Navy report details issues with Brutal SEAL course
The notoriously grueling Navy SEAL screening course has become so difficult in recent years that attempting it has become dangerous, even deadly. With little supervision, the instructors pushed their classes to exhaustion. Students began dropping out in large numbers or turning to illegal drugs to try to keep up.
Unprepared medical personnel often failed to intervene when needed. And when graduation rates plummeted, the then commander in charge blamed students, saying the current generation was too soft.
Those are the conclusions of a lengthy, highly critical Navy report released Thursday, detailing how “a near-perfect storm” of problems over Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL, known as BUD/S, hurt a large number of students, sent some to the hospital and caused one death.
“The investigation revealed a degree of complacency and insufficient attention to a wide range of important entrances intended to keep students safe,” the report concludes.
The Navy ordered a review of the course in September, days after The New York Times reported that instructors held students in freezing water for long periods, deprived them of sleep, beat them and gave them kicked and had refused to allow many injured students to receive medical treatment unless they first left the course, which takes place on the beach at Naval Base Coronado near San Diego. The students said that the doctors did not intervene regularly and sometimes participated in the abuse.
The problems came to a head with the February 2022 death of Seaman Kyle Mullen, a SEAL candidate who had suffered from pneumonia and other ailments for days during the most grueling section of the course, known as Hell Week. , but received no significant intervention from the course instructors or medical staff.
When Seaman Mullen got worse and was having trouble breathing, the doctor on duty twice advised the other students not to call 911, warning them that calling for emergency help could interfere with training, according to the report.
Based on the report’s findings, the Navy made a number of changes to the course and reassigned eight sailors and officers for failing to perform their duties, including the commodore of the Special Warfare Training Center of Navy Capt. Brian Drechsler and Training Command Surgeon Dr. Erik Ramey. A navy spokesman said a number of navy personnel had been referred to navy legal authorities for possible punishment.
Reached by telephone, Regina Mullen, the mother of sailor Mullen, said she was delighted that the Navy admitted to shortcomings in the medical system, “however, I am upset that there is still no accountability to date”.
In a statement, the Commander of all Naval Special Warfare, including the SEALs, Rear Admiral Keith Davids, said the SEALs would work to implement the report’s recommendations to make training safe, adding, ” We will honor the memory of Seaman Mullen by ensuring that the legacy of our deceased teammate guides us towards the best possible training program for our future Navy SEALs.
The Navy SEALs have tried for decades to strike a balance, making the selection course difficult enough to select only elite SEALs, but not so difficult that it leaves good candidates broken. SEAL training is considered by militaries around the world as a benchmark for special forces, so the course design has an influence far beyond the small community of Navy SEALs.
Historically, an average of about three in 10 sailors who attempt the course graduate to complete it. But the graduation rate has varied widely over the years, in part based on the whims of instructors, and the course has at times felt like an institutionalized hazing. In total, about 11 students died and countless others were seriously injured.
After a new management team took over the course in 2021, graduation rates fell sharply. When the commander of Navy Special Warfare at the time, Rear Admiral Hugh W. Howard, was notified of the fall, he told his subordinates that it was fine if no one graduated and that it was more important that the course remained difficult. According to the report, the admiral added: “Zero is a correct number; hold the standard.
Instructors, who often had little experience or training for the role, began to view their jobs not as teachers building new SEALs, but as enforcers “chasing the back of the pack” to “take out” the low, according to the report. A gradual escalation in harsh tactics that the report called “intensity creep” allowed instructors to push course demands “to the acceptable end of the spectrum”, leaving students exhausted, sick and injured.
The course had long employed civilian veterans of SEAL teams as mentors, in order to temper the young instructors. But under the new leadership, these experienced veterans have been marginalized. Soon, less than 10% of students in some classes were passing the course.
Course medical staff were ill-prepared to respond to the wave of injuries created by the new dynamic, the report said, and “repeated exposure to these conditions caused instructors and medical staff to under-react to their severity.” .
On top of that, according to the report, the medical staff were “poorly organized, poorly integrated and poorly directed, and put candidates at significant risk”.
In the case of Seaman Mullen, doctors who saw him struggling to breathe during training did not report what they saw to others who later assessed him. The doctors in charge left the sick sailor with very young SEAL candidates who had no medical training.
The commanding officer in charge of the course at the time, Capt. Bradley Geary, was warned by civilian personnel and SEAL veterans of the potentially dangerous increase in the number of students dropping out of the course. The report says Captain Geary “believed that the main reason for the attrition problem was that the current generation had less mental toughness” and that he had failed to take action to address many of the issues.
“Allowing program delivery to continue in this manner while being accompanied by historic, rapid and significant changes in attrition demonstrated insufficient oversight” by Captain Geary, according to the report.
When Seaman Mullen died, Navy personnel found performance-enhancing drugs, including testosterone and human growth hormone, in his car. An investigation later revealed increased drug use among SEAL candidates, and several students were expelled from the course.
The report reveals that performance-enhancing drugs have been a recurring problem for more than 10 years on the course, but the Navy has never implemented a testing system to detect the drugs, and it still lacks effective testing.
“Without a rigorous testing program producing timely results,” the report warns, the Navy “will be unable to effectively deter use.”
In the year since Seaman Mullen’s death, new leaders have made a number of changes to the course, including increased supervision of instructors, better communication between medical staff and closer medical monitoring of students. that end Hell Week. Graduation rates are back up to around 30%, which SEALs consider normal.
The report makes no mention of the dozens of qualified applicants who may have been unfairly kicked out of the course by abusive instructors and poor medical supervision. Many of these candidates serve the rest of their enlistments in menial Navy jobs, scraping rust and sweeping decks.
Asked about the matter, a Navy spokesman said there were no current plans to make amends to the sailors who were forced out of the course.