“The roughest, toughest men in the U.S.A.”
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.
Fifty push-ups was the standard. The standard has now been limited to ten push-ups with tanks on.
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.
"An instructor screams at the class officers that everything’s all fucked up."
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.
John Joseph Tomlinson. "He lost consciousness just 50 meters from the beach. "
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.
"Naval Special Warfare officials do not believe shallow-water blackouts are a significant problem."
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.
"We started training with more than 110 and graduated about 40. "
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.
a former commanding officer would begin by showing the movie Rocky.
“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.
"Sometimes trainees do die, or come close, during their 25-week ordeal."
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.
“Maybe you could do better if they gave you some practice, but they don’t. "
"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."
Billy Pearson: "Some of those guys put on so much rubber they looked like the Michelin man.”
“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."
Again, no photo and no mention of the H-word.
I spent more weeks searching now for news about two SEAL drownings but saw nothing else. That was in 1988. I wonder if they’ve finished those investigations yet. If so, I’ve not seen the results in the Times or the Union. Old news is apparently no news — especially when it comes to dead SEALs.
The subject of SEALs and cold water came up again when a TV news producer at KNSD asked me to comment, as a retired SEAL officer, on a June 1991 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office called “Navy Training Safety: High-Risk Training Can Be Safer.” According to the producer, the GAO report said nothing about the practice of smurfing; Captain Huth of the Navy’s Special Warfare Center had denied to KNSD that the practice existed at all and refused to comment on it. But the GAO had described other SEAL training exercises it called “potentially dangerous and unapproved." I recognized them all from my training days in 1966 and could only think, “Plus ca change…” the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Interested now in seeing the full report myself, I called the GAO and was promised a copy without delay. I also fired off a Freedom of Information Act request to the Navy for the investigative report of Tomlinson’s death and reports of any other trainee deaths or serums injuries. (I had heard about scores of injuries and at least four fatalities during the years prior to Tomlinson’s death.)
Six months have passed, and I still have not received the Navy reports. The GAO report arrived three days after my call. It opened with a short, matter-of-fact account of how the GAO became interested in SEAL training. It all began with a sailor named Lee Mirecki. Mirecki was not a SEAL trainee but a trainee in the Navy’s Rescue Swimmer program at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. This program prepares sailors to rescue downed aviators from the ocean.
Unlike John J. Tomlinson, Mirecki was 19 rather than 22 and was from Appleton, Wisconsin, instead of Altoona. But Mirecki shared one ultimate biographical fact with Tomlinson. He had died in 1988 during Navy swimmer training. And both Mirecki and Tomlinson were stone blue when they died.
Mirecki died of cardiac arrest when his instructors held him underwater in a swimming pool while his fellow trainees stood in formation on the pool deck singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Navy initially treated Mirecki’s death as they had Tomlinson’s — with a short press release. The release said Mirecki had died accidentally during training. An investigation was underway.
But Mirecki’s death did not become old news because his home town of Appleton, Wisconsin, is also Congressman Toby Roth's home town. Dissatisfied with the Navy’s account of his constituent’s death, Congressman Roth directed the GAO to investigate the Rescue Swimmer course and other “high-risk” courses. The Navy then began a review on its own, and most courses instituted safety measures. But not the SEALs.
During their visits to the Naval Warfare Center, GAO investigators identified three "potentially dangerous" exercises still being conducted, two of which were also “unapproved," that is, higher authority had not cleared the training as required. This is how the GAO described the hazardous training:
Pool Competency Drill
During this drill, instructors.. .knock off students' masks and fins, crimp or tie knots in their air hoses. Students must...solve these problems.... There is no safety observer nearby who can give air in an emergency.... Between July 28, 1989, and March 12, 1990, eight students experienced “shallow - water blackout"... unconsiousness due to lack of oxygen (hypoxia).... Diving medical authorities view [this] as dangerous because it can lead to an air gas embolism [air bubble in blood that prevents flow to brain] or drowning. Secondary dangers include pneumonia and pulmonary edema [abnormal accumulation of fluid in the lungs]… Naval Special Warfare officials . .do not believe shallow-water blackouts are a significant problem.
The Jock-Up Drill
This drill involves donning and removing of diving equipment. [It] was. . . designed to remedy poor attitude and performance. During this drill the students must correctly put on and remove their gear within a [certain] time. If a student fails...the class must do push-ups...sometimes with their diving tanks on.... Fifty push-ups was the standard.... The standard has now been limited to ten push-ups with tanks on.... [Navy doctors] expressed serious reservations about doing any push-ups with tanks on and noted that the objective of the drill appeared to be punishment — not skill-building.
Chinese Water Board Torture Demonstration
During this exercise, a student is placed on an inclined hoard with a rag over his face while an instructor pours water over the rag— causing a.. drowning sensation.... Some experienced [SEALs] told us the exercise has no place in BUDS training.
The GAO, in short, found that BUDS training, unlike other potentially dangerous courses under review, had done very little to make training safer and that trainees were still “unnecessarily .. at risk.” Surprisingly, the Defense Department concurred with this finding. The SEAL leadership in Coronado, however, acted as if they'd been ambushed.
