AS THE NAVY SEEKS TO UPSIZE ITS FABLED SPECIAL OPS TEAM, MORE KIDS
FROM THE VIDEO-GAME GENERATION ARE TAKING THE TEST--AND FINDING OUT
THE HARD WAY WHAT IT TAKES TO MAKE THE GRADE
Date: December 14, 2003
Standing at the edge of the Combat Training Pool at Great Lakes Naval
Training Center, awaiting the start of their swimming test, several
Navy SEAL wannabes are about to discover that they don't have gills.
They might be forgiven for thinking they have. After all, for
years they have fantasized about being frogmen, devouring the
"Rogue Warrior" books, whose heroic SEAL warriors are
constantly saving mankind from terrorists, and watching Hollywood
SEALs like Steven Seagal knife through the water to board enemy ships
in the dead of night, and spending countless hours playing
commando-themed video games.
"ON YOUR MARK!" an instructor shouts. The recruits snap
into focus, shaking their arms and legs to stay loose. They will have
12 1/2 minutes to go 500 yards doing either the breast- or
sidestroke, but that suddenly seems irrelevant because--"GET
SET!"--it just now hits a few of them like a Stooges
forehead-slap: They have no idea how to swim.--"GO!"--Not a
clue. Couldn't even dog-paddle, never even tried. Out of sheer guts
or a knee-jerk reaction, they plunge in anyway, and in the cold-water
shock of the moment, they quickly improvise a stroke technique that
is so unorthodox, that they actually start making negative progress,
propelling themselves backwards.
Other candidates with low-to-no swimming aptitude surrender to the
reptilian part of the brain that screams "SURVIVE," and
they are able to thrash their way to the side of the pool. Eventually
they lift themselves out of the water, drenched and demoralized, but
happy to be breathing.
To save face, they immediately invoke "if only": If only
they didn't get kicked in the face by the guy swimming too close to
them; if only the water didn't have "so much chop"; if only
someone had told them beforehand that they'd actually have to, you
know, swim in order to make it as a SEAL.
On the list of Things In This World That Are Hard, these would-be
commandos have chosen to pursue one of the hardest. The odds of
anyone becoming a Navy SEAL, even excellent swimmers in excellent
shape, are long. Though recruits may believe that they want it badly
enough, though they may think it's the path to glory or the key to
romantic success, they will be required to endure, in no particular
order, freezing-cold water, no sleep, ears popping, lungs burning,
hearts pounding as they free-fall out of a plane from 20,000 feet.
And there's the ultimate prospect that they might not make it out of
a mission alive.
Nonetheless, some 3,500 young men--the program isn't open to
women, never mind Demi Moore's film--try out for the SEALs each year.
Most are Navy enlistees who have completed basic training at Great
Lakes, the only remaining naval boot camp. Of these, only 600 pass
the preliminary physical test and choose to continue on to the
25-week training course at the Naval Special Warfare Command in San
Diego, home of the SEALs. Training involves days without sleep,
live-fire drills, endless marches, countless ocean swims and
notorious "drownproofing" exercises, in which candidates
are tossed into a pool with hands and ankles bound together and told
to float face down until further notice.
If they make it through--the dropout rate is 70 percent--they'll
go on to more specialized training, parachute school and a six-month
probationary period before becoming full-fledged SEALs.
The Navy is hoping to increase the number of successful applicants
as elite special-operations units are increasingly called on to serve
in missions that range from clearing strategic waterways in the
Persian Gulf to quelling terrorism in the Horn of Africa. Though
primarily a maritime unit, the SEALs--a name that is taken from the
elements they operate in: sea, air and land--are routinely deployed
virtually anywhere. In Afghanistan they've combed vast cave
complexes, at times within a few hundred feet of the enemy--about as
up-close and personal as you can get.
Meeting the needs of future deployments, therefore, will require
legwork. Over the next two years, the Navy hopes to increase the
number of SEALs by 270--to 2,740. Considering that 110 SEALs retire
for every 115 who enter the ranks, that's daunting. "You can't
just roll out of bed one morning and say: 'Hey, I think I want to do
this,' " says Jody McIntyre, the head SEAL at Great Lakes.
