EVERY MAN HAS a different story of Hell Week; they remember particular classmates, particular instructors, their own most difficult moments. But in a larger sense, every Hell Week story is the same: A man enters a new world with the aim of becoming something greater than he once was. He is tested once, twice, three, four, five times, each test harder than the last. Then comes the most difficult test of his life. At the end of the week, he emerges a different man. He has met the hardest test of his life, and he has passed or he has failed.
Hell Week normally begins on a Sunday night, but the instructors vary the start time, so we didn't know exactly when the trial would begin.
We arrived at the base early that weekend for a nerve-racking wait. Men carried their favorite movies and their favorite music to pass the time. They carried a set of civilian clothes to wear in the event that they quit and were sent home. They carried pillows to sleep on and food to eat. Our class was restricted to a few general-purpose tents on the beach, and inside these long, green-tarped tents, we were sardined with dozens of other men on packed cots.
We passed around food: protein bars, sports drinks, pizza. One guy's wife had made oatmeal raisin cookies and we picked morsels out of the tinfoil. We knew that we'd be burning close to 8,500 calories a day. We also knew that the water temperature was in the fifties, and we knew that the body burned calories to produce heat. We ate as much as we could. As night came, we sat up talking.
Our boat crews were always shifting as men quit and the class got smaller. Raines had been in my boat crew in the first weeks of indoctrination, and now—right before Hell Week—he was with me again. Raines was a kind of BUD/S wise man. He'd been in Class 234, was injured, and as he recovered he saw Classes 235 and 236 pass through before he joined our class, 237. Raines was in his late twenties: old for a BUD/S student. He was married: this put him in a small minority of BUD/S students. And he was African American: this put him in another minority of BUD/S students. Raines was about five foot ten. He was in great shape relative to most people, but by the standards of BUD/S he had a small gut. He was slower than most in running, and slower than most on the swims. He was slower than most on the obstacle course, and slower than most to knock out fifteen pull-ups.
Eddie Franklin, Greg Hall, and Old Man Johnson (who was probably thirty-one) were all in our crew, and all previously served as Marines. We also had a young guy named Lipsky and another young athlete named Martin. We had a solid group of hard-charging athletes and disciplined Marines, and then we had Raines. The athletes kept us strong. The Marines kept us disciplined. And Raines, he kept us wily—Wile E. Coyote wily. Things don't always work out so well for the coyote, but he's got an endless bag of tricks.
Raines's wife had packed him a brick of brownies, and we were eating Raines's brownies sitting on the cots and waiting for Hell Week to begin when he started to tell us a story from his time serving on the Florida Highway Patrol.
"So, I get a call on the radio, that there is this cow standing in the middle of this two-lane highway, and it has traffic stopped. I asked the dispatcher was she serious, and she tells me yes. So I start driving out that way, and traffic is backed up for miles in both directions, people just barely creepin' along. I have to drive on the embankment of the road, and I go flying past all of these people of the great state of Florida that have summoned me to remove this bovine obstruction from their midst. Now, you got to understand, these people are hot. Pissed off. They been sittin' on this road goin' nowhere. So, I get up to the cow, and I see that there is another officer already on the scene.
"Now it's important to tell you that it's another black officer from the city for a couple of reasons, but one of 'em is that I know for damn sure that my man has never dealt with a cow in his entire life. And he is standing there. And there in front of him is this cow, and the cow simply will not move, standing smack in the middle of the highway. A few people could drive by the cow on either side of the road real slow, but the cow has traffic stopped in both directions.
"And then of course, all the drivers—who ain't never touched a cow before either—they have all become experts on the movement of cows, and they are yelling at my boy and tellin' him, push the cow with your car, hit it with your baton, pull it by the ear, all kinds of craziness.
"Now I walk up to my man, and I can tell, he is super-fuckin'-crazy-fragilistic-expi-alla-docious pissed off, out there sweatin' in the sun, and a huge traffic jam, suckin' on exhaust, and all those people honking and yelling at him, and this crazy motherfucker is yellin' at the cow. He told me to get something, so I walk back to my car, and I got my trunk opened, and just then I look up, and that crazy motherfucker is drawing his weapon from his holster. He points it straight at the cow, shoots, and the cow drops dead in the middle the road.
"Now I'm watching this, and I see this little old white lady step out her car, and pull out a car phone. I didn't know who she was calling, or what she was saying, but I knew that this was going to be a mess, and I knew that I didn't want to be anywhere near it, and so I got right on in my car and I drove off."
The whole tent is laughing because it's classic Raines: pain is coming down, and he knows just where not to be.
"So, next day, I get called over to the chief of patrol's office, and I'm sitting outside his office next to the man who shot the cow, like two kids getting called into the principal's office. Then the officer turns to me and he says, 'Hey brother,' and I'm thinking, Oh, now I'm your brother. Well, he says to me, he says, 'You got to help me out.' I'm thinking, Help you out? What the hell am I supposed to do? You shot a cow dead in the middle of a pack of witnesses on a highway in broad daylight. So I said, 'What do you want me to do?' And that motherfucker looked at me straight in the eye, and he said, 'Tell 'im,'"—and Raines paused—"'that the cow attacked me.'"
We all busted out laughing. Somebody yelled to Raines, "So what did you do?"
And Raines says, "When they called me in that office, I didn't even wait for 'im to ask me anything. I walked straight up the desk of the chief of patrol, and I said, 'That motherfucker shot that cow for no goddamned good reason whatsoever,' and I turned around and I walked out of there."
The tent roared with laughter—a group of men letting go of tension before the test. There were a lot of men in the tent that night. Only a handful of us would make it through BUD/S, but of all the traits that would be essential to our success, it turned out that this one—a sense of humor—would prove to be more important than I would have imagined.
Men drifted off to sleep, each with his own thoughts. I rehearsed our plan in my mind. As a boat crew leader, my most immediate responsibility was for six other men. I'd instructed our crew to sleep fully dressed, boots on. We knew that we'd wake to chaos—instructors firing automatic weapons, artillery simulators exploding, sirens, bullhorns—and our plan was simple: drop to the ground and crawl out under the east side of the tent. Stay down. I would get a full head count. Hall would grab the back of my collar, the man behind him would grab Hall's collar, and so on, until we were all connected. We couldn't plan to be able to hear each other, and if they threw smoke grenades we might not even be able to see each other. Other men and instructors would be running and crashing around us. Connected, we'd start to move. I wondered, Was there anything else I should say to my guys? Anything else I should do?
Almost as soon as I fell into sleep, I woke to the sound of a Mark-43 squad automatic weapon. The Mark-43 has a cyclic rate of fire of 550 rounds per minute. It is the primary "heavy" gun carried by SEALs on patrol. A blank round is not nearly as loud as a live one, but when the gun is rocking feet away from your ears in an enclosed tent, it still sounds painfully loud. I rolled to the ground. For a moment—certainly less than a second—I was on my knees and elbows in the sand, about to crawl out of the tent. A huge smile broke across my face. The wait was over. The test had begun.
I—like all of the others in the tent that night—had grown up in a modern America that offered its young men few tests. As a kid I read about the Spartans, the Romans, the Knights of the Round Table. I studied Native Americans, aboriginal cultures, and ancient Jewish tribes. Past cultures all seemed to offer young men some orderly set of trials that allowed one to progress into manhood. America offered very little. I'd seen Earl Blair—in the Durham boxing gym—constructing trials for boys who otherwise would have constructed their own trials for themselves in gangs. Men came to BUD/S for many reasons, but to some extent we all shared at least one reason: We wanted to be tested. We wanted to prove ourselves worthy. We wanted a good fight, and now it had started.
The plan worked perfectly. The seven of us crawled out the side of the tent, avoiding the packs of instructors waiting for students at the entrance and exit. The night was dark, and in the confusion we felt unseen. We had a precious few seconds to make sure that we were all together. I stood, Hall's hand on my collar, and we ran. Instructors yelled at us, "Drop!" "Drop!" "Drop down!" but I kept running. Air raid sirens blared, artillery simulators exploded, guns ripped through endless rounds of ammunition, and I decided to use the chaos of the night to our advantage.
We ran off the beach and past a group of instructors who had a fire hose trained on another boat crew as they did pushups. The instructors yelled at us, "Drop!" "Drop down!" and we kept running. We knew that the instructors were going to beat us, but we weren't going to make it easy for them.