The Coronado Journal ran the SEAL response under a front-page headline that proclaimed, “SEALs Training is Tough but Safe." The article summarized the GAO findings, then quoted the SEAL Public Affairs Officer, Cmdr. Bob Prichard, as saying the GAO claim of eight students having lost consciousness on the bottom of a swimming pool was “inaccurate." He also made the bewildering claim that in the period of one year, only eight students out of 1500 had lost consciousness. The claim is bewildering because fewer than 300 students routinely get as far as the pool competency drill in any given year. Moreover, what comfort do these cold statistics give the eight trainees and their families? As medical authorities cited by the GAO emphasize, losing consciousness on the bottom of a pool is a medical emergency that offers an uneasy possibility of death and paralysis.
The Journal article concluded by quoting from a letter written by the SEAL commander, Rear Adm. George Worthington, who asserted that SEAL operational successes in the Gulf had “validated” SEAL training. Admiral Worthington made his own statistical observation about the Gulf: “The SEALs did not have a single death or injury despite the more than 270 operations they conducted."
How, I wondered, would the admiral explain the clusterfucks in Grenada and Panama that produced horrendous and needless SEAL casualties? Same training prepared the Grenada and Panama SEALs as prepared the Gulf SEALs. Maybe other factors were at work in the Gulf that were missing at times in Grenada and Panama — like better mission selection, planning, and — above all — better leadership on the dangerous edge of things.
Also, according to an internal SEAL briefing document, more than 200 of the Gulf missions were routine, unopposed tasks that involved little more than riding in helicopters over the Gulf in case an aviator had to be plucked from the water or floating mines had to he blown in place. SEALs rescued one pilot and destroyed 25 floating mines — a job many SEALs disdain and believe should be done by explosive-ordnance disposal units.
As I read the predictable hometown article in the Journal, I found myself wanting to breathe a little life into the flat, bloodless prose of government reports and bring some balance to the self-serving comments of the SEAL spokesmen.
I wanted to talk with Team guys about all this — SEAL officers and petty officers from whom you seldom hear if you weren’t in the Teams. Above all, I wanted to ask these SEALs more about how BUDS uses cold water to bring pain and about how Petty Officer Tomlinson died.
Billy Pierson and I are in a living room with what real estate ads call a “vaulted ceiling,” except this ceiling soars, makes you feel like you’re in a cathedral or a parachute drying loft.
“One reason we chose this house was because of the ceiling. I got tired of bumping my head in that house we had in Chula Vista," Billy says. He goes about six four, weighs maybe 240. He’s black and has a Terminator body. Billy retired from the Navy as a SEAL officer this year and has agreed to talk about his experiences as a BUDS instructor in the early '80s.
I began, "What do you know about smurfing?”
“Well, I don’t know anything about the Smurfs, but I sure know about putting trainees in cold water and getting put there myself when I was a trainee. When I was an instructor, it didn’t really have a name. We just told ’em to hit the surf till we said they could come out. But we never kept them in too long — just long enough to get good and wet, get a little chill on the bones. Of course, I was the officer for first-phase training on the Strand. I can’t really say what went on out at San Clemente Island. Not much supervision out there.”
“What are the phases in training now?”
“Same as when I was an instructor. First phase is the conditioning phase. Six weeks or so of runs, swims, calisthenics, obstacle course, surf passage with the IBS — the rubber boats. We got Hell Week in there too. Second phase is diving, and third phase is land warfare and demolition out at the Island. Twenty-five weeks in all; then they go to Benning for jump school.”
“When you were an instructor, ever see or hear about a trainee with hypothermia?"
“Not from making them hit the surf; but, yeah, we had a lot get near the edge during wetsuit appreciation swims, where you make the trainees swim in the ocean and sometimes in the bay without their wetsuits. Then there was the trainee who died a couple of years ago at the Island. I didn't hear too much about that — it seemed to be real ‘close hold.’”
“How much rubber are trainees entitled to wear these days?”
“I’m not absolutely sure. But it’s probably the same as when I was an instructor — just a top, maybe a hood. No bottoms. Don’t get bottoms until you get to the Teams."
“It’s always been like that, hasn’t it? You get your tailored wetsuit and Rolex when you got to the Teams.”
“Been like that as long as I can remember, but I don’t think they give you a Rolex anymore. Think you get a Casio now."
“In the Teams it’s pretty much up to the individual how much rubber he wears, isn’t it?"
“Yeah, and I don’t remember anyone going without. Some of those guys put on so much rubber they looked like the Michelin man.” Billy chuckles, a deep resonant sound like a slow drum roll.
“During your 20 years as a SEAL, ever take part in or hear about a Team mission that called for a five-mile swim in 60-degree water without a full wetsuit."
“Never did — except for training, of course. You wouldn’t want to swim five miles to reach the beach or a target. You’d be too tired to operate. I don't remember ever having to swim more than a mile — if that. Usually go in with an IBS or SDV, a swimmer delivery vehicle.”
“How far would trainees have to swim without any rubber.”
“About two miles. From the Area to the other side of the Del breakwater and back. We used to take 'em out to sea, drop ’em off to swim back through the surf at the Area, but we stopped doing that. Too hard to keep track of ’em. Especially when they started freezing up. We pulled trainees out right and left during those wetsuit appreciation swims — especially during the winter when that water got down to a toasty 55 or so.”
“Any of them have hypothermia?”
