Navy SEALs have gotten a lot of good ink across the years since America first read about JFK’s maritime commandos during the Vietnam War. Esquire, for example, featured them in a 1974 story titled "Mean Mothers With Dirty Faces: The SEALs joined the Navy to scare the world." On its cover, Esquire called SEALs “The roughest, toughest men in the U.S.A.” A photo appearing with the story showed the mud-encrusted face of a SEAL trainee in Coronado who looked as if he were about to rip the photographer’s head off and use it for a toilet.
More recently, Newsweek featured SEALs in an article on the Gulf War. They ran a cover photo of a Mean Mother with a Dirty Face, and the article made clear that SEALs are a breed apart — the roughest, toughest men anywhere.
Television thinks SEALs are sexy. Shortly after the Gulf War, ABC’s PrimeTime showcased SEAL training in Coronado. They told about the fabled Hell Week, an agonizing, six-day gutcheck without sleep during which trainees must, time and again, day and night, launch their seven-man rubber boats through freezing surf to paddle up and down the San Diego coast.
When they’re not in boats, the trainees are running 16-milers in their boots through soft sand, doing impossible numbers of push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, good-morning-darlings (leg-openers), and just generally laboring at tasks that seem beyond mortal man.
SEALs interviewed by the media usually promote a superhuman myth that heralds a Triumph of the Will: If a man wants to be a SEAL badly enough, he will achieve his quest and conquer training. He will become Someone Special — the title of a SEAL publicity film. To emphasize the point, a former commanding officer would begin each course by showing the movie Rocky.
But many of those who have suffered through training and been instructors for training do not see themselves as the Rocky Balboas or Supermen of the military. They know all too well how mortal trainees are.
Sometimes trainees do die, or come close, during their 25-week ordeal. But SEALs who know these things usually keep their own counsel. You seldom learn much about this dark side of the SEAL experience unless you are in the Teams and drink at bars like McP’s in Coronado or the Far East Rock in IB.
“Then he made the trainee run from the Area to the Hotel Del and back with that load of shit in his pants. How are you going to instill professionalism when you have that kind of nonsense going on. I was looking into my friend’s face as he spoke and noticed how pinched and weathered it had become. I also saw the grim set of his mouth. He didn’t laugh or smile as easily as when we had been junior officers together in SEAL Team ONE some 20 years before.
My friend — call him Tony — had recently retired from the Navy, and his last assignment had been at the Amphib Base as a senior officer with Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUDS) Training. He had wanted to improve things.
Tony continued, “And it’s not like the instructor told him to hold it until the lecture was finished. I mean, the instructor made the trainee get up in front of the class, strain, and shit his pants.
"Then he had another trainee come up and sniff to confirm. After that, he told the trainee who’d shit himself to run to the Del and back."
“What happened when the trainee returned?”
“What do you think? Smurfed him. Said cold ocean water was the best way to clean your asshole."
To smurf a trainee was to make him stay in the frigid Pacific long enough to turn blue like one of those cartoon dwarfs on TV. As for the danger of hypothermia...well, I’d suffered and survived the practice along with hundreds of other trainees, although it carried no particular name during my training in 1966.
I had largely forgotten the term until I ran across a short news article in the back pages of the Los Angeles Times about a trainee — John J. Tomlinson — who had died during a 5.5-mile swim in winter waters off San Clemente Island. I recalled making that same swim 22 years earlier, but it had only been four miles in the old days, and nobody died. Training was getting tougher.
Still, I remembered how incredibly cold the ocean had been — images came to mind of razors flaying my legs, a spike driving through my skull. And when we encountered those periodic updwellings of arctic water we called thermo-clines, it had been like swimming through broken glass. The instructors wouldn’t let us wear wetsuit bottoms or hoods. We wore just a thin, ill-fitting top that we knew the instructors might at any moment order us to remove. “Wetsuit appreciation time,” they called it.
I remembered how we had crawled from the ocean on our bellies across the beach at Northwest Harbor when we’d finished, too exhausted and frozen to gain our knees let alone our feet, how the instructors had worried us the way dogs worry sheep to get them moving. It had worked. No one died of hypothermia, but we were certainly turning blue, and some of us pissed red until stinging showers thawed our kidneys.
I was pretty sure Hospital Corpsman Third Class John Joseph Tomlinson, 22, of Altoona, Pennsylvania, had suffered hypothermia. His buddy had pulled John Joseph — did they call him “J.J.”? — out of the water when he lost consciousness just 50 meters from the beach at Northwest Harbor. Cause of death? This is what the Times article reported: “The cause of death is being investigated, a Navy spokesman, Cmdr. David Dillon said, adding that Tomlinson had no health problems. ‘These people are monitored all the time, and a serious problem would have been apparent,’ he said.”
No photograph of the corpsman accompanied the article. Not a word about hypothermia. Perhaps I was wrong. I reviewed the Times and Union carefully for weeks afterwards but never saw John Joseph Tomlinson — did they call him “Doc"? — mentioned again until three months later. Another short article, this time in the back pages of the Union, told of a SEAL who had drowned in San Diego Bay. After describing very briefly and incompletely how the SEAL had drowned, the article said, “The incident is the second death in the local SEAL program in less than three months. On March 13, Seaman [sic] John J. Tomlinson, 22, of Altoona, Pa., died after passing out following a five-mile [sic] SEAL training swim near San Clemente Island. Investigations into both deaths are continuing."