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Hell Week

By Douglas C. Waller
[an excerpt from The Commandos (1992)]

Synopsis: a report on the trials and training of U.S. Navy SEALs, among the toughest of special operations forces, by a Newsweek correspondent who went along; this essay is excerpted from Waller's book.

The resort town of Coronado had settled down for the evening. A strand jutting just across the bay from San Diego, California, Coronado was the ultimate in exclusivity. All week, yachts competing in the America's Cup trial races had sailed off Point Loma. Late diners finished their pricey meals at the historic Hotel del Coronado, where the movie Some Like It Hot, with Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe, had been filmed. It was Sunday, 9 p.m.

KABOOOOOOOM! From the south side of the strand came the deafening noise of artillery fire. Machine guns ratatatated. Sirens blared. Piercing screams. KABOOOOOM! More artillery fire, machine gun fire, screams. Dessert forks dropped at the Hotel Del. South along the strand, the Naval Special Warfare Center, ringed with barbed-wire-topped fences and NO TRESPASSING signs, had erupted into a mock battle zone. It signaled the start of the most physically demanding – and carefully choreographed – week of training in the US military. Hell Week for the Navy SEALs, Sea-Air-Land commandos.

The SEALs, along with Army Green Berets, Air Force commandos and Delta Force operatives, are part of the US Special Operations command, 46,000 – strong, headquartered in Tampa, Florida. These forces launched clandestine operations and fought behind enemy lines during the Desert Storm war. But they are misunderstood warriors, their unconventional tactics often distrusted by conventional commanders.

Perhaps nothing better demonstrates what separates special operations commandos from regular soldiers than Hell Week, which Navy men must endure to become SEALs. The most ferocious warriors in the American military, SEALs specialize in commando assaults, unconventional warfare, counterinsurgency operations and dangerous reconnaissance or intelligence collection missions that other units turn down. Their roots are in the Navy frogmen of World War II. Their forte is waterborne operations: scuba diving, underwater demolitions, coastal raids, river combat.

Part of the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training course, Hell Week is a sacred rite of passage for becoming a SEAL warrior. SEALs believe that a man driven to the limits of his endurance during Hell Week – no women are allowed in the force – can withstand the rigors and horrors of SEAL combat. Those who quit during Hell Week – and often, more than half do – are the ones Navy SEALs believe would quit on their real-world missions. Hell Week teaches a commando to turn off pain and focus on his mission.

The large black asphalt courtyard of the SEALs' Special Warfare Center, nicknamed the "grinder" because students spend countless hours there each day exercising, had been transformed into what looked like a Hollywood set for a war movie. A string of glowing green chemical sticks lined the yard. At the south end, two barrels ringed with sandbags served as grenade pits into which a hundred artillery simulators were dropped, one after another, detonating with the whistling of an incoming round then an earsplitting explosion that sent plumes of smoke high into the dark blue sky.

From the southern two corners of the grinder, fog machines – like the ones used in rock concerts – belched out billowing smoke that filled the courtyard with a layer of ground haze that smelled sickeningly sweet, like a tropical fruit punch. John B. Landry Jr., a SEAL instructor whom the students had nicknamed "Wild Country," raced around the grinder screaming at the top of his lungs, firing blanks into the air from an M-60 machine gun on his hip. Landry seemed almost psychotic during Hell Week. It was all an act, soft spoken and shy off duty, it took the 31-year-old Connecticut native almost an hour of psyching himself up before his shift began to become the maniacal character he wanted to portray.

Atop a podium at the north end of the grinder stood SEAL instructor Joe Valderrama. "On your belly! On your feet! On your backs!" He barked out commands through a megaphone so fast that the students had no hope of keeping up.

The instructors pretended to be enraged. One had a laugh box attached to his bullhorn that blared out a fiendish chuckle. Other trainers carried M-60 machine guns, spewing blanks into the air.

The students were ordered back to their barracks just outside the courtyard. "Strip off your fatigue shirts. Leave your undershirts on. Be back in five seconds. "Move!" Valderrama roared.