Students were being corralled into the famous concrete compound known as the grinder for a murderous session of physical training under the assault of hoses and prowling instructors. The intention of the instructors was to start Hell Week in chaos. Break the teams apart. Sow confusion. As the seven of us ran for the grinder, I turned left and ducked us behind a dumpster, where we all seven crouched to a knee.
The instructors were screaming, guns firing, and the other boat crews were running back and forth.
"Mr. G, what are we doing?" We weren't swimming in the river of craziness around us, and it was actually the calm that made some of my guys nervous.
"Be cool. We're just gonna hang here for a bit," I said.
The river of madness ran past us into the grinder, and we could hear the other boat crews getting soaked, the instructors shouting at them for pushups, flutter kicks, squats, sit-ups.
Raines said, "My man, this is beautiful." We waited.
"Stay low." I peered around the side of the dumpster: clear. I stood and we ran back to the beach.
We all seven stood on the beach together. We caught our breath. No instructors. Then we started to laugh. It was the laugh of the happy nervous. Were we really making this happen?
Raines had learned from stories of previous Hell Weeks, and we'd planned our first moves together. He'd said, "A lot of the officers want to be tough. They get all excited. Go charging into the mouth of the cannon. Get soaked. Get beat. Show everybody how tough they are and start the whole week beat and exhausted." We talked about a different approach.
I'd briefed my guys before the week. "There's going to be a tremendous amount of pain that we cannot avoid. Whatever comes, we'll stay strong and we'll keep smiling. We'll have fun with it and we will enjoy it, because every moment that passes is a moment that takes us closer to becoming SEALs. We'll work together, and we'll remember that we're in this together. But we're also going to be smart, and whenever there is pain that we can avoid, we're gonna do a little sidestep."
Standing on the beach, we listened as sirens blared, whistles shrieked, and smoke grenades spread a menacing pall over the ground. Speakers had been strung up around the grinder and they amplified the sound of shrieking air raid sirens. For added confusion, fifty-gallon barrels exploded with artillery simulators and flashbang grenades.
We stood on the beach, almost giddy with laughter, for a good ten minutes. A few stars shone through the clouds and waves rolled up the beach. We kept a loose lookout, our eyes on every possible avenue of approach that the instructors might take to the beach. But no one came. I felt that we'd pushed our luck about as far as it could go. Pretty soon someone would do a head count, and I didn't want to be caught on the beach and have my crew singled out for torture. I said to my guys, "Gentlemen, let's go join the party. Stay connected. Hold on tight to the man in front of you. We are about to have a great time."
We ran onto the grinder into a whirling mix of chaotic pushups and flutter kicks and hoses and men soaked and exhausted and sirens blaring and instructors yelling. I ran straight for the middle of the grinder. Our crew ran through the chaos, and as we ran we tapped our fellow classmates on the head, a feint we'd discussed on the beach. The instructors yelled at us, "What the hell are you doing! Drop down!" and I yelled back, "Hooyah, Instructor Jones," and I kept on running and we kept on with the head tapping. "Mr. Greitens, what are you doing?"
"Hooyah," I yelled, and we kept on running.
"Mr. Greitens, what the hell are you doing?!"
"We're doing a head count of the class, Instructor Jones." The instructors were running coordinated chaos, and they didn't know if we'd been ordered to do a head count by another instructor. They assumed that we had, and I was willing to let them assume, and my crew kept running around the grinder tapping other guys on the head. A few guys in the class saw what we were doing, and they jumped up to join us, and soon we had a long line of guys running through hoses and smoke and chaos, tapping other guys on the head.
It was a beautiful way for us to start the week. It's unlikely that we had really outwitted the instructors; they knew all of the tricks, and they probably turned a blind eye to what we did. SEALs were supposed to take advantage of chaos, and we felt that we had won the first round. We couldn't avoid 99 percent of the pain that was going to come our way, but we'd avoided a little, and we had a sharp psychological edge heading into the week.
The inflatable boat, small (IBS) is a hundred-some-pound black rubber boat, thirteen feet in length. Each crew had been assigned to a boat, and it stayed with us through every minute of Hell Week. At mealtimes we left a guard on the boat. Instructors who found unguarded boats would steal oars and deflate spray tubes. Unguarded boats led to beatings. Our boat crews were divided by height so that if we ran as a team, each man could carry a portion of the weight of the boat on his head. Many BUD/S students leave training with neck injuries. As we sprinted away from the chaos of the grinder, we picked up our boats, and they bounced on our heads as we ran through the soft sand.
As we ran down the beach I could hear the boat crews on either side of us yelling at each other. "I told you not to—" "You need to listen!" "Shut the fuck up and run." The men were soaked and beaten from their time on the grinder, and now they were uncomfortable under their boats, and they had begun to snipe at each other.
"Let's be cool," I said as we ran. "We're off to a good start, but the whole week's not gonna be like this. Not everything is going to go our way. Listen, though, to the other boat crews right now, tearing each other up. We're gonna stay positive, stay together, and have fun with this. We can all make it through together."
As we ran on the soft sand in the middle of the night at the start of the hardest week of the most grueling military training in the world, Greg Hall said, "Not bad. Not bad at all, Mr. G. We got this." A few men had already quit. Our crew was solid, and our confidence grew with each step we ran in the sand.
When I had first checked in to BUD/S, I had walked onto the grinder, where thousands of BUD/S trainees had done millions of pushups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, and flutter kicks. Small, webbed feet are painted onto the concrete, designating a place for each man to stand during physical training. A wooden sign hangs over the grinder: "The only easy day was yesterday."
I had been sent to meet the officer in charge of the indoctrination phase of training. Warrant Officer Green was a broadly built, respected man who wore a thick mustache and had nearly two decades of service in the SEAL teams. We sat on a bench outside his office overlooking the grinder.
"BUD/S is hard for everybody, but we're going to make it even harder on you, and harder on all the other officers," he said. "Everyone will be looking to you for leadership. You have to lead your men in BUD/S because, if you make it through this, we're going to expect you to lead in the teams, and you can't lead from the back. We expect you to be at the front of the runs, the front of the swims. We expect you to be an example and to set the standard."
One of the great virtues of BUD/S training is that officers and enlisted train side by side, and officers are expected to endure the same pain—or more—as the men they lead. Every man wore a helmet in BUD/S, and each officer had a bold white stripe painted, skunk style, from the front of his helmet to the back. Everywhere you went, you could be picked out from the crowd. As a kid I had read that Roman officers used to wear red crests made of horsehair so that even in the chaos of battle they could be seen and followed.
At Officer Candidate School, our drill instructor used to say, "Lead from the front or get the hell out of the way." That message echoed here. I don't think that I realized it at the time, but one of the reasons the military can sometimes produce exceptional leaders is that military training clearly emphasizes the most important leadership quality of all: setting the example. Sometimes that example is physical: "You better be at the front of the run." More often, and more importantly, the example is set by the actions you take that express your values. So, for example, SEAL officers eat last, after the men they lead. Captain Smith, the commanding officer of the Naval Special Warfare Center when I was a trainee, gave all of the junior officers a copy of the 1950 edition of The Armed Forces Officer. In its first paragraph, leadership through character is placed at the heart of the officer's duty: "Having been specifically chosen by the United States to sustain the dignity and integrity of its sovereign power, an officer is expected to maintain himself, and so to exert his influence for so long as he may live, that he will be recognized as a worthy symbol of all that is best in the national character."1
Running in soft sand down the beach, our boat bouncing on our heads, I realized that what Warrant Green had said was true, but it wasn't the whole truth. He was right, of course, that the officers were watched closely, and he was right that we had to be at the front, and that we had to set an example. But he was wrong about BUD/S being harder for officers.
What Warrant Green didn't tell me, but what I came to learn, was that when you are leading, it can in fact be easier. For fear to take hold of you, it needs to be given room to run in your mind. As a leader, all the room in your mind is taken up by a focus on your men.
I got to a point where my senses were attuned to every physical, verbal, emotional, even spiritual tremor in the crew. Who looks like he's about to lose his temper? Who is worried about his kid? Who's limping? Who's feeling sorry for himself? Who needs to be coached? Who needs to be challenged?
As we ran down the beach, another one of my guys huffed as we ran, "Nice job back there, Mr. G." It was the greatest affirmation I could have ever asked for.
Before I joined the Navy I knew that BUD/S would be a test, but by the time I was running down the beach that night, I'd learned—at least in part—what the test was for. The test wasn't about me.
