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
Comfort, speed, and efficiency in the water are all hallmarks of a successful NSW recruit. Aquatics expert Dan Kish talks with us about developing confidence in the water. For more information visit www.sealswcc.com.
“Get your heads up and get your eyes open. Stop trying to hide from the pain.”
“Heads up; eyes open.”
DF: Welcome to, “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday,” the official Navy SEAL podcast.
DF: Comfort, speed, and efficiency in the water are all hallmarks of a successful NSW recruit. Today at NSW Preparatory School we continue our discussion with aquatics expert, Dan Kish, to speak specifically about safely developing confidence in the water.
DF: This will be a popular episode because there are so many people that are not comfortable in the water and even before that flat out can’t swim or have had very little exposure to the types of swimming that you’re talking about. For people who are in that camp, what is your recommendation for them in terms of kind of introducing water sports initially into their training regimen? Do you recommend people kind of start with the real basics like modified freestyle just to kind of learning to at least kind of start the crawl, walk, run kind of part of this swim process? I can’t help but think that there’s going to be a lot of people that tune into this episode to learn like, “Hey, I’m a bad, I know I’m a bad swimmer,” or, “I think I’m a bad swimmer. Where do I even start? This combat sidestroke, I can barely even get in the water without feeling like I’m going to drown, you know what I mean?
DK: That’s common. A lot of friends that joined, you know, higher military branches and very weak and deficient in the water, and they knew it, and they asked me like, “Hey, I know you can swim. Can you help me out here?” and I would drag them to the pool with me. Water polo is another great way to become comfortable and confident and with team building going on. It’s the most calories you’ll ever burn in a match or game, you know, one game of polo. There is no rest cause you’re treading no matter what you are doing. You’re in the pool. You are sprinting. And great ways to become, you know, a little bit more comfortable and confident. You don’t have to be the fastest swimmer. We just want you to have a good foundation or base that we can build on and make you, you know, get dialed in and tuned in to become much, you know, more efficient in the water, and it should be the last of your worries once you get out, you know, two mile swims in the bay, water rescues, pool comp, knot-tying should be flawless once you get out there I hope.
DF: So, you just mentioned a comfortable or confident base. Can you maybe give me your definition of that? It doesn’t have to be precise, but I’m sure people will, set that as a benchmark for where they want to get at a bare minimum. And so, kind of maybe give me a picture of what that means to you.
DK: It’s very easy to identify who is scared or uncomfortable in the water from day one. If you’re swimming with big eyes, panic mode, just trying to find the wall as fast as you can, that’s wrong. You know, slow things down. You should be able to swim, you know, longer distances. You don’t need to have a ton of speed, but your 500-yard times should hopefully be under that ten minute, you know, nine minute base to be good and comfortable in the water. If you’re over eleven, twelve minutes, you’re going to struggle significantly in the pool evolutions that take place here.
DF: So, that’s a pretty good number then. People can actually kind of have a metric for themself to say, you know, “Where I’m at in this spectrum in terms of comfortability.” Obviously, I think with the type of instruction you can provide in your other teammates, obviously people can get much better and much more comfortable, especially with additional exposure, but that’s a good place for them to start is that what you’re saying?
DK: Yes, get your, you know, 500-yard time down, you know, with the least number of strokes as well. So, be efficient and get your time down. We call that here golfing, where we want to take the lowest number of strokes while going the fastest time. We’ll play around with that a little bit. And we will always train half the time on our right side and half the time on our left side here at the prep school. Majority of us have a strong dominant side, and majority of us have a bad side, and we want to be good on both, and that helps play a role with being comfortable no matter, not always operationally speaking you can go swim down on your right side and swim back on the mission on your right side as well. Be good on both, and that’s the same with freestyle. You’ll always breathe half the time over your right shoulder, half the time over your left shoulder.
DF: Is that a testing requirement for the PST to be swimming half and half on each side?
DK: That is not a testing requirement here. When we train, we enforce it heavily. If you watch the Olympics, you’re like, “Oh, Michael Phelps only breathes over his right shoulder.” Correct. They race like that. They do not train like that. You will always train half the time on your good side, half time on your bad side or with breathing on a freestyle or combat sidestroke, so we do enforce that pretty strictly here, be good on both. And that will help any one side develop better as well.
DF: Let’s talk a little bit about buoyancy. It’s something that I really wasn’t even that aware of until maybe a few months ago when we started doing a little bit of reading and research about the PST in general. How can someone determine whether they’re negatively buoyant or positively buoyant, is that something that’s easy to determine, or is it just like, “I keep sinking to the bottom of the pool...” How do you determine that?
DK: So, that’s funny. We’re all humans. You know, we’re all pretty much the same. How come you’re buoyant, and I’m negative? It makes no sense. However, about 20% of the candidates that come through, you know, sink to the bottom.
DF: Is that a body composition thing?
DK: Body composition plays a low role. You see, you know, the bulkier muscle guys, but we still have some candidates that exhale all their air and are still bobbing at the service.
DF: Yeah, ‘cause I definitely sink if I let out the oxygen out of my lungs, so.
DK: Which is good. What I tell them is, “You need to learn how to control your body in the water.” Some of us are positive, some of us are negative. Both have perks here at Naval Special Warfare Prep School. When we swim, we want to be at or even better on the surface, right, so we want to be positive in the water. You know, the less drag, you’ll increase speed. If you’re negative in the water, you’re going to be working a little bit harder. We want to get that body position at or on the surface. But if you’re negative, once we start working, the first time we do pool skills, one of the stations is floats, and your hands and feet will be together behind your back, and you need to do what it takes to control your body. You have to stay at the surface, you have to stay inside your six foot by six foot, you know, box, and you can’t just travel or swim all around. And for some of us, it’s the easiest thing you’ll ever do, right. You just be a bobber in the water, simple, hands and feet together. Other candidates that are negative, you’re going to be working a little bit harder. You know, get those little dolphin, shrimp kicks going, stay at the surface the entire time. So, yes, we’re all humans, why is it different? Some of us are positive, some of us are negative. Females float better than men, different demographics float better than others, everybody, everyone is different in the water. You need to learn how to control your body in the water.
DF: So, talk to me a little bit about that. Is that just a matter of keeping a certain amount of air in your lungs? You did mention something about, you know, kind of flutter kick or shrimp kick a little bit to kind of help keep yourself propelled towards the surface. Can you talk to me a little bit about that? Like what types of techniques maybe someone should investigate or kind of try out in the pool or in the ocean or wherever to kind of figure out what works for them. What’s the starting point for that?
DK: Yes, so here we have fresh water pools. In the ocean, different density makeups, it’s easier to float salt water than fresh water. So, if you’re positive in the water, you can almost get in a vertical position, straight up and down, which is quite difficult to do. You have to be very positive in the water. And then you’ll play with your lung capacity. Can you breathe and exhale and still stay at the surface or on the surface?
DF: So, you’re talking about really kind of staying like a pencil in the water, not moving your arms too much and just using your breathing to kind of determine at what level you start to, your mouth will start to sink under the water. Is that accurate?
DK: That would be someone who is extremely positive in the water, can float very easily.
DF: Just by kind of, just sticking their body vertically in the water, and their face will stay above water.
DK: Which is a small percent of candidates that come through. The majority of us, we want to get our body into a question mark shape almost, so your head will be down in the water, the buoyant parts of your body are obviously your lungs, your organs, your chest cavity is quite positive and buoyant in the water there. So, once you get your body in your question mark shape, so your hands will be together behind your back, your feet will be together, bring your knees up to your chest, and they’ll float at the surface. And then when you do need a breath, work your legs, kick your head up, get that quick breath in, and get right back down, head down into that question mark shape that your whole body should be in. This is the majority of our candidates that we see during our floats. So, during, we started doing some pool skills and drown proofing tests, you have to float for three minutes. So, stay inside your six foot by six foot box staying at the surface for those entire three minutes.
DF: It seems like you’re saying the majority of people are negative, it’s either negative buoyant or buoyant. Is that correct terminology?
DK: From the second half of the spectrum I would say a little bit more negative in the water. When you come, your feet will be tied together here. So, you need to learn how to control small dolphin kicks or working, you know, with the lower half of your body there to keep yourself at the surface and then work those into your breaths, so get a good rhythm, kick your head up for a breath, kick your head right back down, try and stay in that question mark shape. But we will work with you here. We have five aquatic coaches here to help you, make you more comfortable and confident in the water.
DF: I’m just going to interrupt real quick cause I think that’s a really key point, comfortable and confident in the water. Being exposed to water, underwater is a really fast way to make you uncomfortable, and developing the techniques and skills to give you the confidence to know that you’ll be able to get a breath when you need one as opposed to when your body’s kind of wanting one is, I think is a pretty big key to even developing your skill and efficiency in the combat sidestroke. Being able to know that you can get the breath you need, and you don’t need to break from that mental focus and put your chest up and, “Give me a second to regroup.” I can’t think of any other way other than just exposure and time, practice to really accelerate that unless you have any tips that you can add to that.
DK: Absolutely. The first three letters in SEAL spell sea, right. You’re going to be in the water. That should be the least of your worries if you have a mission, operationally speaking, if you’re in the water for that long, about your swimming abilities or how comfortable and confident you are. We are humans. We’re not designed for the water at all. We walk upright, we have a curved spine, we need air. We do not belong in the water. I think we’re one of the few mammals at birth that cannot swim. Spend time in the water to become comfortable and confident. It does not happen overnight. The golden rule we have here is every day you’re out of the water, it takes about two days to get back where you were, so if you have, you know, a long weekend, or you’ve been out of the pool for a week, it’s going to feel like you’re swimming in mud and all sluggish because you naturally will lose that feel for the water. We need to spend time in the pool, you know, find pools. You don’t have to swim lots. Back in the day, we used to swim, you know, up to 100,000 meters a day, just spend time…
DF: You mean individually, an individual would swim 100,000 meters in one day?
