I WOKE AFTER a long sleep. Was it twelve hours? Eighteen? My body felt heavy and numb, but when I held up my hands I saw that the Hell Week swelling had gone down. We rose from our bunks and ambled out of the barracks. We shuffled like a file of corpses to medical. We were checked again for cellulitis (flesh-eating bacteria), for pneumonia, for broken bones. After passing through medical we drove to a local restaurant and sat down to a breakfast of stacked pancakes, sausages, crispy hash browns, cheesy eggs, sparkling fresh fruit, and biscuits covered in gravy.
I was still swollen—head, hands, feet—and I moved slowly when I pulled up to my house and stepped out of my car. My neighbor's sprinkler was on, and just a few drops were landing on the sidewalk, but I walked wide around it. I wanted, for a day, to be nothing but warm and dry.
On Monday we began to train again. We trained in hydrographic reconnaissance, learning how to conduct a detailed examination of a surf zone before an invasion. We trained in basic techniques of the combat patrol, and we exercised to rebuild our strength. We did physical training on the grinder, runs on the beach, and we continued our weekly two-mile ocean swims.
One early Tuesday morning my swim buddy and I came out of the ocean after a two-mile swim, and as we ran up the beach, a man running in the other direction shouted something to us as he passed.
"What did he say?" I asked.
"I don't know. Something about a plane crash in New York."
As the rest of the team finished the swim, stripping off wetsuits and donning boots and camouflage uniforms, word was passed through the class: A plane had crashed into the Twin Towers. No, it was two planes. One of the buildings collapsed. Both buildings collapsed. Thousands of people died.
"Four ranks!" We formed into four lines and ran for chow. Rumors were traded on the run. At the chow hall the TV was on, and sailors dressed in whites and in fatigues stood next to cooks and servers wearing plastic gloves, holding serving spoons. "Get your food." We hustled through the line and then gathered at the tables near the corner of the hall so that we could be close to the TV. We ate fast. Usually we ate with some banter, but that morning we ate in silence, except for occasional single words of profanity and prayer.
We had sat down for our meal thinking that we were members of a peacetime military. When we stood up, we knew that our class was going to war.
A new energy inhabited the men of Naval Special Warfare. We all knew men who were on active SEAL teams, and in the team buildings up and down the beach, lights burned on and coffee was brewed into the night as men crowded around maps of Afghanistan. Men pushed bullets one by one into magazines; they disassembled and cleaned weapons; rifle scopes were checked and then checked again. Teams left for advanced mountain warfare training. Small adjustments were made to uniforms, wills were updated, and letters to loved ones written and sealed.
I and the other men in my class weren't SEALs yet. We were, however, the first class that would go through every phase of SEAL training in the knowledge that we were going to war. Guys asked questions while we ran to chow: "Mr. G, you think that they'll speed up our training and send us to Afghanistan?" It was in those conversations that I learned just how different, just how distinct my men were from the rest of the population.
We all remember our own story of 9/11, and I think that most Americans experienced the attack with a mixture of shock at the horrific violence, sympathy for the victims, a surge of patriotic feeling, and some desire for revenge. We grieved. We celebrated the heroism of those who gave their lives in service to others.
My class shared those sentiments, but it was also true that every man in the class had one very visceral, very real wish. They all said, in their own way, "I wish that I'd been on one of those fucking planes." This wasn't bravado, and it wasn't just talk. They had signed up to fight for their country, and now the fight was on. They had no illusions that they were supermen. They might not have saved the day. But they wanted, more than anything, to be there at the country's critical hour.
SEALs fight from the sea, from the air, and from the land. We serve as the nation's elite commando force, and suddenly it looked like our country had an immediate need for us. We trained hard, and over the next several months we were shaped into warriors.
In dive phase we learned to be combat swimmers. Up to that point I had never taken a single breath underwater. In dive phase, I learned how to use scuba gear, and I trained in a way that only SEALs would. While swimming scuba, we were repeatedly attacked. Instructors jerked our mouthpieces from our mouths, tore off our facemasks, ripped off our fins, flipped us in circles, turned off our air, tied our hoses in knots, and then swam away. Starving for oxygen underwater, we had to wrestle our twisted tanks and hoses in front of us, turn on our air, untie our hoses, and try to reestablish a line to life-giving oxygen. As soon as we caught a breath of oxygen and straightened our tanks, we were hit again.
Later we swam to the bottom of the combat training tank with a swim buddy. We swam down with one scuba tank and one mouthpiece between us, and we wore facemasks completely covered in tape. Both blind underwater, we shared oxygen back and forth as we transferred all of our dive gear from one man to the other. Still later we treaded water for five minutes with our hands in the air while wearing sixty pounds of gear. Men whose hands touched the water failed. Dozens of men failed different tests, and our training moved forward without them.
