Successful SEAL officer candidates are exemplary not only in physical fitness, but in other crucial areas such as discipline, resiliency, innovation, intelligence, tenacity and LEADERSHIP. In this episode our officer programs expert explains the difference between enlisted and officer roles, the checklist of steps to follow, and the selection criteria. For more info check out www.sealswcc.com.
DF: Navy SEAL officers are expected to lead from the front. Successful SEAL officer candidates are exemplary not only in physical fitness, but in other crucial areas such as discipline, resiliency, innovation, intelligence, tenacity and LEADERSHIP. There are various accession paths to get to the selection program known as SOAS, or Seal Officer Assessment Selection. Today we hear from SOAS Program Manager, Andrew Dow, who explains the difference between enlisted and officer roles, the checklist of steps to follow, and the criteria that the NSW board uses in their selection process.
DF: Thank you for sitting down with us. For people who might not be familiar with you, start by just giving us a little bit about your story coming into the Navy.
AD: Sure, graduated the Naval Academy 2007. I was BUD/S class 270, finished Hell Week and then graduated with 273 SQT class, Seal Qualification Training. Upon graduating SQT, I went and did three platoons in the SEAL teams, two assistant officer in charge platoons, and then during my Platoon Commander tour, I finished that and was medically retired from the Navy as a lieutenant.
DF: Okay, is that where you picked up doing what you do now?
AD: After I did my two Assistant Officer in Charge platoons, I went and did my Platoon Commander. That was cut short, and I was medically retired from the teams as a lieutenant. Upon finishing that I worked for Apple for 14 months as an Operations Program Manager and capital expenditures, learned a lot about corporate America and decided that was not for me, and I really wanted to get back to the team environment. So, I went and I earned the position of the SOAS, SEAL Officer Assessment Selection Program Manager, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since 2015.
DF: Okay, so starting from the ground level, we’re speaking about SEAL officers here. If you could spend a minute talking about the responsibilities of a SEAL officer versus an enlisted SEAL, what makes the jobs different just at a fundamental level?
AD: Absolutely, so the biggest difference is one’s an officer, and one’s an enlisted, right. At the end of the day, it’s a team environment, so everyone’s working off each other, and it’s the job of the officer to make sure that the enlisted have task and purpose of what needs to be accomplished. One of my old Platoon Chiefs told me that this is the best way to see it. The officer is a general manager and platoon chief, senior enlisted of the platoon, is the coach, and your enlisted guys and gals are the players. For more in depth, you know, the officers, at the end of the day, it rides on what the officer has done. If something goes wrong, it rides on him. He’s the one responsible at the end of the day. He gives what is necessary to get done, he provides the, his men and women with the proper equipment, what they need, you know, task and purpose, and everything else that is needed in order to accomplish the mission. It is their job to action the mission. That’s the enlisted job. They’re both leaders in their own sense, you know, not just officers. Enlisted SEALs are leaders within their own right, and it’s so important that they have a good cohesion mix working together.
DF: Yeah, so I want to touch on that a little bit because there’s considerable overlap in the qualifications or the personality traits for both of those positions. Can you talk a little bit about where they differ in terms of the officer side of the camp so to speak?
AD: So, I get this question a lot, and from interested candidates, the biggest thing is, “Hey, I’m not sure if I want to go officer or enlisted.” So, the biggest difference, right, is in order to be an officer, you have to have a four-year degree. You have to go through and get your commission, whether it’s through OCS, ROTC, Naval Academy, or if you go enlisted to officer, but the big, big difference is enlisted have a specific job and a specific specialty. And what I mean by that is officers go in, their job is to lead, provide top cover for his platoon or his men. The enlisted’s job is to, some of them will go and be breachers, you know. That’s a specialty school. Some will go and be snipers. That’s a specialty school. Some will go and be a communications expert. That’s a specialty school. While the officer’s job is to make sure that he’s utilizing all his pieces in the most correct and efficient way.
DF: So, these officers, are they, are they functioning along side enlisted guys with rifles, you know, jumping out of planes, or are these guys kind of more command and control positions, if that makes sense?
AD: So, what’s really interesting, and this is, people may not know this, is when these individuals, officers, enlisted, go through BUD/S, they’re doing everything together. It’s the officers’ job to, you know, be in charge of them, but during basic underwater demolition SEALs, they’re going through physical phase together, dive phase together, land warfare navigation together. Then they go into SEAL Qualification training, where they’re learning close quarter combat, diving, land warfare, weapons manipulation, free fall, learning everything that enlisted and officer learn the exact same thing to earn their trident as a SEAL.
When they get to their team, that’s when enlisted will specialize, whether it’s breacher, sniper, communications. The officer will be the one who coordinates all those positions and utilizes them to the best of their ability. When it comes down to deploying and being in combat, the officer’s role isn’t just sitting back. He’s carrying a gun just like the enlisted. If there’s a firefight, he’s the one getting involved as well. In the end of the day, it’s his job to make sure his guys are coming home it’s his job to provide that, the big picture. He needs to step back when the bullets are flying and like, “Okay, what’s the situation we have here? What’s my next step? I need to be thinking three steps ahead, so I can protect my men and provide them the necessary assets they need in order to defeat the enemy.” (DF: Right) But you’re providing them with all the logistical and tactical oversight, so they are able to successfully do their mission. Most of the time, you will go on missions with them.
DF: So, a bit of both?
AD: Absolutely, but it’s so important that the officer knows his role, “Hey, you’re not the guy kicking in the door, but you need to know how to,” (DF: Right) cause that time will come.
DF: Right, right, so they really separate in the professional development portion. (AD: Yes, yes) These candidates or these, these officers, what types of personality traits do you see consistent among them or in the past that maybe brought them to the place they were as successful officers? Do you see consistency there?
AD: Definitely. There’s traits that Naval Special Warfare looks for in their officers. It’s important to know that, you know, officers should be professional. You know, they need to have tenacity. The leadership is what brings it all. Guys are not going to follow you if you do not know how to lead, you know, taking charge and leading. But to go back, the teams are the teams. It’s a team, so you need to work together. You need to know how to, regardless of what accession source for the officers, ROTC, Naval Academy, Officer Candidate school, you need to work together. You need to be able to work with, there’s introverts, there’s extroverts, you need to know how to work and handle and how to communicate what you’re trying to get done to each one of these individuals. And at the end of the day, it’s got to come together as a team. Naval Special Warfare hones on, you know, being professional, being that quiet professional, humility, having military bearing as an officer, that’s so important.
DF: Define that a little bit for me for people that might not be familiar, military bearing, yeah.
AD: Military bearing? So, a simple one, how you look in uniform, right? Some guys may, the simple one, a gig line where your belt, your belt is off-centered. Having good military bearing is making sure your belt is aligned with all your creases and your top and…(DF: attention to detail, okay) exactly. Um, the officer is expected to lead from the front in that sense, so if you look like a complete pile of messed up stuff…what your bosses see of you reflects down to your men. If you don’t look good, he’s going to assume and your guys will not look good.
DF: Right, right, so setting an example, setting the right example.
AD: Yes, being that leader, setting the example, carrying yourself with pride, especially with everyday tasks, as simple as keeping your uniform clean, having a good clean haircut and shave, you know, having that good military bearing.
DF: It’s funny to hear you say that because my father is a West Point grad, and hearing you give such a succinct explanation of him is really hilarious because that’s like my whole childhood. It was stressful, (AD: yeah I bet!) you know, cause just attention to detail. I’m not like him in that regard, so it’s just funny to hear you say…
AD: But you grew up probably learning like, “Okay,” and that’s…
DF: Yeah, right. That is important, and I knew as a professional, I do have a lot of attention to detail, and I do feel like I guess that is kind of what you’re saying about military bearing …
AD: And you, you developed your own leadership style from that. (DF: Right, I guess that’s true) So, it’s true, you learn it from different leaders. You can take bits and pieces from people, “Hey, I look up to him,” or, “This is someone I don’t want to be,” so you take what they do poorly, and you say, “That’s not going to be part of my package of a leader.”
DF: So, I guess maybe reading between the lines, it’s good for people to take leadership positions early in their, you know, adolescence or early adult life.
AD: I mean just as a human being it’s important (DF: Right, right) to have that. You don’t want to be, [DF: Not doing that, right ] exactly. Developing your leadership skills early on is very important because one, it can only grow. It will get stronger, and you’ll be able to utilize it and shape it into what Naval Special Warfare is looking for in their officers. And simply as being active as an individual, participating in sporting events, participating in volunteer work, community outreach, just being involved and having people skills is one of the most important things of being an officer.
Basically your whole growth is your rehearsal before you get there. So, you want to be as prepared as possible before you actually go and do the SEAL route, just exposing yourself. Just don’t be, in the teams, they call it a gray man. Don’t be a gray man, and what that is (DF: Yeah, I think we’ve heard that before) is just someone who just goes, you know, [DF: Sliding under the radar, right] exactly, just coasting through, and you’re doing things right, you’re not doing anything wrong, but you’re not excelling. You’re just being average. SEALs are not average. They want above average, exceptional.
DF: Where do you kind of come into play in terms of making the selection? Is this after people have decided to become a Navy SEAL, or is this way earlier in the process, in the recruitment process that you come into the fold?
AD: So, my role, specifically, I start engaging or communicating with aspiring SEAL candidates once they’re in college, right. Now, I do get calls or emails from high school students, and I tell them, “Hey, you know, the most important thing is get your education. Get that four-year degree because no matter what, in order to become an officer, you need to have that degree.” So, then the next step is, all right, so how, what should I do to get that degree? (DF: Right) Should I apply and go to a service academy, whether it’s West Point, Naval Academy, you know, Air Force, or should I go to a regular college that has an NROTC program attached to that college and do it that way, or should I just go and get my degree and then situate myself, experience a little bit outside of college and get a job and see what’s out there and help build my whole person my brand and then do officer candidate school? So, I’m dealing with OCS, ROTC, not as much service academies, specifically the Naval Academy because they have their own process, but I’m dealing with students or college graduates who are in the process of, “Do I want to become an officer? How do I do that?”
DF: Okay, so for people that are in school or going to go to college, are there certain educational tracks that are more beneficial to them becoming successful or even being accepted as a SEAL officer, whether it’s political science or international, whatever.
AD: If you want to know what majors, it doesn’t matter, and what I tell all my candidates is, “Do something you enjoy because at the end of the day, if this doesn’t work out, at least you have something to fall back on.” You need to have that backup plan, and in the teams, that’s part of your PACE plan, your Primary Alternate Contingency Emergency, your secondary plan is your alternate plan. What is that, right? “I want to be a journalist,” “I want to be a historian,” okay, so do that. The selection panel is looking at if you do say, for example, economics, and you have a 2.0, right, that’s going to look poorly on you, (DF: Yeah, right), one, because you have no drive and no determination to excel in something. You’re just trying to get by just so you can get, “Hey, I want to be a SEAL officer. I’ll just choose something easy. It doesn’t matter what I get it.” It does matter. You know, you can have a 2.4 in a chemistry degree and have a 2.0. The board’s going to look at that, the SEAL board and say, “Okay, it’s a challenging major. He’s trying to balance this with athletics or with ROTC or with clubs or volunteer work, and it’s a challenge,” but he or she is showing that they have that work ethic and determination to, you know, “Okay, I’m going to graduate with this, (DF: Right, right) and this is something that interests me.”
DF: I think that answers the question really well. I’m sure a lot of people think that there is, “Well, if I have a degree in this, then it kind of fast tracks me” but…
AD: Degrees don’t, honestly, um, Big Navy would say, “Something STEM,” you know, what, science, technology, engineering, math, right. If you, if you go ROTC or Naval Academy, you’re going to get one of those, but if you’re at a regular college and doing something, I tell all my officer candidates, school candidates, “Do something you enjoy,” cause that’s the most important thing.
DF: Yeah, I was just going to say that I think the character comes through whenever people are doing what they really enjoy. (AD: yeah) What avenue into SEAL officer selection brings in the most candidates or that you get the most candidates from?
AD: So, the most success at BUD/S, at SEAL training, comes from the Naval Academy. They have a set foundation of how they raise and grow the SEAL officers of the process. You know, they have a great process. Something we do is focus more on the ROTC and the OCS candidates. We do get a good amount of applications, and we have to cipher through them and see, “Okay, which of these applicants do we want to give a chance and invite to SOAS?” And from there, it’s pretty much they have to prove themselves once they get to SOAS. (DF: Right) The biggest source that we get, in my role, is OCS, people who are, have no military experience, (DF: Right) coming right off the street with a degree or about to get their degree, or coming from corporate America who wants to become a SEAL. That’s the most people I’m engaged with right now.
DF: So, people are starting this application process at a Navy recruitment office, um, it starts from the very beginning. They’re on a separate track than Navy recruits. Are these guys going to boot camp and then following up with more education, or where does that separation really start?
AD: So, specifically for officer candidate school, OCS, this is the civilian that comes off the street, whether they have a degree or not or about to get one. They go to their officer recruiter at a Navy recruiting station. They start the process. This individual has no commitment to the Navy until, one, he completes SOAS, two, he’s selected to go to BUD/S. He’s still is not committed to serve. There’s no obligation to serve. It’s as soon he goes to OCS in Newport, Rhode Island. It’s a 10-week course that’s learning a foundation of being an officer. That’s officer boot camp. They don’t go to Great Lakes (DF: Okay, okay). They don’t do any of that. For a civilian coming off the streets, they have no military exposure until they get to SOAS.
DF: So, are they then brought in to the fold at prep school in Illinois, or do they skip?...
AD: Absolutely not. They don’t do that at all. The enlisted track has their own track for getting to BUD/S. The officers have this totally separate track so…. But for OCS specifically, after they go to the recruiter, the recruiter will set up all the OCS application process. They submit a Naval Special Warfare application, if they’re invited to SOAS, they go to SOAS. Once they finish SOAS, and if they are selected to go to BUD/S in September by the SEAL selection panel, then they will receive orders to go to OCS in Newport, Rhode Island. Upon completion of that, then they’ll receive their orders to BUD/S, and then they’ll report to BUD/S when their orders drop by the detailer.
So, my role as a SOAS Program Manager is to mentor and provide guidance for Officer Candidate School (OCS), you know, the regular civilian who does not know anything about the military and now all of a sudden wants to be a SEAL officer, right. Once they get in contact with me, I don’t go out recruiting or doing any of that. My job is to strictly give them information and provide and almost hold their hand through the process to make sure that they’re doing, everything that is needed in order to have a successful application and submit it to the SEAL officer community manager. There’s a lot of steps for OCS. I also support the NROTC process, which is specifically…
DF: Let me interject real quick. That’s the, that’s the Navy…
AD: So, NROTC, which stands for the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps, basically, those are individuals who are either on scholarship or not, attend a college, and if they’re on scholarship, they have their education paid for, but then they are obligated to serve; upon graduation, they’ll earn a commission. For OCS specifically, a kid off the street, and I don’t mean kid, individual off the street who has a college degree or is about to graduate, they reach out to me. They get in contact with me through the SEAL/SWCC webpage, or if they somehow find their way to the SEAL officer community manager page, my contact information’s there. And when they reach out to me we begin the process right there. The big questions are, “What do I need to do? What’s the first thing I need to do?” They come to me and ask me basic questions, “Okay, I want to be a SEAL officer. What is the route I need to take?” First thing I tell them, one is, “Ensure you’re on track to get your college degree,” cause if you don’t have it already, but the big thing they first need to do is go down to a Navy recruiter and speak to an officer recruiter specifically. When they go in there, they talk to that officer recruiter and say, “I want to be a SEAL officer through OCS.” That gets the ball rolling because there’s two processes. There’s the OCS process, and then there’s SOAS, or Naval Special Warfare process, and it’s two applications. They’re independent of each other, but they run concurrently. In order to move on to one, you have to complete certain steps of the other. So, the first thing they need to do is get their OCS application moving, and that involves talking to an officer recruiter. That officer recruiter will start the paperwork and get them, into MEPS.
Which is the Military Entrance Processing Station. It basically gives them a physical assessment and makes sure they’re qualified to join the Navy or the military. Um, later on down the road, they’ll get more physically assessed to make sure they’re good to go for BUD/S, but this is just to get them in the Navy. (DF: Right, gotcha) They’re not in the Navy yet, but this is just (DF: Starting the right classes, right)…They have the right eyesight, they have the right weight and height, and they don’t have any lingering health issues that would restrict them from being a commissioned officer. At the same time, they have to take a couple of tests similar to the enlisted tests…
DF: So, this differs from joining A, the “Big” Navy, and B, joining NSW as enlisted because they’re kind of starting that professional rating from the first time they visit the recruiting office by getting in contact with you and then also submitting additional paperwork.
AD: They need to get certain things moving in order to have their Naval Special Warfare application (DF: Right) able to start. And the big one is when they get back from MEPS, they receive an N3M letter, which is basically a doctor letter saying they are qualified. They can take that letter and then start the Naval Special Warfare process because that letter helps them accomplish the physical screening test and that’s one of the requirements for SOAS.
DF: So, after speaking to the recruiter and taking some of those initial tests and kind of getting the paperwork started, are you in contact with them at all through the rest of the recruitment process as they roll in through boot camp and then even to prep school, are you in contact with them there?
AD: I’m in constant contact with them, getting updates, “Okay, I just completed my MEPS, I just completed my OAR, what’s next? What do I do?” That’s where I’m constantly hands on with them saying, “Okay, now you need to start your application for SOAS,” um, and I direct them to the SEAL OCM, the community manager webpage, which can be found at the SEAL/SWCC webpage as well. The OCM page is the authoritative. It has the one through eight requirements in order to have your application submitted. And my job is to help them with each one of these requirements and tell them what is the board exactly looking for, one being SEAL PST, the physical screening test. What is a good score for an officer?
DF: Really to interject real quick. (AD: Yeah) When you say, “What is a good score for an officer?” is there a lower standard or a higher standard for that? Talk about a little bit.
AD: Okay, so the PST, physical screening test. Enlisted take it, officers take it. A passing score is 1,200. That wouldn’t even get you near the door to have an officer application submitted, a 1,200. We’re looking at 50 pushups, 50 sit-ups, 10 pull-ups, a 12:30 swim and a 10:30 run, right. That’s bare minimum. That would not fly for the OC community, for the officer track.
DF: And so, you’re looking for people that are, I’m reading between the lines a little bit thinking you’re not necessarily looking for higher capacity physical work, but it’s…
AD: The way we narrowed it down working, you know, looking at data and looking at past success rate at BUD/S, SOAS, of PST scores, right, the magic number is roughly 800 comp score or better, when I mean better, the lower the number, the better the score. If you go to SEAL/SWCC webpage, there’s an officer PST calculator. When I said that 800 is the magic number, I tell all my candidates, “You need to be shooting for anything in 700 or lower.” You know, under 800, you’ll be looked at, but when you get down to the low 700s, that is what the board wants to see because you’re physically prepared to accomplish or at least attempt SOAS and then maybe down the road, do BUD/S. So, scores like that is we’re looking at a swim time under nine minutes. We’re looking at a run time under nine minutes as well, pushups, sit-ups, 90 plus, pull-ups, 15 plus. If you can hit these scores, you’ll have a physically competitive score with these numbers in your SOAS application. I know I keep interchanging NSW application, SOAS application. It’s all the same (DF: Okay) It’s basically found on the SEAL OCM page, the separate requirements, and the biggest one they’re going to first see, and even if you get it, what they’re going to look at is your SEAL PST score, “Okay, he’s under 800. Let’s continue to look through his application. What else does he have that attracts us to him or her, in Naval Special Warfare?”
DF: So, let’s speak about that a little bit. I think the important thing to take away is that the SEAL officer PST, not quote requirements, but they really are requirements, are really even more strict than, than the, the BUD/S requirements for, for a SEAL, so it’s more competitive. (AD: Yes) But other than the PST score, when you’re talking about looking deeper into the application, what else are you looking for?
AD: Can I just add one thing, [DF: Sure, of course.] So, between officers and enlisted, right, the SEAL officer score needs to be much more competitive. The saying goes, you know, “You’re a leader. You need to lead from the front,” so you need to be in the front physically as well, so that’s why our score’s a lot more strict and is lower.
DF: That makes a lot more sense even if they might not physically be doing more work, as a leader, they need to be looked up to and respected, point blank. [AD: Yes, yes exactly.] That’s a big part of it. Okay.
AD: So, other parts of the application for the SOAS or NSW specifically, one, you’re going to have a resume. Your resume is your life, basically painting your brand, your, your whole person onto a piece of paper. You know, they only want a one pager. So, just like it’s a job interview. That’s what SOAS is. It’s a job interview for BUD/S. There’s physical, there’s behavioral, there’s mental, all different types of tests that you will go through at SOAS. But in order to get to SOAS, you need to get invited, and to get invited, you need to have a solid resume that shows that, okay, you have the things that Naval Special Warfare is looking for.
DF: So, we talked about the physical, we talked about the mental briefly. Obviously, the college aspect and showing those kind of intangibles, leadership, taking initiative, being part of the community, fill in the blank, doing clubs (AD: Yes) or having that involvement, (AD: Yep) those personal skills. Are there additional I guess detailed requirements for academic standards or years spent at sports or anything like that on the resume?
AD: Yeah, so, the other things they’re looking for specifically is, okay, do you have community outreach, are you being involved with your community, are you being involved with your school. This is all building in your leadership because, one, you’re going outside your comfort zone, that’s what SOAS and BUD/S is, and you’re striving to be successful, so volunteer work, community work, clubs and activities, just like we talked about, sports, athletics. I’m not saying if you’re in ROTC or an OCS that if you never played a sport since high school to go join varsity football. What I’m saying is you need to do something you enjoy that you did do in high school. Try to go do a club. Go do an outside intermural sport…(DF: taking initiative in general) take the initiative.
DF: So, the resume being essentially a life picture, a personality picture, of their history. What else is included?
AD: Other than the resume, you know, which is your life story on a piece of paper to impress and to show the board, “This is what I’ve been through. This is some of the things that I’ve achieved in life, and this is how I can bring it to Naval Special Warfare SOAS.” The other things they’re looking for, just simple things. You need a photograph of yourself in business casual minimum. I’ll tell you right now, if you submit a picture with you with a full beard and a T-shirt taking a selfie in a car, the board’s going to pretty much take your application and not even look at it (DF: professionalism). They want professionalism right off the bat. So, I’m saying you got to go get a tailored suit, but a nice collared shirt, looking professional is, will carry miles, first impressions.
You need an official PST score, and what that means is throughout the United States, we have NSW mentors and coordinators that are open and willing, their specific job is to work with enlisted, but they are more than happy to bring in officer candidates to work out with them. If anyone needs that information, I can provide that contact list, I can provide introductions to you, but their one thing in order for you to work out with them and specifically for OCS candidates is to have that MEPS letter saying you’re physically qualified because they don’t want to waste their time with someone who’s not, so…
DF: I’ll interject real quick and say for listeners, you can tune into our episode where we speak with a mentor and talk about that boat team process if that’s some area that you’d like more detail on.
AD: Yes, perfect, that’s exactly it, and, they are more than happy to have officer candidates come, but you need to utilize them to have an official PST because they’re the ones signing the name at the bottom because they’re qualified to do so. So, I always give them the contact of what’s in the nearest Naval Special Warfare mentor coordinator near you, so I’m providing that information. So the PST score, your resume, a photo. You’re also going to need your official college transcript, understanding that some candidates, ROTC or OCS may not have their degree or official transcript yet, but it shows that they will graduate on time, whether it’s May or December.
The big one, and this is another important one, is two letters of recommendation, and I tell everyone, the question I always get is, “Oh, I don’t know any SEALs, I don’t know anyone that can really write a good letter for me that’s in the community,” and I stop them right there. I’m like, “The board’s not looking to see who you know or the signature block of who you got a letter of recommendation from.” They want to see someone that knows you, knows your character, knows how you are as a person, knows what you can provide in a leadership role and why you’d be a good fit for an officer because that’s what you’re going to be at the end of the day, whether it’s SEALs, helicopter pilots, Army infantry, you’re going to be an officer. That’s what they’re looking for in the first. So, if you don’t know a four-star general or a Navy SEAL commander, get your high school sports coach, whether it’s football coach, get your high school guidance counselor. They know you as a person, and they can write a real personal letter about you that the board will definitely read and get an idea of what type of person you are. That’s what they’re looking for letters of recommendation. So you got your letters of recommendation, you’ll need that letter from MEPS for OCS candidates specifically. That’s called the N3M letter. For ROTC it’s a DD Form 2807.
So, you have all those, and in addition, you need the Naval Special Warfare Questionnaire. That can be found at the SEAL OCM page. It’s a straight five question, 200-word max for each question, and it asks you straight point, “Why do you want to be a SEAL?” explains some leadership challenges you’ve faced. They just want to touch the surface of what type of person you are and have an understanding before they look at it during the down selection panel in order to receive an invitation to SOAS.
DF: I’m hearing that you’re looking at a, a broad spectrum of this person’s personality, their personal history, their motivation. You’re looking at their education, you’re looking at their physical capabilities, professionalism, some of those intangibles, really getting a really broad picture of this whole person’s life and their personality. I guess short of meeting a person and being in their life, this is as close as we can get to capturing the character of these individuals.
AD: Yes, yeah, and that’s all we can base things off of until we can actually get them where the rubber meets the road and just get them to SOAS. If they meet all the requirements, and they are within the confines of what we’re looking for, they’ll receive an invitation, and then it’s up to them to prove themselves at SOAS.
So, just to give the listener an idea of the actual process is in summary, right, there’s multiple ways to become a SEAL officer, whether it’s going to college for ROTC scholarship, going to the Naval Academy, going to a regular college and earning your degree and going to officer candidate school route, they all have to go, whatever the way it is, they have to get their college degree. Each one of those will give them a commission. In addition to, another path to do it is say you go to the Naval Academy, receive your commission, and you don’t go into SOAS or BUD/S. You know, you have to go serve in the Navy. You can always lateral transfer, and what lateral transfer is, basically, you earn your warfare qualification of the assignment you were given, whether it’s surface warfare, pilot, whatever. Then you can lateral transfer into the Naval Special Warfare community.
But of all the accession sources, the process is the same where you have to submit during your junior year, whether it’s OCS, Naval Academy, ROTC or one of the other service academies. You work with me to make sure you have all the requirements in place. You can find my contact information on the SEAL/SWCC webpage. But the end of the day is, you’re trying to get to SOAS. That should be your focus. Once you get to SOAS, that’s where you prove yourself, and then that’s where you’ll have the opportunity to potentially go to BUD/S.
DF: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with us. I think it’s very helpful, and it will be a really great companion to the website.
AD: One last thing to leave the audience with, if you have any questions about the application process, please reach out to me. I can provide you that information. There’s individuals who submit applications and never talk to me, and usually their application isn’t wrapped nice and clean for the board. So, please reach out to me. I’m here for specifically OCS and ROTC, but I’m open to answering any questions that anyone has about the SEAL officer community.
DF: Find out more at sealswcc.com and join us again for the next NSW Podcast.
The Medal of Honor is our nation's highest award for bravery in combat. We asked Senior Chief SEAL Ed Byers, Medal of Honor recipient, what it means to serve to our country during dangerous and covert operations. For more, check out www.sealswcc.com
Daniel Fletcher: Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Byers is the 6th SEAL to earn the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM on December 8, 2012. He discusses the challenge of going from a life of secrecy to the responsibilities of a life in the limelight. He says he wears the Medal to honor his fallen teammate from that mission, and continues to humbly serve as a mentor and inspirational representative of the Naval Warfare Community. Here’s his story:
DF: The main objective of this podcast is really to assist in continuing or growing the quality and preparedness of NSW candidates, specifically SEAL/SWCC guys. In many ways, you set the bar for standards for people in other branches of the service and as well in the Navy, but at the same time I think if people that are coming into this process are trying to shoot for fame or success that they’re probably going to miss their opportunity to be successful because, as I’ve learned, so much of success in the teams is about that team, not about the self.
DF: How, how can people that are intending to become high performing NSW operators kind of navigate that duality between self and team to be successful team member?
EB: Well, one of the, one of the fundamental principles of, of BUD/S is in the very beginning, is they have to have, they have to start off with a clean slate with the people that make it through the pipeline and actually show up to the teams. So, what they do through a whole lot of pain and some suffering and trials and tribulations is they get you to repeatedly fail or struggle through things in the hopes that you start to realize that you cannot do this process alone. You can’t make it through BUD/S alone. So, they strip away your personal identity in the very early stages, and they do that through a multitude of different exercises, and while you’re going through that, you really don’t understand it at the time what they’re trying to get to, and what they’re trying to get to is to make you realize that you have to start thinking about team before self. And when you start to do that, as pretty indicative of each class, is the class will start to grow together, and they’ll become more efficient, which means they’ll get beat less, and you’ll end up with this core concept of, you know, team gear, your gear and then yourself, and that’s the order in which you take care of things.
