Here's a sneak peek at how the Navy Leap Frogs parachute demonstration team prepare for and execute a jump into Sam Boyd stadium in Las Vegas prior to the Rugby Sevens game. Special audio from the Leap Frogs in flight! For more info check out www.sealswcc.com.
Leap Frog: (LF): ...ATC may hold us to the south and have us do a south to north…
DF: The jumpers are huddled up on the ground near a parked helicopter as they finalize gear inspections.
LF: Luke’s in, stay extended three seconds. Stay extended. So, hey, go heavy…ready for me to go down. Ready. Coming down.
DF: Here they simulate the plan for exit, canopy opening, and inflight maneuvers.
Mimicking their planned actions physically and verbally, counting and repositioning themselves to engrain and review the jump plan.
LF: Come in right, come in right, come in right. We’ll try to bang in a 180. If we can’t fit in a 180, no issues, we can both land either side…
RADIO: We have lift off.
DF: A fear of falling comes naturally to almost everyone. What does not, however, is confidence and composure when free falling through the sky, headed straight for the ground. This confidence is earned through rigorous training and education evolutions. I’m Daniel Fletcher, today we go on location with the U.S. Navy's elite parachute demonstration team, the Leap Frogs. We’ll meet up with former guest, Luke Vesci, and the rest of the Leap Frog as they prepare to jump into Sam Boyd Stadium for the USA Ruby Sevens Championship match in Las Vegas, Nevada.
DF: These are the guys I’m looking for. How’s it going? I don’t think I’ve met you.
DF: I meet the team in the hotel lobby before walking outside to discuss the day’s plan. All of them dressed to match in Leap Frog uniforms or custom navy blue and yellow jumpsuits, professional and focused.
LF: This is Sean, who’s going to be our DZSO, so he will be mic’d up on the ground.
DF: After introductions, we walk out to the parking structure and circle up to hear from the jump master. He gathers the team to confirm the day’s schedule and brief the group about any updates.
LF: General overview for the day today, we’re going to head over to Sam Boyd Stadium. We’re going to do our site survey. As soon as we get there, we’ll link up with the guys from US Rugby 7. The helicopter’s going to land at 12:05. If everything looks good, winds look good, weather looks good, then we’re going to take off at 12:50. Streamers, 12:55, 13:00 TOT, 4,500 feet for the three of us getting out for the practice jump into Sam Boyd today. After that, we’ll just get a good wrap up, debrief, make sure everything is prepped and ready for tomorrow and then go from there. Any questions, concerns?
DF: After the briefing, the team loads their gear into three vans, and we drive out of the hotel parking structure.
During the convoy to the stadium, the three vans move as one unit, unwilling to separate.
The ordinary act of following a friend to the game, becomes today’s first display of coordinated precision, movement and tactics.
DF: We arrive at the stadium and are ushered through parking security.
LF: just as a reminder, this grass is these guys’ livelihood, so don’t step on the lines, try to stay off of the edges and everything like that as we’re walking around.
DF: After a short walk, we arrive at the edge of the field. The grass an almost neon-green, abuzz with turf workers and freshly sprayed game-day paint.
LF: Ready to go?
LF: Yeah. I think so. Today’s looking good.
LF: Do you need anything from our side?
LF: You know, I think we’re good right now.
DF: The team is joined on the field by one of the event directors.
LF: ….Discuss any contingencies, do our brief and our dirt dive, and weather looks good, so we’re going to definitely push forward for the practice jump for today.
ED: And what’s the protocol for tomorrow in terms of the timing?
LF: For us really, you just have to let us know when, exactly, do you want us out of the airplane? When exactly do you want to start the anthem? We kind of work it backwards to when do you want us touching down on the ground.
ED: Yep, that’s perfect.
LF: Whenever you get me the schedule, we can kind of go from there. Because we’ll sort of deconstruct and say, “Okay, they want us on the ground at 13:06,” so that means from 5,000 feet, you’re going to depart the plane at this time. It should be timed to the point where he hits his last note, flag touches down one last time, “Ladies and gentleman, your United States Navy Parachute Team, the Leap Frogs,” turn, wave, the crowd goes crazy, and we haul off the field.
ED: I got your music just an hour ago, so I’ll load that in. When do you typically play that?
LF: Generally, one minute prior to them departing the aircraft. That’s when the music kicks off.
DF: After an initial discussion about timing we turn our attention to the landing zone.
ED: Thanks, boys, we appreciate you guys coming out, man. It’s going to be good.
DF: So, whenever you guys are doing site survey, you’re looking at stadium shape, wind. What other stuff are you looking for?
LF: Obstacles, cables, you know, light poles, things like that, kind of, and then, you know, depending on where the wind’s coming from, it’s going to dictate the pattern that we’re going to fly to. So, obviously, we want the safest pattern possible with the best crowd perspective.
DF: Is there any of this that you do beforehand? To what extent can you plan beforehand?
LF: We always take a look ahead of time just to kind of have a general overview and idea of the area and we use Google Earth, things like that to get that 3D look at the stadium as well.
DF: So, it’s kind of just like last minute checks, were we right about what we thought? Are there other obstacles?
LF: The only thing that, you couldn’t really see on the imagery is whenever they have the field goal nets. You can’t really see the nets on imagery, but you kind of assume that they’re there; but this one, I mean, there’s only the four main light posts, three on that side, two on this side.
LF: And like Luke was talking about earlier, about looking around the stadium and assessing all the obstacles, it’s kind of a double assessment how does it affect our pattern as far as safety, but also how is it going to affect the winds in here so we know, which areas have the gentlest wind, and which places are going to be relatively turbulent.
DF: One element has more impact on the success and safety of a parachute demonstration than anything else. Wind. The team must monitor the constantly changing wind direction and speed at all altitudes in order to insure the parachutes generate the lift required to safely fly them to the ground.
DF: Do you guys mind maybe give me a little unpack of the tool that you’re using?
LF: Sure, we’re looking at a tool – aviation tool – it gives us every thousand feet what the winds are being recorded at, a direction and speed. [DF: Real time, basically?] Yeah, it will actually forecast through, but the thing that we run into is unlike going to a skydiving drop zone that’s normally co-located with an airport, we’re actually, as you see right now, at a stadium, there is no sensors here grabbing that information. So, we have to do a mixture of, reading those numbers, but then also getting our own data locally, so that’s what we’re going to do before we jump. That gives us the assessment of exactly where we’re at.
LF: They get to see what’s going on up above the stadium and then us on the ground, we’re relaying to them what direction the wind is coming at them cause it could completely switch. What we want to do is pick the best direction for them to land into the wind. We choose the direction they land on the ground from what we’re feeling on the ground, and then the streamers tell them what they need to do up above so that they can set up for the ground landing.
DF: The final wind assessment is taken with a remarkably low-tech yet critically reliable tool; streamers. These highly visible fabric strips, similar to what you would see atop goal posts, are dropped from the sky by the team just before leaving the aircraft. The direction of these streamers is observed by the team on the ground and radioed back to the team in the air as a final check for wind direction at altitude.
LF: When we talk about entering the stadium, we’re looking at like the 50-yard line as basically where we come in, straight towards the 50-yard line and then fly the pattern with inside the bowl of the stadium.
DF: Oh, wow, okay. I didn’t realize you ever were making turns inside the stadium. Are you guys normally aiming for dead center of the stadium or the field?
LF: No, we actually try to stay off the paint. You know, they work really hard to make this paint look really nice. So, we try to stay off the paint as much as possible.
DF: We receive a phone call. The helicopter is on its way.
LF: Helo’s inbound.
LF: Helo is inbound. We’ll kind of finish the walk-around, and head out and start prepping…
DF: While the site survey continues, the singer who will be performing the National Anthem at tomorrow’s game is given a chance to practice over the stadiums sound system.
I suddenly notice that the team has completely stopped working. Together, they are standing still at attention. Honoring the collective historic spirit of our armed services’ pride and sacrifice.
Seeing the Navy Leap Frog team at attention serves as a poignant reminder that this group is committed to duty, sacrifice, and a larger cause symbolized by our red white and blue.
DF: The helicopter is now within earshot and we leave the field.
DF: Do you guys know what kind of helicopter it is?
LF: It’s an AS350 Bravo 2, the A-Star, is what they call it. These guys actually do a lot of the tours of the Grand Canyon and the Vegas tours and things like that. It’s the same aircraft we actually used in San Diego, same type of airplane we use in San Diego for the SWCC Comp back in June or July last year.
DF: The jumpers will be free falling through the sky within 30 minutes and back at the vans there is a noticeable shift in the group’s energy.
DF: We get into the vans to drive over to the parked helicopter.
LF: There she is in all her beauty.
DF: We spot the helicopter and park the vans in the grass beside it, and unload the parachutes.
LF: ATC may hold us to the south and have us do a south to north regardless of uppers, just based on traffic and things like that. So there’s a chance that we might be having a south to north run.
DF: After a brief conversation about the changing winds and air traffic control the team begins what is known as a “dirt dive.” The jumpers huddle up on the ground near the parked helicopter as they finalize gear inspections.
LF: Ready for me to come down? Coming down.
DF: Here they simulate the plan for exit, canopy opening and in-flight maneuvers.
LF: Honestly, it’ll be pretty much just on you when you want to put the flag out. We’ll try to keep you in the three stack until 2,000, but if position only, we got to put you up for…
DF: Mimicking their planned actions physically and verbally, counting and repositioning themselves to engrain and review the jump plan.
LF: ...ready and bring it up, nice and carve it in. Boom, separate and avoid the paint. Cool.
DF: Andrew, todays jump master, calls air traffic control to confirm that the team is tracking for an on-time jump and flight time.
LF: Hey, I just want to call and give you guys an update. Winds are looking good for our jump here at Sam Boyd Stadium today. We’re going to be taking off in landmark 28 from Sam Boyd. We’re going to go wheels up at 12:50. Do a streamer pass at 12:55 from 41 MSL, 25 AGL, and from there, we’re going to climb up to 61 MSL, 4,500 AGL, for three jumpers getting out right at 13:00. Awesome, sounds good. Thanks.
LF: So, that was to Las Vegas TRACON, or the air traffic control guys. This stadium sits right on the approach for McCarran International Airport for their two six run, which is their main run in, so with it being Friday in Vegas, there’s a ton of air traffic coming in, so we’re just calling to mitigate with them all of the potential aircraft issues. Whenever it’s time for us to jump, they’re going to move them to a different runway, give us the airspace for the 14 minutes or so and then let them back in.
DF: Do you know who the pilot is for the day?
LF: Yes, he’s a retired Navy commander helo pilot. When he found out that he was working with the jump team, he was pretty excited. So, what we’re going to do is, before we jump out, I’m going to present him with our coin. It’s kind of like the Navy tradition, you know, so I’ll shake his hand, and we’ll jump out.
DF: He’s going to have a story. He’s going to be so excited.
LF: Yeah he’ll like that.
DF: It’s remarkably casual for this part of the jump or the not jump, the planning, you know. I mean it’s a lot that goes into it at this point, between talking to FAA, all the other plans, travel, packing, kind of calm before the storm.
LF: Well, you know, the trip lead, days and days before this, he is talking to the local towers, coordinating with the aircraft guys, FAA, last minute waivers and NOTAMS and different things like that, so the trip lead really takes the brunt of it on his shoulders.
LF: Yeah, there’s a lot of administrative stuff, a lot of training, a lot man hours that go into each of the jumps, but I definitely think everybody on the team feels very lucky to be doing this job we’re really just doing this on behalf of NSW to kind of represent for the entire community.
DF: The pilot arrives to meet the team next to the parked helicopter.
LF: Nice to meet you [INTROS]
LF: So, we’ve done our site survey. Everything looks good inside. And I just talked to TRACON… they’re tracking a 12:50 wheels up, 12:55 streamers and 13:00 three jumpers away. They’re still good with the altitudes that we discussed yesterday, streamers at 2,500 AGL and jumpers at 4,500 AGL, so it’s looking good on their side. We were looking for the exit, just to kind of get us all out in as little time as possible. I think I’m actually going to spot and jump master, and then whenever it’s time, ready to go, I’m going to climb out onto the strut, move to the rear side of the door. Then Bennett’s going to get out and strut, and he’s going to cue the exit, ready, set, go. He’ll lead off, I’m going to bleed off, and then Luke will chase us out. We’re going to be opening within a couple of seconds of exit and basically building and flying it in from there.
LF: All right, guys, I’m going to close you out. Watch your elbows, knees.
DF: The helicopter takes off and heads to altitude.
RADIO: We have lift off.
DF: As the Drop Zone Safety Officer informs them of the constantly evolving wind conditions on the field.
RADIO: At the lip 11 to 12 at the current moment.
DF: Streamers are dropped by the jump team from the helicopter to measure the current wind direction and speed just before the jump.
LF: Streamer data as follows, 100 yards northeast, push on the lower end. How copy?
DF: This information is relayed to the DZSO on the field as a final check for wind conditions at altitude.
RADIO: 100 yards northeast.
LF: Affirmative. Push was on the lower end, 1,500 and below. [RADIO] Roger climbing altitude…Winds on the 11 to 13, occasional gust of 15.
RADIO: We are headed to altitude at this time.
LF: High bird DZ, roger, two minutes. You are clear to drop.
RADIO: Copy all clear. See you on the ground.
[AUDIO OF JUMPERS LEAVING THE HELICOPTER]
DF: Two of the jumpers break off of the group formation and fly down landing close together, the third, flying a huge American flag beneath him, lands last.
DF: The support team rushes to collect the flag as it touches down and the jumpers collect their canopies.
DF: The whole team quickly gathers up to begin an immediate debrief, recounting any timing or execution issues when the jump is still fresh in their minds.
ANNOUNCER: On behalf of the United States Navy, Navy Recruiting Command and Naval Special Warfare, it gives me great pleasure to present to you, your United States Navy Parachute Team, the Leap Frogs!
DF: They will repeat this entire detailed process tomorrow and across America throughout the year in over 50 different locations. Executing the Navy Leap Frogs mission to display Special Warfare excellence. Arriving on time, on target.
Special Operations training is more than physical endurance. It's a mind game, and you've got to get your mind right. We talked with our command psychologist to better understand how humans mentally adapt to the challenges of hardship. For more info check out www.sealswcc.com.
Intro: Anyone whose pushed their personal limits knows it’s the mind that must be trained to overcome barriers and that peak performance requires more than physical capability. I’m Daniel Fletcher. In the next couple of episodes, we take a look into Naval Special Warfare’s Mind Body Medicine Program. Today we speak with an NSW psychologist to discuss optimizing the mental health component of training, rebounding from stress – and reaching peak performance under pressure. Let’s get started.
DF: If you could start off with talking about your role here in this environment and some of your core responsibilities
CP: Absolutely so we have. There's three psychologists that we have here at Naval Special Warfare Center, and we provide support to both Basic Training Command, so all of the SEAL and SWCC students, as well as Advanced Training Commands, so the subordinate commands to Naval Special Warfare Center. So some of things that we do here are we provide clinical services when it comes down to psychotherapy. When it comes down to instructors or our students and then other roles and responsibilities that we have fall in the domain of non-clinical services. So we do assessment selection, so personnel selection of all of the candidates that are coming into the pipeline and as well as the instructors so they're participating in higher trainings. We have to screen instructors to make sure that they're doing things, we have the right people for the right job. When it comes to both the students as well as the staff. So that's what we mostly do, we also provide some support for some other training evolutions. Like so for example with ---SERE [Survival, Escape, Resistance, Evasion] -- we provide some support and then there are other domains of what we do here regarding mental performance optimization and executive coaching.
DF: Oh, interesting. It seems like you have a big broad and expansive responsibility here. What would you say are some of your favorite areas to work in, some areas that really --- resonate with you?
CP: Yeah. Well for the purposes also of this particular podcast you know, one of the things that tends to get a lot of traction that we're trying to be able to build this equity has to do with how to be able to look at this next generation of operators, the students that are in training and how to make sure that we're able to equip them with skills that aren't just necessarily in the physical domain but how much of the training is really built upon the mental game. And there's a lot of applications when it comes down to, when they finish the pipeline and they come into the teams, be it the special boat teams or when it comes down to the SEAL teams. What we can do, right, establishing this foundation of how to optimize mental performance and that's where I think mind body medicine comes into play.
DF: How is that transformed in your experience in the time that you've been here?
CP: You know it's something that for example you know we have trainees that come in and the big four is something that all of the students that are going to be exposed to in both respective pipelines, when it comes down to SEAL and SWCC candidates. So at Great Lakes, students will be exposed to these big four when it comes down to looking at sports psychology. So one of our predecessors and other psychologists that used to be assigned here at the Center looked at some of the best existing practices and they saw, you know what we could incorporate some of these things because we want to equip students with the skills to be successful without kind of showing like, here are the keys to the kingdom. But how can we set them up for success? So we have those big four and I can go into a little bit more about it, is that...?
DF: Yeah. If you want to go on a high level that would be good. I think it's important for people to understand if they haven't listened to all of the podcasts because we've touched on them before. You could go over them as an overview and then kind of dig in how it's applicable here.
CP: Absolutely. So the big four that if you haven't heard before as far as our listeners we look at visualization being a really important one and that's definitely appropriated from the literature regarding mindfulness in mind body medicine. Arousal control when it comes down to breathing. Also one of those things that has a direct correlation when it comes down to mind body medicine. Things such as looking at goal setting or positive self-talk, that there's some things that have been kind of appropriated from some of the therapy skills that we have. So visualization is looking at how to be able to look at visualizing something. So there's Olympic trainers that teach their athletes about how to be able to incorporate using visualization. I think one of the stats that I remember reading was about ninety five percent of Olympic trainers use visualization with their athletes. [DF: Wow.] And, yeah I know right? And so these athletes that even when it comes down to medalists, they look at some of these, these techniques. Arousal control, right? How to be able to look on your breathing has huge implications regarding your performance from a physical standpoint. And again that's something that's in mind body medicine. Goal setting, looking at how to be able to prioritize one's goals how to be able to chunk things that are more manageable. Right, that adage of, how do you eat an elephant?
DF: Yeah, one bite at a time.
CP: One bite at a time, right? And the last one being looking at positive self-talk because it's the ability to bounce back that’s also really important. And a lot of times if you have any type of setback in this, that's one of those things that's really important when it comes down to being the pipeline. If you're on one particular evolution struggling with something and you're not measuring up to where you thought you would perform, how do you find a way to be able to engage in positive self-talk? It's the next time that you go do that evolution or the next evolution if it's something completely different that you're able to optimize that performance as opposed to just spinning down the drain and just focusing on all of your shortcomings.
DF: So why do you think that those, the first two specifically have direct application in the NSW community?
CP: Yeah, so let's look at something, let's say something apart from NSW and then we'll come back through it. [DF: Okay.] So looking at sports, the biathlon. All right? You have people that are skiing. Right? And then having to stop and then shoot. Right. So you think about that. What ends up happening? Your heart rate's increasing you have all these things physiologically that are occurring that can really impair your ability to hit a target. So they have to be able to practice, these biathletes, how to be able to down regulate that physiological response and be able to focus on hitting the target and then boom ramping right back up, hitting the slopes, skiing and getting the next target. Right?
So you think about that, and you look at that parallel, what are you doing tactically? You're doing something very similar. When you're going in to be able let's say to clear a house, yes you need to be able to ramp up to get to that optimal zone of functioning and performance, but not to the point where your system physiologically gets overwhelmed. So you look at practicing your breathing. The same things that are taught within our mind body medicine class that Alana Saraco teaches here. How to be able to get in that right state of zone of functioning. Same thing happens regarding being on the range. Right? So we have operators that go to Indiana and they have their sniper school. We have students that also have to be able to learn how to shoot when it comes down to doing CQC, close quarters combat. And how can they bring everything down as far as the breathing? Right? So it's the same thing. Learning how to be able to exhale. Right? Controlling, slowing down your heart rate. Pulling the trigger and hitting it so that your breathing isn't affecting where you're overshooting the target.
DF: Do you feel that there's a certain pushback against some of these practices until people learn them? It's a lot harder, I think, for people to wrap their minds around the benefits without doing them, especially on a surface level. Is that something that you have had a challenge with, trying to incorporate this, it to be quote "taken seriously"?
CP: Yeah the biggest one is about people just not building the time into their schedule. So we have people that are able to say okay, well I can do this. And it's like, working out. Part of it about working out and having a regimen is being able to do it with some periodicity. How to be able to incorporate so that it's part of your lifestyle. You can't cram working out. You can't be like all right I'll spend, you know, three hours in the gym this week and I'll make up for everything. [DF: Yeah, right.] Right as opposed to let's say 30 to 60 minute segments on a daily basis. It's the same thing with mindfulness. Same thing with mind body medicine. How do you incorporate this so it's part of your normal battle rhythm every single day. There's a quote about if, let's say you're stressed out, right? You know if you're really, really busy and you're stressed out and you have no time to be able to engage in these practices. That's the time when you need to be able to do it maybe three-fold.
DF: Right, right. So how do you, I guess speaking to a potential recruit, someone that's kind of really entering the pipeline, maybe they're involved in high school athletics or around that time of their life. You mentioned it's applications in an operational sense with the SEALs or SWCC or whoever. Maybe you can give a couple ideas of how you would recommend they implement these practices into their lives before they get here.
CP: Absolutely. So part of it about any of this stuff is building some self-awareness. So every single step before, they they're gonna be getting this training when it comes down to being in prep, right? So we have eight weeks that are dedicated from a physical standpoint, they're going to do some conditioning, but a mental standpoint they're going to have access to these big four. Before they even come out, part of the job is making sure that they have some awareness of where things are for them internally. Right? So if they're going to the gym it's so easy to be able to plug in some music or even plug in this very podcast while they're in the gym and just be mindless, right? And just be able to be disconnected. But part of the approach is being able to actually dial in and be in the moment, understand what's happening to you physically. Right? We need to be able to have that as the foundation and precursor for them to be successful to learn the skills that they have in prep. So just finding out kind of where they are.
So one of the things like we are, what we will talk about is the body scan and how to be able to look at checking in with yourself what's happening to you physically. Because a lot of people are just pushing through right? They're invincible they're in high school or, you know, they want to be able to grab life by the horns and get into NSW. But how can you slow the process down to check in what's happening to them physically.
DF: How often do you think that's, not necessarily required or recommended to do that kind of self-evaluation when they're not experienced with that kind of sensitivity?
CP: So repetitions and iterations are really important. So to be able to do it on a daily basis. And there's some fringe benefits, right? So we have literature that suggests like even something regarding the breathing or training. How to focus on your breath. The fringe benefits are that actually over a long enough time period that it lowers any type of heart disease, right? The number one risk for heart disease is stress. Like the whole thing about a type A personality was that the claim was termed by a cardiologist, right? So it has to do with stress. And so they might not be aware of it now, but if they're able to kind of see that they put this into practice now in their youth or even if, let's say they're a fleet transfer and they're coming into the pipeline, the earlier the better. Right? The earlier the better that you can incorporate these things just like physical fitness.
DF: So say you do this assessment and, yeah you're carrying a lot of tension is, I guess what your takeaway is, what do you think is the next step for somebody who's entering this kind of this process of kind of re-evaluation.
CP: So looking at resources that they have. So, maybe if they have someone when it comes down to existing support systems. If they're in some type of sport right? Like we know we have a lot of people that are wrestlers, we have a lot of people that are coming in from water polo backgrounds and they have an inherent ready kind of embedded coaching systems, they can talk to their coach about looking at how maybe based upon someone with more experience and they kind of see these things. All right. So I noticed that I carry a lot of tension and I can talk to the coach about how have they been able to see regarding mental performance or when it comes down to mind body medicine or mindfulness or meditation, how has that been something that's been applied in their sport, so it's familiar. Right? It has something that there is a reference point. If let's say I'm a wrestler and I see how it's applied in wrestling. Boom, I've been able to see how there's a real world application.
DF: Right, and probably experience that benefit themselves. Do you think that the awareness is adequate in the NSW community for the benefits of mindfulness and mind body medicine or is it something that needs to grow or?
CP: Yeah. So I believe that awareness is growing. So this was something that we were asked to be able to look at meeting this demand signal. So we had floated all sorts of different ideas when it comes down to programmatic development. So we have a for example a group slash class on sleep, right about how to be able to treat insomnia. Yeah. We were providing treatment individually but we developed a class to address that need. Another need was like, hey this is something that is emerging and we need to be able to have something that's not just done individually but more on a group basis. [DF: Right] And that was done to normalize. That was done from the head shed from the leadership at the top level saying we see marriage in this, we see that there's some type of benefit. So community wide we definitely see the people that are more seasoned, the people that have more years in the teams, that they're the ones actually incorporating this and the ones that are younger or you know they're able to use their youth and their raw talent to be able to have this.
