The New York Times headline on August 30th was certainly attention-getting,

The hook they hung these sensational charges on was the death of Seaman Kyle Mullen who died of a particularly virulent strain of pneumonia after he completed the portion of Basic Underwater Demolition School known as Hell Week. Mullin was back in his room and was discovered by another BUD/S student to be unresponsive and medical personnel were called. As it would turn out, it was too late. In investigating the “mishap” a term used by the navy to describe events that occur outside of planned expectations, they found syringes and performance-enhancing drugs(PEDs) in his car. The captain in charge of BUD/S found during his investigation that about 40 candidates had either tested positive or had admitted to using steroids or other drugs in violation of clearly stated and acknowledged Navy regulations against their use. Regulations that exist for three reasons,

  1. They can be dangerous to use while undergoing the intense physical training that BUD/S entails,
  2. The SEALs want trainees on a level playing field when it comes to physical condition, natural stamina, and abilities
  3. They don’t want people who cheat on the rules because it becomes a pattern of behavior later on.

Over the last 10 years, SOFREP has covered the navy SEALs and other units of our Special Operations Forces extensively. We don’t shy away from stories when SEALs are caught up in criminal activity like SEAL Team 6 member, SO1 Aaron Howard who was convicted of blackmailing women for nude photos in 2020.

The autopsy performed on Seaman Mullen found that he had contracted acute pneumonia due to Streptococcus pyogenes. This is known as a Group A strep bacteria, which the report said: “is capable of causing multiorgan failure and cardiovascular collapse via toxic shock.”  This strain of streptococcus can result in mild symptoms with little effect on the body but can balloon into a serious infection that can include a very rare incidence of Streptococcal toxic shock syndrome in which the patient rapidly experiences a drop in blood pressure, organ failure, and in some cases, death.  It can also develop into necrotizing fasciitis which we know as Flesh Eating Bacteria
In September 2000, the Naval Health Research Center released a study that found that the intense psychological and physical stressors of training often led to respiratory infection. Between 1998-2000, 477 Naval Special Warfare trainees were used in a double-blind trial of oral azithromycin plus a placebo, and it was compared with using benzathine penicillin G plus a placebo. Of the 464 subjects, 44 developed acute respiratory infections with 20 developing pneumonia during the two weeks of the most intense training. 12 subjects were found to have a Chlamydia pneumoniae infection and just 7 had indications of a Mycoplasma pneumoniae infection. They recommended administering azithromycin to trainees to help them ward off infection. The treatment for the more dangerous but more rare Streptococcus pyogenes is known to be oral penicillin for 10 days or intramuscular injection of benzathine penicillin, also known as the dreaded “Peanutbutter Shot” in the military because of its thick brownish color in the syringe. This shot is usually given in the butt muscle and you are sore as Hell at the site of the injection for days afterward.
It is actually kind of amazing that more don’t contract pneumonia during training given the conditions under which they train.  They spend a lot of time in the Pacific ocean during BUD/S which is generally very cold all the time with temps that are usually in the 60s.  During the winter months, the failure rate of trainees increases in BUD/S because of the colder water. There is another reason the relatively low rate of serious respiratory infection among trainees is remarkable.
Every day, Mexico dumps some 30-40 million gallons of sewage and toxic waste, into the Tijuana river which outflows into the Pacific about a mile away from where BUD/S is conducted.
raw sewage in the Pacific ocean outflowing from the Tijuana river appears brown and muddy. Just beyond the pier extending into the ocean is the Naval Special Warfare Training Center. Residents of Imperial Beach frequently complain of the smell of raw sewage wafting into their homes and frequent beach closures due to the biohazard this presents to humans.

 

Balancing Safety and Accomplishing the Mission

The Times article painted a picture of blind indifference to losses in training to suggest that a culture of brutality extended also to navy leadership in noting that 11 aspiring SEALs have died in training since 1953. There are occupations in the navy where far more deaths occur without claims that these deaths are the result of indifference to risk, drug use, or cheating on established standards.

From 2013 to 2017. aviation mishaps in just the Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets took the lives of some 133 pilots and other service members. In just this one type of aircraft. These losses occurred in spite of everything the navy can think of doing to make naval aviation safe in an environment that really cannot be made safe. Planes fly off of the shortened runways of aircraft carriers at night and in bad weather. They operate at high speeds and low altitudes with heavy loads.  These aircraft are often flown at the limits of their engineered specifications. The men who fly them are preparing for war. In Ukraine, the appalling casualties of Russian soldiers illustrates how deadly and unforgiving war can be to hastily trained troops.

