all. I know some guys just dropped into the bog and lay there.
Then they ran us up to the compound and lined us up on the grinder, and someone said, “Class 215, secured from Hell Week.”
It was unreal. We had been suffering so badly it felt like time had slowed down and stretched out until the punishment was a raw experience of eternity. It was like the ancient Greeks’ concept of hell with Sisyphus pushing a heavy stone up a hill till it was near the top when it would roll down again and he would have to start over from the bottom, continuing the process forever. Suddenly it was over and we were being handed our brown shirts.
I’ll never forget the feeling of putting on that dry, warm, clean T-shirt. I ate an entire pizza, drank a quart of Gatorade, called my parents to tell them I’d made it through Hell Week, and crashed into deep sleep. At some point, I came to long enough to pee in the empty Gatorade bottle before falling back asleep again. I woke up two days later.
Of our original 220, we were now down to 70.
They gave us two weeks to recover, during which we did some lighter stuff, writing hydrographic charts and such, while we got ourselves ready for what came next: the seven weeks of Second Phase.
The dive phase of BUD/S is in a way the core of the whole course. BUD/S is, after all, fundamentally a course in underwater demolition, so the focus is on water skills. Because I was already a strong diver, I thought this phase would be a breeze.
As it turned out, dive phase was no joke. Yes, they now focused our time more on teaching us specific skills than on raking us over the coals and sifting out the early quitters. Now that we were wearing brown T-shirts, they treated us with a little more respect, but it was still brutal.
Our new instructors were just as intent as our First Phase instructors on letting us know they were not messing around. Right away, they had us on the ground doing push-ups, yelling, and screaming in our faces. Whatever else we were doing — our classroom work, dive training, instruction in scuba, how to use a rebreather, and other key dive skills — the basic physical training kept going in the background, every single day, and it got harder and harder, the bar higher and higher, the times shorter and shorter. Our conditioning runs went from four miles to six miles, to eight miles. All our minimum times started dropping: The 2-mile ocean swim dropped from 80 minutes to 70, the 4-mile soft-sand run (in boots) went from 32 minutes to under 29; the O course time dropped from 15 to 11 minutes.
And while we were in the classroom most of the day, it was not what you would think of as a normal classroom. For example, they kept buckets of ice water (which we had to keep filling) placed above us on racks over our heads. If someone started nodding off in class, the instructor could tug on a string — and ice water would pour down over the entire table. This was not a community college. This was BUD/S.
About halfway through the dive phase, we had a test called pool comp (short for “pool competence”) that was Second Phase’s version of Hell Week.
I jumped in with my gear, a set of double aluminum 80s and an aqualung rig, and sank down about 15 or 20 feet deep into the combat training tank. Suddenly three instructors were on top of me — they call this a surf hit — and without warning they ripped my mask from my face and yanked off my fins, leaving me with nothing but a set of tanks and a regulator in my mouth.
Then they started in on me, one of them ripping the regulator hose out of my mouth and quickly tying it in knots.
I hadn’t known exactly what to expect, but I knew it would be something like this, and I was as ready for it as I could be. That’s the drill in pool comp. They put you through five or six really bad situations underwater, and you have to get out of them. If you come up to the surface, you fail.
I also knew that right at the end of the ordeal we would be hit with a truly messed-up situation, something so difficult that it’s essentially impossible to get out of. This is called the whammy. You deal with it as best you can, then signal that you’re okay and head up to the surface. You’re not expected to get out of the whammy, just to stick it out as long as you can.
I reached the point where I was sucking air directly out of the tank valve because I absolutely could not undo the knot that bastard had put in my hose. I’d been down there for maybe 15 minutes, getting worked over by several instructors, and it had seemed like an eternity. Now I was sucking in whatever air I could get out of that tank, trying to breathe in the little air bubbles that were leaking off my regulator. Finally, I figured there was no way out of this whammy, so I signaled and headed up.
As I broke the surface, my instructor said, “Webb, that wasn’t the whammy.”