“Borderline, Bill. Borderline. We hauled them ashore and threw them in the sauna we had at the Area for instructors. That usually brought them around.”
“What was the most dangerous training exercise while you were an instructor?”
“Oh, man, that’s gotta be rock portage, at night, in winter surf off the Hotel Del breakwater. Trainees getting brained on those rocks, busting arms and legs, just getting all fucked up.
“In rock portage, trainees have to haul their rubber Boats along the top of the boulders that form the Hotel Del breakwater. When they get to the end of the breakwater, they have to launch into the surf. It's tough enough climbing over those slick boulders without having to haul a 200-pound Boat along, which gets a lot heavier as it fills with water from waves crashing on the rocks. And when those waves build to 10 or 12 feet, crashing right on the rocks, it’s just about impossible to complete the mission. That’s when people start getting hurt.”
“Any written guidance on when the training should be secured because of surf conditions?”
“Not when I was an instructor. It was just 'march or die.’ But I did secure the training once, even though my senior enlisted instructor threatened to report me to the (X). I said I didn’t give a fuck what he did, just secure the training. I’m telling you. Bill, that surf was murder. It was breaking right on top of those boulders. It washed the first boat crew off the top of the breakwater and hammered them down between the rocks on the far side.
“I didn’t get in trouble for it. It was my call. But we had several instructors who would have forced the trainees to continue.”
“During your 20 years in the Teams, once you were out of training, ever have to do rock portage in high surf like that?”
I meet Brian Duddy for the first time at a house in Coronado not far from the bridge. I’d been told Brian was in training when John Joseph Tomlinson froze to death. Brian cautiously agreed to talk with me on condition that the interview be limited to his experiences as a trainee in 1988-89. We were not to discuss current or past SEAL Team operations, since he was concerned for what SEALs call OPSEC, operational security, the practice of keeping useful information from the enemy.
We’re at opposite ends of a large, comfortable couch. Brian studies me with unblinking blue eyes set in the mahogany face of a dedicated surfer. I tell Brian about my theory that surfers have the easiest time of it during training because they can hack cold water, aren’t terrified by killer surf. He agrees hut adds, “Even surfers know pain during training.
“I became a SEAL because I wanted to test myself. I had just gotten my associate degree in programming and was working in New York when I read an article about SEALs in Parade. The story made it sound like training was a real test, the hardest thing the military had to offer. So I enlisted and after boot camp and A-school went to Coronado for BUDS. Started in February '88 but got rolled back to another class when I was injured close to the end of training.
“The first day was an easy day. We had an easy inspection, then a few classes on life jackets and IBS repair — how to patch our rubber boats with monkey shit and all, this black goo you use to patch leaks in the IBS. After the classes, we had a ‘wind-up’ PT at the end of the day. That’s when the screaming started and people started getting wet.
“Whenever a trainee would do an exercise wrong — like let his belly touch the ground during push-ups — an instructor would tell him to hit the surf, which is about 100 meters behind the training area. The trainee would have to run to the ocean, get soaked, and run back to the PT circle. Sometimes the instructor would make him become a ‘sugar cookie’ — roll around wet in the sand. It sounds funny but it’s painful. You got to start doing that burnout PT again, only now you got sand in your crotch and up your ass. Chafes a lot, and if you don’t pay attention to the raw, bleeding skin you can get cellulitis.
“I can honestly say I only had to hit the surf once. I was trying to set a record; but in third phase I was getting a little salty, fell in for PT wearing my colored tube socks. The instructors called ’em faggot socks and would really run shit down your neck if they caught you with them. I tried to hide in the back but they saw me, so I went.
“I was great at PT but had a lot of trouble with the beach runs. We ran in long pants — greens — T-shirts, and boots. I got short legs and would lag behind and end up in the goon squad I mean the very last goon squad with the pathetic runners. These runs would last, like, three hours or more.
“The idea of having goon squads was to encourage everyone to stay with the pack. The instructors made life so miserable for the goons that you’d bust your hump to stay up. When the pack finished and went off to chow or the barracks, the goons would have to stay on the beach and get fucked over.
“The instructors would make us do PT in the sand ’n’ surf, then they’d start the elimination races. If you won, you got to fall out, go to the barracks or chow. They’d make us bear-crawl up and down the beach, up and down the beach. We’re on all fours with our rear ends sticking up in the air. This is real uncomfortable, and we’d be out there for what seemed like a very long time. It’s no fun getting gooned. This was first phase, mostly. They didn't have many goon squads after Hell Week.
“Hell Week began late Sunday afternoon with a little Hell Week party in the briefing room at BUDS. Pizza, sodas, and a motivational movie about a wrestler who overcomes all obstacles to win the big match. It was a lot like Rocky, but I think it was called Vision Quest.
“After the movie, we went to the barracks, and the instructors told us to keep the shades down, to get in the rack and sleep. I slept for 20 minutes or so before it started. The instructors kicked open the doors, threw in some flash-bangs, and started cranking off M60 machine gun blanks. Unbelievable noise, smoke, and screaming.
“I was ready, though. I’d staged my boots to make sure I could find them and get the right foot in the right boot. I’d heard stories about trainees getting confused by all the noise and putting their boots on the wrong feet. If they made that mistake, they couldn’t change for the entire week or until they quit.