DK: That’s common during peak training, training trips, training times, but here at prep, we swim about 2 to 4,000 meters a day, which we want some quality training with also some treading, some pool skills taking place, water rescues, whatever else we do. So, here at prep, we swim about 2 to 4,000 meters a day to help us from, you know, kicking, swimming, pacing, long distance swims, short sprints. We kind of do a mixed bag with all the strokes almost every day here.
DF: Let’s talk a little bit about mobility. There’s obviously huge focus on strength and coming into this pipeline, you know. These guys have to do X number of pull-ups and pushups. Guys have been asking each other how much they can bench since they were teenagers, right. Not everybody has the type of genetics that you are gifted with, the type of swimmer body that you would see versus, you know, an Olympic weightlifter or fill in a blank for any other sport, right. That seems like it would be a little bit of an issue for some people, whether it’s the shoulders and their ability to reach and kind of cause a little bit of that stuttered stroke and stuff like that. Do you work on mobility here, or do you recommend the guys and athletes that are kind of coming into this process work on mobility? Any specific exercises for that, that you recommend?
DK: We all love those big, bulky mirror muscles. Those are not going to assist you in the pool. We want to have, you know, the longest range of motion possible, increase, you know, your shoulder mobility, make you more efficient in the water and just to help with injury prevention as well. So, stay away from bulky muscles. We want to be flexible, so we will do some stretching here, increase your range of motion, shoulder mobility. If I see some candidates that are really bad in the water, I will pull them aside and show them some extra stretches they can do to help them, help them out. There’s been a couple times, as groups, we’ll do, a class stretch. With the swimming background, I do, a majority of all the shoulder mobility, increase that range of motion, but there are some partner stretches, you know, grabbing your hands behind your back should be taking place. If you’re bad at that, work with a towel little by little. Working on perfect streamline. A majority of our candidates can’t even do that, where, you know, everyone can show me a streamline, but is your wrist over wrist, are you squeezing your ears with your biceps, are you as long as possible in the water? And it’s just unnatural to be in the water keeping your arms above you for that long that I think candidates really don’t expect, and it will help you out in the long run, you know, be more efficient and hopefully prevent some injuries as well.
DF: After speaking with people involved with kind of the strength and conditioning out of water portion of building up for this, there’s a big emphasis on the parts of the body that people aren’t working on in the gym, you know what I mean, the upper back and the shoulders specifically I think are, got to be a common weak point for people, not necessarily in strength but in mobility and being able to get a really, really long stroke, you need to be able to get your hands straight over shoulders, and you see nobody off the street can do those types of movements to be able to make their body that long. Do you think that’s representative of what you see in the pool?
DK: It is common. Hopefully, it will go away over time. Once we do start swimming, you’re going to start getting used to having your arms out in front of you for long periods of time, whether we’re doing some, you know, kicking drills in the streamlined position, whether we’re just swimming some long-distance freestyle sets, where we kind of over-exaggerate, you know, front quadrant swimming. You’re always keeping one hand out in front of your body, you know, the most efficient ways to swim freestyle, and that should start going away over time, but hopefully you can come with a good range of motion in your shoulders. We’re not going to overstress your shoulders too much in the pool. A lot of us swimmers have been doing it for many years, we’ll start having some shoulder injuries more common in the pool. Ankle flexibility is also a huge one that gets overlooked in the pool. A lot of our candidates kick like they are wearing boots, and they have no boots on.
DF: So, you’re saying keeping their foot at like a 90-degree angle?
DK: Correct, which is not what we want to do here. You should not have to think about pointing your toes while kicking, but ankle flexibility plays a big role in the water. We will slowly increase the amount of meters we do with fins on starting off with no fins and then slowly working our way up to, you know, 4, 5,000 meters with fins on, but if you have poor ankle flexibility, there’s some other stretches you can use, you know, such as writing the alphabet, sitting on your feet while you’re watching TV or whatever it is but other, natural abilities to get kind of overlooked in the pool there.
DF: So, you mentioned fins, what’s your take on the fin issue in terms of for prep and training, how do you recommend people incorporate, if at all, fins and masks and goggles and caps or whatever it is into their training process developing for PST tests?
DK: So, almost every pool has some basic equipment. Luckily for swimming, you don’t need any. If you want some goggles or a mask, absolutely wear them. Take your mask off every now and then. Swim, you know, swim with your face in the water. Your gear will fail. Masks will break. Mission still needs to be carried on. You shouldn’t be freaking out if you have no mask. You can still swim; still carry out the mission. Fins, just wear some regular rubber surface fins. You don’t need to have 10-foot-long dive fins, some ridiculous things on your feet that are, you know, stiff as a board. Just basic surface fins or Zoomers, which are those little bit shorter looking fins. Help you out just condition your legs a little bit more. Kickboards are almost found at every single pool as well. We do use those here at prep as well, you know, condition your legs. If you can condition, you know, the biggest muscle groups of your body, the rest of your body will be good to go as well, so we will focus a lot on kicking. It’s also the quickest way to get in shape as well, kicking with the board, without a board, you know, in streamline position, on your side. We will do a lot of other drills, you know, with some equipment on, some equipment off, so be comfortable all strokes with, without equipment. You should be good in the water no matter what. If you’re wearing pants, if you’re wearing a shirt, just a suit, all have different feels for the water, which you should be able to, execute with no problem.
DF: What kind of things that are a little bit unconventional do you think are helpful that you would recommend that are safe for people to develop their skills and their capabilities and their comfort level?
DK: One great thing about swimming, there’s infinite amount of drills you can do to help you out, become more, you know, comfortable in the water, are just bite-sized pieces of the stroke. So, you can start swimming, you know, with just one arm or just, you know, one leg out of the water. We’ll do some goofy, you know, body balance drills like that. Always swim with a lifeguard, with a buddy. You don’t need to do underwater swims. You do not need to do, you know, anything crazy outside of here, you know, at a pool, just do some basic lap swims, different intervals, different distances. You know, join your high school team, polo team. Treading is a big one. I think it’s overlooked.
DF: You mean in terms of people not practicing that?
DK: Correct. Coming here with no base on how to tread in the water, so staying stationary at the surface with your head dry, and we’ll do this for extended periods of time. Our hands out of the water, with, you know, one hand out, two hands out in the streamline position, and you need to learn how to control your body in the water. So, come with a good base of tread, whether it’s the eggbeater kick, which you see the most efficient way to tread, or with a breaststroke or a scissor kick to help you out keep your head above the surface there.
DF: You talked a little bit about, “no need to underwater swim…” How is the PST, administered in terms of starting off your swim? Are you allowed to go underwater and push off the side of the pool and go as far as you can underwater? Are you able to kick off and do that on every lap? What are the, kind of, standards for that?
DK: So, once we start doing underwater swims here, we have a one-to-one safety ratio. So one candidate per one staff member, you know, with fins, snorkel, rescue tube in case something happens in the higher risk training evolutions. However, once we start doing our swims in the water, every time you push off the water without fins on, you should be executing at least one underwater breaststroke pull-out, which is the most efficient way to swim underwater. Not the fastest way but the most efficient way to swim under water. So, push off in that tight streamline position, so we have wrist over wrist. You’re squeezing your ears with your biceps, you know, powerful push off the wall, you know, as tight and streamlined as far as you can. Then when you start slowing down, your hands will separate, start anchoring, you know, your arms, push that water past your chest, past your hips, past your feet, long glide, and then sneak your hands back out front while executing a breaststroke kick. Underwater swimming is the single greatest thing you can almost do to become better in the water because you’re building up your lung capacity, you learn how to catch and move through the water and obviously how to be streamlined as possible in the water. So, it’s a great thing. We do not allow our candidates to swim underwater, though, without us there, so there’s a fine line with the safety issue, but off every wall, execute one underwater breaststroke pull out. Try and travel about 15 meters off the wall.
DF: You mean in total before initiating a stroke or...?
DK: Correct, which is, in the competitive world, that is how far you are allowed to go off every single wall, so try and use that, you know, be comfortable with pushing off in the streamline position, executing one underwater breaststroke pullout, and try and travel as far as you can. And you should be relaxed while doing this efficient way to swim under water. You should not be having a higher heart rate, freak out mode, which we see when candidates start doing, you know, our underwater swims. Sometimes you see people, with big eyes, start breathing too heavily, and that’s when stuff can go south very quick.
DF: How do you feel that open water swimming plays into the training process to get you to BUD/S?
DK: So, I strongly enforce that every candidate that leaves here can do the one mile in the bay, mile and a half, two-mile open water swims under those time standards of 90, 85, 80 minutes. They’re all physically able to do that. One thing that you cannot teach in a pool with a line telling you where to go with no waves, no marine life, no tides pushing you around is guiding and sighting. So, once we start doing some buddy swims where you’re partnered up with someone, you’ll always swim within six feet of each other at all times. So, guiding and sighting is one thing that’s difficult to teach in a pool, so every once in a while when you swim, work on picking your head up, looking down range, focus on, you know, a person walking by, a fixed object down far away, you know, mimicking a boat, a buoy, a bridge, an island, whatever’s out there, and then without stopping or pausing in the water and continue swimming. We will be swimming 4,000 meters, you know, a day, which is well over two miles in 90 minutes, so everyone is obviously able to pass that time standard here, but open water is a new realm, and Mother Nature can play a big role sometimes with what’s taking place there.