DF: So, do you think it’s fair to say that maybe in the beginning parts of the process or even through professional development after BUD/S, that there is more of a focus on self because obviously when you’re working together, there’s a big aspect of like you’re saying, you’re kind of almost becoming, the team is yourself, right, or kind of becomes yourself, (EB: right) so that is where you’re focused on, where success is. Are there aspects of your career in NSW that are more focused on yourself, like whether it’s professional development? You think that’s something that people should hone in on, the ability to kind of switch back and forth and have that awareness?
EB: Well, there’s always going to be an aspect of self. We are individuals. We, everybody has their own personality and their own, their own things that make them tick and what defines them, but just like any good building, it has to have a good foundation, and that’s where BUD/S comes in. They have to lay the foundation first and teach you these inherent traits that our community believes makes a good team guy. Eventually, there will be times where you’ll be out on your own. It’s no secret that at any one time in this world right now, Special Operations are in over 130 countries around the world. So, a lot of those countries may only have one or two people in them, (DF: right) so there will be times if you’re at a certain level or on a certain team where you will be on your own, and you may be the only representative to the US government in that country, so you absolutely need to have a person who can fluctuate back and forth between team and then knowing that you might have to do some alone. But while you’re doing that alone, you’re always thinking about how can then I best support my team. It always comes back to supporting the mission, you know, the cause, your brothers, the team (DF: as your foundation)…as your foundation.
DF: What do you want to see in a teammate that may be new to your team as an indicator that they’re going to gel well with you and there’s going to be success?
EB: Naval Special Warfare community has a very unique advantage, and the advantage is that is first of all, we have a volunteer military, and then we have individuals then that want to volunteer again for what they already know as being the hardest military school that exists. So, if you make it through that, you already have a person has an innate nature to want to be part of the best team there is, (DF: Right, right) that is incredibly driven. They have an intense desire and passion cause there’s no way you’re going to make it through that pipeline, BUD/S is the end of pipeline, if you don’t, and they’ve learned that they need to work together as a team. So, when you show up first to your team, then you kind of start right back over again because you become close with the people you go through BUD/S with, but you may be the only guy, the new guy that shows up to your team, and they have no idea who you are. There’s a saying in the community that’s, you know, “You earn your trident every day.” It’s every day you have to come and bring the best work ethic, the best mentality that you can bring and show that to people. There is no mistaking that BUD/S is the easiest part about being team guy, hands down. It’s a hard school, and a lot of people fail, but that is the easiest part about being a Navy SEAL. Showing up to the team and doing this day in and day out, going on deployment after deployment is where it takes a whole lot of resiliency, determination, dedication and commitment. So, when you show up there, and you have a new guy that comes in, and the first thing you’re going to look for is when are they going to start to broaden, spread their wings a bit, show a lot of initiative fundamentally, be the last one to leave at work, is able to look more at the broader picture and go, “What else needs to be accomplished?” and not have to be told what to do. Those are the things right off the bat cause I know the guy is (DF: proven, right) hard, right. He’s in good shape, that he has some fundamental, you know, core concepts built into him from what the pipeline is, but now we’re looking to expand him and grow him as a person, (DF: right) right. So, those are the things that were expected of me, and that’s something I would expect of somebody coming in to my team initially looking at them.
DF: Something that I’ll reiterate that you said about starting over again, and when you get to a new team or whatever, it’s really even more than that starting every day, you know, you need to earn it every day, and I think that kind of plays into the answer as well as far as like what you look for in a person that is going to be functioning at the highest levels, is are they willing, or are they able to come in with that mindset, a little bit of humility but then at the same time, like stick with it. How do great team members, and yourself included, balance that need for grit and toughness with the peace of mind and maybe calmness that’s needed either on mission or through training?
EB: So, the easiest way to balance that is, is what’s fundamental to our community. We’re Naval Special Warfare, and we’re the maritime Special Operations branch. So, with that said, water is fluid, and we spend our life around water. You have to be able to ebb and flow with the ever-changing environment and mold yourself to the situation and fill in where it needs to be filled in and bend around situations that, frankly, can’t be solved or maybe too hard or complex at that time (DF: right, right) to tackle. So, that’s step one. The next step is there’s a lot of compartmentalization. You can’t take what you do overseas in a battlefield environment and apply that same tactic and aggression (DF: right) and grit and toughness when you’re back home in a training environment, and you’re around people that’s never experienced that or have (DR: right, right) no idea what, no concept to be able to relate to you. So, you have to be able to push back and forth between environments, and make yourself able to be able to communicate in both environments and work in that battle space.
DF: Do you think how quickly you’re able to make those changes is a distinct advantage? Cause it seems like that kind of stuff comes and goes pretty quickly, you know, changing between staying calm and pushing through, whether it’s when you’re physically pushed in demand, and there’s a lot of demands and having that perspective, that ability to switch back and forth, do you think that’s something that has given high performing members an advantage or even enabled them to get to where they are?
EB: It definitely gives the community an advantage. I mean the community as a whole is a pretty smart group of individuals, and I don’t have the exact figure. I think it’s well over, you know, 50% of people have degrees and even advanced degrees, and that’s across the entire community. So, we take a lot of pride in the fact that we’re also freethinkers. It’s back to that concept of you can be operating a team in one environment, and then, you know, six months later, you could be on your own and having to solve these problems with absolutely no supervision and just making decisions as you go. So, we 100% rely on the fact that guys can switch back and forth, understand situations and blend themselves into that appropriate environment.
DF: Yeah, I think that, that’s something that there’s maybe a misinterpretation or misrepresentation, or people are confused about as in the civilian space or even in other armed forces that, and we’ve touched on this numerous times, that operators are a certain way, and generally they don’t realize how academic these people are. It’s even more so the mental aspects of the job that are what’s more required cause the physical will get you so far, but do you think that’s kind of in line with your perspective of the teams in general?
EB: Being a team guy is extremely complex. You got to know the basics from, you know, how a gun works to advanced ballistics if you’re a sniper, to advanced explosives, which is physics and chemistry (DF: Right, right) if you’re a breacher, maybe you’re a medic, and maybe you’re all three, (DF: Yeah, right) and then maybe you might be a communications guy that has to know advanced communications, and that’s just on a military side. (DF: Right) But then you get put in environments where you have to be able to speak, talk and act like a businessman or how to navigate embassies and do all that. So, you’re having to bridge both the civilian side of the world or non-military agency side of the world and also know how to handle all your military knowledge.
DF: Are there any parts of your childhood that you think uniquely kind of set you up for success as an operator with your background?
EB: Absolutely. I fit the typical majority of team guys, and I’m a Midwestern boy that, you know, grew up in Ohio. I grew up on a farm that was on a river, so I was around water, and I was around woods, and my dad was a, a general contractor, so he was in construction, so it just lends yourself to always being thinking about things and building things and unique challenges that come with that, and then it gave me the opportunity to also get out and be in the environment and be around water, and fortunately, came from an era where we didn’t have, you know, smart phones and iPads and everything else that pulls at people’s time and bandwidth. And it drove you to be outside and do these things. And then there was a lot of, there was a few key factors that came out, like the first movie Navy SEALs came out, and there was a handful of books coming out about team guys in Vietnam, just right around that time when I was fairly impressionable around, you know, ten, (DF: Right, right) ten to twelve year, you know, age range. So, my father was in the Navy at the very end of World War II, but it wasn’t really talked about in our family at all, and that was the only part of our family that had military. There was just something that just was always innate to my desire of everything military was intriguing to me (DF: kind of planted a seed a little bit)…I don’t know if it was necessarily planted. It was just, you know, it was the, the Rambo era and Rocky. It’s that growing up in that scenario where those were the cool movies of the ‘80s. So, as a young boy, that drove a lot of my mentality and especially being in the country. I mean country is going to be more, more of a tendency or lean towards, you know, hunting and shooting and fishing and all that stuff, it helped me get to where I wanted to go. And by the time I was in high school, that was the only thing on my mind, was, “I’m going into, going into the military.”
DF: Did you, at that point in high school, did you know that NSW was kind of your track, or you kind of just a little bit more vague at that point?
EB: I had it narrowed down. Northwest Ohio was not, is not a very big military area, (DF: yeah) so I did my due diligence of narrowing down the branches, and it came down to the Marine Corps and the Navy. But I already kind of knew I wanted to be a SEAL. I think I was just checking my last box and going, “Let me just see if the Marines is where I want to go with Force Recon.” Ironically, my first tour did, was with the Marine Corps, so I spent my first three years as a medic down at Camp Lejeune, which was a great tour of duty for me and really set a, a very good foundation of becoming a SEAL in the fact of I realized what I had during those three years in the Marines was not a lot, and then going into the Special Operations community, all of a sudden you’re just inundated with the best technology and gear and training possible, so it makes you really appreciate even more, at least from my perspective, where I was at.
DF: We talked a little bit about your growing up, and in light of that, do you, see people that have children that grow up to be successful military members or just successful in general, people that are either team members with kids or in other military branches, is there something different you think that they do that gets their kids prepared for success in the military than maybe other families?
EB: Well, I definitely think parental involvement in a child’s life is going to help them for sure. (DF: Yeah, right) I have a daughter that’s a competitive figure skater, and if we didn’t constantly pour into her to, you know, about her training and nutrition and everything else, she would not be at a national level like she is right now. Just like any parent would prep their kid, they want them to go to, you know, Stanford or Harvard, and they put them in prep courses and get them surrounded in test taking and being book smart, becoming a Navy SEAL would be the same way, but I didn’t have any of that. (DF: Right, right)
I grew up. I didn’t have, there was no one around me to motivate me to do anything special. It was something inherent inside of me that it was in my mind and in my heart that that’s what I wanted to go do. I wanted to become part of the best and be part of a group that’s incredibly unique and special. I wanted to be someone special. And that is the greatest thing about human nature, is you can never, just like a book, you can’t judge it by its cover, you never know what’s inside a person’s mind or in their heart or in their gut, and that drive of personal tenacity can make people do some incredible things. You see that a lot in BUD/S, where you have the collegiate level swimmer or the cross-country runner that was the state champion and you’re like, “Yep, those are the guys that are going to make it,” and then what will happen is that those guys that you thought would make it are the ones that quit during Hell Week. And the guy that you looked at and go, or would have never have guessed was going to make it through is the one leading the pack and the charge throughout the class and there at the end.
I talk about this when I go to schools, and I speak to, to all ages of, of kids. I can count on my hand the amount of people that actually thought I was going to become a Navy SEAL. The majority of people thought, you know, it was a pipedream and that I was wishing. There was no way this kid from northwest Ohio, doesn’t have any military background, was never really physically active other than playing soccer until my senior year in high school, was going to go on and be part of a most elite Special Operations unit in the military. So, while it’s great that parents should be absolutely part of their kids’ lives, and if that’s what they want to do, you know, help them and give them opportunities to do that. At the end of the day, it comes down to that child to have that desire to want to do it, and it’s what we always tell our daughter, too, “You can quit any day you want. We’ll love you the same, we’ll stand by your side,” but I have to see it from her that that’s what she wants to be, and every day, she gets up, puts on her skates and hits the rink, and that’s the same as a kid that wants to become a SEAL. Parents provide them the opportunity, but they got to be the ones going, “I need to go to the pool and put some laps in,” or, “I need to hit the gym,” or, “I need to go for a run.” My training when I growing up on a farm was I would do breath-holding contests in the bottom of my pond for minutes at a time, you know, cause I thought you had to be able to hold your breath as a SEAL underwater and be comfortable in the water. That’s what I had access to me, and that’s what I did. I see its absolute advantage to have that, as a child or a young adult with your parents wanting to drive you to that way, but you don’t need that.
DF: Yeah, it’s almost even a detriment, you know, if you don’t have it inside you, then it’s an external thing, and that goes away when you’re tired…that goes away when you’re hungry…
EB: Living up with expectations can be a hard, a hard thing, and if you’re, you know, that’s another balance of if your parents drive you, are driving you to that, and they want it more than you do, that scenario never goes well.
DF: That’s dangerous.
EB: Cause it’s not going to be your parents that are going to be holding the boat over your head when you’re cold, wet and tired.
DF: It’s almost like the flipside of that. You talked about adversity yourself, people saying, like, “There’s no way,” like, “All right, have fun,” you know, and that’s got to drive you more than someone telling you that you can do it almost sometimes.
EB: I think that’s probably one of the biggest motivators of all time, is when people say to other people that they can’t do it. I mean and the people that come back and go, “Who are you to tell me what I can and cannot do?” (DF: yeah watch me!) and that’s a big driver for sure.
DF: Yeah, I kind of think that’s a pretty consistent thing for, through the people I’ve spoken with in the community there, “Yeah, I can do it,” like just confidence. I mean it’s tough because there’s some times not even really a word that accurately describes that kind of level of drive of just seeking challenge in general, you know. You see somebody else do it, you know it can be done, like, “I can do that,” or, “I want to prove I can do that,” even to yourself. I think that’s kind of what you’re talking about a little bit at the core, people having that as kids, you can’t really just, you can’t necessarily make your kid feel that way.
EB: You can’t make your kid feel that way. Fundamentally, as Americans, our nation was founded on a rebellious nature, and we’re fighters to the core, and that’s what makes our force so unique is we are individuals out there, and it starts in their youth, just like it did with me, of those that just want to be part of something special, and they know in their mind and their heart that no matter what, they’re going to make it through. They’re going to suffer whatever amount of pain, they’re going to put whatever amount of risk to their personal safety on the line to make it happen, and it’s what they want cause it’s, that’s what they envision. That’s their dream.
DF: You talked about the difference between going between, you know, deployment and being back home or that kind of switch. Is that similar to what you deal with being in the public so much being a team member that has to make the switch? Is that, is that in line with that kind of skill that you need to be able to be a good operator?
EB: One of the aspects of being a Navy SEAL or Naval Special Warfare as a whole in Special Operations in general is that, and it’s what drove me to want to become part of that community was the, the secrecy that surrounded the community. So, the people that want to be a part of that want to be a part of it because they just like it for the job. You’re not doing the job to become famous (DF: Right, right) or seek that, you know, recognition. Another tenet in the community is, you know, “The deed is all, not the glory.” So, it’s very hard sometimes to make that transition. 18 years of my life I didn’t have any sort of social media interaction. Nobody knew who I was. There wasn’t a single picture of me on the Internet.
So, the day that the president put the Medal of Honor on me is the day that changed my life fundamentally forever, and then you’re thrusted in the spotlight. So, like anything, you can take that as being another stage in your career and your duty and your job and the next mission line, or you can complain about it. Well, it does no good to complain about it. It’s not going to change the scenario. You have to learn how to operate and work within that environment.
The Medal of Honor is a very, a very humbling to be a recipient of, and it plays an incredibly important and unique role within our nation. You know, there’s 73 living recipients in our nation right now that range from World War II to the global war on terrorism. And it’s a representation and validation of the type of heroics that are continuously witnessed within our military and our modern day warriors. I just happened to be a beholder of one of those, but it represents a culminative effort of what our entire group does within Naval Special Warfare. We’ve been, you know, had the distinct privilege, cause it is a privilege, to work with the most incredible individuals on the face of the planet. And if anyone was to listen to this and go, “What do I want to do in life if,” you know, to be a banker or finance or want to be a SEAL, or what have you, is, this is the most exclusive job in the world that you can do because it’s a job that no matter how much money you ever have, you, you can’t buy it. You have to earn it every single day.
So, I got to be around for 20 years of my life these individuals that I’ve seen time and time again do the most heroic things in the world. But true to the nature of what our ethos represents, they’re probably never going to get recognized at a level where an entire nation is going to know who they are. They’re going to be a name on a wall in a building that you can only get to if you walk through the gates of BUD/S in Coronado. When I look at it from that perspective, it becomes an obligation and a duty to have to be out there and represent what it is our community has done, and to pay homage and tribute to all those who, especially within our community, who have paid and sacrificed with their life, in particular, Nic Cheque, who was killed on that hostage rescue mission in 2012. So, when I think about that, when I wrap it all into that, it becomes something I’m comfortable with doing. But for the majority of people out there, that’s within our community, they’re just wired that way. They don’t want to be known. They don’t want to, anyone to know who they are, and they like it that way. They like living in the shadows and going about overseas, doing our nation’s work protecting…
DF: It’s certainly a lot easier that way.
EB: It’s definitely a lot easier that way, so the community has to be that way.
DF: Well, I will say that your malleability or flexibility there that you did mention earlier, kind of talking about kind of being like water, I mean it does speak to that and your own personal character. You know, you get dealt this hand, and then you’re going to make something fruitful out of it as opposed to whatever the alternative is. So, I think people can take that away from the discussion even a little bit to know that things aren’t going to go always according to your plan or expectation, and if anything, it’s usually not that way, so if you’re unwilling or unable to adapt, then you’re kind of stuck in the water for lack of a better phrase, you know.
EB: Very rarely in life does anything go according to plan, so.
DF: I guess that’s kind of a bigger, overarching kind of thing, word of wisdom I think for people for any point in their life, not necessarily just for BUD/S or NSW or the community at large. You mentioned that you were traveling around, where you speak to schools or whatever. Through that kind of exposure, is there anything that you’ve kind of come to have as a piece of your own personal voice that you try to communicate to people, kind of something that you like to, to remind people that’s unique to your experience?
EB: Yes, there’s definitely when I speak to the younger generation, there are a few core concepts. And I’m always going there in the capacity as a Medal of Honor recipient who happens to be a Navy SEAL. There’s six tenets to what the Medal of Honor represents to the nation, and it’s embedded in what they have, it’s called a character development program, and it’s sacrifice, integrity, patriotism, commitment, citizenship and courage. And the core concept around that is anyone can be a hero. You don’t have to serve in the military to become a hero. You can be an everyday citizen who is just, does the right thing at the right time, and that’s what would define you as a hero. We see this in papers all the time with younger people or just general citizens that rescue other people or put their life in danger to save someone else. That is an absolutely a definition of a hero.
What you see a lot in, in the younger generation nowadays is they have, there’s a huge problem with, with bullying, so whether through cyber bullying or just within the school, and the environment is much different because back when I grew up, there was, if you did something, it would take a, it would take a minute for people to hear about what you did. Nowadays, everyone can hear about it in your entire school in the matter of a minute, and that brings on a whole lot of unique different pressures. They still have the same type of struggles of, “I don’t have any friends,” or a small, a very small group of friends, or they don’t see themselves as being courageous or that they can do something unique. And my message always to them is, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you what it is you can do in your life,” cause if I did that, I wouldn’t have been standing on that stage talking to them. If you listen to what other people tell you, then you’re never going to accomplish what it is you think you can do.
I see the most incredible young boys and girls that you would never think when I ask them, “Hey, how bout you tell me about a problem you are having in the school today?” and then you’ll see that this one little hand, you know, raise up from the crowd, and they bare their soul in front of 1,000 other classmates, and it was a person that come to find out has no friends and is dealing with a lot of this internal burden of self-doubt and, or maybe depression or what have you, and I look right at them, I go, “You’re going to be someone absolutely incredible,” cause that takes the most insane amount of courage to be able to do that and have everyone in your school judge you, and it changes their life. I’ll follow up with them six months later, you know, ten months later, with the teachers or what have you, and that person’s, those few sentences that you said in front of their entire school completely change their whole persona and their confidence and everything. So, it’s just quieting the noise around you and not listening to all the negativity and looking yourself in the mirror and believing in who you are and what you can accomplish.
DF: I think that’s a pretty big thing to do for the community at large, that’s huge. A lot of people I think would maybe take the easier way out as opposed to really trying to lift people up like from the core like that, so that’s pretty powerful you get to do that a lot.
EB: I don’t get to do it as much as I’d like.
DF: Earning your Medal of Honor, it’s obviously a huge life-changing event, but for people that might not know about it, um, you can give us as brief of a version as you feel comfortable kind of explaining just to give our conversation a little context.
EB: So, in the history of the United States, there’s only been 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients. Half of those came in the Civil War, and President Lincoln designated the Medal of Honor to be the only award given for battle. That’s out of the 42 million Americans that served in the armed forces. To equate that, it’s one ten millionth of a percent to become a Medal of Honor recipient, and the reason they designated it as a recipient is because you don’t, we don’t win awards in the military. You never come in the military because you want to get accolades and different awards for going to combat. So, that number is unique, extremely unique and small within itself.
Now, if I jump to Naval Special Warfare as a whole, I became the 6th Medal of Honor recipient in Naval Special Warfare history out of, there’s currently seven, and that happened in 2016, about three and a half years after the operation in 8 December 2012. This was the first time that the Navy had a living, active duty recipient in 45 years. (DF: wow) So, the reason I say that and why it becomes so important to who I am now is because of with any great honor comes that great responsibility.
You become a recipient of this medal because your peers thought you did something that was worthy of this. But I personally wear this to give tribute to Nic Cheque. And on 8 December 2012, we were based out of a remote base in eastern Afghanistan, and we got intelligence directing us that an American doctor, Dr. Dilip Joseph was taken hostage by a bunch of Taliban captors. So, we were under a time-sensitive target. We had some variant intelligence over whether or not he was going to stay within country or leave, so we had to go and execute this operation on little fidelity surrounding his situation. Hostage rescue at the tactical level is the hardest thing a military unit can do in combat. There’s so many complexities. It’s, you don’t know the state of the captors, you don’t know the state of the hostage, you don’t know the internal dimensions or things that are happening in the building. There’s a lot of things that can go wrong, and there’s, you can’t just, unlike movies, you can’t just fly in your target and be inside the room in a matter of minutes. So, that night, myself along with my team, we launched, and we patrolled for about five hours through the mountains, pretty cold night out. Like I said, it was December. And as we were approaching the target building, Nic Cheque, who was our point man, was right in front of me, and a guy and one of the sentries came out to go to the bathroom as it was getting close to sunrise and call for prayer. Nic saw him and immediately engaged that individual, and we started sprinting towards the door. It wasn’t a normal door, though. It was layered blankets, so they were very hard to weave through, and we tried ripping them down, and we couldn’t, so it wasn’t like you could open a door and make entry.
By the time I finally got in, I went to my area of responsibility, and there was an armed Taliban at the end of the other side of the building that had an AK-47 pointed right at me. Fortunately, I was able to kill him, and I saw someone else moving across the floor, and I didn’t know whether or not that was one of the hostages, or it was one of the terrorists that was trying to go towards some more weapons. So, we thought that could have been three hostages, two other doctors along with Dr. Dilip Joseph. So, by the time I got to him, I was able to straddle him, and I had to adjust my night vision and look down, and I had been trying to get some facial recognition. The same time this is happening, calling out for the doctor to answer, “Hey, are you in this room?” just something. Right about that time all that happened, he rogers up and says, “Hey, I’m over here. I’m over here.” And so, I engage the person I was on top of, and then I got up off of him as fast as I could, ran over and then jumped onto the hostage. When I did that, I grabbed him and brought him in close to my body armor to shield him from everything else that was going on, and there was another one of the terrorists in the corner who was just waking up. It was very early morning, and this all happened relatively quick. So, fortunately, he was within arms’ reach, and I was able to pin him by the wall by his throat and was basically choking him until the rest of the team was able to get in and eliminate the threat cause he was reaching for guns.
EB: That all happened in a matter of about a minute, a minute and a half. Everything happened really quick. We didn’t know at the time was that Nic entered the room first. He had been mortally wounded. He’d been shot. So, as we’re pulling the doctor out of the, out of the room, I noticed that Nic was being worked on by our medics, and being a prior medic myself, I went over and started helping doing CPR on Nic, on the helo flight back to the base where he was pronounced dead. That one evening is without a doubt, captures to a T what it is to be a Navy SEAL. It was a, a mission that was completely successful. That is success in the military world, even at the expense of losing Nic because that’s the job you sign up to do. With Nic was what it meant to be a Navy SEAL. He was like the hardest guy I ever met, incredibly resilient, just tough as nails. The guy would get knocked down, get right back up again, and he portrayed every part of our ethos that night. And it’s the reason why I continue carrying on the mission of getting out there and speaking about that night to be able to tell people about Nic and what he meant, and will always mean to this community.
DF: And about sacrifice, yeah.
DF: I can’t thank you enough for your time. We really appreciate your words of wisdom. I think that some people will gain a lot from this conversation, so thank you.
EB: I appreciate it. Thanks.
DF: Find out more at SEALSWCC.com and join us again for the next NSW Podcast
Future Navy SEALs and SWCC must make it through one important course before they attend training in San Diego: the NSW Prep School. In this episode, the director of Prep discusses how his staff physically and mentally prepares the students with running, swimming, strength and conditioning, exercise science, and kinesiology. For more info check out www.sealswcc.com.
DF: Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School, otherwise known as NSW Prep, occurs in Great Lakes, Illinois over two months. There is one goal of NSW Prep: to improve SEAL and SWCC candidates’ mental and physical readiness to prepare them for the challenges of BUD/S and BCS. Cordy Pearson, who you’ll hear from today, is the Program Manager for NSW Prep and speaks about expectations for this major milestone in the process.
DF: Cordy, thank you for taking the time to sit down with us. Obviously, you have a really unique perspective. We’re hoping that we can transfer that to as many people as possible that want to find out more about what you do here. If you want to start a little bit about your career and how kind of what led you here. We can start there, or if you just want to jump right into what you do right now, we can do that.
CP: Came in right out of high school. I was a state champion boxer before that, not much pool work or swim work, came straight into the Navy. September 11th happened when I was in first phase, changed the course of how things I thought (DF: Right) were going to happen, and I ended up doing two platoons with SEAL Team One. I was a lead breacher and lead vehicle driver for both those deployments, ended up getting out I was looking to start my own business, got a call to come up here. This place had just started, then they offered me a lead instructor position, then over the course of four years, worked myself into the program manager position, I’ve been the program manager for six years.
DF: In an overarching way, what is the Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School, and what is its kind of mission and goals?
CP: The mission of the NSW Preparatory School is to train, mentor and coach perspective NSW SEAL and SWCC candidates and NSW-centric specific core physical and mental skills.
DF: Unpack that a little bit. What does that kind of mean in say real world terms, on a day-to-day basis for you? What types of things do you try to do?
CP: We try to prepare the students as best we can for the rigors that they’re going to face out at BUD/S (DF: Okay) and BCS. We basically want to help them get through the next major crucible, which would be Hell Week or The Tour. That’s how we gauge our success. We do that by running, swimming, strength and conditioning. We have professional staff that does that, and we help them with their mental toughness, their military bearing. We also talk to them about ethos, core values, and some nutrition and injury prevention as well.
DF: Is everyone that’s working at Prep here Navy staff?
CP: So, we have a mix of Navy and civilian staff here. Civilian staff consists of coaches, so they’re subject matter experts in running, swimming, strength, conditioning, they have educations in kinesiology, exercise science. We have two former SEALs that are working in tandem with those coaches to help deliver the NSW message and the way the students should be acting (DF: Right, part of that ethos you spoke about)…and those evolutions, explaining to them why we do some of the things that we do.
DF: Okay, so how does this tie into the boot camp piece that they’re all going through at the same time? Is this after, is this before, is this during? For the layman, can you kind of paint that picture for us a little bit?
CP: So, yes, for how this is structured, going from boot camp, all enlisted people come from boot camp, and anybody who’s from the fleet would come here, (DF: Okay) so we get all enlisted candidates for SEAL and SWCC (DF: Okay) …And that’s right before they get shipped out to San Diego.
DF: Okay, so the selection process is made, and then they’re transferred to you?
CP: Our goal from that is to take them from boot camp or from the fleet and help prepare them in an 8-week process and get them out to BUD/S as physically prepared, mentally prepared and injury free as possible. One thing that we try to help with is with their skills as far as running, swimming, strength and conditioning, exercise science, kinesiology, and try to help them as much as possible.
DF: What can recruits expect to experience whenever they’re turned over to you and your team so to speak?
CP: First off, they’ll be expected to take a PST. They’ll be expected to pass that PST. At that point they should be able to pass a PST even on their worst day so that there’s no question. The PST basically assesses trainability, so if an individual falls short of the standards, which are posted on SEALSWCC.com in a PDF format, (DF: Right) which candidates can go ahead read, follow to the T because that’s exactly how we’ll administer the test when they’re here. They’ll be an indoc week process, and over the course of the next six weeks there will be a ramp up training with the running and the swimming and also the physical conditioning piece; we’ll be in the gym; we’ll be on the beach doing sand bag PTs. They’ll be out doing team-building exercises, rope climbs, things of that nature, and then towards the end, we’ll taper things off, get them ready, test them out on the exit test. So, there are two tests that happen here. One’s the initial PST, and the other is the Exit Standard test.