The purpose of the test was to create a man who was capable of leading some of the best men in the world on the most difficult missions our country could ever ask anyone to undertake. Under my boat that night I ran with fathers and husbands and former police officers and former Marines and kids fresh out of school. BUD/S students came from Virginia and California and from middle-class midwestern families and from poor single-parent homes. They were a diverse crew, but they all shared in common a willingness to serve their country, a willingness to sacrifice their own pleasures and comfort and even their lives, in service of others. They deserved to have leaders who had been tested, leaders who had suffered, leaders who were willing to sacrifice in service of others. Once I came to know these men, leadership in BUD/S wasn't really that hard at all; it became easy because I had no place for my own pain, my own misery, my own self-pity. The test wasn't about me; it was about them. Running that night with my men under our boat at the beginning of Hell Week was one of the greatest nights of my life.
After we had run several hundred yards south, the instructors started surf torture. We ran into the ocean until we were chest-deep in water, formed a line, and linked arms as the cold waves ran through us. Soon we began to shiver. I could be wrong about when on the first night this happened. While I can vividly remember moments from Hell Week, the order of those moments is a jumble. Did we dig a pit in the sand, build a fire, and run back and forth into the ocean on Wednesday night or Thursday night? Did we have a King of the Hill pool fight on Tuesday? Thursday? I don't know. I am sure, however, that they got us in the ocean, and they got us very cold, very early, and they kept us cold and wet for a week.
As we shivered in the ocean, instructors on bullhorns spoke evenly: "Gentlemen, quit now, and you can avoid the rush later. You are only at the beginning of a very long week. It just gets colder. It just gets harder."
"Let's go. Out of the water!" We ran out through waist-deep water and as we hit the beach a whistle blew: whistle drills. One blast of the whistle and we dropped to the sand. Two blasts and we began to crawl to the sound of the whistle. We crawled through the sand, still shaking from the cold, until our bodies had warmed just past the edge of hypothermia. Then, "Back in the ocean! Hit the surf!"
Some men had quit after the opening session on the grinder. Others quit after the run down the beach, and others quit after they sent us into the water. The men who quit then—I believe—were trapped in a cage of fear in their own minds. We woke to the sound of blanks being fired through machine guns. We got wet. We did pushups and flutter kicks. Instructors yelled at us. We ran on the beach. Every man in the class had endured at least this much before, so it could not have been the physical pain that made them quit. No. They lost focus on what they had to do in the moment, and their fear of this monster—Hell Week—overwhelmed them like a giant wave that had crashed and washed away their sense of purpose.
During whistle drills I crawled with Raines. One of my favorite instructors, Instructor Wade, started to yell. "Oh OK, Mr. Greitens, you don't want to crawl on your own. You want to wait for Mr. Raines here? Then both of you, hit the surf!" Raines and I took off for the waves, dove into the cold water, and ran back and fell again to the sand. Instructor Wade was an incredible swimmer. He taught the combat sidestroke classes, and when he kicked with fins underwater, it was like watching a sea lion fly through its natural environment. Wade had served numerous tours in South America, and he taught our basic classes on patrol. He was also wickedly smart. When Raines and I fell back on the sand, he yelled, "I guess you two just don't get it. Hell Week is an individual evolution. You two keep trying to work together." What Wade meant, of course, was that Hell Week was a team evolution—only teams could survive—and he wasn't yelling at me and Raines so much as he was letting the whole class know we better work together.
As we crawled, soaking wet, we became covered in sand. The skin on our elbows and knees grated, and just when we reached an instructor who had blown one whistle, another whistle would sound—two blasts—thirty yards away, and we would begin to crawl again. "Only five more days! You guys tired yet? You cold? You haven't even started!"
We ran into the surf and back out again, and then we were lined up on the beach. The instructors asked me, "How many men do you have in the class?" Men had been quitting in all the confusion, and I had no idea how many remained. "Mr. Greitens, how the hell are you going to lead when you don't even know how many people you have?" They asked the other officers: "Mr. Fitzhugh? Mr. Freeman?"
We counted off— one, two, three —and as we went down the line we realized that we had already lost a half-dozen men. And Hell Week had hardly begun.
Ordered back to the cold water, we stood at the ocean's edge. The waves crashed and flowed around our soaked boots. We were instructed to turn toward the beach, our backs to the waves, and, with arms linked, to lie down. Waves crashed over us. "Kick your boots over your head and into the sand!" the instructors yelled. With our legs kicked over our heads, our breathing was constricted; as each wave crashed over us, we held our breath.
Men stood up shaking, their will collapsed, and walked to the instructors. The instructors would often ask them, "You sure?" They always were. Once they let quitting become an option—a warm shower, dry clothes, a return to a girlfriend or wife, an easier job, perhaps a chance to go back to school—they had no use for a future of cold and wet and pain and misery. We heard the bell ring—ding, ding, ding—as they chose another life.
We ran to our boats, which were rigged for sea at night with bright red and green chem lights tied to the spray tubes. We had chem lights attached to our helmets as well. In the event that we were knocked unconscious in the water at night, the chem lights would mark the position of our bodies in the water. As we stood next to our boats, the instructors yelled, "Prepare to up boat!" and all seven of us grabbed our boat and yanked it into the air, and then we all seven stood underneath the boat with its weight pressed over our heads at an extended-arm carry. Often we held this position until our arms started to shake. Then: "Down boat!" In one motion we all stepped out from under the boat and brought it back to the sand. Then again: "Up boat"—we pressed. Down boat. Up boat. Down boat. Up boat. Down boat. As a team we lifted and lowered our boats hundreds of times over the course of Hell Week.
We began a series of races. We ran our boats into the water and paddled out past the surf zone, and there we "dumped boat"—flipped the boat over so that it rested upside down on the water, soaking every man in the process. We then flipped the boat right-side up and paddled back to the beach through the breaking waves.
Over and over again, we rowed out into the ocean through the waves, got soaked, then rowed back in. The instructors kept everyone rowing fast and hard by rewarding winners and punishing losers. The crew that won a race was often allowed to sit out the next race. The crew that came in last was often tortured with a series of exercises: team sit-ups with the boat on your head or pushups with your feet raised on the spray tubes of the boat.
At some point we traded our boats for 150-pound logs and did "log PT" on the beach. As a team of seven we ran down the beach with the logs bouncing on our shoulders, and then we ran over a fifteen-foot-high sand berm, with the logs held at our waists. Straight-armed, we held the logs over our heads, then brought them down to our shoulders, then lowered them to the ground, and then we lifted the logs back up to our shoulders and pressed them up over our heads again. We ran with our log into the ocean to "give it a bath," and then we picked up our soaked, slippery log and ran back out of the water and through the soft sand.
It's difficult to describe the physical pain of log PT. This did not compare to training in a gym. It was not like setting yourself at a bench press, cranking out ten repetitions, and then waiting for your muscles to recover while chatting with a friend. The pain of log PT was unlike any kind of muscle pain I'd ever experienced before; muscles didn't burn, they seared. This was not really "physical training" at all; it was spiritual training by physical means.
After log PT we ran onto the obstacle course and, exhausted, as a crew we ran our boats over the obstacles. All seven of us worked together to haul our bulky rubber crafts up the high wooden walls, across the logs, and over the course.
Then we ran our boats back to the water again. I ran at the stern—the back of the boat. My six crew lined up three on each side, and as we ran into the water and the water reached waist height for the men in front I yelled, "Ones in," and the two front men scrambled into the boat and began to paddle as the waves came toward us. Then I yelled, "Twos in," and the pair mid-boat jumped in, then "Threes in," and the last pair of men jumped in and began to paddle, and then finally I scrambled into the boat, grabbed my paddle, and began to steer as our crew stroked furiously to make it out and over the surf line.
Timing was essential. Boats that mistimed the waves were often flipped, and seven two-hundred-pound men and their oars would go flying into the surf. We wore helmets, but injuries happened—usually just cuts, bangs, and bruises, but sometimes badly twisted ankles or knees, and occasionally a broken bone.
We paddled north for one of Hell Week's more dangerous evolutions—rock portage. Coronado beach has a large outcropping of jagged black rocks. Waves roll in and crash on the rocks. The objective of rock portage was for us to "insert" our team—as if on an operation. We had to land our boat on the rocks, jump out, and carry the boat over the rocks to dry land.
