In my BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training class we had a guy, “Eli”, finish Hell Week, report to medical for back pain and it was discovered that he had fractured his back. Welcome to SEAL training, it’s called high risk training for a reason.
Recently another student who finished Hell Week died from training.
“One candidate died at Sharp Coronado Hospital in Coronado, California, on Feb. 4. The other candidate is in stable condition at Naval Medical Center San Diego,” read the statement.
The last candidate publicly known to die was was 21-year-old James Lovelace who drowned to death in pool training during the first week. The Navy added additional safety protocols afterwards. However, I can tell you, safety is always there, just as much as the risk. During all evolutions there is an active ambulance staged, combat medics at the ready but there will always be injuries and fatalities, it comes with the job and training for it.
(Photo: 2nd Phase of training is diving. The photo shows students practicing taking on and off equipment underwater to get ready for the grueling pool competency test. The evolution has instructors swarming students, ripping off mask, fins, and breathing regulator. Few pass this test and move on to the 3rd and final phase of training.)
My respect to the family of the SEAL trainee that recently died but they should know he died doing what few others would sign up for, and that is something to be proud of.
Let me tell you a little secret. Hell Week is nothing compared to the rest of training.
It IS something, realistically the first big test of mental toughness in order to find out if students have heavy stones or tiny pebbles in their UDT shorts.
Personally I’d rather do two Hell Weeks in a row and not sleep for two weeks than do the final 4 weeks of SEAL training. The last phase you are always cold, always tired (maybe 3 hours sleep per night), handling high explosives, firing live rounds, and swimming through chilling Pacific surf, the size of a 3 story house, that is pounding the rocky coast at San Clemente island and turning large rocks into sand, and sending some students packing. It’s why some students quit in the last phase. They must realize what they’re in store for in the real SEAL Teams, and they are right, you will be colder and experience tougher in the Teams, and some friends will die. Again why they call it high risk training.
Want to know what Hell Week is like from someone who’s been there and got the brown shirt to prove it?
Here’s a sheet tear from my book, The Red Circle, on Hell Week.
Note: after completing Hell Week you swap your white shirt for a brown one. It’s the best feeling to pull on a dry brown shirt on Friday when you’re secured from the evolution.
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 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 broken by the doleful sound of that brass bell ringing through the dark, again and again.
One way they kept us busy during Hell Week was having us do log runs. Seven of us would lift a huge log—essentially a telephone pole—and heft it up onto our shoulders, carrying it while being force-marched at a steady trot, sloshing through the surf, instructors right behind us yelling at us. After 6 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 6 miles … then dropped the log, grabbed our rubber boat and swung it up onto our heads, and headed the other way again. Another 6 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 was designed to throw us off balance and keep us off balance, and it worked.
On day 3 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 fifty 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 saltwater 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, we 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 at a time in 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 happened? we wondered. 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 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.
Friday they put us in a fenced-off area on the beach 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, 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.
The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday…
Excerpt from, The Red Circle.