But what ends up happening is over the course of a person like an operator's lifespan is that they get really proficient at ramping up. And the training that they have as well as their experiences in combat are, they get finely tuned to be able to have that fight or flight response the sympathetic nervous system finely tuned to be able to respond. And there's been some research about looking at conventional forces and SOF and the differences there. But one of the things that there isn't an emphasis on the training pipeline is about how to be able to promote the relaxation response. Everyone has this, other animals also have the sympathetic nervous system, the fight or flight response, and the parasympathetic nervous system which is the relaxation response. So if you engage in things of this nature when it comes down to mind body medicine or meditation, it actually helps promote that relaxation response. And that's something that's needed especially over, let's say 15 to 20 years of a career, 30 years in the Teams, it becomes more and more difficult because your body becomes finely tuned to be able to ramp up but not ramp down.
DF: Yeah that obviously has an impact on sustainability of the force and the individuals in a huge way, right?
DF: Is that where that kind of need came from? It was like, a general awareness that, or maybe a lack of awareness and then it was like hey there is a way to do this that exists that we're just not really practicing or was it something that's picked up from people that in the Teams that hey this is what's working for them. How did that kind of come about you, do you know?
CP: Yes. So it was really coming from the operators. And so we can talk about what the best practices are. Right? So we're the subject matter experts. So if we have the clinical psychologist or we have other medical disciplines that are explaining these things it's, it's great but the proof in the pudding is really when someone's done it and they see the merit. Right? So you have operators that have done this and put it into practice and there's like wow this is something that's incredible. This has actually had an impact to my ability to operate.
DF: What are successful operators doing in this space that you think people should replicate?
CP: One of the things that we hear back from operators is it's, it's really based upon what they gravitate toward individually. So we can kind of see from a trend analysis what are the most popular. But, for example, for one person it might be like, ooh box breathing is definitely what I want. Right? That seems to work really well for me. Now, I mean, based upon their experiences of let's say when they are doing athletics, right, they're doing it on a sports team and it became something that was already a skill but they are able to finally hone that skill. Or for another person they might be like, you know what? I really like the idea of looking at visualization. Right? So there's a number of different techniques. And for us, we try to emphasize simplicity over trying to be able to have an overly exhaustive list of different skill sets. Right? Like we would rather have the Leatherman multi-tool, right, that you can incorporate because you can over-learn that. It's the same thing that happens when it comes into certain tactics. Gross motor movement versus fine motor movement. We'd rather give you a skill that you can start to be able to apply to multiple scenarios that's streamlined, as opposed to a plethora of different skills that you can utilize. Right?
DF: Right. Right. Right. Right. It's different for everyone.
CP: It is. It is different for everyone but I think again, like the reason why the Big Four has actually been sustainable is because there's only four of them, and you can kind of build up as far as complexity of each of those four fundamental, mental performance.
DF: Or where your detriment may be personally.
DF: Maybe you could speak a little bit about how, and when you've incorporated some of these techniques that have been really beneficial to you whether it's after stress or before performance whatever it may be. Maybe areas and insights that maybe people might not know where to apply these techniques and skills.
CP: So when in training pipeline I think there's some great applications. Right? So there's multiple points when it comes down to like, you're in a high stress environment because you have people evaluating you. Right? You're evaluating yourself in your performance. Your peers are evaluating you. You're evaluating your peers. You have cadre of instructors that are evaluating you. So there's some performance anxiety that can happen, and that could really start to impact, let's say when you're, when you're doing a run on the house, when you're jumping out of a plane. There's all these different things, so there's a lot of performance anxiety and stuff that you haven't done or you don't do really regularly. So being able to put into practice let's say when you're in a learning environment and you're getting classroom didactics, how you can incorporate let's say visualization, definitely something you can use. [DF: Huge, you're right.] Right? Or the breathing. Right? How to be able to have it. So you're not taking these short and shallow breaths and asphyxiating, right? How to be able to control your breathing so that you're able to dial in, and making sure that let's say you're doing an aerobic exercise and you're having to run. You can definitely do this. So, I think that in a training environment, especially with the listeners that are looking at, all right, I'm going to do, let's say the PST, or I'm going to do some type of physical fitness evolution. There is a mental component and how you can get into the optimal zone right before you execute.
DF: For people that might be experiencing symptoms whether it's stress, anxiety, fill in the blank, what would you tell them for them to know, hey I need to do something beyond self-care here. Is there any indicators that people should be aware of that's, hey. I can't talk myself down from this level of anxiety or whatever it may be. How do you kind of navigate that?
CP: So I mean ideally, they're able to check in with themselves, but you know that's why we have swim buddies in the Navy. Right? You have people that can hold each other accountable, and you have someone that's able, like you're just as much in training you're checking that person's gear, they're checking your gear, and they're also checking what your performance is. So if they see a change in your baseline, from your functioning, or if you're seeing a change in theirs, that's one thing that's a fidelity check. Right? Having that mentor or that coach, right, that you can, that they provide you feedback and it's going to be one of those things that they're going to be receiving in the training pipeline, [DF: Right.] is the right type of feedback [DF: Right, right]. So even if it's for themselves if they have some blind spots and they don't see where, let's say their performance is starting to be affected, there's going to be people that they need to rely upon proactively and ask for that help and then also if they don't get that then there's definitely instructors that will tell them.
DF: How are these techniques used to maintain a high level of professionalism and performance in the community?
CP: That's a great question. So a lot of times, when someone thinks about a clinical psychologist, in the most traditional setting, right? They think of like a chaise lounge and talking about their mother. Right? And it really seems to be from this model of, there's some type of illness. I'm here, I have depression, I have anxiety, I have post-traumatic stress, and I'm coming here because there's some type of illness that I need to be able to get treated for. And while we do do that, that's one of the roles that we have, we also look at how to be able to optimize performance, right? How can we have someone where, let's say they're doing great, they're functioning is going well, how can we actually make them more awesome. Right? So to speak.
These interventions, when it comes down to mind body medicine, it does both, right? One is, it gets left of the bang, before it becomes a problem. We equip people with the skills so that they're independently able to self-assess and being able to put these interventions into place so that we're equipping them with the skills that they can kind of take care of themselves. Right? So that's the first thing. And what the impact is. That person then has a sense of agency that they can take care of this stuff, like they have the tools necessary to be able to look at improving their performance and being able to address these things. Yeah we're always there as a safety net to be able to talk about when something outside of their control. But at the very beginning, they're taught you can take care of some of these things independently. And we'll be there to be able to help you through that process. Just like if you have to be able to put in a fix it ticket in the Navy and they give you like a, here's the tools that you need to do to install your, you know, your frames on a wall or whatever. [DF: Right, right, right.] It's the same kind of nature. And over the course of time if we establish that at the very beginning of someone's career, they have that understanding then there's idea of we're looking at destigmatizing as far as any type of healthcare, cause it's not just because they're there and they're sick and need to come in to see a professional, because they've already seen us in a different capacity. So it's really important.
DF: Yeah, I think that that's a big key. I think that there is this passing, hopefully, passing stigma behind mental health and seeing your peers as advocates of awareness, mindfulness, or fill in the blank. I think, or leaders is a, is a huge piece of that.
DF: Being able to trust the people that are giving you an assessment.
CP: So we have psychologists that are both active duty. We have civilians and there's also the big push for this funding source called Preservation of the Force and Family. And aspirationally "POTFF" for Preservation of the Force and Family looks at trying to be able to have more of a whole person concept of addressing not only the operator but also the person's family. Because, there's, you know, a person has their professional life, they have their personal life, and things can bleed over to each other, right? So we have psychologists that are POTFF contractors that, across all of the groups we have also GS and active duty that are there. So, you have some people that are embedded at a garrison level where they're there, and you also have people that are psychologist active duty that actually deploy with the teams. So, it's that sense of cultural competency of understanding what that's like. And of course, we're never part of necessarily the tribe, so to speak where they are on the fringes we kind of see what it is on the periphery. But, that understanding looks at how to be able to apply these concepts from the research and the literature, and how to make it applicable to the community. Right? Mind body medicine wasn't one of those things that was designed for NSW, right? But we've been able to find a way to apply it and make --it meaningful based upon the customer's needs, the client's needs, the operator.
DF: And that's still growing, I guess.
DF: Actively, thankfully.
DF: I've heard the phrase post-traumatic growth. Can you unpack that a little bit for me?
CP: Yeah, so there's a mounting amount of newer research that's looking at how a person can be exposed to something traumatic and have it be something where it's actually not impacting them in a negative light, but it can be something where it provides some type of growth. So for example, you can have Bert and Ernie, right? And Bert gets exposed to something traumatic. And it's really impacting his ability about looking at things such as safety, trust, power and control, esteem, intimacy, and he needs to get some help because it's starting to affect him negatively. It's affecting his job, it's affecting his ability to have meaningful relationships, right, friendships, work relationships, romantic relationships. So for, for Bert, a lot of what the older research and the greatest body of research was on post-traumatic stress. How is this impacting him negatively. Right? I think I used Bert originally.
And so now, there's let's say with Ernie, he has the same exact event, and he gets exposed to something traumatic. But instead of it's something impacting him negatively, he starts appreciating life in a different manner. And he now, the things that before getting exposed to this traumatic event that really started, like he wants to be able to spend more time with his family. He wants to be able to focus on how his weekends are gonna be things that are not just playing video games or watching television and Netflix and binge. And he's really trying to be able to give back to his community when it comes down to let's say, volunteer work. He sees that there's something bigger than himself, and he wants to contribute to it. And it was a course correction that he did based upon this event. And both of them can be life threatening, and it can be one of those things that now, this new appreciation means that he wants to lean into life, and that's the post-traumatic growth. That's kind of an example.
DF: Is that something coachable?
CP: No, I mean it's, you set, you set the frame right? As far as making sure that people are aware of it. So, that's why it's great that there's more research about it. So people aren't just saying like, oh my gosh, when it comes down to being exposed to combat and deployment, you know, a lot of times we have family members or spouses of NSW, or even when it comes down to family members, right? They see that their children are wanting to pursue this, and they think okay my son or daughter that's going to go into this community is going to be exposed to this and they're going to be forever damaged. That's the perception. [DF: Right.] But the thing that can set the frame is being able understand that it's not necessarily the case. Right? We're looking at incidents of 15 percent when it comes down to looking at, you have a hundred people that are exposed to the same exact event, fifteen percent are going to have PTSD, versus one hundred percent right.
DF: Wow, right, right. I've seen that in some of these people I've spoke with that have experienced trauma. Either, it's kind of a crumbling effect or a re-evaluation and kind of new appreciation. It's interesting to put a, a word to that, or phrase to that because I think that's obviously the case for some people that being able to walk away from an event, having learned a lesson as opposed to being traumatized. Two vastly different outcomes. And it seems as though through the pipeline, the Navy's been able to pull those people to the side and put them into intense situations. I think it's a lot of part of the selection process is seeing these people that have that type of resiliency.
CP: Absolutely. I mean, and they have, with both pipelines, right? When that operator wears that SWCC pin, or when it comes down to that operator who's newly anointed, wears that, that trident on their chest, that is a physical reminder of the fact that they've been resilient and have overcome adversity.
DF: Right, right.
DF: You hear so much about BUD/S and the rigors and stresses, the PST scores, all of it. How much of it is a mental game versus a physical game?
DF: A lot of emphasis is placed on the physical demands of BUD/S, but obviously the mental demands are just as great, if not greater. Can you speak to that a little bit?
CP: Absolutely. So, we've had, for example Olympians, medalists that have come through and physically, they're doing really well. We've had Division 1 athletes, collegiate athletes that have come through, and haven't been able to complete the pipeline. There's so much of the mental aspect of what they need to be able to do, and unfortunately it's not a soundbite that I can say, do X Y and Z. I think there has to be just an understanding that they have to embrace this and that this is something that is a commitment that's going to be lifelong. They have to look at the mental aspect from, not just the training pipeline because I know that perhaps a lot of your listeners here are going to want to know. Okay, give me the tools for success. Right? [DF: Right.] Give me the tools for success and I'm gonna be able to crush it, and then I'll be able to finish the pipeline.
DF: But sometimes that tool might just be knowing that they need to learn about the mental game.
CP: Absolutely. And they can't, they can't just stop on that. Like it has to be throughout their career, right?
DF: Yeah, a life skill really.
CP: Absolutely. So it's one of those things that they look at these aspects and we can easily dismiss it, right? Like how many people brush their teeth but don't floss, right? Until it becomes gingivitis. It's one of those things that people will neglect until it becomes a problem. And that's when we see them, like we clinically will see people when they're having some issues. The people that are able to incorporate these practices, they're able to have successful careers. Right? And they're able to bounce back from when they experienced adversity, and they're able to incorporate being able to have successful ops, and they're able to do all these things because of the fact that they've invested the time in these mental skills.
DF: Do you have general advice for anyone who is going to be facing adversity or going into a difficult task whether it's BUD/S or something else that they need to be maybe more aware of or just kind of re-remind them of?
CP: So two things come to mind. And I think these are globally applicable for everyone, to ensure some type of success. So the first one has to do with just being genuine, be yourself. Right? And that's something that's really important. If you're genuine and you're going in this pipeline and who you are and what your capabilities are and you're someone who's impressionable and is eager to learn and motivated, the pipeline including all of the cadre and instructors, every single part of the process, they're going to see that. That you are that that lump of clay that can be molded. Right? If you're genuine, then you're a good fit for the community and you have to entrust that you being genuine is what you can control, and let the process, let the instructors in the pipeline make the determination of like, okay, this person's continuing to maintain his standards, and this person should be an operator. So just as long as you're being genuine with the whole process, then I think that's a great takeaway.
The second one though, has to do with adversity. We have a number of candidates that they come in, and they were great academically they're great in sports. They're multitasking jobs. You know, like they're, they have in our fleet transfers, right? There's a reason why their commanding officers and CMC’s wrote those letters of endorsement. And they're here and they want to be able to perform, and a lot of them never felt the experience of any type of failure or setback. And this is the first time they're experiencing it. And, the ones that are successful that can continue are able to bounce back from that setback and they're able to continue. So one thing that we see routinely is let's look at something like, trying to be able to clear a house. Right? You have someone that's trying to be able to clear a house, they get some feedback on something they shouldn't have done, and they just focus on that one fall. Right? Every single thing as far as all the things we're doing really well the last few runs [DF: it falls by the wayside.] it falls by the wayside. They just focus and fixate on the flaw of what happened during this last run. And that happens for every physical evolution, that it just, it looks physical, but there's a mental game to it.
So, I would say one piece of, one kernel of advice is for people that are candidates, is to look at experiences they've had, not just look at the successes but really do an autopsy on those failures, the setbacks that you've had and how to be able to look at the lessons learned. How did that make you a better person, a stronger person when it comes down to these were sort of deficiencies, right? Maybe these are things that I'm always going to have issues with. Right? I'm going to have issues with my confidence. I'm going to have issues, let's say I'm not the strongest swimmer. Not only can you find ways to be able to get training or mentorship on those deficiencies, but knowing what they are and playing to your strengths.
DF: Well I think that kind of encapsulates a big part of the challenges of getting through the pipeline and having a continued successful career with NSW. So thank you so much for your time, we really appreciate it.
CP: Absolutely, thank you.
DF: Find out more at www.sealswcc.com and join us for the next NSW podcast.
Setting achievable goals and learning to cope with adversity are crucial skills for Navy SEALs and SWCC. In this episode a senior Navy recruiter describes these characteristics and more. For more info check out www.sealswcc.com.
Intro: Senior Chief Omar Ozuna, has spent much of his 25-year career in the Navy as a recruiter. He has seen hundreds of successes and failures in his time working with Special Operations candidates and his words of wisdom are helpful for anyone striving to achieve lofty goals. He discusses the important combination of work, attitude, and humility. He also helps to break down the importance of keeping a vision of your “what” and “why,” while balancing that with 100% focus on the next step in front of you, often in the face of great adversity. After you listen to this one, check out our “Mental Toughness” episode for a closer look.
AG: First of all, we want to thank you for being here. I know this is a really big weekend for you.
OO: Yes it is.
AG: But, thanks for being here. And if you want to start just by giving us a little context of how you got into this world where did you come from how did this all start.
OO: OK. Well I've been in the Navy going on 25 years. I'm originally from South Texas. So, most of my life, my adult life has been in the Navy. I've spent a little time. I started off in the fleet then went into recruiting and then I've also done mainly a lot of focus on special operation recruiting. So, I'm kind of spread out not just solely on one area I kind of have a little bit of everything a kind of smorgasbord of information when people come up to me I can somewhat relate to many different walks of life. One of my tours that I've really enjoyed is being a part of the SEAL/SWCC scout team and really seeing the future generation of frogmen and boat guys coming on board and seeing with the frogmen of the 21st century is going to take them.
AG: And you also have a unique perspective as someone who maybe came in not with any defined skill set for example you said you couldn't swim before you came in? And then...
OO: Yeah that's a good way of putting it. I like how you put that. I joined the Navy didn't tell my mom and dad, came home. Showed the brochure to my mom said, "Mom I'm joining the Navy" and the first words that came out of her mouth was "boy you can't swim." And that's a true statement.
AG: Uh oh.
OO: I did not have any aquatic skills. And of course, my dad told me I was way over my head and I just keep moving forward with it. I would end up going in and going to boot camp and passing, I don't know how I passed my third-class swimmers test. Got selected as a torpedo man out in the fleet started off out there and they were looking for volunteers to be search and rescue swimmers. And lo and behold I was the only one that raised my hand and they asked the same question, "can you swim?" I'm like "well not really but if you teach me I'll do it." I would start training every day for it and then opportunity rose again and I took the shot. They sent me off, I crushed the course, first time every time and nailed everything that was thrown at me, and about 10 weeks later I was doing my first open ocean rescue.
I think that's always a very interesting thing to bring up to anyone that's listening. It's not where you start it's where you end. So, I want to make sure I'm honing on that message right there, that nothing's impossible.
AG: Well and you know that's a common theme in this podcast is that you don't necessarily have to be the high school swim team captain, to even to be a Navy SEAL. It's all about the attitude that you have coming in would you say that's your lesson learned from that?
OO: Wow, either you're reading my notes but you definitely hit it on the head. I do I talk about three attributes when we're looking for ideal candidates, and one of those attributes is definitely attitude. Definitely the attitude portion is huge because if you don't check your attitude your attitude will get checked, most definitely. So, I like how you say that everything is a state of mind if you're not coming in with a humble sense upon you. You often are going to get train wrecked along the way.
AG: And that you know both from watching people come through and your own personal experience I think that gives you a really unique perspective…
OO: It does. A large portion of my career has been in recruiting, and that's what I enjoy about the special operation community: many walks of life. I've seen some of my fellow brethrens with GEDs and some have more degrees than the thermometer. I get that and everything in between. But the diversification of the community is so amazing. All walks of life. That is one of the strengths that makes the Special Operation Community so unique and continue to be extremely powerful.
AG: That's amazing. What drew you to this field do you think?
OO: Well I think the passion...when it comes to the community, I go back to the thing that I talked about that I always admire is the brotherhood, the camaraderie, and I think part of that is just being in the Navy in general. I've always, from being a little boy, I could always remember you know having this sense of service. I wanted to serve something. It's something that I've always wanted to do and plan on doing it when I retire as well.
AG: I just realized we didn't set the stage for where we are. So, let's go back. So, we're here in San Antonio.
OO: Yes, we are.
AG: A little bit different location for us. Can you tell us about what goes on here in San Antonio and why it's a special place for recruiting?
OO: Woooo! Texas a great state, and San Antonio's a great city. Home of the Alamo. I think what's going on here in San Antonio, there's a, it's a family oriented area. It's a great place to raise a family.
In Navy recruiting, we have what are called Naval Special Warfare coordinators and mentors. So, every recruiting district is assigned to look for the best, the brightest, and the talents in the Warrior Challenge Program, which I'm sure you're familiar with. And in that Warrior Challenge program we often try to find our SEAL candidates and our SWCC candidates as well.
AG: Can you just describe it real quick in case someone hasn't listened to previous episodes about the Warrior Challenge.
OO: The Warrior Challenge Program is broken into five categories. And it's a guarantee for you to go to basic training then you're off to prep, preparatory training to whatever specialized school that is. It could be EOD, Air Rescue, or SWCC, or SEAL, or Navy diver.
AG: A lot of special operators come out of Texas, don't they?
OO: If you were to just look at the Dallas area Houston, San Antonio you definitely got a good... I don't know if it's the hunting or what but you know a lot of good, good operators. I would say good, good people come out of here both on the SEAL team and on the SWCC team. Yes ma'am.
AG: What are the misconceptions that are out there today that you would like to address about either recruiting or anything else really in this community that you've had exposure to?
OO: Good question. Well I would I would start by you know these are some things I tried to tell potential, high potential candidates that are looking of joining. One thing is get your facts straight. There's a lot of information out there and not all of it is true and sometimes it was true at a time. But like anything else, the Navy changes. Policy changes so those standards that were once available to us even a decade ago or two decades ago may not be in existence now. Something I always let them know, if it's not written it's not real. I need to make sure that that they see the fine print and they understand what that means and the best source is getting contact with a Navy recruiter and ask the questions and keep asking till you get the answers.
AG: And probably one caveat to that would be if it's not written on an official Navy website it's not real.
OO: Pretty, pretty much. There's a lot of information out there and every now and then we have a major policy change, but the recruiters are educated and trained for that along with our mentors and coordinators to know any hard rudder shifts that we make out messaging wise is known. And a follow up is always your best antidote to that.
AG: Yep, that makes a lot of sense. Are there are any others that come to mind, even if it's just a myth of some sort that you've heard...
OO: Yeah definitely. The myth is, you know I find a lot of people on the fence about should I try out? Do I have what it takes and so on and so forth. If it seems like they're on the treadmill of indecision making and they are going nowhere fast. So, a message that I would like to say to our potential candidates is, see if you qualify. Let the testing up to the instructor staff, to the recruiting staff to see if you meet the merit. There's a lot of steps involved in you becoming a special operator. One of my, Chinese proverb that my father actually wrote to me my first year didn't make a whole lot of sense then but it sure makes sense now. He says a journey of a thousand miles began with a single step, and that was written by Confucius if I'm not mistaken and I really didn't [AG: love that.] I didn't understand where that was going then. And as I have gotten older and I was sharing before is, it's not where you started, it's where you end. And I want that messaging to go out is whatever it is that you're up against, take that one step. There's a thousand more steps you must take, but you ain't going nowhere fast if you're still on that treadmill of indecision.
AG: What do you think holds people back?
OO: For you know, from personal experience, the four-letter word 'fear'.
You're afraid that you will fail, get rejected or, you name it. I think a lot of that it holds... It's not just speaking to Special Operations.
AG: I was just going to say that's all of life.
OO: Yeah, that's all of life, right? That you're just like, what do I do? You know I don't want to do that. So, I try to address that. You know a lot of times and I ask them questions you know what is your what and why? Especially for candidates that want to join. What is that drive that's getting them and why is it important to them. And I keep peeling back that onion because I really want to know, are they really serious about this? This is not something that you dabble in. You know you let me try this and let me try that. It's going to require a lot of you. So, I definitely try to address that at my level. What are the what and whys that are driving you to this point and define those swim lanes right from the cuff. When they've made decisions, this is what they want to do.
AG: Do you think that there are common whats and whys that seem to lead to the path to success or is it across the board?
OO: I think, oh boy that's, that's another great one. With so many books and information out there, there there's some standard stuff I hear among the candidates and they were either they read or heard. And that's true. I believe that's very, very true of them to want to believe that. A lot of it is just the sense of desire. You know a former Master Chief and I don't remember his name but he really honed in something to us that was a long time ago when I was aspiring to be BUD/S student is he said, "have you ever noticed that it says U.S. Navy SEAL" and all of us like of course he says "well it's a pecking order. Is first you serve your country through the United States, then the Navy if given an opportunity if you do graduate you become a SEAL. Don't forget that." And I always like to share that with everyone is like your first steps foremost is you're serving your country. You're going to serve it through the Navy and if given an opportunity you can put any job you want. SEAL, Torpedo Man, Air Rescue, SWCC. It has the same theme in it. Cause you know, this is where I'm at. And don't forget that. And that's to this day 20 some years later, you know, I'm still able to regurgitate that. [AG: Yeah.] Unknown to me at the time.
