Many highly talented candidates make it to SEAL Training, but a small percentage actually make it through SEAL Training - also known as BUD/S - Basic Underwater Demolition / SEAL Training. This percentage ranges each year from 20-30% graduation rates. Regardless of recruitment, mentor preparation, physical abilities of the candidates, BUD/S has a unique way of getting into the mind of the candidate causing the "why" of the student to be questioned. Maybe it is the cold water, being constantly wet and sandy, swimming in ocean water at midnight, or constant negative feedback from the instructors, the internal voice of the BUD/S student is in control of even the most fit body.
Of all the battles a SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) must fight, none is more important than their first: the battle of mind over body.
The voice was back. That small, self-doubting messenger returned to pitch its familiar monologue, “This is BS! Why are you putting yourself through this? You are never gonna make it all the way, so quit now and call it a day!”
Basic Underwater Demolitions and SEAL (BUD/S) instructors know the human machine is capable of amazing endurance even in the harshest of conditions and environments, but they also know the mind must be made to ignore the pleading of the body.
As their name suggests, SEALs are trained to conduct operations in any arena, and successful candidates spend 18 to 24 months in training before being assigned to teams. Every step is a challenge, and each test is progressively more difficult. On average, 70 percent of candidates never make it past Phase One.
For most, the greatest challenge lies in Week 4 of Phase One. A grueling 5.5 days, 120+ hour evolution known as Hell Week. This continuous training ultimately determines who has the ability and mindset to endure the rest of training and "never quit" when needed by their team mates in the future.
Welcome to Hell Week
Trainees are constantly in motion; constantly cold, hungry and wet. Mud is everywhere; it covers uniforms, hands, and faces. Sand burns eyes and chafes raw skin. Medical personnel stand by for emergencies and then monitor the exhausted trainees. Sleep is fleeting -- a mere three to four hours granted near the conclusion of the week. The trainees consume up to 7,000 calories a day and still lose weight.
The inner voice mimics the BUD/S instructor pacing the line of waterlogged men with his bullhorn. “If you quit now you could go get a room at one of those luxury hotels down the beach and do nothing but sleep for an entire day!"
Throughout Hell Week, BUD/S instructors continually remind candidates that they can “Drop-On-Request” (DOR) any time they feel they can’t go on by simply ringing a shiny brass bell that hangs prominently within the camp for all to see.
“The belief that BUD/S is about physical strength is a common misconception. Actually, it’s 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical,” said a BUD/S instructor at the San Diego facility. “(Students) just decide that they are too cold, too sandy, too sore or too wet to go on. It’s their minds that give up on them, not their bodies.”
“Whaddaya think? All you have to do is get up and go smack the hell out of that shiny, brass bell. You KNOW you want to.”
Through the long days and nights of Hell Week, candidates learn to rely on one another to keep awake and stay motivated. They tap one another on the shoulder or thigh periodically and wait for a reassuring pat in response that says, “I’m still hangin’ in there, how ‘bout you?” They cheer loudly when they notice a mate struggling to complete his mission. They learn to silence that inner voice urging them to give in and ring that hideous, beautiful bell.
Sleep. He would do anything for it. He couldn’t remember what day it was, or when he had last slept. But, he knew it felt good, and NOTHING about “Hell Week” felt good. He had been cold and wet for days. There were open sores along his inner thigh now from being constantly soaked. And every time he moved, the coarse, wet camouflage raked over the wounds, sending lightning bolts of pain through his body. Maybe the voice was right. Maybe he should just get up, walk over, and ring that bell.
Candidates must break through bone chilling cold waters, jump in without the protection of their wet suit, tread water for three to four minutes, pull themselves out of the water, then dry their clothes and gear off. This process is repeated for hours.
While some might question the necessity of being inducted into this “Polar Bear Club,” SEAL candidates once again silence inner doubts and follow instructions as given. Even in the later phases of SQT, candidates call upon their mental determination to pull them through.
It is not over after Hell Week. In fact, the training only really begins after hell week when students learn to be combat divers, shoot weapons, and land warfare for the remaining five months of BUD/S. Then after six months of SEAL Qualification Training, they are awarded their trident and become Navy SEALs and earn the Navy Enlisted Classification code at Naval Special Warfare Center, Coronado, Calif.
With terrorist threats on the rise around the world, SEALs are needed more than ever. Yet, even with a pressing need for more such men, training of candidates remains as tough as it has ever been. As Navy SEALs put their lives on the line defending America, each member of that team must know without a doubt that the man fighting next to him will not quit on them when things start to get rough.