“We fell out on the beach for a timed run to the Hotel Del and back. The instructors said if anyone failed to make the time, we would get surf torture. Of course, someone failed, so they made us join hands and march into the surf. We sat with our backs to the breakers; we could hear ’em rolling in before they drenched us. The instructors said we would stay in that icy water until someone quit.
“Within just a few minutes we had a quitter — a trainee named Doan. We didn't know who it was at first. But they made him stand on the berm in a spotlight while we looked at him. Then he rang the bell three times and was gone.
“I was surprised it was Doan, because during the first four weeks he was probably the strongest trainee. The instructors loved him. He could run, swim, do the obstacle course better than anyone. He was never a goon and was a weight lifter — really cut. But he was tall and slender, not much meat on him. I guess he just couldn't stand the thought of sitting in that freezing water all night.
“After Doan quit, they ordered us out of the surf and ran us across the highway to the Navy piers on Glorietta Bay, opposite the golf course. That’s when it really got cold. Doan saved himself a lot of pain quitting when he did.
“They marched us onto a pier covered with steel matting, made us strip naked, and jump into the bay. They kept us treading water for 15 or 20 minutes before making us climb out onto the steel matting. We laid on the matting for a while with the wind from Alaska blowing across us, and then it was back into the bay. We did that over and over — into the hay, onto the steel, into the bay. We started after midnight and didn’t stop until almost dawn.
“Sometimes they had us do calisthenics on the pier to keep warm, I suppose, but it didn’t help much. The wind was blowing, you were naked, the steel was cold — the cold just seeped through your entire body. We had some more quitters on the steel pier."
I interrupt Brian, “When did you start to hallucinate?" It’s common for trainees to hallucinate at some point from exertion and lack of sleep.
“On that long boat paddle up the bay from IB — Wednesday or Thursday night, I’m not sure which. Most guys saw giant sharks and whales, talked to people who weren’t there, but I saw outboard engines — the Third World kind with long propeller shafts. I saw them on the other boats. I’d see these boats go flying by us with the outboards and think, ‘Cool, man. Where’d they get those engines?”
Several trainees quit during Hell Week, and a bunch quit earlier. We started training with more than 110 and graduated about 40. I didn’t graduate with my class because of an injury I received in third phase. I got rolled back two classes. I stepped in a hole during a night patrol on the Island and screwed up my lower back. I finished the Island phase, but a few weeks before graduation I re-injured my back during jock-up drills. I didn’t want to quit, but I just couldn’t continue.
“During our first two weeks of third phase, we learned to dive open-circuit rigs — the air tanks like sport divers use. We would put our gear on every day at the area after lunch and march to the pool on the Amphib Base about a mile away. Sometimes we’d be late and the instructors would get on our ass to hurry up.
“The gear has to go on a certain way. You put your life jacket on first ’cause it stays with you no matter what. Next you get your tanks — the twin 72s — then your knife and flare. You put your weight belt on last ’cause that comes off first if you have to blow ’n’ go — ditch your equipment in an emergency and head for the surface.
“Once the class has got their gear on, the instructors inspect to see if anybody’s fucked up.
All it takes is one trainee to have a twisted strap or something and the entire class gets put through the famous jock-up drill. It starts by an instructor screaming at the class officers that everything’s all fucked up and for the class to remove their gear. Then the instructor will yell something like, ‘Okay, this class has got one minute to put your gear on and fall in for inspection.’
“The officer trainees start screaming at us, and everybody is scrambling to get the gear on correctly, except now you only got a minute and everybody’s yelling at you. People start to panic, look around to see how others are putting the gear on, and of course, you got mistakes — maybe a trainee forgets his knife or puts his weight belt on underneath the tank straps.
“At this point, the instructors will drop the class and have us start knocking out push-ups with our twin tanks on. We’ll do this for maybe half an hour or so on the asphalt behind the Area. And if the instructors really want to dog us, they’ll march us out to the beach, where they’ll make us do calisthenics with our gear on — jumping jacks, flutter kicks, good-morning-darlings, sit-ups, squat thrusts, and of course more push-ups. And the instructors would put us through a grass drill like in football — ‘On your right side, on your left side, on your back, on your belly, on your feet.’ You’re just exhausted, and this can go on for two hours or more. We’d do like 600 push-ups — 20 sets of 30, at least.
“I re-injured my back the first week after we returned from the Island. I went to the doctor, who gave me shots of steroids and cortisone in the upper rear end to keep me going, but they didn't help. During the second week, the doctor said I probably should roll back but that it was up to me. I hated to do it, leave my class, but I got to where I couldn’t even pick up the tanks, let alone manage a jock-up drill. Sometimes I’d get these stabbing pains in my lower back by just looking at the tanks.
“Before I re-injured my back, I could do about 150 push-ups in a minute or so before I ran outta steam. Pull-ups, I could do 50 good ones without arching my back; and sit-ups I could do all day."
"After I graduated, they switched things around, and it’s for the better. Diving is now second phase, after Hell Week, and the Island is third phase. One of the biggest hurdles in training is pool competency during the dive phase. When I went through, we had pool comp a week or so before graduation, so you’re looking at a rollback or worse when you’re almost through. We had a guy get sent to the fleet when he failed pool comp and after his parents had flown in from the East Coast for graduation."
