Music open intro...
Intro: 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.