DF: How is this exit PST different than the ones previous?
CP: Well, it’s, it’s basically a lot larger, and it’s at the end of the pipeline here. Once they have successfully passed, and they only get one shot at it, they’ll be able to progress on to San Diego.
DF: Is that something that you think that recruits should try to be concerned with before they even get to basic training here?
CP: I don’t feel like they need to really focus on that as much, I think that they should, anybody that’s listening to this probably needs to focus on their PST scores and make sure that those (DF: Right) are in line and to become as physically prepared as possible, (DF: Right) but also bear in mind that they don’t need to over-train.
DF: Are you getting the EOD and the kind of other part of NSW coming through here, or is this just all SEAL/SWCC candidates?
CP: It’s all SEAL/SWCC candidates.
DF: Okay, how long between graduating from boot camp and then getting to BUD/S are they in this phase where they’re kind of ramping up if that’s an appropriate word?
CP: So, we don’t ramp them up immediately because we understand that in boot camp they will lose some shape, and most candidates will understand that as well. Once they get here, we’ll take their PST scores, and we’ll basically try to put them into certain run groups (DF: Okay) if we need to, (DF: Right) so slower runners may be in a different group than some of the faster runners. And we do is we try to train the students as best as possible given their weaknesses, so they can talk to any of the coaches. They can pick their brains; that’s what they’re there for. Coaches are more of a positive motivation vice the (DF: Right, right) negative motivation that they see out in San Diego a lot of times, so it’ll help them basically find whatever they’re deficient, identify it, try to fix it. Midway through the training here, we do what we call Mock Exit Test (DF: okay) so it’s the exact same 1,000-meter swim, pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups and then 4-mile run. The only difference is it’s not a final test. (DF: Right, right) It helps the individual identify if they are deficient in that, that they have the next four weeks to go ahead and try to work on where they are. (DF: Right, right, to kind of get a baseline of where they’re at.) Correct.
DF: So, can you go back over the exit details in terms of distance times and such one more time if we haven’t already?
CP: The exit test is at the very end of the training pipeline here. And it will assess whether or not the individual will be able to go out to San Diego or not if they pass it, upon successful completion of it. The SEAL standards are a 1,000-meter swim with fins, and that’s combat sidestroke only, and that has to be under 20 minutes. The pushups have to be 70 in two minutes. The sit-ups would be 60 in two minutes. The pull-ups are ten. The run is four miles with pants, tennis shoes, and that’s in 31 minutes or less. For the SWCC standard, on the exit, it would be a 1,000-meter swim as well with fins, combat sidestroke only, 22 minutes and 30 seconds is standard for that. The pushups are for two minutes, and they have to get 60, sit-ups, 60 for two minutes, pull-ups, seven. The run is three miles, and they have to do that in under 24 minutes.
DF: Do you and your staff see people failing to be able to hit these numbers this much into the, into the pipeline?
CP: We’ve had multiple classes where everyone has passed the exit standard, and we’ve had everyone pass the PST as well although there have been classes where some do not pass it, and unfortunately, they don’t identify as trainable (DF: Right) at that point, and …
DF: Are those more ailment issues, or is this kind of a point where people are flushed out initially in terms of fitness?
CP: As far as ailments are concerned, it should not be a concern because everybody needs to go into it healthy. We try to ensure that everyone is healthy, (DF: Right) barring them hiding some type of an injury, which we dissuade because they’re not doing themselves a favor by going out to San Diego. (DF: Yeah, or you guys.) Or them, mostly themselves because it’s kind of a detriment to them to be hurt and sent out there when we do have medical staff here that are trained and willing and help with the rehabilitation process here.
DF: There is a strong focus on conditioning, what are some other of your secondary or other main objectives with this aspect or this portion of the pipeline?
CP: Well, as far as other objectives, there will be some academic training, so we try to let them know as much as possible what their body’s going to be going through, (DF: Okay) whether training with these individuals, so injury prevention, nutrition, we give them classes in that, some mental toughness, and that’s designed by our psychiatrist ,psychologist at the center. We work on the core values and the ethos because their integrity is paramount. We do stress that quite a bit here, (DF: Right) so we try to send them out there prepared in that aspect as well.
DF: What else is expected of the candidates from you guys?
CP: As far as what’s expected is 100% every day. They need to be here to perform. I would expect that any candidates that feel any pain or are injured that they identify that here so that we can help them. They need to understand that this isn’t to be gamed or something that you should be reading up on the Internet to try to see how you can get an angle. It’s more about being very open and honest mostly with yourself when it comes to training and put forth max effort when needed and to also pick the coaches’ brains and to pick up where they’re deficient.
DF: What type of assessments are you guys doing, is this kind of something that’s kind of ad hoc in terms of why you’re watching these guys work out, or how does that work?
CP: So, as far as assessments are concerned, we track every score physically that they’re doing so that we can kind of get a better idea physically of what the candidate’s capable of doing. We’ll do 3K time trials and do the tactical athlete test, it’s another battery of tests that we actually have to administer here, but we try to track their progress in almost everything from running, swimming and strength and conditioning and then put that together in a package. (DF: So, it’s constant.) Correct.
DF: That’s interesting, you have put it out there, “Do your best,” but it doesn’t seem like they do one thing wrong, and they’re out in terms of performance…
CP: Absolutely not, not here. We’re not an attrition centric phase of the training. We’re here to try to mitigate that, (DF: build them up) to build them up and send them out there. Guys are physically as in shape as anybody that should be in their first platoon, but really it does boil down to the mental capacity once they get out to San Diego, and that’s the hardest part.
DF: The hardest part of this for them is mental, is that what you’re saying?
CP: The hardest part I think with all of this training is mental. Physically, it’s arduous, but it’s something that everybody should be capable of doing. If I were able to take a SEAL’s brain and put it in any one of these young men’s body once they leave here, they’d be a Navy SEAL.
DF: You mentioned earlier about people kind of like trying to out-game the system, with the amount of information that’s available online and stuff in the media.
CP: I’d say that you would have to probably watch out for some of the books and the websites that are out there. I know that there’s a lot of information and misinformation that can be passed when it comes to this. There’s a lot of attention towards it. I would say that if you’re at SEALSWCC.com, that’s the main source that commands official word on how we conduct training, and it has all that information in there. So, I’m not saying that any of these, I don’t know all these websites or all these books, (DF: Right, right, right) whether they’re good or bad or indifferent. I can’t attest to them, but I can tell any prospective candidate that if they’re probably listening to this, they’re on the right track. They need to listen to their mentors and listen to their coordinators and maybe just don’t get too far into the weeds with things. You don’t have to take cold showers for a year to prepare for (DF: Right) cold ocean.
DF: Right, right. In light of that, is there any additional training or exposure to any apparatus or anything like that you think is worthwhile for this part of the process cause it seems like you’re exposing them to some new things than what they’ve been accustomed to in trying to gain a certain PST score.
CP: Right, I think that a lot of candidates focus on their PST scores and their physical capabilities, but some of the things that they forget about are water comfortability, being comfortable in the water. A lot of times at swim time or being a good swimmer doesn’t translate or correlate with water comfortability, the two toughest things that we actually have to do or what students find the hardest here are sand bag PTs and treading water with bricks, which can be mitigated by possibly joining a water polo or recreationally diving as safely as possible with all the safety constraints, you know, in place, not doing anything under the water, learning how to do an eggbeater kick, learning how to tread water, sand bag PTs, those are longer, and they seem to be a little bit more arduous on the students when they carrying them, and it gets a little hot. (DF: Yeah, right) So it’s kind of a mental toughness piece with both of those.
But getting the fins on their feet to help with their ankle flexibility prior to them coming in, even though the PST doesn’t swim with fins, they’re going to be having to swim with fins in BUD/S and BCS predominantly, and a lot of the students end up with ankle pain, (DF: Right, right) and some of the pain that they will experience are, it’s normal. It’s just part of the process of building the strength and trying to build a better candidate. Some individuals don’t understand that pain, and it’s okay if they need to see somebody in our medical department about it, which I do try to get them to do so we can rule it out if it is (DF: Right, right) something they can work through. And if they can work through it, you have athletic trainer on staff trying to get them back out into the evolutions and back into the training, help them understand it better. But prior to that, if they do any sand bag PT or any type of workouts with that or maybe even just snorkeling or things that are safe (DF: Right) that they can do that helps kind of build that water comfortability so the (DF: Right) first time that they’re in a situation (DF: It’s not brand new)…it’s not completely brand new or something that they are wide-eyed about (DF: Yeah, right. Yeah, right) and get scared because if they start off scared, it’s harder for us to train that in the short amount of time that we have with them.
DF: What other parts of the prep school would you think are valuable for people to know a little bit more about?
CP: I think that one of the things that they need to understand is prior to coming to boot camp is some of the studies that we’ve seen, this generation has 10% less bone density than prior generations, (DF: wow) which we see a lot of lower leg stress injuries, stress reactions, a lot of stress changes and stress fractures, all which will set a candidate back or eliminate them from the program, which would be a disservice to the candidate if they’re not preparing correctly from the beginning, if they’re not doing things like obviously running (DF: Right, right, right) and getting out, they’re on variable terrain and the right shoes at the right pace and not over-training or doing too much, so it’s kind of striking that fine balance between that. Also, vitamin D supplementation, we have a study that we’re conducting now to see if some of the supplementation for vitamin D will actually help the students with some of the stress fractures, or stress changes, help mitigate some of that, some of that risk. You get vitamin D from the sun, (DF: Yeah, right) you get vitamin D from milk, it does a body good, it’ll strengthen your bones, I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing or what, or people are just drinking less milk.
DF: I think it’s a lot more video games and less running around.
CP: Yeah, get the controls out of your hands, and go outside and play, and that’s one of the things like how somebody can prepare for prep is have fun with it. You don’t have to go take the cold shower and stress out about what you’re about to do. You should be very focused. You should be very professional in the way you want to train that’s why I say go ahead and snorkel or join a water polo team.
DF: Is there certain things that people should try and take advantage of while they’re here that you see people maybe not doing or that you think people should kind of double down on while they’re here?
CP: I think that what a candidate should take advantage of while they’re here is the coaching. The coaches are here for them. They’re open, you’re able to talk to them. I think that they should do their homework prior to coming here. Obviously, they’re doing that if they’re listening to this podcast right now, but to try to get as comfortable and to understand where they’re going and to focus on this time as kind of it’s a development time. It’s a time for them to grow. We’re not trying to attrite them here…It’s not part of the game.
DF: Yeah, I can see that’s…Yeah, people coming in thinking that they’re going to be grilled, and it’s really an opportunity for them to learn.
CP: Right, and a lot of candidates come to us, and they think that we’re playing games with them (DF: Right, right), or we’re…when we’ll actually try to tell them something that we want them to listen to, but they’re, “Oh, well, I think this is a game.” (DF: Yeah, right right, they’re on guard, yeah) Or they’ve read something somewhere, they’ve gotten it passed down from other candidates (DF: Yeah, from yesteryear or whatever) or somebody that didn’t make it through, so there’s a lot of misinformation out there. And to kind of stick to the ethos, which they can read as a civilian and start to memorize and kind of make that a part of their life (DF: Right, right, right) prior to even coming in (DF: Right) and help build that integrity and that good person cause that’s what, we’re looking for good people that are also in shape and can do the job to mental capacity, (DF: Right) so striking a fine balance before that. But you can do that by having fun, getting out there, (DF: Yeah, right) and going outside and playing and running, swimming, strength and conditioning. Get the fins on. That way you’re not shocked by the fins when you get here. Do a run analysis so you know what type of run shoe that you should be running in prior to that. They have professionals, and they have different resources that are out there that are safe, (DF: Right, right) especially this website, that they can reference, and it’ll give them a good declination for them to follow (DF: Yeah, yeah), a good direction.
DF: So, short of not being able to hit your numbers, what other kind of reasons do you see people dropping out of prep or being asked to leave?
CP: So, we have a 12% attrition rate basically, so 12% of the candidates that we get here won’t make it onto San Diego for one reason or the other. Less of half of that are because they drop, or they, they quit, so we don’t really see much quitting up here, which is a good thing.
DF: Yeah, yeah, it means you guys are doing your jobs (CP: Correct, correct) and the people before you are.
CP: I think that those individuals that do quit, some haven’t even started. Some didn’t understand as well (DF: What they were getting into, yeah) what they were getting into but kind of that mental realization that this isn’t for them, but it’s few and far between.
DF: Yeah, we’ve heard that in talking that the why portion of the motivation for, for following through and wanting to become a NSW candidate or active NSW is one of the most important parts because it’s a foundation for whenever you’re tired, when the chips are down so to speak that that’s got to be there, or else you’re going to want to go home.
CP: Exactly. (DF: Yeah) You need to be focused on what you’re about to do, so if you have certain things or extracurricular things that are pulling an individual’s mind away from the task at hand, which is this is the number one thing that you should be focusing on, is making it through training, and everything that you do, even when you make that decision as a civilian prior to coming in, should help lend to that.
DF: So, I think that, based on talking to you and the research I’ve done, it’s important for people to come into this part with an open mind and understand that they’re getting help at this stage and to kind of continue to absorb from the people that are around in terms of professionalism and knowledge, obviously continued hands-on training with technique and such, but this is not really a time to, try to be a tough guy. This is a time for you to have personal development or physical development, the whole kind of, the whole piece.
CP: True, but there will be some toughness pieces in this. Just the training alone, on its own, it’s tough, (DF: Right, right) especially when you get to week six, you’re doing interval runs, you’re treading water, you’re in much better shape, but it gets arduous, so there has to be some type of mental toughness when it comes to that. So, there will be kind of a tough love feeling here. (DF: Right, right, right) We’re not here to, to coddle you (DF: Yeah) we’re here to coach you. You’re here to make the standards and to perform for yourself and for others, and if you’re injured, (DF: Right) it’s your job to let us know that you’re injured so we can help you take care of that, get you healed, get you back on that pipeline we’re here for the same goal. We want to help you get through. The easier part is to help than to have somebody quit, and that’s at BUD/S if (DF: Yeah, right), somebody’s going through that mental stress, but the reason we need that and the reason we do have to have a little bit of stress up here is because we can’t throw grenades at you like it’s time of war and see how you’re going to react. You have to be stressed a little bit, help make those decisions. We’ll talk about what was done or how they did it, and they need to understand that there’s consequences for making the wrong decisions as well and to try to kind of teach them before they go on to make any other mistakes and to kind of give them that NSW centric (DF: Mindset, yeah, right)…mindset to help them succeed and to help our community with, like you were saying, a foundation that they can build on (DF: Right).
And it is all building blocks, so I mean folding your T-shirts may not translate to being overseas on a real world mission. It doesn’t translate in the beginning, (DF: Not directly, right) but you have to prove that you’re capable of folding your T-shirts and capable of having shined boots, capable of doing these regular military things before we can trust you with a weapon that you’re now going to have to clean, and it’s going to have to be maintained that will possibly have to fire to save somebody, a teammate, a hostage, whatever, but that starts in the beginning, so it’s all crawl, walk, run. We’re in the crawl stage here, (DF: Okay) so we try to kind of set the candidates’ declination as best as we can here to help them succeed not only in first phase but future, and that goes with nutrition as well. They’re stronger, they eat better, they are just a better candidate than we would have had prior to this coming through. And a lot of the guys don’t even make it and go on to the Navy, take these key building blocks and help improve it, possibly come back around for a successful try, or they go out to the Navy, and they do great things there and help build a better sailor, and that’s really what we’re here for.
And anybody joining the military should understand that they’re here to serve their country first and foremost, so that’s your building block, (DF: Right, right) and, well, what makes you want to serve your country, and what makes you want to be that type of person, that great American. Is it driven by yourself, your own personal needs, or is it driven by you’re capable, you’re willing, you’re motivated, and you want to try to, to be that tip of the spear, that person one day, and you have the discipline to go ahead and train for it and train correctly for it and to have the focus in such a long pipeline (DF: Yeah, that’s true), to stick with it even though it’s cold, wet, tired, and those things will happen, and the reason they have to happen is because when you get out there, and you’re at war, or you’re operating, you’re going to be in the worst situations, and BUD/S will look like a piece of cake (DF: Yeah, right) compared to that, so that’s why we have to train like that.
DF: Well, thank you so much for sitting down with us. Your knowledge is really valuable to the people that are trying to come through this process. I think it’s important to hear from as many people like you as possible, so we appreciate you taking the time. Thank you so much.
CP: Great, thank you for having me.
DF: Find out more at SEALSWCC.com and join us again for the next NSW Podcast
Comfort, speed, and efficiency in the water are all hallmarks of a successful NSW recruit. Aquatics expert Dan Kish talks with us about developing confidence in the water. For more information visit www.sealswcc.com.
“Get your heads up and get your eyes open. Stop trying to hide from the pain.”
“Heads up; eyes open.”
DF: Welcome to, “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday,” the official Navy SEAL podcast.
DF: Comfort, speed, and efficiency in the water are all hallmarks of a successful NSW recruit. Today at NSW Preparatory School we continue our discussion with aquatics expert, Dan Kish, to speak specifically about safely developing confidence in the water.
DF: This will be a popular episode because there are so many people that are not comfortable in the water and even before that flat out can’t swim or have had very little exposure to the types of swimming that you’re talking about. For people who are in that camp, what is your recommendation for them in terms of kind of introducing water sports initially into their training regimen? Do you recommend people kind of start with the real basics like modified freestyle just to kind of learning to at least kind of start the crawl, walk, run kind of part of this swim process? I can’t help but think that there’s going to be a lot of people that tune into this episode to learn like, “Hey, I’m a bad, I know I’m a bad swimmer,” or, “I think I’m a bad swimmer. Where do I even start? This combat sidestroke, I can barely even get in the water without feeling like I’m going to drown, you know what I mean?
DK: That’s common. A lot of friends that joined, you know, higher military branches and very weak and deficient in the water, and they knew it, and they asked me like, “Hey, I know you can swim. Can you help me out here?” and I would drag them to the pool with me. Water polo is another great way to become comfortable and confident and with team building going on. It’s the most calories you’ll ever burn in a match or game, you know, one game of polo. There is no rest cause you’re treading no matter what you are doing. You’re in the pool. You are sprinting. And great ways to become, you know, a little bit more comfortable and confident. You don’t have to be the fastest swimmer. We just want you to have a good foundation or base that we can build on and make you, you know, get dialed in and tuned in to become much, you know, more efficient in the water, and it should be the last of your worries once you get out, you know, two mile swims in the bay, water rescues, pool comp, knot-tying should be flawless once you get out there I hope.
DF: So, you just mentioned a comfortable or confident base. Can you maybe give me your definition of that? It doesn’t have to be precise, but I’m sure people will, set that as a benchmark for where they want to get at a bare minimum. And so, kind of maybe give me a picture of what that means to you.
DK: It’s very easy to identify who is scared or uncomfortable in the water from day one. If you’re swimming with big eyes, panic mode, just trying to find the wall as fast as you can, that’s wrong. You know, slow things down. You should be able to swim, you know, longer distances. You don’t need to have a ton of speed, but your 500-yard times should hopefully be under that ten minute, you know, nine minute base to be good and comfortable in the water. If you’re over eleven, twelve minutes, you’re going to struggle significantly in the pool evolutions that take place here.
DF: So, that’s a pretty good number then. People can actually kind of have a metric for themself to say, you know, “Where I’m at in this spectrum in terms of comfortability.” Obviously, I think with the type of instruction you can provide in your other teammates, obviously people can get much better and much more comfortable, especially with additional exposure, but that’s a good place for them to start is that what you’re saying?
DK: Yes, get your, you know, 500-yard time down, you know, with the least number of strokes as well. So, be efficient and get your time down. We call that here golfing, where we want to take the lowest number of strokes while going the fastest time. We’ll play around with that a little bit. And we will always train half the time on our right side and half the time on our left side here at the prep school. Majority of us have a strong dominant side, and majority of us have a bad side, and we want to be good on both, and that helps play a role with being comfortable no matter, not always operationally speaking you can go swim down on your right side and swim back on the mission on your right side as well. Be good on both, and that’s the same with freestyle. You’ll always breathe half the time over your right shoulder, half the time over your left shoulder.
DF: Is that a testing requirement for the PST to be swimming half and half on each side?
DK: That is not a testing requirement here. When we train, we enforce it heavily. If you watch the Olympics, you’re like, “Oh, Michael Phelps only breathes over his right shoulder.” Correct. They race like that. They do not train like that. You will always train half the time on your good side, half time on your bad side or with breathing on a freestyle or combat sidestroke, so we do enforce that pretty strictly here, be good on both. And that will help any one side develop better as well.
DF: Let’s talk a little bit about buoyancy. It’s something that I really wasn’t even that aware of until maybe a few months ago when we started doing a little bit of reading and research about the PST in general. How can someone determine whether they’re negatively buoyant or positively buoyant, is that something that’s easy to determine, or is it just like, “I keep sinking to the bottom of the pool...” How do you determine that?
DK: So, that’s funny. We’re all humans. You know, we’re all pretty much the same. How come you’re buoyant, and I’m negative? It makes no sense. However, about 20% of the candidates that come through, you know, sink to the bottom.
DF: Is that a body composition thing?
DK: Body composition plays a low role. You see, you know, the bulkier muscle guys, but we still have some candidates that exhale all their air and are still bobbing at the service.
DF: Yeah, ‘cause I definitely sink if I let out the oxygen out of my lungs, so.
DK: Which is good. What I tell them is, “You need to learn how to control your body in the water.” Some of us are positive, some of us are negative. Both have perks here at Naval Special Warfare Prep School. When we swim, we want to be at or even better on the surface, right, so we want to be positive in the water. You know, the less drag, you’ll increase speed. If you’re negative in the water, you’re going to be working a little bit harder. We want to get that body position at or on the surface. But if you’re negative, once we start working, the first time we do pool skills, one of the stations is floats, and your hands and feet will be together behind your back, and you need to do what it takes to control your body. You have to stay at the surface, you have to stay inside your six foot by six foot, you know, box, and you can’t just travel or swim all around. And for some of us, it’s the easiest thing you’ll ever do, right. You just be a bobber in the water, simple, hands and feet together. Other candidates that are negative, you’re going to be working a little bit harder. You know, get those little dolphin, shrimp kicks going, stay at the surface the entire time. So, yes, we’re all humans, why is it different? Some of us are positive, some of us are negative. Females float better than men, different demographics float better than others, everybody, everyone is different in the water. You need to learn how to control your body in the water.
DF: So, talk to me a little bit about that. Is that just a matter of keeping a certain amount of air in your lungs? You did mention something about, you know, kind of flutter kick or shrimp kick a little bit to kind of help keep yourself propelled towards the surface. Can you talk to me a little bit about that? Like what types of techniques maybe someone should investigate or kind of try out in the pool or in the ocean or wherever to kind of figure out what works for them. What’s the starting point for that?
DK: Yes, so here we have fresh water pools. In the ocean, different density makeups, it’s easier to float salt water than fresh water. So, if you’re positive in the water, you can almost get in a vertical position, straight up and down, which is quite difficult to do. You have to be very positive in the water. And then you’ll play with your lung capacity. Can you breathe and exhale and still stay at the surface or on the surface?
DF: So, you’re talking about really kind of staying like a pencil in the water, not moving your arms too much and just using your breathing to kind of determine at what level you start to, your mouth will start to sink under the water. Is that accurate?
DK: That would be someone who is extremely positive in the water, can float very easily.
DF: Just by kind of, just sticking their body vertically in the water, and their face will stay above water.
DK: Which is a small percent of candidates that come through. The majority of us, we want to get our body into a question mark shape almost, so your head will be down in the water, the buoyant parts of your body are obviously your lungs, your organs, your chest cavity is quite positive and buoyant in the water there. So, once you get your body in your question mark shape, so your hands will be together behind your back, your feet will be together, bring your knees up to your chest, and they’ll float at the surface. And then when you do need a breath, work your legs, kick your head up, get that quick breath in, and get right back down, head down into that question mark shape that your whole body should be in. This is the majority of our candidates that we see during our floats. So, during, we started doing some pool skills and drown proofing tests, you have to float for three minutes. So, stay inside your six foot by six foot box staying at the surface for those entire three minutes.
DF: It seems like you’re saying the majority of people are negative, it’s either negative buoyant or buoyant. Is that correct terminology?
DK: From the second half of the spectrum I would say a little bit more negative in the water. When you come, your feet will be tied together here. So, you need to learn how to control small dolphin kicks or working, you know, with the lower half of your body there to keep yourself at the surface and then work those into your breaths, so get a good rhythm, kick your head up for a breath, kick your head right back down, try and stay in that question mark shape. But we will work with you here. We have five aquatic coaches here to help you, make you more comfortable and confident in the water.
DF: I’m just going to interrupt real quick cause I think that’s a really key point, comfortable and confident in the water. Being exposed to water, underwater is a really fast way to make you uncomfortable, and developing the techniques and skills to give you the confidence to know that you’ll be able to get a breath when you need one as opposed to when your body’s kind of wanting one is, I think is a pretty big key to even developing your skill and efficiency in the combat sidestroke. Being able to know that you can get the breath you need, and you don’t need to break from that mental focus and put your chest up and, “Give me a second to regroup.” I can’t think of any other way other than just exposure and time, practice to really accelerate that unless you have any tips that you can add to that.
DK: Absolutely. The first three letters in SEAL spell sea, right. You’re going to be in the water. That should be the least of your worries if you have a mission, operationally speaking, if you’re in the water for that long, about your swimming abilities or how comfortable and confident you are. We are humans. We’re not designed for the water at all. We walk upright, we have a curved spine, we need air. We do not belong in the water. I think we’re one of the few mammals at birth that cannot swim. Spend time in the water to become comfortable and confident. It does not happen overnight. The golden rule we have here is every day you’re out of the water, it takes about two days to get back where you were, so if you have, you know, a long weekend, or you’ve been out of the pool for a week, it’s going to feel like you’re swimming in mud and all sluggish because you naturally will lose that feel for the water. We need to spend time in the pool, you know, find pools. You don’t have to swim lots. Back in the day, we used to swim, you know, up to 100,000 meters a day, just spend time…
DF: You mean individually, an individual would swim 100,000 meters in one day?
DK: That’s common during peak training, training trips, training times, but here at prep, we swim about 2 to 4,000 meters a day, which we want some quality training with also some treading, some pool skills taking place, water rescues, whatever else we do. So, here at prep, we swim about 2 to 4,000 meters a day to help us from, you know, kicking, swimming, pacing, long distance swims, short sprints. We kind of do a mixed bag with all the strokes almost every day here.
DF: Let’s talk a little bit about mobility. There’s obviously huge focus on strength and coming into this pipeline, you know. These guys have to do X number of pull-ups and pushups. Guys have been asking each other how much they can bench since they were teenagers, right. Not everybody has the type of genetics that you are gifted with, the type of swimmer body that you would see versus, you know, an Olympic weightlifter or fill in a blank for any other sport, right. That seems like it would be a little bit of an issue for some people, whether it’s the shoulders and their ability to reach and kind of cause a little bit of that stuttered stroke and stuff like that. Do you work on mobility here, or do you recommend the guys and athletes that are kind of coming into this process work on mobility? Any specific exercises for that, that you recommend?
DK: We all love those big, bulky mirror muscles. Those are not going to assist you in the pool. We want to have, you know, the longest range of motion possible, increase, you know, your shoulder mobility, make you more efficient in the water and just to help with injury prevention as well. So, stay away from bulky muscles. We want to be flexible, so we will do some stretching here, increase your range of motion, shoulder mobility. If I see some candidates that are really bad in the water, I will pull them aside and show them some extra stretches they can do to help them, help them out. There’s been a couple times, as groups, we’ll do, a class stretch. With the swimming background, I do, a majority of all the shoulder mobility, increase that range of motion, but there are some partner stretches, you know, grabbing your hands behind your back should be taking place. If you’re bad at that, work with a towel little by little. Working on perfect streamline. A majority of our candidates can’t even do that, where, you know, everyone can show me a streamline, but is your wrist over wrist, are you squeezing your ears with your biceps, are you as long as possible in the water? And it’s just unnatural to be in the water keeping your arms above you for that long that I think candidates really don’t expect, and it will help you out in the long run, you know, be more efficient and hopefully prevent some injuries as well.
DF: After speaking with people involved with kind of the strength and conditioning out of water portion of building up for this, there’s a big emphasis on the parts of the body that people aren’t working on in the gym, you know what I mean, the upper back and the shoulders specifically I think are, got to be a common weak point for people, not necessarily in strength but in mobility and being able to get a really, really long stroke, you need to be able to get your hands straight over shoulders, and you see nobody off the street can do those types of movements to be able to make their body that long. Do you think that’s representative of what you see in the pool?
