Of all the battles a SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) must fight, none is more important than their first– the battle of mind over body.
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 gruelling 5.5 days, the continuous training ultimately determines who has the ability and mindset to endure.
“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.
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. It is not the physical trials of Hell Week that are difficult so much as its duration: a continual 132 hours of physical labour.
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 and use the same as fuel when they themselves feel drained. They learn to silence that inner voice urging them to give in and ring that hideous, beautiful bell.
The body often lies to the mind, and being susceptible to muscular exclamations of pain and exhaustion, the mind begins to believe in its fragility and give up. It is a fierce fight that many candidates never win, but for those who go on to become Navy SEALs, learning to push the boundaries of their physical limitations is the foundation for all subsequent training and operations.
For those who make it through the infamous 132-hours of Hell Week comes the inner knowledge that their bodies can go far beyond their previous expectations.
The concept of mind over matter is reflected in an oft-chanted phrase during Hell Week: “If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.”
Once Hell Week and Phase One of basic SEAL conditioning is finished, the candidates move on to new challenges, knowing they have it within themselves to stay the course.
But training is far from over. Before candidates earn the right to wear the coveted trident badges that identify them as members of the Naval Special Warfare community, they face training far beyond the fence lines of Naval Amphibious Base, Coronado, Calif.
Underwater in San Diego for scuba and “drown-proofing;” in the mountains of Southern California for rappelling, mountain climbing, explosives, small-unit movements and tactics; and San Clemente Island, Calif., where they take a final land-warfare exercise in a real-time environment.
This means graduation from BUD/S. After graduation, it’s on to Fort Benning, Ga., to learn the basics of static-line parachuting, followed by 15 weeks of SEAL Qualification Training (SQT) before a final three weeks of Extreme Cold-Weather Survival.
The frigid, mountainous environment of Kodiak, Alaska, now is the final testing ground. Similar to the extreme conditions encountered in Afghanistan, candidates spend three weeks surviving these near-arctic conditions. They plunge into the coastal waters from small boats. Bulky dry-suits shelter them from the chill of the water as they make their way to shore carrying everything they need to climb cliffs, traverse gorges, rappel mountain faces and sleep in the snow.
Candidates must break through ice-encrusted waters, jump in without the protection of their dry-suit, tread water for three to four minutes, pull themselves out of the water, then dry their clothes and gear off.
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.
After the completion of Cold-weather Survival Training, they are awarded their trident badge and Navy Enlisted Classification code at Naval Special Warfare Centre, 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.
The 24-month training process will continue to separate the determined candidates from the undecided.
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 give in or punk out when things start to get rough.