AG: It's Powerful. [OO: It was very powerful.] So, for people who end up going in the SEAL/SWCC direction do you think there are whats and whys that seem to distinguish them from other, since you've kind of, you've had experience with recruiting for various different jobs, [OO: Oh, for sure, yes.] right? [OO: Yeah, I have.] Are you getting the feeling that there's kind of a what and why to that community that's different? Or you know how would you describe that?
OO: I try to, to describe that as, you know I try to find the sense of purpose of serving. What is it that you've come here to do. You know the only job that you've ever started at the top is obviously digging a hole as they say. You got to start somewhere and...
AG: Wait, explain that metaphor, I think I lost it.
OO: Explain that one? Well the only, the only job you'll ever do, can’t start at the top, you can't walk into any business and say I want to be the CEO, I want to be the marketing director, talent acquisition director. You got to start somewhere. [AG: Yeah] And it's at the bottom.
AG: So the only job that you start at the top is just...
OO: Digging a hole, yes. Do I need to go back on that one?
AG: No, that's good.
OO: So I guess I'm digging myself a hole right now with this bit.
AG: No, no. I just, it went over my head for a second because I was like trying to...
OO: That's okay, my apologies.
AG: So go on about the whats and whys.
OO: The whats and why, and lot of them is, you know, I'm always trying to dig deep in in that sense of what is that you really want and why you want it. I want to make sure that a person that is going to these programs have a sound idea what they want out of life and how to go about accomplishing it.
Whether they see success or failure that's their business. But I would rather have them experience one or the other than never experience it at all and enter the sea of regret. That's not a good place to be. And often the greatest teachers I've ever had are failures. Many tremendous amount of setbacks. But with that I always let them know a lot of setbacks lead you to set ups for the home runs in life. If you come in with an attitude of being known as a finisher, just finish what you started.
AG: Do you think that when you asked that question, you know there's an answer that sets off kind of a green light in your head? You know when you start digging deeper, there's certain answers where you're like, okay, you're going to make it? Or is it really just an individual thing?
OO: It is definitely an individual thing. I mean if somebody's out there that can look at a person to say you know what, you're definitely destined to greatness, you're going to make it. You know there'll be a multibillionaire at this point [AG: Yeah.]. That's what makes this, this community somewhat of a mystery is that only a few are selected and a few are chosen. And you just don't know. You just don't know what's inside of a person. I often say you know some things are meant to be broken and it's in the brokenness that you find that energy where you find that source where you never thought you had it. Never thought you can be a non-swimmer to a swimmer. Never thought that you can be with somebody that has more degrees than a thermometer and just be a South Texas or Utah boy serving with a GED. It's pretty amazing to see such a contrast of individuals. And at the end of the day those individuals are there serving side by side worlds apart from each other but they have that common theme of being the best they believe themselves to be.
AG: I’m just curious what about your job inspires you?
OO: I was just talking about this with my wife. You know as I'm winding down 25 years what inspires me to this day is seeing the young men and women, the look on their faces of coming and being afraid and going into the unknown and coming back and just transforming their lives. Whatever it is that they go after. I hear their dreams, their aspirations, their goals, everything. And in being in this type of environment it makes me feel like a kid again. I'm like, I remember that when I was 19. I remember that at, you know, whatever age. And that always, it seems like it's just a cycle of that. Or when somebody is just not doing well and I'm like, I've been there. I get it. I totally can relate. Not that I'm going to throw him a lifeline all the time but, I understand that I always tell him, I said adversity's good. It's teaching you something. Embrace it. So those little things always invigorates me that I quite frankly, I probably love doing it another 20 years.
AG: When you look back is there, is there something in particular. You know, if I'm a candidate sitting across from you, that you would tell me that you wish you had known on the first day?
OO: Oh yeah you got definitely, besides looking at our website, looking at all the information, the things that I would definitely do is besides getting your information, get yourself a good mentor. Get in contact with people that either have completed or done something that can help you achieve that which you're looking after.
AG: And do you mean that really early on? Like how early can you do something like that?
OO: I say the earlier the better. You know if you're. [AG: Like while you’re thinking about…?] While you're thinking about it [AG: Okay.] you know, you want do you want to throw some counseling out there you know, with many counselors’ success comes with it. You want to hear some feedback and you want to hear, you know, how was your experiences, you know, whether, in the military in general you can start there and then start peeling back because not a lot of people are going to be opened up to that. If you're further up the chain and you've already made a decision, you're in the process and you, this is what you want, our mentors and our coordinators, that's what they're there for. To listen to their stories, to help you in training and develop you and get you where you need to be, that's their job to do that. And they're located in every recruiting district throughout the nation 26 out there. So, there's definitely people out there.
We also have our scouts as well along with our scout team. So, you can definitely lean on that. And the one thing, the last thing, and I kind of chimed in earlier is have a follow up mechanism in your plan. Nothing ever happens unless you follow up and that's where assumptions come into play. Well I assume this and I assume that. You want some feedback on your process. Am I doing the right thing? Is this good? Am I moving in the right direction? If you're not having a feedback mechanism in your goal setting, you really don't know you're doing your honest work and not knowing that you've been doing the wrong work all along. So, I think feedback is very important. A follow up mechanism.
AG: From other people, or is this a self-engrained practice?
OO: Most definitely, I would do both, from yourself and from others, outsiders looking in.
AG: As a sort of piece of advice for building that internally, I think that a lot of people both military and non-military struggle with building systems so that when you're put under stress you're able to have an ingrained feedback [OO: Right.] loop. Do you have any advice on how to build that? How to, you know, create that within yourself?
OO: Well there is a saying that says success leaves clues, and that's true. And I also believe success is intentional. So, things like that you have to be intentional of what you're doing, you got to be focused. Obviously, what you're up against and having the right mental attitude. And why say about the following mechanism is feedback is extremely important because it tells you what you're doing and what you're not doing. Why I say that too is what if a person gave you bad gouge and you did qualify, and then you find out later. I could have been on the teams or could have done this could have done that. But I listened to somebody, tribal knowledge as I call it because back in the day and you never even took the shot. Never gave yourself the one thing most people don't want to do is give themselves an opportunity.
AG: So that means there has to be a pretty important balance of internal checkpoints and trusting external feedback.
OO: Yes definitely. It's, you came on another word and trust you know, I'm kind of going to branch off on that. [AG: Sure] In the community, that you often hear the total man concept. [aka “whole man concept”]
AG: Total man concept?
OO: The total man concept is making sure, you know, not only are you physically sound, mentally sound, but having, being a person of character person of integrity and trust is everything. Trust is absolutely everything. If you can't trust somebody, you know, what good are you. You know, just that at the end of the day, did he, did he not pack the gear. I have no idea. You know and so on and so forth. So, for those things are very, are that one word. That trust is extremely important as well. As far as what you're talking about, what I'm going to tell potential candidates is, can I trust you? Can you do the little things? The little things always lead to the big things and don't go the other way around.
AG: What kinds of little things?
OO: Small things, showing up on time, having your gear ready, have a process of improvement in place. You know, you did only 45 push-ups but were they solid 45 push-ups? Can I inch it to 50 now? Little things like that stem and they, you can use that as small principles that will lead into bigger principles. In doing something a little bit more dangerous, a little bit more high risk, and may potentially even save their lives in the future, if they're not paying attention to detail.
AG: That also goes back to your journey of a thousand miles starts with one step because it sounds like that's an easy piece of advice to give someone who's just trying to figure out, you know, this is something I want to do that I don't know how to get started. [OO: Right.] Sounds like there's a you know it's just paying attention to the very small things it's, you know, it doesn't have to be a lot of push-ups, but they just have to be really well done.
OO: I like how you put the quality and quantity. You know a lot of times we concentrate on, I can do X amount of this and X amount of that, but is it proper? Are you doing it properly? Are you doing it right, you know, or is it sloppy?
But I think with what I try to ingrain in the high potential candidates is I try to give them their vision from day one. Is this what they want and why they really want it, and I need them to ask that every day of themselves.
AG: Every day.
OO: Every day. You got to ask yourself this is this is a total commitment, this ain't a half commitment, this is, it's going to require all of you, not just part of you. And I think from my personal failures is because I wasn't committed, I wasn't focused, I wasn't committed. Why I failed at any, most things is because I wasn't invested in it. So that's the things I try to tell them, this is one of many steps because when you get to prep, game on, when you get to BUD/S and selection phase game on and guess what, you make it through that, you got SQT, game on. Get to the teams, new cat on the block. Game on. [AG: Then it’s life or death.] After that it's a constant proving ground for them.
AG: Well that's, I mean, anyone should strive to live their lives, all in, right?
OO: Yes, they should.
AG: So that's quite a, you can extrapolate that for any career, any life choice I suppose.
OO: Most definitely.
AG: Those are inspiring words to hear for, you know, just every morning getting up and saying, "Why am I doing what I'm doing?". [OO: Right.] You shouldn't forget.
OO: Your what and your why, define it and the more you define it the more you can work towards that you really want.
AG: And would you say the first question that arises is, you know, is it okay if that changes?
OO: Of course. And that's part of the decision making. I think that's part of why you have the process of recruiting and selection and prep and whatnot, is to find out, you know, is this what I really, really want to do?
AG: But maybe you know I'm even saying perhaps you know you want to be a Navy SEAL, for one reason and then as you go through the process it kind of evolves into something else. Is that okay?
OO: I think so. I think a lot of life is about change. You know every day we get older every day we get wiser or dumber. One or the other. You know I seen a lot of old people not so wise. So, and I've also seen a lot of young people that are just phenomenal. The most successful people that I've been around is because they define what they want and why they want it. [AG: Yeah.] And we're clear about it. So, when the storm's adversity would arrive which they always do, they knew they stood on that bedrock knowing this is the reason why I'm here.
AG: Wow that is powerful. [OO: Thank you.] Do you write these things down? Is that how you do it? How do you...?
OO: Yes, I've been journaling since 1999. [AG: Wow!] Not every day but pretty much every day. You really want to walk out after putting the page down saying, my god, I can do this. What have I been doing. I don't have my why defined or my what. And then once you get that you start putting the pieces together and formulating a plan and doing it.
AG: Can you break down the top three most important things someone should know if they're considering a career in special operations?
OO: Top three things that I would consider if you're looking at special operations especially being a new potential applicant, a recruit. I'm going to use the four-letter word 'work'. There's a lot of work involved. And if you're not used to that you better get used to it pretty quickly. I wish there was a microwave bag of success. I'd like to say that and I'll just pop it in and it pops and there it is wah-lah. But everybody that I've seen go through training go recruitment side, especially, it's a lot of work. It's a lot of work of dedication on yourself and you're holding yourself and your teammates accountable at the same time. So that work, having a good work ethic is good. The other one I would say is be trainable. You want to have a training attitude. I've seen a lot of good people that are runners and swimmers and weightlifters, CrossFit, and they do, they do phenomenal out there. They're crushing it. And the one thing I kind of key onto is are they there spending extra time helping those that are not good. [AG: Oh interesting.]
Or are they there taking the time and being just a sounding board and helping those, I'm very keen on that, on the high performers in the water and then, are there allowing themselves to be trained or they're allowing themselves to let their gifts be trickle down to others is also something I key into. And the last thing is having a spirit of humility. There's a saying that the way to the master's chambers is through the servant's quarters. You want to be humble. You do. You definitely want to be humble. That goes a long way not only starting your career in the military but especially in NSW. You may be very smart and talented but you want to make sure you have a sense of humility and don't pretend like you got it all figured out.
AG: That might be surprising to people who have, you know, seen the Hollywood movies and the television shows, that one of the top three most important characteristics is humility.
OO: Right. Definitely having a sense of, again this is my opinion from the ground level of a person who's looking, what are some three things, that's definitely one I would like you to think about, am I humble to this approach.
AG: How do you think someone cultivates humility?
OO: It's hard. [AG: Yeah.] It's hard to, cause you figure you're looking at environment that you got to have a type A personality and you're hugging the board of arrogance. [AG: Right.] Often that is not the word arrogance, but it's confidence in yourself and your abilities in which you can do. But being humble, especially at the ground level is, you want to make sure that you're being receptive to the training that's being provided to you and not making assumptions based on what you read and what you hear. There's a reason why it's called Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL training. It's at the basic level, it's teaching you the grass roots of what's special ops is all about and then building from there. They often say it's a crawl, walk, run method, and that's a great approach. You know, if you're looking at, I'm first crawling you know then I'm going to learn the walk and then I'm going to learn to run, the high speed low drag approach to whatever it is. So definitely have the spirit of humility.
AG: Which would be hard for someone who's a, you know, maybe high school track star or [OO: Exactly.] swim captain or someone who's used to being the best.
OO: The thing about the Spec Ops community when you're screening for those, I believe it x-rays your soul. [AG: Oh wow.] So, what I mean by that is any imperfections that may arise and it may, some of them may not even be physical. [AG: Yeah.] It may be a character flaw that you personally may have. You've got to face your, your enemy that devil and wrestle it now.
AG: Wow, I've never heard it described that way. But I get what you're saying. Would you say that's a lot because of the types of environments you're placed in that kind of bring you...
OO: Not necessarily that I'm placed in but I'm speaking in generality for people that are, are on the fence and people that are in the process. You know, what's the program about. It's not just about running, swimming, and shooting and all that other stuff. That's great and all, but we're talking about going deeper. And that's that deep phase you know where that x-ray comes upon you. A good indication's Hell Week. You know, can you, can you not. You know what comes out of that, are you able to move forward with it. You're looking at the right person to make this happen. So, I'd like to let them know, you know, this is something that you may be, you may be putting that fake facade. But at the end of the day it's going to x-ray you, they're going to find out who's who in the zoo, and you get exposed okay. Carry that spirit of humbleness and prepare to work. Let's get after it. Let's go and crush it.
AG: Have you, you've seen a lot of people come through and a lot of people succeed and a lot of people fail. Are there just certain kinds of people that you know can make it?
OO: Many are called and only a few are chosen and it almost sounds like I'm trying to be religious and coming from the Bible. But I think that's also applicable to the special operations community. I always tell the young men and women that are screening for special ops is try to be known as a finisher. Finish what you start and the story that I will share with that is when I was in middle school, I was tasked to run the 3,200-meter race and I said hell I can do it. Let's do it. I wasn't much of an athlete so I went out there and tried to knock it out. The first couple laps, I gave it my all. I was sprinting out there and I noticed everybody was running at a snail's pace. And lo and behold, I realized that 3,200 meters was a long way to go. And it wasn't long before those that I was running against started lapping me and I had to make a decision. The race was over. Everybody had come in and I hadn't finished my course. I was still out in the course running and my track coach was calling he was saying just come on in. And I said "no, I got to finish what I started". It wasn't about me placing at that point it was about me just completing what I said I was going to do. Embarrassed, yes. You know talk about humiliated, definitely. But I went out there and I finished it and I crossed the line and I reflect on that because I want everybody to know that it's not where you start, it's where you end.
Be known as a finisher, whether you see success or failure. It's better than living with regret of the should haves, could haves, would haves, and you can learn a lot. Every sense, everything that you see, any type of failure that comes upon you, it comes with it a seed of greatness if you allow it to teach you. Instead of being bitter and being harsh, well it wasn't meant to be or the staff was against me, take ownership. You own it. You own 100 percent of it and once you start doing that and having that attitude of just doing the small things and finishing up lead to bigger things and that's probably what I want to tell them that, the essence of it to people when you experience failure.
AG: Because it's not just about the act of finishing it's the attitude that I am going to finish this. That's probably a pretty big factor. [OO: There you go, yes.] There's clearly a lot of hurdles as you've mentioned. [OO: Yes.] So first if you want to point out any hurdles you know of that, you know, is important for someone to know coming in, and then you know I have some specific questions about, you know, MEPS in particular. [OO: Okay.] it is kind of the nitty gritty of getting through because they know there's just some things from the outside looking in that might look a little complicated on the website.
OO: I would say, you know, is the swimming a lot of, a lot of people kind of say you know what I cannot do this because they're judging it based on, I can't swim very well. I like to throw that out there, I'm like you know what, give it a shot. You know the staff is outstanding they will show you how to do the proper side stroke. Often people like that don't have any bad habits so it's easy to teach them and they become very fluid in the water.
AG: Almost better maybe than someone who thinks they're good, but has bad habits.
OO: Almost, almost better or give them a fighting chance to qualify. [AG: Yeah.] And you apply that with that four-letter word of putting the work into it. You reap what you sow, you get what you get put into it and success usually accompanies that. You know, I always want to encourage them to try and let the staff help you, cultivate you in where you ultimately want to be.
AG: And then when it comes to some of the more, you know, the clerical part of getting through, do you have advice... So in particular, it seems, like MEPS keeps coming up.
OO: MEPS is a good one because the process, you know, that's something, you know, it's governed, it's not just a Navy thing Army thing, Air Force or Marines. MEPS is the gatekeeper. You know, if the physical doesn't go as planned, you know it's not something we did. It's something that, we have to either get documentation to justify to show that you're eyesight's good or you don't suffer from depth perception or you're not colorblind. So, there's a lot of little things that may stop that hurdle. I also encourage applicants I said you know setbacks are good, it's teaching you something. It's teaching you that what and why. Do I really want this, and why I want it and that one little hurdle? Am I shutting down because oh, it wasn't meant to be. And are you ready to mount up again and move forward? So, I try to spin it around when I see scenarios like that. Not all of them are favorable. And that's part of it and that's OK. You know, I always go back to United States Navy and then whatever job that they're wanting to serve, and kind of remind them the whole purpose of this is you want to serve your country you want to do it in the Navy.
AG: I think the question I'm trying to channel for people that write in, is they just sort of get stuck in that process a lot, where it's not necessarily about them and their medical record or anything [OO: Right.] It's more about just not, the process just stops.
OO: Right. It's, they're the gatekeepers, MEPS. In order for you to even apply. You have to have a good physical, and a good physical with a qualifying ASVAB score in order for your training to begin. Some people do get caught up in that and it's not something we do as recruiters, it's the process. That's something that totally out of my hands and whatever the doctor is asking for we try our best with the help of our applicants to provide the information to see if that's justification to either get an exception a policy or a waiver for them to continue the process.
AG: So it sounds like the best piece of advice is, come back to you, or someone like you or someone that’s been...
OO: Someone in the, getting contact with the coordinators and recruiters and usually that's the recruiters are the ones that are going to get the information saying hey I need history of whatever it is. Everybody's a little bit different. It's a privacy act statement so it's very... [AG: Sure.] It's based on individual circumstances.
AG: But you guys are going to be a little more familiar with how to respond and, yeah.
OO: Yes, we definitely have the guide, the procedures, the people. We know the waiver, so don't, that's another thing just don't think that that's where the line stops. [AG: Yeah.] You know, you want to take that next step and push forward until the answer's no, it's no. And then let the dust settle from there. Reassess.
AG: I think that's what I was kind of getting and it seems like it's important to let them know that they're not on their own at that stage. So, they have [OO: Right.] they have a support system.
OO: They do have a support system and there's people up and down the chain of command trying their very best to get them in favorable conditions for them to either continue training or just to be a part of the Navy altogether.
AG: Do you speak to people at this at the early stages about the actual job itself? Or do you usually focus on, given that your model and your theory is, all you have really to think about is the stuff in front of you.
OO: I am, I would have to say the step in front of you. [AG: Yeah.] It's like starting college and you're thinking of a master's program. That's not, that's not, you'll be overwhelmed. [AG: Yeah.] So, you want to keep the main thing and be focused on, I need to make sure you're 100 percent at that point. Let's move you to this segment. The coordinators, the mentors are going to cultivate you, get you your contract, and then we get you off to prep and prep does the prep. You know learn how to be a sailor first and foremost, and prep takes over at that point. And then you got that other vetting process and so on and so forth. You try to eat that whole elephant in one shot. You know you might gag yourself or psych yourself out altogether.
AG: Yeah, yeah. How do you merge the two? My takeaway from this is that there's the two most important visions to keep in mind, are the big picture umbrella of the what and why, [OO: Right.] and how you're going to get through today.
OO: That's well said, well put.
AG: So how do you merge those two, because those are, I mean is it essentially cutting out the middle part? Is that all what it boils down to?
OO: Not necessarily. You can, like any journey you know, like we talk about taking that one step, you know there's a thousand more steps. But after that one step it's now 999 left and then another one and so on and so forth. So, you kind of set your goal and get yourself slowly in that mindset is, this is ultimately where I want to be but in order for me, I need to concentrate on this and this matter. Master that, I move forward to this and this and always reminding yourself, it's very easy to get distracted in this day and age…you just got to worry about you. Focus on you as the candidate trying to get through. Meantime, you know, have a spirit of humility, have that work ethic. Be a teammate, be a shipmate and willing to help others if need be, because that's what the community's about.
AG: Yeah, I like that lesson in terms of it's really hard to focus in, you know, when you have any career decision to make or any kind of daily grind that you're a part of to decide what to pay attention to. [OO: Right.] You know there's just a lot of options especially now when your, you know, your e-mail's constantly coming in and your texts are constantly coming in. So, the idea that you know step 2 through 999 don't matter, it's really nice, [OO: Right.] it's a nice way to simplify it.
OO: I like how you put that. You know you can be easily inundated with so much information or who do I trust or what do I do. Like any, there, anything you're doing is, it's a step by step. Crawl, walk, run. This is what I'm responsible, this is my area of responsibility, this is what I need to do for me today, and that's it. And then tomorrow will take care of itself. And then the next day. We can really get ourselves wrapped around the axle when we're just trying to take everything in at the same time. And psych yourself out, I know I've psyched myself out many times by thinking I had to do this, this, and this. Just getting here today. You know I had a lot to do.
AG: Well we appreciate it. Well, yeah. The way that translates for me is, you know, you don't have to worry about being an expert in swimming, you don't have to worry about being an expert in weapons. Or if it's, you know, just in regular civilian life, you don't have to worry about being an expert in anything except today.
OO: For the most part. Everything stems on the little things. If you're disciplined on small things, than the big things you'd be ready for. [AG: Yeah.] And so on and so forth. You can't just wake up one morning and say I'm going to the NBA or NFL. There's been a process. The whole thing is a process. Even right down to the food we eat its first a seed, then a plant, then the fruit. So, it's all a process, it's not microwaving or going from zero to 60. And often if you misstep and you do the shortcuts that's when you are exposed with character flaws. If you have sudden success and sudden this and sudden that, because you didn't learn, have that fundamental base truth what is supporting that. And I've seen a lot of things falter because they did not have the foundation from day one and missed a step.
AG: That's really interesting to think about some of the one hit wonders and, you know, quick successes that suddenly just disappear. It's like...
OO: That's my look, on my take on it.
AG: Yeah, yeah. That's a really good way of looking at it. Can you tell me a little bit about what the ethos and the culture are for Special Operations once you're...of course it's going to influence this whole training part of it, but once you're in a community, full-fledged, what does that look like?
OO: You know we touched a little bit about attitude and attitude's everything in the community. Having the right attitude on being focused and ready to crush it under extreme circumstances become very infectious with everybody and be trainable with a good attitude, humbleness. You know a lot of these things are echoing from, from coming in you know being in there. And I said, you know, you don't have your attitude checked you will get checked of any imperfections.
The other one is adversity. It's in our ethos, it talks about the ethos of adversity, both in BUD/S and SEAL training. You are going to be put in through a lot of different types of adversities and stressful situations. And that's the things that I always ask my high potential candidates. What is adversity? In your words, and give me an example of something that you overcame adversity with. Again, I'm trying to get that wheel moving for them to talk about, what is that version of me. I don't know. And so on and so forth trying to go into that second layer we talked about and the last portion is actions. Your actions will always speak louder than your words. I mean, we say that a lot. Be a person of your word and follow through. You heard me say just be a finisher. Finish what you started. Doing the small things will always help you leading to the big things and the details are extremely important, especially if you're pursuing a career in Special Operations. Your word tends to be your bond, your currency.
AG: How do you define adversity?
OO: I define adversity is an undesirable situation that occurs without your consent.
AG: And how do you define what you would consider the proper response to adversity?
OO: Proper response for adversity, you know, the questions I ask myself you know what did I do to make this happen. [AG: Yeah.] You know, was it my fault. Notice I talk about ownership peace. What did I do? Where did I... I try to start with me first and foremost. [AG: Accountability.] Accountability. What can I do to change this? Is there something I need more training, more development, is it me? Lack of follow up, lack of something that I might have missed in the steps of my position, is important. I need to understand that.