“What?!” I gasped. That had to be the whammy. There was no way anyone could get that hose untied. The pisser of it was that I could have stayed down there longer, but I was positive that my test was over. Well, it wasn’t.
I practically felt nauseous. I had failed pool comp on my first try — and we only got two tries. Occasionally they would hold a review board and decide to give someone a third shot at it, but that was the exception, not the rule, and I had no illusion that this would happen for me. No, I had just one shot left.
This was a Friday, so I would have to wait until Monday to retest. That weekend was torture.
Monday finally came. I went back down in the tank, and no matter what they threw at me, I stayed down there. I don’t even remember what the whammy was like because I was so focused on the fact that I was not going to surface, no matter what. I’d stay down there until that tank ran out of air — and then stay down there some more.
Finally, an instructor swam down and started shaking me, yanking me up by the hair and making urgent Come up! gestures. At that point, I figured it must be okay. It was. My whammy was over.
I was relieved that I had passed, but it still blew my mind that it had taken me two tries. I was supposed to excel in anything water-related. There was that lesson again, which I would strive to remember always and in all situations: Don’t be cocky. Don’t make assumptions going into a challenge — ever. No matter what you know, or think you know, put your ego in check, and keep your eyes open to what you can learn.
By the time pool comp was finished, we had lost another 20 guys, one of them being our class officer in charge (OIC), Kim Terrance.
Every BUD/S class has a senior OIC, typically the highest-ranking student in the class. Terrance was a gifted athlete who swam for Stanford and was probably the best swimmer in our class (along with his swim buddy, Travers, about whom I’ll say more later). About halfway through Second Phase, he ended up being rolled for medical reasons, and we got a new OIC named Rob Byford. Rob was a mustang officer, meaning he had started out as an enlisted man. Having Rob take over as our class OIC was a gift: He was a standout leader who always stood up for his guys, and everyone looked up to him. I keep in touch with him to this day.
Toward the end of Second Phase we had one more test, an open-ocean swim that covered a course of 5.5 nautical miles (a little over six statute miles). This evolution had no time limit; we just had to complete it.
When the day came for our swim, the weather had turned bad. In fact, it turned out that we had the worst conditions our instructors had ever seen for this evolution. A persistent south wind had risen up that morning, making the waves choppy. We were going to be swimming due south with the wind and chop in our faces. That wind never let up, not for a moment.
They stood us on the Coronado beach for inspection. We wore nothing but our UDT shorts and a wet-suit top with a beavertail. Our equipment consisted of a dive knife (which had to be kept sharp as hell), canteen, and signaling flare, along with a mask, pair of Scubapro fins, and a UDT life vest with a CO2 cartridge inflator. There would be a safety boat hovering in the vicinity, but that was only for dire emergencies. We would be swimming in pairs, on our own out on the open ocean.
We swam out until we were about a quarter-mile from shore, then turned left and headed due south, bound for the Mexican border. That nagging south wind blew in our faces the whole time, making the ocean rough and choppy and dashing cold saltwater in our mouths. It made the swim take forever. That far offshore, and with that constant wind and chop, even keeping our sense of direction was a challenge. Fortunately for me, I had learned how to do this as a kid and was able to pick out landmarks from the mountains onshore, keep my bearings, and swim pretty much a straight line. Looking up every once in a while, I saw other guys (including some who were much faster swimmers than I was) tacking back and forth as they went, swimming in a long series of S-patterns.
After a few miles, my swim buddy, Disco Stella, was having problems keeping up, and he started tapping me periodically so I would slow down. We stopped every so often to tread water and drink from our canteens, but never for more than a few seconds. In an exhausting situation like that, you don’t want to lose your momentum, because once you do you might not get it back. Eventually, Stella got so tired he went belly up, a dead stop in the middle of the ocean. We had about a mile left to go.
“I need a break, man,” he said. “We need to stop.”
“No, we have to keep swimming,” I said.
“I need some water!”
