Becoming a Navy SEAL: Lessons in Survival
A retired member and training officer of the elite U.S. Navy SEALs, Don Mann is the co-author of the new book, The Navy SEAL Survival Handbook, with Ralph Pezzullo (Skyhorse Publishing, 2012), from which the following excerpt is taken.
I’ve spent my adult life as a Navy SEAL, preparing for and dealing with the most dangerous situations imaginable. From 1962, when the first SEAL teams were commissioned, to the present, SEALs have distinguished themselves as being individually reliable,collectively disciplined, and highly skilled. Because of the dangers inherent in what we do, prospective SEALs go through what is considered by militaryexperts to be the toughest training in the world—Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL Training (BUD/S).
BUD/S is a six-month SEAL training course held at the Naval Special Warfare Training Center in Coronado, California, which starts with five weeks of indoctrination and pre-Training. Following that, all trainees go through three phases of BUD/S. The first phase is by far the toughest and consists of eight weeks of basic conditioning, with a grueling “hell week” in the middle—which is five days and nights of continuous training on a maximum of four hours of sleep.
Hell week is a test of physical endurance, mental tenacity, and teamwork. As many of two-thirds of the class are likely to “ring the bell” and call it quits during this phase. Those who grit it out to the finish get to hear the instructors yell, “hell week is secured!” The trainees continue on with a new sense of pride, achievement, and self-confidence to second phase (eight weeks of diving) and third phase (nine weeks of land warfare).
After BUD/S is completed, all trainees go through three weeks of basic parachute training, followed by eight weeks of SEAL qualification training in mission planning, operations, and tactic, techniques, and procedures. BUD/S ends with the formal BUD/S class graduation. It was a very proud day for me to stand with my classmates in our dress navy uniforms and listen to our SEAL officers talk about the special group we were about to enter, and the great honor it is to serve as a U.S. Navy SEAL.
Phase 1—Physical Conditioning (eight weeks)
Soft sand runs
Swimming—up to two miles with/fins in the ocean
Timed obstacle course
Four-mile timed runs in boots
Small boat seamanship
Hydrographic surveys and creating charts
Hell week—week 4 of phase 1—five and one-half days of continuous
training on little to no sleep
Phase 2—Diving (eight weeks)
Step up intensity of the physical training
Focus on combat diving
Open-circuit (compressed air) SCUBA
Closed-circuit (100% oxygen) SCUBA
Long-distance navigation dives
Mission-focused combat swimming and diving techniques
Phase 3—Land Warfare (nine weeks)
Increasingly strenuous physical training
Demolitions (military explosives)
Small unit tactics
Rappelling and fast rope operations
All BUD/S graduates then fly out to Kodiak Island, Alaska, for a twenty-eight day winter warfare course, during which they train in snow and freezing wind while often carrying half their body weight in weapons and gear. The course includes cross-country skiing, snow shoe travel, building shelters, procuring food and water, fire building, using specialized survival gear to plot courses in the mountainous and snow-covered terrain,and conducting ice-cold ocean swims, river crossings, and
long-range navigation through the mountain wilderness toinfiltrate and establish covert surveillance of target sites. BUD/S and winter warfare training prepares SEAL trainees to become combat-ready warriors.
BUD/S and winter warfare training prepares SEAL trainees to become combat-ready warriors. But they don’t learn the nitty gritty of survival until they complete SERE School.
As a young Navy SEAL recently graduated from Basic Underwater Demolition School (BUD/S), I was told by a Vietnam-era SEAL that if I were captured during wartime, there was a good chance I’d be beheaded or skinned alive. I immediately volunteered to attend the Navy Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) course conducted at Warner Springs, California.
Since I knew that as a SEAL I would likely be deployed overseas behind enemy lines, I took my survival training seriously.Most of the twenty members in my SERE class were navy pilots and aircrew personnel considered to be at high risk of capture. I was the only SEAL. The course started with basic lessons in land navigation, poisonous plants, animals and insects, water procurement, fire making, shelter building, and evasion and escape techniques. Then, the twenty of us were droppedoff in the desert without food or water and ordered to find our way to a safe area while trying to avoid contact with the “enemy.”
We were thirsty and hungry. We drank from the prickly pear cactus and looked for edible plants to eat. I happened to see a small rabbit running under a bush, threw my KA-BAR knife at it, and to my surprise, pinned the rabbit’s neck into the ground. I skinned it and made rabbit stew for the team by mixing the rabbit with edible plants. But one little rabbit was hardly enough to feed twenty hungry men.
Eventually, all of us were captured. I was I was plastic-tie tied, blindfolded, and thrown into a Jeep. The instructors, outfitted in realistic communist-style clothing, played their parts, screaming, barking orders, trying their best to intimidate us. I played it for real, too. When my captor stepped out of the Jeep, I managed to wrestle my bound hands infront of me, grab his PRC-77 radio, and throw it under the vehicle. I also hid a knife and lighter in my boots.
I was driven to a fenced POW training camp. There I saw enemy guards interrogating other “prisoners,”
slamming them into walls, humiliating them by having them stand naked while being drilled with questions and slapped in the face.
They started working on us immediately, trying to get us to break. There were hard cell interrogations with guards shouting questions and slapping you, and soft cell sessions, where you were called into a warm office where a pretty woman or friendly guard would offer you coffee, snacks, and warm clothing.
Don Mann is also the author of the national bestseller Inside SEAL Team Six and has for the last thirty years been associated with the Navy SEALS as a platoon member, assault team member, boat crew leader, or advanced training officer; and more recently program director preparing civilians to go to BUD/s (SEAL Training). Up until 1998 he was on active duty with SEAL Team 6. Since his retirement, he has deployed to the Middle East on numerous occasions in support of the war on terror. He has twice survived being captured during operations. Co-writer Ralph Pezzullo is a New York Times bestselling author and award-winning playwright, screenwriter and journalist.