Pulling No Punches in Push for Navy SEALs
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
CORONADO, Calif. -- As Navy Ensign Brandon lay slapped by wave after black wave of frigid Pacific surf, his arms linked with a row of other would-be Navy SEALs, a cold but comforting thought surfaced from his murky consciousness: "No matter what," he reassured himself, "they're not going to kill me."
Shaking uncontrollably in the cold brine, the slight, 22-year-old from Ohio dreaded the nighttime "surf torture" as one of the toughest ordeals of the SEALs' aptly named Hell Week, designed to break down the bodies and wills of all but the steeliest young men.
Today, one of the Pentagon's main dilemmas is how to get more candidates such as Brandon to outlast the trials of selection -- without lowering standards -- as it tries to expand the ranks of SEALs and other elite U.S. military forces for critical missions in the war on terrorism.
Facing their biggest deployments in history, as much as 80 percent of the combat forces of the 53,000-strong U.S. Special Operations Command -- including Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets and Rangers, and Delta Force operatives -- are committed in Iraq, Afghanistan and surrounding countries. That leaves too few for other vital missions, many of them clandestine, such as intelligence gathering and partnering with forces in nations where the United States is not at war, according to senior military officials.
Stepped-up war-zone rotations are cutting into training time, and shortages in the force mean hundreds of Special Operations jobs are unfilled, leading to more reliance on civilian contractors, they said.
"We as a nation are taking great risk" by having too few maritime commandos, said Rear Adm. Joseph Maguire, commander of Naval Special Warfare Command (NSWC) here. NSWC should have 2,200 SEALs but is undermanned by about 400 men on SEAL teams and scores of officers, he said.
The Pentagon in February announced a plan to add 13,000 more Special Operations troops to meet demands. But producing such highly skilled troops is not easy -- especially as war, low unemployment and negative health trends such as obesity shrink the military's overall pool of candidates.
Of all the elite forces, SEALs pose the biggest recruiting challenge. The Pentagon's goal is to add 500 new SEALs in the next two years. Maguire says 2010 is more realistic. But the number of SEAL applicants has dwindled by hundreds in recent years. This year's goal is to bring in 1,400 to try out, but by late April, only 364 had been sent to boot camp, according to Navy statistics. "We're behind the power curve," said Ed Kearl, a Navy recruiting official.
Ground zero for the push to create more SEALs is the rugged beaches and pounding surf off Coronado, where the young men of Basic Under Water Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) Class 259 found out who had "the right stuff."
The Start of Hell Week
It was a Monday night in May, about 24 hours into Hell Week for Class 259, and Seaman Brian was sitting on the beach next to his rubber dinghy, eating a chili-mac packaged military meal. For security reasons, all SEALs except senior leaders spoke on the condition that only their first names be used.
Similar to the rest of his class, Brian had no sleep, was soaked and shaking. He had muscle cramps from lunging with 15-foot-long sandy logs. His legs were chafed raw. "It's like taking a piece of sandpaper to your skin for a week," said Brian, 23, who is from Ventura, Calif.
As the sky darkened, the entire group knew what was next -- surf torture (officially called "water immersion"), jumping on and off a pier and being hosed down with cold water.