We executed a five-and-a-half-mile ocean swim, kicking north into a fierce current. We dove twice a day, and air often became trapped in our inner ears and expanded at night so that it made us temporarily hard of hearing. We woke every morning after a few hours' sleep with our alarms blaring and we blew our nose hard into our fist and cleared our ears for another day of diving.
We dove in the bay and I learned how to count my kicks in the pitch-black water fifteen feet deep while following a compass bearing underwater. By counting my kicks, I could tell when I'd traveled exactly one hundred meters. Nine weeks after I first entered dive phase, my swim buddy and I descended into the water at night wearing a Draeger combat diving system that emitted no bubbles. We kicked underwater for several hours. We adjusted our course several times according to the dive plan we had built by studying the chart, tides, and currents. With a series of hand gestures we communicated underwater and confirmed our plan until we reached our target, placed our simulated mine, and swam away.
We moved to land warfare and weapons training. At Camp Pendleton, we fired thousands of rounds from a Sig Sauer 9mm pistol and thousands more from our rifles. We began with single shots on target, and weeks later we were executing immediate action drills in teams of sixteen men, running and shooting and shouting and firing hundreds of bullets on target in a synchronized kill ballet.
Given a box of mixed parts, we had to assemble our rifles and pistols. We learned how to shoot a submachine gun, a shotgun, and an AK-47. We fired light antiarmor rockets and antitank weapons and we planted claymore mines. We were issued basic gear and we learned how to patrol quietly wearing ammo pouches and canteens, and how to black out every bit of metal, every piece of gear that might reflect light. We learned the basics of using demolition and we set explosive charges of C4 and TNT and we learned how to rig explosives underwater. We threw grenades, and as a class we were tear-gassed, learning that, though in pain, we could fight while in a cloud of gas if we had to. We lined up on the range at night and we learned to fire our rifles using night-vision goggles and lasers. We learned how to clear jammed weapons, we learned how to rappel, and we learned how to gunfight as a team. We learned how to navigate over mountains and we learned how to use radios. We spent weeks in the woods, and we learned the basics of reconnaissance.
Men kept dropping out of the class—one man couldn't handle the land navigation, another had trouble with demolitions. The instructors kept up the four-mile timed runs, the two-mile timed ocean swims, and the timed obstacle-course runs, and as the required times got faster, some men failed and were dropped from the class. Toward the end of BUD/S we went to San Clemente Island—"Where no one can hear you scream"—and we executed a night ocean swim. The instructors liked to tell us that San Clemente is home to one of the largest breeding grounds for great white sharks in the world, and they reminded us of this as they stepped onto safety boats with loaded shotguns—"to repel a shark attack"—and told us to enter the water and swim. We swam very fast.
The physical trials never ended. On the island we had to earn our meals with a lung-exploding sprint up a mountain, wearing full gear. Men who failed to meet the cutoff time ate their meals soaking wet and covered in sand.
On San Clemente we brought all of our skills together. Given a folder full of information on a simulated target, our platoon developed and briefed a plan. We were dropped off in the ocean, did reconnaissance of the beach, swam in to shore, patrolled through the mountains, and set up an ambush that we initiated with demolitions. Firing blanks, we swept down on men playing the enemy, ripped them from their vehicles, gathered intelligence, and then melted back into the underbrush. We made our way to the other side of the island for a planned extraction, and once there we were ambushed and the beach exploded in towers of flames as we had to simulate fighting our way out. Six months before, we'd just been a bunch of guys with freshly shaved heads waiting in the early morning to begin our first four-mile timed run.
We graduated from BUD/S and then went to advanced training. We went to Fort Benning, Georgia, for Airborne School, and we learned how to jump out of a plane. The concept seemed very simple to me, but it took three weeks to learn: open door, green light, go! We learned that parachutes are deceiving. We do not float to the ground but crash, like human lawn darts. We learned the specifics of the "parachute landing fall" maneuver, which was supposed to ensure a smooth landing. You hit the ground with the balls of your feet, then roll to your calves, keep rolling to your hamstring, then onto your rear end and back. When executed properly, the fall mitigated the impact of crashing into the earth. The first time I hit the ground, I got to my knees in a daze and started to collect my parachute, now depleted on the ground. One of my guys yelled, "Mr. G, nice parachute landing fall. You crashed feet, ass, head!"
We went to Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape school and starved for five days. We learned how to build shelters for warmth and how to evade capture behind enemy lines. Eventually we were all caught, and for days we lived as prisoners crouched in small individual cages, let out only for torture and interrogation.