In 1991 during the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein's commanders expected a major amphibious assault of thousands of men. Instead, the Navy inserted a team of SEALs. The explosions the team rigged were so convincing that Saddam diverted almost two full divisions to respond. Saddam fell for the diversion, and as his troops moved, allied forces invaded Kuwait from Saudi Arabia. That SEAL team, which helped thin Saddam's defenses in a critical area, comprised just six men.2
During practice for rock portage prior to Hell Week, we had learned that it was essential to time the waves. When we got close to the rocks, our bowman would jump out of the boat and onto the rocks. He held a rope attached to the bow and he would attempt to anchor himself in the rocks as we continued to paddle. As the waves rolled in they could crash with tremendous force; a man trapped between the boat and the rocks was in trouble. Dustin Connors—the first man I met at BUD/S—had broken his leg during rock portage.
As we paddled north before the landing, we were exhausted, and we were not even through the first night of Hell Week. But rowing in the ocean, away from the instructors, the night was suddenly peaceful. There was no yelling, and for a full twenty minutes we did nothing but row. But we rowed worried. Rock portage held the possibility of real injury. We each had it in our power to quit or endure; that we could control. But no one could control a fierce wave, a tossed boat. No one's muscles were harder than rock. No man's hands could hold back a wave. Few of us feared injury itself. We'd all suffered broken bones before. What was frightening was the prospect of being rolled out of our BUD/S class. We would have to spend months recovering, and then we would have to start all over again.
We rowed our boats together in a bobbing flotilla outside the surf zone one hundred meters from the rocks. The waves seemed small as they rolled in, but that could be deceiving; they might be crashing with fury near the beach. We watched as the first two boat crews paddled for the rocks. The crews landed and we could see their helmet lights bobbing as they carried their boats up and over the rocks.
Now it was our turn. We paddled. As we closed, it looked as if the waves were breaking and crashing before reaching the rocks. The tide was out. If we timed it right, we could hit the sand and then carry our boat over the rocks, rather than having to land on the rocks themselves. We scrambled over the rocks with our boat, and as we made it to the other side, the instructors yelled at us to drop down and then beat us with pushups for a dozen small offenses. But when we picked our boat back up and ran, I said, "Great job, guys," and I think it was Lipsky who said, "Thank God," and we ran on, the boat bouncing on our heads. Exhausted after hours of punishment, we felt like the luckiest crew in the world.
They tortured us through the night. Run into the surf, run out of the surf. Take your camouflage top and T-shirt off, then lay back in the fifty-some-degree water again. BUD/S taught us funny things. Skinny guys are cold. Fat guys are warm. Better to be stuck in the surf next to a fat guy. "Fat" of course is a relative term; there weren't really any fat trainees, but I remember Eddie Franklin saying to Lipsky, "Get your fat ass over here and warm up the ocean."
Eventually the sky started to lighten. Dawn light? We'd made it through the first night. With our boats on our heads we ran along Tarawa Road for the other side of the base and the chow hall.
At the battle of Tarawa during World War II, U.S. Marines were sent to dislodge twenty-six hundred Imperial Marines, Japan's elite amphibious troops, from a tiny island. Even with intelligence gathered from aerial photography, observations by telescope, submarine soundings, and interviews of merchant sailors, the Americans still misjudged the tidal range. Amphibious landing craft packed full of Marines ran aground on the reefs surrounding the island seven hundred yards from shore. The ramps of the landing craft were lowered and men stepped out. Laden with packs and waist-deep in water, they walked through machine-gun fire that tore through bodies and dropped men into the ocean. Hundreds of Marines and Navy personnel were shot and killed. Many died in the shallow water before they made it to the beach. In just over seventy-six hours of fighting, over 990 Marines and 680 sailors were killed, battling for a thin sliver of island just four miles long and a quarter mile wide.3 Today, U.S. Marines still call it "Terrible Tarawa." After Tarawa, the U.S. Navy determined never again to allow faulty intelligence to lead to that kind of slaughter. Men would have to be sent in ahead of time, men who could have eyes on the ground and in the water, human beings who could do reconnaissance of landing zones and rig demolitions to blow obstacles. It was in the bloody waters of Tarawa that the Underwater Demolition Teams were born.
In the chow hall we had a few minutes of relative peace to eat as much as we could. A lot of SEALs had given us the advice, "Just try to survive from meal to meal."
Inside the chow hall, Hell Week students rolled through a special section of the line cut off from the other diners. We pushed our trays. Scrambled eggs? Yes. Sausage? Yes. French toast? Yes. Hard-boiled eggs? Yes. Fruit? Yes. Tomatoes? Yes. Beans? Yes. I stopped for two glasses of water and a mug of hot chocolate. Every calorie was energy to be spent running, lifting, swimming, energy to burn for heat. I sat down with my boat crew at the table, all of us with a mess of food on our plates. I ate fast. Hash browns and scrambled eggs fell in my lap. I wiped syrup with my sleeve, and bits of tomato and sausage fell to the floor.
At BUD/S it helped to be able to run and swim on a full stomach. As an officer who ate last and usually had little time to get a full meal, I was used to running away from my tray with a mouth full of pancake and an apple in hand.
The instructors generally left us alone at meals. They insisted that men drink plenty of water. A few men had trouble shoveling food when they were exhausted, and the instructors prodded them to eat. Later in the week—when we would fall asleep during meals—the instructors would sometimes load a sleeping trainee's plate with hot sauce, and then wake him up and tell him to eat. Dazed, guys would shovel in a forkful of food, and their eyes would pop open as the hot sauce hit their throats.
After the meal we ran with the boats on our heads over to the BUD/S medical compound for our first medical check. The doctors examined cuts to look for flesh-eating bacterial infections and they checked temperatures to test for hypothermia.
The med checks always presented a dilemma: the instructors left us alone as we ran through medical, and medical was warm. This meant that it was tempting to stay in medical for as long as possible. On the other hand, we all tried as hard as possible to hide any ailments from the doctors. A swollen knee, an infection, pneumonia, any of these might lead to being medically rolled, and if you were rolled, you had to start all over again. Most of us elected to rush through as fast as we could. We ran through wearing nothing but tri shorts—black spandex underwear that we wore to help prevent chafing of the legs—so it was hard to hide injuries, but still we tried.
"You feel OK?"
"Yes." They'd put a stethoscope to our backs.
"Any trouble breathing?"
After medical, we sat at the "foot station." Brown Shirt rollbacks—BUD/S trainees who made it through Hell Week, but were later rolled out of their classes for injuries and were waiting to class up again—sprayed our feet with antibacterial medicine. They applied tape and bandages and Vaseline where necessary.
It could have been peaceful at the foot station, but the instructors set up a boom box that played a loud, shrill, nonsensical scream-chant:
What day is it? What day is it? Is it Thursday? No? Shoes-day? Tuesday? What day is it? Will someone please tell me? No, no, no! Is it yesterday, or already tomorrow? Someone please tell me, what day is it?
We left the foot station and its psychological torture and ran in our tri shorts to a set of milk crates. Each of us had a milk crate with a piece of duct tape stuck to it with our name scrawled on it. A set of dry clothes sat in the crate, and we took a blissful thirty seconds to pull on dry socks and pants and a T-shirt. As we ran out of the changing station, an instructor waited for us with a hose.
Later in Hell Week after a med check, one of the instructors yelled at me to drop down. I dropped to the concrete and started doing pushups with a hose in my face, and as I lowered myself, I felt something in the chest pocket of my shirt. On the next pushup I let myself down to the concrete ground again, and as I did so I could feel the shape and weight of a candy bar; one of the Brown Shirt rollbacks had slipped a candy bar in my pocket. I smiled as the fire hose soaked me, thinking, "A free people can never be conquered!" and "Long live the resistance!" and a bunch of other fiery, half-goofy inspirational phrases that were very meaningful to me at the moment, and were also an indication that I was exhausted.
The next day is a blur. We ran a four-mile timed run in boots in the sand, and then, I believe, we prepared for a long swim in the ocean. Standing on the beach in our wetsuits prior to a knife inspection (we carried knives when we swam, and our knives and lifesaving equipment were inspected before every swim), we started to get warm.
All told, we were awake and under near-constant assault for the first eighteen hours of Hell Week. There was no break: Long timed runs. Marathon swims. More pushups. More everything.
My swim buddy and I knew that we were going to freeze all week, so we talked about diving into the water rather than walking in. They could torture us. But, we thought, we'd show them; we would act like we enjoyed it. You want to freeze us? Ha. We'll freeze ourselves. We ran to the water and dove in, and somehow we felt like we'd won something.
The two-mile swim was usually a dreaded, all-out, kicking-and-pulling race for at least seventy minutes. But during Hell Week, swimming two miles in the ocean was relatively pleasant. Our bodies were warmed by the exercise, and though the instructors patrolled the pack of swimmers in kayaks and yelled at us with bullhorns, there was actually very little torture they could inflict on us while we swam.