The difficulty of making unsafe things like carrier aviation safe can also be applied to navy SEALs and their mission according to one retired SEAL we spoke to,

“There is no way to make SEAL training safe.  We board submarines and exit them using their torpedo tubes into freezing water. We jump from an airplane at 35,000 feet wearing oxygen and free fall to under one thousand feet before deploying our parachutes. We train with weapons and explosives and even place mines on ships to blow the bottoms out of them in defended harbors. The only way you can make things like this safe, is not to do them. So, selection and training is hard on purpose, because if the first time you run into something hard and dangerous is on an actual mission, you will fail in that mission and you’ll die along with your teammates.”

 

CORONADO, Calif. (Sept. 2, 2015) Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUDS) candidates wearing helmets and reflective life vests getting sandy during surf passage training. Surf passage involves rubber inflatable handling in difficult surf conditions. It is also about recovery procedures should the raft capsize in the waves. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael Russell/Released)

The Navy Reacts

The death of any service member automatically triggers an extensive safety and process investigation in the service branches.  It’s an examination of processes and regulations which are mostly written as the result of other incidents resulting in death or serious injuries. They are also looking to identify unforeseen circumstances that require new safety regulations be put in place.

We reached out to Naval Special Warfare Command on these allegations and they were eager to answer our questions initially offering this statement;

“The circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Seaman Kyle Mullen remain under investigation. Naval Special Warfare Command continues to examine events leading up to his death, including medical practices, prohibited performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) testing, and BUD/S safety protocols to identify and address areas that may have contributed to the loss of our teammate.  We are committed to a thorough, accurate, and impartial investigative process. The safety of our SEAL candidates remains paramount during every evolution of NSW’s demanding Assessment, Selection, and Training pathway.”

In a series of follow-up questions, we asked NSWC to share with us any policy changes the navy may be considering in the wake of the unusual death following the end of Hell Week. They offered the following, which is printed without edits;

 

Naval Special Warfare Policy and Procedures

This unfortunate incident has afforded Naval Special Warfare Command an opportunity to closely examine current medical practices, prohibited performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) testing protocols, and identify areas of unforeseen risk that require immediate action to address with changes to policies and procedures.  These substantive changes will reduce the risks inherent in NSW’s demanding Assessment, Selection and Training pathway.

Numerous changes have already been implemented and many more are in the process of implementation. The changes immediately implemented upon SN Mullen’s death include:

  • Institution of a cardiac screening program
  • Increased prevention measures for pneumonia
  • Extending the observation period post-BUD/S Phase 1 Assessment and Selection and SWCC crucible events to 24 hours
  • Mandatory shift turnover between medical providers
  • PEDs testing
  • Creation of Training Selection Assessment Team

If you prefer more detail to the specific changes:

  • Numerous changes have already been implemented and many more are in the process of implementation. The changes immediately implemented upon SN Mullen’s death include:
    • Cardiology.  Institution of a cardiac screening program that incorporates recommendations from multiple cardiologists across all service branches.  This includes purchasing of ECG machines with improved artificial intelligence to screen for underlying conditions which may result in sudden cardiac death in athletes.  These are used during orientation and reviewed by Naval Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD) cardiologist prior to entering first phase.
    • Pneumonia Prevention. Increased prevention measures for pneumonia based on recommendations and data from NMCSD Infectious Disease department.  An intra-muscular injection of Bicillin is being administered the week prior to both Phase 1 Assessment and Selection crucible event for SEAL candidates and Tour Week for Special Warfare Combatant Craft Crewmen.
    • Observation Post-Hell Week. Basic Training Command has extended the observation period for 24 hours post securing both BUD/S Phase 1 Assessment and Selection and SWCC crucible events.  Candidates now recover in the Recovery Observation Center (ROC) located in an open bay barracks in the Howell Classroom.  A medical provider and Hospital Corpsman remain on site in building 637 medical spaces until candidates are secured after medical checks on Saturday morning.  The leading watch stander is now a qualified high-risk instructor.
    • Turnover. Mandatory shift turnover between BTC Medical on coverage and NSWCEN Medical duty provider to discuss medical status of candidates.
    • Limited PEDs Testing. “Medically safe-to-train” PED testing through urine tests with the NMCSD laboratory for the safety of accession candidates within the limitations of existing policies and directives.
    • Creation of Training Selection Assessment Team (TSAT).  The TSAT was formed in April 2022 to strengthen oversight and identify latent risk of BTC and Advanced Training Command (ATC) courses.  It is composed of the Command Warrant Officer/Training Officer at NSWCEN, a senior civilian, a senior enlisted from both the SEAL and Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCC) communities and Reservist Support.  Third party participation with Naval Education and Training Command (NETC) is in staff coordination to strengthen the objectivity of this effort.  TSAT focuses on three areas: 1. Professionalism of instructors with students; 2. Instructors following proscribed curriculum/schedule/remediation; and 3. Training safely (EAPs created and followed, equipment available, on-site, and functioning).
  • Naval Special Warfare Command is also working aggressively to change the following policies and procedures:
    • SIPE. SIPE protocol be reviewed for effectiveness and issued in an instruction to ensure uniform application of the protocol throughout Assessment and Selection.  The protocol will emphasize the potentially serious medical consequences of SIPE.
    • Medical Screening. Clarify the use, purpose, and procedures of data collection regarding recordation of respiratory complaints or abnormal lung sounds in candidates, including the Pulmonary Complaint form, and codify it in written instruction.
    • More Clarity Regarding Duties of Duty Medical Officer. Codification of an instruction governing the purpose, role and responsibilities of the Duty Medical Officer.
    • Connection Between PEDs Use and Pneumonia. Force Medical will further study the correlation between PED use and contracting pneumonia, beyond the anecdotal correlation presented in this investigation, and brief WARCOM to determine whether this correlation should be requested for further research in current Department of Defense studies.
    • PEDs Policy. We are relentlessly pursuing a comprehensive and permanent PED testing protocol for the future. NSWCEN has submitted through the Navy Staff for consideration to expand the authority to test Naval Special Warfare candidates for PEDs.  This action will strengthen our understanding of the scope of PED use, and help us counter unauthorized PED use within the force.
    • Improving Candidate Culture. Finally, additional inquiry will be made into the cultural tension between the expectations that candidates will push through adversity to demonstrate grit and that SEALs will recognize and report health information to remain medically fit for mission.  The SEAL and Combatant Crewman ethos must be reinforced through all phases of Assessment, Selection and Training.

