What BUD/S is Really Like: A True Story of being “That Guy” (Part 3)
Our water skills training in Phase One were modeled on the experiences of the underwater demolition team (UDT) guys in World War II, who were the SEALs’ direct predecessors. These guys would swim ashore secretly, ahead of a troop landing, with nothing beyond their mask, fins, and snorkel but a demo knife and explosives, to scout out and blow up any obstacles that the enemy might have planted to prevent our flat-bottomed landing craft from coming ashore. In Phase Two we would get into more intensive water training, but for now they walked us through the basic skills of underwater demolition: breath-hold (no tanks), long underwater swims, underwater knot-tying, and the like. The point was to get used to the water, push our limits, and realize that we could go a lot further than we thought we could go.
I’d done drown-proofing in search-and-rescue school; now I got it again, but ratcheted up a notch: hands tied behind my back, feet tied together, tossed into a twenty-foot dive tank, had to survive for an hour doing various exercises with my hands and feet tied, things like diving down and picking up objects on the bottom of the pool with my mouth.
They had us do hydrographic surveys, another old-school remnant from WWII days when the UDT guys would swim in close to shore, gather as much data as they could, and put it into a hand-drawn map for the landing crews (or use it to blow things up). They lined up ten of us on the beach, spaced about two yards apart, and sent us walking out into the surf with small boards to write on. We jotted down data until we couldn’t touch bottom, and at that point we swam out with a lead line that we dropped down to take soundings as kept heading further offshore, twelve feet, fifteen feet, twenty feet, and on. Eventually we started diving down for obstacles in our lane, mapping out everything we could find, before returning to shore and putting all the data we’d collected into a hydrographic chart.
If it sounds exacting and tedious, it was—only it came at the end of an incredibly long, brutally hard day when we were exhausted, ready to hit barracks and collapse. And we had to get each detailed chart exactly right, perfectly right, or the instructor would rip it up and send us back out into the night surf to do it over again.
The water tests in First Phase were tough. We did an underwater breath-hold fifty-meter swim, which went like this: we jumped into the pool feet first (we weren’t allowed to push off the wall), did a somersault, then went fifty meters down and back, holding our breath the whole way. Guys were popping up to the surface like goldfish corpses. Not that they had quit intentionally—they had just passed out.
Another water test was the underwater knot-tying trial. You submerge, tie your first knot, then wait for your instructor to inspect and approve it. Once your work is okayed, you go up to surface for a moment, catch a breath, then go down to tie the next knot, and on through a series of five knots in all.
Typically the instructor takes his time inspecting your knot, looking it over very slowly and methodically. Not because he needs to, but just to bust your balls. What he’s really doing its trying his best to force you to run out of air. This is exactly what happened to me … only with a twist.
Instructor Shoulin really had it in for me, so it should have come as no surprise when he came over to “support” the underwater knot-tie exercise and singled me out. “You’re in my lane, Webb,” he said. What he really meant was, You’re mine now, I own you, you piece of shit.
But there was something about me that Instructor Shoulin didn’t know: I practically grew up underwater. I may have been a wreck physically and at the bottom of the heap in basic PT, but when it came to water skills, I felt I could do anything they threw at me. That attitude would get me in trouble later, but for the moment it served me pretty well.
We dove down under, Instructor Shoulin on my tail like a shark tracking a baby seal. I tied my first knot. He started looking it over, real slow. He couldn’t find anything wrong with it, and I knew it, and he knew that I knew it. But that didn’t make any difference. He took forever, knowing there was nothing I could do but sit there and take it.
Finally, he looked over and gave me the thumbs-up: This one’s okay, you can surface now. Only I didn’t head up to the surface. Instead, I methodically moved on and started tying my second knot. I didn’t dare look in his direction, but I sure wish I had. I’d love to know what the expression on his face looked like.
After I finished the second knot and he had inspected it (more quickly this time) and approved it, I ignored his Okay, you can surface now gestures once again and went on, starting in on my third knot.
That was it. Instructor Shoulin couldn’t hold out any longer—he went up to the surface to gasp for air. He was so pissed off. I had embarrassed him. I was pretty sure I’d pay for it, too.
By about the fifth week of Phase One, I was a wreck: exhausted, humiliated, just about beaten into a corner. Then one afternoon, just a few days before Hell Week was to begin, it all came to a head.
Every afternoon we formed up in seven-man boat crews, grabbed our heavy rubber boats, threw them up on top of our heads, and ran with them to the beach to get tortured for a while. On this particular afternoon we were on our way out to the beach when Instructor Shoulin called over to my team. “Webb, get over here.”
Matthews, my boat crew leader, said, “Hey, what’s up, Instructor Shoulin? Where is he going?”
“Don’t worry about Webb,” he replied. “Just go get your bleep boat ready.” I looked over and realized that Getka, Buchanan, and Gillespie were all with him. Uh-oh. I peeled away from my boat crew and headed with them out to a section of beach where it was just us, alone: me and the four alpha instructors.
