The Gulf War Class : Latest SEAL Group to Graduate Is First Since Start of War
Earlier this month, 30 would-be SEALs encircled their combat training instructor, each man clutching at the instructor’s limbs or clothing in an exercise meant to show them how to escape a hostile mob.
The instructor swiftly feigned a kick to one man’s groin and poked at another man’s eyes. The two men crashed backwards, toppling two others, and created a path through which their instructor plunged and escaped.
“You must never lose focus, gentlemen. You never lose hope,” the instructor told Class 172. “I am not saying you aren’t going to get hurt--I am saying you’ve got to have hope. What’s the worst that can happen?”
In a chorus, the men shouted: “You get paralyzed!”
The instructor nods. “That’s right, I’d rather die.”
On Friday, 41 members of Class 172 graduated--the first SEAL class to graduate since war broke out in the Persian Gulf. Less than half the class made it through the 25-week training to become a member of the Navy’s elite sea-air-land commando force.
The graduates learned to slash throats with their frogman knives, twist men’s heads as though they were bottle caps, and swim with their hands and legs tied. Men who had never strapped on an oxygen tank became capable of stealthily planting bombs underwater on a ship’s hull. They tied knots connecting underwater explosives, blew up underwater obstacles with 300 pounds of explosives, and rappelled off 50-foot towers.
These men had survived “Hell Week,” heralded as the most rigorous training week in the military. During that week, the sixth week of a 25-week program, 58 recruits tossed telephone poles, shoulder-pressed rafts, lay in the surf while waves pummeled their bodies, and climbed walls and ropes--all with no more than three hours of sleep for the entire six days.
As Class 172 went through Hell Week, Navy officials allowed The Times unprecedented access to the exercises and men involved. The Times returned to cover Class 172 the week before their graduation.
The last month of their training took on a more somber tone as the Gulf battle raged and the men realized they might be preparing to serve there.
“You are going to be tested. The defense of this nation is not someone else’s job,” retired Rear Adm. Richard Lyon told Class 172 during graduation. “Desert Storm is not over and the test is ahead.”
The military is secretive about the role of the SEALs in the Gulf, but a high-ranking official said that SEALs have plucked a downed U.S. pilot from the Persian Gulf. SEALs also crept ashore on the island of Qaruh, the first Kuwaiti land that was recaptured by U.S. military and allied forces last month. During the assault, three Iraqis were
killed, an Iraqi minesweeper sunk, and 29 Iraqis were taken prisoner.
SEALs were also the first ashore on the small island Maridum, after a U.S. pilot spotted a message written in stones in misspelled English: “SOS We Serrender.” The Iraqis had apparently placed 20 to 30 men on the island but were unable to resupply them for at least a week. One Navy official in Washington explained: “Of course, we sent in the SEALs, we didn’t know whether they were really surrendering or playing a trick.”
SEALs may be expected to carry out espionage behind enemy lines, demolish coral reefs to provide passageways for amphibious assault ships, snare floating mines and blow up strategic sites.
Today, special operation forces, such as the Navy SEALs, have become increasingly vital to the U.S. military, officials say.
“The SEALs are the point of the spear. Historically, SEALs have been the first on the beach--it’s more true today than ever. Now, we go in months in advance and find out what beaches are best suited for amphibious landings,” said Rear Adm. George R. Worthington, commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command. “You get more bang for the buck with special operation guys than any others.”
A week before graduation, Class 172 gathered in the sand behind the center for a combat training session. The instructor offered tips on killing with the enthusiasm of a cook sharing recipes.
“The key is the neck, gentlemen. Not the arm,” he told them as he demonstrated how to slash a man’s throat.
Class 172 lined up and practiced running at each other, stabbing one another in the neck with sheathed knives, first from the right side, then from the left. From stabbings, the group moved on to breaking a man’s neck by wrenching it firmly to the side and thrusting the victim into the sand.
“I am not showing how to push a guy down, I’m showing you how to break his neck. You can make him eat sand if you wish, but you break his neck,” the instructor said.
As the instructor demonstrated a sharp twist to one man’s head, a trainee muttered, “I bet he’s got a chiropractor business.”
Warming up to the exercise, the men vigorously attacked each other. Lt. Anthony McKinney, a 25-year-old Newport, R.I. native and class leader, elbowed his victim in the neck, guts, and then, as though for good measure, slapped his buttocks.
The exercises progressed, until the men started running through multiple moves: dislocating the victim’s kneecap, then his hip and slamming him to the ground.
One trainee lost his balance and inadvertently kicked Machinist Mate Jose Fernandez in the groin. Fernandez, a 20-year-old Miami native, sank twisting into the sand. As he gasped for air, his partner apologized profusely. The instructor shrugged, saying: “This will give you confidence, Fernandez, that this works.”
For the graduating members of Class 172, Hell Week is etched in their memories as a crucial turning point, a time when they swallowed physical pain and kept focused on only one goal: becoming a SEAL.
Each man then believed if he could only survive Hell Week, he could endure the training. But the group quickly learned that training did not ease up, though they were able to sleep more. As the weeks passed, they were expected to run and swim longer distances in less time.
