Thoughts from a Navy SEAL Instructor

As a student reporting to and going through BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL), your heart pounds with excitement at the idea of  having the opportunity to be one member of a small and tight knit family that has an even tighter bond than that of your family blood.  The mind races and adrenaline pumps, wondering what sort of sadistic and kick ass training you will be put through.  Will my body hold up to the punishment that it will inevitably go through for the next 6+ months? In the unlikely event” that you do graduate, how long can my body handle this lifestyle?  There is no set answer.  Anything can happen at anytime to anyone.  Some SEALs have long fulfilling careers, while others don’t even make it through training.

I entered BUD/S in 1990 and successfully graduated in 1991 after one set back.  I was not the best runner and paid for it from day-1 week-1 until the last soft sand run after returning from San Clemente Island.  I was considered the “Captain” of the Goon Squad (group that does extra leg and lung exercises) after each timed run or conditioning run.  Needless to say I am not a big fan of running to this day.

After Several overseas deployments, I decided to go to BUD/S and accept the role as one of the 1st phase instructors.  Being part of the selection process of one of the most elite special operations units was a great privilege and one I will never forget.

I had one small problem at the very beginning of my tour as an instructor.  I was used to “old school” style of how instructors delt with students.  They could drop you down for whatever they wanted to and that is how I began.  Needless to say, I was pulled off to the side by my LPO.  He explained to me that what I was doing, although completely understandable, was no longer how things are done now.  If I hadn’t changed my way of instructing and my interaction with the students, I would be heading back to a platoon.  Well, that was fine and dandy with me.  The only problem with that is that would have meant that I had failed a task, course, or mission and that was unacceptable.

I changed my ways, literally overnight and showed up the next day to lead a PT (physical training).  The students were required to be there 15 minutes early to set up tow rubber boats, filled with water and standing by to begin the PT session.  Most of the time I would lead the PT.  The students were required to do everything that I did and at my pace.  I considered myself a very fair, but highly demanding instructor.  My expectations of the students performance was no less then 110%.  I did not tolerate drama or each exercise performed 100% properly.  If the class began to look as if they were “sand bagging” (not caring or not putting 110% into the exercise), I would stop what ever I was doing, shake my head and say to them “why are you embarrassing me, my instructor staff and yourselves with your slack-ass attitude”?  There was no response.  I didn’t even yell, I just with a whisper to one student “go get wet and sandy…you have three minutes to hit the surf, get sand, and return to your spots in the last exercise position….do it”.  Realizing how irritated I was, the student reacted like he was shot out of a cannon.  He yelled “2**, hit the surf….wet and sandy back to your spots in the push-up position…..NOWWWWWW!”

When the 1st student returned, I dropped down to the push up position with him and waited….Realizing how serious I was,  he began yelling instructions with a sense of urgency as the other trainees returned from the ocean and sand to their individual spots.  I said in a calm voice  “can everyone hear me?”.  I received a loud and thunderous HOO YAH!  I told them, not to ever present that sort of attitude every again, while in training or as a SEAL.  Needless to say, the rest of that PT rocked the entire compound and the other side of the base could hear it as well.  During the process of the next two weeks leading up to HELL WEEK,  it became very clear from an instructors perspective (mine specifically), who was determined to be a HAIRY-CHESTED FROGMAN and who was still on the fence about the whole idea of the type of lifestyle and commitment that would present itself upon successful pinning of the Trident and completion of their first platoon deployment and every one after that.

Being an instructor was a challenging job.  It was like that of being a parent and cop at the same time.  There were times when I knew a solid student was having a bad day.  I would explain to them that everything comes to an end and all they had to do was put forth 110%, remember that they were already part of team (their boat crew) and to suck it up and get their head in the game.  Others, I would try to get them to quit, by putting them in a mental or physical vice and squeeze them to see what they would do.  If they sucked it up and rose to the occasion, I would let them move on.  If they looked as if they were wavering, I would keep on them as far as I could take it to see if he would quit.  Sometimes they would have that little bug in their head “should I quit?” and than it would be over.  Other times they would be smart enough and know that the discomfort that they were feeling wouldn’t last forever and the would overcome yet another hurdle in the great world of  BUD/S training.