Thirty seconds later – Valderrama had timed it on his watch – the students raced back into the grinder out of breath. But one galloped in without his "swim buddy," and the instructors were all over him. From the beginning of their training, students had been drilled never to leave the partner they'd been assigned as a swim buddy. There was a reason: in 30 years, Navy SEALs have never left a fellow SEAL behind in combat – dead, wounded or alive. A Navy SEAL has never been taken prisoner. Never.

10 p.m., Sunday, April 12, 1992

Navy Lt. Tom Rancich lay flat on his stomach in the grinder, his hands laced behind his neck, his feet crossed. Valderrama had just taught the trainees whistle drills. If an instructor blew his whistle once, Rancich and the other BUD/S students had to dive to the ground, cover the back of their heads with their hands, keep their mouths open, and cross their legs to simulate the position they would take with an incoming artillery round. After two blows of the whistle, the students would begin crawling to whoever was tooting it. Three blows of the whistle, they would stand.

Rancich was the leader of BUD/S Class 183 now going through Hell Week. Class 183 had started with 104 officers and enlisted men. Now, after five weeks of grueling training before Hell Week, almost half had dropped out or been rolled back for physical ailments. At 29, Rancich was the senior officer in the class. In fact, he was almost too old for BUD/S. Yet he wasn't about to pass it up. Screw the career paths and ticket-punching. Rancich would have been miserable if he hadn't grabbed at the chance to become a SEAL.

Rancich had actually started BUD/S with the previous class, 182, but two days before Hell Week was to begin, he caught pneumonia. He tried to hide it from the doctors, but couldn't. He pleaded up and down the Warfare Center's chain of command to be allowed to go into Hell Week pumped with antibiotics. The instructors refused. Rancich was rolled back to repeat the first part of BUD/S training with the next class, 183. He had now spent 10 weeks swimming, running and doing push-ups to get to Hell Week instead of the normal 5.

It was getting old fast. His knees ached from running in the sand. His lips were chapped, and his eyelids drooped over brown eyes bleary from too many exhausting days and sleepless nights. His hands were swollen and rough from clawing over obstacle courses. His voice was gravelly from shouting "Hoo-yahs" – the cheer BUD/S students yell to show that an exercise hasn't beaten them down.

Lt. Michael Reilly stood on the berm, the sand embankment overlooking the strand's Pacific coast. At the shoreline, the 57 students of Class 183 lined up in the push-up position facing the Pacific ocean. Instructors began shooting flares into the clear black sky, lighting up the shoreline and ocean and casting eerie shadows over the students.

Reilly grabbed a bullhorn. "Surf torture," he announced.

From the push-up position, the students were ordered to begin a "bear crawl" to the edge of the water, where the temperature was 63 degrees. They lumbered forward, bent over on their hands and feet. At the shoreline they were ordered to halt. They stood up. Arm in arm, they marched slowly out to the crashing waves. The first cold wave hit them. It took Rancich's breath away. He and the other students staggered back briefly, but continued to march.

Reilly ordered them to halt and sit. More waves knocked them back. With their arms linked, their legs flew up in the air, like Rockettes doing high kicks as the flares above spotlighted them.

The instructors set their watches.

Cold water.

A man could quickly freeze to death in truly icy water. At least it would be a quick death: no more than 15 to 20 minutes of painful gasping, he would become giddy and blank out. The longer, more painful torture is to be immersed for extended periods in water that is simply cold. A man wouldn't necessarily die in cold water – not quickly, at least – yet the misery and discomfort of being not just cold, but cold and wet, could almost drive him insane.

The instructors weren't being sadistic. When the students who made it through the training finally got to SEAL units, they would find themselves swimming for hours in frigid waters off Korea or in liquid ice off Alaska. Hell Week was supposed to teach them at least to cope with the madness of cold water.

When 15 minutes were up, Ron Cooper, the enlisted shift chief for the evening instructors, ordered the class to stand, turn around and walk out of the surf. The students began to shake from the cold. Their olive-drab uniforms and caps were now dark green and sagged on their bodies from being soaked for so long. Their pants had filled with sand that now trickled down from their legs. Their faces seemed drained of blood. They looked like ghosts, biting their lips, clenching their fists to control the shivering.

