My first exposure to the Navy SEALs came from reading The Lone Survivor, written by former SEAL Marcus Luttrell. It is the harrowing story of his four-man SEAL team's location being compromised in the mountains of Afghanistan, and their subsequent battle against hundreds of Taliban (waged while simultaneously scaling down a mountain ridge to attempt to escape). Needless to say, the book piqued my interest. Why was the Navy operating in the mountains of Afghanistan? And who are these guys who show up deep inside enemy territory - typically at night and with painted green faces - execute their mission, and get out before sunrise?
To help understand the SEALs - whose name is derived from their ubiquitious "sea, air and land" mandate - and why they are so extraordinary, I will begin with a few facts. No Navy SEAL has ever surrendered. No Navy SEAL's body, dead or alive, has ever been left in combat. There are fewer than 10,000 Navy SEALs - retired and active combined. Navy SEALs are typically the first on-the-ground troops in any thorny situation, anywhere. They are trained to operate in the arctic, the desert, the jungle, underwater and in the air. SEAL training is notorious for being the hardest military training on the planet. Every SEAL is trained to be proficient in all types of operations, from shooting to demolition to recon to counterinsurgency. From the Viet Cong to terrorists in Afghanistan, enemies of the United States have often reported being absolutely terrified of the stealth and ruthless efficiency of the SEALs - and for damn good reason.
How do they get so good? It starts with attracting those who are basically unmatched in both physical and mental strength and endurance. It ends with uncompromising, intense training that makes these men warriors. The initial six months is called Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) Training. Perhaps the most widely known part of BUD/S is Hell Week, which consists of five and a half days of continuous physical training with a maximum of four hours of sleep. Not four hours of sleep per night - four hours of sleep total. The Navy's website echoes what many SEALs said in the interviews I watched: "Hell Week proves to those who make it that the human body can do ten times the amount of work the average man thinks possible." Written at the training facility in large letters for all to see is a quote that taunts the new trainees: "The only easy day was yesterday." One SEAL laughed at his trainers in the Army's parachute school, because their sets of push-ups were only ten at a time. Navy SEALs do fifty. SEAL snipers are expected to be able to hit within one inch of a target a football field away. Among the more hated drills is "log training", during which teams of six wannabe SEALs lift, push and pull 200+ pound logs for ninety minutes straight. The overwhelming majority of those trying out to become a SEAL quit during initial training. But it is this type of almost sadistic training that weeds out the weak, and prepares the new SEALs for battle.
But "battle" for Navy SEALs is different than for others in the armed forces. For Navy SEALs, battle is done on their terms. SEALs are the hunters, not the hunted. They embrace complexity and welcome bad conditions. In fact, for their missions they seek out bad conditions, because they know that their ability to deal with a monsoon (or jungle... or blizzard) is a competitive advantage over their adversaries. This is also why most SEAL operations are carried out in the dead of night, when the element of surprise can be further leveraged.
Today, SEAL teams are playing a leading role in the war against Islamic terrorists. They have been a huge - and hugely successful - part of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. And while their operations are typically clandestine, there is the occasional high-profile event. Earlier this year, Navy SEALs were responsible for the successful release of an American boat captain from Somali pirates. Five days into the standoff, with tensions rising and an AK-47 to the captain's head, SEAL snipers simultaneously shot dead all three pirates. Each sniper shot only once, and all three were headshots. I might add that this was in a patch of particularly rough seas, making an already difficult shot even more tricky.
So the next time you feel too tired to get up for work, or don't feel like running the extra mile at the gym, think about the fact that in Cornado, California there is a group of young men who have not slept for days and are doing sets of fifty push-ups in the cold ocean water. All I can say is I'm glad we have these guys on our side...