“Drop, Webb,” said one of them. “Eight-counts, begin.” This was one of their favorite forms of punishment. The eight-count bodybuilder goes like this:
1) Start from a standing position.
2) Drop to a squat, hands on ground.
3) Push legs back to basic push-up position.
4) Execute a push-up.
5) Scissor-kick your legs apart.
6) Legs back together in push-up position.
7) Pull your legs up to your chest.
8) Jump back up to standing position.
They had me do a hundred of these babies, then took me through push-ups, flutter-kicks, the whole works, and all the while they were shoveling sand in my face and yelling at me, all four of them, at the tops of their lungs.
“You are a worthless piece of shit, Webb! Do you even know what a piece of shit you are? You are the biggest piece of shit we’ve ever seen! You’re weighing your whole class down. You are a one-man walking disaster. You are bleep it up for everyone else. You don’t belong here, you fleet piece of shit. Do you even know how badly you’re bleep this up, how much every one wants you gone? You’re a disgrace, Webb. You’re garbage. You need to quit. Nobody wants you in Hell Week.”
And on and on for the next hour. It was beyond brutal. I could feel how intensely they all wanted me to get up, limp away, and go ring that goddam brass bell.
The worst of it was, I knew they were right. There was a reason they were singling me out. I was physically out of shape and that had been affecting the entire class. And that bothered me. In fact, this is something I’ve continued to be conscious of and careful about to this day: If you show up late, if you don’t have your gear together, or your facts together, or whatever shit it is you need to have together, then you are affecting the whole team. They were right, and it was a lesson I would never forget.
But if I was not physically as tough as I needed to be, I had one thing going for me. I was very tough mentally.
There is a common misperception that to make it through SEAL training you have to be a super athlete. Not so. In its purely physical requirements, the course is designed for the average athletic male to be able to make it through. What SEAL training really tests is your mental mettle. It is designed to push you mentally to the brink, over and over again, until you are hardened and able to take on any task with confidence, regardless of the odds—or until you break.
And I was not about to break.
My body at this point was nowhere near as conditioned as it would become in the months and years ahead. But mentally, I was ready for anything. That was the only reason I survived that hour on the beach. That was the only reason I made it through BUD/S.
People have asked if I ever thought about quitting during the SEAL training, if I ever had one of those dark-night-of-the-soul moments you hear about, those moments of piercing doubt and anguished uncertainty. The answer is, Never—not once. But lying there face-down in the sand with these four hard-case psychopaths doing their level best to break me, something else happened instead: I got what we call a fire in the gut.
Of the four, it was Instructor Buchanan who was the most in my face. So I looked up at him, nailed him with the coldest stare I could muster, and said, “bleep you, Instructor Buchanan—bleep you. The only way you’re getting me out of here is in a body bag.”
He glared back at me, gauging me, weighing my intent. I meant every word, and he knew it. He took one step back and jerked his head, gesturing up the beach toward where my boat crew was prepped and waiting. “Get back to your crew,” was what he said, but the way he said it made it sound like, “The hell with you.”
From that point on, even throughout Hell Week, my experience in BUD/S completely turned the corner. Those instructors left me alone. When Hell Week started a few days later, it felt almost anticlimactic. “Welcome to my world,” is what I felt like saying to the other guys. I’d been playing these games throughout First Phase.
There is a saying in BUD/S: ideally you want to become the gray man. In other words, you become invisible, nobody notices you, because you do everything so perfectly that you never stand out.
From that point forward, I went from being that guy to being the gray man.
Which is not to say that Hell Week was easy. It was as brutal as all the legends and mythology say, and then some. From the morning it began, my classmates started winking out like cheap light bulbs at the end of their warranty.
The first night, they disoriented us: we were up all night, and that was only the beginning, because we were going to be up for five days and nights straight. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were the worst. If you were hanging in there by Tuesday night you didn’t have a lot of company, because most of the guys had already quit by then. They really brought on the cold and the punishment those first three days.
They had us do something they called steel pier. At two in the morning, they walked us into the ocean and threw us on a steel barge, where we lay half naked for over four hours on and off, our body temperatures dropping to hypothermia levels. Then, just as didn’t think we could hang onto consciousness any longer, they had us get up, jump in the water—and then climb out and get back on the pier. It was pure misery. That first night we heard the air broken by the doleful sound of that brass bell ringing through the dark, again and again.
One way they kept us busy during Hell Week was having us do log runs. Seven us would lift a huge log—essentially a telephone pole—and heft it up onto our shoulders, carrying it while being force-marched at a steady trot, sloshing through the surf, instructors right behind us yelling at us. After six miles through the surf line, we put down our telephone pole, drank a little water, then picked the log back up, turned around, and headed back the way we’d come, back six miles … then dropped the log, grabbed our rubber boat and swung it up onto our heads and headed the other way again. Another six miles, up and back, and so on, for about eight hours. There was one especially huge log, dubbed Ole Misery by past BUD/S students, that had the words “Misery Loves Company” carved into its side. This thing was an evil creature worthy of Stephen King’s pen: one class stole it and tried to torch it, but it refused to burn. It’s probably still there today, torturing each new class of BUD/S students.
