The last phase of SEAL training takes place far off the California coast on an island called, San Clemente, or “The Rock,” as it’s lovingly known to insiders.
Instructors joke (although it’s not funny to students) that nobody can hear you scream on “The Rock” and there couldn’t be a truer statement. There would be plenty of screaming, more who quit and a few more who washed out, only weeks before finishing.
As part of our final training exercise, we went through a major nighttime op on a Zodiac, a large inflatable boat. The surf was big that night, and at one point we abruptly got a signal to come in. Our lane grader, the SEAL instructor who was evaluating our whole operation, was worried because the water was getting rough. I knew this particular section of the beach: We were dangerously close to a seriously rocky shoreline. Beaching a rubber boat on a shoreline filled with sharp rocks is not something you want to take lightly. It can kill you.
Rich Honza, our boat crew leader, said, “Okay, they’re signaling us, we’ve got to go in right away.”
“Guys,” I said, “I think we have to wait and time it so we don’t get wrecked on the shore.”
No, said Rich, we had to go right in, right then and there.
“Look,” I said, “I surf, I know this area. The waves come in sets. The only way we’re not going to get pummeled on those rocks is if we wait for the big set to come, and then haul ass right after that.”
He insisted, though, and he was the crew leader, so there was nothing I could do about it: we were going right in immediately. “Oh, man,” I thought, “this is not going to be good.” We started paddling like crazy, heading slowly for the shore. There was no way we would make it in time. I could feel the swell coming. Sure enough, we started rising, then lowering, and then the next rise was bigger — and then I knew we were about to get hit.
“Guys,” I yelled out over the roar of the surf, “get ready, the big one’s coming!”
A moment later a monster wave broke right on top of us. The next thing I knew I was the only one left in the boat, and I was hurtling toward shore. If I didn’t want to get sliced to ribbons on that treacherous shoreline, I was going to have to manage the entire damned Zodiac myself. This was bad. In fact, there was no way this situation could get any worse.
Then it got worse.
Darting a look backward, I caught a glimpse of something at the stern of the Zodiac. I looked closer — it was someone’s fingers. One of the guys had managed to hold on. Then a head bobbed into view, and I groaned. It was Mike Ritland.
Mike was an Iowa farmboy who had never seen the ocean up-close until the day he showed up for SEAL training. He swam in pools at school and was a decent swimmer, but the ocean was totally foreign to him, and his entire time out on the Rock had been a struggle. Now here I was, alone in our runaway Zodiac with everyone else back there somewhere in the ocean, with Mike hanging on to the stern for dear life — and the two of us were about to hit the rocks.
I had one thing going for me: I still had seconds’ worth of the lull that follows after a big set breaks — but only seconds. Somehow I got control of the Zodiac and managed to surf the damn thing safely up over the rocks and close enough in that I could touch bottom. I glanced back for a split second. No more fingers on the stern. I didn’t know what had happened to Mike and had no idea where anyone else was, but I couldn’t let myself think about it. I jumped out and scrabbled for a foothold in the rocks, then grabbed the Zodiac and started hauling it in, timing the moves so I was pulling it a little farther each time a wave came in. As I approached the shoreline I hopped back into the boat to make sure everything was strapped down… and felt something strange at my feet. What the hell? There was something underneath the boat, something pushing up.
No, not something. It was someone.
“Holy shit!” I yelled as I threw myself out again, grabbed the Zodiac with both hands, and heaved with all my might to free it from the pull of the water, pushing it up, up, and finally flipping it over to the side. A figure came gasping up out of the surf like a creature in a horror movie.
It was Mike. He’d been trapped under the Zodiac for more than two minutes, wedged in the pitch blackness.
“I was — I was—” He tried to talk at the same time he was wheezing and gasping for air. When he finally got enough breath in him, he finished the thought. “I was — … gonna die. I was — … sure I — … was gonna die.”
