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The Finishing School

Earning the Navy SEAL Trident

The Finishing School
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In America's new war, the first guns in the fight are special operations forces, including the Navy SEALs, specially trained warriors who operate with precision, swiftness, and lethal force. In the constantly shifting war on terror, SEAL units--small
in number, flexible, stealthy, and efficient--are more vital than ever to America’s security as they take the battle to an elusive enemy around the globe.

But how are Navy SEALs made? What special training and preparation sharpen the physical skills and intangible character of a regular soldier into that of an elite warrior? In the acclaimed Warrior Elite, former Navy SEAL Dick Couch narrated one SEAL class's journey through BUD/S training, the brutal initial course that separates out candidates with the character and stamina necessary to begin training as Navy SEALs. In The Finishing School, Couch follows SEALs into the next levels of training, where they further develop their endurance and strength, but also learn the teamwork and finely honed skills they'll need to fight with the best--and win.

Dick Couch spent six months living with and observing SEALs in training for operational readiness in the months leading up to the Iraqi campaign. He follows them on the ground and in the water as they undergo SEAL Tactical Training, where they master combat skills such as precision shooting, demolitions, secure communications, parachuting, diving, and first aid.

From there, the men enter operational platoons, where they subordinate their individual abilities to the mission of the group and train for special operations in specific geographical environments. Never before has a civilian writer been granted such close access to the training of America’s most elite military forces. The Finishing School is essential reading for anyone who wants to know what goes into the making of America’s best warriors.


From the Hardcover edition.
Crown Publishing Group; February 2009
304 pages; ISBN 9780307523723
Download in EPUB
Excerpt
The Prerequisites
THE BASIC COURSE


There are a number of things a young man must do before he begins the serious business of SEAL finishing school. Before the Navy or Naval Special Warfare will invest the time and money to train a man to be a Navy SEAL, they want to know two things: Is he smart enough and is he tough enough for this business? SEAL candidates are screened carefully for mental aptitude, and most have the required mental ability. Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, or BUD/S, is designed to test whether these SEAL hopefuls have the toughness. What we are talking about here is what the SEALs call Hack It School, or Pain 101.

In the culture of the Navy SEAL teams, it all begins at BUD/S. Perhaps no other military training carries with it the mystique--and pain--associated with this training. The Warrior Elite focused on this basic course. It is the crucible that takes qualified young sailors and naval officers and makes them candidates for SEAL training. Note that I used the term candidates for SEAL training. But BUD/S is where the real making of a Navy SEAL begins. Granted, the price of admission to the qualification course is steep. The coin of this culture is counted in terms of sweat and pain. Men are vetted in BUD/S for their commitment and determination; it's a measure of heart. It is an accomplishment in itself to successfully complete BUD/S, but the basic course is no more than an admissions slip to advanced SEAL training--the finishing school.

The eternal debate about BUD/S is whether this is a training program or a testing ground. In reality, it is both. First of all, it is an elaborate, tradition-bound screening process that seeks to find men who would rather die than quit. This is accomplished with a punishing diet of physical conditioning, cold water, and lack of sleep--the same conditions in which Navy SEALs are expected to operate. BUD/S trainees learn early on that unless they can come to terms with being cold and miserable for extended periods of time, they don't belong here. The training is brutal by design.

BUD/S also lays the foundation for basic SEAL operational skills. Many of these skills are fundamental, military/special operations tradecraft, and others are maritime-centric skills. The Navy SEAL is a versatile animal, capable of many of the disciplines of other SOF (special operations forces) components. The other SOF components, such as the Special Forces, the Rangers, and the Air Force Special Tactics Teams, also conduct diving and small-boat training, but no special operator in the SOF community is as comfortable in the water as a SEAL. For the others, water is an obstacle; for SEALs, it is a refuge. While SEAL capabilities do not stop at the water's edge, SEALs are, and will remain, the primary special operations maritime force. Before a man can become a SEAL, he must first become a frogman. He must excel in a variety of military skills, but it is essential that he be comfortable in and under the sea. Again, it all begins at BUD/S.

This basic course, start to finish, is a thirty-week endurance test. The attrition is dramatic as many young men discover that they have neither the heart nor the physical stamina for this life. Only about one man in five who passes the screening test and is admitted to BUD/S training will qualify to wear the Navy SEAL Trident. BUD/S is conducted at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California. The Center, as it is called, is on the Naval Amphibious Base, a naval base that straddles a sand spit that connects the near-island of Coronado to the city of Imperial Beach, situated just north of the U.S.-Mexican border. This famous sand spit is know as the Silver Strand, or simply the Strand.