The other one, if it's something out of my realm I can only control what I can control at that point. I don't, I try not to let it shut me down. If I didn't do so well on my test today, well tomorrow's a new day. I'll put, I'll start again. I got a fresh start. I can make this happen. I try to stay away from the from the woe is me parties. I know I've thrown grand old parties of feeling sorry for myself with mariachis and cake and little peanuts and cervesas. That's all grand. But I have to get over it. Then I notice and this is, as I became older I realized that the faster I can overcome the situation, things get better faster. So instead of me dwelling on something that I cannot change for the life of me, I have to get over it as quickly as possible and that energy allows me to look at a solution or prevent that from happening again further down the line to someone else or to myself. And then that's how I kind of look at things.
AG: So just to summarize, adversity is a huge part of being in this community right from day one.
OO: It's anything. You know we talk about we always try to put in a special operation but it's from day one from being a part of the Navy being a part of the military you're going to face some kind of adversity, things that you're not used to or accustomed to. You have to learn that art of adapt and overcome in getting over whatever situation that has occurred.
AG: And can you summarize for me or your steps in for facing just the questions you ask yourself, just really quickly?
OO: The question I always ask myself, what did I do to contribute to this. Did I do something? Did I cause this to happen. Did I fail to follow up? The other one is what can I learn from it. A lot of times when we experience trials and tribulations like how you know and keep in mind this coming years of setbacks and in just getting bad deals. I started asking so what can I learn from it what can I possibly learn from this type of adversity that I'm facing, financially, physically, mentally, morally ethically, you can go down the list. And then the other one is in the process of improvement in that is how can I learn and teach it to somebody to make sure that hey this is what happens to me. These are the things I was doing. And that's not the right way to do it. You know, or maybe you have a better take on it than I do. You know give me some insight. I go back to that trainability. You know 10 years in the Navy. Show me, tell me what latest and greatest.
AG: Yeah, those are those are some words of wisdom that really apply across the board. I just want to thank you so much for being here today. It's been so interesting and inspirational to learn from you.
OO: Honor is all mine. Thank you, Angie.
Special Operations training involves running, and lots of it. In this episode we talk with Naval Special Warfare's director of fitness how to run for maximum effect. For more info check out www.sealswcc.com.
Intro: I’m Daniel Fletcher. Today we bring back the Director of Fitness for Naval Special Warfare, Mike Caviston, to cover a very important aspect of NSW: running. His advice on training, form, and commonly held misconceptions is crucial if you’re planning for a career in Naval Special Warfare, but also helpful for anyone who strives to be a more efficient and effective runner. Let’s get started.
DF: Thanks for coming back and speaking with us. We’re going to do a deeper dive about running in general. You know, we all do it, civilians, we do it as kids, it’s got some universal appeal to say the least. So, thanks for sitting down with us again.
MC: My pleasure, looking forward to it.
DF: We’ll start off by having you just give a brief history of your employment before coming to work where you do now.
MC: Well, before I came to the center, I was a coach and a teacher. I was at the University of Michigan, and I worked with a number of athletes in different sports, but primarily I was a rowing coach. I was a competitive rower myself, and I got into coaching. And while that was unfolding, I went and got my graduate degree at U of M in kinesiology, and I began teaching, and so I spent about 22 years as a rowing coach and 14 of those years as a lecturer in kinesiology.
DF: So, you have an extensive background, obviously, it’s awesome to be able to talk to you about this because I think this is something that is personally interesting to me. I’m a runner, and my father is a marathon runner, and so he kind of got me into running pretty early. We all think we know how to run, but in your view, what percentage of active runners are actually doing it correctly?
MC: That’s a hard question to answer. It’s hard to definitively say what correct running is, and I try not to get too caught up in that when I’m talking to people. I was just working with a group earlier today, the recent class that completed Hell Week, and they’re going through what we call Walk Week, and I’m trying to help them get back literally on their feet so that by next week, a couple of days from now, they can get back into regular training and pass their timed four-mile runs. And so, we review a lot of running technique and give them some running drills and help them get through the aches and pains that accumulated during Hell Week so that they’re feeling a little bit better about themselves. And that’s one of the things I stress to them, is that there’s no absolute right or wrong way to run, but I can give them some guidelines and some things to think about and especially for people that are sort of on the borderline. You know, they’re not the greatest runners, or maybe they’ve been running, and they keep getting injured, and they’re trying to figure out why, then I’ll give them some technical things to think about. But everybody’s built different, everybody has a different body type, everybody has a different training background, so I’m a little hesitant to say, “Oh, this is the correct way to run.”
DF: Right, and that’s because of you’re saying physiologically people’s differences although we may look very similar…
MC: Or, or we don’t all look that similar, so we get a wide variety of people here, you know, some football linebacker types that if they didn’t have to go through BUD/S, I wouldn’t have them run more than two or three miles a week. We also get people that were actually very competitive cross-country runners, and so, yeah, they’ve got a runner’s body, and they’ll do very well running. But as a mix of people, people that were primarily swimmers or water polo players, maybe they’re good athletes, but they haven’t really spent the years building up the bone density that would help them be good runners, and you know, maybe they’re going to run into some problems here, too. So, yea physiologically, anatomically, biomechanically, there’s all kinds of differences, and as I said, it’s hard to say categorically, here’s the right way to run.
DF: So, well, then I guess we’ll look at that from a different perspective. Where do you see a lot of people mistepping or… not physically but metaphorically misstepping.
MC: I think having the necessary background in aerobic training is something that I would encourage people to really consider and some people that are transitioning to running, they don’t like to run, they wouldn’t run, but you have to be able to pass running standards to be able to get through the program. So, okay, they’re going to do some running. They’d better do a certain amount of aerobic preconditioning before they really start to seriously run.
DF: Do you say that because people develop an innate sense of being in tune with themselves when they’re developing aerobic capacity, or because it, you mean more from like a clinical standpoint of them being to actually run and maintain a distance?
MC: Well, that’s the key thing, is being able to run and maintain the distance. I mean one of the things I try to emphasize when I talk about running, and I say it over and over again and encourage people to look at the statistics, that if you want to have a good chance of getting through the program, you’d better be able to run well. The better runners make it much, much more frequently than the poor runners, and the people that just barely pass the entrance standards, they pass at a rate of like 3 or 4%. So, it’s not good enough to just barely meet the standards. You have to be the best that you can be. So, when I say that, people say, “Well, why is running so important?” and I don’t know for sure, but what I think is the real reason is that overall endurance is better, and to be able to get through the tough selection portion of the pipeline, you need to do multiple hard things on a daily basis for several days and several weeks in a row. And we happen to capture that because running is a fairly easy thing to measure, so people have to do run tests, and the better runners will tend to perform better. But when it comes down to it, I think the reason that those better runners succeed is because they have a general overall endurance that benefits them in a number of different ways in addition to just being able to run fast.
DF: Yeah, you’re kind of looking at it from more of a whole person approach to understanding more aspects than just stride and foot strike and shoes. [MC: Right, correct, correct.] That, I think that’s important because, yeah, if you’re overweight, and you just want to start, “I’m going to go lose weight. I heard you should run,” like that is not a good idea. [MC: No, it’s not a good idea.] Like, I guess depending on how overweight you are, but has your own personal kind of philosophy on analyzing people’s running, has it changed over time?
MC: Well, what I’ve noticed over the years, a lot of people have participated in or been interested in a number of what I’ll just have to call fads, running fads. This technique is good, or this running shoe is good, or not wearing shoes at all is good, going barefoot is good, trying to run like our caveman ancestors, that’s good. I don’t know. I take all of that with a bit of skepticism and try to look at what really works for the people that we’re dealing with today. But things like mechanics and foot strike definitely have an impact. I mean I guess that’s a pun but didn’t mean it that way.
DF: Yeah, right, I did it earlier, so you’re not alone.
MC: It, it has an effect on outcome, it has an effect on injury rate, and so I want people to be aware of how they run. On the other hand, I don’t personally want people to overthink it. One of the things I tell people that have a certain amount of athletic experience is that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. And so, if somebody is meeting their standards, and they’re comfortable running, and they’re confident in their running, and they’re not getting injured, even if they look a little quirky to somebody like me, I’m not going to try to turn them into something else.
DF: Yeah, they’re in tune with their body.
MC: Yeah, exactly right. And so, it’s the people that are struggling, you know, they, they’re not quite making the standards, or they’re not confident they can make the standards all the time, or they run, but they keep getting set back because they, they get injured, and then I take a closer look at the way they run and say, “Well, maybe if we try modifying this, you might have better success.”
DF: I think that’s one of the most fascinating parts of the human body, and you kind of touched on it there with the philosophy or the way you look at running, is that if one thing hurts, fix this thing, but it’s almost never the cause of the problem. And how the body’s kind of all interconnected and how it’s usually way, way, way different of a problem than most people would ever know. Is running kind of like that in terms of people having joint pain or anything like that?
MC: Oh, there’s so many interconnected things that it’s hard to untangle what the original cause might be, and so we work on a few different things, and hopefully we can get to what the root cause is. Sometimes we have to treat the symptoms before we know what the underlying cause is [DF: Right]. But I think one of the things you’re trying to get at when you’re just asking about technical things like what’s something that we focus on and something that over years that I’ve looked at, the foot strike pattern. And so, most people I think are aware of there are heel strikers, there are mid-foot strikers, there are forefoot strikers, and what will probably work best for most people most of the time is mid-foot striking. And I think over the years, I’ve modified my view on that a little bit. It was always clear, like the literature was always clear that mid-foot striking produced the lowest injury rate. What wasn’t clear is can you take somebody that was historically a rear-foot striker and turn them into a mid-foot striker? Again, I’m kind of hesitant to try to change people and say, “Oh, you should run this way,” because we might cause more problems than we fix. But it seems that, yeah, you’re probably going to be doing okay if you’re a mid-foot striker, and so that’s the sort of, that’s probably the first thing we’ll work on. Again, somebody that’s injury-prone, somebody that’s not particularly confident in their running ability, “Okay, let’s look at your foot strike, and if you’re heel striking, let’s get away from that, and let’s get more into mid-foot striking.”
DF: Yeah, I think that kind of in summary, you’re saying that there’s a, a lot of variation, and there isn’t a magic formula.
MC: Well, and I’m not 100% sure that we can turn somebody into a mid-foot striker. I think it’s worth trying to do, and the more I look at it, we’re probably not going to screw them up if we do that. So, you know, it’s not going to make them worse. It might make them better. My question is, you know, as an exercise scientist, as a researcher, as a devotee of running is, well, can we really take these people and turn them into mid-foot strikers permanently or in a meaningful way. I’m not 100% sure we can, but I think it’s worth trying.
DF: Yeah, or at least exposing them to see if they could cause not everybody but some people can. [MC: Yes, yes]. Can we talk a little bit about some of the injuries that are caused from running?
MC: Yeah, well, cause of injury is kind of a sensitive terminology. I don’t really like to phrase it that way, correlation with injury. So, we see certain injuries pretty regularly, and it probably is correlated with the running that they’re doing, but one of the things I try to get away from saying is that running causes injury. [DF: Right, right, right.] Well, it might. What does that mean? They shouldn’t run? Well, if you don’t run, you’re not going to be in good enough shape to be able to pass the selection process, so you have to do some running. When it comes to injury, we look at things like, well, how much mileage are you doing, and generally more mileage is a good thing, but you have to build up to it gradually. So, one of the things that I’ve heard bandied about for years is, “Oh, you got to run 40 miles a week,” and when I…
DF: Like that’s kind of the gold standard?
MC: Well, it is the gold standard. That’s what a lot of people, some people in NSW still say that. They still believe that cause they think that, “Well, when you’re in BUD/S, you’re maybe running 40 miles a week,” and that’s actually questionable. You don’t run that much at all. You shuffle along at varying paces, but you don’t actually run all that much. I think that 40 miles a week is a realistic goal for some people if they take the time to build up to it. Certainly a competitive cross-country runner is going to be running more than twice that a week, you know, so 40 miles a week isn’t unreasonable, but for some people, it probably is unreasonable. Again, the people with the body types that aren’t really conducive to running, but the people that aren’t natural runners, I wouldn’t push them to 40 miles in any week. Other people, I would say, “Yeah, you can get to 40 miles, but you got to take not just a couple of weeks to get there. You got to take several months, maybe, you know, maybe a year or more to get there.”
DF: Other than the gradual, I guess onset of mileage, what other things do you, do you do or people do to prepare their joints for that amount of impact?
MC: Well, so, one thing I would say is maintain a desirable body weight. One of the things that people have an image of coming to say BUD/S is that, “Well, I got to be big and buff and strong and have lots of muscles to be able to pick those logs up and carry those boats around,” and, yes, a certain amount of strength is required for that, but it’s actually more about endurance. And if you have to run up and down the beach carrying logs and boats, and you’re carrying an extra 30 pounds of muscle that you’re not using other times, that’s probably not going to go well for you. So, when I encourage people to prepare, I want them to prepare in many different ways, not just as a runner, but I want their strength training to reflect that they’re going to be mostly an endurance athlete, not a lifter of heavy objects.
DF: Yeah, I think that’s maybe pretty obvious to someone who is overweight that they’re like, you know, “My joints are in pain.” Anything else?
MC: Yeah, well, there are lots of things that people can do to prepare the joints and the different muscles and the tissues, and, you know, I’m asked, “Well, what about weightlifting?” Oh, that’s a good thing. You should weightlift. You should definitely strength train. That’s an important part of preparing for BUD/S. “Okay, well, how much should I squat? How much should I bench press?” I’m like, “Well…[DF: it’s not that simple] It’s not that simple, and that’s not the things I want you to be focusing on.” And, you know, unfortunately, most people are focused on being able to lift heavy weights, and we here contribute to that problem a little bit because we test that, and so, you know, in some sense, we reward people for being able to lift heavy weights. But what will have a bigger impact on their overall chances of making it through the program and certainly being able to run great distances without getting an injury is working on some of those smaller muscles that contribute to the running propulsion. So, everybody does squats, they do lunges, they do deadlifts, they build up enormous quads. I’ve got nothing against having strong quads, but there are a lot of other muscles that need to be strengthened proportionally. So for most people, they have ginormous quads but very weak hamstrings, and their glutes are weak, and so I say, “Well, balance your training out.” You know, do some lunges, do some squats, but do some hamstring curls as well. Get some glute bridges in there as well. Make sure you’re working the backside as much as you are the front side. And for a lot of people that have, for example, knee problems, a lot of the problem is that when they are on unstable surfaces, they can’t maintain proper posture, and they wobble from side to side. And so, you need to work on the lateral part of the hip, hip abduction and some adduction, so.
DF: Yeah, you’re talking to me right there. Yeah, yeah.
MC: Yeah, well, it’s a very common problem, and so a lot of people that have done a lot of running on firmer surfaces, “No, I’m fine. I’m okay,” but then they get out here, and they’re on the beach, or they’re on the obstacle course,” [DF: Or running up and down a hill or something, yeah.] exactly, where it’s very soft to loose surfaces, then stability is much harder, and below the knee, working on all the muscles around the ankle, so making sure people work on the calves. The calves are usually pretty strong but trying to get them to work in a good range of motion and emphasize the negative portion, the e-centric portion a little bit more, working on not only the calf, which is plantar flexion, but working on lifting the toes up, dorsiflexion. People that have problems with shin splints, they probably have weak dorsiflexors, and so there are exercises you can do to create resistance when you’re lifting the toes up and then lateral, side to side. When the foot goes through inversion and eversion and pronation and supination, the muscles that control that motion need to be strengthened. And for a lot of people, they’re saying, “What, there are muscles down there? What? How do I do that?” [DF: Right] So, try to give them guidance on how to, how to strengthen those muscles so that everything is able to bear the impact and then just proper body position. One of the very basic things that I would encourage somebody to improve their running is to work on their core strength and specifically the plank. Very simple exercise that I try to get people to do for a lot of different reasons, but one of the reasons is that it will improve their running posture.
DF: It’s interesting because the initial thought is like what are people doing wrong, and the answer really is what aren’t they doing.
MC: That’s, that’s more the issue. And so, you know, I’ve taken issue with a number of people who promote weightlifting, and it’s like, well, heavy weightlifting, like I said, doing the squat, doing the deadlift. It’s not that those things are necessarily bad, but if people focus on them exclusively, and as a result they don’t do the other things that are actually more important, then it’s bad.
DF: Yeah, that’s absolutely true.
MC: So, I agree with what you said. It’s not so much what they’re doing, it’s what they’re not doing.
DF: So, just to kind of clarify that for people, I think the misconception with big powerlifting movements is, “I want to get stronger. I want to lift this heavy weight,” but they don’t realize how weak comparatively muscles that are involved and that can prevent worse injury are in that process. So, humbling yourself to realize, “Hey, there’s other parts of my body that are involved in this process, of the concept of strength.”
MC: Well, and unfortunately, those aren’t the glamorous, sexy muscles that most people, you know, either cause of their own vanity or because they’re trying to impress other people, want to develop, but it’s actually important to do that to be able to increase your chances of succeeding.
DF: Yeah, right, yeah, you’re not, you’re moving your body when you’re running. You’re not pushing a car down the street, you know. How do you recommend people becoming in better tune with their bodies in order to even gauge the types of things they will need to when they run?
MC: I’m not sure how to tackle that question. Right? One of the things I think you’re asking, if you’re not, I apologize, but I’ve heard variations asked many times, is, well, if, you know, listen to your body. That’s important, right. Listen to your body, and, yeah, but it’s hard to understand exactly what [DF: How to interpret that?] yeah, yeah, cause myself. It’s like, if I listen to my body literally, I wouldn’t get out of bed most mornings. [DF; Yeah, yeah right.] It’s like I don’t feel like it. I certainly wouldn’t go for a long run, you know, so like my body’s saying, “Ahh, I’m kind of sore. I don’t really know if I want to do this,” and then you have to say, “Well, you know, suck it up because we need to get in better shape.” On the other hand, your body will sometimes give you pretty clear signals that, “Wow, here’s a pain that I haven’t experienced before. I don’t know where that came from. I’d better not ignore that.” So, you have to listen to that sort of thing. You have to be able to listen to or learn to be in tune with the sensation of effort, like, “How hard am I working?” I’m asked all the time about, you know, “How hard do I work?” Well, “Work hard enough. Work harder than you were working before. Work, I don’t want to work too hard. I don’t want to over-train. I want to work hard enough so I’m getting some benefit.” How do you learn that?
But, one of the things that I, if somebody’s going for a conditioning run, you know, “How do I measure intensity? Should I use heart rate?” Hmm, you can do that. People have done that successfully. I’m not a big fan. I think the simplest way requires no gadgets, no technology, pretty straightforward, simple way to do it is just pay attention to your breathing. So, one of the things that I encourage people to get in tune with when they’re exercising, any activity, but certainly running, is their breathing. And if you’re out for a conditioning run, you want to be going at a pace or an effort that’s hard enough to get your breathing up but not gasping for air. So, one way we describe it is the talk test. You should be able to talk to somebody that was running with you, not nonstop, like the annoying people that I see in the gym, they’re on their cellphones, you know, their voice carries across the gym. They never draw a breath even though they’re supposedly exercising. That’s not what I’m talking about. But you should be able to carry on a conversation in choppy sentences, get out a phrase, take a breath, get out another phrase, and so you’re working hard enough to breath harder but not so hard that you’re gasping for air.
DF: Yeah, and kind of defining that as a comfort space. [Yeah.] it’s just exposing yourself to more endurance I guess experiences gives you more, more sensitivity…
MC: Well, another aspect, I don’t know if this is the best place to introduce this, but it’s on my mind here, running is important, and I encourage people to run. I was talking a little bit about some people that are not necessarily built for running, and so I wouldn’t have them do 40 miles a week. What would I have them do? Well, if you want to get more cardiovascular training, so find some low impact cross-training, and so I’m a big proponent of cross-training, supplementing running with other activities. In this community, swimming is a great activity. You’ve got to be a competent swimmer as well, so you got to develop a certain amount of your training time to get in the water, get better at swimming, and that will also compliment your running. But in addition to those two activities, not everybody has access to a pool, some people have swum their maximum mileage for the week, and they still want to more, so do something. Cycling is a great activity. You know, there are different cardio machines in the gym that you can do. Your heart doesn’t really care as long as you’re doing something that gets major muscles contracting in a rhythmic manner. So, you can choose an activity that you enjoy, that breaks up the monotony, the routine of only running and swimming, something you have access to and something that will supplement your aerobic conditioning.
DF: Yeah, I think that’s, a lot of people look for the magic pill for everything, and there’s such variation in body type and surface and what equipment you have. You know, it’s not either, “Am I going to run the treadmill, or do I have to run this distance outside?” It really isn’t that simple. I guess speaking of treadmills, short of, maybe rehabilitation, [MC: Yeah] where do you feel that fits in for you in your prescribed fitness regimen for people that are trying to train?
MC: I wouldn’t, certainly wouldn’t tell people to never get on a treadmill. I question, I personally question this, this is a personal opinion, not gospel for everybody, but I personally question why some people spend so much time on treadmills. It’s kind of funny. I mentioned I was a competitive rower. I spent time on the rowing machine. And people say, “Well, don’t you get bored on that machine? Why don’t you go get in a boat and go out on the water and do some rowing?” And well, the answer is boats are really expensive, and storing them is expensive, and bodies of water that are rowable aren’t immediately accessible, so I can’t really do that, but you can run. You can go out the door and run any time, so why would you get on a treadmill? So, you know, but having said that, there are some good reasons to be on a treadmill. You can really, some people that really want to get a better sense of their pace, they’ve got the monitor right there, they go, “How fast am I going?” or you can control the grade. One thing that I appreciate is being able to go up hill for a long period of time, [DF: right, right] so you know, that’s a good thing. So, there’s no reason not to use a treadmill. I personally wouldn’t make it the only means of training, but incorporating that into your training for a workout or two every once in a while is fine.
DF: I, I personally have found success in, instead of listening to the distance or programing a distance for myself programing a time for myself, [MC: Yeah] and I kind of came to that realization later in my life. I mean I’m not an older person, but that’s something you don’t really hear very often. Can you talk about that a little bit and how you think that fits into running programing, focusing on time spent running versus distance?
MC; Personally, for my training, I do it almost all by time, and that’s partly because I do, as I said, a number of different activities, and so minutes are minutes, whatever I’m doing, and it’s one way I can equate my training. I do like to be a little bit more sensitive to pace, and if, when I’m doing interval training, I want to know the measured distance, and I want to time that, and I want to have a little bit more accurate accounting of the distance and the time and the relation, but if I’m just going out for a conditioning run, I don’t worry that much about distance. I worry more about time, and I will do, “Okay, now I’m going for a 40-minute run or a 60-minute run, or a 35-minute run,” or whatever it might be and try to go, as I was talking before about the breathing, and maintain the proper breathing to get the conditioning that I’m looking for, and beyond that, I won’t worry about it because sometimes the terrain is flat, sometimes the terrain’s hilly, sometimes the ground’s firm, sometimes the ground’s soft. I can keep adjusting my intensity based on those conditions and then just go for the time that I want to go.
DF: Yeah, no, yeah, I think does kind of, first, it validates my, my idea to do that instead…
MC: Well, I don’t, I mean that’s…I’m the same way. I don’t want to necessarily tell all my listeners here [DF: Right, right] that you have to train that way because that’s what I do, and I think, no, it’s, if you like to measure things out exactly, and as I said, there’s technology that makes it very easy to measure your course, and you can map your course, and there’s no reason not to do that, but I don’t think that that’s the essential part of training [DF: Right]. That’s not the most important thing that you need. You just need to be active for a period of time.
DF: Right, and my thought is also as your fitness increases, a five-mile run is not the same as a [MC: Right, absolutely] five-mile run three months ago, and I think as you gauge your distance, and whether it’s 20, 30 minutes, whatever your run is, that is a little bit more consistent way to maintain intensity in my life at least. Um, let’s talk a little bit about recovery or kind of maybe we could say self-care…
MC: Yeah, it’s, it’s an important topic. As I mentioned earlier, we just finished up a Hell Week a week ago, and so this week has been the recovery week, and so we’ve been working with all the students that completed the process and going through all these things that you’re talking about, and it makes me think about it in a little bit more detail. The most important thing we tell the students, and I would tell anybody listening, it’s certainly something that I practice myself in all the different activities that I do, I’m an active racer, I you know, I do almost 40 different races a year, and whether it’s half-marathon or a marathon, the first thing I do when I’m done is recover, like do some more activity. So, if I finish a run, a race even, I’ll get on my bike and pedal for a little bit and just do some moderate cool down activity. And the first thing we had the Hell Week kids doing, on Monday, they secured Hell Week on Friday, and they come over, they’re wobbling over, they’re stiff, they’re sore, it’s like, “Get them moving. Get them exercising.” Very controlled, very moderate, you know, not doing an excessive amount of work but just getting moving. The tendency is they’re sore, they’re stiff, they don’t want to move, get them moving. Just getting the muscles contracting, getting the blood flowing, that’s the best recovery. And they’ll ask questions, “What about, you know, what about massage, what about ice baths, what about, what about hot whirlpools?” and it’s like, well, in their condition, they want to stay away from massages and hot whirlpools for a little while. They got wounds that need to heal, and they got inflammation that needs to recede a little bit, but stretching is important.
