Six days of doing the “extreme” – how I got through Hell Week

Six days of doing the “extreme” – how I got through Hell Week

January 23, 2019 2 By Rick

All special forces around the world have incredibly difficult selection processes. That’s why they’re called “special forces.” I’ve had the privilege of getting to know operators from some of the finest of them: American “Green Berets,” Delta Force, Rangers, Force Recon, “PJs” and Combat Controllers, SAS and SBS (British, Australian and New Zealand), Israeli Shayetet 13, Polish Grom, Italian GOI, Swedish SOG and other “warriors” from around the world (I’m sure I’ve forgotten some but age blurs my memory). I have the greatest respect for all of them. This is my story about the most extreme, challenging, intense and life-changing week I’ve ever experienced! It’s a long post, so you might want to sit down with your favorite “adult” beverage while reading it.

For those of you short of time, here’s an “executive summary.” Hell Week is 5-6 days of cold, wet, brutally difficult operational training on less than four hours of sleep. Hell Week tests physical endurance, mental toughness, pain and cold tolerance, teamwork, attitude/mindset and your ability to perform work under high physical and mental stress – and sleep deprivation. Above all, it tests determination and desire. It takes you past the point of no return in your mind. It teaches you that nothing is “impossible,” and impossible is “nothing.” If that got you curious, read on to learn more!

Anyone who has completed BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training) has his own stories about Hell Week. I’m often asked what it was like and how I got through it. A lot of people want to know if it was tougher when I went through than it is now? Well, ask any old frogman and he’ll tell you that his Hell Week was the toughest ever. When we talk about class numbers (mine was 39 at Little Creek, VA), all frogmen say jokingly that their class was the “last tough class.” I completed BUD/S in the mid-60s and have only had the opportunity to see one Hell Week since then when I participated as a volunteer SEAL “Motivator” in the breakout of a BUD/S class in 2001 (I worked the midnight to 0600 shift with the trainees). Not much had changed! This much I can tell you though – all Hell Weeks are like being “kicked in the nuts” continuously for about 5 ½ – 6 days and nights. No matter how much you prepare physically and mentally, you’re still caught by surprise and in my case, overwhelmed, on “breakout night,” which is when Hell Week commences.

I can’t speak for others, but I would imagine their stories are like mine. A lot of what took place has been blurred by the passage of time and some of it I just flat out can’t remember because of the “mental fog” I was in during that week. I came directly from the fleet, i.e., I was on a destroyer in the middle of a “Mediterranean Cruise” and definitely out of shape (not really anywhere to run on a destroyer) when I got my orders to BUD/S. I spent the first couple of weeks there trying my best to get into some sort of shape, “gently encouraged” by the instructors. I was totally in awe of them. They seemed like a cross between Superman, Aquaman and God knows what else. I would soon find out what they could do – up close and personal. I also prepared myself mentally before Hell Week for the dreaded exercise known as “drownproofing,” where I would bob in the water for 30 minutes, fetch my facemask from the bottom of the pool and then swim 100 meters all with my hands and feet bound as part of my test to prove how comfortable I was in the water and underwater.

I had just turned 19, and these “salty” old veterans (probably not older than the late 30s to early 40s) seemed invincible. They could run endless distances, do push-ups, pull-ups and other exercises forever, seemingly with little effort at all. I remember one instructor who called himself the “divine wind.” Built like a long-distance runner, he probably weighed no more 65 kg soaking wet with a couple of bricks in his pocket. He would lead our long beach runs smoking a cigar! That used to freak me out. He would always shout “catch me if you can” at the beginning of a run. Very few could! They were the most amazing bunch of men I had ever encountered in my 19 years. I so much wanted to be one of them! When I worked a Hell Week later in 2001 at the age of 54, I chuckled to myself at how “young” the instructors were. Time certainly gives you a different perspective!