"You have to have a special drive."
The Naval Special Warfare Command already has launched several
initiatives to boost the number of trainees by 50 percent over the
next year. The new measures include such things as a candidate
tracking system and more formalized testing, but the most obvious
change is the raising of the SEALs' traditional low profile. Part of
this owes to there being more buzz surrounding them--Discovery
Channel documentaries, reports of valor during the controversial
Jessica Lynch rescue, Jesse Ventura proudly touting his SEAL service.
But the SEALs have also been courting publicity. They've been
working with Sony PlayStation on the popular video game SOCOM: U.S.
Navy SEALs, and in March, they launched a slick new Web site daring
people to take the "SEAL Challenge." The site reels in
158,000 visitors a month.
The key issue for SEAL commanders is capitalizing on all this face
time and boosting numbers without lowering standards. They're trying
to better understand--and thus better target--today's young men. They
also want to separate myth from reality in public perceptions of the
It's 3:45 a.m. in a gym at Great Lakes, and SEAL candidates are
doing jumping jacks, counting loudly in unison. They've already
passed the physical-screening tests and are waiting for the next
phase of training to start on the West Coast. That doesn't mean
they're near ready to make it as commandos. The training in
California will be infinitely more demanding and in-your-face than
anything Great Lakes can throw at them.
Leading them in physical training, which happens each Monday,
Wednesday and Friday, are "motivators," active-duty SEALs
stationed at Great Lakes as part of a mentoring program designed to
get and keep candidates in shape for the rigors ahead. "We're
trying to get them to grow up before they head out," says Rob
Roy, head motivator in San Diego. "We teach history and special
warfare; we teach recruits about themselves." But mostly they
teach them to exercise.
Roy calls today's youth the "PlayStation
Generation"--and to him, it's full of kids who come into the
Navy with "big thumbs" instead of big biceps. If it's true
that every new wave of military recruits has to fight the same
struggles--which could be summarized as Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature,
and Man vs. Himself--then today, the SEALs argue, you'd have to add
to that list Man vs. Too Many Doughnuts and Man vs. The Pull of the
It's easy to dismiss the grumbling by Roy and other SEAL veterans
as the familiar "We had it so much harder" phenomenon. But
some of the kids wanting to join the elite SEALs can barely lift a
dumbbell or do a pushup. Steve Nave, the physical training program
manager at Naval Special Warfare Command and a 21-year Navy vet, has
a quick take on the problem: "Laziness," he says.
If so, it's an epidemic. Illinois is the only state that has a
daily physical education requirement for grades K-12, according to
P.E.4LIFE, a non-profit advocacy group. In the 1990s, the percentage
of high school students enrolled in daily P.E dropped from 42 percent
to 29 percent.
Not everyone who shows up for screenings at Great Lakes is a
pear-shaped, potential drowning victim. But even those in decent
physical condition may be in the wrong kind of shape. At first
glance, Harry McCleary, 18, is a promising candidate. He's bulked up
and has a bit of linebacker in him. But on his first attempt to pass
his physical-screening test, he gets stuck on the last of his
required six pullups, dangling in that purgatorial middle zone
between a pullup and not a pullup. He was also nearly two minutes
slow on his swim. This, though he was a sports star at his Georgia
high school, which is why he seems slightly stunned that he came up
short. He says that basic training actually got him out of shape--not
into it. "If they would have given the test the first week I was
here, I would have killed," he says.
As Dean of Training at Great Lakes, Carl Ross has spent many years
trying to understand recruits. Today's crop, he says, has a different
attitude toward adult authority. Part of it has to do with the
oft-cited breakdown of the American family. "Thirty years ago,
any adult in the community could correct you. That won't happen
But kids aren't necessarily worse off intellectually. "Access
to information has become so small-d democratic that you no longer
need an authority figure to be more informed," says Rear Admiral
Ann E. Rondeau, the commander of Naval Service Training Command at
Great Lakes. And the more informed the recruit, the more demanding he
or she is. It's no longer enough to randomly stick someone into any
military job that needs filling. Today's sailor wants to be satisfied
with his assignment, but at the same time must learn to put service
above self. It's a complex balancing act, Ross says. "Yet it's
done every single day."