Both our canteens were empty by now, and Stella was starting to hallucinate.
“Dude,” I said, “the only water around here is saltwater. We can’t stop.”
“No, I gotta stop now,” he said.
“Look,” I pleaded, “just keep going for another mile. We have to make it to the finish line — there’ll be plenty of water there.”
It did no good. He wouldn’t budge. Finally, I grabbed him by the belt and started swimming. I swam the whole last damn mile dragging him along with me. I thought that mile would never end. When we finally reached the finish line and I pulled him in to shore, I felt ready to die.
On the bus back to base that night, nobody said a word. Instead of the usual joking and giving each other shit, the bus was filled with a weird, solemn silence.
Third Phase was nine weeks of the basic soldiering skills of land warfare, SEAL-style: explosives and demolition, marksmanship, land navigation and reconnaissance. It didn’t get any easier. Our O-course time dropped from 11 minutes to 10.5, the 4-mile timed run went from 29 minutes to 28, and they added a 13-mile run, in boots.
As Third Phase began we were issued new equipment. Now, instead of the BUD/S greens we’d been wearing, we got camouflage outfits and web gear, what we call second-line gear. (First-line gear would be the clothes you’re wearing, your pants, your belt, and so forth. Second-line or web gear, also called H-gear, is your chest harness, which carries all your magazines for your bullets, your compass, and your other kit. Third-line gear is your backpack.)
We started out doing basic firearms training, both rifle and pistol, first with classroom study and then onto practical application in labs, taking apart the weapons and putting them back together. We also did some shooting, although nothing like what I would be doing later on, in advanced SEAL training. The bulk of this part of Third Phase was a big land navigation course up in the Laguna Mountains east of San Diego. We packed up our gear and a load of MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat) and headed up there. It was December 1997, just before Christmas.
After a few days of orientation, we spent a week of classes doing map and compass work. The whole thing culminated in an individual land nav exercise, almost like a race. It was freezing with snow on the ground. We didn’t get much sleep. The instructors were sitting around a raging bonfire in the middle of their camp, drinking beer. Not us. In the earlier phases, we’d been organized in boat crews; now we were organized into squads of seven guys each, all the squads sprinkled around this big camp. None of us had fires, and they took away our MRE heaters, so we were eating cold food. We were in our tactical layout, boots on, standing watch, and rotating every couple of hours.
After a while, the instructors started giving radio calls to make sure we were up and paying attention. God help you if you missed a radio call because if you did, it would be a long night. Luckily in our squad, we had our stuff pretty wired-tight. When we got called we answered, and the instructors didn’t mess with us. We could hear other guys getting rousted in the middle of the night, and the next morning we could tell they hadn’t slept. The instructors had them running back and forth between their camp and the instructors’ camp, doing push-ups in the snow, making their lives just miserable. They were cold and wet all night long. In many ways, it was not so different from what we would be doing a few years later in the mountains of Afghanistan, although there, the stakes would be higher.
We walked away from that land nav exercise knowing how to navigate even without a map or compass.
The land nav portion concluded with a test that dissolved the squads. Now it was every man for himself. The air started crackling with tension. We all knew that if we didn’t pass, we wouldn’t graduate.
For the land nav test, the instructors had planted a series of navigation points out among the mountains. At each point, there was an ammo box with a unique code inside, and when we reached that point we would open the box, radio in that number along with our coordinates, so they’d know we were on the right mountain, and then move on to the next. We had to hit all the points and hit them in the right sequence.
I ran into another one of the guys out there and said, “Hey, how’s it going?” He just stared at me, frantic. “I think I just missed my last point!” he blurted, then pointed off into the distance. “I’m supposed to be on that mountain way over there!” He went trundling off frantically through the forest. Poor bastard.
I was lucky: For some reason, I did not have much difficulty with the navigation. Here again, I think my background helped. Growing up on the sailboat, being around charts and maps and compasses, I’d learned how to find my way around without street signs, storefronts, and all the usual landmarks most of us learn as kids. As a result, I finished my test a few hours early. I didn’t want to go back to camp; they would just find something else for me to do. So I slipped back near the camp, tucked in under a bush, and lay down to catch a few hours of shut-eye.