In the hours leading up to breakout (usually around midnight on Sunday evening but it could be earlier), I was so nervous that I ran outside the barracks and vomited just as a certain instructor walked by, a guy who had decided for some reason that his primary mission in life was to make sure I quit. He immediately chewed my ass out for vomiting in “his area,” on Navy property and for wasting the exceptionally delicious Navy chow (food) I had recently eaten. I was instructed to “taste” my vomit to remind myself of the culinary experience I had just thrown up. Of course, that set off another round of vomiting. Anyway, you get the picture. I hated this guy and was determined to graduate just to piss him off. Anyway, with nothing in my stomach, I was “running on empty” when Hell Week started and scared shitless (pardon my French).

When BUD/S Class 39 started, we had 200-250 people (classes were large in the Vietnam era), but by the time Hell Week began, we had already lost close to 100. I sat in my barracks with my fellow trainees waiting for the “shit storm” that was about to engulf us. I reflected on the state of my physical condition, which wasn’t great. Although I ran sprints in high school (lots of fast-twitch fiber muscles), I was a poor long-distance runner. A lap around a 400-meter track seemed like a marathon to me. Luckily, I was an outstanding swimmer, having set a couple of city records for the Butterfly and Freestyle events in high school. I told myself over and over that this was my saving grace! As the dreaded hour approached, I started psyching myself up by repeating “I’m never going to quit. I’m never going to give up.” And then all hell broke loose, and complete bedlam descended on us!

The instructors ran into our barracks firing automatic weapons (blanks, I hoped at the time) screaming and yelling at us. There were deafening explosions, shrill whistles and smoke everywhere and as soon as we got outside, we were hit with a freezing blast of water from firehoses, completely soaking us and ensuring that we’d remain wet and cold throughout the week. The instructors then screamed: “hit the deck” (get on the ground), and so began what seemed like endless rounds of crazy exercises and even crazier and often conflicting commands that confused the hell out me. If we didn’t obey the command correctly, we got even more harassment. My first thought was this is what they mean by the “fog of war.” It was total chaos! Making this all the worse for this Florida boy who had only seen snow in the movies was the fact that I went through a “winter class,” which any frogman will tell you is the worst of all, especially on the east coast. The temperature that week in early February had dropped to a mind- (and other body parts!) numbing -8 C! (OK, I live in Sweden now so that doesn’t seem so bad, but it was an extra killer for me then.).

Much of the next 5 ½ – 6 days is a blur, so I had to reach out to my old swim buddy to add information and jog my memory. Trainees were dropping like flies. Every time I turned around, someone quit. I’m pretty sure that the cold, PT (Physical Training), mental and physical harassment combined with fatigue convinced many that it just wasn’t worth it. It was too much for them. We would do thousands and thousands of repetitions of every exercise known to man and then some before the week was over. I saw a quote from a graduate from another class that sums it up well: “BUD/S will give you too much of everything.” Contrary to what people think, BUD/S is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. It’s mainly people’s minds that give up on them, not their bodies.

It was a never-ending tsunami of pull-ups, push-ups, burpees, star jumps, “good morning darlings,” flutter kicks, leg lifts, eight-count body-builders, running, swimming and other “fun” water activities, log PT, mental harassment and rolling in the sand when you’re wet to become a “sugar cookie.” You learn quickly not to wear underwear as mud and sand collect in them and cause serious chafing. That’s why it’s called “going commando.” Other interesting exercises included the “slide for life,” obstacle course, the “dirty name” and endless “duck walking,” i.e., walking while squatting. One interesting note is that Naval Special Warfare finally figured out at some point long after I graduated that duck walking ruined the Anterior Cruciate Ligament. Just about everyone I know from my period now has knee problems and many have had knee replacements (myself included). Parachuting landings compounded the problem, of course. In the Hell Week I worked in 2001, trainees did bear walks instead. It still sucked from what I could see. And the instructors were just as “evil.”

During the entire week, you had to stay as close to your swim buddy as possible. And almost everywhere we went, we had to carry 136 kg IBS (Inflatable Boat Small) boats on our heads. We worked in 7-man boat crews with trainees of different heights (only time in my life I was glad I was short!). It didn’t take us long to understand that unless we worked as a team, we would perform poorly. And performing poorly meant doing more of the same exercise again and again. I learned the real meaning of “it pays to be a winner.” The winning boat crew in every activity got to rest while the others did it again. Teamwork became the buzzword, especially where the infamous obstacle course was concerned! Our friendly instructors had devised yet another diabolical exercise. They made us carry our “beloved” boats over the O-course and somehow manhandle them over the goddamned obstacles. Unbelievable!