I mention to Brian that I’d seen records for one class where only 10 of 40 trainees passed on their first attempt — and this was a class that had completed Hell Week and the Island — more them 20 weeks of training.
“Yeah,” Brian continues, “pool comp really works you. Of course, they give you two chances, but if an instructor doesn’t like you for whatever reason — you’re history. Haze gray and underway.
“I didn’t have much trouble, but I’m glad I was one of the first through pool comp. Before the drill, they make you sit on the pool deck with your back to the water. Then they take, like, six trainees at a time for the drills. The trainee swims back and forth along the bottom of the pool in his open-circuit scuba. The instructors hover on the surface with face masks, snorkels, and fins. They take turns diving on the trainee, ripping his mouthpiece out, yanking his fins and face mask off, tying knots in his air hoses. Sometimes two instructors work on one trainee.
“The trainee is supposed to calmly figure out what’s wrong and fix it. But some of this stuff you just can’t fix — like the Puerto Rican Double Whammy Knot or the Missouri Hog Tie. We’re wearing double-hose regulators, and the instructors tie the hoses into these impossible knots. No more air.
“Maybe you could do better if they gave you some practice, but they don’t. And you don’t have much air to work with down there — especially if they yank your mouthpiece exit just after you’ve exhaled. And what’s weird is that once you graduate and get in the teams, you don’t even use open-circuit for tactical missions — you use the closed-circuit Draeger. But there’s no pool comp in training for the Draeger."
I ask Brian if he’d heard about the SEAL Team FIVE lieutenant, Paul Station, who drowned on a Draeger swim in the bay.
“Yeah, he was doing a ship-boarding drill. We didn’t get any practice for that at all during training.
“Like I was saying, I was glad I was among the first trainees to go through pool comp. So I wouldn’t have to sit on the pool deck and listen to all the splashing, gurgling, and screaming going on behind me. See, the worst thing a trainee could do was abort his problem-solving and take off for the surface. I’ve heard instructors would keep trainees from coming to the surface — grab ’em, stand on their heads, shit like that. But I never saw it and didn’t like to think about it. That’s why I wanted to be first.
“I did see one instructor grab a trainee by the foot to keep him from going to the surface during knot-tying. And I almost passed out when an instructor held me under during life-saving drills.
“During knot-tying, they stretch a line across the bottom of the pool or across the diving tower at about 20 feet, and you have to free-dive to the line and tie in a little piece of line you’re carrying. The knots have to be precise. You’re practicing for when you tie in del cord to a trunk line connecting underwater explosives for beach clearance or harbor sabotage. If you don’t tie in right, you’ll get cut-offs, and the entire field won’t blow.
“I didn't see this, but I heard the instructors held one guy down so long he had nerve damage — a drooping face or eye. I heard he was trying to sue the Navy. Anyway, that pool comp’s a motherfucker.
“And the Chinese Water Torture isn’t number one on the list of things you'd like to do either. I’m glad they only did it once in our class. We were on the Island, and they chose the class idiot to demonstrate. He was such an idiot we thought it was a good idea. We wanted to watch him wiggle.
“The instructors tied him to a weapons cleaning table, put a T-shirt over his face, and ran water from a hose onto the shirt. Whenever he tried to breathe, you could see the shirt collapse into his mouth and stop up his nose. But the instructors didn’t keep at it very long, just until his hands and feet started twitching pretty good.
“I had the torture a lot worse than that when I went to SERE School — POW survival training for pilots, air crew, and SEALs. At SERE they tortured me and another SEAL most of the night. I don’t think they tortured any pilots. I hoped they’d think I was a pilot, but I was too muscular and didn’t have that fish-white skin you see on a lot of pilots.
“The compound guards called me the Great Water Warrior in this phony Asian accent and said, ‘Let’s see how well he lie to us while breathing water.’
“They strapped me upside down to an inclined board — a Frankenstein-type thing where you could hardly breathe anyway. Then they pressed this thick cloth over my face — it was like a towel but thicker — and ran water out of a hose onto the cloth. It feels like you’re being smothered and you want to vomit. Then you start to pass out.
“They told me to wiggle my feet if I wanted to talk. After a few minutes I'm wiggling my feet like crazy, but they keep loading me up with water until my feet start slowing down. Just as I’m passing out, they remove the cloth. They do this over and over until I’m just completely drenched and making this awful sound when I try to breathe. They’d take the cloth away, and when I tried to breathe they’d slap it back on. Take it away, slap it back on. They did that for what seemed like hours.
“I couldn’t breathe at all when the cloth was over my face. You could try, but you’d just end up swallowing water and puking it back up, swallowing some more.”
I mention to Brian that a friend of mine who was an instructor at both SERE and BUDS says SERE training is actually very controlled. The Chief of Naval Operations must approve every detail of SERE training, and medical personnel, including a psychologist, must be present during the water torture. My friend says that’s not true at BUDS. CNO never approved the BUDS torture and it’s like, “Hey! We got a 50-minute block of instruction to fill. Let’s break out the of Chinese Water Torture Board!”
Brian responds, “Yeah, I can believe that. They had a lot of people standing around observing me at SERE. During the BUDS torture I don’t think they even had a corpsman present, and there was a lot of smokin’ ’n’ jokin’ going on that you didn’t have at SERE.”