Next thing I knew I was getting kicked and hearing a familiar voice. “Webb, what the fuck are you doing?” I opened my eyes and looked up. Was I awake, or was this some cruel nightmare?
It was Instructor Shoulin.
I thought I’d left him behind in First Phase. No such luck. He had dropped in on our Third Phrase land nav test to help out. And of course, he had found me.
“What. The fuck. Are you doing?” he repeated slowly as if speaking to a child.
I didn’t really have an answer, and I was just coming out of REM sleep after a long time of no sleep at all, so I wasn’t all that coherent. Besides, the question was rhetorical: He knew damn well what I was doing. He checked my coordinates and could plainly see I had finished the course. “You sonofabitch,” he growled, and he cracked a slight, evil smile. Oh, shit.
For the next 30 minutes, he had me bear-crawling up and down this mountain, on all fours, in the snow. That was my reward for trying to sneak some time off. After torturing me for a while, he finally sent me back to camp. He had made me pay for that little bit of stolen sleep. Although I had to admit, it was worth it.
But later that day something happened that shook us all.
As I said, we had an officer in the class named Travers who had been Kim Terrance’s swim buddy. Travers was another outstanding athlete, an absolute physical specimen, and up to that point he had been a gray man, performing smoothly and quietly blending in. During the land nav portion of Third Phase, Travers’s squad started screwing up right and left — falling asleep on radio watch, messing up their patrols, just not getting the hang of things, and consistently being called out and punished for it. Suddenly, because of the poor performance of his squad, Travers was that guy. He couldn’t take it — and he threw in the towel. He quit.
I was absolutely stunned. We all were. Travers was not only an accomplished athlete, he was a frigging U.S. Naval Academy officer. The standards for these guys are so high and they have been so thoroughly vetted by the time they’ve reached this point that for one to quit BUD/S was unheard of. And here he had quit in our sixth month — just five weeks before graduation.
Of all the things that happened throughout BUD/S, Travers’s quitting was one of the most sobering. People often assume that Hell Week is the big thing, that once you get past Hell Week you’re over the worst of it and it’s all downhill from there, but I would have rather done Hell Week twice than have gone through Third Phase. They just kept cranking up the pressure, pushing us to our limits, adding on layers of physical and mental stress, sleep deprivation, and increased responsibility (like working with demolition and live-fire while exhausted), and it never let up for a moment.
The next day, Friday, we packed up our site, loaded the trucks, and were just about to pull out when the last few guys who had failed their test and had spent all night doing it over again ran into camp wild-eyed and caught our convoy just in time. They were so exhausted they couldn’t say a word, but they’d made it.
And just when I thought we’d all made it, I found out that for me, at least, it wasn’t over yet. Sitting on that bus, as we relaxed and headed back to civilization, my left quad suddenly seized up, just above the knee. It was excruciating — and crippling. I don’t know if it was all the adrenaline coursing through my system from the land nav, or the sheer cold, or what caused it, but when I woke up the next morning in Coronado I could barely put any weight on my left leg.
I was now in deep shit. Third Phase wasn’t over yet. To meet the criteria for Third Phase we needed to pass at least two out of four timed runs. I still needed one more run — and I could barely walk. I spent that weekend worrying.
The following Monday I went into BUD/S Medical and told the guy I had a bad quad. He pulled my file, glanced at it, and said, “Holy shit.”
“What?” I asked.
He looked up at me. “You’ve never been in here before!”
A few of the guys (we called them Sick Call Commandos) were constantly going in to Medical, complaining about this or that. Almost everyone had been in at least once or twice. Not me. In six months, I had never once gone to Medical.
