We were finally in the last phase of BUD/S training. Just two more months left until we all reached our goal. We had learned that nothing is easy in BUD/S and just when you think you have got the system down you get another curve ball. The thing that I remember most about my days as a BUD/S student was the constant struggle to excel. It wasn’t a struggle against my classmates but an inner struggle to learn how to adapt my body and mind to unimaginable difficulties. It was getting to the point where we all expected and relished the difficult. We enjoyed the personal satisfaction of overcoming the impossible several times throughout the day.
Many people are allowed to fail in life and led to believe that’s ok. We were being taught that failure could mean a ruined operation or even death. In our minds an even worse offense would be letting down your teammates. We learned to adapt in the moment and never accept defeat but to persevere to accomplish our mission. Mission success was a SEAL’s attribute we were constantly instructed and we would learn to make that our burning quest in all our training missions in third phase.
My new family and I were getting to know each other well. We could count on each other to dig deeper and overcome ever more demanding challenges. Now the greatest challenges were before us and we hungry for what they would present us.
We spent only a few days on the silver strand in Coronado before we heading west off the coast from San Diego to San Clemente Island. We would end our last seven weeks in isolation and complete emersion training. When we came back to the strand we would graduate after only a few days upon our return.
Our thirty minute plane ride over in a military prop plane from North Island airfield was quiet as we all contemplated our last few weeks together and what the future would be like. It was going to be the coldest months of the year the instructors reminded us to break the silence. “On San Clemente Island,” we were told chearfully by our new instructor cadre, “No one can hear you scream.” The silence was deafening.
Our short flight ended on an airfield on the North West end of the island. We unloaded our gear onto ancient 2 1/2 ton military stake trucks and headed down the road from the airfield to the harbor side camp that would be our home and training base.
The smell of bird shit rock sitting in the middle of the cove assaulted our nostrils as we entered the camp. The gutteral barking of seals vying for part of the rock outcropping with the screeching cry’s of seagulls would be part of the sounds we would listen to throughout the days and nights. During the weekday nights F-14 fighter jets would practice touch and go carrier landing on the airfield. Their afterburners lighting up the sky with their fiery tails and sending thunder like echoes reverberating throughout our camp. We would be so exhausted we wouldn’t be bothered by the smells, sounds or sights however.
We would be tasked to dig ever deeper on a physical level as we had become accustomed to do. The first morning after our arrival we would be up early in the morning to start a 2 1/2 mile swim. All of our swims unto this point had been 2 mile timed swims. Now we would stretched that distance to 5 1/2 miles over the next several weeks. The water was even colder now and we also had to deal with kelp beds.
Kelp beds are wonderful for marine life but can be hazardous and downright dangerous for divers and swimmers. Kelp is one of the fastest growing organisms on earth and like bamboo can grow over a foot of new growth a day. I have many memories over the years of getting caught in kelp. You have to learn to relax and slowly pull yourself free. If you struggle you get even more entangled. If you struggle in kelp it’s as if the entire kelp bed knows and comes to calm you down. Unfortunately that calming process can be the end of you. It seemed like one or two of our swim pairs got caught up in the kelp everyday and one pair in a night swim made the mistake of pulling out their knives to cut themselves free. They ended up cutting themselves. You don’t want to bleed in water that is the breading ground of aggressive Blue and Great whites sharks.
Of course the guys that cut themselves were our two fastest swimmers that were trying to decrease their time by cutting through the kelp beds. One of the guys had been on the Olympic swim team that was cancelled by president Carter. The Olympics was being held in Russia at the time and Carter protested Russia’s recent invasion of Afghanistan by canceling the dreams of America’s Olympic team. Carter was a Navy submarine officer by the way.
The instructor staff kept our motivation to perform at a high level by having us perform helicopter flights. If we had performed at a subpar level we would be tasked as a class and on occasion as an individual to grab a wooden pallet and run with it held over our heads up a hill overlooking the camp. The hill had a ceramic frog sculpture on it and we were required to run around it and back down the hill. We requested through gasps for air to land from an instructor standing at the bottom of the hill. If authorized to land we would drop our pallets and fall exhausted to the ground. The ever creative instructors would sometimes have us get wet and sandy before our flights. There were also a few metal pallets weighing twice as much as the wooden ones for the guys that were designated for extra special attention.
One of my classmates on a dare had left a sandwich stuffed in his shirt pocket for over a month and one of the instructors got a whiff of it and he ended up doing two metal pallet flights. The quote from John Wayne comes to mind where he said: “Life is tough. It’s tougher if you’re stupid.”
Nothing was given freely in third phase. We even had to work for our meals. Before our three meals in the chow hall we had to do pull-ups. When we first got to the island we had an easy ten to do before each meal. By the end of the last week we were doing twenty. Sixty pull-ups on top of the morning PT’s got to be a little tough but we all did it.