DF: Yeah, I guess there’s a big safety issue, too, if you lived by the beach, and you wanted to try to get out in open water and that’s where you’re going to practice your strokes. I’m going to have to guess that’s not something you recommend in terms of trying to increase your fitness level generally unless you’re really an expert swimmer, and even so, I don’t think that that’s really worth the risk.
DK: Unnecessary. Find a pool with a lifeguard, make sure you have some swim buddies around, you know, go work out or train with people, similar in speed or age, and try to push each other that way. You don’t need to find open water. Here at Great Lakes, we have Lake Michigan in our backyard. We are only in there, you know, a handful of times a year due to the amount of safety equipment, staff, everything that takes place in order to swim outdoors, and the limited window, which we have here in Lake Michigan is quite small, and that’s if the weather cooperates with us on those days. So, there is a lot of safety aspects takes place to swim open water, but easily find a pool, get your workouts in there, and, you know, try and do, you know, 3,000 meters, which is two miles, hopefully under the 90-minute mark. Spend as much time in the water as you can, and come to prep with a good base or foundation that we can build on.
DF: Well, Dan, thank you so much. Where can people find out more about any other details they might want to about this topic?
DK: So you can go to SEALSWCC.com, wonderful illustrations, pictures and descriptions about what to expect here at Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School.
DF: Great, Dan. Thank you so much for your time and all the great information.
DK: Any time.
Music Continues and end.
Naval Special Warfare is always looking for hard-charging, motivated applicants, including Sailors already serving in the Fleet. We talked with a SEAL Officer whose job is to pick the best applicants from the "Big Navy" for a career in NSW. For more information visit www.sealswcc.com
The only easy day was yesterday...
DF: Welcome to, “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday,” the official Navy SEAL podcast.
DF: Naval Special Warfare is always looking for hard-charging, motivated applicants from all communities. However, specific attention is paid to existing Navy sailors wanting to convert from a career-path in the “Big Navy” to one in Naval Special Warfare. I’m Daniel Fletcher. Today I speak with the Special Operations Enlisted Community Manager, a SEAL Officer, to find out more about the conversion process.
DF: First, thank you for taking the time to sit down with us. I know you’re a busy person. You have an important job; you have a lot of stuff going on. I think the information that you’ll be able to give us will be really valuable to people coming through the pipeline, so thank you first and foremost. Tell us a little bit about your roles and responsibilities, kind of your baseline areas of focus.
ECM: I’m a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy. I’m an 1130 Designator, that’s a SEAL Special Warfare Officer. I’m currently the NSW Enlisted Community Manager. This is typically like on O4, O5 SEAL assigned to the Bureau of Personnel. We advise the Commander at NPC and staff on SEAL enlisted personnel matters, so anything from policies to planning, to trying to develop incentives to keep people in the Navy or join the Navy.
DF: Correct me if I’m wrong here, you’re kind of a strategic piece in keeping the right numbers and types of personnel coming into the pipeline to keep mission capabilities where they need to be?
ECM: Numbers is certainly a big part of it. We also focus on the quality and putting everything together, whether it’s the recruiting mission, the training at the Naval Special Warfare Center. We don’t necessarily oversee that, but we’re definitely influential (DF: A big part of it) in all the decisions.
DF: One of the main reasons why we’re here is to talk about the specific selection and the draft process. Just to give people an idea of some of the stuff that might be a little intangible that kind of contributes to whether they make it through or not, maybe if you could speak to that a little bit and give us a little bit of your insight of some of the things that might be a little bit overlooked in terms of what you’re looking for in these candidates.
ECM: We use what we call the whole person approach, so we look at the candidate completely. Everything that we know about the candidate, everything that’s put into the package, we assess, and no one single factor is going to disqualify that person. We take what we’re seeing of the candidate, and we compare it to what our needs are. We have certain needs with year groups to correct inventory shortfalls… (DF: When you say inventory, sorry to cut you off, you’re talking about personnel?) Right, absolutely. So, when we’re short on year, whether that’s not enough people made it through BUD/S or the SWCC schoolhouse, we’ll look to make up those shortfalls by bringing people that are already in the Navy, fleet sailors.
DF: Are there any areas of the process that you think candidates might overlook as being more important than they might realize in terms of this whole person approach?
ECM: No, I think a lot of stuff that make people a good sailor out of the Navy is the same things we’re looking for them to make good SEALs, and that’s things like being a good team player, being a leader within their organization and sustained superior performance. And we use the standard Navy assessments to, to evaluate that, so things like their evaluation reports that they get from their commands and the people they’re working for out in the Navy. We value what they do to make themselves a better team player at that command, so any qualifications that they can earn out in the Navy, that all contributes to the way we evaluate them.
DF: Is there a certain ratio that you see that is kind of consistent in terms of people you’re pulling in from Big Navy versus people off the street?
ECM: No, I’d say the success rate, or attrition rate, is pretty consistent, whether they’re coming off the street, a street session, or somebody that we’ve brought in that’s already in the Navy.
DF: Do one or the other in particular have an advantage do you think? It seems like maybe the people coming from the Navy side might have a bit more of a paper trail that you guys could reference and weed out a little bit more. Is that the case?
ECM: I wouldn’t say anyone has an advantage. That’s going to come down to what that person has on the inside; the personal commitment that they’ve made to complete training. That’s unique for everyone, so those attrition rates are pretty consistent.
DF: Our core audience is the recruit. I would love to find out a lot of details about your individual job in terms of responsibilities... and day-to-day stuff that you do. I think it’s really fascinating. From your perspective, what can a SEAL/SWCC candidate do to best prepare themself for this selection process in your mind?
ECM: Number one is be a sailor in good standing, right, so excel where you’re at in the fleet, in the job that’s assigned to you and all the tasks that are given to you by whoever you’re working for in the Navy. That’s first and foremost. We don’t want folks who’ve been in trouble or problematic. We need to have trust that they’re going to, you know, be able to succeed in environments where a lot’s expected out of them.
DF: Are there areas where you feel like candidates are over-focusing on certain aspects of the process or certain numbers they’re trying to hit or any of that? You find that to be the case at all? People maybe have the wrong impression of the selection process?
ECM: So, another big part of what we’re looking for candidates is physical fitness, and we measure that through the PST. I think there’s probably a lot of people that narrow their focus down to the PST and the numbers they’re generating and their PST score, and while that’s very important, like I said earlier, we use the whole person approach. Strong character, strong mindset is very valuable to a candidate. I used to tell people that it was about making it through BUD/S is about 80% mental and about 30% physical. I know that math doesn’t initially add up, but it basically means it’s going to take more than what you got. You got to find a place somewhere inside you to find that extra 10% and then give it, right. I’m a firm believer that BUD/S is mostly mental. It’s going to come down to having that mental strength and that mental discipline to get up every day and go to work and go train in austere conditions, in an environment that is pretty hostile to you, every single day, and you got to find that motivation to get up and go do that.
DF: We’ve talked on that basically with everyone we’ve spoken with, about the importance of the mental aspect here, so I think it’s great to hear that again. I think another thing that I’ll try to highlight, you can correct me if I’m wrong, is that you’re looking for people that are leaders and that are also great teammates, and that’s not something that’s really measured in a really clinical sense. There’s no PST for teamwork that I’m aware of. Is that something that’s done with relations to their superior officers?
ECM: Sure, so I think you’re right in saying that’s a little difficult to measure. A couple ways we measure that is through letters of recommendation from immediate supervisors. So you think most of the people that we’re targeting for our fleet conversion to SO and SB have less than six years of service and are an E5 or below.
DF: Is there any particular reason, just ‘cause their age, or is it a lot of reasons?
ECM: We target those guys because we don’t want to bring them into the community too senior. Right? So we don’t want a guy who’s kind of new to the teams and may have some Navy experience but not a lot of experience in the teams in a position where they’re leading troops, leading SEALs in a position where they don’t necessarily have the experience base to support that leadership role.
DF: I gotcha. So, is that something that you encourage actively to seek out letters of recommendation, or is that kind of a more organic process you kind of wait for that to happen?
ECM: It’s something that’s encouraged to be included in their application for fleet conversion, so we’re looking for letter of rec from LPOs, Chief Petty Officers, Senior Chief Petty Officers that are in that sailor’s chain of command that can kind of speak to what that person is doing on a daily basis for that command and where they’ve seen that sailor demonstrate leadership, initiative, all those characteristics that we’re looking for.
DF: Do you guys have a face-to-face interview process to validate any of that stuff, or are you guys going off paper for most of that?
ECM: An option available to the sailors is engaging with the SEAL/SWCC scout team, and part of that process of putting their application together involves an interview with the scout team.
DF: That makes sense.
DF: How often are you doing this process, and maybe give us a little bit of an overview of what that looks like for you?
ECM: Quarterly, I hold a fleet conversion panel, and we take applications from fleet sailors looking to convert from whatever rate they are in or status they’re in if they’re undesignated to SO or SB, right. So, we have a need, specific year groups, to assess sailors in those year groups into SO and SB into the pipeline. We apply historical attrition rates to those numbers. General rule of thumb, it’s about five sailors to make one SEAL. So, this quarterly panel that occurs is, the voting members are SEAL and SWCC E7 and above who review the packages, applications, all the documents within, brief that sailor’s record to the group, and then we vote on that sailor whether or not we’re going to give them a shot going to BUD/S or SWCC.