In many ways, I thought the Island was worse than Hell Week. You were out there for five or six weeks, and like one kinda crazy instructor put it, ‘Nobody can hear the trainees scream on the Island.’
“Obstacle loading was what worried most of us. The instructors would dump big concrete blocks into the ocean just off the beach at Northwest Harbor. The blocks had pipes or horns sticking out to resemble the obstacles the Japanese used during the Second World War to punch holes in our landing craft. In fact, we called the obstacles ‘Jap scullys.’
“The instructors put some of the scullys in the surf zone but dropped others beyond the surf in deep, deep water — 30 feet or more. We had to locate the scullys and free-dive down to tie 20-pound explosive packs to them.
“After we’d tied the packs onto the scullys, an instructor would dive down and try to wrestle the packs loose — see if we’d secured the demo tight. If the instructor could loosen the pack, you’d have to do it again. You wanted to get it right the first time, because that water was real cold and all you had on was this trashy wetsuit top.
“Another bad thing about obstacle loading was shallow-water blackout. You’d have to hyperventilate to get at those deep obstacles, and we had several guys pass out on the bottom of the ocean. But our class was mild compared to the class behind us. A buddy of mine in that class told me they had trainees floating up constantly.
“Of course, not all trainees are so gung-ho that they’ll stay down no matter what. The guy loading the obstacle next to mine would just dive down, look at the thing and come shooting back to the surface. We called him Microlung.
“Remember that crazy instructor I told you about earlier who said they couldn’t hear us scream! Well, he came out to check on how Microlung was doing and brought this heavyweight belt. He strapped the belt around Microlung and said, ‘By God, this time you’ll go down and stay down.’
“I tried not to watch but couldn’t help myself. The guy dives down but doesn’t stay down much longer than before — comes shooting back up like a Polaris missile, just spraying water everywhere in a major panic. He never did pass the test. Got rolled back and made it through the next class because he didn’t get a deep-water scully."
I ask Brian, “Did the Iraqis protect their landing beaches with scullys?”
“Not that I heard, but I wasn’t in the Gulf. I heard they were going to set oil on fire to prevent landings, and then they had a lot of mines laid. We never had any instruction on mine-clearing during BUDS, but they have an advanced course for that after you get in the Teams."
“You have the five-and-a-half-mile ocean swim at the Island, don’t you?"
Brian nods. “Yeah, from be low Wilson Cove to the end of the Island at Northwest Harbor.” “Were you in training when Tomlinson died on that swim?”
“Yes, but not in his class. We were still on the strand getting ready to go to the Island. We were the next class scheduled for the swim, and we heard a lot about how he died.
“We heard he was close to the beach at the end of the swim when suddenly he started a wild freestyle stroke toward shore. That got the instructors’ attention, because all our strokes are supposed to be underwater recovery, like the side-stroke. You’ll catch major shit if you break the surface of the water with your arms. So at first we heard that the instructors were screaming stuff at him like, ‘Hey, asshole! What the fuck you doing? Then his swim buddy, another corpsman, sees something’s wrong. Tomlinson’s passing out, so he grabs him, hauls him to shore. They say Tomlinson had turned deep blue by then — bluer than a sky without clouds.
“Our instructors on the Strand took us aside after Tomlinson died to make sure we understood about hypothermia They made it kinda sound like it was Tomlinson’s fault he died because he shoulda recognized the symptoms and raised his arm for a pickup by the safety boat.
“But if you get picked up by the safety boat, you probably get rolled back or dropped from training. They could run a board on you if you couldn’t hack the swim. It’s like a final exam.
“We had work-up swims on the Strand before the long one at the Island. I remember on one of these swims, after we’d been told about Tomlinson and hypothermia, three or four guys raised their hands and were picked up. The instructors gave them a lot of shit because they thought these guys were using Tomlinson’s death to get out of the swim. The guys had a make-up swim the next day, so they didn’t get out of anything. And they had a had mark against them because of their distress signals. The instructors were on them good after that. I don’t think they made it through training.”
“How much rubber did they let you wear on your swims?"
Brian laughs and says, “Not very much at all. You could wear a hood and a top that had a beaver flap, didn’t fit right and was thin, like something out of the '60s. No bottoms. Bottoms were for pussies.”
“Now that you know what training is all about, its challenges and dangers,” I ask Brian, “would you risk it again?"
He leans forward as he considers the thought, rests Popeye forearms on muscular thighs. I notice he has surprisingly small hands. He looks at me with those flat, blue, machine-gunner eyes and says, “Yeah, I would. Like I said, it’s a real test.”
Veterans of the north knew the stages... Arkady was shivering; shivering was good. The body could actually maintain its temperature for a while by shaking to death. Still, he lost a degree every 3 minutes. When he lost two degrees he would stop shivering and his heart would start slowing and shutting off the flow to skin and limbs to maintain cote heat. When he lost 11 degrees his heart would stop. Coma came midway. He had 15 minutes.
— Martin Cruz Smith, Polar Star (1989)
A core temperature of less than 95 degrees F is a medical emergency.... Its prompt recognition is critical to avoid serious morbidity or death.... “Rewarming Shock"...has been most commonly encountered with external warming techniques.... Slow, spontaneous rewarming which allows body temperature to return to normal gradually (not faster than 1 degree F per hour) by conserving heat still being produced by the hypothermic patient is recommended. More rapid rewarming has often resulted in irreversible hypotension.