Of course, it doesn't always work out.
A recruit named Dozier came to Great Lakes brimming with ego, and
now he senses he's about to get his comeuppance. He's sitting in the
waiting room outside the SEAL motivator's office with about a dozen
others, all dressed in regulation dark blue pants and light blue
Some are here because they've passed their physical-screening test
and must go through a mandatory interview with an instructor to
discuss both their commitment level and any serious blemishes on
their record--prior drug use, perhaps, or multiple misdemeanors. It
can be a deal-breaker: You might be in great shape, but if you're a
serious screwup, the SEALs don't want you.
Others, like Dozier, failed their test and are here to talk about
their future prospects. All the recruits know that once their name is
called they are entering a No Floundering Zone: motivators have a low
tolerance for ifs, ands or buts.
"DOZIER!" someone yells. He springs up and is directed
through a doorway to motivator Cassidy's desk. On the wall is a
poster that says "Lord, give me a fast boat and a strong crew,
for I intend to go in harm's way."
Dozier stands nervously at attention. Another recruit walks past
him on all fours doing the "bear crawl"--punishment for
acting out of line.
"All right, Dozier," Cassidy says, flipping through the
recruit's file. "Why don't you tell me what the deal is here? I
remember you saying that you were going to 'crush' this test."
"I admit I came in here with a confident attitude,"
Dozier says. "I told everyone I was going to crush it. I regret
ever even opening my mouth."
Cassidy looks up at him. "You didn't even crinkle it, did
"No sir," Dozier says. He runs through, for Cassidy, the
scenarios that led to his downfall. In all cases, fatigue got the
better of him, he says.
"Unfortunately," Cassidy says, "you're done."
Dozier, half-disappointed, half-relieved, starts raising options.
Could he become a diver? Could he join a SEAL delivery-vehicle team?
This cracks Cassidy up. "No deal," he says, but sends
Dozier off on an up note. "Don't walk away from here taking it
as a negative. You can work out and get yourself mentally and
physically prepared, then come back in two years and crush it."
Dozier is an example of poor preparation, but he's also a lesson
in the pitfalls of braggadocio. Among the SEALs, there is a vastly
greater amount of walking the walk then talking the talk. They are
often called the "quiet professionals"; and the work they
do, as special ops recruiting posters say, is "silent but
deadly." Most of this is for purely practical reasons. Since
much of their mission is reconnaissance--going behind enemy lines,
gathering intelligence, and getting out in one piece--stealth and
secrecy are highly valued. As for bragging, what's the point? Why
advertise an enemy death toll, or hype a successful mission?
"Recruits think we boast about what we do. We don't,"
says Roy. "It's all about what's within yourself. You don't
really have to tell people about it."
As key liaison between the SEALs and the Navy's recruiting
apparatus, Roy has come to believe the perception of the SEAL as
superman doesn't always translate into greater enlistment, and he
thinks part of his job is to redefine the image. The notion of the
big bad SEAL, he says, doesn't necessarily square with the reality.
There are Rambo-esque SEALs, sure, guys who could bench press
Detroit, but there are also people built more like your average Joe.
Zech Carmack, a motivator at Great Lakes, walked point in the war in
Afghanistan. He has the stocky build of the laborer he was before
joining the Navy 10 years ago, but he's no hulk. Nor are SEALs
"I've been through all this training. You won't catch me in
cold water unless I've got a wetsuit on," says Roy. "I'll
walk to the edge of the pool and there could be steam coming out of
it and I'll still toe test it before I get in--I don't punish myself
unless I have to."
Most recruits find out soon enough that the reality differs
greatly from their preconceptions when they start sinking during
their swimming test, a scenario one instructor describes not as the
Dead Man's Float so much as the Dead Man's Walk on the pool bottom.
For others, the lesson will be brought home in less dramatic ways,
usually by the SEALs themselves. Every year the motivators deal with
a handful of guys who seem a little too amped up. "They'll come
in here and say: 'I wanna kill people!' " says Cassidy.