DF: How many of you guys are sitting down to do this?
ECM: It’s anywhere between five and ten folks.
DF: Okay, and what are some of the first things that you look for that you’re kind of just, “This person’s in,” in terms of weeding out those application packages?
ECM: So, first and foremost, we’re looking at what the community’s need is. We advertise that need via the NPC, Naval Personnel Command website. We have a spot on there, and we’ll open up year groups to conversion based on our need. So, if we have a year group where a lot of qualified personnel, qualified SEALs or SWCC get out of the Navy unexpectedly, we may open that year group for conversion. So, that’s first and foremost. We’re looking at “What do we need as a community?” to bring folks in. Second, we’re looking at “Does this candidate meet all the minimum requirements?” Is this a complete package, right? So, are they within age limits? Are they within time and service limits? What’s their current pay grade? And as long as all the prescribed requirements as outlined in the MILPERSMAN 1220 tack 300 for SEAL, tack 400 for SWCC, are met, we consider that a valid application, right.
DF: So, you’re pushing people aside that are just, outright, they’re not able to be there for rules.
ECM: Right, if you can’t follow instructions, and you can’t, if you can’t go down a checklist and put an application together…I don’t want you to check my parachute, and I don’t want you to check my dive rig. You got to figure it out. So, that’s step one. Don’t let your career counselor do it for you. If they want to help, absolutely. That’s an asset to tap into, but it’s your responsibility. It’s your application; it’s your package. So, that’s step one, and those are the ones that go to the panel to be looked at, and then, you know, it’s a competitive process, and we want the best and the brightest that the Navy has to offer, so it’s not a free for all. We don’t take everybody within our need, and we start to look for red flags, and then we look for the quality of the candidate, right, so we’re looking at the PST score, not only the raw numbers of that PST, but we’re looking at how that PST compares to all the candidates we’ve selected in the last 12 months.
DF: And that’s in terms of trying to make sure you have a balanced force? Can you explain why you’re looking at those numbers compared to the stuff that’s kind of historically recent?
ECM: We look back at the last four quarterly panels, and we look at all the candidates that we selected, and we create essentially a distribution, a bell curve distribution, and we look at where this new applicant falls as far as standard deviations above or standard deviations below the mean PST score. Now, if you’re below, we all know a lower PST score is better, so if you’re below that means you’re a pretty good athlete, right. You’re running faster, you’re swimming faster, stronger. If you’re way above, you’re going to be a little bit weaker in that pack, and we know that the weaker you are physically, the more challenging it is for you to complete the course at BUD/S. So, if you have a high PST, meaning a bad PST score, your likelihood of success is probably lower than somebody who has…
DF: And you want people to make it through the process. This isn’t just for fun. When you talked briefly about kind of red flags, can you maybe give us some examples of those?
ECM: In dealing with the fleet sailors, we have a lot of folks who have been to BUD/S before, or have been in training before, so we ask that if you have been to BUD/S before, and you are now looking for a second chance at BUD/S that you have served your minimum 24 months in the fleet.
DF: You mean after your first BUD/S excursion?
ECM: Correct, right, right, so regardless of why you stopped training, whether it was your own choice, drop on request or an injury, removed from training, you go out into the fleet for a minimum of 24 months. We get a lot of folks who apply at the sixth month mark, twelve month mark looking to come right back. That’s not really our deal that we’re offering. We can’t say we made a good evaluation on your ability to correct whatever deficiency you had, whether you were immature, whether you were not physically fit enough or just didn’t have the mental game. Two years is the period of time we’re looking to make that assessment. We’re also requiring those students or those applicants to write a personal statement saying why they did not complete training the first time, and this is pretty important. We want to hear in your words, why they didn’t complete training. We’re not looking for a novel. We’re not looking for a chapter book on that; we’re just looking for one page, concise, to the point, but also pretty descriptive of why you didn’t complete training the first time and why you need a second shot. So, that’s one of those red flags we’re looking for, and anybody out there that’s not an author, an English major, we’re not grading your punctuation, we’re not grading your grammar; we’re looking for content, absolutely. Another thing we’re looking at is the evaluations that a sailor has. So whether they have never been to BUD/S before or had been to BUD/S before, we’re looking at the evaluations, and we’re looking at how well they’ve done. We’re looking for people to break out amongst their peer groups on a ship, so the way the Navy evaluation system works is there’s EPs, early promote, MP, must promote…
DF: When you say break out, you mean kind of people that are accelerated in their promotion process, or maybe you can explain.
ECM: Not necessarily promotion but doing well, doing everything that they’re asked and exceeding those expectations wherever they are out in the fleet. So, if they’re working on a ship, and they’re a group of 30 other E4s on the ship, you know, we want to see someone in the top seven of those 30. Not necessarily, you know, a disqualifying thing, right, so if you’re not an EP sailor, if you’re an MP sailor, we’ll still take a look at you cause we’re looking at the whole person approach, and there’s no one thing that’s going to disqualify anyone, but that certainly would help.
DF: My impression is that you follow the steps, there’s not much you can do to change who you are at a core. You’re looking for a specific type of person that’s capable, not necessarily someone who’s able to check these boxes.
ECM: Certainly, we look at letters of recommendation pretty equally, no matter who they’re from, whether it’s a Commander of a ship or the Senior Chief in a division on a ship or a Troop Chief from a SEAL team, or a CO from a SEAL team. We weight those equally.
DF: That makes a lot of sense. So, we have people that are applying to this process that are not rated, and they have a rating. Can you talk a little bit more about that? We briefly touched that earlier.
ECM: There’s probably some misconception from guys who do not pass at one of the training pipelines we have the first time, and they end up going to the fleet, by picking one rate over another or maybe remaining undesignated, they’re going to have an opportunity to return to training faster than someone else, right. So, to dispel some of those myths, 24 months is the minimum period of time that you need to spend in the fleet. You’re not getting around that. The second part of that is, is we want you to become valuable to the Navy in that 24 months. Whatever you see the best way for you to contribute to the Navy, we want to see you maximize that. For some people, that may be being undesignated and contributing to the Navy effort in that sense. In other people, it might be going out and finding a rate and completing an A school and contributing in a more qualified or technical sense. Whatever is right for the individual is going to work. Our goal is to really look at what have you done in the two years that you were in the Navy before you reapplied…and how you’ve done it and how successful you’ve been at it. ‘Cause, really, getting a rate is not for everyone, being undesignated is not for everyone. Everyone’s got their own unique skills and attributes, and we really want to see you maximize that for the Navy. We want to see you maximize those skills you have to become valuable for the Navy, and then we’re going to assess that and say, “This guy is a team player. This guy is making the most of assets he has,” and we like that.
DF: Yeah, I think that definitely rings as a smarter choice than trying to predict what would be a more successful choice for them. You have a lot of responsibility; a lot falls on your shoulders in terms of making the right choices. What’s the most difficult part of your job?
ECM: A big part of what we do in community management is planning for the future, planning for growth, planning for unexpected losses, planning for how individuals will interpret our policies or incentives. This is challenging because there are so many moving parts. We build session plans based on factors such as current requirements, what we have on hand as far as SEAL and SWCC qualified personnel and historical success rates. All these numbers change independent of each other, and sometimes in difficult to predict patterns. The human factor can sometimes be unpredictable.
DF: Yeah, exactly. Trying to predict where things are going to go is a unique challenge.
ECM: Yeah, all these different variables kind of contribute to what we set as a session in production targets. And honestly, there’s a lot of numbers that go behind it, but there’s a lot of variables that are hard to account for, and trying to predict how many guys are going to graduate each year, it can be pretty problematic.
DF: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point to bring home. What kind of advice can you give to someone who is putting an application for this process?
ECM: Sure, I’d say if you’re thinking about applying for a Special Warfare special program like SO or SB, the best thing you can do is put a complete package together with your best foot forward and get it submitted. So, there’s some misconceptions out there that there’s a lot of people that can stand in your way from putting in an application. I think that’s incorrect.
DF: What do you mean by stand in your way?
ECM: If you’re not getting a lot of support from your command that you’re at, certainly they can voice that opinion, but they can’t prevent you from applying for one of these programs. That goes the same for the community managers that I work with at BUPERS. All the communities have a need to fill sailors into jobs. Our need is pretty strong in the Navy’s opinion, and there’s very few cases where another community’s need outweighs our need. It does happen sometimes, and it’s always on a case-by-case basis. So, best thing you can do, as a sailor, is put your application together, make it the strongest application you can possibly make, whether that’s your letters of recommendation, your PST score, your evaluations, the qualifications you’re earning on the ship, and make sure it’s submitted. It will get to us. We will look at it. Based on our need and that sailor’s qualification, we’ll make our selections, and we’ll go to bat for you if we really want you, so put your best foot forward, get your application in, and we’ll take care of it with community managers and commands if we need to.
DF: Well, I think you dropped a lot of wisdom on us. It’s been super helpful to talk to you. I think your words go a lot of way to help people kind of make this transition and hopefully get more successful people through the BUD/S process. Thank you so much for your time.
ECM: You got it.
DF: Find out more at SEALSWC.com, and join us again for the next NSW Podcast.
Navy SEAL and SWCC candidates get a taste of NSW training at boot camp. The Dive Motivators begin the process of familiarization -- and selection -- of candidates for the long training pipeline ahead of them. Reality sets in quickly. Listen as we talk with a SEAL Master Chief. Find out more at www.sealswcc.com
“you have to pay attention to detail and you have to give it your maximum effort”
DF: Welcome to, “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday,” the official Navy SEALs podcast.