DK: It is common. Hopefully, it will go away over time. Once we do start swimming, you’re going to start getting used to having your arms out in front of you for long periods of time, whether we’re doing some, you know, kicking drills in the streamlined position, whether we’re just swimming some long-distance freestyle sets, where we kind of over-exaggerate, you know, front quadrant swimming. You’re always keeping one hand out in front of your body, you know, the most efficient ways to swim freestyle, and that should start going away over time, but hopefully you can come with a good range of motion in your shoulders. We’re not going to overstress your shoulders too much in the pool. A lot of us swimmers have been doing it for many years, we’ll start having some shoulder injuries more common in the pool. Ankle flexibility is also a huge one that gets overlooked in the pool. A lot of our candidates kick like they are wearing boots, and they have no boots on.
DF: So, you’re saying keeping their foot at like a 90-degree angle?
DK: Correct, which is not what we want to do here. You should not have to think about pointing your toes while kicking, but ankle flexibility plays a big role in the water. We will slowly increase the amount of meters we do with fins on starting off with no fins and then slowly working our way up to, you know, 4, 5,000 meters with fins on, but if you have poor ankle flexibility, there’s some other stretches you can use, you know, such as writing the alphabet, sitting on your feet while you’re watching TV or whatever it is but other, natural abilities to get kind of overlooked in the pool there.
DF: So, you mentioned fins, what’s your take on the fin issue in terms of for prep and training, how do you recommend people incorporate, if at all, fins and masks and goggles and caps or whatever it is into their training process developing for PST tests?
DK: So, almost every pool has some basic equipment. Luckily for swimming, you don’t need any. If you want some goggles or a mask, absolutely wear them. Take your mask off every now and then. Swim, you know, swim with your face in the water. Your gear will fail. Masks will break. Mission still needs to be carried on. You shouldn’t be freaking out if you have no mask. You can still swim; still carry out the mission. Fins, just wear some regular rubber surface fins. You don’t need to have 10-foot-long dive fins, some ridiculous things on your feet that are, you know, stiff as a board. Just basic surface fins or Zoomers, which are those little bit shorter looking fins. Help you out just condition your legs a little bit more. Kickboards are almost found at every single pool as well. We do use those here at prep as well, you know, condition your legs. If you can condition, you know, the biggest muscle groups of your body, the rest of your body will be good to go as well, so we will focus a lot on kicking. It’s also the quickest way to get in shape as well, kicking with the board, without a board, you know, in streamline position, on your side. We will do a lot of other drills, you know, with some equipment on, some equipment off, so be comfortable all strokes with, without equipment. You should be good in the water no matter what. If you’re wearing pants, if you’re wearing a shirt, just a suit, all have different feels for the water, which you should be able to, execute with no problem.
DF: What kind of things that are a little bit unconventional do you think are helpful that you would recommend that are safe for people to develop their skills and their capabilities and their comfort level?
DK: One great thing about swimming, there’s infinite amount of drills you can do to help you out, become more, you know, comfortable in the water, are just bite-sized pieces of the stroke. So, you can start swimming, you know, with just one arm or just, you know, one leg out of the water. We’ll do some goofy, you know, body balance drills like that. Always swim with a lifeguard, with a buddy. You don’t need to do underwater swims. You do not need to do, you know, anything crazy outside of here, you know, at a pool, just do some basic lap swims, different intervals, different distances. You know, join your high school team, polo team. Treading is a big one. I think it’s overlooked.
DF: You mean in terms of people not practicing that?
DK: Correct. Coming here with no base on how to tread in the water, so staying stationary at the surface with your head dry, and we’ll do this for extended periods of time. Our hands out of the water, with, you know, one hand out, two hands out in the streamline position, and you need to learn how to control your body in the water. So, come with a good base of tread, whether it’s the eggbeater kick, which you see the most efficient way to tread, or with a breaststroke or a scissor kick to help you out keep your head above the surface there.
DF: You talked a little bit about, “no need to underwater swim…” How is the PST, administered in terms of starting off your swim? Are you allowed to go underwater and push off the side of the pool and go as far as you can underwater? Are you able to kick off and do that on every lap? What are the, kind of, standards for that?
DK: So, once we start doing underwater swims here, we have a one-to-one safety ratio. So one candidate per one staff member, you know, with fins, snorkel, rescue tube in case something happens in the higher risk training evolutions. However, once we start doing our swims in the water, every time you push off the water without fins on, you should be executing at least one underwater breaststroke pull-out, which is the most efficient way to swim underwater. Not the fastest way but the most efficient way to swim under water. So, push off in that tight streamline position, so we have wrist over wrist. You’re squeezing your ears with your biceps, you know, powerful push off the wall, you know, as tight and streamlined as far as you can. Then when you start slowing down, your hands will separate, start anchoring, you know, your arms, push that water past your chest, past your hips, past your feet, long glide, and then sneak your hands back out front while executing a breaststroke kick. Underwater swimming is the single greatest thing you can almost do to become better in the water because you’re building up your lung capacity, you learn how to catch and move through the water and obviously how to be streamlined as possible in the water. So, it’s a great thing. We do not allow our candidates to swim underwater, though, without us there, so there’s a fine line with the safety issue, but off every wall, execute one underwater breaststroke pull out. Try and travel about 15 meters off the wall.
DF: You mean in total before initiating a stroke or...?
DK: Correct, which is, in the competitive world, that is how far you are allowed to go off every single wall, so try and use that, you know, be comfortable with pushing off in the streamline position, executing one underwater breaststroke pullout, and try and travel as far as you can. And you should be relaxed while doing this efficient way to swim under water. You should not be having a higher heart rate, freak out mode, which we see when candidates start doing, you know, our underwater swims. Sometimes you see people, with big eyes, start breathing too heavily, and that’s when stuff can go south very quick.
DF: How do you feel that open water swimming plays into the training process to get you to BUD/S?
DK: So, I strongly enforce that every candidate that leaves here can do the one mile in the bay, mile and a half, two-mile open water swims under those time standards of 90, 85, 80 minutes. They’re all physically able to do that. One thing that you cannot teach in a pool with a line telling you where to go with no waves, no marine life, no tides pushing you around is guiding and sighting. So, once we start doing some buddy swims where you’re partnered up with someone, you’ll always swim within six feet of each other at all times. So, guiding and sighting is one thing that’s difficult to teach in a pool, so every once in a while when you swim, work on picking your head up, looking down range, focus on, you know, a person walking by, a fixed object down far away, you know, mimicking a boat, a buoy, a bridge, an island, whatever’s out there, and then without stopping or pausing in the water and continue swimming. We will be swimming 4,000 meters, you know, a day, which is well over two miles in 90 minutes, so everyone is obviously able to pass that time standard here, but open water is a new realm, and Mother Nature can play a big role sometimes with what’s taking place there.
DF: Yeah, I guess there’s a big safety issue, too, if you lived by the beach, and you wanted to try to get out in open water and that’s where you’re going to practice your strokes. I’m going to have to guess that’s not something you recommend in terms of trying to increase your fitness level generally unless you’re really an expert swimmer, and even so, I don’t think that that’s really worth the risk.
DK: Unnecessary. Find a pool with a lifeguard, make sure you have some swim buddies around, you know, go work out or train with people, similar in speed or age, and try to push each other that way. You don’t need to find open water. Here at Great Lakes, we have Lake Michigan in our backyard. We are only in there, you know, a handful of times a year due to the amount of safety equipment, staff, everything that takes place in order to swim outdoors, and the limited window, which we have here in Lake Michigan is quite small, and that’s if the weather cooperates with us on those days. So, there is a lot of safety aspects takes place to swim open water, but easily find a pool, get your workouts in there, and, you know, try and do, you know, 3,000 meters, which is two miles, hopefully under the 90-minute mark. Spend as much time in the water as you can, and come to prep with a good base or foundation that we can build on.
DF: Well, Dan, thank you so much. Where can people find out more about any other details they might want to about this topic?
DK: So you can go to SEALSWCC.com, wonderful illustrations, pictures and descriptions about what to expect here at Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School.
DF: Great, Dan. Thank you so much for your time and all the great information.
DK: Any time.
Music Continues and end.
Naval Special Warfare is always looking for hard-charging, motivated applicants, including Sailors already serving in the Fleet. We talked with a SEAL Officer whose job is to pick the best applicants from the "Big Navy" for a career in NSW. For more information visit www.sealswcc.com
The only easy day was yesterday...
DF: Welcome to, “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday,” the official Navy SEAL podcast.
DF: Naval Special Warfare is always looking for hard-charging, motivated applicants from all communities. However, specific attention is paid to existing Navy sailors wanting to convert from a career-path in the “Big Navy” to one in Naval Special Warfare. I’m Daniel Fletcher. Today I speak with the Special Operations Enlisted Community Manager, a SEAL Officer, to find out more about the conversion process.
DF: First, thank you for taking the time to sit down with us. I know you’re a busy person. You have an important job; you have a lot of stuff going on. I think the information that you’ll be able to give us will be really valuable to people coming through the pipeline, so thank you first and foremost. Tell us a little bit about your roles and responsibilities, kind of your baseline areas of focus.
ECM: I’m a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy. I’m an 1130 Designator, that’s a SEAL Special Warfare Officer. I’m currently the NSW Enlisted Community Manager. This is typically like on O4, O5 SEAL assigned to the Bureau of Personnel. We advise the Commander at NPC and staff on SEAL enlisted personnel matters, so anything from policies to planning, to trying to develop incentives to keep people in the Navy or join the Navy.
DF: Correct me if I’m wrong here, you’re kind of a strategic piece in keeping the right numbers and types of personnel coming into the pipeline to keep mission capabilities where they need to be?
ECM: Numbers is certainly a big part of it. We also focus on the quality and putting everything together, whether it’s the recruiting mission, the training at the Naval Special Warfare Center. We don’t necessarily oversee that, but we’re definitely influential (DF: A big part of it) in all the decisions.
DF: One of the main reasons why we’re here is to talk about the specific selection and the draft process. Just to give people an idea of some of the stuff that might be a little intangible that kind of contributes to whether they make it through or not, maybe if you could speak to that a little bit and give us a little bit of your insight of some of the things that might be a little bit overlooked in terms of what you’re looking for in these candidates.
ECM: We use what we call the whole person approach, so we look at the candidate completely. Everything that we know about the candidate, everything that’s put into the package, we assess, and no one single factor is going to disqualify that person. We take what we’re seeing of the candidate, and we compare it to what our needs are. We have certain needs with year groups to correct inventory shortfalls… (DF: When you say inventory, sorry to cut you off, you’re talking about personnel?) Right, absolutely. So, when we’re short on year, whether that’s not enough people made it through BUD/S or the SWCC schoolhouse, we’ll look to make up those shortfalls by bringing people that are already in the Navy, fleet sailors.
DF: Are there any areas of the process that you think candidates might overlook as being more important than they might realize in terms of this whole person approach?
ECM: No, I think a lot of stuff that make people a good sailor out of the Navy is the same things we’re looking for them to make good SEALs, and that’s things like being a good team player, being a leader within their organization and sustained superior performance. And we use the standard Navy assessments to, to evaluate that, so things like their evaluation reports that they get from their commands and the people they’re working for out in the Navy. We value what they do to make themselves a better team player at that command, so any qualifications that they can earn out in the Navy, that all contributes to the way we evaluate them.
DF: Is there a certain ratio that you see that is kind of consistent in terms of people you’re pulling in from Big Navy versus people off the street?
ECM: No, I’d say the success rate, or attrition rate, is pretty consistent, whether they’re coming off the street, a street session, or somebody that we’ve brought in that’s already in the Navy.
DF: Do one or the other in particular have an advantage do you think? It seems like maybe the people coming from the Navy side might have a bit more of a paper trail that you guys could reference and weed out a little bit more. Is that the case?
ECM: I wouldn’t say anyone has an advantage. That’s going to come down to what that person has on the inside; the personal commitment that they’ve made to complete training. That’s unique for everyone, so those attrition rates are pretty consistent.
DF: Our core audience is the recruit. I would love to find out a lot of details about your individual job in terms of responsibilities... and day-to-day stuff that you do. I think it’s really fascinating. From your perspective, what can a SEAL/SWCC candidate do to best prepare themself for this selection process in your mind?
ECM: Number one is be a sailor in good standing, right, so excel where you’re at in the fleet, in the job that’s assigned to you and all the tasks that are given to you by whoever you’re working for in the Navy. That’s first and foremost. We don’t want folks who’ve been in trouble or problematic. We need to have trust that they’re going to, you know, be able to succeed in environments where a lot’s expected out of them.
DF: Are there areas where you feel like candidates are over-focusing on certain aspects of the process or certain numbers they’re trying to hit or any of that? You find that to be the case at all? People maybe have the wrong impression of the selection process?
ECM: So, another big part of what we’re looking for candidates is physical fitness, and we measure that through the PST. I think there’s probably a lot of people that narrow their focus down to the PST and the numbers they’re generating and their PST score, and while that’s very important, like I said earlier, we use the whole person approach. Strong character, strong mindset is very valuable to a candidate. I used to tell people that it was about making it through BUD/S is about 80% mental and about 30% physical. I know that math doesn’t initially add up, but it basically means it’s going to take more than what you got. You got to find a place somewhere inside you to find that extra 10% and then give it, right. I’m a firm believer that BUD/S is mostly mental. It’s going to come down to having that mental strength and that mental discipline to get up every day and go to work and go train in austere conditions, in an environment that is pretty hostile to you, every single day, and you got to find that motivation to get up and go do that.
DF: We’ve talked on that basically with everyone we’ve spoken with, about the importance of the mental aspect here, so I think it’s great to hear that again. I think another thing that I’ll try to highlight, you can correct me if I’m wrong, is that you’re looking for people that are leaders and that are also great teammates, and that’s not something that’s really measured in a really clinical sense. There’s no PST for teamwork that I’m aware of. Is that something that’s done with relations to their superior officers?
ECM: Sure, so I think you’re right in saying that’s a little difficult to measure. A couple ways we measure that is through letters of recommendation from immediate supervisors. So you think most of the people that we’re targeting for our fleet conversion to SO and SB have less than six years of service and are an E5 or below.
DF: Is there any particular reason, just ‘cause their age, or is it a lot of reasons?
ECM: We target those guys because we don’t want to bring them into the community too senior. Right? So we don’t want a guy who’s kind of new to the teams and may have some Navy experience but not a lot of experience in the teams in a position where they’re leading troops, leading SEALs in a position where they don’t necessarily have the experience base to support that leadership role.
DF: I gotcha. So, is that something that you encourage actively to seek out letters of recommendation, or is that kind of a more organic process you kind of wait for that to happen?
ECM: It’s something that’s encouraged to be included in their application for fleet conversion, so we’re looking for letter of rec from LPOs, Chief Petty Officers, Senior Chief Petty Officers that are in that sailor’s chain of command that can kind of speak to what that person is doing on a daily basis for that command and where they’ve seen that sailor demonstrate leadership, initiative, all those characteristics that we’re looking for.
DF: Do you guys have a face-to-face interview process to validate any of that stuff, or are you guys going off paper for most of that?
ECM: An option available to the sailors is engaging with the SEAL/SWCC scout team, and part of that process of putting their application together involves an interview with the scout team.
DF: That makes sense.
DF: How often are you doing this process, and maybe give us a little bit of an overview of what that looks like for you?
ECM: Quarterly, I hold a fleet conversion panel, and we take applications from fleet sailors looking to convert from whatever rate they are in or status they’re in if they’re undesignated to SO or SB, right. So, we have a need, specific year groups, to assess sailors in those year groups into SO and SB into the pipeline. We apply historical attrition rates to those numbers. General rule of thumb, it’s about five sailors to make one SEAL. So, this quarterly panel that occurs is, the voting members are SEAL and SWCC E7 and above who review the packages, applications, all the documents within, brief that sailor’s record to the group, and then we vote on that sailor whether or not we’re going to give them a shot going to BUD/S or SWCC.
DF: How many of you guys are sitting down to do this?
ECM: It’s anywhere between five and ten folks.
DF: Okay, and what are some of the first things that you look for that you’re kind of just, “This person’s in,” in terms of weeding out those application packages?
ECM: So, first and foremost, we’re looking at what the community’s need is. We advertise that need via the NPC, Naval Personnel Command website. We have a spot on there, and we’ll open up year groups to conversion based on our need. So, if we have a year group where a lot of qualified personnel, qualified SEALs or SWCC get out of the Navy unexpectedly, we may open that year group for conversion. So, that’s first and foremost. We’re looking at “What do we need as a community?” to bring folks in. Second, we’re looking at “Does this candidate meet all the minimum requirements?” Is this a complete package, right? So, are they within age limits? Are they within time and service limits? What’s their current pay grade? And as long as all the prescribed requirements as outlined in the MILPERSMAN 1220 tack 300 for SEAL, tack 400 for SWCC, are met, we consider that a valid application, right.
DF: So, you’re pushing people aside that are just, outright, they’re not able to be there for rules.
ECM: Right, if you can’t follow instructions, and you can’t, if you can’t go down a checklist and put an application together…I don’t want you to check my parachute, and I don’t want you to check my dive rig. You got to figure it out. So, that’s step one. Don’t let your career counselor do it for you. If they want to help, absolutely. That’s an asset to tap into, but it’s your responsibility. It’s your application; it’s your package. So, that’s step one, and those are the ones that go to the panel to be looked at, and then, you know, it’s a competitive process, and we want the best and the brightest that the Navy has to offer, so it’s not a free for all. We don’t take everybody within our need, and we start to look for red flags, and then we look for the quality of the candidate, right, so we’re looking at the PST score, not only the raw numbers of that PST, but we’re looking at how that PST compares to all the candidates we’ve selected in the last 12 months.
DF: And that’s in terms of trying to make sure you have a balanced force? Can you explain why you’re looking at those numbers compared to the stuff that’s kind of historically recent?
ECM: We look back at the last four quarterly panels, and we look at all the candidates that we selected, and we create essentially a distribution, a bell curve distribution, and we look at where this new applicant falls as far as standard deviations above or standard deviations below the mean PST score. Now, if you’re below, we all know a lower PST score is better, so if you’re below that means you’re a pretty good athlete, right. You’re running faster, you’re swimming faster, stronger. If you’re way above, you’re going to be a little bit weaker in that pack, and we know that the weaker you are physically, the more challenging it is for you to complete the course at BUD/S. So, if you have a high PST, meaning a bad PST score, your likelihood of success is probably lower than somebody who has…
DF: And you want people to make it through the process. This isn’t just for fun. When you talked briefly about kind of red flags, can you maybe give us some examples of those?
ECM: In dealing with the fleet sailors, we have a lot of folks who have been to BUD/S before, or have been in training before, so we ask that if you have been to BUD/S before, and you are now looking for a second chance at BUD/S that you have served your minimum 24 months in the fleet.
DF: You mean after your first BUD/S excursion?
ECM: Correct, right, right, so regardless of why you stopped training, whether it was your own choice, drop on request or an injury, removed from training, you go out into the fleet for a minimum of 24 months. We get a lot of folks who apply at the sixth month mark, twelve month mark looking to come right back. That’s not really our deal that we’re offering. We can’t say we made a good evaluation on your ability to correct whatever deficiency you had, whether you were immature, whether you were not physically fit enough or just didn’t have the mental game. Two years is the period of time we’re looking to make that assessment. We’re also requiring those students or those applicants to write a personal statement saying why they did not complete training the first time, and this is pretty important. We want to hear in your words, why they didn’t complete training. We’re not looking for a novel. We’re not looking for a chapter book on that; we’re just looking for one page, concise, to the point, but also pretty descriptive of why you didn’t complete training the first time and why you need a second shot. So, that’s one of those red flags we’re looking for, and anybody out there that’s not an author, an English major, we’re not grading your punctuation, we’re not grading your grammar; we’re looking for content, absolutely. Another thing we’re looking at is the evaluations that a sailor has. So whether they have never been to BUD/S before or had been to BUD/S before, we’re looking at the evaluations, and we’re looking at how well they’ve done. We’re looking for people to break out amongst their peer groups on a ship, so the way the Navy evaluation system works is there’s EPs, early promote, MP, must promote…
DF: When you say break out, you mean kind of people that are accelerated in their promotion process, or maybe you can explain.
ECM: Not necessarily promotion but doing well, doing everything that they’re asked and exceeding those expectations wherever they are out in the fleet. So, if they’re working on a ship, and they’re a group of 30 other E4s on the ship, you know, we want to see someone in the top seven of those 30. Not necessarily, you know, a disqualifying thing, right, so if you’re not an EP sailor, if you’re an MP sailor, we’ll still take a look at you cause we’re looking at the whole person approach, and there’s no one thing that’s going to disqualify anyone, but that certainly would help.
DF: My impression is that you follow the steps, there’s not much you can do to change who you are at a core. You’re looking for a specific type of person that’s capable, not necessarily someone who’s able to check these boxes.
ECM: Certainly, we look at letters of recommendation pretty equally, no matter who they’re from, whether it’s a Commander of a ship or the Senior Chief in a division on a ship or a Troop Chief from a SEAL team, or a CO from a SEAL team. We weight those equally.
DF: That makes a lot of sense. So, we have people that are applying to this process that are not rated, and they have a rating. Can you talk a little bit more about that? We briefly touched that earlier.
ECM: There’s probably some misconception from guys who do not pass at one of the training pipelines we have the first time, and they end up going to the fleet, by picking one rate over another or maybe remaining undesignated, they’re going to have an opportunity to return to training faster than someone else, right. So, to dispel some of those myths, 24 months is the minimum period of time that you need to spend in the fleet. You’re not getting around that. The second part of that is, is we want you to become valuable to the Navy in that 24 months. Whatever you see the best way for you to contribute to the Navy, we want to see you maximize that. For some people, that may be being undesignated and contributing to the Navy effort in that sense. In other people, it might be going out and finding a rate and completing an A school and contributing in a more qualified or technical sense. Whatever is right for the individual is going to work. Our goal is to really look at what have you done in the two years that you were in the Navy before you reapplied…and how you’ve done it and how successful you’ve been at it. ‘Cause, really, getting a rate is not for everyone, being undesignated is not for everyone. Everyone’s got their own unique skills and attributes, and we really want to see you maximize that for the Navy. We want to see you maximize those skills you have to become valuable for the Navy, and then we’re going to assess that and say, “This guy is a team player. This guy is making the most of assets he has,” and we like that.
DF: Yeah, I think that definitely rings as a smarter choice than trying to predict what would be a more successful choice for them. You have a lot of responsibility; a lot falls on your shoulders in terms of making the right choices. What’s the most difficult part of your job?
ECM: A big part of what we do in community management is planning for the future, planning for growth, planning for unexpected losses, planning for how individuals will interpret our policies or incentives. This is challenging because there are so many moving parts. We build session plans based on factors such as current requirements, what we have on hand as far as SEAL and SWCC qualified personnel and historical success rates. All these numbers change independent of each other, and sometimes in difficult to predict patterns. The human factor can sometimes be unpredictable.
DF: Yeah, exactly. Trying to predict where things are going to go is a unique challenge.
ECM: Yeah, all these different variables kind of contribute to what we set as a session in production targets. And honestly, there’s a lot of numbers that go behind it, but there’s a lot of variables that are hard to account for, and trying to predict how many guys are going to graduate each year, it can be pretty problematic.
DF: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point to bring home. What kind of advice can you give to someone who is putting an application for this process?
ECM: Sure, I’d say if you’re thinking about applying for a Special Warfare special program like SO or SB, the best thing you can do is put a complete package together with your best foot forward and get it submitted. So, there’s some misconceptions out there that there’s a lot of people that can stand in your way from putting in an application. I think that’s incorrect.
DF: What do you mean by stand in your way?
ECM: If you’re not getting a lot of support from your command that you’re at, certainly they can voice that opinion, but they can’t prevent you from applying for one of these programs. That goes the same for the community managers that I work with at BUPERS. All the communities have a need to fill sailors into jobs. Our need is pretty strong in the Navy’s opinion, and there’s very few cases where another community’s need outweighs our need. It does happen sometimes, and it’s always on a case-by-case basis. So, best thing you can do, as a sailor, is put your application together, make it the strongest application you can possibly make, whether that’s your letters of recommendation, your PST score, your evaluations, the qualifications you’re earning on the ship, and make sure it’s submitted. It will get to us. We will look at it. Based on our need and that sailor’s qualification, we’ll make our selections, and we’ll go to bat for you if we really want you, so put your best foot forward, get your application in, and we’ll take care of it with community managers and commands if we need to.
DF: Well, I think you dropped a lot of wisdom on us. It’s been super helpful to talk to you. I think your words go a lot of way to help people kind of make this transition and hopefully get more successful people through the BUD/S process. Thank you so much for your time.
ECM: You got it.
DF: Find out more at SEALSWC.com, and join us again for the next NSW Podcast.
Navy SEAL and SWCC candidates get a taste of NSW training at boot camp. The Dive Motivators begin the process of familiarization -- and selection -- of candidates for the long training pipeline ahead of them. Reality sets in quickly. Listen as we talk with a SEAL Master Chief. Find out more at www.sealswcc.com
“you have to pay attention to detail and you have to give it your maximum effort”
DF: Welcome to, “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday,” the official Navy SEALs podcast.
DF: Navy boot camp is the first place Special Warfare recruits will receive unique training. It starts early, with what they call “Dive Motivation.” This is where special warfare candidates perform their morning workout. I’m Daniel Fletcher, today I speak with Dive Motivator, SEAL Master Chief Steve Drum to get some personal advice about recruit fitness. From mental performance and focus to the physical standards test.
DF: Well, first of all, thank you for taking the time to sit down with us. I know you have a busy schedule. Your words of wisdom will be really appreciated and I think really nice insight for people that are going through this process.
SD: Sure, my pleasure.
DF: Tell us a little bit about what you do here on a regular basis. Your main priorities and responsibilities briefly, that would be a great start.
SD: Within our commodity, we have all of the Warrior Challenge programs, so SEAL, SWCC, Diver, EOD and Air Rescue. And so what we do here is we facilitate a progressive workout schedule to consist of roughly 26 workouts. About half of them are going to be progressive swim workouts, and the other half are going to be progressive run workouts. After you show up here at boot camp, and you pass the PST. Then you are going to be put into a schedule where you’re going to start off with a three-mile run some basic, fundamental swimming drills to get stroke development down and things like that, and it’s all just to get you further comfortable in the water. It’s all to get you some more mileage and time on your feet okay, but it’s important to note that we’re here to facilitate these workouts, but dive motivator training here is subordinate to the overall training that you receive at boot camp. You’re here to be a basically trained sailor. That’s front and foremost here. Official Naval Special Warfare and NSO programs officially start when you graduate boot camp. That said, we’re here to make sure that you’re as prepared as you can for the next phase in the pipeline. So, we’re here to give you not just the workouts but give you mentoring, turn the heat up on you a little bit to ensure that you’re able to collaborate with your shipmates to the left and right of you to be able to buy into something greater than self. That you’re able to get along, and you’re able to buy into the mission that we have here.
DF: You’re kind of a bridge in terms of the fitness piece between people taking their initial PST and then arriving at BUD/S if they make it that far? Is that fair, or is that not accurate?
SD: We’re going to make sure that when you show up, it’s a different animal than when you were probably taking the PST back with your mentors and your coordinators. This is why we always advise that you have a good cushion when you show up here at RTC.
DF: When you say cushion, you mean a baseline fitness level, or what do you mean by that?
SD: If you are leaving at your 15-day PST, and you’re just doing the bare minimums, it’s going to be hard here for the following reasons. A: you’re going from, unless you worked a really difficult job right before you shipped, you’re going to go from a minimal amount of stress, plenty of sleep, good nutrition, and maybe some of these guys, two workouts a day, and you’re going to come over here, and you’re not going to get the sleep, you’re not going to get the high quality food, you’re going to be stressed, we try to give you a minimum of three workouts a week, but sometimes the training schedule, again, the other mandatory testable events, your firefighting, your live fire training, all you other drill, that going to take front and center.
Your last week at training here at boot camp, you may get one or sometimes zero workouts, but we’ll do everything in our power to make sure that we’re bridging that gap as you asked, bridging that gap between showing up on the street and making sure you are getting time on your feet, that you’re going to be training outside on the track when the weather supports it, and you’re going to be getting into the large pool and getting longer swims. You’re going to get introduced with fins if you haven’t done that already. You will be in a good place when you show up to go across the street. It’s very critical that they understand boot camp is not just a speed bump. You are here to be a basically trained sailor, and that’s very important because as you learn how to take information from your recruit division commanders. You process that information, and you execute it to 100% adherence to the instruction. If you can’t do that, then we can’t really use you in the SEAL Teams or any of the other programs.