Lt. Bruce Thomas, one of four Navy doctors monitoring the class around the clock, walked down the line of students with a flashlight. He stopped before each man and shined the light in his face, searching for signs of hypothermia: short-term memory loss, slurred speech, clumsiness, a far away look.

Their allotted five minutes out of the water were up. It seemed to the students like just five seconds.

Valderrama ordered them back to the surf. They turned around. Arms locked, they marched again into the crashing waves.

"You're wet and you're cold now," Valderrama said through his bullhorn. "You're going to be wet and cold for one whole week. I want to see some laughing."

The students started laughing.

"Keep it up!"

The students howled like hyenas.

"The more you laugh, the more heat you expend," Valderrama said.

The students went silent. The waves came crashing over them. Some students groaned as the cold became unbearable.

"Hang on," Rancich kept whispering to himself over and over again. It will end. Don't think too far ahead. I can endure this.

Some students began urinating in their pants, hoping the warm liquid would bring temporary relief from the cold.

"Remember, this isn't for everybody, gents," Reilly said politely over his bullhorn. "It's voluntary. This is exactly what every day on a SEAL team is like."

It was too much. A student wiggled his arms free from the two men holding them on each side and stood up in the water. Rancich knew immediately what was happening and lunged to grab him. Other students did the same. Too late, he broke free.

The student was sent to Reilly.

"Are you going to wake up tomorrow and regret what you've done?" Reilly asked him gently.

"Yes," the young man said, shaking uncontrollably and nearly in tears. "But I can't take five days of the cold."

"Go back to the barracks," Reilly quietly told him.

A hemorrhage erupted. A second student broke free from the line in the water. This one was an officer. Not a good sign. A third student quit. Then a fourth. A fifth. The instructors became worried. Panic set in along the line of students as they frantically tried to hold back the quitters.

Midnight, Sunday April 12

The students now faced something even more fearsome.

The night shift.

The evening instructors – Valderrama, Cooper, Reilly, Wild Country – were all noise and cold and push-ups, yet, at least so far, it had been short and bearable.

But the long dark night awaited the students. And the night belonged to the nocturnal SEALs who now stood outside the barracks with their arms folded.

The students stood at rigid attention by their rubber rafts – or as rigid as they could with the shivers lingering from the surf torture. The night shift instructors stalked them silently – like Darth Vaders – growling out commands occasionally, swarming around boat crews that showed the slightest signs of weakness, snarling at them, then dropping them for push-ups, the menacing glares never leaving their faces.

Ken Taylor, one of the instructors on the night shift, was the first to grab a bullhorn. Taylor would be the night shift's Tokyo Rose, its Baghdad Betty, the instructor who would try to break the students' morale with soft words and veiled threats and grueling "evolutions." (The training schedule was divided into evolutions, the term used for each event.)

Before the students could begin their next evolution, they faced another painful exercise: walking out of the Special Warfare Center, across Silver Strand Highway, to the Naval Amphibious Base on the other side. The challenge: they had to carry their 150-pound rubber rafts on top of their heads with all the ropes and their wooden paddles inside. During BUD/S training, the students performed special neck exercises so they could withstand the constant bouncing of the heavy rafts on their heads. But it still felt like a jackhammer was pounding the tops of their skulls. Instructors had seen students with bald spots on their heads from the constant bouncing and scraping of the rafts.

Walking was made more difficult because the pace could never be coordinated among the half dozen men under the raft. They looked like crippled crabs.

6 a.m., Monday, April 13

Dawn broke. The push-up and whistle drills stopped. The students walked to the mess hall for their first meal in nine hours of Hell Week – the rafts, of course, atop their heads as they walked.

The instructors fed the students four times a day: breakfast, lunch, dinner and a midnight ration called mid-rats. The meals were heavy, loaded with carbohydrates, proteins and fats. The students were urged to eat as much as they wanted. Food meant energy. Food compensated for lack of sleep. Food replaced warmth.

The students were ravenous. They heaped the plates on their trays with scrambled eggs, stacks of pancakes, sausage, bacon, grits, cereal. Every free space of every tray was covered with food, the sides lined with mugs of milk and hot coffee and cocoa.