Men continued to quit as the day wore on. Two quit after the swim. When it was announced that we were going to put on forty-pound rucksacks and march, two more men quit, and then it turned out that we didn't even do the rucksack run. Instead, we were ordered to our boats and then ran to chow.
After the first night, we got four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midrats—midnight rations—and it seemed true that we could just survive from meal to meal. At lunch on Monday, Friday might as well have been five years in the future. But dinner didn't seem that far away.
We ran into the chow hall that day already showing signs of wear. Our feet were swollen. Our hands were swollen. Anyone who had a tight knee, an injured hamstring, a tender ankle, ran limping toward the chow hall. We were hosed down before we went inside, but still we carried sand in our hair and sand in our ears and sand around the collars of our T-shirts.
Most of the men who ran into that chow hall also carried ambition, but it's a kind of ambition that is often misunderstood. In his first published speech, Abraham Lincoln wrote, "Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem."4 The men at BUD/S carried that same ambition; they wanted to make something meaningful of their lives. They wanted to leave a worthy name.
At the pass of Thermopylae, where three hundred Spartans gave their lives to hold off several hundred thousand Persians, an epitaph marks the place of their death with the elegiac couplet:
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here obedient to their laws we lie.5
Most of the men in my class had come to BUD/S convinced that they wanted to fulfill their lives' ambition as modern-day warriors, as SEALs. Now many of them were starting to question this. As we sat down to lunch we had little energy. Two guys bumped trays and glasses of water crashed to the floor. "Watch what the fuck you're doing!" Tempers were short. Men frayed at the edges. Humor helped to repair the damage.
We sat at our table: "D'you see Instructor Jones with that bullhorn? He looks like he wants to eat it."
"No, he fuckin' kisses that thing."
"He fuckin' loves that thing."
"Is he single?"
"No, he's not. He's married to the bullhorn."
"I bet he takes that thing home with him at night."
"He's probably got a bunch of pet names for it. Oh, bully, oh, bully, oh, bully."
"I bet he doesn't let any of the other instructors touch that thing."
"I bet they don't want to."
Instructor Jones walked past us in the chow hall and someone started to hum the melody to Wagner's Bridal Chorus in a very uneven tone, and another guy sang softly, "Here comes the bride, all dressed in..."
We chuckled and turned back to our food. It didn't matter to us if anything we said was actually funny or mature or even made any sense. It was hilarious to us, and just then being able to laugh reminded us: We can do this.
We fought our way through Monday afternoon. We endured the tortures, completed the exercises, ran the races. Usually any moment that passed in Hell Week was a good moment, but on Monday afternoon, we still had Monday night hanging over us.
"OK, gentlemen, just a few more hours until the sun goes down." Laughter rolled through the bullhorn. Monday night was infamous. The hardest night of all. "Steel piers" was coming. We'd heard that steel piers would freeze you like a soaked and naked man left to die at the North Pole. Monday night was feared. Monday night was the killer night. Monday night would be the worst night of your life.
As the sunlight weakened, the instructors ran us out to the beach. We stood there in a line, and as we watched the sun drift down, they came out on their bullhorns:
"Say goodnight to the sun, gentlemen, say goodnight to the sun."
"Tonight is going to be a very, very long night, gentlemen."
They reminded us that tonight was going to be our first full night of Hell Week.
"And you men have many, many more nights to go."
We watched the sun slip lower and make contact with the ocean.
Then, when they really wanted to torture us, they said, "Anybody who quits right now gets hot coffee and doughnuts. Come on, who wants a doughnut? Who wants a little coffee?"
As we watched the sun slip away, something broke in our class. Out of the corner of my right eye, I saw men running for the bell. First two men ran, and then two more, and then another. The instructors had carried the bell out with us to the beach. To quit, you rang the bell three times. I could hear it ringing:
Ding, ding, ding.
Ding, ding, ding.
Ding, ding, ding.
A pack of men quit together. Weeks earlier, we had started our indoctrination phase with over 220 students. Only 21 originals from Class 237 would ultimately graduate with our class. I believe that we had more men quit at that moment than at any other time in all of BUD/S training.
Who would have thought that after having to swim fifty meters underwater, endure drown-proofing and surf torture and the obstacle course and four-mile runs in the sand and two-mile swims in the ocean and log PT and countless sit-ups and flutter kicks and pushups and hours in the cold and the sand, that the hardest thing to do in all of BUD/S training would be to stand on the beach and watch the sun set?
Each man quits for his own reasons, and it might be foolish to even attempt any general explanation. But if men were willing to train for months before ever joining the Navy, and then they were willing to enlist in the United States Navy and spend months in a boot camp and months in specialized training before they came to BUD/S, and if they were willing to subject themselves to the test of BUD/S and endure all of the pain and cold and trial that they had already endured up to this point, then it seems reasonable to ask, why did they quit now?
They quit, I believe, because they allowed their fear to overwhelm them. As the sun went down, and the thoughts of what was to come grew stronger and stronger, they focused on all of the pain that they thought they might have to endure and how difficult it might be. They were standing on the beach, perfectly at ease, reasonably warm, but they thought that they might be very cold and very pained and they thought that they might not be able to make it. Their fear built and built and built. The mind looked for a release, and the men who quit found their release in the bell.
Others found their release in the self-detachment of humor.
"You think all this sand on my face is a good exfoliate?"
"Yeah, you're lookin' pretty GQ smooth."
"They call this look Hell Week Chic. I don't know what they call the way I smell."
"You know, my girlfriend actually goes to a spa to pay for shit like this, where they scrub you down with sand and stuff."
"Yeah, this is like a spa, but we're getting paid to be here. Can you believe this? Awesome fucking deal."
"I want to get a job at one of those spas."
Others simply didn't let fear come to rest in their minds. They'd learned to recognize the feelings and they'd think, Welcome back, fear. Sorry I don't have time to spend with you right now, and they'd concentrate on the job of helping their teammates.
"How's your foot?"
"Good. Keep an eye on it. Tonight's gonna be a good night for us. Dinner should be pretty soon."
Still others just focused on the moment. What a pretty sunset. This is all I have to do to make it through Hell Week right now? Stand on the beach. This is great.
One of my favorite guys in my crew was Eddie Franklin, former Marine, who had a very low tolerance for BS and a wicked sense of humor. Eddie would always joke about quitting. "I'm quitting today for sure. Right after the run. Then I'm gonna go up to Pacific Beach and surf and hang out and eat tacos." We'd finish the run and Eddie would say, "Hey, anybody want to quit with me after breakfast? I gotta eat, but then I'm gonna quit." We'd finish breakfast, and Eddie would say, "PT, I love PT, I'm gonna quit after PT." After PT, "I'm gonna quit right after lunch. But they've got burgers today, and I'm crazy for those Navy chow hall burgers." And so he could go on—sometimes to the annoyance of others who were truly thinking about quitting—but in Eddie's humor there was wisdom. I can quit later if I have to, but this, whatever this is that I have to do—hold this log over my head, or sit in the freezing surf, or run down the beach with the boat bouncing on my head—I can do this for at least ten more seconds, and that's really all I have to do.
Finally the bell stopped ringing and the sun slid beneath the ocean and the night was upon us. We formed into boat crews and started running again. The steel piers were located on the San Diego Bay side of the Naval Compound. The water was calm and cold and dark and we jumped in wearing boots and cammies. We all spread out and began to tread water.
After the cold grabbed hold of our bones, the instructors yelled, "Now take off your T-shirts and blouses." Treading, we took off our T-shirts and camouflage tops and threw them onto the steel piers. "Boots!" We struggled in the cold water as we treaded and we untied our boots, teeth chattering and hands shaking, and we threw our boots onto the piers. "Out of the water!" We climbed up on the quay wall, and we stood on the concrete on feet numb with cold. "Pushups!" We felt our blood begin to flow again. "Get down to the piers!" We stood on the piers. The instructors were oddly silent, and we all heard our teeth chattering. Then a voice came over the bullhorn. "Some of you might be here because you thought that being a SEAL was cool, or glamorous. You thought that you could be tough, Hollywood. You should know right now that this is what being a SEAL is about. A whole lot of misery. You can leave here and go on to serve your country in a lot of other ways. You don't all need to be SEALs."
We stood on the steel piers. "Enter the water," and we all jumped into the black cold water again. We treaded water with our teeth chattering and our hands and feet numb.