We would be involved with or in charge of any one particular  evolution during the day or week.  it was the responsibility of the evolutions lead instructor to ensure the instructors were briefed on the evolution.  The great thing about working with my fellow SEAL brothers, you didn’t have to do much directing.  We all new the policies and guidelines when it came to the BUD/S training curriculum.  If there was a question about how any particular evolution was to be run then it would be brought forth to our Chief or OIC (Officer In Charge), whether it was Log PT, IBS Surf Passage, The Obstacle Course, Ocean Swim, etc. (just to name a few).

I remember one such occasion when we were doing IBS (the rubber boats) surface.  I know that many of you probably already know, but I will explain it anyway.  Surface passage is conducted in the ocean, for obvious reasons.  From day 1 of 1st phase, the students are instructed to take their boats out past the 10 foot tall sand berm that protects the BUD/S Compound from the ocean  and any extreme weather that Mother Nature decides to unleash.  Once the boats are lined up from South to North and facing the ocean,  one swim pair will climb up the berm just high enough to see all of the compound from one end to the other, watching for any instructors that will be coming out to put them through the surf passage evolution.  While they are doing this, the rest of their BUD/S class is prepping the boats and checking each other to make sure that all equipment and the men are squared and ready to enjoy 2 or 3 fun filled hours of playing in the surf, sand and anything else that comes to our minds.  Having gone through this training in 1990, I can almost picture myself as if I am in their very position.    Training was a little different of course then it is today.  As any previous instructor and self-respecting FROGMAN will tell you “My class was the hardest class that went through BUD/S”.  Of course that is a complete crock of shit, but a good story to tell over a coffee or beer anytime the mood strikes us. Now, where was I,  ah yes “IBS surf passage”.  The students are anxious, excited and maybe a little curious as to what the instructors had planned and waited the stampede of instructors and vehicles out onto the beach as the “HOO YAH” of  each instructor begins in ranking order.  The instructors were always called out according to their rank according to each phase.  During HELL WEEK all bets were off and they were not HOO YAH’d unless being spoken directly from or to the instructors.  This order was according to the Navy Ranking system and usually started with Lieutenant (O-3) and ended with Instructor ***** (E-5).  The Chief, Senior Chief and Master Chief were called out accordingly.  If you got the order wrong the entire class paid.  We as instructors were constantly testing them both mentally and physical to make sure their heads were on a swivel.

It pays to be a winner meant that finishing in 1st place was rewarded by sitting a race out or a particular exercise in a non-timed evolution.  On the flip side, if you came in last place then you were going to “pay the man”.  2nd place in any race had a pretty glamorous name as well…. the “1st” losers.  The boat crew would sit out a race with one of the instructors and be given a variety of different exercises “with” their IBS.  There were specified exercises with different amounts of repetitions or times to meet that were approved within the curriculum.  Remembering that the instructors have already been in the students shoes and have VERRRRRY devious minds when team building exercises is dealt with.

On this particular with IBS surf passage,  I happened to be a ratio instructor.  This meant that while the lead instructor was supervising and in charge of the boat races or movements, we would be wondering up and down the line checking for discrepancies or  putting the last place boat crew through extra team building exercises.  I happened to be free to deal with them. I decided to do one particular exercise and asked for the lead instructor for clearance in adjusting it.  Upon approval, they began. I had them doing sets of 10 repetitions, for numerous amounts of sets.  When I could finally see the toughest guy in their boat crew begin to waver, I had them change each repetition into a 4-count repetition.  When I could see all of them losing the ability to work as a team, because they had nothing left, I had them stop, hit the surf and get absolutely wet and sandy.  By this time the boat crews had already started the race and still struggling to make it through the surf zone. my boat crew returned to the berm and got completely sandy from head to toe.  I inspected them with their boat crew leader and found half of them not 100%.  So, as any self-respecting instructor would do, I told them to do it again. The idea that I was trying to instill in their heads, was “always strive for perfection in anything you do.  Put in 110% and do it right the first time”.  They returned and this time there were still two that didn’t list to the instructions. This time I had the other half of the boat crew perform a particular approved exercise that was no fun at all while the other two improved their efficiency in getting wet and sandy.  Now the rest of the boat crew was sufficiently frustrated with them and yelling at them to do it right and inspect other.  They finally got it right, but instead of letting the other four out of the exercise, I had the last two join them.  The last boat crew finally returned to the beach and began preparation process for the next race. At this time I sent the boat crew leader  of my special boat crew off to get instructions on the next race.  This is how most of the non-timed evolutions go.  Other times when there is hardly any surf to be had, we have to get more creative to make sure that the intensity level in the team building, competition, reward and reprimand stays as high as we can keep it.  The boat crew didn’t finish 1st, but they never finished last again from that time until the end of HELL WEEK.