"And you say: 'Okaaay, well, you're not exactly the guy we're
looking for.' "
As a commando prototype, there's always "Wardog," an
active-duty Navy SEAL who, along with his platoon, was recently given
orders to infiltrate an urban slum in South America where some
terrorists were hiding out. The mission was straightforward: get in,
lay down some fire, take out some bad guys and be home in time for
Once the group hit the ground, Wardog got an order to clear the
alleys en route to the checkpoint. "Roger that," he said
and darted down the street. Everything was riding on him: If he
missed neutralizing a guy, that guy could turn around and waste one
of his teammates. There's only one problem with Wardog: He isn't
real. He's a character in PlayStation's SOCOM II: U.S. Navy SEALs.
"We have been working closely with SEAL consultants,"
says Jim Bosler, CEO of Zipper Interactive, SOCOM's developer. The
weapons, uniforms and tactics featured in the game are all right out
of the SEAL playbook. The gamemakers even scanned commandos' faces
and captured their motions.
Originally, the SEALs were reluctant to cooperate, but Ranger and
Delta Force games were already on the shelves. The SEALs realized
they could use the exposure and decided to lend their expertise.
"We wanted the game to be about who we are," says Roy.
"The teamwork, the command and control, how the characters talk
to each other--that's all from us."
Roy considers the game a recruiting tool. SOCOM I is the most
popular online console game and has sold 1.6 million units in North
America and 2 million worldwide. The SOCOM Web site links to the SEAL
site, and the first version of the game, launched in August 2002,
contained a 20-minute documentary about becoming a Navy commando. Roy
says the game has boosted recruitment numbers, though he admits the
evidence for that is anecdotal..
This symbiotic relationship--Sony gets a de facto SEALs
endorsement and the Navy gets a crop of new recruits with "big
thumbs"--seems to work well, but it's not without gray areas.
Bosler says the game goes light on the "gore factor" and
designers "intentionally left out a lot of close-quarters combat
kills because we didn't want to run the risk of someone trying to
simulate something on somebody, like how do you position your hands
to break a neck or some of those things."
Where there isn't Wardog, there's Charlie Sheen. The actor will
never be on a Navy recruiting poster, but he, Seagal and Bruce Willis
probably have had more to do with planting the commando seed in young
men's heads than anyone at the Pentagon would admit. In 1990 Sheen
starred in the movie "Navy SEALs," which chronicled the
misbehaving exploits of a bunch of cowboy types blowing stuff up in
the name of ridding the world of Villains With Bad Middle-Eastern
Accents. The film, like "Top Gun" before it, influenced
impressionable would-be Navy recruits strongly.
References to Sheen are usually a sign that the young man hasn't
really considered the seriousness of the tasks ahead. "If you
come in as a romantic, it's really hard to make it through, because
that means your entire worldview is hopeful," says Rear Admiral
Rondeau. "And hope is not a plan. Hope is not preparation. Hope
is just hope and it's nice, but the most romantic endeavors still
require a lot of hard work."
In the early stages of screening at Great Lakes, the harsh
realities of SEAL life are not stressed. The point is to get hopefuls
to focus on situps, not bullet wounds. But a reminder of the dangers
of combat is never far away--in some cases, from a veteran standing
next to them. Jody McIntyre, supervisor of Great Lakes' four SEAL
motivators, recently returned from two stints in Afghanistan, where
he was on the same team as Neil Roberts, who in March, 2002, was
flung from a Chinook helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled
grenade. After hitting the ground, Roberts made a fierce final stand
against Al Qaeda forces before being fatally wounded.
For McIntyre, the experience reinforces the need to get recruits
fully prepared. "You've got to have guys that will stand up when
the going gets tough," he says. "They may be saving your
Dean Avellaneda, 28, might be one of those guys. Before deciding he
wanted to become a SEAL, he'd logged almost 10 years in the Navy.