We then returned to Coronado for SEAL Qualification Training. We refined our skills with rifle and pistol until we fired live ammunition just feet from our running teammates, tracer rounds burning through the night. We advanced our work with demolitions and we learned how to build booby traps and how to set ambushes. Into the mountains, we patrolled through thick brush and slept on open ground on our ponchos as we completed ever-longer courses of land navigation. We jumped into the night-dark water of the bay again and again wearing our bubble-less diving systems as we executed ever more challenging combat dives. We went on long rucksack runs on the beach and in the mountains. We learned to apply our camouflage and we learned how to build a good hide site. We traveled to the desert and we learned to fight there. We ran a thirteen-mile combat conditioning course with a rifle and a forty-pound rucksack, and we stopped to shoot rifle and pistol, throw grenades, and launch rockets at various checkpoints along the way. In our close-quarters defense course we learned how to subdue, handcuff, and control prisoners. In our combat medicine course we pulled our buddies over our backs in a fireman's carry, ran with them hundreds of yards, and then threw them in the backs of pickup trucks. We then climbed into the trucks, and as they raced and swerved across broken desert roads, we attempted to start IV lines in the veins of the sweaty, dust-covered arms of our friends.
During maritime operations training, we drove Zodiac boats for miles through a churning ocean, five men bouncing as the engine whined over black waves. One night we came over a wave and cut the motor to idle to study a form lying on the black surface of the water. What is that? We motored closer, slowly, until we saw that we'd come upon a graveyard of deflated balloons. Hundreds of helium balloons of all colors had been released from some party or wedding and had blown out over the ocean. We sat for a moment, bobbing in the water, and then drove slowly away like we were leaving a body to rest in peace.
Men who failed to meet standards continued to be dropped, including one man who was failed after a year and a half of training, just three days before graduation, because he wasn't sufficiently proficient with his rifle. We had all grown. I had started training relatively late, at age twenty-six. I was now twenty-eight. Other men had started training when they were nineteen. They were now twenty-one. They had literally grown up in SEAL training.
The class graduation was spartan. We stood in a nondescript concrete bay known as the boat barn. An American flag was hung, but nothing else adorned the open bay. No band, no streamers. We stood not in dress uniforms, but in starched fatigues. We each walked to the podium and a few words were said as a golden Trident was pinned over our heart.
"The Trident has been the badge of the Navy SEALs since 1970. It is the only warfare specialty pin that is the same for officers and enlisted. It symbolizes that we are brothers in arms—that we train together and we fight together. There are four parts to the Trident. Each one symbolizes an important facet of our warfare community.
"The anchor symbolizes the Navy, our parent service, the premier force for power projection on the face of the planet and the guarantor of world peace. It is an old anchor, which reminds us that our roots lie in the valiant accomplishments of the Naval Combat Demolition Units and Underwater Demolition Teams.
"The trident, the scepter of Neptune, or Poseidon, king of the oceans, symbolizes a SEAL's connection to the sea. The ocean is the hardest element for any warrior to fight in, but we must be masters of the sea.
"The pistol represents the SEAL's capabilities on land—whether direct action or special reconnaissance. If you look closely, it is cocked and ready to fire and should serve as a constant reminder that you, too, must be ready at all times.
"The eagle, our nation's emblem of freedom, symbolizes the SEAL's ability to swiftly insert from the air. It reminds us that we fly higher in standards than any other force. Normally, the eagle is placed on military decorations with its head held high. On our insignia, the eagle's head is lowered to remind each of us that humility is the true measure of a warrior's strength."1
After we all had our Tridents pinned on, we turned as a class and ran down the pier and jumped into the bay. As trainees, we had jumped into the water a thousand times. This was the first time we hit the water as Navy SEALs.
We swam across the bay and then ran a six-mile course around the island of Coronado. We finished our run at a beach, where we grilled steaks, told stories, and wished each other well. Like every great passage, it was a celebration of our achievement that was also marked by some sadness. We were leaving men who had become our brothers. In the dark of night, faces covered in camouflage, I could tell my men apart by the way they carried their rifles. On patrol, I could tell by the turn of their heads if they were listening hard. I knew their families, and I could tell by the way they sat down to load their magazines if they were distracted by something at home. We knew each man's brow, eyes, smile, when each man was angry, afraid, triumphant. We'd laughed a thousand crazy laughs motoring on the ocean, climbing in the mountains, before jumping from planes. Standing on the beach, this was our last moment as a class together, and we knew that all of us would be deployed, and some of us might not come back. For all of the incredibly difficult training we'd done, no one had ever shot real bullets at us with the intent to kill.