If you like your Navy SEALs or frogmen big, brawny, stoked to the eyeballs on steroids, and filled with comic-book bravado, then Captain Ed Bowen will disappoint. His size inspires nicknames like “Peanut” or “Li’l Bit” in our shared home state of Georgia. I don’t know if people in Athens ever called him by those names. I haven’t asked him. But what I have asked him over several weeks were tough questions about his new command, the Phil Bucklew Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, where the notorious Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUDS) course has devoured more than 5000 trainees during the past ten years and many more thousands since it started over three decades ago. As a measure of the training’s ferocity, only about 30 percent of those who enter its hellish arena survive to graduate and enter men’s houses known as “The Teams.”
But all has not been well lately at BUDS or within the special warfare (SPECWAR) community of some 2200 SEALs that depends on BUDS for new blood. Two highly critical Government Accounting Office studies in the early 1990s identified cruel and counterproductive practices that had resulted in serious injuries and unacceptable risk of death even in a Navy-sanctioned, high-risk environment. Two training deaths followed the GAO studies and — according to statistics provided by BUDS public affairs officer LTJG Tom Greer — the historical graduation rate of 30 percent plummeted to an abysmal 17 percent for the six classes that began training in 1999. Class 227, which graduated in February 2000, numbered only 10 of an original 88 men, for a grim survival rate of 11 percent.
What makes these figures particularly alarming — apart from the waste of taxpayer money — has been an unprecedented failure of former SPECWARr leaders to retain experienced SEALs during the past few years. The Teams have reached a manning crisis at the same time BUDS has experienced a meltdown of its reactor that generates new SEALs.
Enter Easy Ed Bowen, who took command of BUDS hard on the heels of the 1999 disaster and midway through the massacre of Class 227. Bowen arrived in his 34th year of active service that began when he entered the Navy as a teenager in 1965 to catch the flooding tide of the Vietnam War. Bowen graduated from what was then called UDT Replacement Training with Class 38 in 1966. He served three combat tours with SEAL Teams One and Two that brought him Presidential Unit Citations, Bronze and Silver Stars, and an officer’s commission. Bowen’s longevity in SPECWAR makes him the Bull Frog: the oldest SEAL presently on active duty. A recent holder of this title before his retirement was Rudy Boesch of Survivor fame. Although Boesch and Bowen express themselves in vastly different idioms, they share one overarching trait: what you see is what you get; neither man has a careerist or deceitful bone in his body. I come to this conclusion after having known and worked closely with both men during my own meager 16 years as a SEAL.
Captain Bowen and I meet in the center’s conference room for our second of several talks on the state of BUDS. That I’m meeting at all with the head of BUDS is noteworthy: over the years I’ve written articles critical of BUDS excesses and SPECWAR operational tragedies. The former SPECWAR leadership, therefore, had never in my ten years of reporting granted an official interview. I learned that if you didn’t have anything worshipful to say about America’s Roughest Toughest Meanest Mothers, then SPECWAR didn’t want you to say anything at all. But the new SEAL boss, Rear Admiral Eric Olson, and Captain Bowen have abandoned the old bunker mentality: they’ve given me — and consequently the public — extraordinary access to BUDS for this article.
Captain Bowen gets right to the point: “Look,” he says in a soft Southern voice tinged with an Appalachian twang, “I don’t have anything to hide. I’ve read your articles and I can’t find a single inaccuracy. There’s certainly a dark side to training and some of the things we do in the Teams. I’m trying my damnedest to do things right. I can’t explain all the sins of the past. Since I graduated with Class 38 I’d never had a tour at BUDS until I became commanding officer. Although I served in SEAL Teams One and Five not more than a couple hundred yards from here, I had no real idea of what went on in training. This place was like a black box to me that produced men for the Teams. And I was always satisfied with the product. I quite frankly was not concerned with the process. Now that I’m responsible for what goes on here I’m keenly concerned about the process. To that end, I’ve focused on the key relationship between instructor and student.”
Bowen’s use of terms such as “process” and “instructor-student relationship” reminds me that during his limited free time he is chasing a Ph.D. in educational leadership at usd. These abstract terms also remind me of a nasty, concrete example of the instructor-student relationship that took place a few months before Bowen arrived at BUDS. A retired SEAL and former instructor recounted the following incident to me. While a dwindling number of trainees (the old-fashioned word for students) were in the throes of Hell Week on a deserted beach opposite the A-8 Anchorage, an instructor ordered them into the 57-degree water of the bay for a round of what is known as “surf torture.” Although the surf was negligible, after 30 minutes or so the trainees were sufficiently “hyped” — suffering hypothermia — that they were prepared to do almost anything to end the pain. The instructor ordered them from the water and — as they stood trembling before him — said he would stop the torture provided they chose one of their number for a successful treasure hunt. The hunt, he explained, would be to find a treasure of “corn” and “peanuts” in the reeking pile the chosen would squeeze out on a piece of driftwood. Each trainee would examine the pile and sound off if he encountered a treasure. The trainees eagerly complied and to their great relief discovered enough treasure to satisfy the instructor.