Swim. Bike. Run. Shoot. Kill.
Overrun with linebacker types who can't hack the training, recruiters for the Navy SEALs are targeting X Gamers and endurance athletes. Because who wouldn't want Lance Armstrong on the front lines?
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MITCH HALL probably shouldn’t have been posing for pictures. It was the afternoon before last October’s Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, and he was hoping to finish in the top 100.
Most of his fellow competitors spent hours fine-tuning their bikes and bodies and resting up for the next day’s 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run. But this time Hall, who had placed 207th out of the more than 1,700 competitors in 2005, had returned to Kona on the military’s dime. The Navy even ponied up for his $7,000 Cervélo P3 triathlon bike. A 16-year veteran of the SEALs—he received a Bronze Star for classified actions as one of the first Americans on the ground in Afghanistan in 2001—Hall had become the face of the elite force’s surprising effort to increase its ranks by dipping into the world of endurance and adventure sports.
And so, instead of sipping liquids in the shade, Hall, 35, an intense, sinewy man who bears a passing resemblance to Lance Armstrong, was standing in the 80-degree heat by the pool at the Kona Seaside Hotel, half smiling, his bike in front of him and emblazoned with Navy and SEAL decals, with a 19-year-old SEAL recruit next to him, posing for photos destined for posters, pamphlets, or the SEAL Web site—or at least for convincing the Navy that the bike had been a sound investment. “We’ve worked my triathlon interest into the recruiting effort,” Hall said after the shoot. “And I think it’s a win-win.”
Kona was a test rollout of sorts for what’s being called SEAL Athlete, a program that aims to wrap a recruiting message around the fact that, in their free time, SEALs tend to gravitate toward long-distance races and action sports.
“We’re looking for target=-rich environments,” Captain Roger Herbert, the commanding officer of the Naval Special Warfare Center, told me at their facility on Coronado Island, near San Diego. “In Southern California, surf competitions make great venues, water-polo matches make great venues. We even went to a lifeguard competition.”
SEAL Athlete is one of the primary innovations of the new Naval Special Warfare Recruiting Directorate, formed in December 2005 and tasked with collaborating with the Navy’s traditional recruiting arm to find more and better SEAL candidates. The Directorate is like a boutique ad agency, reaching out to a niche that standard Navy recruiting efforts often overlook. (The Navy tends to set up booths at places like NASCAR races and boat shows.) And though they didn’t really expect to find any recruits at Kona—while the average age at the Ironman World Championship is 38, the cutoff for SEAL recruits is 28—the SEALs saw their presence there as an important first step toward making a good impression on a new audience.
Hall’s hopes of impressing with his time were dashed when he came down with flu-like symptoms the night after the photo session. Feverish and depleted, he limped across the finish line after 13 and a half hours, in 1,407th place. It was a disappointing result from a personal perspective, but it was still on message: SEALs are just like you—assuming you enjoy swimming, cycling, and running 13 hours a day.
“Getting the word out in this community, with Mitch and other athletes, is important,” explains Captain Duncan Smith, 48, an adventure racer who joined the SEALs in 1985, served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has headed the Recruiting Directorate since its inception. “It might be a small pond, but it’s a pond where we want to make sure we’re fishing.”
IT’S NOT THAT THE SEALS (Sea, Air, Land) have a problem attracting ready, willing recruits; the Navy sends them more than enough men interested in joining a force revered for having handled some of the most delicate and dangerous operations in every conflict since Vietnam. It’s the able part that’s tricky. The initial, seven-month training gantlet, known as BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training), is a notoriously brutal selector, intentionally designed to disabuse the vast majority of its initiates of their SEAL daydreams. BUD/S can handle a maximum of roughly 1,000 men annually, spread out over five classes, but it graduated just 192 in 2005 and only 171 last year. “Navy recruiting complained that ‘We send you good guys and you break them,’ ” Smith says. “And our answer was, ‘Well, you’re sending us the wrong guys.’ “
Smith is convinced that the right guys are endurance fiends like triathletes—wiry all-arounders who tend to be focused, good both on land and in the water, and largely indifferent to physical discomfort. Contrary as it may be to our cinematically sculpted notions of them as neckless linebacker types, typical SEALs are around five foot ten and 175 pounds. “Bigger guys are mostly weeded out,” an instructor told me at the BUD/S compound on Coronado Island last spring. “Too much body to haul around.”
The graduation rate at BUD/S has historically stood at around 26 percent, which, though low, was enough for the SEALs to maintain their 2,300-man force. But then they became, in a way, victims of their own success.
