Following in the wake of the death of Seaman James D. Lovelace during the First Phase of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training on May 6th, an instructor at the Naval Special Warfare Center (NSWC) has been temporarily relieved of his training duties, and a Washington Post article has called into question how BUD/S handles the students who wash out of the program. Two students have recently died (one by suicide, and one through his drunk driving accident) after washing out of the training.
Combine these events with the widespread fear within the SEAL community that BUD/S training will be made easier for female SEAL candidates once they inevitably do arrive at SEAL training, and there is a palpable trepidation, both within and without the SEAL community, that BUD/S training is on the verge of being watered-down, toned-down, de-intensified, weakened, or whatever other adjective one wishes to ascribe to denote “being made easier.”
Going to BUD/S is not a right. Let’s start there. It takes work to get your foot in the door of BUD/S, once you are enlisted or an officer in the U.S. Navy. Hell, women have only just recently been given the key to the damn door. Prior to that decision, the door was steadfastly locked to females.
Lots of young men dream of becoming SEALs. I was one of those young men. I worked hard and prepared myself and studied like a madman, and received an NROTC scholarship, and worked some more, and made it through pre-SEAL training, prepared some more, and was lucky enough to be selected to attend BUD/S, following graduation from college.
It was not a right, and it was not something owed to me by anyone. Hell, I was not even close to a shoo-in to get into the training, either. To be honest, having family connections to the SEAL community undoubtedly helped me beat out other guys who were in all other ways as qualified as I was, if not more so. It is a struggle to get into the training, and even more of a struggle to make it through.
The training is also dangerous. That was proven yet again recently, in the tragic death of Seaman Lovelace. I suppose it would be easy to erase the danger completely from SEAL training, if one were so inclined, but if that were done, BUD/S would no longer be BUD/S. It would be some easy, safe training program, called “BUD/S,” but bearing no relation to the actual thing.
BUD/S should not be watered down. It should not be made less dangerous. It should not be made easier. It should not change so that women can make it through. It should not change so that weaker men can make it through. It should not fundamentally change because someone tragically died.
Should instructors be held accountable, if they oversee a training evolution in an unsafe manner? Of course they should. If, as NBC News and the Virginian-Pilot newspaper are reporting, a BUD/S instructor held Lovelace underwater, forcing him to drown, then that instructor should be charged with the appropriate crime, and thrown in jail. This author was never once held underwater by any instructor. BUD/S instructors are not trying to kill you. They are trying to break you. That should not change.
There are safeguards in place at BUD/S. They have been rigorously applied, and enforced, throughout the long history of BUD/S training. The NSWC should continue to do so. That has not prevented all loss of life in the inherently dangerous training, but it has come pretty damn close. Again, if those safeguards were violated, or an instructor transitioned from trainer and overseer to physical attacker, then that situation should be addressed appropriately. This author hopes that that was not the case with Seaman Lovelace, and if it was, I fervently hope that it was an aberration caused by a sadistic and negligent individual, and not a systemic problem.
As far as linking the tragic suicide and drunk driving fatalities to failures to make it through BUD/S training, this author is not convinced that somehow making that a reason to change the way BUD/S is run, or how the NSWC treats students who fail to make it through, will fix some overarching problem. Thousands of students have failed to make it through BUD/S. Thousands have quit. Are they then coddled and treated like 2nd graders who failed to win the spelling bee? No, they are not. Have many killed themselves or others because they failed? No.
BUD/S instructors do not owe sympathy to students who fail. The Navy does not owe them that. No one owes them that. They manned-up (and soon, they will woman-up) and gave it their best. They failed. They deserve to be treated with respect, yes, but should the Navy demand their keys, confine them to quarters, and put them on suicide watch? No. That is a violation of their rights, and historically, unnecessary. Most handle it in their own way, through their own grieving process. Many regroup and come back to BUD/S later, and succeed.
BUD/S is a selection course. It is not a grade school soccer game in which every kid gets to play equal time, with equal touches on the ball. We should all salute those who try to make it through, and when they do not succeed, we should treat them like mature adults, who failed at something significant that they at least had the balls to try. We all fail sometimes. It is part of life. Get over it.