If an instructor dropped you for any reason you had to do fifty pushup’s. The most of any phase. We had finished a 14 mile soft sand run in boots and long pants back on the strand. It was not timed and after we were finished we had the weekend off to recover. On the island we would do eight, ten, twelve miles runs after an hour of PT and then work the rest of the day and into the night. I had lost twenty pounds by the end of Hell Week from my average lean weight of 185 pounds. I had gained it all back and then some in lean muscle mass. This trend would continue for the rest of my career as a SEAL and even today I’m as fit as most men half my age. I’m always thankful for having this great way of life disciplined into me to be in excellent shape and to never settle for less.
We started learning how to patrol silently with weapons and loaded down with gear. How to set up ambushes with demolition and improvised shaped charges. We learned to move silently in any environment. All the skills that we had learned in the first two phases we integrated into the third. We would do a live demolition shot on submerged obstacles. In first phase we had learned to find the obstacles in a beach survey and now we would learn to destroy them.
We breath held down into dark water one early morning before the sun rose. We tied in haversacks loaded with demolitions onto concrete Japanese skully obstacles designed to rip out the bottom of landing craft. A long explosive trunk line linked all the obstacles together so that they all blew in unison. dozens of water geysers shot into the early morning light of a clear blue sky and was followed by a deifying thunderclap that ripped over the water. The earth beneath our feet rumbled as if in an earthquake.
We would do one of the scariest rubber boat beach landings one night that I have ever done since then. The waves were particularly huge one night so the instructors decided it was a good opportunity to learn beach landings on a rocky shore. If you missed the exact landing point you would smash into sheer cliffs and a boulders on either side of the safe landing zone. The way you approached the landing point was to line up two separate lights. The one in front when lined up with the one on higher ground behind it would bring you into the perfect point. If you didn’t line up the lights you would be in danger. Everyone in my boat had serious misgivings as we heard the thunder of the waves crashing onto the boulders. The waves had been big as we paddled out from our harbor and now on the west side of the island they were just stunningly massive. My boat crew and I watched as boats went in ahead of us. We assumed that everything was good or else they would have taken away the lights. Our turn came and we began to paddle in keeping the two lights lined up.
As we neared the landing point the waves crashing on the rocks grew louder. Our rubber boat seemed like an insignificant bobbing cork to the mighty power of the Pacific Ocean waves passing beneath us. We rose on the crests and sank deep into the troughs of the waves as we drew nearer still. I shivered in the freezing cold as water splashed over us. Then one of the waves grabbed us and sent us hurling towards the shore at an incredible rate of speed. We all paddled together quickly staying with the waves tremendous force so that it didn’t peak and crest on top of us. The thought crossed my mind that if we didn’t stay centered with the wave it could turn us sideways and throw us all into the freezing water and smash us onto the unseen boulders. Miraculously it seemed to me, we were flung perfectly up on the shore of a small pebble beach as waves smashed ferociously into the towering boulders around us. We quickly leaped out of our boat, tuned it over to drain out the water as we had done a hundred times before and carried our boat up the hill to the other boat crews. It was all perfectly ordered and not one boat crew had an issue. My confidence in the professionalism and knowledge of the instructor staff was always high but it just leaped several pegs higher after that night. I knew that I had joined the right group and felt giddily proud and jubilant all at once. The thrill and adrenaline of cheating death has a way of thrilling like nothing else. I have been in far hairier situations that make that beach landing seem like child’s play but it still thrills me to think of it.
Over the next several weeks we would do many simulated missions that mimicked similar missions performed by the SEAL Teams over the last several years of combat action in Viet Nam. It was an exciting time and what most of us had signed up for. Some of our instructors and many of the men I would work with in the teams were combat veterans bringing their real life combat experience with them into training. It is no different now in training and the teams in fact have far more combat experienced operators in far greater numbers.
When we finished our time at the island we were overjoyed to get back to the strand to find out which teams we were going to. Graduation for me was bitter sweet. I’d had the experience I had dreamed of for all my life. Now it was on to greater adventures. I was sure this was just the beginning but now it was on to the unknown as it would be for the rest of my life as a SEAL. Even now I love the thrill of the unknown challenge. Unfortunately no one came to my graduation which was one of the proudest days of my life. All of my family was on the East coast in South Carolina. But actually I now had the family I’d always wanted but never had so it was cool. After graduation we would all go as a class to Fort Benning, Georgia for three weeks of Army Static Line Jump School.
I learned that I was to stay on the West Coast to be assigned to UDT-Twelve. At that time there were only two SEAL teams with one on each coast. There were two UDT teams on each coast and one SDV (SEAL Delivery Vehicle) Team on each coast. A SEAL that was around for a few years at a team always had the option of rotating to another team to experience another coasts area of operations. This is something I would enjoy doing my entire career. Eventually UDT teams were phased out and all teams were labeled SEAL teams. This happened after my first cruise as a UDT SEAL. I went right into a UDT Platoon after Jump school training and after just a couple of months was deployed overseas. At the time I first became a SEAL the SEAL community was very small. Shortly after I returned from my UDT deployment six months later my UDT -12 team was converted to SEAL Team Five.
Next up is the exciting life as a young man in the SEAL Teams.