At some point in this week (can’t remember when), we paddled in an all-night exercise called “around the world.” All I can remember is being wet, cold, tired, muddy and hungry, which were reoccurring themes throughout the week. The mud flats (which stank to high heavens and nearly sucked your boots and clothing off you) were a favorite of the instructors. Try to imagine moving in cold molasses with explosives going off all around you and you’ll get the picture. Try not to picture me with my head nearly up the ass of the guy crawling in front of me trying to get out of there as quickly as possible and scared as hell with all the explosions going off around us. And just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, the next shift of well-rested and motivated instructors showed up. Don’t you just love these guys? Fresh from a good night’s sleep in a warm bed, holding a steaming hot cup of strong coffee and ready to make our lives even more miserable (yes, it was possible!).

There were endless runs up and down “Mt. Suribachi,” a huge sand dune named after a mountain on the island Iwo Jima, and, of course, plenty of beach runs in deep sand. I thought my thighs, hamstrings and calves were going to explode. The instructors were always happy to get us in the water, whether it was the Chesapeake Bay or a pool, which at -8C (hypothermia be dammed) was always a humbling experience in a bathing suit. Luckily, they had cooked up lots of fun competitions to warm us up, such as pool harassment, swimming races with a wet towel in each hand, etc. Our instructors were always right there with us – bundled up in cold weather gear with a hot thermos of coffee! And the ever-present smile that seemed to signal “I’m going to break you if it’s the last thing I do.” Good luck trying, I told myself quietly. They suck, and I hate them, but I can’t let them win. No fucking way!

To get through Hell Week, I worked hard to focus on the exercise at hand. Whatever I was doing right then and there was all that mattered. If I had begun to think about getting to the last day, I don’t know if I would have made it. And every time I completed an exercise, I celebrated (in my mind) a mini-victory. Eating was another great experience. We ate every 5-6 hours and consumed (I’ve since read) about 7,000 calories a day – yet I still lost weight. God knows how many calories we were burning during the same period. Also, we didn’t get long for each meal – maybe about 5 minutes from start to finish. That meant charging ahead of the long line of regular sailors waiting to eat, grabbing everything you could from the serving line, stuffing some in your mouth and as much as you could in all your pockets to snack on later. You’d be surprised at how much food you can stuff into your clothing! After a few days of constant stress with little or no sleep, I started to hallucinate. At times, I wasn’t sure if I was in reality or a dream. The next stage was full on maximum disorientation and “zombie mode,” where I stayed for the remainder of the week stumbling from exercise to exercise.

Two other days (day/night) in Hell Week stand out in my mind, one of which was crucial to me. The first was called “so-solly” day, which consisted of the biggest and loudest explosions so far (charges were buried in the sand and were detonated as we crawled around them and sometimes over them. When they detonated, it was like a “punch in the gut” from a heavyweight boxer that lifted us off the ground, more paddling, more hard swims and hard runs. And more harassment! If I remember correctly, it was the last day of Hell Week, but I could be wrong. The other day (actually night) was a 30 km run in the freezing cold – in boots, heavy jacket, full fatigues, steel helmet, huge kapok life jacket and gloves! It was the loss of the last item on this list that nearly brought me down. Our loving instructors gave us several short (one minute) breaks during the run, which we spent in the lean and rest (push-up) position with our hands in super-cold water AFTER having broken the ice on frozen puddles. This was starting to get to me, but as long as I had my gloves, I was OK. But then I lost them. Holy Shit!!!