DF: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. First and foremost, you need to join the Navy, and to do that, there’s a lot of fundamentals. Your piece is more getting your feet wet so to speak, in terms of physical intensity, and kind of trying to maintain fitness level, but primarily people need to be aware that they’re here to become a sailor. They’re not here to come and just work out, right?
SD: Right, when you get here you’re going to learn how to march, you’re going to learn how to fold your clothes and make your bed, and we’re not just doing that. You’re not folding your clothes and making your bed just to do it. You’re doing it because even in the SEAL Teams, when we start talking about free-fall jumping on oxygen and building rigs to throw out of the plane and all these type of things are very sequence oriented, and they’re very detailed, and they have to be done 100% correct all the time. And so, you wouldn’t want to skip the boot camp training if you could. You want to go through it because it’s only going to help you be better at making it through to your ultimate job, your ultimate goal.
DF: Right, I think that we made that clear with some of the other people that we’ve spoken with and that’s been hit home a lot. It seems like that’s a common thing for people to think they’re just going to breeze through this process and try to get to BUD/S and that this really isn’t that important, and I think it’s important to reiterate that even coming from your side in the fitness area that’s a top priority of yours to make clear. (SD: yes) So, we’ve heard from people to aim for a competitive PST score. Does that line up with your thinking?
SD: We are strict here with the PST standards. We’re not trying to fail people, but when I say that you need to do 50 perfect pushups, that means 50 perfect pushups. Go and research what exactly the standard is. It’s breaking 90 all the way up, locking the elbows out all the way down, breaking 90, and so that’s what you’re going to be held accountable for and if not, you’re going to get stood up, and you’re going to fail the PST for that day, and you’ll be given a couple more opportunities, but, again, your life is going to be a lot easier if you just pass the first time out the gates. I’m not interested in seeing 100 of your crappy pushups. I need to see 50 perfect ones.
DF: So, I’ll read between the lines here, and you can correct me or tell me if I’m wrong, but would it be a good idea if you’re a recruit, you’re at a boat team or with a mentor, to even maybe ask, “Be strict on me with these standards because I want them to be right, I want them to be perfect.” Because who knows who’ll be judging them when they’re at home before they get here, is that do you think that’s a good idea?
SD: Correct. Absolutely, 100%. Again for whatever reason, people think, “I’m going to try to get as many as I can” at the cost of perfect form, and that’s not going to work out for you well. That’s not what we’re looking for here, so, again, when I say perfect pull-ups, that’s dead arm hang, chin all the way over the bar, not up at the bar looking up at the sky. It’s chin over the bar. Your sit-ups, arms crossed thumbs on your clavicles, all the way up to elbows right below the bottom of the knees and then all the way down, upper back touching the deck. So, we’re strict about it.
DF: Yeah, and as you should be, right. (SD: Right.) I think that kind of makes sense that people might be struggling a little bit more when they get here than they might anticipate, because they had previously had X score, and now maybe they’re struggling like you said, they’re not doing this at 5 in the morning in their hometown. They might not be doing this on, you know, lack of protein shakes and lack of pre-workout supplements, fill in the blanks, so I think it’s important if you recognize that things are going to be more intense.
SD: You better drop the No Explode. If you think you’re going to have that kind of stuff to help you here. You’re sadly mistaken.
DF: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s important that people realize that it’s going to be a different environment that they’re in. The numbers aren’t just going to be passed on. What should a potential SEAL or SWCC or fill in the blank NSW candidate know about the dive motivator process and the stuff that you do here that they might not be aware of?
SD: So, first off, you’re going into an NSW program, either SEAL or SWCC. You are going to be segregated into that division whereas we’ll typically pair up the NSO programs. Now, they’ll be some, maybe some overlap between the two, but the best we can, we try to keep NSW with NSW and NSO with NSO. NSO being Air Rescue, EOD and Diver.
DF: And then SWCC/SEAL. Their training will be the same here?
SD: You’re going to get whatever specifics you need once you get to your respective preparation course or A school you’re going to get dialed in. When you leave here to go to prep for SEAL and SWCC training, they’re going to start teaching the knot tying, the lifesaving, things like that that are going to help you, but right now, we’re all about the general purpose fitness and water comfortability, stroke development and time on your feet.
DF: So the NSW candidates you see coming in here, are there any low points in their skills or techniques that you see as a consistent issue that you could maybe point out?
SD: One of the things that kind of is a pet peeve of mine that we see here is, we’ll still see people who will show up routinely who have never swam without a mask or goggles. And so, you’ll see them, and they’ll get in here to do this PST in the pool, and they can’t even stick their faces in the water, and to me I’m baffled because so much of first phase in BUD/S is without your mask, is with you trying to see underwater without a mask, so you’d better be doing, I’m not saying to swim all the time without a mask, but do both. Learn how to swim with a mask on, without a mask.
Another thing that I want to highlight, if we don’t get to it later, I’ll talk about it now is, don’t cram for the test when you get here, okay. By the time you get to BUD/S or SWCC training or any of the other programs, I want you to be fresh, injury free. So, start your training far out enough in advance. If you’re going through the SEAL/SWCC website, then you’ll know. Find out who you can rely on in that forum to give you the sound advice. If not, you can reach out to the actual professionals on there, and they’ll tell you.
Ultimately, all you have to do, is do well on the PST. If you want anything above that, that’s a bonus, but I wouldn’t get too carried away. Definitely don’t be working on breath holds, don’t be doing all this crazy stuff trying to tread with, with scuba tanks on. I just, be very comfortable in the water, maybe you can work on some treading with and without fins, but don’t show up hurt. Don’t be trying to, (DF: I see, over-train.) don’t be slacking and then figure you’re going to start ramping up all this running and swimming, and then you’re going to be prone to overuse injuries. You’re going to show up, and you’re going to be hurt, and you could lose your contract, get dropped from the program.
DF: So don’t over-train.
SD: Don’t over-train or under-recover. Make sure that you’re ramping up, you’re hitting it hard, and then as you get closer and closer, you’re fine-tuning it, you’re at a good place where, yeah, you’re still getting the reps in, you’re still getting some volume in, but you’re training intelligently, and there’s really in today’s day and age no excuse whatsoever to not have the information you need to train smartly. Don’t get carried away with a lot of these programs that tell you that you need to go and do a mini Hell Week or go to these really expensive rigorous courses, where what you really need to do is make sure that you’re doing this program for the right reasons. Understand that you really want it because you’re going to be tested, and when, even in boot camp, you may have your doubts, where you’re like, “Ah, I don’t know if this is really what I want to do,” but remember, it was a good idea when you thought about it. It’s not any less of a good idea now that you’re eight weeks in, six months in, okay. It’s still a good idea, and you’ll still be glad that you’ve completed the program successfully.
DF: Are you guys doing your workouts on kind of a consistent time of the day? You guys always here in the morning? You guys kind of surprising people? How does that work?
SD: Good question, good question. Yes, you’re going to do everything that a basic recruit does here at boot camp. The exact same things, only you get to start your day a couple hours earlier. You’re going to REV typically about 4:30, and then you’re going to show up over here at the dive motivator at the combat training pool, and we’re going to start kicking the workouts off at about 5:15 and you’re going to be wrapping and on the road to breakfast, at about no later than 7:15. Your initial PST’s going to look like this. You’re going to show up, and you’re going to do your third-class swim test, which is pretty easy for those who’ve been training well to get here to do these programs. You’re going to jump off a tower, you’re going to work on float, basic swim stroke, flotation with your coveralls, things like that. At some point, you’ll practice an abandoned ship rescue at sea type thing with an inflatable raft, but as soon as you’re done you’re going to roll right into your PST. We’re going to hit you with the swim, followed by your push, sit, pull, and then we’re going to take you out to the track outside during the warmer months. When it’s cold, we’ll take a bus, and you’ll go across a street to an indoor track, and you’ll do your run there.
DF: What is the flexibility like for people that might not be hitting the right number for PST and need to retake? How many chances do they get, or if they’re really close, or if you feel like there’s maybe some sort of excusable reason why maybe they didn’t hit the right number of laps, they miscounted, or maybe they have a slight injury or something like that. Where you know that the candidate should be capable of hitting a better number?
SD: You definitely want to pass the first time, your life will be a lot easier. However, we’re definitely going to take into consideration things like injury, things like, “Hey, I had to get some teeth pulled.” If you fail your initial PST, full transparency here, you will have ‘til your fifth week of training to pass your PST. And if you don’t pass it by then, then you’ll be reclassified.
DF: So, there’s plenty of opportunity for the right people to hit the right numbers?
SD: Correct. (DF: Okay, that’s good to know.) And it’s also it’s important to know that when you quit the program, you still are obligated to stay in the Navy. You’re obligated to go reclassify, okay. If you are medically dropped or medically disqualified, you have the option to, to try to, to stay in the Navy for a different program that you may qualify for, or you can elect to separate at that point because that’s the contract you came in at. But if you quit, then you are going to go reclassify, and it’s not going to be the same rate that you joined at. It’s going to be what’s available at the time. But, again the overarching theme here is that you’re coming here to be a basically trained sailor, and you’re going to learn the tools that you need at boot camp while you’re learning to be a basically trained sailor. That’s absolutely going to help you to be a better SEAL, SWCC or NSO candidate. We provide three points for mentoring typically with the recruits. The first piece is kind of like, “Hey, the welcome aboard. Here’s what’s expected of you when you show up to dive motivator for PT.” The second one is usually I’ll give the introductory brief, and what I get into there is the big four sports psychology, and I get into what I call the Operational Mindset. And the operational mindset is purpose, “Why am I here?” and commitment,” yes, I made the right decision to come here. I absolutely am ready to start buying in and then collaborate with the people around me, collaborate and be a part of the Navy, be a part of the team.”
The second piece is preparation, and not just the preparation like the physical piece of training, the pushups and the swim, but also the preparation to make sure that no matter what happens, we’re as ready as we can be. To include making sure that all of our stuff, our backpacks are packed the night before, inspecting my bunkmate’s, he’s inspecting mine, to make sure that all of our gear is ready.
In terms of, the mental piece, BUD/S training is all about testing your mental fortitude, it’s about testing your ability to stay calm and perform under pressure, and it’s about your ability to collaborate and be a team player. That’s what all this is about, and the cold water and all the physical conditioning, that’s all the medium in which we, test that. So, it’s getting into your mind and understanding that you are going to suffer. You are going to have moments of doubt, but you have to revisit why you’re there. And I tell people to write about it, “Dear Diary, no kidding. This is what happened to me today, and this is how I can be better tomorrow,” really sit there and reflect and figure out how you can increase your performance. We talk about the big four, we talk about the goal-setting, so when I’m doing things where I’m extremely stressed, and I want to elect to quit or to panic, I can keep focused on my goal of that particular evolution, and I do that by going through mental rehearsal or visualization techniques to think about it. “All right, this is what’s going to happen to me. Let me walk through,” and I use that in the SEAL Teams. When I was doing the more stressful things like close quarter combat, clearing rooms, I would sit outside the door before training, and I would go through it in my head. And I would also do performance based self-talk, “Okay, if he goes left, I’m going to go right,” and I’m going to think about what’s going to happen to me beforehand because your body absolutely processes that as a little bit of experience beforehand. And we even get into mindfulness a little bit, slowing your breathing down, taking deep and long breaths to make sure that you’re kind of dumping a little bit of stress and getting into that habit of being able to focus back on what our goal is. So, we choose what the goal is, and performing that goal rather than choosing panic, rather than choosing fear and quitting and things like that.
DF: I want to highlight one part of what you just said and that was the journaling portion. We spoke with Mike Caviston and that’s a part of his recommendations as well, journaling your workouts. Something that’s consistent that I’ve heard through almost everyone that I’ve interviewed, is the “why” part, “Why am I doing this?” and the goal-setting part, and I think that incorporating that “why” part into the journaling of your fitness, I think that’s a really good piece of advice for candidates because when the dust settles or, you know, you boil everything down, that’s what you’re left with, the “Why am I doing this?” and like you’re saying, remind yourself of, why it was a good choice to begin with or whoever is your inspiration or whatever your inspiration is, keeping that forefront is, I think that’s important.
SD: Absolutely, and you write things in your journal like, “This is why I want to be a SEAL or SWCC, and this is why this is a good decision,” and write down, “I know that I’m going to face challenges. I know that there are days when I’m not going to perform well, that I’m going to fail things potentially.” Things are going to test your confidence, and so when that happens to you, you go back to that journal that you wrote in, you know, months ago, and you’re like, “Yeah, I’m prepared for this,” because when you’re cold, when you’re tired, when you’re stressed, you’re more prone to an emotional hijacking. It’s just like when you’re under the water, and you’re doing pool competency, and your body starts going without air, you forget your goal, and you elect to want to bolt to the surface, and then you’ll regret it. You’ll fail. Same thing here. When you are tired and when you’re stressed, you’re prone to let emotions negatively impact your decision-making, whereas you make it a routine to actually revisit when you wrote that stuff in a clear, well-rested, unstressed mind state, and you revisit that, and you say, “Yes, that’s right. I know this is what I want. I made the right decision to come here. I knew this was going to be hard. I’m going to have hard weeks, but I can do this. This is very, very doable,” and that’s absolutely the truth. You pass the screening test, you have what it takes to get through BUD/S. People go through, and they’ll get only more further refined. You’ll be even more confident in your knot tying, your lifesaving and drown proofing and things like that. You’re given the practice test at that point, but at the end of the day, it still comes down to being able to push the negative thoughts out of your brain, deal with what’s happening, deal with the fear, deal with the stress, the uncertainty and drive through it.
DF: I was expecting to sit here and talk to you about, you know, the details and minutia of the training process, the gear you use and stuff like that, and it’s interesting to hear that’s really not what’s most important. The physical part is just what’s going to push you through. But your mind, it can’t break, and that needs to stay focused.
SD: You know, it goes without saying you need to have a very highly elevated level of physical fitness and swimming ability, of course. I was never really particularly good at anything. I could do PT okay. I could make my timed runs. I was a complete disaster in the soft sand, got gooned on just about every single run, but then I’d say, “Hey, maybe that made me a little bit tougher when Hell Week comes along,” and I wasn’t a strong swimmer. I was comfortable in the water, I had that going for me cause I spent a lot of time in the pool as a kid, but I was not a fast swimmer. I was not a fast runner. I was not a PT stud, but yet six months later, I’m sitting there on the grinder graduating with the class that I started with.
DF: So, I’ll just kind of highlight the things I think that I’ve heard from you that are really important. Obviously making sure you’re paying attention to detail and doing the basic things at boot camp. You can’t brush over that. (SD: no, you don’t want to) You can’t just slide through because I think that a lot of people are just thinking, “This is BS work that I need to do to get to BUD/S.” But it’s been reiterated multiple times that these are things that will be checked on at BUD/S. This is not just busy work. This is not just BS to kind of give you a hard time.
SD: Look at it like this. Hell Week is the first major hurdle. After that comes the second major hurdle, which is in Dive Phase, and it’s known as the Pool Competency. Up to that point, you’ve never been scuba diving, it’s all still in the pool, and you’re learning how to put the gear on, how to take it off in a very precise sequence okay. So, you’ve got to know that reflexively all of those things are now added to what’s known as the Pool Comp Test, where you’re given all the different problems related to cutting off inhalation, exhalation, hoses on your breathing apparatus, and you have to work through that problem, and when you sort it out, it has to be in those exact procedures, only you’re stressed, and all you want to do is get a breath of air, and you’re doing the Funky Chicken. If you are thinking of that process instead of just head down like a pack mule, when you’re folding your clothes and when you’re making your bed, if you’re trying to figure out, “Okay, I’m in the moment. I’m thinking about why this is important,” if you’re kind of thinking about that early on, you are really setting yourself up for success when you are hopefully making it through Hell Week and finding yourself stressing out about Pool Comp. You will have effectively set the table if you’re able to be in the moment, understand why all the things that you’re doing are important.
DF: That can’t be overemphasized because there’s so much in the media about the physical portion, about the toughness, about the logs, the sand, the cold water. But there’s procedure, there’s attention to detail, there’s order that is equally a part of this training process. That’s not tough guy stuff, it’s focus, and that’s connected to this process, which goes back to the crawl, walk, run. You know, you start with T-shirts, and then it ends up being dive apparatus and jump gear or weapons systems. It’s all procedural, and that’s often just really glossed over. That these guys are just tough guys, you know what I mean?
SD: It is, and the other piece that’s worth mentioning that’s absolutely the linchpin for the whole community, for the whole program is that based on that motto you’ll hear in the SEAL teams, “Long live the brotherhood,”. You’ve got to start putting the people to the left and right of you needs above your own. Me as an example, I wanted to be a SEAL because I figured, “Hey, it would be cool to crawl around and paint my face green and get challenged by a very difficult selection process.” but that was not enough to keep me there. Once I got there, and I realized that I was surrounded by the best people that I would ever work with and I would ever be surrounded by, I knew that I had found a home, and I knew that that’s why I wanted to stay there. And when you show up at boot camp, it starts there. You start building, and a lot of those guys are going to go away statistically, that’s just inevitable, but you’ll be left with a core bunch of guys that you’ll start identifying as great Americans, and this is who I want to spend you know, a career with in many cases. You’ll be expected to start thinking in that mindset as soon as you get here.
We don’t do this training alone. We can’t get through this training by ourselves. We’ve got to start leaning on each other, and you’ll find guys that, that have trouble with swimming. They’ll go over at night when they come back. They’ll have a couple kids that are probably water polo players in college, and you’ll be like, “Hey, can we talk about that eggbeater?” or whatever, whatever it is. You know, that’s what it takes for a class to be successful, for individuals to be successful. I mean, I know great Team guys that could barely pass the timed run in third phase, but they’re phenomenal, phenomenal guys, and they were really good at other things, So we try to say, hey, these minimum standards are low because you may suffer in one area but be really good in all the other areas. If you have trouble with the run, but you’re crushing the other areas, you know, there’s room for you here. We’ll find a way for you to fit.
DF: If you had the ear of a candidate and you had just a couple minutes to give them some of your solid rocks of advice for this aspect, and the whole process, what else would you say to them?
SD: Invest in the mental process. Again, figure out why you really want to be here. Spend a lot of time thinking about it understanding it, and write about it. Get in the habit of reflecting on your experiences. In life, we’re only as good as our ability to draw the right conclusions from what’s happened to us and how those inform our decisions tomorrow. Spend as much time being deliberate, thinking about your successes and how to repeat them and how to further improve them. Make sure that you are spending enough time investing in your training, way in advance to you showing up at boot camp. Make sure that before you ship, you are nice and healthy. If you’re worried about breath holds and things like that do freestyle sprints. That’s going to get your wind up. That’s going to help your, your capacity. Just spend time in the water and just be comfortable. Make sure you’re swimming with a mask on and a mask off. Make sure your PST performance is 100% and in accordance with the instruction. Get somebody to film you doing your pull, push, sit. Make sure you’re cranking out solid, perfect reps. And, you know, if you do all that, you show up, and you’re ready to be part of a team. You have everything you need to be successful and make it through this program.
DF: I think that’s some really great, powerful advice. Thank you for taking the time to join us.
SD: Thank you, my pleasure.
DF: Find out more at SEALSWC.com, and join us again for the next NSW Podcast.
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Physical and mental health is important to the recruiting process for SPECWAR candidates. We spoke with an expert at the Navy's Recruit Training Command to find out how Navy SEAL and SWCC candidates can stay on top of their game. For more info check out www.sealswcc.com.
“You have to pay attention to detail and you have to give it your maximum effort”
Daniel Fletcher: Welcome to “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday,” the official Navy SEAL podcast.
DF: Mental and physical health is essential to a successful trip through Navy Boot Camp, even more so for NSW candidates. I’m Daniel Fletcher. As we continue our boot camp series from Great Lakes, Illinois, we sit down with medical liaison for crew training command, Chief Hospital Corpsman Jeff Ramirez. We answer some common questions about recruit medical history, mental health, medications, and preventative care. Listen up.
DF: Thanks for sitting down with us for one, and if you could just briefly talk about what you do here that would be a great start.
JR: I deal with all medical related issues, in terms of recruit appointments, any injuries that we have here going to network hospitals, to the federal healthcare center, outsourced down to Chicago. Any questionable areas that the doctors have that they need to liaison with the RDCs here in terms of missed appointments or recruits not eating enough, or even if they feel like they’re getting too much exercise, because there’s instances where we start breaking some recruits down that are couch potatoes, and then they get over here, and they learn right away that it’s a little different here.
DF: What types of tests or any type of screening do you administer, or is that not part of your position?
JR: So, that’s not part of my position here. So, I deal with the docs, and it’s going to range from mental health to your physical therapy, your preventative meds and then general, sick hall, but it’s every illness or injury or anything medical related between RTC and the providers.
DF: Okay. Are there any ailments or injuries that you see specifically for the 800 guys that are coming through the pipeline here?
JR: 800 guys... I would say the biggest injuries that I see would be shin splints, stress fractures and not getting enough nutrients. Rhabdo, Rhabdomyolysis. We’ll see that. They didn’t train for the pipeline before they got here. So, when they’re doing the DIVEMO PT, their body is breaking it down. (DF: Pretty severe.) Their muscles are breaking it down pretty severe, yes.
DF: I guess that is kind of a form of a failed test so to speak, if someone’s put in a position physically where their body is not holding up. Are there any other specific medical tests that are given periodically or on a routine basis that you see NSW candidates having issues with?
JR: Special physicals. They’ll go to special physicals. They’ll answer the questionnaires there, go through their overall history to see if there’s anything that raises any red flags. In terms of anything periodic, that doesn’t happen unless they, they choose to go to sick hall. You know, if they’re having some issues that RDCs say they see, any 800, any recruit really walking around with limps or looking distressed or sick, we’re going to send them to sick hall regardless. You’ll get your labs drawn over there, or if you’ve got to go to bone density scan or X-rays. A lot of 800s, you know, they really want to be here most of them, so it’s kind of hard to get them to go to medical sometimes. So it’s, you know, its our responsibility, and I get a lot of phone calls about that, “Hey, I have a recruit that’s kind of been limping around. He says he’s okay, but, however, my spidey senses are telling me he probably needs to get seen.” Then we’ll go ahead and send him in there and usually find out something else.
DF: If there’s somebody who gets to this point in the process and then a medical screening turns up not good enough or a fail, whatever you want to call it. Are there chances for a candidate to kind of retake a test? Can you tell me a little bit about that landscape of that kind of situation?
JR: So, if we’re going to use vision as an example. So if you came in. the MEPS doctor says your vision’s a certain score, and you come here, and it’s not, or you’re colorblind, they’re going to reissue the actual test again. So, you’re going to do one at MEPS, you’re going to do one here. If you fail that, you’re going to do it again. And if all the scores end up as the same here, then they’re going either request a waiver, if you’re eligible. The special phys docs, they’re going to determine whose waiverable per the BUMED instruction. So they’ll go in there and make sure it is a waiverable condition, whether it’s vision, hearing. If it is waiverable, we’ll keep them in the pipeline here, and then the waivers usually come back by the time they get out of here. If it’s not since they’re most of them are contracted, then they can opt to either pick a different rate or pretty much get separated in their contract. So, your basic recruits, they’re coming in they’re not contracted like the 800s. If they don’t meet specific requirements for a certain job, then they’ll get put in another job. But for the 800s, if they don’t want to fulfill their contract because they can’t, due to something medically related, then they can either opt to go or stay with another rate.
DF: Our primary audience is, I guess I could say the laymen or the layperson or civilian. So I’ll do a little bit of interpreting for them. So, someone who comes into the Special Warfare pipeline is kind of quasi hired by the Navy, and they can then choose to choose a different direction to take their career. Is that, is that accurate?
JR: Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying and if they got their heart set on being a SEAL, and you don’t meet the medical qualifications to fulfill that contract, then yes, you can drop on request and get separated from the Navy all together.
DF: Or decide to to make a different decision. How often do you see that misalignment of MEPS decision versus something onsite here?
JR: There is those that do fall through the cracks. There’s always human error. It’s not as much as we think. Most of our, our drops are usually “drop on request” really, after. In terms of medical, it’s not as much as we, we actually think.
DF: Okay, well, that’s good to hear. What types of tests can a recruit fail to have them say, “You’re not going to be able to be in the Navy at all”?
JR: Hearing’s on a bigger scale right now than vision is.
DF: Why is that?
JR: Any kind of permanent hearing loss, the deeper decibels. It’s an automatic disqualifier, and some of them aren’t even waiverable.
DF: So, you’re saying that it’s starting to become a bigger issue than it used to be? Or it’s more noticeable or...
JR: Probably more, more noticeable. I would say that the ear buds and the working out. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t say, “I do it myself.” I would imagine that has something to do with it. So if you listen something loud, right away you’ll have that, that that minimum hearing loss, the temporary, lower frequencies, but the higher frequencies, that would be you consistently listened to your earphones really loud when you’re in the gym 24/7, or in your cars nowadays.
DF: No good. I’m guessing that there’s sometimes injuries that happen during basic training that can kind of put someone in that same situation. Is that something that people should be concerned with, or is that pretty rare in terms of shin splints that are so severe, or whatever it may be that they’re not able to continue? Do they have a chance to maybe, have a few weeks to kind of heal up?
JR: So, we have the recruit convalescence unit that’s actually here in Ship 4. The reason for that is if you get shin splints or stress fractures, you actually get a rehab time. So, when you go to the hospital, you see one of our docs, and they say, “Hey, you got shin splints. You’re going to be Light Limited duty for 21 days.” So, that’s 21 days of rehab. So during that 21 days they’re going to go to Ship 4 and their job is to get better. They’ll be put in a hold status until they are fit for full duty. Once they’re fit for full duty, they’ll incorporate with another 800 division to keep the training going.
DF: Does that happen often enough that you think that’s a successful way to deal with that?
JR: I don’t think it happens as much for the 800s. For the regular recruit divisions yes, for the 800s, no.
DF: And that’s the same process for both of them in terms of the time that they’re given and stuff like that?
JR: Yes. If you look at the recruit convalescence unit, you’ll have for every 30, 40 recruits, you might have one 800 in there. Usually when the 800s get injured, it’s because that individual didn’t prep. So, he came over here and did a little bit more running than he or she was doing at the time.
DF: Right, right, right. From your perspective, what type of advice would you give to someone coming into the pipeline to avoid types of medical issues that we’re speaking of?
JR: The biggest thing is prep. So, don’t do the bare minimum before you actually get here. Going over to DIVEMO PT, they’re going to give you a workout you know. So if you weren’t prepped before you got over here, it’s going to show, and it’s going to show quick. DIVEMO’s really where they start falling out, its not regular PT. It’s not the PT that all the other recruits get here because you’re contracted. You’re going to do something more strenuous. So, definitely prep is huge.
DF: Is there part of the process that you think people should be maybe more aware?
JR: You have to prep. Prep’s the biggest thing. If you’re taking a lot of protein powders and all this stuff you can get from GNC or bodybuilding.com, whatever you’re taking, just remember you’re not going to have it here you know, the stuff that gets you over a good workout, because sometimes you’re pushing your body so much that you need that extra protein, or you need a little bit extra, (DF: or whether it’s Pre-workout or whatever) pre-workout, you’re not going to have it here. That’s going to cut straight out of your your whole diet. Now you need to know how to eat correctly, and we do our classes here to teach you how to eat. However, it’s a lot better if you have the history of doing it and you know your greens, you know your fruits, you know what you’re doing. Because you can’t just take that simple protein powder and call it a day. It’s not going to happen here.
DF: Right. If there’s anything that you see on a common basis that you think that people should be more aware of, it would be great for you to kind of cover some of that as well.
JR: One big thing is the psych issue. And when I say that, it would be more geared towards the mental health part of it. Mental health is a big part here, and it’s a great, great tool for crew training command. Some of the 800 guys that we have, we’ll get them, and they’re watching videos and everything since they were young, they’re real motivated, can’t wait to do it. Which is outstanding. However, they come to boot camp, and they figure out, “Maybe this is not what I wanted to do.” So, it’s a general hype that they get themselves going through for however long that they get themselves hyped up for, but they get here, and they kind of shut down a little bit, and once they shut down, it’s kind of hard to pick them back up. So then they end up going to mental health and talking to them. Sometimes they can say things that may disqualify them. Does it happen? Yes. And it’s not, you know, on a huge scale; however, it does happen. Almost like they pretty much psych themselves out. The first couple DIVEMO days, they kind of psych themselves out, and they go, “Okay, maybe this is not what I want to do,” cause it’s strenuous. It hurts. At the end of the day, this is what you wanted, and you’re getting trained by the best people we have over there, but sometimes they can... psych themselves out and they put themselves in a bad position.