I knew that men had survived Hell Week ever since John F. Kennedy signed the Presidential Order on January 8, 1962, commissioning the first SEAL teams.6 Kennedy was a major proponent of special operations. His "flexible response" defense strategy rejected the idea that the U.S. should rely only on nuclear weapons to respond to Soviet challenges. The U.S. could not order a nuclear strike if the Soviets were funding a Communist regime in Africa, supporting rebels in South America, or sending military advisors to Southeast Asia. President Kennedy believed that we had to be able to respond flexibly, and that meant having a variety of tools of national power, including special operations teams that could conduct a wide range of clandestine operations. One of these special operations forces was the Sea, Air, and Land commando teams of the U.S. Navy, or Navy SEALs. Men had been doing this for over forty years. Now it was my turn.
SEALs are frequently misunderstood as America's deadliest commando force. It's true that SEALs are capable of great violence, but that's not what makes SEALs truly special. Given two weeks of training and a bunch of rifles, any reasonably fit group of sixteen athletes (the size of a SEAL platoon) can be trained to do harm. What makes SEALs special is that we can be thoughtful, disciplined, and proportional in our use of force. Years later, in Iraq, I'd see a group of Rangers blow through a door behind which they believed there was an al Qaeda terrorist, take aim at the terrorist, assess that he was unarmed, and then fight him to the ground and cuff his hands behind his back. They did this while other Rangers, at the very same time, in the very same room, positioned themselves over a sleeping Iraqi infant girl to protect her and then gently picked her up and carried her to an Iraqi woman in another part of the house. As Earl used to say, "Any fool can be violent." Warriors are warriors not because of their strength, but because of their ability to apply strength to good purpose.
The night went on. One evolution, "Lyons lope," consisted of a series of cold runs and swims in the bay. Then we ran over to the combat training tank. As we ran the instructors reminded us that a man had died in the pool just a few classes ago. "Anybody want to quit now?"
At the pool we started with a few games. The instructors told trainees to dive off the one-meter platform. Guys that performed awesome belly flops or dives were given a few minutes to rest in the warm locker room. Weak performers were sent to "decon," where they stood under a collection of high-pressure hoses that shot cold water down on them.
We broke into teams and did caterpillar races across the pool. After the races, the instructors sent a crew out to grab several of the boats. We threw the boats into the pool and the instructors told us to climb in. As we sat floating in our boats in the pool, an instructor held up a bag of McDonald's hamburgers, saying, "King of the Hill. If you get thrown out of your boat, swim to the side of the pool; you're out. Last man standing wins his crew a bag of burgers. Ready. Begin."
The dozens of us that remained in the class started wrestling in the boats. Everything started friendly. We were a class, a team, and while we'd wrestle each other for the burgers, we weren't going to hurt one another or exhaust each other. But as men were thrown out of the boats, the battle intensified. The boats could barely bear the weight of all the men fighting. I was wrestling when I heard, "Franklin!" then, "Franklin!" then ten seconds later, "Franklin, help me!"
I glanced over my right shoulder and saw Greg Hall's face underwater, his eyes wide open. Greg was a Division I collegiate football player and one of the strongest men in our class. In the melee—probably because he had taken on four guys on his own—Greg had been forced to the bottom of our boat, and now there were five or six men fighting on top of him, oblivious to his position. The boat had taken on water, and Greg was pinned to the bottom. As the fighters fought, the weight in the boat shifted back and forth, allowing Greg to grab a quick breath and yell before again being pushed back under. Franklin had been fighting beside him, but in the commotion he didn't hear Greg.
I grabbed Greg by the shirt just under his chin and yanked to pull him up, but both his arms were pinned down; two men were on his chest and another two were on his legs. I couldn't move him. I erupted. "Get the fuck off! Get the fuck off!" I grabbed a man and shoved him into the water. I punched another in the ribs who had his back turned to me and then kicked him into the pool.
I think it's fair to say that I had a reputation for calm. Raines used to say, "Mr. G's cooler than the other side o' the pillow. That man's cooler than a fan." So when the guys saw me explode like that, many of them backed away or dove into the pool—not because they feared me, but because it was obvious to them that something had gone very wrong.
I pulled Greg Hall up and he coughed the water out of his lungs. We were the last two men in the boat.
"Mr. Greitens, get the fuck over here. Get over here right now!"
I jumped out of the boat and swam to the instructor at the side of the pool. As I pulled myself out of the pool, the instructor grabbed me by my camouflage shirt and threw me against the wall. "What the hell is a matter with you? What are you doing!" I started to speak, but the instructor yanked me toward him and then slammed me against the wall again.
From poolside, it looked like I'd gone crazy for burgers and started attacking my men. I explained that Hall had been trapped at the bottom of the boat. They called Greg Hall over, and he confirmed what had happened. "All right, you two, go eat a fuckin' hamburger. But just one. You don't get the whole bag."
The rest of that night is a blur. We ran around the base with the boats on our heads. We got wet and sandy. We did whistle drills and jumped up and dropped and crawled and jumped up again and crawled again through the sand. When we next ran through medical I saw that Raines had been pulled aside. He was sitting on an examination table. We were too far away from each other to talk, but I raised both hands and mouthed, "What?" and Raines lifted his left leg. He formed his two hands like he was holding a camera, and snapped his index finger down as if he were taking a picture. They were taking him for an x-ray. I'd noticed Raines limping, but I figured that he'd fight through it. That was the last time I ever saw Raines.
The mass of quitting happened Monday night, but as the sun rose on Tuesday we continued to lose men to injury, and we still had others who quit. After Hell Week, I'd come to know many men who had attempted BUD/S and failed, and without exception they fell into one of two categories. First were the men who'd come to terms with it. They would talk about their BUD/S experience, maybe laugh a bit about it, and then they'd say, "But it just wasn't for me. I respect those guys and I had a good time, but it wasn't the right way for me to serve." Then there were the tortured men. They spoke in half sentences and backslaps, still wanting, years later, to pretend that they had made it. "I made it, but the instructors didn't like me and forced me to quit." Or, "I would have made it, but my girlfriend started college and moved away while I was in BUD/S, so I had to follow her." I always felt with them as if I were talking with men who had fragile balloons inflated in their chests. They twisted and turned in conversation to keep the balloons from popping. The men who told the truth were able to move forward. Those who lied to themselves dragged their BUD/S experience with them like an anchor through the rest of their lives.
Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday were also a blur. Days on end. More cold. More running. Endless surf torture. One night we dug a pit in the sand with our oars and were allowed to rest for fifteen minutes at the bottom of the pit. We then built a fire, and in an insane game, the instructors had us run circles around the fire until we were warm, then made us run down to the ocean and jump in, after which we ran back to the sandpit. Imagine a hot tub near the snow—jumping in the snow is fun once, perhaps, but they beat us with exercises as we ran back and forth over and over and over and over and over again.
As our mental faculties grew foggy, the instructors chased us through the night with a bullhorn, which played an incessant laugh track. We paddled our boats north, then south. We ran to chow and we ate and we ran through medical and got soaked.
My hardest moment came at what should have been the easiest. Our crews were gathered at the dip bars (parallel bars where we did exercises to build our triceps). A man from each crew competed, and the winning team was allowed to run to the general-purpose tents on the beach for a rest. It was Wednesday. We'd been up for three nights straight. We were so tired that men fell asleep standing up.
Sleep—I thought—would be immediate and blissful. I ran into the tent with my crew. Already men were asleep around us. I lay back hoping to pass out instantly, but I found that I was very awake. I shut my eyes and took in a long breath through my nose. Thatshould put me out.
Nope. My left foot had been wrapped on my last trip through medical and with each pump of my heart I could feel the blood pulse in my foot as if it were wrapped in a tourniquet. I sat up. Everyone else was asleep. I took off my boot and unwrapped my foot and threw the bandage to the ground. I put my boot back on and laced it up. (We knew that if we slept with our boots off, our feet would swell so badly we'd never get them back on.)
I lay back on the cot. There was an open flap in the ceiling of the tent and the sun was at an angle such that it cut a beam of sunlight that landed right on my chest and face. After a week of freezing, the tent packed with bodies was now oppressively hot. I sat up again. I tried to move my cot, but I was wedged between two men who were dead asleep. I was stuck.
And pissed. This wasn't fair. The Brown Shirts had bandaged my foot badly. I had the worst cot. Everyone else was asleep. What if I can't sleep? Will I be able to make it? My mind started to run in circles of fear. I stood up and walked out of the tent. Two of the Brown Shirts saw me.
"You all right, sir?"
"Yeah, I'm fine."