The SEALs were among the very first soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan in 2001, sniffing out Al Qaeda operatives and weapons caches. They were dispatched to secure offshore oil platforms during the initial invasion of Iraq and, thanks to their adaptability and proficiency at rapid mobilization, have become indispensable in the urban shooting galleries of Baghdad and Fallujah. Yet despite thousands of frontline missions, they have suffered only 19 combat fatalities over the past six years. Wanting more of that sort of efficacy and efficiency, the Defense Department recently called on them to add 500 men to their ranks by 2011.
Making BUD/S easier so that more men could pass (the SEALs don’t take women) simply wasn’t an option. “Compromising quality risks mission failure, or American lives, or both,” Captain Herbert, the commanding officer of the training center, explained. “That would be just immoral.” The obvious solution was finding better recruits. When Smith started looking behind the numbers at BUD/S and discovered that triathletes were graduating at a rate of better than 40 percent, he had an idea of where to find them. “If you look at who our guys are and the things they do on the weekends—triathlons, climbing, open-ocean swims—they get out there,” he explained. Smith, who runs a SEAL mountain-bike team and once competed in events like the Eco-Challenge and the X Games as a Salomon-sponsored athlete, decided to take advantage of that fact by simply advertising it.
Over the past year and a half, he or members of his staff of 28, supplemented by SEALs with backgrounds in the relevant sports, have started showing up at endurance events, sometimes competing, sometimes just manning information tables. “It’s about the right information conveyed by the right messenger, in this case an athlete talking to another athlete, who also happens to be a SEAL,” Smith says.
At the Winter X Games in Aspen this year, they brought a pull-up bar to see how many people they could find who could do ten pull-ups. They ended up with 215, including a female big-wall climber who racked up 32. (Take that, boys’ club.) They’ve spoken at REI stores and to running clubs, and, in late June, they put on a pilot event in Boston called the Trident Challenge, a competition based on the SEAL Physical Screening Test—”Triathlon light, with a strength component,” Smith calls it. They’ve also been promoting the Superfrog, a SEAL-run triathlon held in and around their training compound on Coronado. The September 2006 race, which Mitch Hall won, drew more than 300 entrants, 165 of whom were civilians.
Smith has also made a priority of pulling the curtain back slightly on what has traditionally been a fairly opaque organization, on the theory that the more informed recruits are going in, the less likely they will be to quit. He has set up a call line to field questions from interested candidates and, with help from the Navy, established a nationwide network of mentors—most of them former SEALs—to prepare recruits for BUD/S. And where once the SEALs cultivated secrecy and relied partly on the attendant mystique to attract candidates, Smith has even begun courting the media. “Twenty years ago, when Mitch and I joined, there were none of these resources,” he says. “It was some fat guy from the fleet with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. That was recruiting.”
THIS IS WHAT RECRUITING looked like at the 12 Hours of Temecula mountain-bike race in California this past June: In a dusty pit area next to brand-laden canopies bearing names like Trek and Spinergy, the SEAL crew sat in the shade of its own black pop-up canopy. It was 12 feet long on each side and carried a three-foot-tall rendering of the gold SEAL trident insignia on top, with
printed underneath that in ten-inch letters. A mural-size photomontage of SEALs in Humvees, helicopters, and scuba gear hung between two poles at the back of the canopy. But otherwise the scene was the same as at any other team tent. There was no table stacked with brochures, no recruiter in dress whites. If anyone had a question about signing up, he’d get an answer from one of the racers sitting in the shade, downing calories between laps. The only people the SEALs spoke with unsolicited were the guys at the Intense Cycles tent, where Smith and a few of his teammates asked if they could demo some bikes.
“I was kind of tripping on it at first, like, What are the Navy SEALs doing here?” said Dylan Scharf, who was staffing the Intense booth. “But they’re ultra-fit, well trained, so it makes sense in a way.” Race director Jason Ranoa, a former Army Airborne Ranger, has been welcoming of Smith and his teams but was a bit surprised to find that he was far from the only rider who felt that way. “Mountain bikers tend to be a little hippie-ish,” he says. “But you see a lot of them going over and talking to them. I think they see the SEALs as like an adventure race for a living.”
Recruiting in a demographic unaccustomed to the attentions of the military requires a delicate touch, but that’s not the only reason the SEALs avoid the hard sell. “We recognize there’s strength in being subtle,” Smith explained after the race, in which his teams finished first and third in the five-person division. “What we want, really, is for them to come to us.”