— Cecil’s Textbook of Medicine (1988)
[Tomlinson] passed out 50 meters from completing the 5.5 mile conditioning swim. He was removed from the water and attempts were made to warm his body temperature in a sauna. About 2 hours from the onset of the emergency, he was transported to a hospital but he never regained consciousness.
— 1989 GAO report, “Safety Has Been Improved but More Still Needs to be Done"
Although the Navy has not yet sent me the report of the investigation into the death of Petty Officer Tomlinson, they have sent me other information I requested — such as the Naval Special Warfare Center’s instruction on the use of wetsuits by trainees. This instruction states how much rubber trainees may wear for a given water temperature and length of swim. The instruction requires full wetsuits if the water temperature is below 60 degrees and the swim is for more than two nautical miles. (Of the many SEALs I talked with for this story, none could recall a time trainees were ever issued full wetsuits.) For swims up to two nautical miles in water temperatures of 65 degrees or more, trainees receive no rubber — not even a “trashy top."
The training center instruction for wetsuits diverges dramatically from the U.S. Navy Diving Manual, which everyone else in the Navy must follow. According to the manual, a full wetsuit is required for water temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees, with a more protective dry suit for temperatures below 60 degrees. The manual notes that water temperature “drastically" affects performance; in cold water a person’s “ability to concentrate and work drops off rapidly.”
According to an article in Tomlinson’s hometown newspaper, the Altoona Mirror, he had been in 57-degree water for more than three hours when he lost consciousness. The article reported that a Navy spokesman, Chief Steve Hiney, emphasized Tomlinson was wearing “the standard wetsuit, covering almost all of his body except his legs.” In a follow-up article, Hiney admitted Tomlinson had died of hypothermia hut added, “Depending on your religious affiliation, it might be referred to as an act of God.”
Divine intervention aside, I wondered why SEAL trainees like Tomlinson and Brian Duddy are treated differently from other Navy people who must work in cold water. Do their bodies respond differently to hypothermic dangers? Why didn’t those in charge of Tomlinson’s swim follow even the training center instruction? Why did it take so long to Medevac Tomlinson? Was anyone disciplined as a result of his death? Has an instructor ever been court-martialed at BUDS because of trainee deaths or serious injury ? Time now, I thought, for the official story.
But there will be no official story — at least not here. My written request for an interview with the Training Center commander, Capt. Tom “The Hulk” Richards, has met with silence. I’m somewhat surprised, because I’ve learned from a BUDS instructor that breezes if not winds of change have blown through the training center during the past few months. I understand, for example, that instructors must now measure ocean temperature with a thermometer before they subject trainees to surf torture. The colder the water, the less time trainees may be kept in the freezer.
As you might imagine, some instructors are not pleased with thus and other new limits on their authority. After all, instructors were once trainees themselves. If they suffered and endured to pass into the Teams, why shouldn’t others? Tradition is a long time dying. And those who know the realities of training will tell you that despite paper reform, a certain type of instructor will always find methods to ensure that his charges never have an easy day — and that disfavored, scumbag trainees utter the words all trainees yearn to hear from others: “I quit.”
On those rare occasions when the press or government agencies such as the GAO criticize SEALs, the SEAL response typically attacks the critics’ qualifications to judge the military’s “elite of the elite." Thus, the training center XO complained in the Coronado Journal that “the GAO report was unfair, because the individuals who reviewed BUDS training had no knowledge about...SEAL missions (or) the rigors of diving.”
In preparing this article, apart from my formal interviews I had informal conversations with more than 30 SEALs. I talked with active-duty, retired, and former SEALs whose experience spanned three decades. Some of the SEALs with whom I spoke asked that I not use their names; others gave me permission. Here’s a sampling of what I heard:
“They don’t call it hazardous duty pay for nothin’.” (A Senior Chief with 16 years' service, including three as a BUDS instructor. Hazardous duty pay refers to the extra money SEALs receive for jumping out of airplanes, diving, and blowing things up.)
“We were out at the Island, and the instructors made the officers, me included, dig holes in the beach deep enough for us to be buried up to our necks in sand. Then the instructors covered our heads with kelp and pissed on us.” (A SEAL officer describing one of his experiences in the late' 70s.)
“They got this pull-up bar in front of the chow hall door at the Island. You got to do so many pull ups to get inside to eat — 30, 40, whatever. If you can’t finish the set, you don’t get any hot chow. They make you sit in the surf and eat cold MREs — field rations. I know some guys who never got a hot meal on the Island.” (A recent BUDS graduate.)
“I went to training off a destroyer escort and wasn’t in great shape, although I’d played football at the Academy. On the first 16-miler through the soft sand, I got delirious and passed out. The instructors tossed me in the surf to revive me.” (Cmdr. Ed GiU, retired, who graduated from training in 1965. Ed was a starting end on the Naval Academy team with Roger Staubach.)