We go through stretching, over stretching with them, and I would encourage everybody to utilize a little bit of stretching, but you don’t have to spend all day doing it either, and the best time to stretch is when you’re warm, so after a conditioning activity, if you feel like you’re tight and want to stretch a little bit before you go for a run, you can do that, too, but warm up a little bit first and stretch. Stretch what’s tight. One of the things that I talk about in terms of promoting flexibility, rather than creating the need to stretch all the time is that during your conditioning, including your aerobic activities but also certainly during your strength training, is maintain balance and proportions. So, a lot of inflexibility comes from people overworking some muscles and not working the others. And I was talking before about strength training and tight quads, big, strong, tight, quads and weak hamstrings would be a common example, or people in the upper body that do pushups all the time, but they don’t do any complimentary rowing motions, and so their chests and the front part of their shoulders are tight. If something’s tight, you should stretch it, but you can limit the need to do excessive stretching if you maintain an overall balanced training profile.
DF: Yeah, that goes back to what you were saying earlier about not that you think that there’s no benefits to deadlift or big muscle group exercises, but that in fact could also lead to a potential injury if you’re not strong in the other areas of your body holding yourself together. It’s specifically beneficial not in injury state but in a recovery state, and then the idea of being active as a form of stretch or recovery I think are two key areas.
MC: Well, so the thing I would summarize most is the best recovery is active recovery and so doing a little bit of low impact, light activity, again, keeping the blood circulating. So, you’ve just done a hard workout, you want to maintain blood flow. You don’t want to just stop dead and let all those capillaries and blood vessels close and let the heart slow down too fast, keep the heart pumping, keep blood circulating, getting oxygen and nutrients in, getting waste products out. Other things might make you feel good, you asked about cold and certainly if there’s an acute problem where there’s some swelling, you want to apply some ice, cold right away to reduce swelling. That’s a good thing. But just in general, people say, “Oh, ice baths make me feel great.” Well, okay, if it makes you feel great, go ahead and do it. I don’t think it’s going to accelerate your recovery process, but you don’t have to believe me. [DF: Yeah] Go ahead and do it if you want to. What will really accelerate the recovery process is some active recovery, some physical activity, light physical activity that will, as I said, maintain the blood flow and keep those muscles that were worked hard working lightly so that they can recovery more quickly.
DF: Are there key areas that we haven’t talked about that you think are ignored, not even, not clinically or professionally, but by runners and specific people coming into this pipeline?
MC: People coming into the pipeline, a few things that I would address is I would encourage them to try to run on a variety of different terrains. Try to get a mix of different things. Like, for example, do a lot of running on pavement. That’s fine. Most people have the conception that, “Oh, that’s bad for you. That creates pounding,” and it’s like, “Well, unless your technique is horrible, it doesn’t.” It’s more stable. It’s actually less stressful to run on pavement, [DF: Safer, yeah.] yeah, as opposed to going out and running in say soft sand, which is actually more stressful because there’s a lack of support, and the amount of muscular activity required allow you to remain upright and keep running is dramatically greater. So, I would say, “Yeah, run on sand but not all the time,” because it’s actually pretty stressful. Try to find some hills if you can. It’s a good strength builder to be able to run uphill. It can be actually kind of challenging to run downhill, but get some elevation changes in your running. Running on trails is good, but be careful. The surface changes all the time. Run on a treadmill once in a while.
DF: I think that’s part of developing, I think that’s part of developing your running acumen is jumping over roots [MC: Yeah] and being able to navigate jumping off of a curb, not jumping, but [MC: Yeah] with your stride.
MC: Well, one of the, one of the things I hear from potential candidates is, “Oh, you have to run on the beach. I’m going to do all of my running on sand.” I’m like, no, don’t do that. That’s actually not a good way to train all the time. You’re not going to get very fast because when you’re running in sand, you’re actually going pretty slow. You know, you’ve got to meet time standards, you have to run fast, so sometimes you have to find a good surface and run fast, but sometimes, get in sand and run, get comfortable with sand. It’s actually a good strengthening medium if you don’t overdo it, so, yeah, run in sand once in a while, but it’s fine to run on a track. Go and do your, do your intervals on a, find a good rubberized track if you can, at a high school or a community college whatever’s nearby, and do some timed intervals there.
DF: Any other areas you feel that people generally are not as aware as they should be? I think the running on different terrain is huge, and that’s really easy to overlook cause it’s not hard to implement, and it’s not very different from what you’re already doing, but it has a huge impact.
MC: Well, one of the, the general training format, and I would, as an aside, just encourage people to explore further our website, SEALSWCC.com, and look at our physical training guide, we call it the PTG, which describes the different running formats in more detail and gives a schedule of how to incorporate them into a weekly session. The online training forum has some sections that deal with this in a little bit more detail, so it will talk about some of these things in much more detail, but just recognizing the different formats that you want to use for workouts. So, it’s not all long, slow distance all the time. That should be a portion of it, but then get some good speed work, some quality interval training in there as well. One of the things that people, again, they have the conception they’ve heard they know they’re going to be spending a lot of time wearing boots when they come here, so they think they should be doing all their running in boots to get ready, and I think that’s not a good idea. You’d be fine if you never wore a pair of boots until you join the Navy, and they issue them to you, and you get a chance to break them in a little bit before you actually show up to BUD/S and start running in them for real. For somebody that doesn’t believe me and puts on a pair of boots once in a while and goes out for a conditioning run, that’s okay. That’s fine. Just don’t do all your running in boots.
DF: So, people that are preparing to come to this process, and I think this is really interesting, personally, there’s obviously a need for endurance. We’ve hit on that a lot [MC: Yep] over multiple episodes, but there’s clearly a need for explosive strength [MC: Yes, yes] and interestingly, I think running has the capacity to build both of those areas. I know it’s not as clear-cut as I’d like it to be, so the answer is a little bit more difficult, but talk a little bit about how people can either expect to work on that while they’re here or if they can work on it on their own, that difference between slow distance and explosive strength in their running.
MC: Well, part of the preconditioning that I encourage and so the right terminology, I say weightlifting, and people think, “Oh, you’re talking about the clean and jerk, you’re talking about the squat,” no, no, like resistance training, all kinds of different mediums. It might be dumbbells, it might be an Olympic bar, it might [DF: or it could be a rubber band] rubber band, exactly right. It could be manual resistance, like you using your own muscles against other muscles in your own body. There’s all kinds of different ways that you can create resistance. And so, among the many different things I encourage people to do that would address what you’re talking about is just do some plyometric exercises, do some leaping and bounding, do some box jumps, do some hurdles, do some agility ladders, get out on a surface and do some agility runs. Change of direction, COD in the training jargon, change of direction, so short sprints with, you know, down and back, that kind of thing, right cut, left, but that will work on the lateral muscles in both the ankle and the hip that are required, and do, as I said, some explosive running, some jumping, some leaping, that type of thing, a little bit of jumping rope would be type of plyometric type thing for the ankles you could work on. There are all sorts of things that you should include as part of your conditioning that would aid your running in particular and your overall athletic profile as well. Like in BUD/S, explosiveness isn’t used all that often, but once in a while it is, and so you develop a little bit, and you can call on it when you need to. That’s great.
DF: Touching back on one of the areas we spoke about a little bit with the boots or trying to prepare yourself for what you’ll be exposed to, active duty SEALs and Special Operations people are carrying a tremendous amount of gear with them [MC: Yes], and it’s potentially very heavy. So, at what point in preparation for their deployments or even in their BUD/S training, should they be exposed to that type of training?
MC: Great question. I’m asked it frequently or at least variations of that question frequently. I don’t think there’s a definitive answer, but I’m going to give you a well thought out answer. I’ve had a lot of time to think about that. For the 11 years that I’ve been here, I’ve been talking to operators who’ve been in all sorts of different deployment situations to ask them about what their personal experience is and their personal opinions are about rucking, and it depends on who you are, where you’ve gone, what missions you’ve performed, what the requirements are, but there are clearly cases where people have had to carry some pretty heavy weights for some pretty long distances, and that’s not easy to do, so you want to physically prepare for that. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves for any potential candidate. They’re not going to be doing that for a long time. In BUD/S, they’ll probably do some ruck running. It’ll probably be relatively modest loads and modest distances so nothing that requires a tremendous amount of specific preparation. Now, it’s fine to do it occasionally, um, but again, this is the sort of thing that a lot of eager beaver type candidates want to take all out of proportion. And just like I said with running in boots or running on soft sand, they think they should do it all the time, and so some people want to do all their conditioning with a ruck on their back. And, no, don’t do that. You know, once in a while, go out for a hike, like go out for a walk carrying, you know, 40, 50, 60 pounds on your back.
And so, one of my recommendations just to make it pretty clear is that if you go out with weight on your back, don’t try to run at the same time. You might have to occasionally do that although actually most people don’t run with a ruck. They walk fast [DF: Right] so little bit of a difference there. [DF: a huge difference I think yeah] If you march with a ruck, that’s okay. That’s not going to break you down too much as long as you don’t overdo it, and so it’s actually probably a good thing to do occasionally, just don’t do too much weight, don’t try to go too fast, don’t try to go too far.
The best ruckers, the people that have performed best at least on the data that I’ve seen at the students here is the best runners do best on the ruck marches. Even though they’re carrying weight, their endurance has helped them perform better with the ruck, and the people that have lifted the most in training don’t actually do that well on the ruck marches.
DF: Yeah, that’s an interesting correlation, but it does make sense when you unpack the needs of running as an individual being sensitive to the weights and bearings and kind of balance. I wanted to talk a little bit about the mental aspect to running. In your personal experiences, when you’re challenging yourself, what do you fall back on? Is it your training, is it your confidence in previous races when you’re really kind of pushing that envelop for yourself?
MC: Well, at this point I guess in my career, I can fall back on the fact that I’ve completed a lot of races successfully, and as nervous as I am, and I’m always nervous before a race, and I always doubt whether I can complete it or at least according to the standard that I set for myself, I at some point, some voice will say, “Yeah, you’ve done it before. You felt like this before. You’ll get through it somehow,” and I usually do. So, training, you know, even if you’re not an experienced racer, even if you’re relatively younger, training successfully, having training goals and achieving the training goals gives you confidence that when the time comes, you’ll be more prepared to perform. So, that’s certainly something that I like to fall back on.
DF: I think you said something really key there, you really walked through it pretty quickly, saying completing a race to the standards you’ve set for yourself, and I do think that is key because if you haven’t had that measured approach, then you don’t have that experience to fall back on or that knowledge and confidence. Is racing something that you encourage people training to come into the pipeline to do?
MC: With a certain amount of hesitation, yes, I do. Again, I don’t want to get people to go overboard, like race all the time, [DF: Right] like I race a lot, I enjoy it, I prepare for it, that’s fine, but you’ve got to make training your primary focus and race occasionally just to sort of test your abilities, but the experience of racing is a good thing, and it gives you a chance to work on a number of different things like getting your prerace strategy right because that will translate to a lot of the different evolutions that they do in BUD/S. Make sure they’re physically and mentally and nutritionally in all ways prepared to do the activities, so that’s a good thing. Being in a crowd of people is very energizing, and so one of the things I’ve found is that when I race more, I race better because the racing is good training. [DF: Right.] I don’t approach any single race as a do or die where I’m going to run myself into the ground. [DF: But you push yourself.] It’s basically a glorified workout with a T-shirt, you know, [DF: Right] and a finisher medal at the end, but by doing that, I actually train better, so, yeah, I would definitely encourage people to train, but again, I don’t want them to go out and do, “Oh, I’m going to run a marathon now because Mike said that I should,” no, [DF: Yeah, it’s not that simple] you train for a marathon? If not, a 5K, 10K maybe and, you know, once in a while to do that, maybe a half marathon if you build up to that, but short answer to the question, yeah, I think racing would be a positive aspect of being able to tie it all together.
DF: So, we’ve covered a lot of different areas, and we’ve talked about some of the high points of where people often have misconceptions. I’d like you to try to summarize quickly the areas where people, like someone’s listening, I’m sure they’re still waiting to hear what shoes they should go out and buy, and I didn’t ask that question for a good reason.
MC: And I really don’t want to go into that.
DF: Exactly, and so I think that there’s a real common misunderstanding of running if you’re not exposed to it for a certain amount of time. If you can just kind of quickly knock off some of the things not to worry about and some of the things that you should be aligning your focus to, I think that would be a really nice way to wrap things up.
MC: Well, as I said earlier on, the most important aspect of being able to run well is to demonstrate good endurance, so whatever you do, make sure that your endurance improves, and possibly if you’re not the greatest runner, but you still have overall great endurance, your chances are going to be a little bit higher. Having said that, it’s still worth looking at how to organize a training program to advance your running. One of the things I assume with candidates that are trying to get ready for BUD/S is that they are trying to prepare among a number of different ways, swimming and running and lifting and being able to do calisthenics and being able to stretch and all sorts of things that place demands on their time, so they’ve got to budget their time wisely. And so, you don’t have to run 40 miles a week. Most people shouldn’t run 40 miles a week. If you follow this specific program laid out in the physical training guide for 26 weeks, you’d probably build up to about 22 miles a week with an additional few miles of warming up and cooling down, but the actual core of the workout would be about 22 miles. So, that’s not an excessive amount of training. It doesn’t take 80 miles a week of training to be able to make you a decent runner, so be able to bear that in mind, being able to incorporate other activities in addition to running, have a sense of building gradually over time. Again, one of the things I encounter people talking about with their training is that they either try to increase their mileage too quickly or their intensity too quickly. So, they’re following the schedule that I’ve laid out for interval training. They’ll try to get their paces too fast, too soon, and I say, “Give it time,” you know, let it develop naturally. Don’t go too hard, too soon. Go hard consistently at a little bit faster each week.
DF: Thank you so much for giving us a lot of your wisdom and time today. I appreciate it.
MC: It was my pleasure. I hope it’ll be helpful to somebody.
The Leapfrogs are the Navy's Parachute Team. This elite team of SEALs and SWCC have performed countless demonstrations around the country for millions of people. We sat down with one of the Leapfrogs to find out what it's like -- and what we found out surprised us.
Intro: The United States Navy Parachute Team, or “The Leap Frogs,” is the official parachute demonstration team for the US Navy. As a part of Naval Special Warfare Center, the team brings together active-duty Navy SEALs, SWCC, and support personnel. They demonstrate professional excellence by performing precision aerial maneuvers throughout the US. I’m Daniel Fletcher, today, we chat with Luke Vesci, a member of the Leap Frogs, who shares with us not only his personal perspective on parachute mastery, but also insights from his 13-year career with NSW. Let’s get started.
DF: Thank you so much for starters for sitting down with us. I appreciate you taking the time.
LV: Absolutely, thanks for having us, yeah.
DF: If you just want to briefly just identify a little bit of your career and your history with the Navy, we can start with that.
LV: Okay. I’ve been in the Navy for 13 years and I came actually out of high school in San Diego. I joined the military, so it was very natural for me to join the Navy. I remember seeing all the helicopters flying by, and I’d actually come down and check out the training on the Strand when I was a kid cause I was really interested in that kind of thing (DF: Cool). Also grew up going to Miramar Air Show, and I remember seeing the jump teams at the air show and seeing the boats and, you know, the SEAL booth and the SWCC booth. I just remember thinking at a very early age that this was, this was exactly what I wanted to do. So, I joined the military back in 2005, and I decided at that time that I wanted to become a Navy SWCC, so what I did is I got a contract and joined the military, went to boot camp, did all the screening that was at Great Lakes at the time and went to SWCC school back in 2006 and graduated SWCC class 5-4, which happened to be the first class that we were actually awarded the SWCC designator, so SB. That was the first year SBs and SOs, SEALs, got their own designator, so that was, that was very privileged to graduate as a full blown SWCC at that time. From there, I checked into my first command, which was Special Boat Team 20, and that’s in Little Creek, Virginia. I did three good years there, deployed twice. One of the deployments was an around the world tour (DF: Wow), so we went to the Middle East, we went all over the Philippines, Indonesia, so we did what we call the world tour, and it was a really great experience, especially for a first deployment. From there, I deployed again to Iraq, and I augmented one of the SEAL teams at that time, and basically what we were doing is doing a lot of over the land mobility with Humvees and then also doing some stuff on the water using some boats that we had basically built from the bottom up as a combat craft, so that was a really interesting deployment.
LV: From there, I went to, screened and selected for Naval Special Warfare Development Group, and I spent five years there. Had a great time there, did three full deployments out of Development Group. And then at that point, I’d been in the Navy for about nine years, and I wanted to kind of do something a little bit different. So, at that time, I requested to become an instructor over here on the West Coast. Like I said before, I was from San Diego, so I wanted to come back, and that’s what I did. So, I came back, I went to Advanced Training Command, and I taught what we call ‘air operations’. So, I was teaching Static Line Jump Masters school. I was also running the Navy Parachute Course, which is the free fall and static line, and then at the same time, we were doing the HRST-Cast Master Course, which is the helicopter rope suspension techniques. So, if you guys have ever seen the, you know, repelling out of a helicopter or the fast roping, so I was, you know, involved with a lot of that stuff. At that point, I got a phone call. I was up for orders to, you know, do something different, and I got a phone call from my detailer. And he said, “Hey, would you be interested in going to the Navy Parachute Team? There’s a billet open,” and I said, “Absolutely.” So, after that, it’s just been hitting it hard and jumping a lot, having a lot of fun with the Navy Parachute Team.
DF: That’s really cool that you’ve kind of gone full circle like that. It’s like, as a kid, you were exposed to it. I kind of expected to hear you say that’s kind of what’s like you had your eyes focused on that goal the whole time, but it’s just kind of, it ended up happening, but it didn’t seem like you’re knocking down the door like, “Now can I do it? Now can I do it,” no, just kind of naturally happened.
LV: It did, yeah, (DF: That’s pretty cool) and my parents were not happy that I ditched college to join the military (DF: Yeah, well), but it worked out cause I got my degree a couple years ago, so, yeah.
DF: Nice! So, what parts of your early training I guess and your continued training in the Navy prepared you to safely perform such dangerous maneuvers? I know that’s a big question, but maybe if you could touch on tying that back cause obviously some things are different.
LV: What we do, it is perceived as being fairly dangerous, and it definitely can go wrong very quickly if you are not confident, and if you’re not trained well, so that’s the only way I can say it. A long time ago, someone told me, they said, “There’s a big difference between being dangerous and being unsafe.” So, in Naval Special Warfare, I mean almost everything we do is dangerous, but, you know, we have the training, we have the risk management that makes it not unsafe. So, there is a difference there. What I would say was growing up, I was very active in sports. I was what you would, might call an adrenaline junkie (DF: Yeah), so I kind of always had some knack for being in dangerous situations and handling myself in fear of danger or injury, and then basically, when I joined the military, the military kind of shows you how to take a wrap off, fall back on your training in order to be, dangerous but not unsafe. So, with our job and the Leap Frogs, you know, yesterday we knocked out seven jumps in one day, and we were doing these very complex formations, but, you know, it all starts with the first day of training when we check on the jump team, and we just start from the very, very basics, and then we build from there. So, you know, in case anything does go squirrelly, fall back to what you know, take a wrap off, let’s figure it out and then try it again.
DF: When you say take a wrap off, what do you mean by that?
LV: Taking a wrap off, what we call is a tactical pause. So, in the worst of situations, there’s always a time for a second just to hesitate and just think, let’s take a look at what’s going on, reassess and then hit it again, you know. You’ve probably heard that hesitation kills. That’s also very true, but also reacting too fast in a situation can also, you know, get you hurt or killed, so we call it the tactical pause. So, hey if things are going, very fast, moving quick, maybe things are kind of falling apart, take a quick second to look around, you know, check out your surroundings and then act on that new observation.
DF: You said something about confidence. Was that developed through the extensive amount of training that not only you received but then gained, or talk a little bit about that piece of it?
LV: Definitely, so I think confidence is, it’s something that almost defines a very well trained warrior, or for that matter, a very well trained sailor or a Leap Frog. When you go through the paces of training, and you go through those building blocks, and you prove to yourself, and you prove to your team that you can, do these types of things, inherently confidence just comes. You don’t just walk on the jump team and just have confidence on day one. You know, it takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of practice, and then, like I said, once you’ve kind of proven to yourself and then you prove it to your team, naturally you kind of have that confidence to know, “Hey, I’m doing the right thing,” or, “I’m doing the wrong thing. I need to adjust, and correct,”.
DF: Obviously, there’s a tremendous amount of planning that goes into what you guys do whenever you’re doing a jump for the public. (LV: Right) We’ve talked with people in the past about the importance of visualization. Can you walk us through the self-talk and visualizations that you perform when you’re preparing for a jump.
LV: That is huge. I mean visualization comes into play really throughout anyone’s whole career, and I don’t think that you can be successful unless you actually visualize what success is. So, for us, before any jump, we rehearse multiple times. So, what we’ll do is without the gear on, we’ll just go and say, “Hey, this is what we’re going to do. Let’s walk through it, let’s talk through it, what are some considerations that might come up on this particular jump venue,” whether it’s, “Hey, the winds are looking high. The clouds are looking low. You know, maybe there’s, the crowd line has been pushed in on our drop zone,” or something like that. So once we discuss, all these types of things, we talk about what exactly do we want to accomplish here and what does that look like. Once we identify what that ideal jump might look like, then we get all the gear on, maybe we even go out to the plane before, and we actually talk through exiting the plane, where’s everyone going to be, what altitudes are we going to open up at. You know, where’s the wind coming from, how are we going to approach the landing? So, there is a ton of visualization that comes into play, and honestly, I wouldn’t ever recommend, you know, jumping out of an airplane without at least going through a couple talk throughs and walk throughs. I think those are huge.
DF: Is there a time in that I guess pre-jump phase where you feel that self-talk is the most intense? Like I jumped out of an airplane once, and I did an accelerated free fall class, I had to do a lot more myself (LV: Of course) than just being along for a ride, (LV: Right) and I felt like on the ride up to, to where we were going to jump, you know, in the plane, the worldview kind of narrowed down to like, “It’s go time.” (LV: Right) I don’t know if that’s the same for you, (LV: It is, yeah) or when is that? So, maybe you could kind of walk us through whenever that kind of starts to ramp up where everyone kind of is quiet, whenever you start to focus.
LV: For sure. No, that’s a huge, that’s a huge consideration, and we like to liven up the environment sometimes with some laughter and joking around (DF: Right) because it does just get quiet and especially (DF: Intense) before a really high pressure jump, whether it’s 25,000 people in the stadium, or whether the winds are just below the limit. You’ll definitely see the internal, you know, turmoil and the, a little bit of that fear going on. So, what I would recommend, and this is just what I do, but I like to do the rehearsals on the ground and then, again, once I’m in the aircraft, and then I shut it off. I feel that going through it over and over and over and over again, it tends to work me up more than maybe some other guy or girl doing the same thing. So, I like to make sure I’m getting in my correct number of rehearsals, and then I shut it off, and I relax, and then when it’s go time, you know, you just have to kind of have that confidence that, “Hey, I’ve rehearsed it, I know exactly what I’m doing, and we’re going to nail this thing.”
DF: Yeah, that says a lot about the preparation because that was where I kind of thought things are not as well planned as they, as you’d like them to be, (LV: Right) like I, you need to make a quick last minute change, but it sounds like you prepare to the point where you’re able to rely on muscle memory, (LV: Sure) and you, it becomes more automatic.
LV: And then one, one consideration, too, is things are changing on the ground all the time. So, we’ll be two minutes out from a jump run, and they’ll say, “Hey, the timeline’s been shifted,” or, “It’s been moved up,” and so, you’re constantly reengaging with their guys, “Hey, this is, you know, we have to make this work.” Maybe the landing direction shifts, so now our whole plan that we planned for has now been completely reversed 180, you know, so we have to basically get everyone on the same page, chat it out, “What’s the new plan?” you know, do that mental rehearsal real quick and then, “Okay, it’s go time.”
DF: What part of the jump requires the most intense communication?
LV: I would say our formations that we do under canopy are fairly complex. If someone opens up their parachute the wrong altitude, or they approach the formation at the wrong angle, or they’re in the wrong spot, that can just throw everything off. So, it’s, I would say it’s more important that everyone knows what everyone else is doing and where they fit into that piece, cause like I said, one, you know, mistake there could either be dangerous, or we just don’t want to accomplish the mission, meaning we don’t nail that formation, or, you know, we’re not coming in at the right order and landing at the right place.
