I don’t have the heart to confront Bowen with this incident of which I’m certain he hasn’t a clue. I instead draw on an example from my own distant training past that speaks of this traditional fascination a very few instructors have had with bodily fluids and functions.
I recall an instructor for my class in 1966 who delighted in pissing on trainees during sneak-and-peek exercises as they crawled along the beach. I understand the practice had endured at least until two years ago. A corpsman who’d received the golden shower — photographed in living color — told me about it. I think he was in Class 210 or thereabouts. How does this manifestation of the student-instructor relationship strike you?
“Of course I don’t condone such ‘extracurricular’ activities. I don’t believe anyone in a leadership position here at BUDS would. The problem is finding out about these aberrations and stopping them. You probably know more about some things that go on here than I do. But our instructors for the most part are overwhelmingly professional, and while changes need to be made, what you describe isn’t the norm.”
Do you know about the first phase Hammer Award?
“Tell me about it.”
Students at the end of first phase select the instructor who has been the meanest sonofabitch, the one who has brought the most pain, and give him a trophy with a hammer mounted on it.
Bowen makes a notation on a pad in front of him and says, “That practice doesn’t appeal to me at all. That doesn’t fit my view of what SEALs are about or what instructors should be doing. The type instructor who exemplifies what I want to see is not the one students know as ‘The Hammer,’ but the instructor who, when the students are going on a five-mile swim, jocks up and goes with them. I want a positive instructor attitude — not an attitude that says, ‘I went through hell to become a SEAL and by God I’m going to make sure my trainees do the same.’
“My take on human nature is that no one is born good or bad but with a clean slate, a tabula rasa. It’s life experience that makes a man what he is. It’s up to us to build on what the trainee brings through the door. Some men are definitely not meant to be here, but I’m convinced the majority — not 30 percent — have the physical and mental abilities to complete the course. Our job is not to deselect until we have only those few students remaining who can eat the most shit, if you will.”
Bowen’s sudden use of profanity — so common in the Teams, even among some senior officers — is startling and all the more effective because he seldom curses.
“When I first got here,” he says, “I put out a little blurb on my philosophy and what I expected of staff. My opening lines went something like this: ‘The most important aspect of this center is the instructor-student relationship. That relationship is grounded in my fundamental belief that you lead by example.’ I’m not terribly impressed by the spectacle of an instructor standing on the beach with a bullhorn yelling at students to do things the instructor has not demonstrated a willingness and ability to do himself. I expect instructors throughout training to motivate in a positive rather than negative manner. And that includes Hell Week.”
When is Hell Week?
“Third week of first phase. Before first phase we have a low-stress, five-week workup period called Indoctrination. Here, let me give you an overview of training and the changes underway.”
We spend the next several minutes viewing a Power Point presentation on the familiar scheme for BUDS training as Bowen has amended it to reach his goal of an attrition rate of no more than 60 percent. He puts it in positive terms. “I see no reason why for every 100 students who enter the pipeline we can’t push at least 40 out the other end.”
The slides reveal that training, like Gaul, is divided into three parts. The first, or conditioning, phase lasts five weeks, during which a typical trainee day — except for Hell Week — looks like this: 0330 reveille followed by cleanup and preparation for inspection; muster at 0400 for mile run to combat-training tank and one-hour swim; 0515 to 0545, breakfast followed by run back to barracks for inspection; three hours of calisthenics and run after inspection with perhaps 45 minutes of class on such things as rubber-boat repair, first aid, or “core values” (no kidding). The remainder of the day until chow at 1730 is spent on various physical pursuits such as the obstacle course, ocean swims, log PT, and surf passage with seven-man torture chambers called ibss (inflatable boats small). Night exercises and cleanup often delay rack time for the trainees until past midnight.
Instructors swarm like killer bees around all this activity ready to light on any trainee who shows the slightest letup. The instructors do not lack targets and the sting of mass punishment follows swift and sure. Surf torture is favored.
What most strikes terror in the trainee during first phase is the prospect of Hell Week. This fabled rite of passage is an agonizing five-day gut check with virtually no sleep during which trainees must time and again, day and night, launch their ibss through freezing surf to paddle up and down the San Diego coast. When they’re not in the ibs they’re running 12-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. Most trainees who quit hang it up during Hell Week.
Captain Bowen has changed little of what goes on during first phase, at least through Hell Week. “This period,” he says, “is designed to select out those students who do not have the mental or physical toughness to be a SEAL. And let’s face it, not everyone who enters training is suited for the Teams. This is not to say we should think less of this person or that he should think less of himself. We’ll find that student useful employment elsewhere in the Navy. On the other hand, those who survive Hell Week should complete the course. And if a Hell Week graduate doesn’t complete the course I’m going to want to know why and will personally examine each case.”