DF: I think you brought up a good point. So much of the focus on the prep and even further along in the BUD/S process, and then throughout, there’s a huge emphasis on physical preparedness, physical capabilities, but the mental aspects seem to be coming to the forefront a lot more than it used to be in the past, and even awareness of mental health issues. Speak to that a little bit, are there underlying issues that people should be aware of if they want to come through basic training, or maybe in the past, they had issues with depression or anxiety. What’s the Navy’s kind of opinion on that in NSW and the Big Navy, and how does that kind of fit into your job?
JR: I work with mental health really, really closely here, and the reason being is because it is a different kind of day and age. We do have kids getting prescribed meds from an early age. However, that’s not all disqualifying factors. Yes, there are certain diagnosis where it’s going to be a disqualifying factor, and that’s just kind of what it is. If you are bipolar type II or something like that, it’s going to be a disqualifying factor. However, if you struggle a little bit through school or even your first year of college, and you’ve shown progression, and you have those notes by a doc saying that you’re good to go, you’ve been on meds for a little bit, or something bad happened in the family, these are all things that they are waiverable. You’ve just got to show the actual documentation. So, in terms of someone prepping to come here, it’s good to know that if you’re going to get your civilian medical records, and it’s going to say that you’re put on a certain medication, don’t just stop. Don’t just stop and say, “Okay, well, I’m going to stop taking this because I plan to go to boot camp in a year.” So, if you stop when your doctor tells you to stop, and then you show the progression for the one or two years, preferably two, you know, the doc can sign off on that and say, “Hey, this person fell into a kind of a slump, did what he had to do, she had to do, and recovered fully. We’re good.” Where we have the issue is when someone goes to a hard part in their life, gets prescribed some medications and then decides this is what they want to do. They want to go to boot camp and then just stops it. So, when you get someone’s civilian medical records, it shows that you were getting treated, and then there’s a blank. So there’s really nothing to go off of, and now you got to get reevaluated here (DF: It’s a liability issue) its huge. So, there’s nothing wrong with mental health. It’s a part of all of us whether we like it or not; however, it’s the way we go about it.
DF: Well, I think that’s a good thing to point out. I think a lot of people might say, “You know, whatever existing condition whether it’s physical, mental or whatever disqualifies me,” and I think reading between the lines is talk to your doctor, and you guys want to see as long of a spread between, whether it’s a prescription or a diagnosis and having some evidence to say, like, “Hey, this is where I am now.” I think that would be helpful for a lot of people to hear because a lot of people just might say, “Well, I can’t do that now.”
JR: Absolutely. And I mean overall in mental health, there’s a lot of different areas, a lot of different diagnoses, and it doesn’t speak for every single one of them, but there’s a big chunk out there that you can still be in the Navy, nothing wrong with it. They just need to see the full treatment plan. They can’t just cut it off in the middle cause you never went through treatment.
DF: There seems to be maybe some confusion in the aspect of medical records and how that’s integrated into the Navy from civilian integrating the sailor life. What’s that process look like, or, you know, does the Navy scoop up everyone’s medical records when you come in?
JR: Any diagnosis, anything that legally you have to put on your medical history form, and that’s a medical history form that’s legally used by the whole Department of Defense. You do have to provide that documentation if you put a diagnosis on there. So, if you put a diagnosis on there, you have to provide that actual information because the docs want to know what the treatment plan was for and how it’s going to affect you. In terms of receiving all the civilian medical records, we’ll get what you put in there. Do we get them all? Probably not. With that being said, we probably don’t get it because they’ve still got human error, or you’ve got humans lying as well.
DF: Right. Do you see that as an issue normally, or I guess not normally, but...?
JR: I think it is an issue. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have recruits separating every day because they’ll go to mental health, or they’ll get seen because a past injury is going to act up. Past injury acts up here, and we find out that it’s something that was pre-existing. (DF: You can’t lie about that) So, now, if they want to stay in, we’re going to request those civilian medical records so we can see if you can actually stay in. But in terms of the Navy just reaching out to civilian hospitals and getting medical records, that’s not even legal.
DF: Well, obviously, it seems like being honest on your, on your forms is probably not only legal but the better thing to do for your own success.
JR: Yes, absolutely. So, like I said, any medical history form you get in the Navy, you have to list, legally. That’s why they’re asking you. We’ve got to know what’s wrong with you, and if you don’t provide that, that actual information, I mean you can get in trouble for that. But in terms of if you don’t provide it, and even if we think something, it’s not like we can reach out to where you got seen as a kid and say, “Hey, I need those records.” It definitely doesn’t work like that.
DF: Are there any kind of medical issues that can develop here that can disqualify someone completely from the Navy?
JR: Reoccurring stress fractures or reoccurring shin splints. You’re contracted to be here, however, if you can’t get past DIVEMO because you just keep on breaking, unfortunately. That’s not your fault. However, that’s something that would definitely you want to make it much farther than that because you’re pretty fragile, and after this pipeline you’re going into something even more, more aggressive.
DF: Right, right. More rigorous. Appreciate you taking the time to sit down and talk with us. I know this might not be the most glamorous topic, but it’s just as important as every other part of this pipeline. You know, crawl, walk, run. Medical is a big part of that. Thank you for your service, and thank you for the time today.
DF: Find out more at SEALSWCC.com, and join us again for the next NSW Podcast.
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To be a Navy SEAL or SWCC, you must first be in the NAVY. The first stop in the training pipeline is Recruit Training Command, known informally as "boot camp." In this episode we visit RTC and learn more about boot camp for NSW candidates.
DANIEL FLETCHER: To become a Navy SEAL or SWCC you must first learn to be a sailor. This essential process starts at Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes, Illinois. First utilized in 1911 and home to the United States Navy Boot Camp. This, is where it all starts.
“you have to pay attention to detail and you have to give it your maximum effort”
DF: Welcome to The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday, the official Navy SEAL podcast. Every aspect of a Navy recruit’s life is scheduled, categorized, and inspected. There are rules and standards for how the toilet paper, toothbrushes, and T-shirts are stored to how they eat, dress, walk, and speak. I'm Daniel Fletcher. Over the next few episodes you’ll hear from a select group of people responsible for on-boarding NSW candidates into the Navy. Today I speak with Chief Petty Officer William Roberts, one of the Recruit Division Commanders conducting this eight-week orientation.
DF: This podcast is meant specifically for people in the SEAL/SWCC pipeline. For a minute, if you could talk a little bit about how those candidates are treated or the process. Maybe, is it different than people that are off the street joining the “Big Navy?”
WR: As an RDC, which is a short term for Recruit Division Commander, we’re just responsible for how ever many recruits come in. It doesn’t matter if it’s 105 recruits, 60-something recruits. We’re just responsible for their day-to-day care and their day-to-day wellbeing from the time they arrive to the date of departure. We take care of when they eat, when they sleep, what training they need, where they have to go, when they have to be there, how they fold their clothes. We train all of that from beginning to end, from day of arrival to date of departure.
WR: For anyone that’s in what we call 800 Divisions, which are your SEALs and SWCC recruits or candidates, boot camp is not any different for them than it is for anybody else. There’s a few other requirements in regards to what we call Dive Motivation PT that they have to participate in on a daily basis Monday through Friday. Outside of that, the only difference here is that there is an expectation that they are going to be better than those that are coming in for “Big Navy” just “Regular Navy” as we call it. There’s an expectation that they’re going to perform a whole lot better than those recruits, so there’s, for lack of better terms, a bull’s eye on their back. Everybody’s gunning for them; all the other RDCs are gunning for them. Staff, not necessarily gunning for them, but every simple mistake they make, it’s highlighted because they’re what’s called an 800 Recruit.
DF: So the 800 Recruits coming in here, they have a higher expectation of themselves as well and that they’re going to be held to a higher standard later on through their employment with the Navy.
WR: Definitely. The idea is that they come here, they know why they’re here as far as being in the Navy. The Regular “Nav” is more, “I didn’t have a choice. There was nothing else left for me to do. I don’t know what I want to do, so this is just the option for me to try right now.” Whereas in SEALs and SWCCs, they kind of know they’re signing up to put their lives on the line. They...know... that’s what they’re going to do barring that they make it through the training pipeline.
DF: Right. Right. Yeah, I think a lot of people think that if you want to become a SEAL, you go to Coronado, you go to BUD/S, and you become a SEAL, and they kind of skip over the process of basic training or Navy recruitment process. Probably do a lot of reading about Navy SEALs and the BUD/S training and all the stuff that they’re going to have to do and Hell Week and the whole 9 yards. When they’re joining the Navy, there’s a lot of rules and regulations and discipline that needs to come first before holding logs over your head. I think that’s an important distinction.
WR: Definitely. Recruits that come in for that program need to know that they’re in the Navy first. The way that I tell my recruits that I’ve had so far is that not every sailor is EOD or SWCC or SEAL, but every SEAL or SWCC driver is a Sailor. So, they have to know that that’s what they’re in here to do. They’re here to be Sailors. Being a SEAL or SWCC is just the job that they have while they’re in the Navy; no different from myself as an Aviation Electronics Technician or anybody else that has a particular job in the Navy. We train them to the best of our abilities to be Sailors.
DF: What do you think a new recruit needs to know before they get here or maybe any expectations you think that aren’t obvious?
WR: They need to know that they’re going to be held to a standard right away; that the standard for their PT sessions and Dive Motivation PT is different from what the standard is to be in the compartment. They need to know that coming here, being a SEAL by nature of what they chose to do, they are a leader. A lot of recruits that we get in nowadays want to come in and be what’s called Gray Men. They just want to get through boot camp and keep their heads down.
DF: You said Gray Man?
WR: Gray Man.
DF: Explain that a little bit more for me.
WR: They just...They want to be nobody in the division. So, in the division, we have Divisional Staff, and a lot of times, they’ll talk to people that have been through boot camp before, and those people are letting them know if, like, your RDCs don’t know your name, you’re doing a good job, and that’s not necessarily the case. For me personally, as an RDC, I make it a point to know every last one of my recruits, whether they’re doing good or whether they’re doing bad, or if they’re just that person that’s kind of in the middle; I get to know all of my recruits. So, every division needs leadership. It can’t come from the RDCs all the time, and we miss out on a lot of good leaders because they’ve been told to just be a gray man and kind of put their heads down, and I guess, blend in to everybody else. Don’t stand out.
DF: Because they think it’ll be easier?
WR: I believe so. I mean it doesn’t make it easier for them. It might make it easier for them as an individual, but it makes it harder for the division because they might be the one leader that the division needs, and if they don’t step up and take that position, then it just makes it harder for the division, which in turn makes it harder for them because if the division is suffering, everybody is suffering.
DF: That’s something that I’ve found through a lot of the people I’ve interviewed that leadership is important, and teamwork is important, even almost the most important, (WR: Definitely.) and encouraging people coming into the recruitment process to take leadership positions and really embrace that mentality, not try to kind of just slide through under the radar and get it done, but step up and be a leader because they need to stand above other people, and they need to take those leadership roles. So, I think that’s a good nugget to take away, is to not try to just skim by but step up, you know what I mean? Make an impression and help the people around you because that’s another thing I think is a little bit of a misunderstanding with a lot of the SOF guys, is that they’re stars; they’re all stars, but more than that, they’re teammates, and I think that’s an important distinction. (WR: Yes.)
DF: We took a little tour of the facility here, The Ship you call it, which is actually almost like a barracks. We walked through... some of the people that just got here...they’re kind of learning really fundamentals and then up to where you’re working with people that have been here for a few more weeks. It’s almost shocking to come in off the street from a hotel into this environment where it’s different than being out on the street. Maybe if you could walk us through your typical day, what your schedule is like on an average day or maybe what you did even today just to paint a picture for the people listening what daily life is like when they’re here.
WR: On a day-to-day basis, you’re looking at 04:30 wake up time, getting the house on spot and being ready to go by 04:45, being down on what we call the Grinder, formed up in mass formation by 04:50, and then we’re going to march to our Dive Motivation PT, which is a good mile, maybe a quarter mile away. And then you’re going to form up there, get dressed, get changed out for what you need to do, and you’re going to do whatever the Dive Motivators have in store for you as far as PT is concerned that day. After they release you, RDCs will pick you up, you mass back up, you march back, you eat breakfast. You are required to have at least one hygiene period a day. So you might hygiene early in the morning right after PT, but if you get in trouble, and you need to be disciplined, you might do something that causes you to sweat, but you’re not required to...be allowed to take another shower. That’s up to the discretion of the RDCs. I could tell you that there’s been times where I put my recruits to sleep sweaty to teach them a lesson. It just depends on the RDC, of course. You eat chow three times a day, and then after that, based on what the training is, you will go into evening routine. Evening routine is just the time to kind of decompress the day and relax and get prepared for the next day.
DF: What time is that starting usually?
WR: 20:30 is evening routine, and then at 21:30, you have Taps, which is lights out, and everybody goes to sleep. Most recruits are up at like three in the morning because they want to make it to Dive Motivation PT on time. They have to make sure house is on spot, and it normally takes them a good hour to make sure the house is on spot, so they’re getting up early and getting everything ready to go. I train my recruits. “When I turn these lights on, you will be ready to go.” All I have to do is inspect so we can leave. And if it’s not done, then you’ll be late to Dive Motivation PT, and if you’re late to Dive Motivation PT, they will handle you accordingly over there.
DF: So, not a lot of free time.
WR: The only free time is maybe evening routine, and there is free time on Sundays, but that starts at a certain time. You have what’s called Holiday Routine, which is 07:00 to 13:00 on Sundays, and then you can go to the chapel if you’re a religious person or spiritual person, you go to the chapel; you can write your letters home to your families, shine your boots; get your uniforms ready to go for the week. Everything you do is about preparing for the next day. I always train my recruits, and, again, I want to be very clear that every RDC is different. Every RDC has their own way of doing business within a framework of our regulations. But I always train my recruits, “Make sure you do something today to make tomorrow easier for you.” So we’re always going to prepare for the next day the day prior.
DF: Obviously the people that are coming in, these potential NSW recruits, are already in great shape. They’ve been working out with boat crews probably for quite a while. And they’re continuing to exercise while they’re here. Do you find that there’s any drop in fitness level, or are they getting in better shape while they’re here, or what’s your impression on that?
WR: I think it just depends on how things go. I’ve never had a problem with a recruit during PT. One of my divisions was all SO, all SEAL Operator candidates, and every last one of them passed their PST on the very first time, minus one; he miscounted the laps, but other than that, they passed their PFA, which is something that has to be done in order to get out of boot camp. The PST is something for the SEAL Operator side or the SWCC side. We have to do a PFA.
DF: Can you talk a little about what the PFA is and what it’s for and what it entails?
WR: So, the PFA is what’s called our Physical Fitness Assessment. That’s the Big Navy physical fitness test. Everyone in the Navy, no matter what you do, is required to take this test.
DF: Is that done after you’ve been here or right when you get here? When is that done?
WR: There’s an initial PFA, which is done maybe three or four days after you arrive, and then you have what’s called an RDC Assessment. A RDC Assessment PFA is in the middle of boot camp, and that’s kind of to assess how the RDCs are doing to catch up the recruits that might have struggled during the baseline PFA. That’s normally not a problem with SO and SWCC candidates. And then you have the Official PFA. Now, the Official PFA has to be passed in order for you to graduate boot camp. So, you have to pass that in order to graduate boot camp, minus some other things that you must have, but in regards to physical activity, you have to pass that in order to graduate boot camp.
DF: And what are the details of that test?
WR: The PFA just requires you to do, based on your age, a certain amount of push-ups, a certain amount of sit-ups, and a mile and a half run in a certain amount of time.
DF: So, that’s something, for the guys who’ve been training for NSW, should not be an issue.
WR: Not a problem at all.
DF: So, is that something that’s ranked, or is a pass/fail thing?
WR: It’s a pass/fail, pass/fail.
DF: I know there is some concern that the fitness levels of these guys may drop while they’re here because they’ve been working it hard to try to really maximize their physical strength and their endurance. Are there facilities here for them to squeeze in an extra workout?
WR: There are no other facilities here that they can use while they’re in what’s called a Recruit Status, or here at boot camp. However, our 800 Recruits do have pull-up bars and leg lift systems so to speak within the compartments. So, when we’re not doing Active Training, when it’s Evening Routine, and it’s kind of their time, that’s when they can do their extra pull-ups if they want. That’s when they can do their extra leg lifts if they want. They can do their push-ups; they can do sit-ups; they can do whatever they choose to do physically during their Evening Routine time or any time that the RDCs are not actively training them. So if they struggle with push-ups, or they want to get more push-ups in, they definitely have the time to do that. I’m not an advocate of recruits being out of their racks after Taps. However, I do know that recruits don’t just go to sleep when we turn those lights out. So if they want to do some push-ups and different things like that as well, they can do that. That’s not necessarily the right thing to do, but they do have that time to do that.
DF: We talk a lot about the physical requirements, and that’s something that’s pretty well known in the public even, but what other specific expectations do you think that recruits should have in mind?
WR: So the one thing that recruits should expect to get here is to be told how to do everything, and that everything has a purpose. You’re going to be held accountable for everything, from the way you fold your underwear, which we call skivvies, the way you fold your T-shirts, the way you fold your uniforms, where you put things, where you stow things, how your mattress or your blanket is folded, the way your sheets are made, the way your bunk is made. All of those things are checked every single day, and to be prepared, number one, to be taught how to do that, but to have the attention to detail. I think a lot of times with SEAL and SWCC, they come in so focused on getting to the next phase of the pipeline that they don’t have the attention to detail necessary that they need to be successful here, and you have to get through this process in order to get to the next process. Outside of that, and I’ve noticed that even with the recruits in general, not just SEAL Operators but just recruits in general, a lot of them come in and have never been told that they’re wrong or never been told that they made a mistake, and that that mistake is not acceptable. So that’s normally the biggest problem we have with recruits, is telling them that they’re wrong and getting them to accept the fact that they’re wrong, and they have to adjust their mindset and their attitude to move forward.
DF: It seems that that’s a big takeaway, kind of maybe humbling yourself and not getting ahead of yourself. It might seem like basic stuff, but it’s foundational, and it’s the next step, and take it seriously. Slow down, listen to people. Do you think that life is hard here for recruits?
WR: At the beginning, very much so. At the beginning its very…
DF: Define what you... When you say “beginning,” what do you mean by that?
WR: When they first get here, boot camp is very difficult because there’s somebody immediately in your face telling you that you’re wrong. Again, have an open mind to the fact that everybody’s different. Everybody is going to lead you differently. Everybody’s going to talk to you differently. Me personally, I don’t yell at my recruits at first cause I know they don’t know. But then I train them, and once I’ve trained you, and I know you know it, now I can start yelling if I choose to do so or start disciplining you if I choose to do so about you not reaching what we call here Checkpoints. Everything that we do is a Checkpoint. Do it the way we told you to do it, but it takes a person to buy in to “it matters how I fold my T-shirt”. “It matters that my keys should be tucked into my T-shirt.” “It matters that I lock my AMB drawer,” which is the personal drawer that recruits have here that they can put their letters from home and address books and different things like that in there, their wallets that they come up with, but those drawers have to be locked at all times that they’re not actively in it, but you have to believe that that stuff matters. And as soon as you believe that it matters, boot camp is easy because now you’ll take care of it. If you don’t think it matters and you won’t take care of it, and then you’re being held accountable or singled out or yelled at or whatever the case may be on a routine basis.
DF: It strikes me, the parallels, with some of the basic stuff that the recruits are learning here with a lot of regular life stuff. You might not think that school is important when you’re in school learning algebra or whatever, but it’s learning how to learn, learning how to live, learning how to discipline yourself; attention to detail; it’s the things that, the kind of between the lines stuff that you’re really learning in this process that maybe people gloss over cause they just want to play with guns. When the 800 guys are on The Ship here, is there any way to tell them from the other recruits, or is it something just really only staff knows?
WR: When they’re in uniform, you probably only going to know if you’re staff. Most of the 800 Recruits, especially those that are really prepared, you can look at them and tell, “Okay, that’s 800 Recruit, just based on their physical attributes and the way they look.” We have a thing about 800 Recruits, 800 Recruits will not stop talking even though they’re supposed to stop talking… they’re chatty. They’re very chatty for whatever reason. I don’t know what that is, but, so you can tell them by that and just their physical attributes.
DF: You mean amongst themselves or talking back to you?
WR: No, amongst themselves. Amongst themselves, they’re very chatty. And then also too trying to get them to separate their relationship because in Special Warfare, there’s a lot of first name basis and really a lot of camaraderie and buddy-buddy regardless of pay grade because “we’re all Special Forces.” It’s not like that here, so we have to make sure you’re not going to call me by my last name like we’ve been growing up together. You’re not going to thumbs up me; you’re not going to high-five me or anything like that. You’re going do it the way I told you to do it, and then when you graduate, then we can talk about the rest of the stuff after that, so that’s one of the things as well, but normally just their physical attributes.
DF: Sometimes a recruit may drop out of this process. What are some of the common issues that you see that are causing that to happen in this part of the pipeline process?
WR: Most of the time the recruit drops out, it’s something in their medical background. I’ve had some recruits get very homesick. Some recruits just can’t adapt to what we do here because they have a mindset coming in that all they’re going to do is work out and go eat, and that’s not what we do. We we turn civilians into Sailors. That’s what we do, and the rest of it is up to them how they succeed in the pipeline for SEALs or SWCC. Maybe some physical injuries that might happen while they’re in boot camp, maybe they twist an ankle, or hearing’s messed up, or maybe their vision is messed up. And it’s tested here because no matter what they say out before they get here, if the doctors here say there’s something wrong, then that’s what we’re going to have to go with.
DF: Are they more strict here you think, the Medical?
WR: I’m not really sure. I never really get into it. We typically just kind of take care of that and just make sure the recruit is taken care of one way or another; try to build them up cause a lot of them are very disappointed when they find out that they can’t do what they joined up to do. Just try to build them up and let them know they can still have an impact in the Fleet without being a SEAL or SWCC.
DF: Are there different medical standards for different tracks through NSW, like if you want to be EOD versus SEAL, or is the standards the same, do you know?
WR: There are certain standards changes with vision. There are certain standards changes with hearing. There are different standards for SEAL Operators and SWCC versus EOD in regards to PT for the PST. There’s different standards for that, but on the medical side, I’m not sure if there’s that many differences.
DF: Your position is really key in that cultural shift between civilian life and Sailor life. A lot of the time spent before getting here is spent on physical preparation with mentors and Boat Teams or Boat Crews. Talk a little bit about what’s needed to effectively transition from a civilian life into becoming a Sailor.
WR: Well, the most important thing is is just having the right mentality, having the right attitude, being positive about what you’re getting ready to go through and understanding that you put in a lot of sacrifice to get to this point and don’t risk it over the fact that you don’t like that someone told you were incorrect, or someone’s trying to tell you a certain way to do something that you don’t necessarily agree with. Again, everything that we do has a reason and has a purpose. Even myself personally, I’ve been in 19 years, and I still fold my T-shirts the way I learned how to fold it in boot camp, which is still the same way we do it today here now that I’m training recruits. So the mental aspect is probably the biggest portion of it, just having an open mind to what you’re getting ready to get into. There are things that are going to be thrown at you. I like to tell my recruits, it’s like drinking out of a fire hydrant because we’re constantly giving it to you, and we only have eight weeks. If there’s anything you can get from your recruiters, I think they give you something that has your general orders in it, maybe something that has the Sailor’s Creed in it. Memorize those things before you get here. It’s only going to help your time here at boot camp be that much more successful because if you already know that, then that’s other time that you can spend learning something else that you might struggle with because immediately, we’re going to get right in day one, we’re going to start grilling you on that because we know that recruiters gave you that information. So, we’re going to start grilling you on it right away.
DF: What part of that process do you think a lot of the the 800 candidates trip up in, thinking that they know everything or…?
WR: Candidates slip in that process because they don’t think it matters. My all SO Division, it wasn’t until maybe week three that I had to kind of get them in the right mentality of why we do it the way we do it; why it’s important for you to be a leader; why it’s important for you to know the things that you want to do. And by the time we got to the end, they were very grateful and thankful for the information that we gave them. All they’re thinking about is the physical aspect and just getting to pre-BUD/S and BUD/S. To them a lot of times, boot camp is just a red tape portion that they have to get through, and it’s so much more than that.
DF: We touched on something before we were recording that I think is important to bring up. When these guys walk in the doors here, the people that they’re interfacing with, like yourself or whomever, they’re not all Special Forces guys. They’re not all SEALs. This isn’t a retired SEAL community here that people are coming to learn from guys that have been through it. I think that probably affects the mentality, and it’s important, I think, to speak to that a little bit. That humbling yourself is really important. You know better than anybody that’s here, and you’re not going to be. We’re all a team. Do you think that has anything to do with it?
WR: I think there’s some separation because SEALs are an Elite Force. And everybody knows that whether you’re in the Navy, outside of the Navy, everybody knows that the SEALs are the top of the line when it comes to Special Forces, and there is some separation. There’s some pride in that, and there should be, but also understanding that for SEALs, a lot of the things that they do, Regular Navy is involved in it as far as getting them to where they need to go and supporting them, whether it’s air support or on ground support, whatever the case may be, so understanding that in the team, everybody has a vital part whether you have a trident on your chest, or myself, I’m Air Warfare, you have all these different type of entities that are involved in the mission. And so I do think that some of that is they let the pride of being a SEAL kind of get in the way of understanding that.
DF: Even though they’re not even there yet.
WR: Exactly... Some of them come in with a mindset of, “I’m a SEAL,” and they need to understand you are not a SEAL. You’re not even a Sailor yet until you actually graduate boot camp. And even at that rate, you’re still not a SEAL until you go through the rest of the pipeline and do all the things that that entails.
DF: One of my big impressions from dealing with Active Operators is the the strength of character and professionalism that they have, and it seems like that this is the place where a lot of that is really built.
WR: Yes. We’re going to instill in them military bearing. We’re going to instill in them professionalism and all those things that come along with it; the ability to turn it on and turn it off. I tell my recruits there are certain times where you need to be a robot, and there are certain times where you can kind of be yourself, and we can relax. But when it’s time to turn it on, you need to be able to turn it on, and if you can’t do that, then we’re going to have it on at all times and just be a miserable time here, or we can, you know, kind of enjoy and make the most out of the process.
DF: Right. There’s a lot in the media about Hell Week, BUD/S, the strongest, the most elite physical specimens that are going to be the ones who get through this process. If you listen to other episodes, you know that it’s 70, 80% mental. What a lot of people gloss over is that the stuff that they’re learning here, they’re going to have to do it at BUD/S. They’re going to have to keep their stuff squared away. It’s not all just going to be push-ups and sand. They need to do the things that they’re learning here. It’s not like this is just throwaway knowledge. Is that correct?
WR: It’s absolutely correct. Everything we train them, they’re going to use at some point in time. If they wind up on a ship, the way we fold our T-shirts saves them room. So now rather than having two T-shirts, you’re going to have five or six T-shirts with you. Everything that we do serves a purpose, and that’s the one thing that recruits coming in should really focus in on. The mentality of accepting what we’re teaching them and knowing that they can use it not only in the compartments with their main RDCs, but they can also transition that into their Dive Motivator PTs. They can transition that into their pre-BUD/S, they can transition that into BUD/S to at least alleviate one problem that might come up while they’re in their training, or they can just focus on the physical because they know they’ve been trained by their RDCs. Of course, there’s going to be some differences in standards. There’s going to be other things that are going to be required as they move further along in training, but at least here, they know, “I was trained to put this item folded this way, put it in this spot, and that’s the only place it goes.” And if they can get that down here, then the rest of it should be easier for the most part at least transitioning to whatever they’re being told to do at their next phase of training.
DF: I think that’s really important. If you can’t prove to be trusted with handling your T-shirts, how are you going to expect to be trusted with thousands of dollars worth of weapons systems, night vision goggles, fill in the blank? You know? I think that’s important to understand.
WR: We train them that everybody’s dependent on everybody. I have a family at home, and I always tell my recruits, “My family’s dependent on you when you graduate from boot camp to save my life if it comes down to it.” Whether you’re Special Programs, whether we’re on the Fleet together because you didn’t make it for whatever reason, my family is dependent upon on you. Your family, is why you’re here, are dependent upon me or whoever your RDCs are to make sure that you’re taken care of, to make sure that you’re healthy, to make sure that you’re being cared for. Treat it=== with respect, all those different things that any parent would want for their child, we’re kind of helping each other. We’re going to do what we have to do for you, but in return, you have to pay it back. And what you can do in the pool and what you can do on the track is not paying your RDCs back for the time that they spent. You have to prove to us that we can trust you. ‘Cause if I can’t trust you here at boot camp, how can I, in my right mind, pass you through to get to the Fleet and handle more important things, whether it’s SEAL or Regular Navy.