DF: I watched a few of your guys’ videos, and, yeah, I was really shocked at the level of really hands on, like, you’re not necessarily on a radio talking to somebody. You’re holding onto them like right next to you, and you’re shouting. You’re within earshot of each other. (LV: We are, yeah) You’re right next to each other, so explain a little bit for people listening what you mean when you say formations under canopy or however you phrased it.
LV: Absolutely. And once you see it, it’ll make total sense, so I recommend anyone who is listening to this, go on YouTube, check out the Leap Frogs, go on Facebook, check out our Facebook page at Navy Parachute Team because we have some fantastic videos up there, but what we pride ourselves on with the Navy Parachute Team, Leap Frogs, is that we are masters of CREW. CREW stands for Canopy Relative Work. Um, so what we’ll do is we’ll exit the aircraft anywhere from 2,500 feet above the ground, all the way up to 12 or 13,000 feet above the ground, and our flagship routine is that we can take multiple people after they deploy their canopies, and we can actually work those canopies right into each other, and we can do a variety of formations. So, if you could imagine canopies bumping, guys grabbing, you know, each other’s lines, hooking feet together, you know, building a diamond formation, and then a, you know, really technical and the really fun one is called the Down Plane, where two guys actually bring their canopies together. They link up, they link their legs, and then they flip those canopies towards the earth, and they’re flying at the earth about 70 miles an hour, which we call the Down Plane. So, it’s really exciting to watch, and it’s a ton of fun to do, especially when we bring that Down Plane into a stadium. I mean it’s a real crowd pleaser.
DF: Those are the times of a jump or those are the parts of the jump you say that require the most intense communication?
LV: Definitely, right, yeah, you can’t perform these maneuvers without talking to each other. In those videos that you’ll watch, you’ll see the entire time, we’re calling out altitudes, you know, we’re calling out ground winds. We’re saying, “Hey, this is the landing direction,” and then once the maneuver happens, you know, “Give me your arm, give me your leg, cross your legs, tighten up the grips, going into flares, we’re turning left, turning right,” so there’s a ton of communication, but like I talked about before, that rehearsal, that practice, it kind of makes that whole transition really smooth and second nature.
DF: Right, right, (LV: Yeah) to the point where, it’s almost like you’re going through a checklist. [LV: for sure] Yeah, I think that’s a kind of important thing. I think people don’t realize the sheer volume of training that goes into what it takes to be in NSW or, yeah, your level, where you’re doing stuff that’s maybe even above and beyond the types of technical things that you’re doing when you’re deployed. Maybe you could talk for a little bit about the differences between jumping into a football stadium for let’s say the Army/Navy game versus when you’re on deployment with the Development Group. How do those kind of situations contrast each other?
LV: I would say they’re as similar as they are different. They’re different because when we’re parachuting into a certain area, you know, there’s no really inherent threat except the environmentals and ourselves if we mess up. When you’re operating in a combat zone or something like that, the inherent threat is now all that plus, you know, the enemy and considerations with the enemy and things, and there is a lot more complexity that goes into a real world operation. However, you know, the similarities I would say being that the training is huge. You know, it’s critical. You don’t leave the wire without, you know, knowing exactly what you’re going to do and knowing exactly how you’re going to do it. We don’t leave the airplane without knowing exactly what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.
DF: What about the gear that you use. I can only imagine that you’re using more of a like I would say sporting canopy, I don’t know if that’s the right word, versus what you use whenever you’re deployed. Is the gear, are there any similarities in the gear that you guys use?
LV: I would say, so what we use on the parachute team is called non-tactical equipment, so it’s not going to be using combat, you know, we have bright colors, and the canopies we use are specifically designed for what I was referring to as CREW. (DF: Okay) They’re not super high performance, they’re not real aerodynamic. They’re built for what we do. The parachutes that you’re going to use, you know, in a real world situation are going to be totally different. They’re going to be bigger, they’re going to be able to handle more of a load as far as carrying combat equipment things. So, granted, I would say canopy, is, you know, flying a canopy is flying a canopy, just like flying an airplane is flying an airplane. There’s just going to be some differences on how you fly that and some of the considerations with, you know, your landing and things, but, um, yeah, what we do is non-tactical. Obviously, we’re never going to go into a Down Plane into a combat zone. (DF: Right, right, right) We are a demonstration team, whereas in a combat role, you’re trying to get in undetected and, be as quiet as possible.
DF: Talk a little bit about some of your favorite events to jump at. I mentioned the Army/Navy game earlier because I was exposed to those as a kid, (LV: Oh, right on) so I’ve seen your group, obviously not you, but I’ve seen, you know, you guys show up at a football game and in the middle of the summer or wherever it is. Are there events that stand out to you as really special that you really look forward to, and maybe you can kind of just describe some of those situations?
LV: That’s an exciting question because, you know, honestly, I’ve only been on the team for six months, but we’ve probably jumped into I would say maybe two or three dozen venues by now. (DF: Wow) So, for me, the first one that stands out is we jumped into the Petco Park Padres’ game earlier this year, the home opener, also the military opener, and, you know, just seeing that skyline from my hometown, you know, I’m from San Diego, so seeing that view and then coming into a baseball game, you know, Padres and then knowing that, you know, friends and family are there, very, very exciting, very thrilling jump. So, for me, that one was very near and dear to my heart. It is a challenging venue to jump into, but we have had more challenging venues.
So, as far as challenge goes, recently, we jumped into the Reno Rodeo, which is in Reno, Nevada. Spectacular event, we had an amazing time. The landing zone was very technical. We had some interesting winds, and we also were at about 5,000 feet up there. So, all those types of factors really play into effect when you’re talking about how to land and how to land safely. So, that one, when you want to talk about a little bit of the jitters going into it, that one was definitely turned up, but I’ll tell you, when we landed, there was a lot of sense of pride in that we landed into the Reno Rodeo safely in front of all those people, and, you know, brought in the American flag as well. So, it was just a very special event. It was a very, I feel like we got a ton of outreach on that event, and no one really knew how technical it was except for us. So, behind the scenes, we were definitely high fiving and smiling and laughing, but that one stands out as a, probably one of the more difficult ones I’ve done.
DF: You said something about the altitude just real briefly, and I think you said it was 5,000 feet you guys jumped at. Is that low for you guys to be jumping at? Do you, from my understanding, I mean, like I’ve said, I’ve only jumped one time. I mean, we were so high, you know, cause obviously, they can’t have me like jumping out right next to the ground (LV: Right) not knowing what the hell I’m doing. So, talk a little bit about how the altitude kind of changed that for you.
LV: Definitely. I was referring to the altitude of the Reno Rodeo (DF: oh okay, I gotcha), so being that it was at 5,000 feet, it really, it takes away from some of your canopy performance, so that’s what I was saying when it was another consideration. (DF: Gotcha) But all of our jumps, we can jump from 2,500 feet above the ground all the way up to like I said 12 or 13,000 feet. So, when we get out at 2,500 feet, we’re saying that is the lowest we can go. So, what happens is, you know, for instance, at the Naval Academy, we had a cloud layer at 3,000 feet, so we had to technically be 500 feet below those clouds in order to jump, and I mean we were right at 2,500 feet. When we exited, you have to make sure that you’re getting that formation together super fast because you have about one shot to get that formation together because if you don’t do it, (DF: There’s no time, yeah) we’re already below our hard deck, and it’s like, “Okay, that wasn’t very interesting.”
DF: Yeah, right, I mean, yeah, you make it, but like it’s not as much of a show.
LV: For sure, so 2,500 feet, you got to get in, make it happen and get to the ground. It’s, and it’s also very short. Our shows from 2,500 might be a couple minutes vice exiting at 5,000 feet above the ground, and now our show is like four to five minutes.
DF: What percentage of the time are you jumping in the evening or in darkness cause I know operationally, that’s pretty standard, (LV: Right) but you often see you guys jumping obviously in the middle of the day most of the time for sporting events or whatever, (LV: Right) but do you jump in the evening or at night?
LV: We do. So, during our winter training, we train up to the night standards just learning how to do the formations at night. We have a bunch of different effects that we can show the crowd at night as well, so we have these basically, they’re called pyro sticks, and they’re just like adult sparklers. I mean these things are really cool. They shoot out sparkler flame about 30 feet, and they go for about a minute per stick. So, we take these sticks, we wrap them up, and we attach them to our ankles. So, as we’re coming through free fall or under canopy, it’s really a cool scene from the ground cause it just looks like fireworks in the sky.
DF: They probably can see you a lot easier as well.
LV: Definitely, yeah, they, they wouldn’t be able to see us very good if we didn’t have pyro on.
DF: Yeah, right, especially at nighttime.If you could briefly just talk about the Leap Frogs’ mission or I guess your core function within the Navy, that would be helpful.
LV: Definitely, so we have a really important aspect to Navy recruiting. There’s a common misconception out there the Navy Parachute Team just is, just is messing around, and then we just parachute and jump and have fun all day, but we’re actually, you know, a lot of things that we do, we are co-located with the Blue Angels and with the Navy Recruiting Command, and so what we do is we go out there, and we demonstrate precision aerial maneuvers to demonstrate Navy excellence. So, when people see, you know, a bunch of canopies flying around, and they say, “Hey, that was really cool. That was really challenging,” but then they see the Navy on the parachutes, we fly Big Navy flags, you know, the American flag, we get a lot of questions, and that’s the best part about our job, is interacting with the public. So, when we get to the ground, we say, “Hey, we’re the Navy Parachute Team,” and they’re like, “What is that, and what are you guys doing?” It’s like, “Well, we’re here to talk to you.”
And so, when people see that we can jump out of the sky, and we can demonstrate all these things, we’re not only showing a capability of the US Navy, but we’re also getting people excited about the Navy and showing them kind of what we can do. So, we are one of the major recruiting arms for Navy Recruiting Command, any time we jump, we can be in front of 20,000 people, 50,000 people. In, for instance, Chicago, next week, I mean we’re jumping in front of two million people (DF: Wow). So, you know, if you don’t think we’re going to get some questions about the Navy after parachuting in front of that many people, you’re wrong. You know, it’s like when I think back to when I was in high school, and I was visiting these booths and going to these air shows, you know, talking to the guys that were on the ground was one of the best parts about, you know, thinking about joining the military, (DF: Yeah) so it’s great. Like you said, that full circle, talking to kids, “Hey, this is what we do. You know, I was in your shoes at one point, and now look at what I’m doing.” So, it’s a really cool part of the job, is the outreach portion.
DF: You’ve talked about being in the public and being a spokesperson for the Navy. You also have a history, and NSW in general have a history of operating in silence. How have you been able to successfully make that transition?
LV: You’re referring to just being in the public and having my name out there and things?
DF: Well, I just, I also mean I think even being open to the idea of being an advocate for something that is so secret most of the time, there are core values to NSW ethos that are team before self, and you taking in a role where you are a spokesperson. Some people I think are better at navigating that than others, and I’m just curious to get your perspective on that.
LV: That was a huge consideration for me coming to the team, was that I would have to accept the fact that basically now I’ve gone from the silent professional to, “Hey, everyone, let me tell you what I do.” So, that is an interesting consideration, but, it’s not like we’re selling our community up the river. We’re not telling all the little secrets. We’re here to just talk to people about what it’s like to be a Navy SEAL or a Navy SWCC or even just join the Navy in general. So, I think you can still keep that silent professionalism and also be yourself and really get other people excited about the military, like I said, without spilling the beans.
DF: Do you think that you represent your teammates out there? Is that, is that a fair statement, to say that whenever you’re out there, you assume that role?
LV: I do. You know, it’s kind of funny cause people consider you as a rock star once you get to the parachute team, and, you know, I get a lot of made fun of for my buddies and things, but the truth is, you know, I’m out there representing the SWCC community and also Naval Special Warfare. So, for me, there’s a lot of pride going out there and saying, “Hey, this is who we are, and let me show you what we can do, and let’s get excited about NSW.”
DF: I think that maybe is the impression I’ve kind of got from people that maybe it’s like, “Hey, you know, I didn’t have this information whenever I was a kid,” (LV: Right) but I think a lot of people maybe don’t realize they read the books, they saw the movies, (LV: Sure) they went to an air show, and they saw somebody that set an example and go, “Oh, I can do that,” you know what I mean?
LV: And that’s obviously one of the biggest pluses about having a team like this, is because, kids that are interested in joining the military, they’ve read the books, they’ve seen the movies, but for them to actually walk up to one of us, you know, at an air show, at a, Padres’ game, wherever it may be, and be like, “Whoa, I’ve never actually met a Navy SEAL. I’ve never met a Navy SWCC.” We have a Navy Diver on the team, we have a Navy Parachute Rigger, we have Navy SEALs on the team, you know, so for someone to actually come up and shake our hand and say, “Wow, this is really cool,” I would say that’s just a huge benefit for the public and for us as well because when I joined, I’d only met one SEAL, and I’d only met one SWCC guy before I joined the military. How cool would it have been for me to talk to ten SEALs or ten SWCCs and really get a good feel for, “Hey, this is what these guys are like. You know, maybe this is the right path for me. Maybe it’s not the right path.” A lot of people join, like you said, under this kind of mysterious circumstance thinking they know what it’s all about, I mean, jeez, if you could talk to just a couple guys before you joined and really get the real deal, (DF: Yeah) I think that would be huge for a lot of people.
DF: Yeah, right, to kind of get a more realistic impression (LV: Right) and maybe even give people more confidence.
LV: Right, cause the books and the movies aren’t going to do it justice. (DF; right) You know, it’s, you’re going to get the real, this is how it really works from the guys that have been there, done that. Um, and I mean honestly, when I joined the military, I didn’t know what to expect, but what I will say is the military has completely blown all my expectations out of the water, and I’ve had experiences that I would have never imagined, you know, in a million years.
DF: Yeah, you’ve kind of seen a really impressive and rare kind of perspective you know, from your operational history and then going into training (LV: Right). Talk a little bit about the different kind of training that you were responsible for quite a bit. Like you said that, you know, basically, all jumping out of airplane in the Navy kind of came under your umbrella. Maybe talk a little bit about some of the differences. Are there really big, big changes between like, you talked static line and also free fall, fast roping, you know. What part of that was your favorite?
LV: I enjoyed seeing the students excel in whether it was the free fall or the static line or, you know, learning how to tie the knots to work the fast rope or the spy rig. Once you kind of got past that initial, you know, difficulty phase, and you start seeing the students picking up, “Hey, I’m really starting to understand this. I’m really starting to enjoy this,” that to me, as an instructor, was the best part. You know, there’s a lot that goes into teaching somebody how to skydive or teaching somebody how to, you know, be a jumpmaster for a jump. And so, once those skills kind of start clicking with the guys, that’s where I got a lot of job satisfaction cause prior to that role, I’d never been an instructor. And so, I really learned that I actually did like being a teacher.
DF: Yeah, and I think that’s a hallmark of a good teacher, (LV: Yeah) whenever they’re focused on outcomes, not just, “This is what I’m interested in. I’m going to make you listen to me.” You know, that’s not the same thing as teaching somebody.
LV: Right, and it’s a cool topic, too. It’s not like we’re talking about, something really boring. We’re talking about, “Hey, this is, you guys are going to use this down the road, and this is a really exciting skillset,” so I think the students were excited, I was excited. It’s also my passion. So, that was, that was a cool aspect of my career, was being an instructor.
DF: Well, there’s one area I do want to touch on, and that’s trust. Whenever you jump out of an airplane, I guess this is my impression, but you’re kind of dead until you’re saved by the canopy is kind of my logic there, and the amount of trust that you place in the people that you’re jumping with is I don’t think comparable to what most people experience in their regular life. Your life is literally in their hands. Can you, I guess how has skydiving changed your perception of trust and what it means to you?
LV: You know, in Naval Special Warfare, we select only the best guys and now gals, right. We do that because whenever you’re in a really, uncertain or dangerous circumstance, you have to be able to lean on that guy or girl and say, “Hey, I need you to make this happen,” right? With skydiving, it’s really no different. We screen people for the Leap Frogs, and we only select the best because, you know, that Parachute Rigger that’s on the team, he’s going to be packing my reserve. So, if I need to use that reserve parachute, we need to trust that thing’s going to work. And, you know, a new jumper that comes on the team, we want to make sure that his head is in the right place, that he or she, is comfortable, you know, operating a parachute in close quarters and is comfortable in these kind of high stress situation. So, if we feel that, you know, maybe a candidate does not have that quality or those qualities, then we just won’t accept them on the team. So that is a very big consideration, and if you don’t trust someone that you’re working with in the sky, it’s going to make for a very un-fun day, and so we just prefer not to go down that road and just select the right people from the get go.
DF: Do you think that working in this team environment has kind of honed your ability to make a snap judgment on somebody pretty quickly with those aspects?
LV: You know, I’ve been surprised. Yeah, the whole judge a book by its cover piece is I feel like somewhat true, but we like to run the candidates through the paces, so do the interview, take them to the drop zone, throw a parachute on them, see what they can do in the sky, you know, debrief with them. So, I feel like this whole process, you’re able to kind of get to know that person [DF: right, right] a lot better than doing a five-minute interview and saying, “I don’t like that person.” Some people shine, you know, a week after you meet them, and some people shine on day one. Some people don’t shine at all. So, it just depends, and we do a really good job on the team of screening candidates, just like Naval Special Warfare does.
DF: For people out there thinking about pursuing a career with the Navy, what general advice would you give them?
LV: I would say do as much research as you can, you know, read, talk to people, talk to recruiters, you know, try to get ahold of people in communities that you’re interested in being. You know, If you’re interested in Naval Special Warfare, talk to the Naval Special Warfare Assessment Team. Get ahold of us at the Leap Frogs , you know, on a show. Really kind of get a good feel for what you’re looking at doing, and then, at that point, then really prepare your mind, prepare your body to go that route, and really don’t give up on that dream until you’ve made it. If at any point in time, you know, you feel like this isn’t the right job for you, you know, there’s always options. There’s, the Navy has a million different things you can do. So, I would just, you know, recommend people that they just pursue their passion, figure out what that passion is and then really prepare to work really hard because in the Navy, you know, you do work very hard, but I will say that it’s probably one of the most rewarding careers that you can have.
DF: Well, thank you so much. You’re one of the few people that gets to really do what they love, and thank you for sitting down and giving us some of wisdom.
LV: Definitely, thanks for talking, yeah.
DF: Find out more at sealswcc.com and join us again for the next NSW Podcast.
Command Master Chief (SEAL) Britt Slabinski, was awarded the nation's highest honor for his heroic action fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
On May 24, 2018 Navy SEAL Command Master Chief Britt Slabinski was invited to the White House and presented with the Medal of Honor. He was awarded the nation’s highest military honor for his actions in 2002 when he led his team on a daring rescue mission to save their teammate who was wounded behind enemy lines. In this episode, Command Master Chief Slabinski talks about the importance of team mentality when facing adversity and what service means to him.
DF: Thank you for sharing some of your time with us for one. That’s, that means a lot I think to have your perspective voice in on the podcast, so thank you for sharing some of your time with us to start with.
BS: Certainly, happy to be here.
DF: For people that might not know you, if you could just briefly introduce yourself and tell us your history with the Navy. I know it’s not brief but…
BS: Certainly, so I am Britt Slabinski. I am a retired Command Master Chief, served 26 years mostly all of that in the SEAL teams and mostly all East Coast teams. Went through with BUDS class 164, graduated with that in January 1990, and then served with SEAL Team Four for a few years and then served to, with Naval Special Warfare Development Group and served at group two as a Command Master Chief and then retired from Naval Special Warfare Command. In March of 2002, deployed to Afghanistan January 2002, but in March of that year, conducted an operation called Operation Anaconda, where I led a seven-man reconnaissance team onto a snow covered 11,000-foot mountain peak to conduct over-watch operations, reconnaissance operations. During that operation, one of my teammates, upon landing our helicopter landing on top of the mountain, we received heavy RPG, rocket propelled grenade fire, machine gun fire. Damaged the helicopter badly, and one of my teammates was ejected from the aircraft. Teammate’s name was Neil Roberts. So, my helicopter crash-landed in a valley, and I made the decision to launch an immediate rescue mission with my remaining team members back up to the mountain, up against superior numbers, heavily armed enemy force. And for those actions during that day, I was awarded the Medal of Honor.
DF: And I understand that just happened recently as far as receiving the award. Is that correct?
BS: I did. It happened May 24th at a ceremony, at the White House presented, presented to me not too long ago. (DF: Oh wow, so just, yeah not too long ago at all.) Yeah, not too long ago at all.
DF: That must have been pretty, that must have been a pretty amazing experience.
BS: It was. It’s still very surreal, and I don’t think surreal is the right word for it (DF: Yeah, right?), but it is still very, very surreal, amazing experience indeed, but…
DF: Yeah, yeah, tough to wrap your mind around I’m sure. So, let’s rewind back to joining the Navy. What or who inspired you to do that?
BS: So, I think like most youth, graduating from high school, I’m trying to figure out want do I want to do with my life, and from an early age on, I was involved in Boy Scouts. Boy Scouts was the kind of foundation of my life, and I became an Eagle Scout, and from what I learned in scouting, that really became the foundation of my life, Boy Scout oath, Boy Scout law, those things are what I made decisions from. They were vitally important to me growing up and still are to this day. My father was also a UDT guy, so he was in Naval Special Warfare really back in the early days. He went through one of the beginning classes of it, class 13 back in the (DF: Wow, that’s interesting) early 1950s (DF: Wow). So, when I was around 13, 14 years old, my dad took me to a SEAL reunion where he introduced me to some of his teammates. And from that moment on, I thought, “Wow, he’s introduced me to this other family that he had,” and I thought, “This looks like something very interesting that I want to do.” Very difficult job, difficult selection process for the job, but very crucial, important work on behalf of the nation. So, retiring from high school, I made the decision that I wanted to do something that was more important for me to do. I wanted to contribute. I wanted to serve my nation, and for me, that was joining the Navy and then applying to go to the SEAL program.
DF: Did you know what you wanted to do with the SEALs whenever you first joined? I know, at that point, there might not have been nearly as much media coverage about what the teams even did, but did you have an idea of kind of what you wanted to do with the Teams?
BS: I certainly did, because my dad introduced me to it. I’m from North Hampton, Massachusetts, so western Massachusetts, so as you can imagine there wasn’t a big presence (DF: Right) of military there, so I would not have known of the SEALs probably let alone even the Navy other than my father introducing me to it, so really happy to have this opportunity to get this message out to (DF: Yeah, other people in the same predicament, right.)…There are other people there and just to help them focus, “Hey, what do you want to do with your life.”
DF: Right, right, right, kind of set off on the right path. What did you do in the SEAL teams as your specialty?
BS: Coming through SEAL training, you’re trained in various different things. Maybe when you get to your SEAL team, everyone’s trained up in a lot of basic things. Everyone’s a combat diver, you do land warfare, you do parachute jumping, as the name fits: sea, air and land (DF: Right, right). You do all the specialties, all the special warfare tactics that go with that. Later on in my career, I specialized more in being sniper trainings, sniper instructor, but overall, the main thing that I’d say that I did is I was a leader first, first and foremost, above all the other specialties, I was, I was the leader, the one making decisions and executing those decisions.
DF: You mentioned being a sniper trainer. Is that what you said a second ago? Instructor? (BS: Instructor) Okay, that’s a place where the SEALs do get a lot of recognition. What separates the best Navy snipers from other precision rifle teams in the world?
BS: I don’t know if there’s a real distinction behind them. I think going to sniper school, there are a lot of great shooters, a lot of great rifle shooters. Most if not all SEALs I think are expert shooters, so everyone has a capability (DF: Right) to go through the sniper training. What you get out of that training, though, is you’re just going to think differently. You’re going to look at targets differently. You get planning on it, you get strategic thought processes, strategic in the sense that how you are going to go about going against a target, so in an operational sense, how am I going to go do this, and you get leadership skills out of it cause mostly the sniper guys, you’re solo in a lot of things, or you got one partner with you, and you’re going to go out and do certain operations. So, instead of having a larger team, you’re a much, much smaller team, so that’s really what you learn, how to operate across the whole battle space just you and your, and your shooting partner to accomplish a mission.
DF: Well, you did say that sometimes you’re solo. I mean I’ve obviously never been to sniper training or any precision rifle schools, but I think that is pretty common that there’s a team there, but the solo aspect I think is definitely a little bit different, you know….