DF: Navy boot camp is the first place Special Warfare recruits will receive unique training. It starts early, with what they call “Dive Motivation.” This is where special warfare candidates perform their morning workout. I’m Daniel Fletcher, today I speak with Dive Motivator, SEAL Master Chief Steve Drum to get some personal advice about recruit fitness. From mental performance and focus to the physical standards test.
DF: Well, first of all, thank you for taking the time to sit down with us. I know you have a busy schedule. Your words of wisdom will be really appreciated and I think really nice insight for people that are going through this process.
SD: Sure, my pleasure.
DF: Tell us a little bit about what you do here on a regular basis. Your main priorities and responsibilities briefly, that would be a great start.
SD: Within our commodity, we have all of the Warrior Challenge programs, so SEAL, SWCC, Diver, EOD and Air Rescue. And so what we do here is we facilitate a progressive workout schedule to consist of roughly 26 workouts. About half of them are going to be progressive swim workouts, and the other half are going to be progressive run workouts. After you show up here at boot camp, and you pass the PST. Then you are going to be put into a schedule where you’re going to start off with a three-mile run some basic, fundamental swimming drills to get stroke development down and things like that, and it’s all just to get you further comfortable in the water. It’s all to get you some more mileage and time on your feet okay, but it’s important to note that we’re here to facilitate these workouts, but dive motivator training here is subordinate to the overall training that you receive at boot camp. You’re here to be a basically trained sailor. That’s front and foremost here. Official Naval Special Warfare and NSO programs officially start when you graduate boot camp. That said, we’re here to make sure that you’re as prepared as you can for the next phase in the pipeline. So, we’re here to give you not just the workouts but give you mentoring, turn the heat up on you a little bit to ensure that you’re able to collaborate with your shipmates to the left and right of you to be able to buy into something greater than self. That you’re able to get along, and you’re able to buy into the mission that we have here.
DF: You’re kind of a bridge in terms of the fitness piece between people taking their initial PST and then arriving at BUD/S if they make it that far? Is that fair, or is that not accurate?
SD: We’re going to make sure that when you show up, it’s a different animal than when you were probably taking the PST back with your mentors and your coordinators. This is why we always advise that you have a good cushion when you show up here at RTC.
DF: When you say cushion, you mean a baseline fitness level, or what do you mean by that?
SD: If you are leaving at your 15-day PST, and you’re just doing the bare minimums, it’s going to be hard here for the following reasons. A: you’re going from, unless you worked a really difficult job right before you shipped, you’re going to go from a minimal amount of stress, plenty of sleep, good nutrition, and maybe some of these guys, two workouts a day, and you’re going to come over here, and you’re not going to get the sleep, you’re not going to get the high quality food, you’re going to be stressed, we try to give you a minimum of three workouts a week, but sometimes the training schedule, again, the other mandatory testable events, your firefighting, your live fire training, all you other drill, that going to take front and center.
Your last week at training here at boot camp, you may get one or sometimes zero workouts, but we’ll do everything in our power to make sure that we’re bridging that gap as you asked, bridging that gap between showing up on the street and making sure you are getting time on your feet, that you’re going to be training outside on the track when the weather supports it, and you’re going to be getting into the large pool and getting longer swims. You’re going to get introduced with fins if you haven’t done that already. You will be in a good place when you show up to go across the street. It’s very critical that they understand boot camp is not just a speed bump. You are here to be a basically trained sailor, and that’s very important because as you learn how to take information from your recruit division commanders. You process that information, and you execute it to 100% adherence to the instruction. If you can’t do that, then we can’t really use you in the SEAL Teams or any of the other programs.
DF: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. First and foremost, you need to join the Navy, and to do that, there’s a lot of fundamentals. Your piece is more getting your feet wet so to speak, in terms of physical intensity, and kind of trying to maintain fitness level, but primarily people need to be aware that they’re here to become a sailor. They’re not here to come and just work out, right?
SD: Right, when you get here you’re going to learn how to march, you’re going to learn how to fold your clothes and make your bed, and we’re not just doing that. You’re not folding your clothes and making your bed just to do it. You’re doing it because even in the SEAL Teams, when we start talking about free-fall jumping on oxygen and building rigs to throw out of the plane and all these type of things are very sequence oriented, and they’re very detailed, and they have to be done 100% correct all the time. And so, you wouldn’t want to skip the boot camp training if you could. You want to go through it because it’s only going to help you be better at making it through to your ultimate job, your ultimate goal.
DF: Right, I think that we made that clear with some of the other people that we’ve spoken with and that’s been hit home a lot. It seems like that’s a common thing for people to think they’re just going to breeze through this process and try to get to BUD/S and that this really isn’t that important, and I think it’s important to reiterate that even coming from your side in the fitness area that’s a top priority of yours to make clear. (SD: yes) So, we’ve heard from people to aim for a competitive PST score. Does that line up with your thinking?
SD: We are strict here with the PST standards. We’re not trying to fail people, but when I say that you need to do 50 perfect pushups, that means 50 perfect pushups. Go and research what exactly the standard is. It’s breaking 90 all the way up, locking the elbows out all the way down, breaking 90, and so that’s what you’re going to be held accountable for and if not, you’re going to get stood up, and you’re going to fail the PST for that day, and you’ll be given a couple more opportunities, but, again, your life is going to be a lot easier if you just pass the first time out the gates. I’m not interested in seeing 100 of your crappy pushups. I need to see 50 perfect ones.
DF: So, I’ll read between the lines here, and you can correct me or tell me if I’m wrong, but would it be a good idea if you’re a recruit, you’re at a boat team or with a mentor, to even maybe ask, “Be strict on me with these standards because I want them to be right, I want them to be perfect.” Because who knows who’ll be judging them when they’re at home before they get here, is that do you think that’s a good idea?
SD: Correct. Absolutely, 100%. Again for whatever reason, people think, “I’m going to try to get as many as I can” at the cost of perfect form, and that’s not going to work out for you well. That’s not what we’re looking for here, so, again, when I say perfect pull-ups, that’s dead arm hang, chin all the way over the bar, not up at the bar looking up at the sky. It’s chin over the bar. Your sit-ups, arms crossed thumbs on your clavicles, all the way up to elbows right below the bottom of the knees and then all the way down, upper back touching the deck. So, we’re strict about it.
DF: Yeah, and as you should be, right. (SD: Right.) I think that kind of makes sense that people might be struggling a little bit more when they get here than they might anticipate, because they had previously had X score, and now maybe they’re struggling like you said, they’re not doing this at 5 in the morning in their hometown. They might not be doing this on, you know, lack of protein shakes and lack of pre-workout supplements, fill in the blanks, so I think it’s important if you recognize that things are going to be more intense.
SD: You better drop the No Explode. If you think you’re going to have that kind of stuff to help you here. You’re sadly mistaken.
DF: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s important that people realize that it’s going to be a different environment that they’re in. The numbers aren’t just going to be passed on. What should a potential SEAL or SWCC or fill in the blank NSW candidate know about the dive motivator process and the stuff that you do here that they might not be aware of?
SD: So, first off, you’re going into an NSW program, either SEAL or SWCC. You are going to be segregated into that division whereas we’ll typically pair up the NSO programs. Now, they’ll be some, maybe some overlap between the two, but the best we can, we try to keep NSW with NSW and NSO with NSO. NSO being Air Rescue, EOD and Diver.
DF: And then SWCC/SEAL. Their training will be the same here?
SD: You’re going to get whatever specifics you need once you get to your respective preparation course or A school you’re going to get dialed in. When you leave here to go to prep for SEAL and SWCC training, they’re going to start teaching the knot tying, the lifesaving, things like that that are going to help you, but right now, we’re all about the general purpose fitness and water comfortability, stroke development and time on your feet.
DF: So the NSW candidates you see coming in here, are there any low points in their skills or techniques that you see as a consistent issue that you could maybe point out?
SD: One of the things that kind of is a pet peeve of mine that we see here is, we’ll still see people who will show up routinely who have never swam without a mask or goggles. And so, you’ll see them, and they’ll get in here to do this PST in the pool, and they can’t even stick their faces in the water, and to me I’m baffled because so much of first phase in BUD/S is without your mask, is with you trying to see underwater without a mask, so you’d better be doing, I’m not saying to swim all the time without a mask, but do both. Learn how to swim with a mask on, without a mask.
Another thing that I want to highlight, if we don’t get to it later, I’ll talk about it now is, don’t cram for the test when you get here, okay. By the time you get to BUD/S or SWCC training or any of the other programs, I want you to be fresh, injury free. So, start your training far out enough in advance. If you’re going through the SEAL/SWCC website, then you’ll know. Find out who you can rely on in that forum to give you the sound advice. If not, you can reach out to the actual professionals on there, and they’ll tell you.
Ultimately, all you have to do, is do well on the PST. If you want anything above that, that’s a bonus, but I wouldn’t get too carried away. Definitely don’t be working on breath holds, don’t be doing all this crazy stuff trying to tread with, with scuba tanks on. I just, be very comfortable in the water, maybe you can work on some treading with and without fins, but don’t show up hurt. Don’t be trying to, (DF: I see, over-train.) don’t be slacking and then figure you’re going to start ramping up all this running and swimming, and then you’re going to be prone to overuse injuries. You’re going to show up, and you’re going to be hurt, and you could lose your contract, get dropped from the program.
DF: So don’t over-train.