As hard as this all sounds, the physical punishment wasn’t the worst of it. It was the psychological torture that broke so many of us and kept that brass bell ringing. We never knew what they were going to pitch at us next. The whole five days was designed to throw us off balance and keep us off balance, and it worked.
On day 3 they put us in a tent to get some sleep. We lay our weary bones down on thin, uncomfortable cots, but to us, it felt like heaven. We drifted off—until about fifty minutes later, when my sleep was interrupted by the most unwelcome sound I’ve ever heard. I don’t know if I had been dreaming or was just immersed in the heaven of inky blackness, but all of a sudden lights were going on and I was hearing a voice shouting at me.
“Up, Webb, time to go hit the surf!”
We had just slipped into REM sleep when they woke us back up to start in on us all over again.
I’ll tell you what it’s like when you have just gone through three solid days of physical punishment, around the clock, and then you finally have the chance to get to sleep, only to be yanked out of it again less than an hour later: it’s torture. And that is no figure of speech. In fact, this is one of the most common techniques used in the actual torture of prisoners of war.
I opened my eyes. Guys around me were completely disoriented, jerking upright and staring around desperately, literally not knowing where they were or what the hell was going on. Next thing we knew we were all running out to go lie on the freezing cold beach, right down in the surf, faces toward the ocean so the waves could wash sand and saltwater into our eyes and noses and mouths. I’ve never had much problem with the cold, but that waking episode was hard.
The worst, though, was the chow runs. In the same way that they gave us just enough sleep to survive, they pared the experience of eating down to the bare minimum.
We not only ran for miles on the beach with those big rubber boats on our heads, we carried them everywhere. Some of the guys got cuts, scars, bald spots from carrying those damned boats. And we even had to carry them to chow. When it was time to eat, they raced us to the mess hall, where they had us run around a small building, carrying our boats, while they let a few crews at a time in to eat. I remember the feeling of my neck being jack-hammered, my head in pain. Finally it would come our crew’s turn to eat: we would quickly put our boat down, run inside, shovel down our food, then run out again.
Sometimes when we got back outside, we realized we were a few people short. What happened? we wondered. Those guys never showed up again: they were out. The instructors reshuffled the crew to compensate, according to our height, and off we went again.
Thursday night we did an exercise they called round the world: each boat crew paddled its boat out some twenty miles to a check point and then back. It took about eight hours and was all done, of course, at night.
We ran out into the surf, carrying that damned boat on our heads, then heaved it into the water, clambered in, and started paddling like crazy. Hours later, we were still paddling. I looked around and realized that everyone was falling asleep. I whacked a few guys with my paddle and hissed, “Hey! You guys! Stay awake!”
By the time we finished it was deep in the middle of the night. We were the first boat to reach shore, and from out of the gloom came a voice: “Hey! Get over here!” It was Instructor Shoulin. He stepped into our boat like an evil George Washington crossing some Delaware in hell and told us to paddle him out to meet up with the rest of the guys, who were still coming in.
Suddenly I heard Instructor Getka’s voice floating in from the direction of the shore. “Webb,” it growled, “if you dump boat right now I’ll secure you from Hell Week.”
What he was saying was, if I would dump Instructor Shoulin into the icy cold water right then and there, fully clothed, then he would give me an immediate free pass out of the rest of Hell Week.
Instructor Shoulin’s head swiveled and he stared at me. I didn’t say a word, but my face said it all: Let’s dump this bleep! Instructor Shoulin said in a terrifyingly quiet voice, “Webb, you sonofabitch, if you dump me, you will pay.”
I grinned. Looking straight at him, I muttered, “Let’s do it!” loud enough for the whole team to hear it. The team was too afraid of him, so it didn’t happen—but Instructor Shoulin saw it in my eyes. I was ready to dunk him. I wonder what would have happened if we had.
Friday they put us in a fenced-off area on the beach they had filled with seawater. They called this seawater swamp the demo pit, but it was nothing more than a muddy bog strung with rope bridges. We stood there, exhausted, caked head to toe with mud, barely able to stay on our feet—and they start firing grenade simulators at us.
At this point we were zombies. I don’t even know how fast I moved, or even if I moved at all. I know some guys just dropped into the bog and lay there.
Then they ran us up to the compound, lined us up on the grinder, and someone said, “Class 215, secured from Hell Week.”
It was unreal. We had been suffering so badly it felt like time had slowed down and stretched out until the punishment was a raw experience of eternity. It was like the ancient Greeks’ concept of hell, Sisyphus pushing a heavy stone up a hill till it was near the top, when it would roll down again and he would have to start over from the bottom, continuing the process forever. And suddenly it was over and we were being handed our brown shirts.
I’ll never forget the feeling of putting on that dry, warm, clean tee shirt. I ate an entire pizza, drank a quart of Gatorade, called my parents to tell them I’d made it through Hell Week, and crashed into deep sleep. At some point I came to long enough to pee in the empty Gatorade bottle before falling back asleep again. I woke up two days later.
Of our original two hundred twenty, we were now down to seventy.