INDOC


BUD/S training is conducted in three phases: First Phase--physical conditioning; Second Phase--diver training; and Third Phase--land warfare. In order to prepare trainees for phase training, SEAL candidates must complete a pretraining course called the Indoctrination Course, or Indoc. Officially, the purpose of Indoc is "to physically, mentally, and environmentally prepare qualified SEAL candidates to begin BUD/S training." Prior to the beginning of Indoc, trainees arrive at the Naval Special Warfare Center. For the most part, this is physical conditioning without pressure--a time to tune up for the ordeal ahead.

BUD/S trainees come to the Special Warfare Center from a variety of backgrounds. Newly commissioned ensigns come from the Naval Academy, the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC), and a few from Officer Candidate School. Most classes include fleet officers, lieutenants or junior-grade lieutenants--who come to BUD/S after a tour aboard ship. The leadership of these seasoned officers is often critical to the success of a BUD/S class. Many of the enlisted men come from boot camp, usually by way of a Navy school that will help them qualify in their rate, or naval technical specialty. They joined the Navy with the goal of becoming a Navy SEAL. Some enlisted men come from the fleet with shipboard experience or a tour at a shore facility. The leadership of these petty officers is also critical to the success of a BUD/S class. And some SEAL candidates, both officers and enlisted men, come from other services. The challenge of BUD/S training draws men from other SOF components and from the Marine Corps.

The Indoctrination Course is currently a five-week curriculum. Here the trainees will learn the rules and conventions of BUD/S training, and about the culture and ethos of this warrior class. Indoc is also designed to physically and mentally bring the class together. Most of the students have prepared for this individually. Now they will live and train as a class--as a team. The days are long with liberal doses of timed beach runs, soft-sand conditioning runs, group physical training (known as PT sessions), and a great deal of time in the water. There are standards of performance--individual times that trainees must achieve or face being dropped from the course. BUD/S classes that work together and demonstrate teamwork will not necessarily have an easy time of it, but they can avoid a great deal of discretionary pain. Team play, and the lack of it, never escapes the watchful eyes of the BUD/S instructors.

A day in the life of an Indoc trainee begins at 0530 for pool training or for a four-mile beach run. After breakfast, his morning could be taken up by calisthenics, the obstacle course (called simply the O-course), or practical work with basic SEAL equipment. The afternoon could begin with a conditioning run in the soft sand, more pool work, or classroom sessions on subjects ranging from first aid to proper nutrition. There may or may not be a training evolution after the evening meal. Many times throughout the training day, the class is sent into the surf, usually in their fatigue uniforms and boots. Now they are cold and wet. On their return from the surf, they are made to roll in the sand. Now they are cold, wet, and sandy--a normal condition for a BUD/S trainee. There is a price to pay for meals as well. The round-trip from the Center to the chow hall is two miles. That's six miles of running, often after a trip to the surf, just to get three squares a day. This will continue, in one form or another, for the next six months.

At the conclusion of Indoc, the attrition has already begun. Five percent of the candidates quit before they even begin Indoc; they simply become intimidated by the whole process. Up to 20 percent will voluntarily drop from training during Indoc--a few from injuries, some from the pain of the moment, but most because they now understand that this pace and the cold water will not end for months and months. In truth, it will never end. Most of these men are physically capable, but they lack the mental toughness to continue. Most still want to be Navy SEALs. They simply didn't understand the price of admission to this club.


FIRST PHASE


First Phase training presents a different set of instructors and a new set of challenges for the BUD/S class. First Phase is quite similar to Indoc, but the intensity is turned up a notch--perhaps two notches. It begins on day one with a killer PT session. After a trip to the surf and a roll in the sand, each trainee will do more than five hundred push-ups and sixty pull-ups before First Phase is an hour old.

Each man is expected to lower his run, swim, and O-course times. There are new challenges like surf passage and log PT--a game in which the teams of trainees juggle sections of telephone poles. They undergo a drown-proofing test with their hands and feet bound, and an underwater fifty-five-yard swim without fins. In First Phase, the days are longer than in Indoc, with less time for sleep. The weekends, which provide much-needed time for battered bodies to rest and heal, seem shorter.