BS: Certainly, you’re never really alone. In the team environment, you’re never really alone, and you have support. You have your teammates that are going to be close by but what you also learn at sniper school is a lot of times, it’s just you, and you have to rely on you and what you bring internally to that problem set, and sniper school really helped hone that down, to you’re the one making all those decisions, and that was invaluable to me.
DF: What’s something that you might have wished you knew before you entered the Navy? I think things have changed considerably since you entered the Navy. Does anything stick out in your mind?
BS: You know, with 20/20 hindsight looking back, I’m sure there’s any number of things I wish I would’ve known (DF: Right, right). At the moment, wherever I was, I was learning everything I possibly could. I was reading all the books, looking at everything, talking to everybody that I could possibly talk to about what I was getting into. So, at the moment, which, you know, was 30-something years ago, I felt I was as most prepared as I could. Of course, from what you see on the outside, and when you really get to the program, (DF: Yeah, things, things change, yeah) it, it usually is completely different, of course, cause there’s be a lot of hype and a lot of publicity to it, but when you get to actually, it’s like, “Whoa, this is totally different than what I thought that it was,” all, in a good way, of course, certainly much harder because then it all becomes, it all becomes just very real, and your commitment really takes more of a tangible form to, “Okay, here I am. Here’s a decision you made and you’re going forward with it.”
DF: Do you think that most SEALs have a calling for that kind of sense of purpose that you’re talking about people coming into whenever they arrive on the teams?
BS: I believe so because given the nature of the training, the training’s really intense. There’s some 75, 80% people that come into the training, all of them thinking they have what it takes, don’t get through for one reason or another, and the process is going to weed that out of you. There are no shortcuts to BUD/S training, Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL training. There are no hacks for it. The process is, you go there, and you perform better than you did the day before, and you, you just don’t simply meet the minimum standards. You need to excel those standards. Excel those standards are not only what the program sets for you but what you set for yourself internally, about you internally growing and moving forward every day.
DF: Yeah, I think that does make a lot of sense, that your own internal calling, or however you phrase that, is I think what pulls people to the teams and then to wherever they end up in the teams, whether it’s they continue on and be…
BS: It is a calling about, it’s about service, service above, above one’s self, service to complete strangers, to your fellow countrymen. Those people that are going to walk by you on the street, and look at you and not even think twice about you not knowing what you’re doing for them on a day-to-day basis and really being okay with it. (DF: Right, right) It’s okay that you don’t know. It is a, a much higher calling of service.
DF: So, we spoke with Ed Byers a few weeks ago, and I asked him a question that I think is maybe appropriate to talk to you about, too. I’ve learned a lot about the camaraderie and the mechanics of being on the SEAL Teams in terms of what is required of them, and there’s also the external impression that you’re talking about. People have an impression of what these guys do and who they are and what they’re about, but it contrasts a lot because I think there’s a disconnection there, people realize, or people believe that these are individuals or super, you know, super human individuals, but really they’re so much more focused on the team, and that is what really is defining, you know, the idea of the SEAL Teams and all the people that are operating there. They put the Teams above themself, right? Are there parts in training or whenever you’re on deployment that you rely more on yourself, or does that change, and is that ability to change back and forth between the two you think allow you to be successful Navy SEAL or Special Warfare operator?
BS: So both SEAL and SWCC operators, really any Special Operator, the first person you have to lead. If you look at, what you see from the SEALs and the SWCC is you see this big tactical side. You see the guys in the boats, the big guns, the fancy electronics, the state-of-the-art equipment that those guys, the really industry-leading equipment that they’re using as SWCCs and the same thing that the SEAL Teams, and then you see the MS, the big burly guys doing all this (DF: Right) dangerous and crazy stuff. That’s really a small percentage of what the things that we do. You also don’t see, the, the human side of what they do. They’re husbands, they’re fathers, they are your Little League coaches, they’re your neighbor next door out there cutting their grass, there’s still that, that human element there to it as well. And then, the level of commitment that it also takes is, you know, we kind of called it mastering the switch, the switch being, you’re at home, you got to throw the switch in one direction, “I got to be Dad. I got to deal with everything at home,” and then you got to throw the switch, and you’re going to go to work, and then you have to take on this immense responsibility that it is to be in these organizations of doing what the nation is asking of them. And when you’re in that mode, that is the priority. Your priority then isn’t your family life. It is taking care of that much broader picture, and then the families are at home still bearing that immense weight as well at home. They’re not out doing that job, physically but emotionally they’re still there doing it, and then they have to bear the burdens at home as well, too, so immense challenging task for those family members as well. So, we call it how can you be very good at mastering that switch, and you have to be very good at it as well when you’re out doing your job because there will be one moment when you have to have a, what we call a very kinetic response and then switch right away into a very human response cause maybe the situation warrants something other than this kinetic side, and very often, that’s the case. A person that can switch back and forth to being exactly what the situation requires. I think that in a way separates us from what a lot of other organizations do.
DF: I kind of had a feeling that is a unique challenge that only certain people are really able to do effectively, consistently and well because that’s obviously required in your job, making that switch fast is part of the process.
BS: So, it’s, that’s what I really separates the SEAL and SWCC training so, from other training that’s out there. It’s not necessarily the physical, the physical piece is really, that’s going to come pretty easy, and I know it’ll come easy to most. It’s that internal piece that’s going to be much more difficult, and when you are stressed, when you are in a very difficult situation, you are uncomfortable, you’re exhausted beyond compare, and to be able to make those intellectual, critical thinking tasks and make them accurately, that is what this training is really going to prepare you to do. I believe that’s what separates us, this training, from other training, is it’s training that mental acuity in our people.
DF: I kind of define part of that as the grit. I think that’s maybe the working side of that switch, right. Um, talk a little bit about how you’ve developed that in your life or if that’s even possible to develop. It’s something that you’re born with.
BS: So, that’s the “Great Man” question, right, is the poor person born into the situation, or does the situation make the person, and I think it becomes a little bit of both. There’s an art, and then there’s the science piece of both things. Or there’s an emotion and a logic piece to all of it. You need absolute both of those things to move forward, and it’s a logic piece, which is cold, hard facts, then there’s the emotion piece, which is your life experiences and things that you’ve been through. Both of those things you need to move forward to make the right decisions in life, not just in our role but in any life.
DF: Right, I think that, yeah, I think that is like foundational, right, what you’re saying.
BS: It is foundational. For me, that foundational piece came from scouting. Scouting was that Boy Scout oath, that Boy Scout law and the other adult leaders that I was around. And so I think those programs, you know, Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs, those things are very, very important to our, to our youth cause it just gives you some foundation…(DF: And challenges you, too.) It does challenge you. At a young age, here you’re going to take our youth, you’re going to put your sights on a, on a long goal, a long task. Going to take several, several years, four and five, maybe six years to attain the rank of Eagle Scout, and you’re young, and you’re making a commitment there, so at an early age, you’re getting used to responsibilities, thinking through things, making a commitment and (DF: You’re following through) following through. So, you’re getting that grit, you’re getting that resilience, and there’s a lot of difficult tasks, and a lot of things are placed on those, those young kids in order to complete those tasks. And it really, it is just a primer the way I looked at it. Scouting for me is just a primer for citizenship, I wouldn’t have traded that for anything.
DF: That’s huge. I don’t think many, enough people are involved in those types of organizations, not necessarily them specifically, but from a young age, especially I think in today’s climate that challenging your kids with potentially dangerous things, you know, giving your kid a pocket knife when they’re six years old or wherever the age is, you know what I mean, stuff like that is kind of almost sounds outdated to a lot of people, which I think is really kind of naïve to think that…
BS: Those things are at the very core of the very fabric of who we are as a nation. You know, the pocket knife stuff, they’re out there. Let’s teach the kid how are you going to use this thing so you don’t cut yourself, (DF: Yeah, safely, right yeah) right, or an axe, basic things I look at Boy Scouts, aside from the character it develops. Fire starting, you know, first aid and tying knots, right, that’s the…if you look at a Boy Scout and say, here, here’s someone that, hey, that, that kid that’s over there standing in that Boy Scout uniform, ten years old, he could save your life. He knows how to do CPR, he can stop you from bleeding, that kid could absolutely save your life cause of training that he’s been through, so.
DF: And his mind knowing that he can just even taking any action what stops a lot of people I would imagine, you know?
BS: So, that then becomes, he can look at the situation and go, “I need to intervene there,” right. “I see something going on. I have the courage in me to do something, and I have the skills to go and do something,” and that’s all when you see in a ten year old boy, standing there. And the same goes for Girl Scouts as well, too. So, you have, Girl Scouts do the exact same thing that Boy Scouts are going to do, you know, we don’t look at our youth as being, “Oh, that kid, what can that kid do?” That kid could do a whole lot, let me tell you.
DF: Yeah, I think the responsibility piece is really huge because I think kind of giving people that permission to take responsibility and ownership at a young age, that is something that people don’t realize that maybe they can even do, that they’re allowed to do, and then it’s kind of getting them off, jump start almost.
BS: Yes, and the accountability, right. That you’re accountable for your actions. We don’t have a lot.
DF: Right, right. If you never became a SEAL, what kind of could you see yourself doing other than that in your life? Maybe as a kid did you have any other ambitions?
BS: Looking back on it, now, really I can’t see myself ever doing anything else, (DF: Right) back to that (DF: Yeah, yeah, yeah) great man theory, is a person born or not. Like any youth, yeah, I had my dreams, yeah okay, you want to be a fireman, (DF: Right) or you want to go be a jet fighter pilot, or you want to go be architect or do an engineering. And you sort through all those things, and you have to go through that process to saying, “Okay, what do I want?” right, kind of the why is it true of each of these things, and then you kind of say, “Okay, this one right here looks the most appealing to me. I’m feeling this one is right for me, and it’s the right thing to do,” and that’s kind of where I was at. I made that decision that, “Hey, the Navy is the right place for me to go,” and, yeah a very difficult life, but I have not looked back once.
DF: Yeah, I kind of expected that answer, but I figured I would have to ask anyway, (BS: Sure) just to see if you might give us a little gem, like, you know, you wanted to be a race car driver or something like that (BS: Yeah), like your hidden hobby.
BS: No ballet dancer.
DF: No ballet dancing? You never know. I mean, I’ve met people across the board with the Navy SEALs…I’m sure you could do it, I’m sure. It’s like there’s not much you guys can’t do.
BS; I don’t know how I’d look in tights…I can fox trot though…
DF: Can we talk a little bit about fear and getting over fear? What are your best strategies for getting over fear?
BS: So, fear is very common, very common reaction, and it’s normal. Everybody feels fear. Everyone is afraid. Everybody does. If there’s a SEAL that’s out there, there’s a SWCC guy out there that’s going to say, “Look, I’m, right, I’m fearless,” then run away from that person. True courage, and I think there’s several quotes out there, one of them I think comes from a fictional, John Wayne, “True courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway,” right. That’s, “Look, I’m scared, right, I embrace it. I got no, like I’m not going to hide it, yeah. I’m scared to go do this. But what I’m getting ready to do absolutely needs to be done right now.”
True courage comes from being scared and doing the thing that you’re about ready to do anyway. Knowing you recognized the risk, you know there could be a very terrible outcome, but you’re going to go do it anyway cause the outcome if you don’t do something would be much worse, so recognizing there’s a situation there, recognizing you can have an impact, a positive impact on what’s going on there and then making the decision to go and doing it. And the strategies that you’re going to have are going to come from the core of who you are as a person. The things you believe in, the things in your life that you will do, the things in your life that you know you will not do and then living them, so, yeah, it’s…
DF: Identifying I think some of those belief systems I think or, but the priorities I think is what gets in the way of now hearing you say that because if there’s no sense of urgency, then, “I’m not going to do it. I’m scared.” There’s no need to do it, right, or if it’s something that’s more personal, you need to have that definition for yourself of what you’re willing to do, what you’re willing not to, what your goals are to be able to say, “I’m going to have to push through this.” Do you think that’s kind of a big part of it?
BS: For SEAL training, for the SWCC training, it is a big part of it because although you’re going through it as a group, you’re going to have a group of teammates that are around you going through SEAL training, but what the training is going to do is it’s going to is it’ll break down that team a little bit, but it’ll, it really is going to get down to the core of who you are as a person. All those little things, there’s only so much that team effort is going to get you through, but remember, a team is built up of a lot of individual (DF: Right), great efforts, and you take those individual, great efforts and put them all together, and those together, they go off, and they do great things. If you have people there just doing mediocre, meeting the minimum standards, that’s not really a team, certainly not a high performing team (DF: Right), which is the ones that we have. So, those people are just meeting the minimum standards. Those are the ones we simply don’t want around, the people that are exceeding those standards. So, you absolutely need to have someone that’s going to dig deep inside them and say, “Okay, this is the way that we’re going to go,” or, “I’m not giving in. I’m not going to quit today. My body’s hurt, I’m in pain, so is the person right next to me, and the thing we’re doing right now is really worthy of doing, and we’re going to go do this.”
DF: Yeah, I think that’s something that people don’t realize about the Teams, is that there’s lots of different personality types, but what really connects them in the core, you know that the other person at that stage, when you guys are finally put together, like we’re on the same page. Do you think that’s accurate?
BS: So, it is accurate. So, being likeminded, yes, we’ve all been through the same experiences, that we’ve all been through the same trainings. We’re likeminded is that we’re very, I don’t want to say singularly focused, but we’re very committed (DF: Right) to, to this action, what we’re doing. We have a term that, hey, it’s, we’re all in in this, and that term’s used very freely today, but no one really understands what, what this really means, is that I’m all in. I’m here with you right now, 100%...I’m here with you (DF: Yeah, with your life, not just…on paper, yeah, right), my life. My life, what equals my life is not just my heartbeat, right, it’s my soul, it’s my heart, it’s my dreams, it’s my family’s hopes and dreams and all the things that they can become, all the next birthdays, all the, all the events, those are all the things that we are going to give up, willing to give up for you, go to see my kids, go get married, you know just experience that living, and not existing. I’m going to give all that up for you, right, my fellow citizens, and that’s, that’s really, that’s what’s at risk here. When we say, “All in,” like I am, I’m all in on doing this to protect my fellow citizens.
DF: I understand that you spoke with a BUD/S class earlier today. What was that experience like? What did you talk to them about?
BS: So, spoke with BUD/S class 332. They are about a week out from Hell Week, so they just finished Hell Week, and I think there was about 90 of them in there and amazing experience. I haven’t spoken to a BUD/S class, been that close to a BUD/S class since I myself (DF: Yeah, right) was there, so it was really almost another surreal moment for me. I’m standing there in front of them all, (DF: Yeah) and I can really picture myself in their seat, you know, and like, “Wow, I’ve been right there.” So, I talked to them a little bit about my experiences going through Hell Week and the things that I remembered, and you know, I told them, I said, “You know, this is just a primer. You just went through Hell Week. You’ve not arrived. You’re not done yet. You got a long road ahead of you.” But just like I mentioned earlier, Hell Week is just a little primer for you to get tapped into the resources within you that you’re going to need to go forward with the rest of your career. So, yeah, you’re going to be sleep deprived, you’re going to be in pain, you know, discomfort, you’re going to be hungry, you’re going to be angry, you’re going to be sad, you’re going to have all those things, but guess what? Inside all of that, you still have to function and how best you do it, and that’s what I told them. This is really what the purpose of all this is here. You’re doing a lot of things maybe you don’t make any sense of. Maybe by Thursday, you don’t remember the things you’re doing, but this is the purpose of it, to tap into you, the internal piece of you, of who you are to say, “Yeah, I can get through all this stuff, and I can get my teammate through all of this stuff, and he’s going to get me through all of this stuff.”
DF: Give them a little bit of a reality check a little bit, kind of…
BS: Just get a little reality check, say that, and I mentioned to them, yeah we have that logo that you mentioned in the beginning of this podcast. It says, “The only easy day was yesterday.” Well, I believe words have meaning. Each word has a definition, and they’re put together in a certain way to get a way, a certain emotion. Everyone has different definitions to certain words. To me, “The only easy day was yesterday,” and this is what I told the class, I said “I don’t care what you did yesterday.” I told them, “You may have saved the President of the United States life yesterday. Great, go down, you get two minutes, get over it, you did a good job. What are you going to do for me today?” right, “What are you going to do to top it?” So, that’s what I told them. I said, “Hey, you pat yourselves on the back. You get two minutes to get over it, and then focus on what the next task is ahead.” So, those are the things that I told them… “Congratulations on getting through Hell Week, (DF: Right) but also my condolences, right, cause it’s going to get much harder.”
DF: It never stops. I mean even look at your career now, taking a change that, unforeseen, you know, and you’re still developing, you’re still looking for, I think that’s important to kind of recognize.
BS: And still serving, (DF: Right), cause that’s right for me. A career for the SEAL and the SWCC, it progressively, it’s going to get harder and harder and harder. The jobs and the tasks they’re going to put on you, they’re progressively going to get harder. They’re going to get more intense. That’s the career path that our people that go through.
DF: I’d like to touch a little bit on adversity, and I think we, kind of defined part of what enables you and I think most people to be able to push through that, and that’s having a direct understanding of the purpose for why you’re in that position to begin with and having the vision to continue on. Are there any other aspects that you can add to that in terms of overcoming adversity? Any personal anecdotes or anything like?
BS: So, I have several. The best one that I can give you, so the night in question where I received the, the Medal of Honor, the actions for. So, you know, my helicopter was shot down, my teammate had fallen out, so I had a downed helicopter sitting in front of me. I made the decision that I’m going to take care of the problem in front of the downed helicopter, we got all those, that aircrew, got us all to a safe location, a secure, safe location. It was from that spot that I had a decision to make, you know the weight of command, I was a Ground Force Commander, and the responsibility on our commanders that are on the ground is incredible. Its national strategic level commitments that are on those people going forward is sitting on their shoulders, so I had a decision to make. It’s in that decision, it’s in those, those moments when no matter what teammates are around you, right, that leader has to bear that responsibility. And you’re going to feel absolutely alone, and in that moment, I did feel alone, although I had my teammates around me, I had aircrew around me, I felt absolutely alone with the critical decision I was going to make, and the decision for me to make was, “Do I go now back to the mountaintop against superior enemy numbers. They have heavier caliber firepower than I do. I am not outfitted. I don’t have the equipment to do an assault,” I was outfitted to do a different mission, “and if I go now, there’s a chance that I could rescue my teammate, or I could wait three, four hours for more reinforcements to come, and that is the sure thing that I will go to the mountaintop, but it probably most likely be a recovery.” Fully knowing if I go now, the chances of me, myself perishing I thought were 100%. I thought it was 100% of me losing more of my teammates. And at that moment, that piece that came back to me is what I learned as a youth, and those were the opening lines of the Boy Scout oath. The opening lines are, “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty. On my honor, do my best to do my duty. On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty.” That echoed in my head as I’m sorting through all the tactical scenario of what I’m going to do. It’s then that I started listening to it about the third time, I was like, “Wow, okay. I’ve not done my best, and I’m going to go do this,” so that’s when I briefed my team and said, “Hey, we’re going back, and we’re going to go do this.”
So, can’t stress to the listeners enough how important it is, the core of who you are, whatever it is that you believe in. That’s vitally important for you to keep going forward. How do you make decisions? What do you believe in? And can the problems you experience, if you throw them against whatever it is that you believe in, whatever ethos, whatever creed, whatever it is you belong, those things at the very core, Boy Scout oath, all that stuff, they’re just a tool for you to use, to make decisions when decisions are difficult to come by. That’s really at the basis of what they are, right. I got a bad problem right here, difficult decision to make, I’m going to take that problem, I’m going to throw it against whatever I believe in. For me, it was the Boy Scout oath. For the SEAL/SWCC, it’s the SEAL and the SWCC Creed. You can take whatever problem you got, you’re going to throw it up against it, and if it sticks to it? Guess what, I’m going to go do it. If it bounces off of it, hey maybe I probably shouldn’t go do what I’m getting ready to do.
That’s what I look at those things at their core. They’re tools for you to make a decision, and they’re not just for when you’re in uniform. They’re for your personal life as well. If you don’t know what you believe in, if you don’t know what your core ethos is, if you don’t have one personally, then, hey, here’s the SEAL one. Here’s the SWCC one. What that came from, it started in around 2000ish, 2002, 2003 or somewhere around there. They came from our entire lineage from the first day down in Fort Pierce when the first Frogmen were made till this present day. Every word in there, every phrase is fact. It happened in one form or another. So, it is a bit ideal, but it is a factual thing that all stems from something that happened, and we put it down in writing, say, “This is, this is who we are. This is what we believe in, this is how we will conduct ourselves.” That is what those ethos’ are there for.
DF: In kind of stepping forward into the future after than event, what aspects in your personal life did you rely on to gain that strength again to kind of push through in your personal life?
BS: So certainly after the event, when we came back off the mountain, immediately coming off the mountain, which was some 20 hours later, I walked into our command and control center, you know, and I was, this is the point where I can finally, I can like, “Woo,” I can breathe (DF: Breathe, right.) a little bit. And I walked into our command space, and I just felt like I’m just exhausted, and I just felt like, “Wow, that was some pretty intense stuff that we just went through.” I really didn’t feel like I could move and go forward, and I’m standing in our command space, and I still had all my gear on, and this is when the teamwork stuff comes in. So, my teammate was there in the room, recognized in me that I was, I looked defeated, and I was defeated. I felt defeated at this point. (DF: Right) And a teammate who is a high -ranking member of the community now, saw this in me. Great, he didn’t say anything to me, he just came up to me, this is the definition of teammate comes in for me. He came up to me, and he just embraced me, didn’t say anything, and he just, just simple human gesture coming up to me, right, and embracing me and just telling me in this very brotherly way to say, “Look, it’s going to be okay, right, but get yourself straight, right, cause I need you,” and that’s basically what he was telling me, right, and then he let me go, and I go back to my tent, and that’s exactly just what I needed. So there’ll be times, there will be times when, “Oh, man, I just can’t, I can’t take another step forward.” That’s when those teammates are going to go, “Hey, look, I’m here for you, right. We can do this together,” so that was the immediate aftermath of that, and then moving forward, certainly still, those core aspects that they’ve just got to remain. There’s going to be difficult times. You have to always go back on who that is, who you were, what you believe in, and they will carry you through.
DF: How would you suggest candidates take care of their mental and emotional wellbeing whenever they’re really pushing themselves, or even people that are deployed?
BS: So, everyone is different. Everyone goes through, experiences things different. What might be stressful to me is not as stressful to someone else, (DF: Right) so everyone’s going to be in a different situation. What I’d say in general, if you’ve made the decision that this is the path that you want to go down, whether it be SEAL, whether it be SWCC, you think through it all completely to say, “Why am I going to go do this? Do I just want a, a want a little piece of that image, or do I, do I really want to go out, and I want to serve at the highest possible levels with some of the best citizens that our country could produce?” If the answer is yes to that, then go for it all in. And the other piece, the mental piece, once you’ve made that core decision, and your reasons are sound, everything else is going to come easier to you. You’re going to be able to pull from that because my reasons for being here are sound. The training process, the pipeline, all that stuff is just going to pick you apart. Maybe you came in for one other reason because you bought into the image, you hit the training process, and you’re like, “Oh, my God. This is really terrible. (DF: Yeah, things change, right.) What am I doing here? Worst decision of my life,” and then you just hold on just a little bit longer, and then you hold on a little bit longer. You go one more day, one more day. And you’re like, “Oh, this really is what I want to do.”
So, the initial thing I would say is, make the decision for why are you into this, why do you want to do this, and if you’re in, then you’re in. Don’t give up on it. And if you’re in it, and you’re having those thoughts, just wait another minute, right. And go back to your core reasons of why are you here, why do you really want to do this. Take a look to your left, take a look to your right and say, “Okay, this is, this is the reason why I’m here.”
For me, I look at our flag a little differently than a lot of people, and I, we use this analogy for many years, I pass it on to you guys. So, it can be very difficult at times, you know, certainly a lot of things, a lot of stressful environments that we go through. If you look at our flag, a lot of people look at our flag. They see the red, the white and the blue. The red symbolizes, you know, the blood and sacrifice that generations have given for their country (DF: Right), the white, you know, innocence, purity, you know, many other definitions, the blue in the field is for justice. So that’s kind of how I look at it. Those things are very readily apparent when you look at the flag, but the real core of our flag when you look at it is the thread that holds it all together, something that no one, no one ever pays any attention to, right, and that thread passes in and out of all of that stuff, and you never see it. And you see the flag standing out through a hurricane. And the ends may be a little frazzled, a little torn, but the flag is still all together. All that we are as Americans is all tied up in that flag, and that thread is the only thing that’s holding it all together. That thread is us. That’s how I look at it. It’s that thread. I’m going to get battered, I’m going to get bruised, I’m going to get beat up, but I know who I am. I know the things I will do, I know the things I will not do, I know my character’s intact, this is what I’m going to do, and I’m going to hold strong, and that’s what I see as our community. We’re the thread that’s going to just hold everything together, no matter what it is you’re going to throw against me.