For an example of the kind of recruit he wants and the way he wants to find him, Smith introduced me to an ex-SEAL named Chris. (Now a private security contractor, he asked to be identified by first name only.) Chris started looking into a career in the SEALs a couple of years after meeting one at the 1996 Eco-Challenge, where both were competing. A former ski-patroller and paramedic, he was 30 at the time and working as a park ranger at Yosemite. Eventually the Navy granted him an age waiver—not uncommon for qualified candidates—and at 33 he entered BUD/S. He credits his multisport background with helping him get through. “To be a SEAL,” he explained, “you have to be the sort of guy who, if someone tells you this is the hardest climb in your area or this is the hardest trail to run, you say to yourself, ‘Well, I wonder if I could do that.’ “
The SEALs also go out of their way to be clear about the dangers and stresses of life as a maritime commando. BUD/S doesn’t look like a mountain-bike race, and it shouldn’t. “Everyone knows this is a frontline job—it’s right there staring at them,” says one instructor from SEAL Qualification Training, the skills-intensive six-month phase that follows BUD/S. “Last class, six days after graduating, some of the guys went down range.” SEAL-speak for combat deployment, going “down range” is not a question of if but when. Virtually every SEAL who’s been active since 2001 has put in at least two deployments to war zones, some many more.
“I would never try to talk anybody into this,” Captain Herbert said. “We say this is who we are and, even more important, this is who we are not.”
THERE ARE NO OFFICIAL NUMBERS yet on how many recruits the SEAL Athlete effort has brought in or how many of those have graduated BUD/S, but, anecdotally, things seem off to a good start. In February, Class 264 arrived on Coronado for Indoc—the three-week BUD/S preparatory phase that functions as a preseason workup—with 250 men. So many recruits are typically lost during Indoc—due to injuries, poor performances, and second thoughts—that they can’t even fill all 190 available slots at BUD/S. Class 264 performed so well, there were more than 190 men left at the end of Indoc, meaning some were turned over to the next class even though they had passed. It was the first full BUD/S class in more than 20 years. “I would love to have this become a regular thing,” Herbert says. “Get more guys than I can class up, and let them fight it out to get those limited seats.”
Graduation rates have also jumped—by 23 percent, the most significant increase in more than two decades. By this past April, the SEALs had already met their recruiting quota for the year. “We’ll always see some fluctuations,” Smith says. “But we hope the trend continues, because 2011 is tomorrow.”
Of course, if Smith’s task is to find men who can make it through training, the job of BUD/S is to test the limits. While recruits no doubt emerge fitter, they don’t really begin to learn the skills necessary for the job until they move on to SEAL Qualification Training. Until then, their instructors will run them through a highly orchestrated physical and mental wringer. “We’re trying to stress them out to the point that they’re freaking out,” an instructor—who had recently recovered from being shot in the hip in Iraq—explained during a BUD/S session last spring. “Then we watch what they do.”
By the third morning of BUD/S, 17 of the original 141 men from Class 265 had already quit. The remaining 124 were running across wet sand in teams of six or seven, each team carrying a 12-foot-long, 300-pound inflatable rubber boat on their heads. (Many of them will leave with temporary bald spots as a result.) Each man’s camouflage fatigues, orange life jacket, and combat boots were soaking wet and flecked with sand. Their hats were secured to their shirts so they wouldn’t lose them when they paddled their boats 100 yards out and flipped them over—a Sisyphean task known as “dumping boat”—before getting back in and paddling to shore. It looked like a particularly coordinated bout of frat-house hazing.
It wasn’t yet 9 a.m. and they’d already done a timed run through an obstacle course, several hundred push-ups and sit-ups, and numerous sprints and “bear crawls”—gorilla-like, four-points-of-contact shuffles up and over a 20-foot-high sand berm. They had a 1.5-mile ocean swim to look forward to in the afternoon. And then there was the shouting.
“You dummies! Is that how you carry a boat?”
“You better be sprinting!”
Every BUD/S class is full of surprises. Guys who run five-minute miles might lack the strength to keep up on the obstacle course, and all-American swimmers often run like beached sea lions once they hit the sand.
“It’s nearly impossible to predict for that x-variable that makes people successful here,” Smith told me. “Ultimately, it’s probably a manifestation of a lot of other attributes we can’t properly measure.”
During the last half-hour of day three, five more members of Class 265 trudged wet and dejected from the beach to a small brass ship’s bell in a courtyard at the BUD/S compound, each ringing it three times—the signal that he had given up on trying to become a SEAL. “It doesn’t matter how athletic you are,” an instructor told me. “BUD/S is still going to kick you square in the nuts.”