The guy took care of me, hooked me up, got me on crutches — and I lucked out. It happened that we were just then hitting Christmas break. For the next two weeks all we had to do was show up for one PT a day, and they didn’t count towards our passing. That gave me two weeks to heal. I went in every day, and while everyone else did PT I sat and read magazines.
When January came, there was no more putting it off. I had to get out there and finish that 4-mile run and do it in less than 30 minutes. Strange to say, the instructors were quite encouraging. They knew I was dealing with an honest injury and wasn’t sandbagging it. They could see I was in pain.
Four miles is about 6,436 meters and a meter is about my stride, which means that during that run, my left leg came down hard 3,218 times, and each time was agony. It took everything I had, but I finished the run.
After Christmas, we shipped out to San Clemente Island, about 80 miles off the coast of San Diego. This island is completely dedicated to navy activities, and the Navy SEALs have the northwest end to themselves with a BUD/S camp out there we call “the Rock.”
Once we all got out there, our instructors said, “Hey, fellas, no one can hear you scream out here. You’re pretty far away from the flagpole,” meaning base command on the coast. There was not a lot of oversight here, no commanding officers strolling by at lunch to see how things were going. These instructors had us out here to themselves, and they made sure we knew it. This was our final four weeks before graduating — or not graduating, as the case might be. They would make sure we each earned it.
There was some sort of physical evolution before each meal, and how well we did determined what our meal experience was going to be. For every meal, we had to earn the right to eat dry.
For breakfast we all lined up outside the compound, separated out by squad. On their signal, they told us, one squad would sprint over to Frog Hill, a big hill nearby, and climb to the top as fast as possible. The first four to reach the top would come down and go eat breakfast. The three stragglers (there were seven men to a squad) would come down off the hill, go jump into the freezing cold ocean, and then take breakfast outside, covered with sand and soaking wet.
On the signal we lit out at a dead sprint — seven guys clawing their way up this hill. My lungs were burning. I am not a great runner, and I could still feel that pulled quad. Every morning I found myself smack in the middle of the pack, worried I would fall behind the cutoff point and end up with sand up my ass while I wolfed cold eggs. Somehow I managed to make it into the top four every day.
That was breakfast. For lunch, we had to bang out a minimum of a hundred push-ups with all our gear on: a canteen full of water, magazines full of ammo, and all the rest of our H-gear kit. If we didn’t get all our push-ups in on time, we ate lunch wet.
For dinner, we had to do an 80-foot rope climb and then a minimum of 20 pull-ups with full kit. Do it, or you are getting wet.
Every morning I woke up with the same thought: “I hope I don’t have to eat wet today.”
By this point, there were about 40 of us. Of those 40, 17 had been medically rolled in from a previous BUD/S class, which meant that of the 220 when we had started six months earlier, there were now 23 of us left. One of those who had rolled in was a guy named Eric Davis.
Eric is a charismatic redhead who looks out for everyone and is impossible not to like. He fit in right away, and we clicked immediately. He’s one of the funniest people I know — and one of the most creative. In fact, the way he got himself into BUD/S in the first place involved considerable creativity on his part. When he first applied, he was crushed to learn that his color-blindness disqualified him from even trying out. That defeated him — for about five minutes, which was how long it took him to come up with an elaborate plan for faking his way through the color-blind test. No easy task, but somehow he did it and, sure enough, made his way through BUD/S. He guards his secret strategy to this day.
Call it karma or historic irony, but this came back to bite him many years later when Eric decided he’d had enough and was ready to get out. I asked him how he planned to do that since he had just signed up for a lengthy reenlistment. He assured me of his foolproof plan: at his next physical he was finally going to come out to the doctor about his color-blindness. He fully expected that this would give him an early out from his contract. But the doctor refused to believe him — he would not even administer the test — and blew Eric off with a clean bill of health. I still give Eric a hard time about this whenever I see him.
Our schedule at the Rock was so intense it felt like we weren’t getting any sleep at all. By Third Phase standards, a good night’s sleep was three to four hours. Our first week there, Eric said, “Hey, they can’t keep this up forever. I mean, we’re handling explosives, right? Next week, they’ve got to let us sleep more.” As the days wore on he kept assuring us (and no doubt assuring himself at the same time) that it would get better, that they would have to let us get a little more sleep.