And for First Phase trainees, the prospect of an upcoming Hell Week hangs over them like a dark cloud. Pre-Hell Week training is devoted to toughening a class and preparing it for Hell Week. Post-Hell Week training must allow for healing and teaching skills the class will need before it moves on to the advanced phases of BUD/S training. This balance is not easy to achieve. Hell Week may be one of the most intense and demanding challenges, both physically and mentally, in the armed forces of any nation. A class may lose 20 to 40 percent of its number in the days before Hell Week. During Hell Week alone it can be as high as 60 percent. I closely followed Class 228 during the writing of The Warrior Elite. Ninety-eight men began Indoc with Class 228. Of those ninety-eight, nineteen finished Hell Week. Of those nineteen, ten graduated with Class 228.

A tradition that begins during Indoc and carries over into First Phase is intense competition within the class. The competition is driven in large part by the fact that in BUD/S it pays to be a winner. On most evolutions, the individuals or boat crews who finish first will be given a few minutes rest or spared a trip into the cold surf. Those who are not winners are losers, and losers pay the price: more push-ups, more cold water, more unwanted attention from the instructors. This is not a trivial concept or a game. Those who survive BUD/S and go on to the teams will always strive to win. On an actual SEAL operation, winning will take the form of completing the mission, planting the explosives, or surviving the gunfight. Losing is failing the mission and/or death.

Outside the First Phase training office there is a ship's bell lashed to a stanchion, just off the PT grinder. At any time, a trainee can quit, or DOR--drop on request. To do this he rings the bell three times and puts his helmet on the grinder. He's finished--no longer a BUD/S trainee. He will be assigned other duties in the Navy. There will be no more cold water, no more punishing PT sessions, and no soft-sand conditioning runs. And no chance of becoming a Navy SEAL. The line of green helmets grows throughout First Phase, but that growth takes a dramatic spurt during Hell Week.

"Ringing out," as it is called, is a curious custom. This public declaration of failure has been challenged by some as demeaning and unnecessarily humiliating. Others contend that it serves no purpose, and may even lead to the emotional scarring of an unsuccessful trainee. I agree--in principle. But it is a custom that serves this warrior culture. All trainees, at one time or another, consider quitting. I did when I went through BUD/S.

But the act of walking across that grinder and ringing that bell is a difficult one, even when you're cold, wet, sandy, and very, very tired. It is a hurdle that got many of us past that time when we felt we couldn't go on. BUD/S training is not about self-esteem or personal disgrace. It's about sorting out those who think they want to be warriors and those who are willing to pay the price to achieve that goal.

Hell Week begins sometime on Sunday evening and continues through early Friday afternoon. The trainees do the same things they have been doing the past several weeks--pool evolutions, log PT, the O-course, beach runs, surf passage, and ocean swims. They make the two-mile round-trip to the chow hall three times a day. They are cold, wet, and sandy all the time. But two things are different. The Hell Week trainees carry their 185-pound rubber boats with them everywhere. They run with them on their heads--to the pool, to the chow hall, even as they run the O-course. One more thing: They don't sleep, or their sleep is severely limited. The instructors are on them in three shifts, around the clock. Hell Week is designed to see if these apprentice warriors have the heart to perform when they are cold, wet, and sandy and haven't slept in a few days. These same conditions, the trainees are reminded, are often present on actual SEAL combat missions. The mechanics of this around-the-clock training is a production of sorts, very well formatted and choreographed. The instructors watch the trainees' every move. The medical supervision is continuous. Trainees are granted but two or three sleep periods totaling four to five hours for the entire week. They will be on the move for sixty hours before they are granted an hour or two of sleep. Throughout this ordeal, they have to work as a team. During Hell Week, each boat crew is a team. On the water, they paddle as a team. On the land, they carry the boats on their heads as a team. And it's not just survival; they must perform. The sun comes up, the sun goes down, one evolution to the next--cold, wet, and sandy. It's a screening process of the heart and the spirit.

The line of helmets by the bell continues to grow. Oddly enough, most of those who ring out do so during the first twenty-four hours of Hell Week. Why not the second day, or the third? After a single night and day of this punishment, a man gets very cold and extremely tired. And then he thinks, I'm dying! Four more days of this? I don't know if I can do it! Those with the heart for this kind of intense training keep going. The rest ring the bell and put their helmet on the grinder. Most who DOR are physically capable. They simply lack the will or the desire to go on. Sometime Friday afternoon, the much-reduced class hears the magic words: "Gentlemen, Hell Week is over; you are secured." A small, tattered, weary-beyond-words band of men will then muster the strength to hug each other and celebrate their victory. Many will go on to qualify as Navy SEALs, but not all. Hell Week is just one step in the process, but an important step, one worth close examination.


From the Hardcover edition.