But I wasn't. The week, though punishing, had been going well, but I needed this sleep and I couldn't get it. Would they let me sleep later? No. What a stupid question. What was I going to do, ask for a nap? How could I sleep? Should I go somewhere else? No, I had to sleep in the tent. What if I can't sleep?
I walked over to a faucet mounted on a wall at about shoulder height. The last thing I would have thought I wanted was to be wet again, but I twisted the faucet with a sandy, swollen hand. Water poured out and I stuck my head in. I let the water wash over my head. It cooled me, and I stood up. I took in a deep breath. If I can deal with everything else, I can deal with this. I'm going to be fine. Then for a moment as I stepped back to the tent on swollen legs I had an overwhelming feeling of compassionate thankfulness. So many men had quit, so many men had been injured. I had thought about this particular test on a hundred nights, and now here I was in Hell Week. I was halfway through now, and at this very moment I had been granted an opportunity that almost no one ever received. I had a moment of absolute calm, completely to myself. I was able to stand in the middle of a week of trial alone on the beach to enjoy everything that I had been granted. "Thank you, God," I said, and I walked back into the tent and fell asleep.
We woke to chaos. I believe that they were firing blanks again, or it could have just been screaming and bullhorns, but it was an immediate and shocking awakening. We stumbled into the sun, and they made us run for the surf. Most of the men in the class were still half-asleep and stumbling and tight and pained. When we were shoulder-deep in water they told us to run south. We ran an awkward floating pace in the ocean, making little progress. They were getting us cold again. I looked back, and the faces of the men in my class wore expressions of pain. I can't remember if I started to sing a song or yell for our class or shout defiance at the instructors, but I remember booming at the top of my lungs, and the class joining me in an outburst of some kind. The attitude of the class turned—as if we all decided to stand up at once after being knocked down—and soon we were shouting with joy. That was the moment of my greatest personal victory over Hell Week. I had at least two full days more to go, and the possibility of injury still hovered over us, but I knew that I'd lived through the worst of it.
When I reflect back on it now, I realize that my hardest moment was also the only moment in all of Hell Week when I was alone, focused on my own pain. It was the only moment when I began to think that things were unfair, when I started to feel sorry for myself.
Hell Week continued. Through a fog, I recall running with the boat on our heads and IBS races and games in the pool and running back and forth to the chow hall. The intensity was unrelenting. "Prepare to up boat. Up boat," and we stood at extended-arm carry until our arms shook. "Let's go," the instructors yelled, and we walked down the beach, and walked, and walked, the boat bouncing on our heads for miles until we felt that we could not take one more step. We did runs over the sand berm until men in the crew—powerful runners—had to crawl on hands and knees.
And this was one of the great lessons of Hell Week. We learned that after almost eighty hours of constant physical pain and cold and torture and almost no sleep, when we felt that we could barely even stand, when we thought that we lacked even the strength to bend over and tie our boots, we could in fact pick up a forty-pound rucksack and run with it through the night.
After several days without sleep, our mental faculties deteriorating rapidly, the instructors began to toy with us. After a medical check we ran out onto the beach and played a game of Simon Says.
"Simon says lift your right leg. Simon says lift your left leg. Simon says lift your right leg. Now your left leg." The instructor shook his head in disappointment. "This is very simple, gentlemen. I give the instructions, and you listen and follow orders. Children can do this. Did I say 'Simon says'? No, I did not, so all of you goofballs standing there who had your left legs raised, go hit the surf."
We were all standing now on both legs, each of us wondering if the instructor had seen us with our left legs raised. "OK, you guys want to play games? You don't want to have an honest game of Simon Says? OK, I see how it is. Why don't you all go get wet and sandy."
We trudged down to the beach, jumped into the water, jogged out, flopped around on the sand, and then lined up for more Simon Says.
We did the Hokey Pokey. On the fourth day of Hell Week, we limp-ran to the beach and our instructors yelled, "Put your left leg in, put your left leg out, put your left leg in, and you shake it all about."
A few guys were less than enthusiastic about the Pokey, and this gave rise to one of the most ludicrous threats I have ever heard: "You guys better shape the hell up and get serious about this Hokey Pokey!"
I chuckled to myself. Next thing I knew, in my delirium, I couldn't control myself and I started laughing hard. I crossed my left arm over my face to muffle the laughter.
"You think this is funny, Mr. Greitens?"
I tried to steady myself, and I wanted to say hooyah or no, but when I took my arm from my face, I said, "Yes, Instructor."
I thought that he'd send me into the surf, and I was worried for a moment that he'd make the whole class pay for my laughter, but instead he said, "Well if you think this is so damn funny, why don't you get up here?!" I ran to the front of the class.
"Now, Mr. Greitens. You went to Oxford right, and you were a Rhodes scholar?"
"Then you should be pretty damn smart, right?"
I felt like I was being set up, but I didn't know what to do. "Hooyah?"
"Well, then I want to see the best damn Hokey Pokey I've ever seen, you got it?"
"OK, guys, you put your left elbow in, you put your left elbow out, you put your left elbow in, and you shake it all about. You do the Hokey Pokey and you turn yourself around," and then—overcome with the joyful absurdity of the moment—I yelled, "AND THAT'S WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT!"
I led the class through right elbow in, right elbow out, left foot in, left foot out, and we all began to shout at the end of each turn, "AND THAT'S WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT!"
When I'd finished, the instructor turned to me. "Mr. Greitens, that was the best damn Hell Week Hokey Pokey I've ever seen. You guys all get five minutes' rest."
We sat down next to our boats. We were too tired to joke now, almost too tired to breathe deeply, but as the guys in my crew leaned against the side of our boat and fell immediately asleep, I sat in the sand, very proud of myself. I was not the fastest runner, not the fastest swimmer, not the fastest man on the obstacle course, but at least for the moment, I was the world's greatest living Hokey Pokey Warrior.
We learned that we could hallucinate and still function. We learned that we could take turns passing out and still function. And we learned that we could fight off mind games.
The games continued. Was it Thursday afternoon? I ran out onto the beach and was greeted by Darren Harrison, then a member of my boat crew. "Mr. G, Mr. G, get over here." I ran over to him. He put his hand on my shoulder and leaned in as if he were going to share with me a very important secret. "Franklin has a lock." And then he turned and pointed down the beach.
"Franklin has a lock."
Harrison was tottering in front of me, his mind gone now that he'd been awake for a fifth straight day. "Darren," I said, "what are we supposed to do?"
"Franklin has a lock, and he's down there."
Harrison's mind was fried. Franklin had been given a closed padlock, told the combination, and sent some hundred yards down the beach. The rest of our crew was instructed to spread out on the beach in intervals of about fifteen to twenty yards. The race was set up so that Franklin would crawl through the sand to the next man in our crew, hand him the lock, and tell him the combination. The next man had to memorize the combination, crawl through the sand fifteen yards, then hand off the lock and relay the combination, and so it would go until the last man in the crew got the lock, turned and crawled for the finish line, and then—in order to win—had to open the lock. By the time the lock got to me, my guy handed me the lock and said, "Go, Mr. G, go!"
"What's the combination?"
He stared at me. "I don't know, but we have to win, Mr. G! Go!"
"We need the combination to win."
"Oh. Well, just make something up."
I turned and crawled. Harrison was an incredible runner, an incredible swimmer, an incredible athlete. At the moment of the padlock game, he probably still could have picked up Greg Hall in a fireman's carry and run him two hundred yards down the beach. Harrison had also started to lose his mind. We had other guys in the crew who were limping so badly that at full speed they might have been able to run no more than a ten-minute mile. Those same guys, however—some of them—remained mentally sharp.
When doing surveillance, SEALs would often have to remain in position for days, watching, observing, reporting. BUD/S tested us in this way as well. The instructors summoned a representative from each boat crew and gathered them around a wooden board covered with a cloth. They pulled the cloth back and we saw seven objects: toothbrush, CO2 tube, penny, safety pin, piece of gum, watch, 550 cord (a type of string). They gave us thirty seconds to observe before covering the board and sending us back to our crews to write down what we had seen. After five days without sleep, most of the trainees' memories were impaired: "Penny, and a piece of gum, and, and, and maybe a watch?" But other guys would come back, "Penny, safety pin, watch, CO2 tube, toothbrush, did I say watch? Oh, a piece of gum..." They were incredibly sharp after five days without sleep.
