The last few months on my ship the Florican were some of the best in the year and a half that I was on her. I’d made rank to Petty officer third class rapidly and I took the test for a higher rank to 2nd class Boswains Mate. I would be a rate grabber for the first half of my career which meant I made rate when I was eligible first time up. I was on fire. Everything was going my way. Normally you would be required to do a minimum of two years as a 2nd class diver before going to BUD/S. The chiefs and several of the officers on my ship got behind me because of my motivation and hard work and made it happen for me. One of the senior officers on my ship was Gung Ho for me to become an officer. Something I would encounter my entire career all the way unto my last year in the Navy after 24 years. This particular officer on my ship had lined it up so that I could go to the Naval Academy but I politely declined. He was disappointed but knew of my passion for SEAL training because he had some friends that were SEAL Officers. I was told officers only got to be an active SEAL for a few years before they took up leadership positions and never operated again. That has drastically changed now especially if an officer is fortunate enough to go to SEAL Team Six. A good hard charging officer now a days can get 10 -12 years as an active operator. Not so in my day so I wanted no part of being an officer. I saw myself doing twenty years or more if I could remain an operator in the front lines. I knew exactly what I wanted now I would never let myself be persuaded otherwise again.
One of the last things I would do with my ship before I checked out of my ship for good was to go to Portland, Oregon for the yearly Rose festival. Several small Naval Ships like mine would cruise up the Columbia River from it’s confluence on the Pacific Ocean several miles upstream to the city of Portland. We docked right on the city piers and opened our ships up to thousands of visitors a day.
Because our ship was unusual with our giant dive buoys, submersible chamber and Diving gear displayed on deck we had the lion share of visitors. I enjoyed talking with people about our ship and its capabilities and after well over a year on board I could talk easily about what we did. Liberty in town was great and the locals really loved us. A big difference from California where the the anti Viet Nam movement had been very prominent. In the late 1970’s it was hard to get a date. After my divorce I had been nursing a wounded heart for a year so I didn’t care much. But Portland women loved the military man in uniform so I fell for a beauty named Kelly who was half native American and half German Irish. One of the sweetest girls I’d ever met and we hit it off right away after I gave her and her friends a tour of the ship.
We dated several times while the fleet was in port until the fated time for us to head back to San Diego. I didn’t want to go and fervently desired to stay so I could get to know Kelly better. Nature answered my prayer. Mt St. Helens had already suffered a major eruption and would now have another on May 1980 when she blew her top and spread ash far and wide. I remember being in a micro brew pub with Kelly and several of the divers from my ship and everyone running outside to see the ash falling like snow. I have a little jar of that ash I’ve carried around for over thirty years now to commemorate that night. The ash threatened to block the 20 ships visiting the festival. Fortunately we would stay as the other Naval vessels departed for fear of being trapped from ash clogging the river as had already happened on a previous eruption. Because we had towing capabilities and a higher draft in the water than the other ships we stayed an extra few days until the rest of the fleet cleared the Columbia river. During this time Kelly and I made plans that I would come back and visit her for the month that I had to transfer from my ship to BUD/S training. It would be a great break for me and I would get to recharge my batteries for the coming six months of training that I would endure.
I checked off my ship and everyone of my friends and the rest of the crew wished me luck. I would find out later that only two of my friends actually believed that I would make it through BUD/S. I was dumfounded but most people even the elite Hard Hat Divers thought being a SEAL was an unobtainable distant dream. When I was in the teams I would sometimes wear my Hard Hat dive pin under my SEAL Trident on my dress uniform instead of my jump wings because no one else had one and it’s cool to be different and have the bragging rights. I never saw or heard of another hard hat diver making it into the teams in my over twenty-four year career.
Kelly showed me all over Portland and the surrounding area. The Columbia river gorge is one of natures marvels with it’s beautiful waterfalls and hiking trail into the luxuriant forests.
It was bitter sweet leaving Kelly behind. I had met her family and friends and we had all hit it off great. I had felt like part of a family but it was time to fulfill a dream and I was antse to make it happen. I had trained every day running and doing thousands of calisthenics.
When I checked into BUD/S in July my class didn’t start up for another month. I’m glad I showed up early because the physical training was more intense than I had ever experienced. I had some friends that had made it through BUD/S that I had met back in Philadelphia going through Hull Technician training.
They had tried to tell me that the physical training intensity and Hell Week itself was indescribable and its magnitude could only be realized when experienced first hand. I had tried my best to imagine it and had pushed myself more than I thought possible and it was still not even close. I was a muscular and fit 190 pounds but would lean down to 160 by the time Hell Week was over. The weight would gradually come back over time and I would be far more muscular and fit than I had ever been in my life when I would come back nearly ten years later as an BUD/S instructor myself. Effortlessly running the Physical Training, PT, evolutions that I would now be struggling through. I started making friends with my future classmates. We had a tough group of young men. Their were a hand full of us that had fleet experience. In the next phase of training which was dive phase I would be one of the first people advanced during BUD/S. I would be a 2nd class and have more responsibility. I was the third most senior enlisted in my class and we had one fleet officer that would survive through Hell Week. By the time we graduated we were one of the largest classes to ever make it through BUD/S at thirty eight people. Leadership as I would find when I returned as an instructor makes a huge difference in how well a class does.
We even had an olympic swimmer in our class which was BUD/S class 116. Unfortunately President Carter had cancelled Americans participating in the Olympics in Russia because they invaded Afghanistan. So Chuck had not participated in the Olympics and decided to try something even more challenging having to do with the water and swimming. Chuck would be a great inspiration to our entire class as he feet new records in the Obstacle course. Out class even set a record as a class having the fastest combined time. We were doing the old “O” course and after flooding rearranged the old one a new one was built that was even tougher. I remember how had training was and when I came back as an instructor it was even tougher. I was pushing students to far greater levels than I had endured and the standards are even greeter now. Training as a lot of old timers like to brag was tougher in their day but that is not the case for the SEAL teams. The standards for entry and the training across the entire spectrum is tougher than ever.
I remember the first several weeks of training as if it was yesterday. We were nonstop from early in the morning before the sun came up in mid August until after the sun went down on most days. Classroom sessions were interspersed between physical activities. It seemed like everyday more people quit. If they didn’t quit they failed some evolution like drown proofing where I feet and legs were tied and we had to swim that way. Lifesaving where we eventually had to save the instructors. Log PT that seemed to get more intense every time we did it. I remember we used to have creosote covered telephone poles that got inside the pores of your neck where the log rested as you raced around. It would burn like the skin of your neck and face were literally on fire in the hot August sun. Runs and swim times decreased every couple of weeks so that you had to put out at a faster and faster pace. Many people failed and our class dwindled from over one hundred to half that number by the time Hell Week was to start. At the time 95% of the quitters and drops happened by the middle of Hell Week. If you made it through the third night of Hell Week you were pretty much going to wear a trident of Budweiser as we used to call them. That number has dropped to 75% now. There are lots of hurdles once you complete Hell Week now. Even in the teams I have seen guys loose their tridents that have been around for years because of poor performance. The Teams are far more professional than the almost 35 years ago that I started training. That is because of the dedication and perservierance of men from across the entire spectrum. When many of us started to filter back into the teams from SEAL Team Six the standards really started to accelerate.
I know many of you have heard and seen the Hell Week stories. I will give you my professional evaluation of Hell Week as I went through it and from my perspective as a leading phase chief in the next chapter.