They didn’t: not the next week, or the week after that, or ever.
One night they just about broke us. We had screwed up some exercise or other, and our instructors had us in the water in the northwest harbor for four hours or so, torturing us. We were just miserable. I heard guys muttering, “Jesus, when is this going to end?”
We had been through treatment like this many times in the past few months, but somehow, this was worse. Whether it was the accumulated weight of the past months’ experience or simply the bitter cold that February night, at some point everyone just stopped talking. An eerie silence fell over us as we continued hammering out our PTs, the sounds of legs and arms thrashing in the cold surf punctuated only by the instructors’ periodic barked commands.
It’s one thing when guys bitch and moan, but when everyone stops bitching and moaning, when it all goes silent, that’s when you know things are truly serious. We were pushing up against the absolute limits of our physical and mental capacities.
Mercifully, right at that point, they called us out of the surf and onto the beach, where they ran us up and down the sandhills for a few minutes to get our circulation going. I have no doubt that as we ran, every one of us was thinking the same identical thought: “Thank God that’s over.”
“Hit the surf!”
Were they serious? They were. Just as we started feeling our limbs, they put us back down in that ice-cold surf again, flutter-kicking, arms linked in one long chain of human suffering.
The guy next to me, Chris Osman, started muttering under his breath. “Fuck this… fuck this…”
Osman was a former Marine who had rolled into our class and was on my squad, and I did not like him. I had to admit, the guy was amazing: he could recall every bit of military minutiae, every detail — the effective range and fire rate of any rifle, which weapons were used in which conflicts, the blasting capacity and recommended application of every conceivable kind of explosive, all kinds of random crap. I thought he must have grown up reading military manuals instead of comic books like the rest of us. The dude was hardcore. I could not get along with him, though. I thought he was a loudmouth. We had almost come to blows a few times. Now it looked like maybe he was starting to crack.
I glanced over Osman’s head and caught Eric’s eye. Eric happened to be on Osman’s other side. Eric and Osman were good friends. Eric and I were good friends. Osman and I hated each other. It was a complicated sandwich. One that would play out years to come into the future, unfortunately.
Suddenly Osman stopped muttering and said out loud at full volume, “Okay, fuck this. I am out of here! I am not doing this anymore!”
“Chris!” Eric hissed. “C’mon, keep it together!”
“Good riddance,” I told myself — but I didn’t think he was serious. He was. He shook himself and broke free of both our grips — shucking off the inviolable circuit of locked arms, ready to walk out of the surf and head on up to the beach. Eric and I both gaped at him, stunned. He was on the verge of quitting the exercise, quitting BUD/S, quitting the SEALs. We were only days away from the end of our course, so close to the finish line — and he was quitting.
Except it was so dark out there that no one but the two of us had seen what Osman was doing.
Suddenly we heard a whistle go off, and a crisp voice. “Okay, move it! Out!”
The instructors were calling us out of the surf and back onto the beach. There was a dark clatter of splashes as we all scrambled to our feet to make the mad dash up the hill, but by the time we got there, Osman was already surrounded by the instructors, not fully grasping what was happening. One instructor grabbed his arm, jerked it up into the air, and yelled at the rest of us.
“You see this? That’s what I’m talkin’ about! Osman here is the only one out of all you fuckers who’s really putting out!”
Suddenly Osman was a hero. The instructors handed him a mug of hot chocolate and told us again what losers we all were, that we hadn’t gotten there nearly as fast as Osman had. No one but Eric and I ever knew that the only reason he got there first was that he had had enough and was ready to get the fuck out of there when they blew the whistle.
And here’s the amazing thing: Osman and I eventually became friends. In fact, we ended up serving together as SEAL snipers in Afghanistan.
Osman still gets shit about quitting that night on the beach.
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