On Thursday night, we ran to our boats, rowed out past the surf zone, and began the around-the-world paddle. Coronado is a peninsula, connected to Imperial Beach by a thin sliver of land. In the around-the-world paddle we rowed all the way around Coronado. The beginning of our paddle was glorious. We stroked with a fresh shot of adrenaline because we knew this was the last night of Hell Week.
We paddled to different stations around the island to check in with the instructor staff. We paddled hard, but our boat was leaking air and the extra drag through the water slowed us. We checked in to each station near the back of the pack of boats. As we approached the instructors, we heard, "OK, you guys, you don't want to put out, go ahead and chilly dip," and we had to jump out of the boat and into the cold bay.
Martin fell asleep as he paddled, and he half-fell out of the boat and crashed into the cold bay. Another man and I grabbed him by his lifejacket and hauled him back in. As the boat crew leader, my job was to steer. I used my oar as a rudder, and I remember my guys turning back to me—"Mr. G!"—and waking me up because I'd fallen asleep and turned us off course.
I remember the lights of San Diego swirling as I fought to stay awake. The crew kept at it. None of us could have made it around the island alone, but working together through bouts of consciousness and sleep, we managed to keep moving forward as a team. As we paddled, some of the chatter had become nonsensical.
"Mr. G, it's you, did you see? Did you call those guys?"
"The lights of the green and the red sabers, see how they're attacking and bumping each other?"
"Oh my God, it's like a squirrel there and he had the water in him!"
"Martin, wake up!"
He didn't wake, but Franklin started to chuckle as Martin chattered. "Damn, it's over, those cans and the MRE rolls, I mean the Tootsie Rolls, because I have one here, you want one? I had one, I can ask for another one, it's OK, really, it's all good, Mr. G, you just keep us going straight, I've got to pee, but it can be warm, and the sabers are here now anyway."
We finished the paddle that night. I walked out of chow on Friday morning and thought, We made it, last day.
The instructors played with us: "Prepare to up boat. Up boat. OK, let's begin walking, gentlemen. Tomorrow'll be your last day of Hell Week, just one more night to go."
My guys asked me under the boat, "Mr. G, it's Friday, right? It's the last day, right?"
"Yeah, yeah, it's Friday, I'm sure." I yelled over to my friend and fellow officer Mike Fitzhugh. "Mike, it is Friday, right?"
"Yeah, I think so."
We ran our boats out into the ocean and we paddled south for the "demo pits." We'd heard about what was coming from previous Hell Week classes. The area known as the demo pits is really just one huge hole in the ground surrounded by a fence. During Hell Week, they pumped the hole full of seawater until it created a muddy slurry of dirt and grease.
As we ran into the demo pits, a whistle blew and we dropped to the ground. Smoke grenades exploded and artillery simulators boomed. Two whistles blew and we started to crawl. Barbed wire was strung a foot off the ground, and we crawled under it, just barely able to make out the boots of the man in front of us through an acrid haze of purple and orange and red-green smoke. Tunnels were cut into the demo pit, and we crawled down the tunnels into the slurry of water and smoke. The pit became a scum pond of muddy salt water, sweat, and bubbles that popped with orange residue.
The stench of sulfur was strong. I blew my nose and caught a wad of purple snot on my sleeve. We all crawled into the pit, immersed up to our armpits. Two ropes were stretched across the pit, one of them strung about a foot over the scum; the other was five feet higher than that. We each had to climb onto the ropes and then—with our feet on the bottom rope and our hands on the top rope—slide our way across the scum pond while the Brown Shirts shook the ropes. No one made it past halfway before crashing into the pit.
The demo pits—we knew from Hell Week lore—were the last evolution of the week. As my fellow students climbed across the ropes, we sat in the muddy water, the sun beaming, and I was very, very happy. Hell Week was about to end.
Then a whistle blew. Then two whistles. We started crawling out of the demo pits. "Get back to your boats. Get back to your boats. Paddle down to the compound." Were they serious? Weren't we finished? In my haze of exhaustion I started to get angry. These instructors have screwed this up! We were supposed to finish back there; they don't know that we're supposed to be done!
We ran to our boats, paddled out through the waves, then rowed north back to the compound. My crew was running on frayed nerves. "What the fuck is this! What the fuck!"
We turned our anger on the instructors. "Did you see his fat ass chewing tobacco and spitting in the pit? Fat fuckin' bastard!"
When we had rowed to the compound, the instructors started to beat us again. "Hit the surf, go get wet and sandy." We limp-ran. We held on to each other to keep standing. We could no longer dive into the ocean. We simply fell over in the water, got soaked, and then fought our way back to our knees and then made it to standing and then ran back onto the beach.
We were made to drop down and knock out pushups. By this point, for a "pushup," we would lower our bodies an inch and drop our heads, and then pull our heads back up. It was about as much as we could do.
"Drop down! Face the ocean!" We did another set of pushups, and then the instructor yelled, "Recover." When we stood up and turned around, every instructor and all of the SEAL staff of the Naval Special Warfare compound were standing in one line atop the sand berm.
The commanding officer called down to us. "BUD/S Class 237, you are secured from Hell Week!"
We stood there. Really? We looked down at our boots, up at the instructors. Was this a trick? Then Franklin leaned back open-chested and let out a roar, and we all started to shout. We turned and hugged each other. We'd made it.
We shook the hands of every one of the instructors and then we walked over the sand berm to medical. After a final medical check we walked out into the sun, and there laid out for us were two large pizzas and a bottle of sports drink for every man.
I sat on the concrete next to my guys. We were too tired to talk. Too tired to shout. It was the most delicious pizza and the best sports drink that I have ever had in my life.
People always ask me, "What kind of people make it through Hell Week?" The most basic answer is, "I don't know." I know—generally—who won't make it through Hell Week. There are a dozen types that fail. The weightlifting meatheads who think that the size of their biceps is an indication of their strength; they usually fail. The kids covered in tattoos announcing to the world how tough they are; they usually fail. The preening leaders who don't want to be dirty; they usually fail. The me-first, look-at-me, I'm-the-best former athletes who have always been told that they are stars and think that they can master BUD/S like they mastered their high school football tryouts; they usually fail. The blowhards who have a thousand stories about what they are going to do, but a thin record of what they have actually done; they usually fail. The men who make excuses; they usually fail. The whiners, the "this is not fair" guys, the self-pitying criers; they usually fail. The talkers who have always looked good or sounded good, rather than actually been good—they usually fail. In short, all of the men who focus on show fail. The vicious beauty of BUD/S is that there are no excuses, no explanations. You do, or do not.
It is, however, hard to know who will perform. I thought that Greg Hall would make it, and he did. I thought that Eddie Franklin would make it, and he did. I thought that Mike Fitzhugh would make it, and he did. I also thought that Darrell Lucas would make it, but he did not (failed for drown-proofing). Yet at the same time, some men who seemed impossibly weak at the beginning of BUD/S—men who puked on runs and had trouble with pull-ups—made it. Some men who were skinny and short and whose teeth chattered just looking at the ocean—made it. Some men who were visibly afraid, sometimes to the point of shaking—made it.
BUD/S—like Instructor Harmon promised—smashes the shell and reveals the inner man. I was reminded of the stories that people in Bosnia and Rwanda had told me about their neighbors. They told me stories of people who took extraordinary risks to save the lives of others, and they told me stories of people they had known all their lives who—when tested—decided to save themselves. Who could have known?
BUD/S was the same way: who knew until the test came?
It's important, however, not to overstate the significance of Hell Week. Hell Week is in many ways only the beginning of BUD/S. It is the test you pass so that the SEAL community will say: "You are worthy of being trained."
You emerge with swollen hands and swollen feet and cuts and bangs and bruises. You emerge weak and beaten. But the week does not transform you. While Hell Week emphasizes teamwork and caring for your men, it does not necessarily produce good people. Some of the best men I've known in the world are SEALs, but there are also some jerks, abusive boyfriends and husbands, men who fail to care, fail to lead, men with a few moral screws loose, who also make it through Hell Week. Hell Week tests the soul, it doesn't clean it.
Yet Hell Week does offer this, at least—after it, for the rest of your life, you have this point of comparison: I've been through Hell Week; I can face my current trial.
After the final medical check we walked—or did they drive us?—the two hundred yards to our barracks. I opened the room and walked to my bed. I sat down on it. I had half a pizza left and I set the box on the ground. That'll taste good in the morning, or whenever I wake up—will I sleep until Saturday? I set a pillow at the foot of my bed and kicked my feet up on the pillow. I wanted to keep my feet raised to reduce swelling. I set another pillow behind my head.
I smiled. Hell Week was over. It was the best time I never want to have again.