SD: Don’t over-train or under-recover. Make sure that you’re ramping up, you’re hitting it hard, and then as you get closer and closer, you’re fine-tuning it, you’re at a good place where, yeah, you’re still getting the reps in, you’re still getting some volume in, but you’re training intelligently, and there’s really in today’s day and age no excuse whatsoever to not have the information you need to train smartly. Don’t get carried away with a lot of these programs that tell you that you need to go and do a mini Hell Week or go to these really expensive rigorous courses, where what you really need to do is make sure that you’re doing this program for the right reasons. Understand that you really want it because you’re going to be tested, and when, even in boot camp, you may have your doubts, where you’re like, “Ah, I don’t know if this is really what I want to do,” but remember, it was a good idea when you thought about it. It’s not any less of a good idea now that you’re eight weeks in, six months in, okay. It’s still a good idea, and you’ll still be glad that you’ve completed the program successfully.
DF: Are you guys doing your workouts on kind of a consistent time of the day? You guys always here in the morning? You guys kind of surprising people? How does that work?
SD: Good question, good question. Yes, you’re going to do everything that a basic recruit does here at boot camp. The exact same things, only you get to start your day a couple hours earlier. You’re going to REV typically about 4:30, and then you’re going to show up over here at the dive motivator at the combat training pool, and we’re going to start kicking the workouts off at about 5:15 and you’re going to be wrapping and on the road to breakfast, at about no later than 7:15. Your initial PST’s going to look like this. You’re going to show up, and you’re going to do your third-class swim test, which is pretty easy for those who’ve been training well to get here to do these programs. You’re going to jump off a tower, you’re going to work on float, basic swim stroke, flotation with your coveralls, things like that. At some point, you’ll practice an abandoned ship rescue at sea type thing with an inflatable raft, but as soon as you’re done you’re going to roll right into your PST. We’re going to hit you with the swim, followed by your push, sit, pull, and then we’re going to take you out to the track outside during the warmer months. When it’s cold, we’ll take a bus, and you’ll go across a street to an indoor track, and you’ll do your run there.
DF: What is the flexibility like for people that might not be hitting the right number for PST and need to retake? How many chances do they get, or if they’re really close, or if you feel like there’s maybe some sort of excusable reason why maybe they didn’t hit the right number of laps, they miscounted, or maybe they have a slight injury or something like that. Where you know that the candidate should be capable of hitting a better number?
SD: You definitely want to pass the first time, your life will be a lot easier. However, we’re definitely going to take into consideration things like injury, things like, “Hey, I had to get some teeth pulled.” If you fail your initial PST, full transparency here, you will have ‘til your fifth week of training to pass your PST. And if you don’t pass it by then, then you’ll be reclassified.
DF: So, there’s plenty of opportunity for the right people to hit the right numbers?
SD: Correct. (DF: Okay, that’s good to know.) And it’s also it’s important to know that when you quit the program, you still are obligated to stay in the Navy. You’re obligated to go reclassify, okay. If you are medically dropped or medically disqualified, you have the option to, to try to, to stay in the Navy for a different program that you may qualify for, or you can elect to separate at that point because that’s the contract you came in at. But if you quit, then you are going to go reclassify, and it’s not going to be the same rate that you joined at. It’s going to be what’s available at the time. But, again the overarching theme here is that you’re coming here to be a basically trained sailor, and you’re going to learn the tools that you need at boot camp while you’re learning to be a basically trained sailor. That’s absolutely going to help you to be a better SEAL, SWCC or NSO candidate. We provide three points for mentoring typically with the recruits. The first piece is kind of like, “Hey, the welcome aboard. Here’s what’s expected of you when you show up to dive motivator for PT.” The second one is usually I’ll give the introductory brief, and what I get into there is the big four sports psychology, and I get into what I call the Operational Mindset. And the operational mindset is purpose, “Why am I here?” and commitment,” yes, I made the right decision to come here. I absolutely am ready to start buying in and then collaborate with the people around me, collaborate and be a part of the Navy, be a part of the team.”
The second piece is preparation, and not just the preparation like the physical piece of training, the pushups and the swim, but also the preparation to make sure that no matter what happens, we’re as ready as we can be. To include making sure that all of our stuff, our backpacks are packed the night before, inspecting my bunkmate’s, he’s inspecting mine, to make sure that all of our gear is ready.
In terms of, the mental piece, BUD/S training is all about testing your mental fortitude, it’s about testing your ability to stay calm and perform under pressure, and it’s about your ability to collaborate and be a team player. That’s what all this is about, and the cold water and all the physical conditioning, that’s all the medium in which we, test that. So, it’s getting into your mind and understanding that you are going to suffer. You are going to have moments of doubt, but you have to revisit why you’re there. And I tell people to write about it, “Dear Diary, no kidding. This is what happened to me today, and this is how I can be better tomorrow,” really sit there and reflect and figure out how you can increase your performance. We talk about the big four, we talk about the goal-setting, so when I’m doing things where I’m extremely stressed, and I want to elect to quit or to panic, I can keep focused on my goal of that particular evolution, and I do that by going through mental rehearsal or visualization techniques to think about it. “All right, this is what’s going to happen to me. Let me walk through,” and I use that in the SEAL Teams. When I was doing the more stressful things like close quarter combat, clearing rooms, I would sit outside the door before training, and I would go through it in my head. And I would also do performance based self-talk, “Okay, if he goes left, I’m going to go right,” and I’m going to think about what’s going to happen to me beforehand because your body absolutely processes that as a little bit of experience beforehand. And we even get into mindfulness a little bit, slowing your breathing down, taking deep and long breaths to make sure that you’re kind of dumping a little bit of stress and getting into that habit of being able to focus back on what our goal is. So, we choose what the goal is, and performing that goal rather than choosing panic, rather than choosing fear and quitting and things like that.
DF: I want to highlight one part of what you just said and that was the journaling portion. We spoke with Mike Caviston and that’s a part of his recommendations as well, journaling your workouts. Something that’s consistent that I’ve heard through almost everyone that I’ve interviewed, is the “why” part, “Why am I doing this?” and the goal-setting part, and I think that incorporating that “why” part into the journaling of your fitness, I think that’s a really good piece of advice for candidates because when the dust settles or, you know, you boil everything down, that’s what you’re left with, the “Why am I doing this?” and like you’re saying, remind yourself of, why it was a good choice to begin with or whoever is your inspiration or whatever your inspiration is, keeping that forefront is, I think that’s important.
SD: Absolutely, and you write things in your journal like, “This is why I want to be a SEAL or SWCC, and this is why this is a good decision,” and write down, “I know that I’m going to face challenges. I know that there are days when I’m not going to perform well, that I’m going to fail things potentially.” Things are going to test your confidence, and so when that happens to you, you go back to that journal that you wrote in, you know, months ago, and you’re like, “Yeah, I’m prepared for this,” because when you’re cold, when you’re tired, when you’re stressed, you’re more prone to an emotional hijacking. It’s just like when you’re under the water, and you’re doing pool competency, and your body starts going without air, you forget your goal, and you elect to want to bolt to the surface, and then you’ll regret it. You’ll fail. Same thing here. When you are tired and when you’re stressed, you’re prone to let emotions negatively impact your decision-making, whereas you make it a routine to actually revisit when you wrote that stuff in a clear, well-rested, unstressed mind state, and you revisit that, and you say, “Yes, that’s right. I know this is what I want. I made the right decision to come here. I knew this was going to be hard. I’m going to have hard weeks, but I can do this. This is very, very doable,” and that’s absolutely the truth. You pass the screening test, you have what it takes to get through BUD/S. People go through, and they’ll get only more further refined. You’ll be even more confident in your knot tying, your lifesaving and drown proofing and things like that. You’re given the practice test at that point, but at the end of the day, it still comes down to being able to push the negative thoughts out of your brain, deal with what’s happening, deal with the fear, deal with the stress, the uncertainty and drive through it.
DF: I was expecting to sit here and talk to you about, you know, the details and minutia of the training process, the gear you use and stuff like that, and it’s interesting to hear that’s really not what’s most important. The physical part is just what’s going to push you through. But your mind, it can’t break, and that needs to stay focused.
SD: You know, it goes without saying you need to have a very highly elevated level of physical fitness and swimming ability, of course. I was never really particularly good at anything. I could do PT okay. I could make my timed runs. I was a complete disaster in the soft sand, got gooned on just about every single run, but then I’d say, “Hey, maybe that made me a little bit tougher when Hell Week comes along,” and I wasn’t a strong swimmer. I was comfortable in the water, I had that going for me cause I spent a lot of time in the pool as a kid, but I was not a fast swimmer. I was not a fast runner. I was not a PT stud, but yet six months later, I’m sitting there on the grinder graduating with the class that I started with.
DF: So, I’ll just kind of highlight the things I think that I’ve heard from you that are really important. Obviously making sure you’re paying attention to detail and doing the basic things at boot camp. You can’t brush over that. (SD: no, you don’t want to) You can’t just slide through because I think that a lot of people are just thinking, “This is BS work that I need to do to get to BUD/S.” But it’s been reiterated multiple times that these are things that will be checked on at BUD/S. This is not just busy work. This is not just BS to kind of give you a hard time.