He'd been at sea on three ships and did all there was to do as a
gunner's mate and was seeking something more high-octane. He'd
started lifting weights at 24, and as he bulked up and got in shape,
seafaring no longer fit. "It got boring," Avellaneda said
at Great Lakes, after completing his screening and preparing to head
for San Diego and the 25 weeks of training called BUD/S-Basic
Underwater Demolition/SEAL. "I wanted something more
There was also 9/11. Avellaneda is a New York City native, and the
attacks on the World Trade Center further fueled his resolve. "I
want to test myself. I want to see what happens in the moment of
truth. Am I going to kill or be killed?"
It's rare for someone like Avellaneda to drop what he's doing to
pursue a completely different naval career path. For starters, he's
putting his promotions on hold. He's also up against basic biology:
The average age of the SEAL who graduates BUD/S is 23, and it's
irrefutable that the older you get, the harder it becomes for your
body to bounce back from training exercises that have names like
But Avellaneda seems pretty gung ho--with one caveat. "The
only thing that scares me is jumping out of a plane," he says.
"But I will definitely not be afraid of it when it comes time to
jump. If I have to do that to get to where I want to be, then dammit,
I'm doing it."
There is muted talk that perhaps Avellaneda wants it too bad, that
maybe he's getting into it for the wrong reasons, to mix it up in
combat. There's also the skydiving issue. The fact that it's already
nagging him may pose a problem down the line. Masked issues are
"Take a triathlete," says Roy. "He'd be the best
qualified candidate from a physical, mental and endurance standpoint.
But you don't know deep down how he really feels. He may get to BUD/S
and end up quitting because he has a girlfriend no one knew of, or
because for some reason, it's popped in his mind that he's got to
skydive in six weeks and he'll be like: 'I can't do that.' All this
anticipation's been building, and no one knew because it's all
Dr. Andy Morgan, a psychiatry professor at Yale University and a
researcher with the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress
Disorder, has been trying to determine if elite soldiers have a
special biochemistry. It's an issue that's obviously very important
to the military: it would help them cut through all the screening
tests and zero in on the best candidates. The military has been
trying to put together accurate profiles for decades without much to
show for it. And if you ask the SEALs, they say they can tell you who
won't make it, but not who will.
But based on his studies of Green Berets, SEALs and Blackhawk
helicopter pilots, Morgan's preliminary findings suggest some
biological indicators. Elite troops tend to have higher levels of a
hormone called neuropeptide Y, or NPY, which under extreme duress
helps ensure that the areas of the brain responsible for spatial
awareness and mental acuity continue to function. Whether soldiers
are born with this "high level" or can develop it in
training is still a matter of debate.
Morgan is also looking into other hormones. DHEA--what he calls
the "mother steroid of the body"--has been shown in animals
to protect the brain from negative effects of the hormone cortisol.
Cortisol contributes to readiness under stress, but at high levels
can be destructive. In dive-school and underwater-navigation
environments, Morgan found "those who have higher
DHEA-to-cortisol ratios experienced fewer psychological symptoms of
disassociation and [showed] superior military performance."
Back poolside at Great Lakes, Matthew Murray, 18, is explaining
why it took him five attempts to finally pass his physical test. He'd
done his pushups, his sit-ups and all the rest, but it came down to
the water, as it often does. He's from a military family, has
relatives in the Air Force and Marines. But he chose the Navy because
he wanted to be SEAL, and yet, "I wasn't used to water," he
admits. Coming from a landlocked small town in Pennsylvania, he
hardly ever swam. He doesn't think it's fair that people should be
given only three attempts to pass the test. But statistics don't lie:
many SEALs passed their test the first time, and most took it only
There's a saying at BUD/S that you can't cheat water. It'll go up
your nose and down your throat and into your wetsuit. It's something
every SEAL knows. It's a lesson the wannabes are still learning.
- - -
To qualify for seals training, a candidate must do the following
in one continuous session:
Swim 500 yards using the breast and/or sidestroke in 12 1/2 minutes.
Take 10 minutes of rest.
Perform a minimum of 42 pushups in two minutes.
Take two minutes of rest.
Perform a minimum of 50 situps in two minutes.
Take two minutes of rest.
Perform a minimum of six pullups, no time limit.
Take 10 minutes of rest.
Run 1 1/2 miles wearing boots and long pants in 11 1/2 minutes.