DF: Thank you so much for sitting with us and spending some time with us. I know you’ve got your own life and a lot of other things that you got to do in your life so appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.
BS: Very happy to be here. Thanks for the privilege.
SEAL Officer Selection and Assessment (SOAS) is a test of potential candidates before they are selected and sent to SEAL training. We spoke with the program manager to learn more about this unique process to find the best and brightest. For more information go to www.sealswcc.com.
Recruiting for Navy SEAL officers involves a two-phase screening and selection system where candidates from all officer sources (US Naval Academy, ROTC, and OCS) undergo the same selection process. All three Naval Officer programs require applicants to attend SEAL Officer Assessment and Selection, known as SOAS, where they are assessed physically and mentally on the attributes desired in NSW officers. If you haven’t listened already, the previous episode goes into the lead up to SOAS. Today, we’ll dig deeper into SOAS itself with program manager, Andrew Dow.
DF: Well, first of all, welcome back. Thanks for joining us again…
AD: Thanks for having me. (DF: Yeah) This is good, and I think discussion more on SOAS, SEAL Officer Assessment Selection, what it actually is will be beneficial to aspiring SEAL officers to have an idea of what they need to do in order to get to BUD/S and then eventually become a SEAL officer.
DF: So, not everybody will maybe have listened to the previous episode talking about getting to this point. If you can give a quick summary about what SOAS is and what its goals are, we can kind of roll into it from there.
AD: So SOAS, SEAL Officer Assessment and Selection, is a two-week screening course for aspiring SEAL officers coming from all accession sources, whether it’s Naval Academy, it could be, any inner-service academy, NROTC, OCS, lateral transfers, those are commissioned officers already who want to find something else to do or aspire to be a SEAL but was unable to do it the first time. Like I said, it’s a two-week course that’s going to test you physically, mentally, it’s going to test your behavioral skills, it’s going to test how you are as a leader, how your teamwork is, working with others.
DF: I was going to ask, (AD: Yeah) where is the school? Is it here in San Diego?
AD: Yes, yes. So, SOAS is conducted, um at NAB Coronado in San Diego, California, right where BUD/S is conducted. It’s run similar to a BUD/S environment except that there aren’t instructors. It’s an assessment, so they’re assessors. And their job is to watch each candidate, specifically how they react under stress. What are they doing? Are they being a leader, are they being vocal, or are they being that term I used in the last episode, a gray man? Being a SEAL officer, you cannot be a gray man.
DF: It’s the opposite of that.
AD: Exactly, you need to be vocal. I’m not saying to cheerleader, but you need to be vocal, and you need to have the respect and earn the trust of the men and women that will be following you.
DF: In a nutshell, what do you think is kind of core to this process? What is SOAS looking for in these people?
AD: Overall SOAS is looking for the, it’s, it’s approaching the whole man concept, right. We want someone who’s physically strong, the mental fortitude, the intelligence, being selfless and being that team player. We’re not looking at officer candidates that will be successful through BUD/S and SQT. We’re looking at officers who will be successful in the Navy and in the teams. Just remember, SOAS is, it’s not BUD/S. It’s going to be hard, it’s, but it’s an evaluation. It’s an interview. You’re being assessed in order to earn that spot at BUD/S.
DF: How long has this process been a part of SEAL officer selection and training? Is this a new thing? Has this been going on since the beginning, or can you touch on that?
AD: This is very relatively new program that was developed to screen officer candidates to go to BUD/S. Something we saw early on was that we were getting lots of officer candidates, but they were just not fitting the mold of what Naval Special Warfare was looking for specifically. In 2014 was the first pilot program of SOAS. Since then, it has grown and had molded into a screening process for aspiring SEAL officers from all accession sources, and it’s to challenge them. It’s to look at it as, “This is your interview to become a SEAL, to have an opportunity to become a SEAL officer to get to BUD/S.”
DF: So, a more high-pressure kind of assessment really?
AD: Exactly, yes.
DF: Okay, how many people are coming into these classes, or is it not in a class kind of framework? Can you talk about that a little bit?
AD: Sure, so, SOAS, like I said, it’s two weeks, it happens during the summer. They’re broken down into blocks. So, we have four blocks each year going from May, June, July and August. Each one of these blocks are filled with candidates from all accession sources, and then we try to balance it so that there’s the same amount because we need a certain ratio for assessors to the candidates. (DF: Ok)
Each SOAS block is two weeks long, as I said. First block is assessment week. This is where each candidate will be tested on an individual level and on a team level, both physically, mentally. They’re going to go through challenges, group problem scenarios. They’re going to be exposed to stressful events that they’ve never experienced before to see how they would react. Everything they are doing is being documented because at the end, they receive a score that will move on to the selection panel in September to determine who will go to BUD/S. During this first week, there will be instruct, assessor and peer evaluations. The assessors will come together and evaluate, “Candidate X did poorly in these events, but he excelled in his leadership and his vocal skills.” “Candidate Y was a rock star physically, but he is very quiet, and he is not vocal to where his men or women are following him during the evolutions.” They are also doing peer evaluations where the candidates are rating each other on how well they’re performing, and this is happening side by side from all accession sources. So, you’re having Naval Academy guys evaluate ROTC and vice versa or evaluating OCS. So, this is, it’s a very interesting mix of bringing all these accession sources together. One, they’re all battling for certain spots, they’re all selected separately, so they’re each their own cohort, but they’re all working together for a common goal, you know, to earn opportunity to BUD/S.
They’ll be tested academically. They’ll have writing assignments on certain topics that they have to complete during assessment week when they’re getting minimal sleep. They’re tired, they’re cold, they’re wet, they’re sandy, very similar to what they may face in BUD/S, but it’s in an environment where everything is being written down. It’s not, “If you quit, you’re gone.”
Um, so SOAS week one assessment week, you know, you have all the accession sources, and they’re being assessed by assessors. They are going to be faced with problem solving, thinking outside the box scenarios. They’re going to be faced with some evolutions that they will see at BUD/S, for example, log PT, which is known at BUD/S as being very challenging. They’re going to be faced with that at SOAS. They’re going to get exposure to boats on heads, which is very known at BUD/S, probably the hardest thing you’ll be faced with at BUD/S. Doing surf passage, they will do long distance running on soft sand, they will do surf emersion, which is one of the leading things that causes both enlisted and officers to quit because, one, it’s physically stressful, the cold water immersion. Two, it mentally (DF: Right) makes you not want to be there cause the Pacific Ocean gets pretty cold.
DF: What percentage of people are failing or quote “dropping out” during this, (AD: SOAS?) yeah, during SOAS?
AD: Okay, so, on average, we’re looking at probably between four and seven drop on requests, DORs, at SOAS per block.
DF: And, and what’s the approximate number of people in the block?
AD: During the summer of SOAS, there’s four blocks. In total, we have about 165 candidates, ranging from the Naval Academy, OCS, ROTC, inner-service. There’s about 165 candidates. By the end, what the selection panel will look at in September is roughly 120 applicants. So, to give you that, it’s about 45 individuals who will either drop on request, DOR, will medically drop, some things they just can’t control, they get injured, and they’ll have another shot if it wasn’t their second time, or they’ll get performance dropped. At the end of assessment week, week one, all the assessors come together and look at the scores of the current block of candidates. The bottom 10% will get performance dropped.
DF: Is there additional selection, or is that who we’re left with to go to BUD/S?
AD: No, so, let’s just do an example. SOAS block zero starts with 50 candidates. At the end of block zero, week one assessment week, they finish with about 35 candidates, right, so that number that either dropped on request, medically dropped or performance dropped, they no longer are in the hunt for a BUD/S billet. The remaining 35 would move onto the second week, which is interview and orientation week.
So, SOAS week two, which follows assessment week, is a week long of interviews with an O3 in the Navy, which is a lieutenant, or an E7 or above, which is an enlisted, senior enlisted chief petty officer or higher, who will sit down with you for 90 minutes and conduct a one-on-one interview. It’s very similar to applying for a job. They’re going to ask you questions relative to the job of being a Navy SEAL officer and see where you, where you go with it, how you will answer certain questions. They want to see, they want to know about you facing failures, how you reacted. They want to know that you failed and how you reacted to it and overcame it or how you adjusted it so you wouldn’t fail again. They’re going to ask some really tough questions to you that you need to answer honestly because you need to be honest with yourself, plus they can tell if you’re not being honest.
DF: So, in that assessment process, that’s kind of more one-on-one, which seems more intense. Obviously, they’re going to be looking at your resume, looking at these candidates’ previous history. Are there selections made from that, or are there cuts made from that? How does that process work?
AD: So, everyone who makes it to interview week, the second week of a SOAS block, their entire SOAS score, interview will move on to the selection panel in September (DF: Okay). So, block zero finishes, then they move into block one. Once they finish, they move to block two. All these individuals that made it through SOAS are just standing by for the September board because at the end, they take all the candidates that made it through SOAS, each of their blocks, they put them in front of the selection panel, which is about six members of high ranking SEAL officers, and they determine which of these candidates are we going to select to attend BUD/S.
DF: And how many people in that selection process are then allowed to pass on through BUD/S?
AD: Each year varies, but the magic number that they’re looking for usually from the Naval Academy is roughly a 30 to 35 midshipmen from the Naval Academy will get selected to go to BUD/S. ROTC ranges from 18 to 20 will be selected, and then OCS is, ranges from 15 to 20. It depends on the year. To give you a shot, so, okay, what is my chances as an OCS candidate of getting through everything and getting to BUD/S? It’s a very competitive, challenging (DF: Yeah, I was going to say that) number. I mean you’re starting with 100 applicants who submitted to try to get an invitation to SOAS. Of that 100, they’re only picking 55. [DF: It’s already narrowed down.] It’s already narrowed down 50%. From that 55, they’re going to go through the summer of SOAS. They’re going to narrow it down to 15 to 20. So, it is a heavy assessment process to narrow it down to which candidates for OCS specifically would go and attend BUD/S.
DF: As there should be, but that’s good to have, people have a realistic expectation of how challenging or competitive it’s going to be. (AD: Yeah) So, after the selection is made, and they’re, they’re put into a BUD/S class, the people that might not have made it into officer selection, what are their options?
AD: Alright, so OCS specifically, if an OCS candidate does not get selected to go to BUD/S, he has no obligation, so he can chose to go to the Navy, be a commissioned officer, go do something else and try to lateral transfer, but most individuals end up reapplying. SOAS allows each individual to apply twice, to attend SOAS twice, so you get two chances. In BUD/S, as an officer, you only get one chance, SOAS is different because it wants to see, “Okay, you didn’t perform well this go around. Work hard, train up, work on your weaknesses, come back ,give it another shot.
DF: So, speak to those people a little bit if that’s a common, somewhat common thing. How should that application process, or how should that application package look in comparison to their first? Are there certain areas that you want to see specific things?
AD: Absolutely, and, and what’s interesting is this one candidate I had, first time around, didn’t have much background, didn’t have much outreach or leadership opportunities in his background, in his application. Came to SOAS and performed on par, kind of below average, and he wasn’t selected. He applied the following year. His initial application to receive an invitation to SOAS was night and day difference. He went out, he joined, you know, some things as feeding the homeless. He went and did community outreach, with his church. He went and joined a club basketball team, just to get his application more desirable to the board. That carried weight because, one, the board saw, “Holy cow, this guy went from not doing anything to doing a bunch of things. Physically, his PST score was 100 points better than the year prior. Let’s see how he does at SOAS.” So he’s getting a…. (DF: He kept on working and that’s what you want to see.) He kept working, and that’s what we want to see, that resiliency to come back and, “Hey, you know, I didn’t make it the first time, but I’m not going to quit,”, right?
DF: Okay, and so then let’s say people that are not necessarily “off the street,” people that have come through from a military school, what are their options, or how are their commitments different in the other remaining tracks as well?
AD: Like I said in the beginning, everyone gets two shots at SOAS. So, specifically for ROTC and Naval Academy, if they don’t make it the first time, their only other option to attend SOAS a second time is they have to do a lateral transfer or inner-service transfer.
DF: Can you explain that a little bit?
AD: Sure. A lateral transfer is something that, it’s, it’s coming from a commissioned officer who has to do a current job. So, for example, a Naval Academy graduate goes to SOAS, doesn’t get it, he gets commissioned into the Navy, and he goes and becomes a surface warfare officer. In order for him to lateral transfer into SOAS and to get another attempt, he has to earn his warfare qualification pin, his SWO pin, surface warfare officer qualification pin. That can take anywhere from eight months to two years.
DF: So, I’m guessing you don’t see that very often.
AD: You don’t, but this past SOAS class that’s happening, this is the first year that we’re having lateral transfers attend SOAS, we are seeing multiple retreads, multiple individuals who’ve been to SOAS, went, didn’t get selected to BUD/S, earned their surface warfare qualification and now are attending SOAS a second time to give it another attempt to go to BUD/S. So, it’s a much more challenging road, and we don’t see it as often, but there is opportunities if you do not make the selection to go to BUD/S after SOAS to go do something else and then put in your paperwork to lateral transfer or inner-service transfer, which is say you went and did Army infantry, or you went and become a Marine officer. Do your time that you can, you let your chain of command know, “Hey, I want to become a SEAL officer,” (DF: Right, right) and then you do the paperwork to inner-service transfer, then you can attend SOAS, and from there, it’s just earning another spot at BUD/S.
DF: Are there people that you see that are kind of consistently doing something that you would like to say, “Hey, I have this opportunity to address this issue,” that you see a lot? I’m guessing in the application process is where you’d see most of that, but, um, are there any areas where you feel people are a little, not on the mark in terms of this process and getting through SOAS successfully?
AD: Physically. It’s the biggest one that we are seeing from candidates. They can have an awesome application, everything looks great, and the one thing that’s a red flag is their physical scores, (DF: Their PST scores, you mean?) their PST scores, cause once they come to SOAS, you know, the major thing you’re being tested is physically, and they just come here and sink. They just can’t cut it. So, we tell them, “Hey, you know, you have the right attitude, you have everything that we’re looking for, but physically, you’re just not making the cut, so you need to come back. You need to go back, train, work on your PST, work on your upper body,” give them kind of an out brief so they know what they need to work on and (DF: Right) have them reapply.
DF: Short of that, in any type of leadership capacity, do you see certain people being more successful or people from a certain background, um whether it’s sports or anything like that that’s kind of really an outlier, that’s like a, well, almost an indicator that this person is going to do well? Personality traits or anything like that?
AD: The biggest, the biggest thing we’ve seen that relates to success at SOAS and later on to BUD/S is people who’ve worked in team environments, whether you’re a project manager in charge or working cross functionally with other people, just having relationship with other people, whether you’re in charge of them, or you’re, you know, on the same level as them, um being able to work with people that you’ve never worked with before to achieve a goal. We want to see people who have that experience, whether it’s in the business world, whether you are on an athletic team as a team captain or just a player on the team, but you’re able to work with another individual, you know, working in that team environment.
DF: What is the environment like? Are these people kind of bunked up together? Is this more of a professional experience? Cause we mentioned stuff that kind of mimics a little bit of the BUD/S experience, which is really gritty and, and tough, and then almost like a classroom environment and problem solving skills. It seems like there’s a bit more of a full spectrum experience. What, can you talk a little bit about that to whatever detail you feel comfortable?
AD: Sure. So, every candidate during every block will receive the exact same format or, of SOAS. They’ll all fly in, they’ll get checked in, wherever they’re coming from, Naval Academy, ROTC, their school or from their current job. They’re taking some leave off to come attend SOAS. They all come, check in to NAB Coronado. They get their lodging provided. All accommodations are covered. You know, they’ll have warm meals every day, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everything’s provided, and they’ll all be put into living conditions where they stay together, you know, and, one, this builds that cohesion cause you’re getting, two people who’ve never spoken before from two separate accession sources, how are they supposed to get to know each other? You know, we put them in that social environment where they need to get to know each other because as soon as that Monday appears when the first day of assessment happens, they’re going to be under stress together, and they need to know how to work together.
DF: You spoke earlier about the people coming from military academies having a bit of an advantage or having higher success rate. I would imagine that in these environments, it gets very competitive, especially because these guys have been exposed to an environment like this before or maybe almost kind of even prescreened and dealing in a more strict environment before they even got here. Do you think that the candidates are well aware of that, like, that is their best competition or their top competition, or is that really not even known where these guys come from? Talk about that a little bit?
AD: We’ll say most of the candidates coming here don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. They don’t know what they’re getting themselves into…[DF: Which is probably a benefit for you guys.] It is a benefit, right? However, probably the biggest challenge we face is, you know, Naval Academy is exposed to something similar to this during their junior year of school, right. They have their, their BUD/S screeners or their SOAS screeners, where they actually compete to get a role to get invited to SOAS. So, another thing is these Naval Academy guys have seniors who’ve been to SOAS, so they, the Naval Academy has an idea of what’s going to happen. Granted, the evolutions change, the names change, the order changes, but [DF: there’s more information] there’s more information out there than we wish to have out there, but they know what the gist of what’s going to happen. And this is great that they, I mean it’s not good that they pass it along, but it’s a good because it will build that relationship with the other accession sources. You have a guy coming from being a program manager from a, you know, a technology company who now wants to be a SEAL, has no idea about anything from the military, and he gets bunked up with a Naval Academy guy. He’s going to get to know firsthand, “Okay, what should I expect? What am I getting myself into?” and have a better grasp of, instead of that initial shock. They’ll at least be able to understand, “Hey, you know, you need to put out. You need to be vocal. You need to work as a team to get through this SOAS first assessment.”
DF: It seems like that cross-pollination, if you will, is really beneficial to assessment in particular.
AD: Yes, yeah, absolutely, you know, our goal with this is not to share the secret sauce of what it is. We want candidates to come here not knowing what they’re getting themselves into because we want to see how they react. We want to see how they’re going to perform under stress in things they’ve never done before, and, you know, see them fail and see them excel. This is the beginning phase of them getting to BUD/S, and we want to see what they’re capable of.
DF: If you had the ear to somebody who was prepared and likely a good candidate for this process, what would you tell them? Maybe if it was a friend or somebody that happened to, I’m sure you talk to people all the time and give them this kind of specific advice, (AD: Yeah) but candidly, I’m sure you’re giving the same words of wisdom or general guidance to a big group of people, but what would you reiterate that you say is consistent that you’re telling these guys that they’re maybe missing the mark or something that they should really try to do better?
AD: The big thing is you need to be vocal. You need to be able to speak to people you’ve never spoken to before because at SOAS, you’re going to be put in boat crews. You’re going to be a boat crew leader. You’re going to have an opportunity to lead six to seven people. You’re in charge of them. So, you need to be able to give them task and purpose, “Hey, this is what we’re doing right now. This is what we need to do. Let’s get it done.” You know, you need to be prepared and practice at that prior to coming to (DF: Right) SOAS. If you come here and don’t do that, that’s going to, it’s going to hurt your overall score at SOAS. So, they want to see that, this is leadership traits that SOAS is trying to get out of you. (DF: Right) Aside from, “Hey, you’d better be physically ready. You’d better be, have some experience being in water,” because you’re going to be exposed to cold water, surf, sand and everything, so other than the obvious things, of hey be in good shape, hey (DF: Check the boxes, right)…All the checks in the boxes, the things we’re really looking for is, “Hey, you know, have that leadership experience. Give us examples and utilize your failures and your successes in real life and incorporate it into SOAS.”
DF: Does the experience of being on these boat crews as a leader represent accurately what they’re going to be exposed to in BUD/S as SEAL officers?
DF: Is that experience different for them going through BUD/S as an officer in that way?
AD: When you’re the boat crew leader at SOAS, the guys under the boat with you are almost serving as the enlisted guys, right. At BUD/S, you know, there will be one to two officers under the boat. One will be the boat crew leader. The remaining guys are the enlisted guys, and you are driving that boat, not just physically, but, you know, with the motivation, with the drive. With the motivation, you are trying to get your boat crew to perform at max effort to beat out the competition. This is exactly what SOAS is doing so they know what, okay, this is what’s going to happen when they get to BUD/S. You know, you’re going to be the guy in charge. This is your trial run, but you’re being graded on it.
DF: Right, right. So, how else do you think that SOAS specifically preps officers for BUD/S, not just as a way for NSW to get a better picture of the candidates and likely pick people that will be successful officers down the line, but what other ways does BUD/S differ as a SEAL officer versus an enlisted person?
AD: I think SOAS is a great program to get future officers that aspire to become SEAL officers that exposure that shows them what they’re going to be getting themselves into at BUD/S. It’s a great firsthand experience for them to see, “Okay, this is similar to what I’ll see at BUD/S, but when I get to BUD/S, it’s do or die. If I don’t perform well at BUD/S, I’m gone, and that’s my only shot.” As an officer, you only get one shot (DF: Right) at BUD/S, while at SOAS, like I said, some of these OCS candidates or ROTC don’t have military exposure like the Naval Academy. So, having them get under a boat or get under a log for the first time at SOAS is, it’s giving them a peak behind the curtain of what they’ll be seeing at BUD/S, and it will give them, “Hey, okay, I didn’t perform well under a log vocally or physically. I know I need to practice and get better if I am selected to go to BUD/S.”
DF: Okay. Is any part of this SOAS selection and assessment process doing anything to filter or get information for NSW about potential specialties later on after someone maybe is a successful candidate and becomes a SEAL officer? Are there any additional kind of options or pathways or specialties that SEAL officers have as options, or is there any other aspect of the future part of the officer that’s touched on or at least indicated here that people have any exposure to? (AD: No.)I don’t know if there’s any, I don’t know if there’s any other, if there’s a SEAL officer, are there any other nuances, variations...
AD: It’s such a minimal, it’s such a minimal thing. Honestly, there is, I mean you’re, I don’t want to say it’s like Big Army, where it’s like, okay, it’s a factory type of rolling through, but I mean officers have a, a growth route, a progression route that they have to take. They do an AOIC, they do a disassociated tour attached to the Naval Special Warfare supporting somewhere else, and they do their platoon commander. Post that, it’s all the same.
DF: They are a role. They are this role…
AD: They are, they’re the role. They’re an ops o, they’re an executive officer, they’re a commander, they work for joint operations, task force or something, those types of roles. Honestly, there’s, officers don’t specialize.
DF: Okay, well, then maybe if you could talk a little bit about officer life, um, from a personal perspective because we haven’t had that voice on the podcast yet. How would you describe your life experience being different than enlisted SEALs?
AD: I was fortunate enough to, you know, go to the Naval Academy and learn a lot about leadership both, you know, through education and personal experiences playing lacrosse at Navy, and I was able to bring that into BUD/S and bring that into the teams, and I was very fortunate to, to have the opportunity to work with unbelievable individuals, working all together as a team, the friendships I made and the opportunities that we were given and the hardships and challenges we were faced with and being able to, one, successfully get through it and, two, be able to pass along the lessons we learned from those experiences down to, you know, aspiring SEAL candidates.
DF: Um, I just was kind of wondering maybe your takeaways professionally and personally in that role and how they may be a little unique than, than an enlisted person’s takeaways.
AD: So, looking back at my career as an officer, I believe that if SOAS was around then, it would have prepared me better to do BUD/S, to, you know, prepare me mentally for what I was going to be exposed to. When I was at BUD/S, yeah, there was challenges. I was faced with hardships. I was faced with moments of, “Man, I can’t go on,” and then having my enlisted brethren tell me, “Hey, we can get it.” Everyone’s on highs, everyone’s on lows at different times. It’s so important to have, when you’re on your low, having your buddy who’s at a high to get you back up at that level. Those experiences, you know, I, I faced were challenging, but I mean it helped me grow as a person, and, you know, to tie it back to SOAS specifically, if SOAS was there, it would’ve gave me that first look of something I would be exposed to and the challenges that I may face, give me answers of how I should actually approach the problem sets that I faced in BUD/S while I faced at SOAS…If that, if that makes sense.
DF: Right, right. No, that does make sense. I think hearing from you, we hear a lot about teamwork throughout NSW, and it’s interesting to hear from the leadership perspective the unique increase in amount of training and scrutiny that goes into the leaders of these leaders. So, I think that the more detail that we have about people successfully getting through the process, the better, so....Thank you so much, it’s been really intriguing and interesting to hear about how the Navy grows leaders of leaders. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.
AD: Of course, thank you very much for having me.
DF: Find out more at sealswcc.com and join us again for the next NSW Podcast.
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