No doubt he was absolutely right. Mike had the look of someone who had stared death in the face and known it had beaten him. “Fuck this,” he mumbled as I pulled him up on shore. “I shoulda been an Army Ranger… fuck this… this water stuff is not for me… you can have it.”
As Mike and I stood there on the shore, him leaning on me while he caught his breath, one of the instructors came running up to us. I figured he would be anxious to know if Mike was alive. I was about to shout out, “It’s okay! He’s okay!” but I was cut off by a string of obscenities followed by these words in a familiar voice:
“Webb! Get me a count of those fucking weapons!”
It was Instructor Shoulin.
It was like the guy had been put on this earth to find and torture me. Just as with our land nav exercises up in the Laguna Mountains, here was my nemesis, helping out in Third Phase — and busting my balls.
Fortunately for all of us, we’d had our guns clipped in tight on the Zodiac. These were real weapons, and if any of us lost one we would have been in seriously deep shit. Losing a gun is a career-ender for a full-fledged SEAL, let alone a BUD/S student. If we had lost any of those weapons while we were out there, we would all likely have been kicked out, and it would have been a problem for our instructors, too.
But we didn’t lose any firearms, and we didn’t lose any people, either. Within another half minute, everyone else came in to shore. Honza, our crew leader, came up to me and said, “Man, we should have waited for that set.” I didn’t reply.
Poor Mike had recovered his breath, but not his composure. He was beaten and he’d made his decision. He was going to go find that brass bell and ring it hard.
He didn’t, though, not that night and not the morning after, either. For the next few days he kept talking about it, and I kept talking him through it. “It was a freak thing, man,” I said. “Don’t worry about it. It could have happened to anyone. You’re fine.” I couldn’t tell if he was hearing any of it. It didn’t look like he was. Those two minutes had really rattled him. He’d been sure he was a dead man, and he was quitting.
Except he didn’t quit. Ritland stuck it out and saw the thing through. In fact, we ended up together later in our first platoon deployment as part of SEAL Team Three, and Mike went on to become a solid operator and have a strong career as a SEAL. The brass bell never got him.
By the time we all got off that island, we were a pack of uncaged animals. Stepping off the plane back in San Diego, we felt like we could conquer anything. Nothing I’ve ever experienced quite compares with how it felt to know that we had made it all the way through BUD/S.
Of the original 220 candidates of class 215, just over 20 of us had made it to the end.
The night before graduation, it’s a tradition for all the graduating students to take the instructors out for a night of drinking. We went with them to a pub on Coronado Island called Danny’s that was strictly off-limits to students. The instructors started buying me shots, and then the night devolved into an endless series of beers. At some point, I turned and looked at who it was that had shoved the latest beer in front of me.
It was Instructor Shoulin.
It was the weirdest thing. Here was this maniac who had done everything in his power to get me to quit, this guy that I hated, this guy who was my nemesis — and we were having a guys’ night out, drinking beers together.
“You know, Webb, I hated you,” he said. “Hey, don’t hold back. Tell me what you really think,“ I thought. He took a slow sip of beer, then continued talking in that soft, icy killer’s voice. He was looking straight ahead, speaking almost as if I weren’t there.
“I did not want you to make it through. I did not want you to be a SEAL. And we all thought you were going to quit. We thought we could make you quit.”
He stopped talking again. Maybe he expected me to say something. Maybe not. In any case, I kept my mouth shut and waited to see if he had anything else to say. He did.
“But you shoved it in our faces. You stepped up. I watched you turn a corner — and I was impressed.” He took another long pull on his beer, then quietly added, “You earned our respect.”
Those few minutes were worth all the shit I’d been through.
We drank until the sun came up. I overslept the next day and almost missed my own graduation. One by one, they called us up to receive our certificates. My parents were there, along with my grandparents, down from Canada. It was an unbelievably great feeling. I had made it through BUD/S. I was finally on the threshold of becoming a Navy SEAL.
I was still completely hungover from the night before.