DF: We talked a little bit about people dropping out of this process, whether it’s, you know, being homesick or injury. Is there anything else somebody can do to get themselves kicked out of here? I’m sure there is. What kind of stuff do you see that’s typical that you want to steer people clear of?
WR: There’s a lot of things we have what’s called here a SEAL’s Top Six, sexual harassment, no recruit-to-recruit contact. A lot of times, the, especially with SEALs, they come in, and they kind of know everybody that’s there for the most part ‘cause they were together at some point in time, and they want to high five, and they want to give daps or bro hugs or whatever the case may be, and that’s not tolerated here. You can’t do that. No sexual harassment obviously. You can’t abuse any drugs, and that can be as simple as a cough drop. If you go to medical and get a cough drop prescribed to you that has your name on it, you cannot give it to anybody else. That’s abusing drugs in the eyes of our Chain of Command, so you can be sent home for that. A lot of people make the mistake of trying to have that last little party before they get here, and then urinalysis comes up, and they pop for something on urinalysis, and they’re automatically kicked out cause it’s zero tolerance for drug use. Not passing that final PFA that we talked about earlier. Normally not a problem with SOs, but, again, if they miscount, it doesn’t matter how fast they ran it in; if they said they did 12, but they only did 11; you’re supposed to do 12. They just failed it. You get two times to do that, of course. They normally don’t make the same mistake twice, but not failing the PFA. And we have what’s called Battle Stations, which is our pinnacle training evolution, and you can fail that. I can’t really go into details about a station. You’ll learn about that as you come through boot camp, but if you fail that, you will be set back automatically two weeks in training, and Battle Stations is normally a week or the week of your graduation, so…
DF: Yeah, people think they might be over the hump.
WR: People are getting, they either think they’re over the hump, but also I…I always try to bring it back to the recruits’ family. Your families have already bought your tickets. Some of them are probably already on the way, now you have to make that phone call and tell them that they can’t see you, and they just wasted a trip. Or they have to rearrange their lives and get rescheduled for time off for different things like that depending on their, you know, their jobs or whatever it may be. But there’s a lot of rearranging that goes down, too, and if they just get down to the attention to detail portions that we talked about earlier, Battle Stations will be a breeze. It’s just about paying attention and locking in to finishing the goal, which is getting out of boot camp.
DF: So, if you if you were to talk to somebody, let’s say, I’m joining the Navy, and I want to be a Navy SEAL, what part of this process that you’re involved in would you highlight and say, “Make sure you do this”?
WR: Listen, humble yourself and listen. Even if you think it’s wrong, listen. Follow the instructions that are given, and allow the people that are in charge to do what they do. If they’re wrong, let them come back to you and tell you they’re wrong. If you find something that’s needs to be corrected, there’s a way to do it. There’s a tactful way to do it. Just embrace everything that’s going on, learn from it, know that you didn’t come here to make friends. You will, but you didn’t come here to make friends. The thing I tell my division the most is, “Let your light shine. If you’re a great person, you have the means to be able to pull somebody up, then let your light shine. Don’t try to hide your light because you don’t want to be called out, or you don’t want to be put in front of the camera so to speak. Just be who you are, and be the best that you can be.”
DF: What are you passionate about? What gets you up in the morning?
WR: I’m passionate about my job. I feel like as an RDC, and, again, I have to say this cause not everyone is the same, and there’s no guarantee that somebody coming in now is going to have me as an RDC, but I feel like I’m bigger than my title. I’m bigger than an RDC. I’m…to some of these recruits, I’m a father, a brother that they never had, a mentor they never had or something like that, so I’ll always keep in mind the fact that me being an RDC gives me an opportunity to change the world because if I can just touch one person, then I did my job.
DF: Appreciate you taking the time to sit down with us.
WR: No problem. Thank you for having me.
DF: Find out more at SEALSWCC.com, and join us again for the next NSW Podcast.
The open water can be deadly, and Navy SEALs and SWCC must master this unpredictable element to make it their ally. This episode explains NSW's secret technique: the Combat Sidestroke. More info can be found at www.SEALSWCC.com.
The open water can be both deadly and unforgiving. Before sailors become SEALs or SWCC, they must demonstrate mastery of this punishing and unpredictable element; making it their most valuable ally. I’m Daniel Fletcher, today we speak with aquatics expert Dan Kish at the Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School. We discuss the best practices, tools and techniques used exclusively by Navy SEAL or SWCC candidates and operators, particularly the Combat Sidestroke. Let’s DIVE in.
DF: For starters, thank you for taking the time. Your expertise is super important to be able to share with as many people as possible that are trying to get successfully through this program. For starters, if you can just go ahead and spend a little bit of time talking about your role here in Naval Special Warfare, and then we can take it from there.
DK: Sounds good. My name’s Dan. I am one of the physical training leaders here at Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School, and my main point of focus is the aquatic side. So, it’s much more than just swimming. We spend a lot of time on treading, water rescue, pool comp skills. My job is to help make the candidates as comfortable and confident in the water over the eight weeks here and plan and execute all the workouts safely to the highest standard that we expect of them.
DF: The water aspect of, of kind of the initial exposure to the standards of the, the physical standards test is usually where a lot of people I think are at their weakest. At least most people have not been exposed to the level of swimming that is needed, required to be able to make it in the program or even kind of start training. So, I think that your information will be really valuable for a lot of people listening. Maybe if you could just start off with talking just a little bit about your background in aquatics. I’m guessing that you were a swimmer, or you were involved in some sort of water sports before you came into the program.
DK: So, correct. I always loved being in the water. I was that kid you couldn’t get me out of the pool, the lake growing up. I got pretty good at swimming, so I swam, you know, the aquatic kid, high school, club, college, a little bit of postgraduate swimming, so all the staff members are Division 1 swimmers, collegiate swimmers. Did some postgraduate swimming, was good, got into coaching, became successful at that, and I’ve been here since class 297, so just over five years now, and I love it. We get all walks of life from kids that have barely seen a pool, barely passed the PST to get in, to Olympic Gold Medalists and everything in between there, so all walks of life come through, and kids just want to learn, get better in the water, but water is majority of time their weakest, you know, environment to be in. We’re humans. We don’t belong in the water at all, and a lot of kids come to prep not prepped for what we’re about to do here.
DF: The focus of this episode is the Combat Sidestroke, and we’ll get to that in just a second. You mentioned a couple other areas that your focus is on, whether it’s treading water and stuff like that. Are there areas that maybe other than the Combat Sidestroke that people should maybe investigate in addition to that stroke specifically to at least kind of get themself familiar with?
DK: Absolutely. Besides just swimming the Combat Sidestroke, we swim slick, so without fins on and then with fins on. We also train freestyle almost every day, and we also swim breaststroke here, so they all are great assets to know and learn. The better you are at all the strokes, the better you’ll be at any one. We’ll even throw some butterfly just for fun in there as well, great, you know, cardio building tool, great fuel for the water, but they all serve a purpose. We swim a lot of freestyle when we start doing rescues to get to your victim, great way, you know, to increase your lung capacity there. Breaststroke, we want to learn the pull for guiding and siding purposes, the kick to help you with the tread and to learn underwater breaststroke pull outs or the most efficient way to swim underwater there.
DF: So, basically, I mean you covered almost all aspects of aquatic sports, you know, in terms of swimming styles and stuff like that. I would be hesitant to say maybe it’s worth someone’s time to really become very, very, very proficient in all of those. Obviously they’re going to be using those strokes to train at more of a fitness context and more of just kind of a development context, not necessarily they’re going to be specifically quizzed or tested in those areas. But obviously it’s helpful to know that, that’s not the only thing you’re going to be doing in the water obviously.
DK: Correct, the exit test, so in order to leave Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School, you have to do the 1,000 meter swim Combat Sidestroke under 20 minutes, which our average time is right around 17 minutes. However, we still want you to become great at all the strokes, all the skills. It’s just more tools you can add to your toolbox to help you out further down the pipeline.
DF: So, obviously we’re going to try to unpack a little bit about some of the unique I guess challenges or difficulties that people have or maybe not so unique, common difficulties people have with this specific stroke. So, if you want to kind of start in really a broad sense, maybe take 1,000-foot up view of areas that you think are common that people have a misconception or maybe a very, very, very common mistake and maybe the quick fixes for those things just as kind of a real quick touch on that area.
DK: So, Combat Sidestroke, I swam competitively for over a decade, and I didn’t even know what Combat Sidestroke was until I got into the military, and then I started realizing what the stroke was, why it was created and then how to critique and correct it to be as efficient as possible, trying to be the fastest as possible and still create that low profile while swimming Combat Sidestroke. So, a lot of the times, the first couple weeks here, and what I really need to stress is technically correct swimming, so work on perfect, pretty Combat Sidestroke. Speed will eventually come, but focus on just perfect technique starting off, trying to be as long and efficient in the water as you can. We see a lot of students or candidates that come through that have, you know, a little bit bigger and bulkier muscles. Those are not always the best for in the water, decreasing your range of motion. You always want to be as long as possible. Get your stroke count down, help you prepare for those longer, open water swims that’ll be taking place.
DF: So, is it fair to say that you, that you see a lot of people that are maybe just learning for the first time, kind of trying to “over muscle” to kind of push and pull, to put too much into it and not focus on, on taking their time and lengthening their stroke and being efficient? Is that, do you think accurate?
DK: Yes. I witnessed that today during a PST. Just because you’re taking more and more strokes, you know, you’re swimming more violent and higher turnover rates, sometimes you feel like you’re going faster, but the clock doesn’t lie. There’s a kid swimming next to him taking half as many strokes and going faster, so I see that man attitude where you want to race and compete, and you’re taking a ton more strokes, but you’re just working harder to go, you know, the same time or sometimes even slower.
DF: It doesn’t mean you’re getting anywhere faster.
DF: Are there any big areas, or maybe what are some of your cues that you say to get people to kind of slow down? I would obviously think just like a running race, people try to, they go out hot, you know. Their adrenaline is pumping, they’re breathing faster, everything, you know what I mean.
DK: Absolutely, and we see that here. Over the eight weeks, we do many different workouts from short, fast, you know, high intensity sprints to longer distance, and the last couple weeks here, we focus a lot on pacing, we always have the clock facing you. You will always watch, you know, the clock when you leave, what your splits are, are you hitting your goal times, are you making the sets, but running and swimming, you’re always against the clock. You know, in the weight room, it’s weights. In the pool, you have to watch the clock to see, you know, how fast you are going.
DF: Other than kind of I would say, an excuse me for not using maybe the correct terminology, maybe strokes per minute or whatever the term is, what else do you see in terms of kind of like “sloppy” form that’s a really common theme that you’re constantly having to cue people with, you know, not to do?
DK: So, other things we see in the water, in the pool, a lot of candidates will we be swimming uphill, which is quite natural with the body position in the water. Same thing as running uphill, running uphill is a lot more energy.
DF: Now, when you say swimming uphill, can you give me a kind of what that means to you?
DK: Coaches are yelling at you like your feet are dragging on the bottom of the pool, your hips are sagging down, you are creating more drag for yourself, so running uphill is very difficult. Swimming uphill would be the same metaphor for that. To correct that, we want to try and get your legs going a little bit more, so your feet should be, you know, near or at the surface. Your hips should be at the surface as well as, you know, your whole bodyline, your head. Normally, it’s, when people are not using their legs as much or thicker candidates in the water, but this will have a direct correlation, and once we start doing buddy tows, you’re going to have that same bad body position. Now, you have to tow someone. You’re creating a significant, you know, higher amount of drag for yourself, which is, you know, stay away from swimming uphill.
DF: And is that typically a head position issue that kind of leads and the body follows it, or what is, what’s usually the culprit there?
DK: So, correct head position does play a major role for that. The top of your head will always be pointing in the direction of travel. Majority of candidates, we’ll see, you can swim really good, showing me the top of your head pointing forward, but then they go and take a breath, and they will lift their head to breathe, which will shoot that body position, you know, back uphill, which is incorrect, creating more drag. A lot of our candidates are good until they do take a breath. So, A, don’t breathe, or B, learn how to control that breath.
DF: Or get back into position.
DK: Absolutely, so snap that quick breath in. You’ll have one eye in the water, one eye out of the water, and when your mouth is above the surface, you are inhaling only. We should not be hearing you exhale and inhale when your mouth is above the surface, you know, so dump that air out right before your breath. You know, if you’re very negative in the water, keep the air in, but right before your breath, dump that air out. When your mouth is above the surface, inhale only, eyes right back down, and that’s for freestyle and for Combat Sidestroke, same body position.
DF: So, would you say that that’s probably the largest deficiency in people’s stroke whenever they arrive or really the thing you see most common is body position in terms of kind of swimming uphill like you’re speaking about and not being able to breathe very efficiently and get back into the right position? Is that the most common problem that you see?
DK: Body position plays a major role. Conditioning and speed, you know, will come along, but if you’re swimming uphill, you’re just burning wasteful energy. Another major issue we see is a timing issue, which we see candidates stop, pause or sink at some point in their stroke. We always want to move, you know, forward in the water, whether it’s Combat Sidestroke, breaststroke or freestyle. A lot of times we’ll see them move forward in their stroke and then take a breath and stop, pause, sink and then start moving forward again, stop, pause, sink. We want to always move forward in the water even during your breath, so never shut down your legs, maintain that, you know, body moving forward. Don’t, just because you’re taking a breath does mean you stop, pause or sink.
DF: So, what do you think the culprit is there? My first kind of instinct is to think that the rhythm there is not quite at least, they’re not comfortable quite in the rhythm of the stroke yet, an experience thing, or is there, are there other culprits?
DK: It’s actually difficult to do, so they will have a, you know, pull, breathe, kick, glide, pretty common pattern for Combat Sidestroke and for breaststroke. So, you obviously start with your arms, then get your breath, execute your kick and hopefully have a long glide. Now, during the breath part of that, don’t stop dead in the water, do not sink and create more drag, and, you know, you should always be moving forward. So, once again, back to the breathing, normally our candidates are good until they do take a breath and then stop in the water there. Keep your legs going, so especially with freestyle, never disengage your legs. Always keep your legs going behind you. And in Combat Sidestroke, you know, during your recovery, try and have as, the least amount of underwater recovery as possible. So, when your arms are underneath the water, try and have the least amount of resistance that you can, active streamlining.
DF: So, active streamlining, and you said something about recovery. Now you’re talking about basically getting your hands back out in front of you for the stroke again. Can you maybe go into a little bit more detail about that? You’re talking about the efficiency or the least amount of resistance, is that what you’re saying?
DK: Correct. So, for Combat Sidestroke, it was designed to be very low profile, so no white water or splashing taking place. It’s a very efficient stroke. However, just like breaststroke arms, the underwater recovery part of the stroke is underwater, which is not very efficient because you’re pushing yourself backwards when you do that. We want to over-exaggerate the underwater recovery and minimize the amount of resistance when you move your hands back out into the streamlined position.
DF: So, you’re not fighting yourself essentially.
DK: Don’t push yourself backwards at all during your strokes.
DF: Okay, okay. So, is this stroke used primarily as a test and fitness mechanism if you will, or is this stroke used operationally during mission?
DK: So, both are correct. The stroke is great to increase your overall fitness levels without banging up your body, right. Swimming is a great way, whether, whatever stroke you’re doing, increase your overall fitness with very low to no impact, right. You should be able to swim, you know, for hours, still feel good. It’s not like you’re banging up your body, high stress, high impact environment. So, when you do swim, make sure you are over-exaggerating full range of motion. You should be feeling good, feel loose in the water, so that plays a cardio, you know, fitness role in it, but operationally speaking, it was designed to be efficient, so you could be able to swim your long distances, you know, infiltrate and extract a couple miles and still carry out the mission. The low profile aspect, so when you’re swimming up to shore, you don’t have a bunch of white water splashing behind you, a bunch of noise coming in, and it is quite simple to learn and execute. We do a lot of the fine-tuning, getting dialed in here, but if you look throughout history, you know, swimming has played an important role in the history of mankind and in warfare in every century. It goes back, back in the day, but just recently with the UDTs, you look at World War II, Korea, Vietnam, there’s many aquatic stories from, you know, the greats, the Medal of Honor recipients, where if they did not have that maritime, aquatic background, we would not have heard about these stories at all.
DF: How does the Combat Sidestroke differ from the regular sidestroke? Is there glaring differences, very similar? Just maybe kind of give me some detail on that would be great.
DK: So, the common sidestroke that you see from swim lessons or, you know, at your local YMCA, where you are basically, you know, picking apples off a tree and putting them in the basket, I remember being told that when I was like three years old. Combat Sidestroke, you’re going to have a little bit more rotations, so we’re not going to be swimming flats.
DF: So, in the hips or the shoulder area?
DK: So, just like any sport, you’ll have a lot of power come from your hips and your core. Back to those common mistakes that we see from our candidates, where people swim flats, which we do not want. Swimming is not just your arms up, swimming is not just your legs down; you want to get your whole body engaged. Drive with your hips and your core, back on to streamline on your stomach.
DF: I see. Maybe, I would say there’s no glide phase of the stroke, but towards the end of the stroke, I see what you’re saying. You’re facing the bottom of the pool more than just facing the side of the pool.
DK: Correct. Your bellybutton will not point to the wall the entire time. You will be rotating, so your bellybutton will point at the wall and the bottom throughout every cycle. When you take your breath, you know, with one eye in the water, one eye out, you’ll be looking at the wall. And then once you execute your scissor kick, so your top leg will start initiating that rotation, your top leg will go forward, execute your scissor kick, and while doing that, you’re going to drive with your hips back into the streamline position. So, it should be quite fluid motion during your, you know, pull, breathe, powerful kick and glide, but we’re not swimming flat on one side the entire time. You’ll be rotating just like we do in freestyle, same thing with Combat Sidestroke. Drive with your hips and your core, full body exercise. Don’t swim flat, and then don’t over rotate either. So, we see some candidates where they want to take a big breath, and they look up to the ceiling, and then they have to spend all that time going back into the streamline position on their stomach, wasting a lot of time and over rotating onto their backs, which is what we don’t want.
DF: That’s kind of what you’re talking about, the one eye cue as opposed to your, you know, whole face and both ears out of the water, you know, kind of thing.
DK: And that plays a role with swimming uphill. If you take your head up to breathe, for your breath, you know, your hips will drop. If you over rotate on your back, you’re just wasting more time, which is unnecessary and inefficient, so we want to be as efficient as possible while swimming then.
DF: We’re looking at the PST a little bit kind of like a race even if it’s just against the clock or yourself. Is working other strokes you think really beneficial to kind of helping the Combat Sidestroke time diminish in terms of kind of water fitness if you will? That’s probably not the right term, but.
DK: Absolutely, no, absolutely. The better you are at all four strokes, the better you’ll be at any one. All those elite swimmers, if you see, you know, just a butterfly or just a backstroke, they swim all four strokes almost every day still, whether it’s, you know, just a little bit, a warm up, a cool down, you know, main set. You will always train, you know, more than just Combat Sidestroke on your good side the entire time. So, like I said, we’ll do some freestyle almost every day with, you know, give yourself challenging breathing patterns. A wonderful way to build up your lung capacity while, you know, having a little bit of elevated heart rate with freestyle. Combat Sidestroke both sides. We will train breaststroke. The first week here, we’ll break it down where we have, you know, demonstration, drills, which, drills are just bite-sized pieces of the stroke broken down, so just the kick or just the arms, you know, focusing on being as hydrodynamic and focusing on the underwater recovery aspect. So, we will focus a lot those first week or two here on drills that are just bite-sized pieces of stroke to, you know, put it all together in the long run.
DF: So, my kind of takeaway so far about kind of developing up your Combat Sidestroke ability is general comfort in the water through a variety of strokes and being in there often enough that your body’s kind of, not necessarily grown used to it, but it really has in flexibility and strength to the point where you’re comfortable enough to get the time that you need. It’s not that you need to do these crazy static breath holds or put weights on yourself or do this type of really hard plowing work so much as it is getting yourself comfortable enough that you can do the stroke properly. And I think putting that before busting your butt on the sidestroke that you’re not doing right, it seems like that kind of stuff comes even more important than your Combat Sidestroke. Is that true, or am I really kind of a little bit off there?
DK: No, that’s a good summary of what we’re talking about here, that focus on, you know, part bit by bit, and then you’ll eventually put it all together, work on that perfect technique, and then slowly start, you know, increasing the amount of time you spend in the pool. Then start watching the clock a little bit more, you know, a little bit more intense workouts, and then start watching your times drop hopefully.
DF: This is a new stroke for I would say the vast majority of people if not everybody. You know, people have probably barely been exposed to the sidestroke, the normal sidestroke we’ll call it unless they had swimming instruction, right. So, Combat Sidestroke being totally new, people I’m sure will jump on the web, or maybe if they’re lucky or smart enough to find a swim coach or team or group, ask them about it. What do you see that’s common misinformation about this specific portion of the training process?
DK: One of the worst ones that I witness online, and all the staff see it, too, is when swimming Combat Sidestroke, your lead arm or the arm that always, you know, your bottom arm, so if you’re swimming on your right side, your right hand, just like a breaststroke pull, the right hand should stay out in front of your body. You’re not pulling that arm all the way down to your hips and then pushing yourself backwards almost with the underwater recovery portion. So, your lead arm, or you’re swimming on your right side, your right hand will always be out in front of your chest, so a small range of motion. You’re not getting a lot out of the arm, so during your pull and your breath, your hand will start coming towards your chest, and then when you execute your kick and your glide, push it back in a streamline. But do not pull that lead arm all the way down to your hip, stop in the water and then all that underwater recovery, it’s going to start pushing you the opposite way of which you want to be traveling.
DF: And so, that’s something that you see as kind of maybe a piece of common misinformation? You know what, honestly, I think with the term even sidestroke, it seems like that lead hand, is that what you call it… (DK: Lead arm.) Your lead arm is doing a little bit more of kind of a tugging crawl. It’s not doing a full stroke. It’s kind of there almost treading water, pulling you forward kind of consistently, not, not a full stroke so to speak. It’s more of a repetitive kind of a crawl, I guess is maybe not the right word.
DK: Correct, it’s a smaller range of motion out in front of your body, which is a sculling motion, so keeping your hand, you know, you’re not going to get a lot of power out of it, similar to a breaststroke pull, just enough to pick your head up for your breath and shoot back down or streamline.
DF: Yeah, more of kind of a corkscrew and not a full shoulder stroke all the way to your side. I see what you’re saying.
DK: But that also plays a role once we start introducing buddy tows or water rescues. You’re going to do that same exact motion with that lead arm the entire time. So, it’s still a drill that we’ll do here that will also be used down the pipeline with water rescues. So, it plays a role, and it reduces the amount of time of underwater recovery and the stroke, which should make you more efficient, less drag increasing speed there.
DF: So, for people, for the folks at home, it would be great to see this visually. You’re showing me more of a, of a rotation past the elbow, a circular rotation as opposed to a full stroke. It’s kind of a constant, more of a rotation as opposed to a stroke. That does make a lot more sense, to be able to keeping you from having more of a cycle in the stroke and keeping you moving forward as opposed to that pause that you’re talking about earlier as a problem.
DF: There’s a lot of talk about technique, and that’s also in the kind of judging standards for the PST, whether it’s pull-ups, pushups, clean reps. Is there anything for people testing themselves in this process to be aware of in terms of technique that will get them kind of a, red flagged, or, “This lap doesn’t count,” or anything like that they need to be aware of?
DK: Yes, so when we do our testing here, your wrists will always be in the water. So, the whole point of Combat Sidestroke is to have that low profile, where we’re not taking, you know, freestyle strokes with your arms flying all over the place. So, maintaining that low profile of keeping, you know, your wrists or hands in the water at all times. So, if we start seeing the hands come out, you know, you’ll be warned strictly once by an instructor, staff member, and if it happens again, you’ll be pulled from the test. So, that’s one of our criteria as well as never touching the bottom of the pool while we swim. You know, if you take a break, you know, 500-yard swim, operationally speaking, it’s going to be taking place in the ocean. There’s no, there’s no wall or floor to stop and take a break, so never touch the bottom of the pool when you’re swimming, and don’t spend time on the walls. So, when you do practice in the standard 25-yard pool, spend as little to no time on the walls as you can.
DF: When you’re tested here, what apparatus is used in terms on person?
DK: The initial entrance PST, you have to swim your 500-yard swim, which can be swum Combat Sidestroke, breaststroke or basic sidestroke, and that has to take place under 12:30 in order to get into our program. You’ll be wearing tri shorts with the, you know, the traditional UDT shorts.
DF: So, you’re talking basically like swim trunks, spandex, kind of set up?
DK: Yes, not a lot of drag. They’re not beach board shorts, which are good for training, actually… (DF: Almost like a running short, kind of.) Correct, with a standard dive mask on, so covering the nose. During the exit test, you will have the same swim trunks, a dive mask, but now you’ll be having fins and booties on, so rubber booties around your feet, your fins over that, your dive fins over that, and you’ll be executing 1,000-meter Combat Sidestroke under 20 minutes. 17 minutes is our average, so you should be crushing that. You should be able to float, you know, a 17-minute 1,000-meter swim no problem before you leave here.
DF: And that’s mask as well there?
DK: With your mask on.
DF: Okay. Well, great. I’ll let you kind of, kind of summarize and give us the, you know, you have 15 seconds to give somebody the important pointers of the Combat Sidestroke and then, you know, water comfort in general. I think we’ve covered just about all of it. I think it’s worth it kind of giving you a moment to kind of wrap up what you think is kind of key big points.
DK: Find a pool, get in and swim, try and join a swim team or a water polo club, get with your friends, get in the water, spend as much time in the water as you can, and come to prep with a good base or foundation that we can build on.
DF: Well, Dan, thank you so much. Where can people find out more about the specific standards for Combat Sidestroke and any other details they might want to about this topic?
DK: They can go to SEALSWCC.COM, wonderful illustrations, pictures and descriptions about how to swim Combat Sidestroke and what to expect here at Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School.
DF: Great, Dan. Thank you so much for your time and all the great information.
DK: Any time.
Hydration and blood sugar are crucial during intense physical training. Our staff nutrition expert explains how a solid eating plan may be the key to avoid training failure. For more go to www.SEALSWCC.com.
The only easy day was yesterday. (Intro)
What we put in our bodies affects everything. Today we sit down to talk with a Navy SEAL and SWCC nutritionist.
You’ll hear from my colleague, Angie Giovannini as she speaks with Justin Robinson about the importance of nutrition during and after training.
AG: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us a little bit about a really important pillar of training, which is nutrition. If we could just start out with you giving us a little bit of your background and how that fits into your work here at Naval Special Warfare. That would be really helpful.
JR: Great, well I’m happy to be here, too. I’ve been working at this Center, AKA the schoolhouse, for the last two and a half years. So, I started in June of 2015. Before that, was teaching college for a year, was in a similar position to this with an Army unit for a couple weeks before the government that had some cuts that came down, so it’s nice to be back into that system. Prior to that, I worked in professional baseball. I did a dual undergraduate in kinesiology and nutrition, and then my master’s degree is in kinesiology as well. I am a registered dietician and board certified specialist in sports dietetics, which I know is a mouthful, but…it’s the sports nutrition credential for dieticians.
AG: And so what drew you to Naval Special Warfare? How does that all fit in here?
JR: Really just working with people who are highly motivated. I’ve done the general training. I’ve done the personal training, I’ve done the general nutrition counseling, worked in the hospitals, and that’s great. You can make an impact, but I feel I’m at my best when I’m working with people who are highly motivated, people who will push me to do more research, to read more articles so I can come back to them and provide them with resources and information that will improve their careers, try to add some longevity to their careers. So, that’s probably the most, is highly, highly motivated population.
AG: And so, just to start out, let’s talk about how important nutrition is. Why is this something we’re even talking about today?
JR: Great question. Everybody’s got to eat. I look at it this way, that nutrition won’t be necessarily the difference maker. Having a solid nutrition program will not make you make it through this training pipeline. However, poor nutrition can be the reason that you don’t make it. So, we definitely see early on, in the early parts of phase and early parts of training when the intensity level is very high, we see low blood sugar or hypoglycemia. We see dehydration, we see heat injuries, and so, the individuals coming through the pipeline, the students who aren’t hydrating, who aren’t fueling high enough are going to get that low blood sugar, and it doesn’t matter how motivated you are, how fit you are, how strong you are, if you have low blood sugar, you can’t perform. And so, I like to say that it won’t be the reason you make it through, but it absolutely can be the reason that you don’t, so I want to eliminate that.
AG: Okay, on the flipside, there’s certain diets and certain eating choices that you make that can make you perform at your best… (JR: Absolutely) So, what are some things that you would recommend?