I don’t know how or where, but suddenly they were gone. I remember struggling with my inner voice which was pleading for me to quit because my hands were frozen. I must have babbled out loud about being cold and considering quitting because a fellow trainee running beside me said: “Rick, take my gloves. I’m from Pittsburgh and can handle the cold. But I don’t do heat very well so when we get to Puerto Rico for water training, you’ll need to help me!” That one effort from a teammate prevented me from quitting. And I gladly helped him out when we got to Puerto Rico. I never saw him again after I left the Navy, but I remember that moment from more than 50 years ago like it was yesterday. Again, that was true sacrifice and teamwork. You can’t get through BUD/S without it!

There are many other things I could write about, such as crawling through raw sewage and dipping my head beneath surface (one of my all-time favorites), being told we were done with a 10 km run only to find out we had another 5 km to run, learning to fall asleep in a nanosecond when we got an opportunity to grab a few minutes of the max. 4 hours of sleep we were “promised” for the entire week. Of course, they never told us we would only be getting the sleep a few minutes at a time spread throughout the week. Nor did they mention the constant mental harassment when you were trying to sleep by professionals who knew how to break you down. My favorite instructor (remember the vomiting incident?) was especially great at getting in my face as often as possible and asking if I wanted to kick his ass. Time and time again he tried to get me to fight him, and I refused. Not just because I was tired but because that would have been the stupidest thing I ever did for many reasons, including the fact that he would have “pulverized” me very quickly. Frogmen aren’t stupid.

My final memory is the last hour of the last day of Hell Week. We were told to report to the briefing room and wait. Everybody started congratulating each other and cheering. Then the Chief Instructor threw the door open and stormed in screaming: “You guys suck. You’re the worst class I’ve ever seen. None of you deserve to be frogmen. There’s no rule that says Hell Week has to end now. Gear up because we’re going to do Hell Week all over again!” At that point, one of the trainees got up and said: “I quit.” As soon as he left the room, the instructor smiled and said: “I was just joking. I can usually get a few to quit right at the very end. Hell Week is secured!” This poor guy had made it through the entire week but gave up mentally when facing the prospect of doing it again. The rest of training was tough but had much less mental harassment. I can’t remember how many of us made it through Hell Week, but I do remember that of the original group of around 250, 35 of us graduated from BUD/S. The things I learned in Hell Week, during the rest of BUD/S and my time in “The Teams” have helped me throughout life!

So, what did I learn? I learned that the human body is ten times (some say 20 times) stronger than the mind will let it be. I learned when to turn off the “rational thinking” part of my brain that tells me that I need to go to sleep, rest, recover after a long day’s work and when to turn it on again. I learned never to give up and never to quit (our instructors told us to “put your mind in neutral and get your ass in gear”); to set mini-goals and focus on the task at hand; to eat when you can and sleep when you can; to take care of your teammate and know that he will take care of you; to plan, plan, plan and to communicate, communicate, communicate; and last but not least. I learned you don’t gotta like it – you just gotta do it and it pays to be a winner. Completing BUD/S is a gut-check that shows your teammates that you want to be there and that you won’t quit when needed by your team. Would I do it again? You bet! That experience shaped me for the rest of my life and forged a brotherhood of friends that remains intact today more than 50 years later! Completion of BUD/S binds me together with every man who completed it before me, with me and after me – a select brotherhood!

By the way, after I graduated, my “favorite instructor” (vomit/fight guy) and I became friends. “Don’t take it personally,” he said. “I only want to operate with the very best,” he added with a broad smile and a handshake. “Welcome to The Teams! I still had diving school (open, semi-closed- and closed-circuit rigs), jump school, parachute rigging (packing) school, jungle warfare school, nuclear weapons school and a number of other schools to complete before I was finally done, but that smile, handshake and warm greeting said it all. I put in for BUD/S because I wanted to test myself. I did and I passed! And now I was going to get to jump out of airplanes, dive, travel to “exotic” places, blow up shit AND get a paycheck, too! Life doesn’t get any better for a 19-year-old.

If I accomplish nothing else with this post, I hope it’s that you’ll understand that anyone can do anything that they set their mind to if they refuse to give up. Don’t become so immersed in projecting that “perfect life” on social media, gaming and all the other WMD (Weapons of Mass Distraction) that abound today that you lose that “fire in the gut” feeling that will drive you to success! You are what you believe you are. Hooyah!