Having already gone through BUD/S training and trying to get as much shit past the instructors as we could without getting caught, it is amazing what you catch the students doing, all the while the other students around them pick up their load.  This is because the tougher ones or the “team players”  are not concerned with their own pain and pissed about the fact that the slackers are not being seen by the instructors, but ensuring that they are helping out the boat crew.  This is why our community is called Navy SEAL “Teams”.  Any task that is given to us is taken on as a pair or larger.

(video courtesy of Daniel Gombik)

Now HELL WEEK is a whole other animal in itself. The students prep their boats and gear that weekend and “Breakout” usually occurs after it is completely dark.  The students are all in one room watching movies, eating pizza and drinking Gatorade as if it is their last meal.  The room is plenty warm.  Some of the students are actually sleeping thinking that this is going to help.  When  “IT” finally starts, the students are dazed and confused as to what is going on, between all of the noise and different instructors shouting commands at them all the while trying to get swim buddies separated and disoriented.  This is done to see how their boat crew leader reacts in an effort to consolidate his boat crew and continue on with the heightened state of chaos that has begun to overwhelm their senses and for some it chew up and spit out their soul.  This is when the self-doubt begins to set in for some of them.  As an instructor, it never seizes to amaze me the ones that actually quit.  Some of them, you think “yep, I figured as much”.  Others  you actually talk to them and say “what the f**** happened”, never thinking in a million years that him quiting would go down.  But let me tell you something about HELL WEEK….. this is a week that is full of surprises and we always try to expect the unexpected, but it never works out that way.  In the three years that I had the privilege of being an instructor, I can honestly say that there was not one HELL WEEK out of the 16 classes that I was there for that I was not surprised at one point or another.  The funny part, it wasn’t always the students that played the surprising role, there were other things that happened as well that I cannot expound on.  Without giving more details about HELL WEEK…. it is tough, demanding and a lot of students quit.  There are a shitload of videos that are out their on BUD/S,  so I should not have to give details.  If you look up BUD/S 234, it is the only video that I know of that goes from day1-week1 through to graduation. It covers the highlights of BUD/S, but does not cover everything.

As instructors, we are held to a very high standard, both professionally and physically for good reasons.  We are the representatives of the Navy SEAL Teams, and have a direct impact on these young men.  What we put them through and the training that we provide to them is always being updated and thus we are able to better forge them as the SEAL Warriors that they so desperately want to become.

There is a lot more that I could talk about as an instructor, but that would go for days.  If there are guys or kids out there reading this then I have a few suggestions for you.

  1. Get good grades in high school and GRADUATE!
  2. Go to college first and get a degree in something that you would want to do once you finish being a SEAL.
  3. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you cant be a SEAL.  The only one that can make that decision is you.
  4. Swim, run and workout.  You want to go through training thinking that the physical evolutions are not going to stress you out when they are timed.
  5. If you are able to get scuba diving qualified, it will make Dive Phase a little bit easier.
  6. If you shoot then you are one step ahead of the game.  If you are not around guns then try to find a legal establishment that you can shoot with and become more familiar with guns.
  7. Suck it up.  Expect to be cold, wet, tired and miserable. Its a way of life.
  8. Welcome the “SUCK” with a big hug and a smile on your face.

That is all.

(featured image courtesy of quora.com)

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