7:30 a.m., Monday, April 13

Back at the barracks, Lt. Jeff Cassidy, the night shift officer, huddled over his Hell Week log with Lt. Pete Oswald, the officer in charge of the morning shift. The morning shift had the most dreaded combination of instructors in all of Hell Week: Jaco, Mccarthy and Instructor Blah.

Mike Jaco was the morning shift's enlisted chief. He was 31, a native of Columbia, South Carolina, and his biceps and shoulders bulged from 11 years in the SEALs. On long marches over beaches and berms Jaco could run students into the ground without breaking a sweat himself.

Mike Mccarthy, 31, had a gentle face. His hair was prematurely gray. Among his hulky companions he looked bookish and reserved, almost out of place. But he was the terror of Hell Week. The students had nicknamed him "the antichrist."

Instructor Blah was the nickname for Ivan Trent, a 33-year-old Hawaiian who was a master of megaphone warfare, playing straight man to the tortures Jaco and Mccarthy could dish out.

Soaked and shivering again from the surf, the students ran back to the barracks. Jaco and McCarthy stood motionless with their legs spread, hands on their hips and scowls on their faces. It was time to go to work.

Jaco warmed them up with whistle drills. Up. Down. Crawl. Up. Down. Crawl.

McCarthy began "sugar cookie drills," a combination of surf torture and whistle drills that left the trainees with sand over every inch of their bodies. It was all preparation – if you could call it that – for the new evolution: the four-mile run up and down the beach.

McCarthy hopped into an ambulance as the students began their run and followed them. He hooked his bullhorn to the side mirror and attached a laugh box to it to harangue them along the way. McCarthy, the shift's medic, also used the ride to look at each man carefully to spot injuries.

He pulled the ambulance up beside one boat crew running together and reached for his bullhorn.

Lt. (j.g.) Tom Walsh, a 26-year-old Chicagoan and the boat crew's leader, was limping as he ran.

"One man's going to slow the whole boat crew down," McCarthy taunted. "You can't lead from the rear, Lieutenant Walsh. There's no such thing as a bad team, just a bad leader."

McCarthy tried to talk the crew into running ahead and abandoning Walsh. The crew refused, even though it was falling farther behind the pack. Walsh's face was covered with sand and sweat. His eyes squinted. He gritted his teeth. The pain in his leg was becoming unbearable. His crew mates formed a cocoon around him as they ran to protect him from McCarthy's taunts.

McCarthy was impressed. Walsh must be popular among his crew members. If they didn't like him they would have dumped him.

Still, McCarthy had to pull Walsh aside to the ambulance to check his leg. He would be sent to the doctor.

Walsh turned away. In a rage, he slammed his fist against the side of the ambulance. He would not return. The doctors found that his leg had a stress fracture. He would be on crutches.

1:30 p.m., Monday, April 13

The afternoon began at the Warfare Center's obstacle course, one of the toughest in the US military. Allyson Rancich leaned against her car along Silver Strand highway, which paralleled the obstacle course about a hundred yards away. She strained to catch a glimpse of her husband. Tom had left her a handwritten schedule of when he might be marching to the mess hall and the times he thought he might be near the highway.

The instructors strictly forbade any friends or relatives from hanging around the students. But Rancich didn't know if he could survive Hell Week without these stolen moments. Allyson finally picked Tom out of the crowd of green figures slumped and wrapped up in their orange life vests. She cried. He looked awful. The trainees reminded her of a chain gang.

Rancich saw her. He managed a weak smile. He hoped she had seen it. He sneaked a short wave. He hoped the instructors hadn't spotted it or they would be all over him. For the first time in Hell Week, a warm feeling came over him. He'd make it, he thought.

6:30 a.m., Tuesday, April 14

Sitting at the long mess hall tables, the students struggled to keep their eyes open through the meal. They fumbled with their forks because their hands were too stiff to form a fist. They rolled their aching necks to bring some circulation to them. They stared vacantly. If they waited too long between bites, they nodded off.

Rancich set down his tray. On it he had chipped beef on toast, scrambled eggs, French toast, two bowls of cereal, toast, grits, a chocolate doughnut, cocoa, grape juice and a glass of water. He polished it all off in a half hour.

