For Navy SEAL Joseph Jones, pushing his body to extremes is normal. The gold eagle and trident insignia that the 42-year-old senior chief petty officer earned is rarely displayed by a man whose life is often documented in military files stamped “classified.”
But this past Saturday, Jones and a squad of Navy SEALs slipped into Howard University to administer a physical fitness test and offer a group of 100 high school and college students a taste of their world.
“Being a Navy SEAL is 80 percent psychological and 20 percent physical, and once you get to Hell Week you get the mind to control the body,” said Jones, one of just 52 African Americans among the 2,500 Navy SEALs in uniform today.
Jones and Capt. Adam Curtis, a SEAL commander, said their visit to Howard was part of a SEALs awareness effort meant to ultimately boost the numbers of African American SEALs.
SEALs are a component of the Naval Special Warfare Command, which comprises the Navy’s U.S. Special Operations forces, and the identities of SEALs are often kept secret. The most grueling part of SEAL training is Hell Week, when candidates train around the clock without sleep for six days.
On Saturday, the SEALs administered the basic physical exam required to be accepted into the program.
After watching a presentation about the SEALs and a film on mental toughness, participants headed to the pool, where they had 11 minutes 30 seconds to swim 500 yards. Then there were push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups, and a 10-minute break before 1.5-mile run.
Trever Reed, 17, plays basketball and runs track at Gaithersburg High School, but the 5-foot-8, 145-pound senior said the swimming portion of the fitness test was hard.
“We had to swim 10 laps in the pool, and up and back was only one lap,” Reed said. “Even though they gave us 15 minutes, you had to swim under 11 minutes and 30 seconds to qualify. My best friend was on the swim team and he did it, but most of us couldn’t.”
Lack of awareness and failing the swim test are two reasons more blacks have not become SEALs, Jones said.
Reed came to Howard with a group of young men from his school who are part of the group B.R.O.T.H.E.R.S. (Brothers Reaching Out to Help Each Reach Success). “You need mental toughness regardless of what you do in life,” he said.
Morris Hudson, a former Marine Corps sergeant, started B.R.O.T.H.E.R.S. “This was not about recruiting, because only about two people out of 100 could even qualify to be a SEAL,” Hudson said. “This was about African American men reaching out to help young men to be successful.”
Jones, a St. Louis native, enlisted in the Navy as an aviation electrician. It was a way out of a less than stable home life, he said. “I was raised with my grandparents half the time and my father the other time,” he said.
But after a while, Navy life became too routine, he said.
“I kind of got tired of what I was doing, and then I met this Navy SEAL in a leadership course and he said, ‘You have what it takes.’ ”
Jones has been in the Navy for 24 years and a SEAL for nearly a decade — a life that he said he loves, although it can be dangerous.
“There were many times that I looked death in the face and I prayed,” he said.
“I am not going to lie,” Jones said. “I almost died jumping out of a plane during SEAL training.”
Hell Week posed its problems, he said. “The second day of Hell Week, I hurt my knee. They said I could either quit or get rolled back and start over. I pretty much had to drag my knee for five and half days.”
Neither Jones nor the spokesman for the SEALs could talk about the death of Osama bin Laden, a mission that has brought the group a new level of public attention. “You have a sense of pride and satisfaction knowing that whatever mission is thrown our way, you can complete it,” Jones said. “The SEALs are really a bunch of alpha males. All they want to do is to be successful.”