“If I knew then what I know now, it would be more intimidating because it doesn’t get any easier,” said Gunner’s Mate Kenneth Needham, 20. “They say the only easy day is yesterday, and it’s true.”
Last fall, 84 men entered Class 172; of that original group, 35 graduated Friday. Another six joined from previous classes after they had “rolled back,” or flunked a training phase because of medical, physical or academic reasons.
The 25-week training program is divided into three phases. The first nine-week leg, which includes Hell Week, focuses on physical training and learning small boat seamanship. The second phase, seven weeks long, focuses on diving. And land warfare constitutes the third and final nine-week phase. (Navy officials recently swapped the order of the land warfare and diving phases for future classes.)
After 18 weeks of training, the men were transformed. They lost their gaunt, wiry look. They lost the bowlegged walk of Hell Week--a result of chafed skin. They seemed more confident. The 14-mile run the Friday before graduation seemed routine. A 6.5-mile swim in the open ocean, which took almost four hours, was cold but not an ordeal.
And the change was not only physical. Once verbally battered by instructors, Class 172 had gained more equal footing. They occasionally joked or even talked back to instructors.
“In first phase, they could tell us to jump off a bridge and we would,” said Gunner’s Mate Donald Nichols, a 20-year-old Milton, Fla.-native. “Now, we wouldn’t.”
For many, the training meant defying the odds, grappling with their own fears and surpassing their own physical expectations. Not one man graduated who didn’t at some point think of quitting.
“I’ve seen a lot of guys who were a lot stronger and who didn’t make it. It’s not just physical--it’s a little bit of luck,” Nichols said.
“Each of us here probably knew 10 or more people who wanted to be here,” said Gunner’s Mate David Preedy, 28, a Hillsboro, Ore. native.
Fernandez, 20, was one of the few SEAL trainees who dived before joining the Navy. Fernandez taught scuba diving in Miami. But, as a SEAL, he had to learn how to use a closed-circuit breathing apparatus.
Fernandez and the others learned to use a Draeger, a front-mounted rebreathing rig that uses pure oxygen. These 24-pound rigs provide swimmers with about four hours of underwater time. Civilian scuba divers use gear that emits bubbles, a tell-tale sign that could be dangerous for a combat swimmer.
Because of the dangers of oxygen toxicity, would-be SEALs are drilled on symptoms, ranging from nausea to blurry vision, dizziness to convulsions. There are other hazards. When flooded, the rig creates a “caustic cocktail,” or caustic fumes--resulting from chemicals in the tank mixing with water--that can kill a diver by burning his lungs.
“It makes you kind of anxious and very cautious,” said Fernandez, the first member of his family to join the military.
Ken Needham, 20, did his first dive during the training program. To him, the sensation of weightlessness and the echoing quiet of the underwater was eerie. “It was like going to sleep in an empty room, but you hear this breathing noise,” he said.
Needham and other SEAL trainees have been taught to swim with a “buddy.” One man functions as a driver, holding an “attack” board containing a compass, a depth gauge and a watch. They learn to swim and calculate how many kicks they need to cover certain distances.
A week before graduation, Class 172 gathered at the Silver Strand. The men “jocked up,” or donned their frogmen gear. They adjusted their black hoods and checked the yellow cord connecting the pairs. Then two-by-two, they walked backwards into the water. A bright pink buoy floated in their wake, as the men silently submerged.
“Gentlemen,” said Chief Warrant Officer Ross Huddleston, “it doesn’t get any better than this.”
For Class 172, the struggle is not over. The men go next to sky diving school for a three-week course. Then, finally, they reach the SEAL teams, where they are placed on six-month probation before they earn their “trident,” which makes them eligible for deployment on missions. About 5% of the new SEALs don’t succeed and are booted off the teams.
During graduation Friday, Class 172 and their families seemed almost stunned that the rigorous training was actually over. Families filled the folding chairs in the compound of the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado and watched as the members of Class 172 stepped up to receive their diplomas.
Karen Needham, a Lancaster, Pa. native whose son, Kenneth, is a gunner’s mate, said: “SEALs are just a different breed. It’s something that someone else does--not your child.”
For the men, the diploma was a gateway to a long-held dream. Airman Rich Cleveland, 22, had tried twice before to become a SEAL. First, he got hypothermia. Then he broke his leg last March. He has been at the center so long--either recuperating or training--that his colleagues call him “Ol’ Timer.”
“I wouldn’t say I feel invincible, I know I am not better than anyone else. But I do know that I can do things other people can’t,” said the Oklahoma native, who was so excited about graduation that he hadn’t slept the night before. “We walk around, we look at people, and we look right through them--you don’t have any fear or inhibitions about people. The confidence just reeks out of you.”
At 29, Avionics technician Joseph Fischer belongs to Class 172’s “Geriatric crew.” After eight years working as a restaurant manager, Fischer quit his $30,000-a-year job, gave his furniture to his sister, and joined the Navy. The Chattanooga, Tenn.-native took--and failed--the SEALs’ fitness test 10 times. The first time, he could only do 30 of a required set of 42 push ups. The next time, he was one shy of the required 50 sit ups.
“I enjoyed training, but I don’t want to do it again,” he said. “I never want to do it again.”
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