Everything about Hell Week seemed to be getting worse for Rancich. He was becoming more irritated. The painkillers weren't helping his knees. The raft was feeling heavier. The mile and a quarter walk to the mess hall was now a death march.

Shortly before 10 a.m., the instructors lined the students around the bottom of a mud pit. Their bodies were immersed in the water and their heads were sprouting out and resting on the muddy bank. Instructor Blah laid four bullhorns down on the upper rim of the pit and tuned them all to different pitches of a loud, high whine. It was like being in the middle of an air raid.

The students' first sleep period had begun, part of only four hours they would be allowed all week. The instructors wanted to test the students' ability to steal it under the worst conditions. It was a skill SEALs and other special operators must learn. Hell Week students jumped immediately into what the instructors called "instant REM" sleep with its jerky eyeball movements, body twitches and irregular heart rates and breathing.

5:45 p.m., Tuesday, April 14

The students were crammed into a stuffy, first-floor classroom off the grinder. Walking in, a visitor was almost knocked over by the odor. The room smelled like the bottom of a swamp. The combination of three days of body sweat, open sores, grimy, mildewed uniforms soaked in sea water 24 hours a day, plus urine from the students to keep warm, was overpowering.

Cooper stood at the front of the class trying to hold his breath because of the smell and gamely gave a safety class on the next evolution, the most dangerous in Hell Week: "rock portage."

One of the skills a SEAL must learn was to land his raft anywhere, including jagged rocks off a coast. That type of landing, called rock portage, was the most difficult of all. Crashing waves would whipsaw the rafts into the rocks, breaking bones and even crushing backs if the paddlers weren't careful. At night – the only time the SEALs ever infiltrate onto a coast – the ride in could be terrifying, with the almost deafening noise of the waves slamming against the rocks and with the boat crew being hurled at breakneck speeds as if on a roller coaster.

The rocks the SEALs use for training during BUD/S and Hell Week were the black behemoths in front of the Hotel Del. The sharp-edged boulders stood 50 feet high and protruded out some 75 feet from the shore. The joke among the students: it used to be one big rock at the Del, but it was broken up onto boulders by successive BUD/S classes slamming against it.

"You people are groggy and you may not be thinking straight," Cooper warned in a loud voice. "It's time to pull your head out of your ass now or you won't be in Hell Week long." It was no idle threat. The instructors expected injuries from rock portage.

Two hours later, the first boat went speeding to Valderrama's position. Each paddler kept one leg hung over the lip of the rubber raft as he stroked furiously to control the vessel in the fast current approaching the rocks. A wave tossed the boat high into the air. The paddlers yanked up their legs as the wave sent the boat crashing against the rocks. A second wave beat the boat against a low rock another time. The man at the front clutching a bowline attached to the raft leaped for the rock, clawing at its slippery surface to climb up.

The trick for the man leaping with the bowline was not to get caught between a rock and the 150-pound raft. A wave could come in and crush him. In real SEAL operations the boats would be loaded down with weapons and equipment and would weigh even more.

A crowd of curious spectators from the Hotel Del had gathered at the rocks to watch all the commotion at sea. Hidden in it was Allyson Rancich. As the boats came crashing into the rocks, Allyson found herself explaining the evolution to the tourists around her, remembering what Rancich had told her about it, and telling them proudly that her husband was in one of those rafts.

An elderly couple from the Hotel Del, with whom Allyson had been talking in the crowd before, now came up to her. The husband pressed two $20 bills into the palm of her hand. "We want you to take your husband out to dinner when they finish," he said.

Midnight, Tuesday, April 14

Hell Week was becoming weird for the students. Rancich's eyes were playing tricks on him. Shiny objects suddenly had intricate designs like crystals.

The cold was driving them all batty. Rancich now began shivering just at the thought of going into the ocean. He drank a glass of cold milk and it caused him to shake.

Shortly before 1 a.m. Wednesday, the students launched their boats from Foxtrot Beach at the Naval Amphibious Base and paddled northwest up San Diego Bay under the tall bridge connecting San Diego to Coronado. The water was peaceful. But full of demons.