SD: Look at it like this. Hell Week is the first major hurdle. After that comes the second major hurdle, which is in Dive Phase, and it’s known as the Pool Competency. Up to that point, you’ve never been scuba diving, it’s all still in the pool, and you’re learning how to put the gear on, how to take it off in a very precise sequence okay. So, you’ve got to know that reflexively all of those things are now added to what’s known as the Pool Comp Test, where you’re given all the different problems related to cutting off inhalation, exhalation, hoses on your breathing apparatus, and you have to work through that problem, and when you sort it out, it has to be in those exact procedures, only you’re stressed, and all you want to do is get a breath of air, and you’re doing the Funky Chicken. If you are thinking of that process instead of just head down like a pack mule, when you’re folding your clothes and when you’re making your bed, if you’re trying to figure out, “Okay, I’m in the moment. I’m thinking about why this is important,” if you’re kind of thinking about that early on, you are really setting yourself up for success when you are hopefully making it through Hell Week and finding yourself stressing out about Pool Comp. You will have effectively set the table if you’re able to be in the moment, understand why all the things that you’re doing are important.
DF: That can’t be overemphasized because there’s so much in the media about the physical portion, about the toughness, about the logs, the sand, the cold water. But there’s procedure, there’s attention to detail, there’s order that is equally a part of this training process. That’s not tough guy stuff, it’s focus, and that’s connected to this process, which goes back to the crawl, walk, run. You know, you start with T-shirts, and then it ends up being dive apparatus and jump gear or weapons systems. It’s all procedural, and that’s often just really glossed over. That these guys are just tough guys, you know what I mean?
SD: It is, and the other piece that’s worth mentioning that’s absolutely the linchpin for the whole community, for the whole program is that based on that motto you’ll hear in the SEAL teams, “Long live the brotherhood,”. You’ve got to start putting the people to the left and right of you needs above your own. Me as an example, I wanted to be a SEAL because I figured, “Hey, it would be cool to crawl around and paint my face green and get challenged by a very difficult selection process.” but that was not enough to keep me there. Once I got there, and I realized that I was surrounded by the best people that I would ever work with and I would ever be surrounded by, I knew that I had found a home, and I knew that that’s why I wanted to stay there. And when you show up at boot camp, it starts there. You start building, and a lot of those guys are going to go away statistically, that’s just inevitable, but you’ll be left with a core bunch of guys that you’ll start identifying as great Americans, and this is who I want to spend you know, a career with in many cases. You’ll be expected to start thinking in that mindset as soon as you get here.
We don’t do this training alone. We can’t get through this training by ourselves. We’ve got to start leaning on each other, and you’ll find guys that, that have trouble with swimming. They’ll go over at night when they come back. They’ll have a couple kids that are probably water polo players in college, and you’ll be like, “Hey, can we talk about that eggbeater?” or whatever, whatever it is. You know, that’s what it takes for a class to be successful, for individuals to be successful. I mean, I know great Team guys that could barely pass the timed run in third phase, but they’re phenomenal, phenomenal guys, and they were really good at other things, So we try to say, hey, these minimum standards are low because you may suffer in one area but be really good in all the other areas. If you have trouble with the run, but you’re crushing the other areas, you know, there’s room for you here. We’ll find a way for you to fit.
DF: If you had the ear of a candidate and you had just a couple minutes to give them some of your solid rocks of advice for this aspect, and the whole process, what else would you say to them?
SD: Invest in the mental process. Again, figure out why you really want to be here. Spend a lot of time thinking about it understanding it, and write about it. Get in the habit of reflecting on your experiences. In life, we’re only as good as our ability to draw the right conclusions from what’s happened to us and how those inform our decisions tomorrow. Spend as much time being deliberate, thinking about your successes and how to repeat them and how to further improve them. Make sure that you are spending enough time investing in your training, way in advance to you showing up at boot camp. Make sure that before you ship, you are nice and healthy. If you’re worried about breath holds and things like that do freestyle sprints. That’s going to get your wind up. That’s going to help your, your capacity. Just spend time in the water and just be comfortable. Make sure you’re swimming with a mask on and a mask off. Make sure your PST performance is 100% and in accordance with the instruction. Get somebody to film you doing your pull, push, sit. Make sure you’re cranking out solid, perfect reps. And, you know, if you do all that, you show up, and you’re ready to be part of a team. You have everything you need to be successful and make it through this program.
DF: I think that’s some really great, powerful advice. Thank you for taking the time to join us.
SD: Thank you, my pleasure.
DF: Find out more at SEALSWC.com, and join us again for the next NSW Podcast.
Music Continues and end.
Physical and mental health is important to the recruiting process for SPECWAR candidates. We spoke with an expert at the Navy's Recruit Training Command to find out how Navy SEAL and SWCC candidates can stay on top of their game. For more info check out www.sealswcc.com.
“You have to pay attention to detail and you have to give it your maximum effort”
Daniel Fletcher: Welcome to “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday,” the official Navy SEAL podcast.
DF: Mental and physical health is essential to a successful trip through Navy Boot Camp, even more so for NSW candidates. I’m Daniel Fletcher. As we continue our boot camp series from Great Lakes, Illinois, we sit down with medical liaison for crew training command, Chief Hospital Corpsman Jeff Ramirez. We answer some common questions about recruit medical history, mental health, medications, and preventative care. Listen up.
DF: Thanks for sitting down with us for one, and if you could just briefly talk about what you do here that would be a great start.
JR: I deal with all medical related issues, in terms of recruit appointments, any injuries that we have here going to network hospitals, to the federal healthcare center, outsourced down to Chicago. Any questionable areas that the doctors have that they need to liaison with the RDCs here in terms of missed appointments or recruits not eating enough, or even if they feel like they’re getting too much exercise, because there’s instances where we start breaking some recruits down that are couch potatoes, and then they get over here, and they learn right away that it’s a little different here.
DF: What types of tests or any type of screening do you administer, or is that not part of your position?
JR: So, that’s not part of my position here. So, I deal with the docs, and it’s going to range from mental health to your physical therapy, your preventative meds and then general, sick hall, but it’s every illness or injury or anything medical related between RTC and the providers.
DF: Okay. Are there any ailments or injuries that you see specifically for the 800 guys that are coming through the pipeline here?
JR: 800 guys... I would say the biggest injuries that I see would be shin splints, stress fractures and not getting enough nutrients. Rhabdo, Rhabdomyolysis. We’ll see that. They didn’t train for the pipeline before they got here. So, when they’re doing the DIVEMO PT, their body is breaking it down. (DF: Pretty severe.) Their muscles are breaking it down pretty severe, yes.
DF: I guess that is kind of a form of a failed test so to speak, if someone’s put in a position physically where their body is not holding up. Are there any other specific medical tests that are given periodically or on a routine basis that you see NSW candidates having issues with?
JR: Special physicals. They’ll go to special physicals. They’ll answer the questionnaires there, go through their overall history to see if there’s anything that raises any red flags. In terms of anything periodic, that doesn’t happen unless they, they choose to go to sick hall. You know, if they’re having some issues that RDCs say they see, any 800, any recruit really walking around with limps or looking distressed or sick, we’re going to send them to sick hall regardless. You’ll get your labs drawn over there, or if you’ve got to go to bone density scan or X-rays. A lot of 800s, you know, they really want to be here most of them, so it’s kind of hard to get them to go to medical sometimes. So it’s, you know, its our responsibility, and I get a lot of phone calls about that, “Hey, I have a recruit that’s kind of been limping around. He says he’s okay, but, however, my spidey senses are telling me he probably needs to get seen.” Then we’ll go ahead and send him in there and usually find out something else.
DF: If there’s somebody who gets to this point in the process and then a medical screening turns up not good enough or a fail, whatever you want to call it. Are there chances for a candidate to kind of retake a test? Can you tell me a little bit about that landscape of that kind of situation?
JR: So, if we’re going to use vision as an example. So if you came in. the MEPS doctor says your vision’s a certain score, and you come here, and it’s not, or you’re colorblind, they’re going to reissue the actual test again. So, you’re going to do one at MEPS, you’re going to do one here. If you fail that, you’re going to do it again. And if all the scores end up as the same here, then they’re going either request a waiver, if you’re eligible. The special phys docs, they’re going to determine whose waiverable per the BUMED instruction. So they’ll go in there and make sure it is a waiverable condition, whether it’s vision, hearing. If it is waiverable, we’ll keep them in the pipeline here, and then the waivers usually come back by the time they get out of here. If it’s not since they’re most of them are contracted, then they can opt to either pick a different rate or pretty much get separated in their contract. So, your basic recruits, they’re coming in they’re not contracted like the 800s. If they don’t meet specific requirements for a certain job, then they’ll get put in another job. But for the 800s, if they don’t want to fulfill their contract because they can’t, due to something medically related, then they can either opt to go or stay with another rate.
DF: Our primary audience is, I guess I could say the laymen or the layperson or civilian. So I’ll do a little bit of interpreting for them. So, someone who comes into the Special Warfare pipeline is kind of quasi hired by the Navy, and they can then choose to choose a different direction to take their career. Is that, is that accurate?
JR: Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying and if they got their heart set on being a SEAL, and you don’t meet the medical qualifications to fulfill that contract, then yes, you can drop on request and get separated from the Navy all together.
DF: Or decide to to make a different decision. How often do you see that misalignment of MEPS decision versus something onsite here?
JR: There is those that do fall through the cracks. There’s always human error. It’s not as much as we think. Most of our, our drops are usually “drop on request” really, after. In terms of medical, it’s not as much as we, we actually think.
DF: Okay, well, that’s good to hear. What types of tests can a recruit fail to have them say, “You’re not going to be able to be in the Navy at all”?
JR: Hearing’s on a bigger scale right now than vision is.
DF: Why is that?
JR: Any kind of permanent hearing loss, the deeper decibels. It’s an automatic disqualifier, and some of them aren’t even waiverable.