“They could have killed him, throwing him in the cold ocean that way. He’s just lucky he didn’t go into cardiac arrest. And you should have seen him after Hell Week. He had cellulitis so bad in his legs that you could see the red streaks running all the way up to his groin. Press on the cuts he had all over his feet and legs, and the pus would just shoot out. He didn’t think it was serious, and those idiots weren’t treating it. I said, ‘Ed, that’s serious, that could turn into gangrene and you could lose your legs.’ I gave him massive doses of antibiotics.” (Ed’s wife Joan, who was an emergency room nurse while he was in training.)
“We didn’t have any real serious injuries in training — the worst was when Pamode blew his finger off out at the Island fooling around with a booby trap he’d set himself.” (Ed Gill)
“If you screw up in even the tiniest way, like having the day-end of your emergency flare upside down on your K-bar sheath, you’ll have to report to the duty instructor at the end of the day for punishment. Typical punishment might be 5000 eight-count body-builders, where you drop for a push-up, do a modified squat thrust, then come to attention — that’s one. It takes till about midnight to finish 5000.
“But sometimes an instructor will make it known that he won’t supervise too closely if you buy him a couple of giant pizzas. All you got to do then is scream out the count while the instructor watches TV and eats his pizza in the duty office.” (A recent BUDS graduate.)
“There’s no one I’d rather go into the field with, but he just didn’t belong around trainees — especially when he was drunk. I remember one night he went into the trainee barracks after closing the chief s club, grabbed this trainee out of the rack to teach him some judo throw, and ended up heaving him down a three-story stairwell. Broke the trainee’s leg." (A master chief with 20 years’ service describing a legendary BUDS instructor.)
“The chief was a little guy but built like a fireplug. He grabbed this smart-mouth trainee in the barracks once and slammed him so hard into a steel locker that the impact crushed the locker like it was tin. Fuckin’ knocked the trainee silly.” (A recent BUDS graduate describing a new legendary instructor in the making.)
“I had the duty one Saturday and was checking the spaces. I entered an area with upright lockers about the size of coffins and smelled smoke. I saw an instructor watching a fire of burning paper beneath a locker. I asked him what was the deal, and he said, ‘Just thawing out a trainee, sir.’ I told him to knock it off. As I walked away I heard the locker crash to the deck, then I heard whimpering.” (A former SEAL officer who left the Navy after his BUDS tour.)
“Pool comp — we called it pool harassment in the ’60s — was terrifying. I’m convinced I only made it because the instructors liked me, thought I looked like a frogman.” (Lieutenant Chris Lomas, training class 44, who was a football player at Colgate University.)
“We had this officer instructor who liked to fill the trainees’ boat with sand and then make them do deep knee-bends with the boat on their heads. Real smart. He also used to invite civilian women to watch the trainees bust their asses during rock portage at the Del. Those civilians would sit down there on the beach getting all boozed up while the trainees put on a floor show. I bitched but was told to stop stirring up shit — I was to sit on it and turn brown.” (A retired senior enlisted instructor talking about an officer instructor during the mid' '70s. The officer later commanded BUDS before he retired.)
“Me and my swim buddy had been working on this deep-water scully for about four hours. We’d get the fucker loaded, and then Fredrickson or one of those other mean bastards would dive down and go after it like a shark — yank on the pack so hard the lines would loosen and come undone. Then they took our wetsuit tops away and we worked naked for an hour or so. I’m tellin’ ya, I was finished. About to pass out from cold. I never woulda made it if Gorlick hadn’t seen what was goin’ on, come out, and gave us an okay without ever bothering to check how tight we’d secured the demo." (A highly decorated, several-times-wounded Vietnam veteran talking about his experience with obstacle loading in the ’60s. Gorlick was an instructor revered as much for his good sense and humanity as for his extraordinary strength.)
“The trainees who died were in Senator Bob Kerrey's class. I didn’t hear about it right away because I was in ’Nam when it happened. The trainees got tangled in a buoy line marking one of the underwater obstacles and drowned. I heard their faces were just inches from the surface but they couldn’t get loose. After that, the instructors stopped marking the obstacles with buoys, but that wasn’t the only reason those trainees went belly-up — you lose track of what you’re doin’ and get careless if you stay in cold water too long without enough rubber." (The highly decorated Vietnam veteran.)
“His name was Herrera. He was a Mexican kid from East L.A. He died during an underwater surf passage the trainees had to make with scuba gear to the rendezvous with boats for an ocean dive farther out. I recall the surf being high that day, with several lines. In fact, the diving supervisor thought the surf zone was too rough for the evolution. I was standing near him on the beach before the trainees entered the water and heard him arguing with the officer in charge of the dive, telling the officer they should scrub it. When the officer refused, the diving supe got really hot, and it was like, ‘Okay, if you want to continue the dive, sir, you fuckin’ supe it.’ Anyway, the trainees had to tackle that brutal surf, and Herrera went belly-up.” (A SEAL officer recalling the death of a trainee off the Strand in 1976.)
“Yeah, I knew about Herrera. The diving officer tried to pull the same shit earlier, when I was a senior instructor. He wanted the trainees to swim their rigs through high surf behind the Area so they could save time. The usual drill was to march the trainees to the Amphib Base piers, where they could board the boats for the trip to the dive area off Point Loma. The diving officer didn’t want to transit the bay. I saw the danger in making a surf passage to rendezvous with the boats and wouldn’t agree to it.” (An experienced SEAL instructor, now retired.)
And what do I finally think of all this? Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.