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
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!"
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
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
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
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.
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
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,"
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
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Jaco ordered boats on heads. He moved out at a mercifully slow
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
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
"Okay," Oswald said with a smile. "You guys are
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.