DF: So, you’re saying that it’s starting to become a bigger issue than it used to be? Or it’s more noticeable or...
JR: Probably more, more noticeable. I would say that the ear buds and the working out. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t say, “I do it myself.” I would imagine that has something to do with it. So if you listen something loud, right away you’ll have that, that that minimum hearing loss, the temporary, lower frequencies, but the higher frequencies, that would be you consistently listened to your earphones really loud when you’re in the gym 24/7, or in your cars nowadays.
DF: No good. I’m guessing that there’s sometimes injuries that happen during basic training that can kind of put someone in that same situation. Is that something that people should be concerned with, or is that pretty rare in terms of shin splints that are so severe, or whatever it may be that they’re not able to continue? Do they have a chance to maybe, have a few weeks to kind of heal up?
JR: So, we have the recruit convalescence unit that’s actually here in Ship 4. The reason for that is if you get shin splints or stress fractures, you actually get a rehab time. So, when you go to the hospital, you see one of our docs, and they say, “Hey, you got shin splints. You’re going to be Light Limited duty for 21 days.” So, that’s 21 days of rehab. So during that 21 days they’re going to go to Ship 4 and their job is to get better. They’ll be put in a hold status until they are fit for full duty. Once they’re fit for full duty, they’ll incorporate with another 800 division to keep the training going.
DF: Does that happen often enough that you think that’s a successful way to deal with that?
JR: I don’t think it happens as much for the 800s. For the regular recruit divisions yes, for the 800s, no.
DF: And that’s the same process for both of them in terms of the time that they’re given and stuff like that?
JR: Yes. If you look at the recruit convalescence unit, you’ll have for every 30, 40 recruits, you might have one 800 in there. Usually when the 800s get injured, it’s because that individual didn’t prep. So, he came over here and did a little bit more running than he or she was doing at the time.
DF: Right, right, right. From your perspective, what type of advice would you give to someone coming into the pipeline to avoid types of medical issues that we’re speaking of?
JR: The biggest thing is prep. So, don’t do the bare minimum before you actually get here. Going over to DIVEMO PT, they’re going to give you a workout you know. So if you weren’t prepped before you got over here, it’s going to show, and it’s going to show quick. DIVEMO’s really where they start falling out, its not regular PT. It’s not the PT that all the other recruits get here because you’re contracted. You’re going to do something more strenuous. So, definitely prep is huge.
DF: Is there part of the process that you think people should be maybe more aware?
JR: You have to prep. Prep’s the biggest thing. If you’re taking a lot of protein powders and all this stuff you can get from GNC or bodybuilding.com, whatever you’re taking, just remember you’re not going to have it here you know, the stuff that gets you over a good workout, because sometimes you’re pushing your body so much that you need that extra protein, or you need a little bit extra, (DF: or whether it’s Pre-workout or whatever) pre-workout, you’re not going to have it here. That’s going to cut straight out of your your whole diet. Now you need to know how to eat correctly, and we do our classes here to teach you how to eat. However, it’s a lot better if you have the history of doing it and you know your greens, you know your fruits, you know what you’re doing. Because you can’t just take that simple protein powder and call it a day. It’s not going to happen here.
DF: Right. If there’s anything that you see on a common basis that you think that people should be more aware of, it would be great for you to kind of cover some of that as well.
JR: One big thing is the psych issue. And when I say that, it would be more geared towards the mental health part of it. Mental health is a big part here, and it’s a great, great tool for crew training command. Some of the 800 guys that we have, we’ll get them, and they’re watching videos and everything since they were young, they’re real motivated, can’t wait to do it. Which is outstanding. However, they come to boot camp, and they figure out, “Maybe this is not what I wanted to do.” So, it’s a general hype that they get themselves going through for however long that they get themselves hyped up for, but they get here, and they kind of shut down a little bit, and once they shut down, it’s kind of hard to pick them back up. So then they end up going to mental health and talking to them. Sometimes they can say things that may disqualify them. Does it happen? Yes. And it’s not, you know, on a huge scale; however, it does happen. Almost like they pretty much psych themselves out. The first couple DIVEMO days, they kind of psych themselves out, and they go, “Okay, maybe this is not what I want to do,” cause it’s strenuous. It hurts. At the end of the day, this is what you wanted, and you’re getting trained by the best people we have over there, but sometimes they can... psych themselves out and they put themselves in a bad position.
DF: I think you brought up a good point. So much of the focus on the prep and even further along in the BUD/S process, and then throughout, there’s a huge emphasis on physical preparedness, physical capabilities, but the mental aspects seem to be coming to the forefront a lot more than it used to be in the past, and even awareness of mental health issues. Speak to that a little bit, are there underlying issues that people should be aware of if they want to come through basic training, or maybe in the past, they had issues with depression or anxiety. What’s the Navy’s kind of opinion on that in NSW and the Big Navy, and how does that kind of fit into your job?
JR: I work with mental health really, really closely here, and the reason being is because it is a different kind of day and age. We do have kids getting prescribed meds from an early age. However, that’s not all disqualifying factors. Yes, there are certain diagnosis where it’s going to be a disqualifying factor, and that’s just kind of what it is. If you are bipolar type II or something like that, it’s going to be a disqualifying factor. However, if you struggle a little bit through school or even your first year of college, and you’ve shown progression, and you have those notes by a doc saying that you’re good to go, you’ve been on meds for a little bit, or something bad happened in the family, these are all things that they are waiverable. You’ve just got to show the actual documentation. So, in terms of someone prepping to come here, it’s good to know that if you’re going to get your civilian medical records, and it’s going to say that you’re put on a certain medication, don’t just stop. Don’t just stop and say, “Okay, well, I’m going to stop taking this because I plan to go to boot camp in a year.” So, if you stop when your doctor tells you to stop, and then you show the progression for the one or two years, preferably two, you know, the doc can sign off on that and say, “Hey, this person fell into a kind of a slump, did what he had to do, she had to do, and recovered fully. We’re good.” Where we have the issue is when someone goes to a hard part in their life, gets prescribed some medications and then decides this is what they want to do. They want to go to boot camp and then just stops it. So, when you get someone’s civilian medical records, it shows that you were getting treated, and then there’s a blank. So there’s really nothing to go off of, and now you got to get reevaluated here (DF: It’s a liability issue) its huge. So, there’s nothing wrong with mental health. It’s a part of all of us whether we like it or not; however, it’s the way we go about it.
DF: Well, I think that’s a good thing to point out. I think a lot of people might say, “You know, whatever existing condition whether it’s physical, mental or whatever disqualifies me,” and I think reading between the lines is talk to your doctor, and you guys want to see as long of a spread between, whether it’s a prescription or a diagnosis and having some evidence to say, like, “Hey, this is where I am now.” I think that would be helpful for a lot of people to hear because a lot of people just might say, “Well, I can’t do that now.”
JR: Absolutely. And I mean overall in mental health, there’s a lot of different areas, a lot of different diagnoses, and it doesn’t speak for every single one of them, but there’s a big chunk out there that you can still be in the Navy, nothing wrong with it. They just need to see the full treatment plan. They can’t just cut it off in the middle cause you never went through treatment.
DF: There seems to be maybe some confusion in the aspect of medical records and how that’s integrated into the Navy from civilian integrating the sailor life. What’s that process look like, or, you know, does the Navy scoop up everyone’s medical records when you come in?
JR: Any diagnosis, anything that legally you have to put on your medical history form, and that’s a medical history form that’s legally used by the whole Department of Defense. You do have to provide that documentation if you put a diagnosis on there. So, if you put a diagnosis on there, you have to provide that actual information because the docs want to know what the treatment plan was for and how it’s going to affect you. In terms of receiving all the civilian medical records, we’ll get what you put in there. Do we get them all? Probably not. With that being said, we probably don’t get it because they’ve still got human error, or you’ve got humans lying as well.
DF: Right. Do you see that as an issue normally, or I guess not normally, but...?
JR: I think it is an issue. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have recruits separating every day because they’ll go to mental health, or they’ll get seen because a past injury is going to act up. Past injury acts up here, and we find out that it’s something that was pre-existing. (DF: You can’t lie about that) So, now, if they want to stay in, we’re going to request those civilian medical records so we can see if you can actually stay in. But in terms of the Navy just reaching out to civilian hospitals and getting medical records, that’s not even legal.
DF: Well, obviously, it seems like being honest on your, on your forms is probably not only legal but the better thing to do for your own success.
JR: Yes, absolutely. So, like I said, any medical history form you get in the Navy, you have to list, legally. That’s why they’re asking you. We’ve got to know what’s wrong with you, and if you don’t provide that, that actual information, I mean you can get in trouble for that. But in terms of if you don’t provide it, and even if we think something, it’s not like we can reach out to where you got seen as a kid and say, “Hey, I need those records.” It definitely doesn’t work like that.
DF: Are there any kind of medical issues that can develop here that can disqualify someone completely from the Navy?
JR: Reoccurring stress fractures or reoccurring shin splints. You’re contracted to be here, however, if you can’t get past DIVEMO because you just keep on breaking, unfortunately. That’s not your fault. However, that’s something that would definitely you want to make it much farther than that because you’re pretty fragile, and after this pipeline you’re going into something even more, more aggressive.
DF: Right, right. More rigorous. Appreciate you taking the time to sit down and talk with us. I know this might not be the most glamorous topic, but it’s just as important as every other part of this pipeline. You know, crawl, walk, run. Medical is a big part of that. Thank you for your service, and thank you for the time today.
DF: Find out more at SEALSWCC.com, and join us again for the next NSW Podcast.
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