Sailors at sea on lonely night watches sometimes see them. Apparitions. Mirages. The sea at night can play tricks with sleepy eyes. Hell Week students, by midweek, would hallucinate even more in the ocean. Some saw Indian totem poles sticking up out of the water. Others saw automobiles on top of rubber boats.

6:15 p.m., Thursday, April 16

The students lined up naked in the barracks for their third and final hygiene inspection. It was almost impossible now for the students to function individually. Arms were slung over one another's shoulders for support. A student's good leg became a crutch for another's bad leg. It was as if each boat crew was pooling the parts of each body that still worked.

There was no use hiding injuries at this point; by now their symptoms were too pronounced and the doctors could easily spot them. Blisters had become ulcers. Necks and shoulder blades were rubbed raw from the life vests. Chafing had inflamed testicles. Limbs swelled with cellulitis, which occurred when the skin became severely infected by cuts and gashes. The question the medical team now had to answer for each student: could he make it for another day of Hell Week without doing serious damage to his body?

Both of Brett Chappell's feet were so swollen that he had taken the insoles out of his boots to relieve some of the pressure. Chappell, a 24-year-old former college baseball player from Colorado, now thought he had hydrophobia. He would start shivering just thinking of water.

Rancich had welts inside his thighs. His feet were swollen. His toes felt like they were falling off. A gash on his left calf festered.

Ensign Travis Schweizer, a 23-year-old Northern Californian, had to drag his swollen right leg with his hands in order to walk. The doctors laid him down on the floor. He could not extend his leg. His knee felt hot. He couldn't bend his ankle. The pain was excruciating.

The doctors went to the corner of the room to confer with Reilly. Schweizer stared at them intently. He could feel a rush of fear sweep his body. Was it going to end here? This close?

"You'll ... be rolled forward with the class," Reilly told him quietly. Schweizer let out a sigh.

"No problem," Reilly explained. "It happens every Hell Week." Students injured after Thursday are often allowed to cut Hell Week a day short and continue with their class to the next phase of BUD/S training, particularly if they were good students and the instructors wanted them as SEALs.

5:20 a.m., Friday, April 17

The students dragged their boats out to the surf for the last paddle.

The surf was rough. The weak students barely made it past the breakers. A swift current ran against them. An hour later they had made little headway up the coast. Jaco signaled them to return to shore. The students would have to travel on land, where the slightest step, every movement, was painful.

His feet now badly swollen from cellulitis, Chappell had to be carried ashore.

Jaco ordered boats on heads. He moved out at a mercifully slow pace.

Chappell now hung on to the boat straps, letting his crew mates drag him along.

"You're not pulling your load," McCarthy told him.

"Yes he is," Rancich said, his raspy voice barely audible. With the boat still bouncing on his head, Rancich wrapped his left arm around Chappell's waist to help him along. But he knew Chappell was not going to make it much further.

A mile down the beach, Rancich's boat and crew were ordered to peel off from the line. Oswald ordered them to the surf, then 10 more push-ups.

They took several steps. He stopped them.

"Do you think you can catch up with the rest of the men?" Oswald asked.

"No" was all Rancich could manage to say, pointing to Chappell's leg.

"Okay," Oswald said with a smile. "You guys are secure."

The words took a while to be processed by their brains. "Secure" meant their Hell Week had ended – successfully. Slowly the six men hobbled together and wrapped their arms around one another in a giant hug, like survivors of a shipwreck rejoicing to be found alive.

"Good job, Lieutenant Rancich," Oswald said.

Thirty-eight students from Class 183 had made it. The next week, five of them would be laid up with post-Hell Week injuries that delayed their graduation. The remaining 33 members of class 183 had really just begun their SEAL training. They had ten more weeks of physical training and scuba-diving instruction. Then they would head to nearby San Clemente Island for nine weeks of light-infantry tactics and commando training. Afterward, they would be packed off to the Army for parachute training and Ranger school. The instructors said the Navy would be lucky if just 24 students from Class 183 completed all the training the first time around and didn't have to drop out or be recycled. Rancich was one of those who succeeded. He is now a Navy SEAL stationed in Norfolk, Virginia.