Current drug testing procedures

The current drug testing procedure for Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) at the Naval Special Warfare Center consist of a urine lab sample to analyze the T/E ratio. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) standards for Testosterone to Epitestosterone (T/E) ratio is 4.0. If a sample shows abnormal results based on WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) standards, the candidate is removed from training and will undergo an additional urinalysis test, authorized via probable cause from the first test, through a DOD approved SMRTL lab for a full performance-enhancing drug panel. Out of the 794 PEDs tests that have been conducted this year, 33 were positive.

NSW is relentlessly pursuing a comprehensive and permanent PED testing protocol for the future. NSWCEN has submitted through the Navy Staff for consideration to expand the authority to test Naval Special Warfare candidates for PEDs.  This action will strengthen our understanding of the scope of PED use, and help us counter unauthorized PED use within the force.

The word SIPE appears in the above quote and it refers to Swimming Induced Pulmonary Edema, a condition where fluid collects in the lungs. It is generally triggered by swimming in colder open water. In addition to surface swimming, SIPE is also found to occur during scuba diving, snorkeling, and free diving. The Symptoms of SIPE include coughing, shortness of breath, tightness or pain in the chest, and in some cases hemoptysis (blood in the sputum). It can be fatal in some cases, but symptoms generally lessen after leaving the water and are gone entirely within 48 hours. Not a great deal is really known about SIPE, it was first identified in scuba divers in 1981 and the number of studies done on the condition is sparse because it is rarely fatal and the symptoms clear up rather quickly once someone is out of the water. Studies of the condition(admittedly limited in number) have not found any known deaths from SIPE.

In BUD/S training, instructors not only see SIPE occur in trainees but many have experienced it themselves.  While Seaman Mullen suffered from an underlying acute Strep infection, the symptoms he presented while training looked very much like SIPE, a non-life threatening condition with a very low incidence of death, especially in young fit males.

Screening for Performance Enhancing Drugs is not a new policy. These substances are not illegal narcotics in the military like marijuana or cocaine and the normal drug screenings performed on personnel will not detect PEDs.  The World Anti-Doping Agency standard mentioned above includes a 20-page list of substances prohibited to competitive athletes and the list is updated every year as new drugs are introduced. And the tests are not cheap, they cost about $400 for each one administered. The question then becomes how often such tests are administered during the two-year training program and at what point are they administered? What about after training when these new Naval Special Warfare Operators go to the Teams?  In the information released above the navy states that this year they have already conducted some 794 PED tests on trainees and found only 33,  or just over 4% tested positive.

Can 4% disobeying clearly stated regulations about using PEDs be fairly called a “culture” of drug abuse? Given the trainees limited exposure to the SEAL community in a few weeks is BUD/S the reason for this culture or are trainees bringing these habits with them when they arrive?