JR: So, it’s funny because especially now with so many different diet plans being very popular, it’s almost like a dichotomy. You have the vegans over here saying that plant-based is the only way to eat, and it makes you healthy, etc., etc. And on the other side, you have more of the carnivores, whole 30, Paleo and even the ketogenic crowd, who’s saying, “No, no, no, this is the only way to eat.” And so, as part bystander looking, trying to sort through the research, my goal is to try to find those common denominators. Why can a plant-based, meat-free vegan diet work for somebody, and likewise, why can an incredibly high fat, low carbohydrate diet also work? So, what are those common denominators? So, to answer your question better, I believe those common denominators are eating real food. You can call it clean eating, which has a very loose definition, but my definition of clean eating is real foods – so foods that don’t come in packages, food that’s not processed. If you do have food that comes in a package, the product over here that has five ingredients is probably better than the one over here that has 20. If you don’t like to cook – and here’s my first piece of advice – if you don’t like to cook, learn, learn how to do something other than cereal, macaroni and cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, learn how to do things like overnight oats. Learn how to cook some meats or some eggs because I feel that calorie for calorie, when you create something in your kitchen, it’s going to be healthier than it would be from a restaurant or a fast food restaurant, so clean eating. Try to eliminate added sugars, try to eliminate as much processed food as you can; would be those common denominators.
AG: And how do you see nutrition fitting in to the bigger picture of the fitness plan? I know there’s some pillars that you guys look at as a whole, as a big picture.
JR: I would say for longevity. In some respects, it’s similar to baseball. When you work with baseball players, and they play 162 games, and in my opinion, my role there wasn’t necessarily to make somebody better for one game, but it was to make that person just as good on game 162 or just as strong, just as fit as they were on game one or in spring training. So, looking at this training pipeline here. If you just look at an hour of what the students do, a lot of really fit people, a lot of strong athletes say, “I could do that.” Say, “All right, yeah, you maybe could do a log PT sessions, but could you do log PT after a 4-mile run in the sand, knowing that you have a 2-mile swim coming up, knowing that you’re going to get four hours of sleep, wake up and you do the whole thing again tomorrow, wet and sandy?” So, it’s about that longevity, sustainability and just trying to have those good foods more for that endurance and more for the long haul, the 21 weeks all the way up to a year and a half of training, depending on which pipeline you’re going through. So that’s what it is. It’s about the endurance factor.
AG: So, say I’m just considering for the first time going, you know, into the SEALs or the SWCC team. What would be the first steps you would suggest I take in reconsidering my diet?
JR: I think the most important factor is the right diet plan for the right part of the training program. So that’s what I really like to hone in on for my education piece is that what you’re doing early on in training will differ from when you get to qualification training, and that’ll differ from when you get to the teams as an operator. So, finding the right overall diet plan, I feel, is that first step. So, if you’re looking at some of the trendy diets as I mentioned – I’m not getting paid by anybody to say anything – so I don’t feel that a ketogenic or Paleo diet might be appropriate for an incoming student, whereas it may have application for operators or for qualification training students. So, getting enough calories I think is going to be the number one point. Getting enough carbohydrates, getting enough hydration, getting enough healthy fats, because it is very intense. So, I’d say that making sure that you’re feeding your body enough total energy. The second component to that would be to get your total weight and your body composition in check before getting here, because once you get to Prep, or once you get to Coronado, that’s not the place to try to gain that last ten pounds that you know you need to gain, or try to lose that last ten or fifteen pounds. So get your body composition where it needs to be.
AG: Is there like a metric or...?
JR: We don’t give hard numbers. So I can say that where we see the fewest amount of injuries is in that 10 to 15 percent body fat range. Typically, if incoming students are too low, so 7, 8 percent really fit athletes, then they have trouble keeping weight on, or maybe their endurance suffers. On the other end of that spectrum, if somebody’s coming in at 18, 19, 20 percent body fat, then they’re probably carrying around too much weight on their frame. So, 10 to 15 would be that range. But I would say we, the metrics we look at would be more of an obstacle course type of output. So how are you doing with body weight push ups? How’s your 4-mile run? How are your pull-ups? And if your run is suffering, but you’re really, really strong in the gym, well, then maybe you need to lose a little bit of weight. Likewise, if you’re a very, very fast, strong runner, but you can’t do that many pull-ups, then maybe you actually need to increase upper body strength. So it’s, I apologize, I can’t give you all that hard answer. I know, everybody loves numbers, and I’m sure there’s a lot of number geeks out there like me, but I’d say that 10 to 15 percent range.
AG: Okay, so let’s, let’s take it down to the most basic, you know, I wake up in the morning, I decide I want to go into Special Warfare. I go downstairs, I look at my kitchen. What do, you get to be there next to me, pointing out different things that I need to change? What do you think some of the most common changes would be?
JR: So, I’d say one of the first things would be to get rid of the breakfast cereal and the Pop Tarts. So sorry, no Cinnamon Toast Crunch. But looking again at whole foods, and if you really can’t think of anything else, think carb, fat, protein, fruit, vegetable. Just get in the kitchen, try to find something that looks like a carbohydrate, a protein and a fat. Put that on your plate. Try to get a fruit or a vegetable, try to get some color. So, eggs are fine. I know for about 30 years, we had the low-fat guidelines and low cholesterol, and we’re finding out now that that’s not as true as you once thought. So scramble some eggs would be fine; throw some spinach in there. If you want some breakfast meat, I would suggest ones that say ‘nitrate-free’ or ‘no nitrates added’ or uncured. So some uncured bacon, some eggs, some spinach, and then your carbohydrate, which could come from oatmeal or fruit. So, nothing too complex, carb, fat, protein, color, fruit or vegetable, and do your best to eliminate things that come in packages.
AG: What do you think of those categories? What do you think people get the most confused about? I mean, you know, you say carbohydrate – that could mean a lot of things.
JR: Is ‘all of them’ an answer? I think, I think we get confused, and I’ll try to hit on each of these very briefly, but I think we get confused on protein. So, with protein, we know that athletes or incoming students have high caloric needs, high protein needs, but that doesn’t mean that they need to fill their plates with protein. So, I like to say think of your plate for an entire day, your breakfast, your lunch, your dinner, your snacks, and about a third of that should be protein. If you get too much more than that, it’s not going to shut down your kidneys, but then you’re probably not getting enough of the other quality nutrients like carbs and fat. With fat, the biggest thing there is – again, we thought for so long that fat kind of makes you fat, but now we understand that it’s a great fuel – that the healthy fats, the Omega 3 fats that are in fish and chia seed and flaxseed and walnuts, have a strong anti-inflammatory effect on the body. So that would probably be the most controversial, is fat. And then carbohydrate – almost as controversial, but you, again, I think with a very, very high-energy output, a high caloric output, you need carbohydrates to fuel that. Again, once you get to a certain part of the training pipeline, or if your goal is to reduce weight, then we can modify carbs a little bit and tweak them down, but if you’re going into this pipeline on a low carb diet, you’re probably not going to have the energy to make it through.
AG: So, sugar is something that comes up a lot now. It seems like that’s under attack the most, and it appears that there’s science behind that, but would you agree?
JR: I would, and I would say we need to specify, though, between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars and then further specify between athletes and non-athletes. So, if you’re a non-athlete, then absolutely limit total sugar and especially added sugar. If you’re an athlete, I wouldn’t worry so much about naturally occurring sugars in fruits, for example. They’re a healthy carbohydrate. I would do your best to limit added sugars, which would be, some of them are very plain to see, like Skittles are all sugar, Fruit Loops are all sugar, but then there’s added sugars in products like yogurt and granola bars, and then there’s some of the, I guess you could call it a ‘hidden sugar’ in a product like sports drinks. So, if you are going to consume those added sugars, make sure that it’s within that 30-minute window around an exercise session because that’s when your body can use them up. So, 30 minutes before, during or 30 minutes after, but a sports drink is not the beverage of choice on a Saturday afternoon on a recovery day when you’re just sitting around the house.
AG: So, recover. (JR: YES!) That’s a topic that I definitely want to talk about. How, how do we recover best, most efficiently? Is it supplements? Is it food? What is the magic formula?
JR: Top priority I would say is sleep. I realize it’s not necessarily a nutritional issue, but most 18 to 22 year olds likely don’t sleep enough, and, you know, it’s funny; a quick story. When I was in college, my roommate on my way to gym would always say, “Oh, you’re going to go do some bodybuilding,” and actually I’d say, “No, I’m going to do some body breaking down. I’ll do my bodybuilding later on tonight when I sleep.” And so, that approach of that you recover when you sleep, it just kind of switches the mindset a little bit. So even before I focus on nutrition, if I see somebody who’s, who has poor sleep or is only sleeping four or five hours a night, I will focus on that. And then maybe we’ll have a team approach to see what we could tweak on that, but drinking the right recovery shake or eating the right foods is, has a lesser impact than something like sleep or potentially just taking off a day here and there. So listening to your body, knowing that there might be some days when you might need to skip a session just so you could foam roll and stretch and do some of those topics that I’m sure you’ve talked about on some of the other podcasts. But to hit the nutrition standpoint, sleep number one, proper mobility exercises, two, three, I’d say hydration. So, we’re getting into the nutrition aspects, hydration, because when you are breaking down muscle tissue, when you’re working out muscle glycogen, you’re also burning through water. And so, when we replace that muscle glycogen or the storage form of energy in the body, we need water to go along with it, so I’d say hydration one. And then, the rules aren’t really that different, the carbs, the fats, the proteins. I try to make things simple, so the old-school theory was I need carbs before a workout and protein after a workout, and there’s some truth to that. I try to make it a little bit easier and say get a combination of carbs and protein before and get a combination of carbs and protein after. And then, in your later meals, maybe in between your workouts, that’s where you maybe have a slight emphasis on the healthy fats, cause fats do digest rather slowly. So, a high-fat meal an hour before a run is probably not the best idea, but a high-fat meal two or three hours before, or two or three hours after is a great idea.
AG: So, you don’t, you don’t think protein powder is the answer? Cause it seems like that is pushed on us a lot.
JR: I’ll give you two responses to that. I think that in general, protein powders and shakes and bars are convenience foods, so, yes, they can be part of an overall training program for an athlete, and they can be beneficial. But I would still focus on whole foods first. Having said that, the other part to that, the other caveat is our supplement policy, which I know we’ll, we’ll get into a little bit. So, most protein powders would not be permitted for students going through the training pipeline. So my short answer to that is, try to do your best to train like you will when you get here. Create a similar environment for you now so that when you get to Prep, when you get to Coronado, when you get out to the teams, you know what to expect, and your body knows what to expect.
AG: Well, let’s just dive in then, supplements.
JR: So, supplements. I’ll start off with the letter of the law so to speak. The supplement policy only permits foods that say ‘nutrition’ facts versus foods that say ‘supplement facts’. So, anything on the back of a food label is going to typically say nutrition facts, drug facts or supplement facts. Anything that is a nutrition fact or drug fact is regulated by the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration. Anything that says supplement facts is not regulated, so no supplements are regulated in the United States. An act that came out in 1994 deregulated supplements, meaning that I could put – and I’m using an extreme case here, but it’s possible – I could put steroids in my protein powder and sell it, and somebody starts taking it, like, “Man, this protein powder’s really working,” and it’s, “Well, yeah, it’s not the protein in there. It’s the contaminated steroids.” And, so you hear of collegiate athletes and pro athletes testing positive, and they’ll blame it on a supplement because they probably took a supplement, they allegedly took a supplement that was not regulated and not properly tested. So, our supplement policy here is it must say ‘nutrition facts’, one, it must also be a single serving size. So we do believe that students need additional calories, additional carbs, fat and protein, so having a bottle of protein shake is fine. Having a protein bar is fine because that’s a single serving. The other component to our supplement policy is no energy drinks. We really want to do our best to limit caffeine, especially if you’re consuming a pre-workout, and as we just said maybe contaminated with amphetamines or the amount of caffeine listed may be different from what’s actually inside of the product. So it’s very easy to over-consume caffeine or amphetamine types of substances, which will affect heart rate, which will affect your body’s ability to regulate your temperature. And as I said, our students working out here are already at a high risk for dehydration and heat illness. So, it’s a very strict policy to be honest, but it’s also a very black and white supplement policy. For any students coming through who maybe do need a pill, a powder, for example, maybe someone who’s had a history of stress fractures and needs vitamin D or calcium, that has to be approved by a Navy medical provider. So, you can take things like fish oils, calcium, vitamin D, multivitamins if a Navy doctor says yes, for whatever reason this is what you need. So, my advice to students is train with food, cause like I said, I wouldn’t want, you know, the placebo effect to kick in, and you’re taking something that maybe is legit, it’s clean, it’s not going to make you test positive, but when you get here, you don’t have that anymore, and it’s like taking away the binky, you know. Or, and it’s such a mentally demanding environment here that I wouldn’t want that lack of a placebo effect, or I wouldn’t want you to take that away and think, “Oh, I need my multivitamin,” or, “I need my protein powder in order to recover properly.” It’s not physically necessary, so kind of get used to that now would be some of my advice.
AG: Yeah, that’s huge. Those are some very important takeaways, so nothing that says supplemental info on the label, train with whole foods, and pretty much, you know, do your best to eat vitamins in the food format, not in the pill format.
JR: Precisely, and if you need those extra calories, and you want convenience food, it’s fine to have the bottled protein shake, or some of the energy bars or protein bars. Again, going back to the clean eating, when you’re searching through the different ones, don’t necessarily just go for the one that has the most protein as a lot of us do, but maybe try to find the ones that have a grass-fed protein that’s a little cleaner. Try to find ones that don’t have artificial sugars, artificial colors, artificial flavors. So again, that fewer ingredients still applies to the bottle protein and the bars.
AG: So, while we’re talking about the labels, there’s a lot of words on labels that are hard to understand. Are there a few that you would say that are just no, absolute no’s? I remember partially hydrogenated soybean oil being something that’s pretty bad, or there are like three things that you just say no, no, no?
JR: Great question, and partially hydrogenated oils would be high up on that list. I would say anything that has a color or a number associated with it. So, you know, Red 5, Blue 4, any of these different artificial colors. So that would be the first thing. And I like to say that if a fifth grader could not pronounce it, it probably shouldn’t be there. So polysorbate 80, and sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate, and some of those ones that, yes, if you’re a college chemical engineer chemistry student, you know what those mean, but if a fifth grader can’t pronounce it, you probably shouldn’t put it into your body.
AG: Nice, I like that rule a lot. So, when you look at the top part of the label, you know, percentages of everything, is there any sort of rule of, you know, not over this amount of sugar in one serving size or something like that that you would say is a rule of thumb?
JR: Another awesome question. And I would say when it comes to the percentages, my rule is to ignore those, because those percentages are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. And I would say that most of the students coming through the pipeline here need at least double, and sometimes even triple those amounts. So, early on --- and to throw the calories thing out there, some of the numbers – early on in training, students here are burning 5 to 6 thousand calories per day, and during Hell Week or during the Tour, that number goes up to 10 to 12 thousand calories per day. So, looking at the percentages and thinking that you need a 2,000-calorie diet, you’re going to be incredibly under-fueled for this training environment. So, I, I like to look at the ingredients. My other rule – ignore the percentages. I actually get away from the macros, the grams of carbohydrate, fat and protein to be honest, and I go straight to the ingredient list. The ingredient list is listed from largest amount of that food to the least, highest to least in terms of its weight. So, if you’re looking at a product, a bar, and brown rice syrup is the first ingredient on that energy bar, that means – which is a sugar – that means there’s more added sugar in that bar than anything else, whereas another bar over here, the first two ingredients may be cashews and dates. And yes, dates have sugar, but they’re a natural sugar. So, that would be my rule of thumb, is ignore the whole top part of that label, go to the ingredient list, look for things as we said that a fifth grader can’t pronounce, try to find the products that have the fewest number of ingredients, and then try to find the ones that don’t sound like artificial or added sugars.
AG: Okay, so, you know, a lot of people when they turn 18 are shopping for the first time, and that is going to be a lot of people that you’re seeing here. Do you have advice for someone as they walk into the grocery store to do the right thing?
JR: So, you always hear the tip of, ‘well, stick to the perimeter’, and I believe in that to an extent. However, there’s a lot of frozen foods in the middle, a lot of frozen vegetables and frozen fruit to make smoothies, in the center aisles that’s really healthy food. So you’ll hear that one a lot, and there’s some truth to it. The best advice I could have is it starts before you get to the grocery store, and that’s to make a plan. We talk about with operators here you have to pay attention to detail, so you have to be very detail-oriented thought process. So I say make, make a menu for the week, and you don’t have to make a menu of breakfast, lunch and dinner and snacks. The easiest way to do it would be to make a menu for five days, just for dinner. So, here are my dinners for the week, and I’m going to plan to have leftovers one night, and I’m going to plan to eat out one night, and then maybe my lunch is going to be my leftovers from the night before. So, make that five meal, week-long menu, and then see what ingredients you need, and use that to create your shopping list. Cause otherwise, I think we’ll have a tendency to buy the exact same things every single time we go through the grocery story, okay, we’ll get milk, we’ll get bread, we’ll get a thing of lettuce, and then we’ll go home that day, and we’ll make a salad, and then the next Sunday, we’ll open up the bottom drawer, and that lettuce is wilted, and you’re wasting money. So, I know at 18, budget is a concern, and so if you plan to do things like the salads and your fishes and your fresh meats early in the week, then you can plan to use your frozen foods, frozen vegetables later in the week.
AG: So, we were talking about all these things that are so good for you. One of my personal favorite expressions in this community is, “Work hard, play hard,” which indicates a certain amount of consumption of other things outside of training. What, what are your suggestions on managing that? I mean, you’re going to go have fun, you’re going to drink, you know, you’re going to eat junk food. What do you do when that occurs? How do you get, how do you recover from that, you know?
JR: Yeah, you’re absolutely right, “Work hard, play hard”. Another quote in this community is, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” So I know where you’re coming from with that thought process. So, I’m a big fan of the 80/20 rule, which you may have heard before, where if you focus on healthy eating 80 percent of the time, then that other 20 percent you can have the junk food and go out and enjoy it. So, within that, I’ll say two things: one, depending on your personal goals, you may need to adjust that. If you struggle with losing that last five to ten pounds that you know you need to lose cause you want to get that 4-mile run time down, you may need to be on a 90/10 type of diet. And then when you get to a certain point, you can go a little bit back towards 80/20. So, I’ll say this, on the second part of that is, eat what you like. I always tell people that the double fudge brownie, a small portion is better than an entire tray of low-fat, sugar-free brownies, alright. So, make, satisfy yourself, and what I usually tell the students and the operators here is lump all your junk food. So your fast food, your desserts, your alcohol, lump that all into the 20 percent as well. So, if you, if you like your double IPAs and your wine, then you go for that…(AG: eat a salad) And a salad! That’s the exact, exactly just like that. So do what you like, just try to control, think about a week-long process of, “All right, where’s my junk food, where’s my booze, where’s my fast food, and, you know, how am I going to manage that all into my 20 percent?”
AG: And not everyone’s, you know, do you have advice for someone who, they didn’t eat a salad, they got drunk, and they had a cheeseburger, and then they’re feeling bad about that? It’s like what, what do you suggest to get back on the wagon again, to get back in the mindset?
JR: Great question, and it’s all about establishing healthy habits. So, if you have the habit of drinking a lot and very frequently, then you’re probably also going to have the habit of going out and eating the cheeseburgers, or the pizza, or the tacos late night. We’re in San Diego, so it’s, it’s California burritos here. I know it, I understand it. So I would say just getting back into that routine the next day, of, “All right, yesterday was yesterday, today’s today, and I need to get back into my fitness routine.” It’s funny when you read about habits that people who are more fit, people who exercise more, you know, people who make their bed, if you’ve heard that from one of our former leaders here. When you make your bed in the morning, that everything else just trickles down.
AG: Start the day doing something that’s productive so that the rest of the day follows from there. (JR: Exactly, exactly) Is there, is there a Navy SEAL and SWCC equivalent of making your bed first thing in the morning? Is there a nutrition equivalent of that?
JR: Oh, man, that’s a good, that’s a very fair question. I would say drinking water. I think we, the first thing we typically do in the morning is we go to the bathroom, and we wake up dehydrated. So I’d say start the day hydrated. There it is, start the day hydrated. Your brain cells need water, your muscle cells and so you can think more clearly, you can listen to your body a little bit more clearly in terms of your hunger and satiety when you are hydrated.
AG: That’s really interesting because I’d say a very large percentage of us start the day with coffee, a diuretic essentially, so maybe like chug a glass of water before you have that coffee? [JR: Exactly.] All right, I like that. So, we’ve, we’ve gone, you know, big picture down to some of the, the smaller, sweat the small stuff kind of details of this. Let’s bring it back to the plan. If I’m looking at this for the first time, and I’m trying to map out how I’m going to attack, you know, my journey to the Special Warfare community, what would you recommend I look at first and then, you know, how to map it out?
JR: So, the first step would be some form of self-assessment, and I think the easiest thing you can do is just write down what you eat and what you drink, because I feel that we are in autopilot when it comes to nutrition most of the day, that we don’t realize we’re grabbing this snack or grabbing that snack, or at the end of the day, we don’t realize that we maybe over consumed on this product, maybe under-consumed on this product or under-consumed water. So, I’d say that first step is just the self-assessment, the awareness of, “Alright, what am I actually putting into my body?” Cause you can go online and download a diet program, but it may not be specific to you. “What are one to three aspects I can focus on today or tomorrow morning that will improve what I do?” It might be drinking more water, it might be not skipping a meal. There’s 100 different things we could look at, but the self-awareness is probably that first step.
AG: How often do you find that people are surprised once they do start tracking? I’d imagine it’s a very high percentage.
JR: Very high percentage, yeah, 9 out of 10. In fact, there’s some studies, this is more on the weight loss side, but just simply tracking their calories and not having any input from a dietician, that alone, people lose weight. So, you can become more fit simply by becoming more aware, as I said, of what you’re putting into your body or what you’re not putting into your body.
AG: That indicates a lot of mindless activity going on, so it’s all about mindfulness… (JR: Exactly, yes) Well, I know one of the things that you wanted to make sure we addressed is, you know, there’s, there’s a plethora of information out there. There’s a lot of data, there’s a lot of research, there’s a lot of websites and apps, and you, you know, your goal is to make sure that people have a simple, have simple explanations and ways of attacking their health and nutrition. What would you kind of dispel it down to for some takeaways?
JR: Great question, and we touched on this when we were discussing protein a little bit, but if you think about that big plate, again, your breakfast, your lunch, your dinner, all your snacks, and about a third of that plate should be protein. Well, about another third of that should be vegetables, and so I would say that most Americans, including athletes, including Naval Special Warfare operators, don’t consume enough vegetables. So make a third of that plate vegetables. And then make the other third of that plate your carbohydrates, your starches, your starchy vegetables. So, potatoes are a starch, peas, corn and carrots are starches, not vegetables. And just kind of think about that third, third and third with your healthy fats spread around. And then if you need to gain weight or lose weight, we can modify that a little bit. If your goal is to gain weight, maybe the carbohydrates is a little bit bigger portion. If you need to lose weight, maybe the vegetables becomes a little bit bigger portion. But that would be a great starting place, is thinking about, again, what you’re putting into your body, what foods are going on that plate and just having an honest, you know, gut check moment of, “All right, well, what does my plate look like today? What is that pie graph look like?” And then, “What are some steps I can take to make sure that I tweak that pie chart to look a little bit more like that one-third, one-third, one-third?” I’d say probably most of the students, we think about half of it is probably the protein, and about another third is our starches, and then maybe that last little sliver is our vegetables.
AG: Are there any trends? I know you said that it’s an individual thing, and then everybody at every stage along the training process and wherever they are in life has to look at it, but are there any trends that are just ridiculous that right now? You know, it changes every year, but…
JR: It does. So, again, what is appropriate for somebody who is diabetic or somebody who’s overweight or even somebody who is a Special Operations Forces operator, may not be appropriate for a student. So, if I’m looking at something like intermittent fasting, for example, which is a very popular trend, where it’s eight hours of eating and 16 hours of not eating, I would say that is not appropriate for a student coming into this pipeline because you’re just going to be grossly under-fueled. When you get to a point in your career where you maybe will have to go out on a three-day hump, and you don’t have access to food, well, then maybe use some intermittent fasting along your training pipeline to get your body used to not eating would be absolutely appropriate. But when you get to Prep, when you get to Coronado, you’re going to get three squares a day, and during certain parts, you’ll get that forth meal or snack, so get used to that regiment. Feed your body, because you’re going to need to burn through those calories. So, that would, that would be the one right now that I would say would not be appropriate for students coming in.
AG: So, hydration is important. We understand that. I think that’s widely known and maybe something we can all focus on more, but is there a certain amount that we should be focusing on, is it a percentage of body weight? How do you look at that?
JR: Yes, exactly, and we like to say get at bare minimum half your body weight in ounces, and so that’s if you have a low training day, and you’re not really sweating or burning a lot, but that can go all the way up to three-quarters of your body weight. And for incredibly intense days or for those of you who are in the Midwest or the east coast, where it’s really hot and humid, then maybe even your body weight, in ounces. So, if you’re 200 pounds, you should be drinking about 100 ounces of fluids per day. And it is definitely a relative amount. You know, there are people who will say, “Well, you should drink eight glasses,” some people say you should drink a gallon. Well, a gallon is 128 ounces, so for most 180 to 200-pound students coming in, that’s probably a pretty good range, a good estimate. I would also say we should talk about electrolytes and the sodium and the potassium, and that if it is hot and humid, you need to make sure you’re getting some form of essentially salt into that water. And it might be water and salty food; it could be a sports drink. Some people will talk about hyponatremia, which is too little sodium in the blood. We don’t see that here. In my two and a half years here and in talking to the medical providers who’ve been here long, longer than I have, I don’t know that we’ve seen any cases of hyponatremia, but we’ve absolutely seen plenty of cases of heat illness and dehydration. So, if you’re thirsty, you should drink, and you should probably drink a little bit beyond your thirst. You know, thirst is a really good regulator. I would say just drink slightly beyond your thirst, get half your body weight to three-quarters of your body weight in ounces of fluid per day, and then make sure that when you are exercising, getting some sodium especially, in one form or another.
AG: Should anyone be worried about over-hydration?
JR: And over-hydration would be that hyponatremia. It’s, I’d say, in the population coming in here, it’s probably pretty rare. You have to be drinking for like four or five hours. Where it can become a threat would be people who are running marathons who finish in that five to six-hour range and have been drinking water every aid station. But like I said, you know, if we’re going to put our money down on something, I’m going to put my money down on somebody being dehydrated in this population, than somebody being over-hydrated. So, you don’t ever, you may not need to go over one ounce per pound of body weight. That might put you at that risk for over-hydration or hyponatremia, but half to three-quarters per pound is good.
AG: While we’re talking about amounts, when it comes to advice about, you know, shifting to eating a whole food diet can be a little challenging for somebody who hasn’t done it before or maybe who hasn’t cooked for themselves before. Are there any kind of little tips that you’ve learned along the way for the daily consumption, you know, especially as someone on the go? What would you recommend?
JR: One of my go-tos is trail mix, and if you find a Whole Foods type of store where they have the bulk section, you can make your own trail mix. And nuts and seeds and dried fruit, and you can get different varieties of that. Do one that’s almonds and tart cherries. I love tart cherries, I love tart cherry juice. So trail mix, things like hardboiled eggs, I think are incredibly easy. And then as some of the different energy bars that are whole food bars, if you want to get adventurous, you can go on Pinterest, for example, and look up homemade energy bar recipes. So, I would say those things, trail mix, hardboiled eggs, homemade energy bars. And then there’s 1,000 different recipes for like overnight oats or homemade oatmeal’s, where you can put in almond butter. One of the favorites of the students here that we do a little cooking class when they get to qualification training. And pumpkin pie oatmeal is one of the favorites, where you put some canned pumpkin, some dark chocolate chips, a little bit of honey, sea salt and the oats, and it’s five minutes and delicious.
AG: That sounds great. I love that. Yeah, I’ve heard a lot about that lately. Is there anywhere people can go to find out more about this? I mean I think there’s, you, I think you have a lot more to share.
JR: Well, I know where, the SEALSWCC.com website is constantly being revamped, and, you know, I’m working on some different pieces, getting some more nutrition education to go along with all the great training information that’s already present. So, I keep coming back to that.
AG: I just want to thank you, Justin, for being here. This has been so interesting. I feel like we could talk for days about it. Maybe we’ll have you back again sometime…Part two.
JR: Absolutely, I appreciate your time, and best of luck to everyone out there for, with their training.
DF: Find out more at SEALSWCC.com, and join us again for the next NSW podcast