We asked the spokesman at the Naval Special Warfare Center what the consequences would be for a trainee or later SEAL caught using PEDs. They stated that a second test would be done to confirm the positive results and then the service member would be processed for an administrative separation from the Navy. This differs from the Bad Conduct or Dishonorable Discharge given to service members caught using illegal narcotics which represents criminal offenses, but it is also a zero-tolerance policy. Get caught and you are out of the navy whether in training or actively serving on the Teams.

 

 

180413-N-PJ969-3899 Coronado, Calif., (Apr. 13, 2018) U.S. Navy SEAL candidates participate in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training. SEALs are the maritime component of U.S. Special Forces and are trained to conduct a variety of operations from the sea, air and land.(U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt)

 

A Culture of Brutality

SOFREP asked about Instructors being negligent in handling trainee safety and we were told by our source who was an instructor at BUD/S,

“Virtually every second of BUD/S training is carefully scripted in great detail.  We exercise almost no discretion when it comes to going past proscribed limits in training.  Trainees spend 15 minutes in the ocean, no more no less, then 20 minutes of calisthenics on land, then another 8 minutes in the water, no more no less.  We might make it seem to the trainees that they will be in the water forever, but the time limits represent safe limits and we stick to them very carefully, We could get everyone to quit or just die by leaving them in the cold ocean for hours, but we aren’t trying to do that.”

Medical personnel monitor the condition of trainees and are present during the entirety of Hell Week Training. There are even ambulances standing by in case of an emergency.  As Hell Week progresses the medical checks become more and more frequent.

When asked about why Mullens didn’t ask for or seek medical attention during Hell Week, the Chief told us, “These guys try to hide how sick they are sometimes because they want to push themselves through.  We aren’t going to tell them what their limits are unless it’s obvious to us they are no longer able properly assess that for themselves.  We had a trainee on the fourth day of Hell Week dislocate his shoulder and was still pressing on.  We noticed the way he was moving and I and the other instructors had a brief conference about his condition.  We weren’t sure what the problem was at the time, but something was definitely wrong with one arm. We pulled him out and sent him to medical”

SOFREP asked if this injury meant the trainee would have to recycle and repeat Hell Week, did he fail?  “Oh no, we passed him. It was Day 4, and this guy wasn’t willing to quit with a dislocated shoulder. That’s the kind of determination we are looking for in a Navy SEAL.”

In a recent Salon interview, the writer of the New York Times piece, Dave Phillips stated that some of his sources were trainees who had quit BUD/S and that they would be good sources because they would be upset they did not pass the program. Of course, the problem with these men as sources is that many of them left the program in the First Phase of BUD/S during Hell Week which is the fourth week of actual training. A few weeks in SEAL training before they quit the program and returned to the fleet is all some of Mr. Phillips’ sources know about what goes on in BUD/S, a program that takes some two years to produce a SEAL ready to go to an operational team for even more training.

“One of the things I learned really quickly is the front door is not a good way to report. In this BUD/S selection course, the statistic they’re most proud of is only 25 percent of people who show up make it through. The vast majority quit. I was like, “Oh, the vast majority quit! They’re not SEALs, but they were there.” That’s a heck of a lot of people who have a pretty good idea of the dynamic there is, and probably have reason to talk because maybe they felt like they weren’t treated very well. So, that’s really the angle I started working. It’s just a mass attack on these former candidates and reaching out to them cold. My failure rate on that approach is really, really, really high—95 percent, if not more. But you don’t need that many to get a beachhead. If I can get one or two guys and talk, not only is that really good firsthand information about what happened, but if I talk to someone for two hours, I have a much higher success rate with someone they know than I do with a cold call. So slowly, piece by piece, you build this landscape where you can figure out what happens. Bit by bit, I get enough to tell a story.”-Dave Phillips, New York Times

 

Brandon Webb, publisher of SOFREP spent more than 13 years in the navy, was a navy SEAL for most of it, a Chief Petty Officer, and the program manager for their elite sniper program.

“The Teams have gone a long way to clean up their public image in the last four years and it’s well known inside and out of the community that all illicit drugs are off limits. That extended to other legal supplements when I was a SEAL. I’ve been through high-risk instructor training and worked Hell Week as a guest instructor. The cadre is tough but extremely sensitive to medical issues, and if any instructor understood the severity of Mullen’s condition they would have sent him to the hospital immediately.  Students sometimes hide injuries to their detriment. They call it high-risk training for a reason. You can’t make diamonds unless they are subjected to extreme pressure over time. This is BUD/S.”

Webb bristled at the New York Times writer’s accusation that a culture of “brutality” exists on the Teams; “Brutality is cruelty and violence done without care for anyone but yourself. Navy SEALs are willing to give their lives not just for their country but also for each other.  That willingness to sacrifice yourself for others doesn’t come from a culture of brutality.”