The only easy day was yesterday. (Intro)
SC: Hello, everyone, I’m Scott Williams, a member of the Navy SEAL and SWCC Scout Team here at Naval Special Warfare Center. I’m here today with Ken, a retired SEAL currently on the training staff at basic training command and an active duty SEAL, Steven, who is also on the training staff. The topic of our discussion today is myth-busting BUD/S, so let’s get right to it.
K: Hi, my name’s Ken. My background is 33 years active duty service, retired in 2016, was hired on about right after retiring to first phase at basic training command, and I’m the deputy OIC [Officer In Charge].
S: Hi, my name’s Steven. I have almost 20 years in of active service and still active, and I’m currently on the training staff at Basic Training Command, BUD/S.
SW: There’s a lot of chatter and written material on the market these days usually produced by ex-SEALs, and it talks about how candidates can prepare for BUD/S. Most of this seems to be from the perspective of guys that went through the SEAL pipeline years ago. Is it the same old BUD/S it used to be?
K: Well, from my perspective of having gone through it 33 years ago, no. It’s more professional, it’s harder because the candidates that are coming our way are better prepared than they ever have been, and what we’re looking for is that mental toughness. The attributes that we’re looking for are, or the traits: grit, integrity, honesty, team before self. Those words were never used when I went through 33 years ago, but they’re used today, and that’s what we’re looking for young men to display those things.
SW: Thanks, Ken. Steven, your perspective?
S: I would absolutely agree. I went through 17 years ago, so half of Ken. It’s absolutely more professional now. Without a doubt, I would, I don’t know if I would say it’s easier or harder, but it’s absolutely more professional. The reason I would say it’s hard is that everything we do in the training pipeline is to elicit a response from the students of what we want to see, and the characteristics that Ken just listed out, you can’t get those from every single class. Every class has their own personality by doing the exact same thing every time, so there’s small changes that are done for a reason to elicit certain responses that we want to see or to encourage certain attributes that we want to put forth.
SW: It seems like there’s a lot of books or videos out there that give you tips or tricks on how to game the system so to speak. Can that be done? Is that realistic?
S: I think it’s hard, especially the way we look at the program now with getting, encouraging those certain attributes. The pipeline is so long that a lot of the tips I would think you see are just for potentially first phase, which is only seven weeks of a over a year long pipeline. If you are using tips or tricks, they might work for a day, a week, two weeks, but with a pipeline being so long and so professional nowadays, that’s going to come out at some point in training in my opinion.
K: Yeah, I would say you can. The young men that come through this program, if they get with the wrong sort, those that have been in the pipeline for a long period of time, never having even completed first phase yet, could lead some astray, like, “Hey, cut this corner doing this way. Cut that corner doing that way.” That’s not what we’re looking for. Can it happen? Yes. Do we want to see it happen? No. We want everybody to experience BUD/S the same way. The kid that gets out of this program who cheated to get through the program, most likely even if he gets through the whole entire over year process, it’s 64 weeks long, he will be found somewhere at SEAL team I don’t care cause he will display that color. Leopards don’t change their spots, so if he cheated from the frontend, it will come out somewhere along the way.
SW: As members of the training staff, how do you evaluate candidates? What, what are you looking for in those guys when they’re out there on the grinder, in the dunes?
K: We’re looking for the individual who will, again, put team before self. So, when you think of log PT or you think of a boat on your head with seven guys underneath it running, we’re looking for the young man that’s going above and beyond. He sees that his partner’s hurting; he picks up that extra weight.
S: For me, the meathead version is I look for guys that will be hard when it’s hard. Things like cheating the system or cutting corners is, is being easy. That’s, that’s not what I’m looking for. As Ken referenced, the hard stuff, log PT, land portages, Hell Week, I’m looking for the young man that will display the characteristics that we’re looking for and be hard, be a good teammate when it’s hard to be a good teammate.
SW: Some of these outside sources have recommended taking things like caffeine pills or other chemical training aids. What do you say about that?
S: On the anything chemical aids, I think a lot of the stuff that’s probably designed for the average guy walking around doing the average job, it’s extremely dangerous to put that in your body in the training pipeline that we conduct because we are, your body’s going to put through stuff that that stuff is not designed to be in your body when you’re doing it, all day long calisthenics and physical activities. We see a lot of young men, unfortunately, that will have glucose issues or overheat, and some of those are attributed to taking something as simple as Monsters. So, anything that is designed to influence your heart rate one way or the other I think is extremely dangerous in a pipeline of this caliber and how intense it is.
SW: Did you say glucose issues?
S: So, you have your insulin in your blood or not enough sugar in your blood, so you’ll have issues, not be able to physically perform, which puts your status in the pipeline at risk because if you’re not performing to the standard, then you can be removed from training.
K: Yeah, I mean every class will see it, and it’s an unfortunate thing. We put in front of these young men nutritionists that give them all the keys to success to physically get through this program on what to eat, what not to eat, when to eat and how much to eat, what to stay away from. Every class, they come in thinking because somebody told them, “Take this supplement. It works. It got me through.” Well, it didn’t. It didn’t get them through, and it’s unfortunate. So, like Steven said, we will be out on evolutions, and you will see young men go down, and when you pull the string on it, there’s something there. They didn’t eat the breakfast they were supposed to eat, they didn’t eat the lunch they were supposed to eat, or they were taking a supplement they shouldn’t be taking.
SW: Now, they get plenty of food when they’re in BUD/S, don’t they?
K: Oh, yeah, probably too much food.
SW: I mean it’s not like during Hell Week, you starve them, right?
K: No, they get to eat four times a day during Hell Week. On top of that, they add in, or we add in, snacks and hydrates, so the young man can get through this thing. And what happens is we’ll set the young man up for failure as well if he’s on a supplement in the first three weeks, and then he gets into Hell Week, and he no longer has that ability to get to whatever he was taking, it comes out real quick, and he crashes, and he’s no longer in the program. So, my advice to anyone is don’t take supplements. Heed our words when we tell you don’t take them.
SW: Part of the mindset that’s been put out there is, is ways you can make your life easier at BUD/S, and the instructors have been described as being pretty tough, and, of course, training is tough, but the suggestion is that they can be bought off by, you know, coffee and donuts at the barracks inspection and so forth. Do you, do you see that happening?
S: I see occasionally during barracks, barracks inspections students leave stuff out purposely, but I don’t know how it’s worked in the past, but I would say in the last at least five years if not more, we treat those as gear drift like you would in any inspection, and you’ll see it the first, maybe the first inspection, where someone’s read something somewhere saying if I leave gifts out or tobacco out that I’ll get an easier time during the inspection, and now those are hits in the inspection, and they failed because of that stuff, and then you’ll see it the one time, and they’ll figure out, “Okay, yeah, that was complete crap that I heard or read, and that absolutely got me in more trouble than trying to put it out in the first place.”
K: Yeah, I can’t add anymore to that other than it’s funny to watch the look on their face when they believed in their hearts after whatever they’ve read that this gift, this offering would make it easier on them. And when they see it go sideways, and it doesn’t work out that way, it changes the behavior.
SW: Along those same lines, some have characterized the instructors at BUD/S as sadistic and violent. Would you say that’s the case?
S: Absolutely not. I would say that, as I alluded to earlier, the staff, every interaction we have with any of the candidates is to elicit a response. It is calculated and done for a reason. That’s why we try to make each class experience going through BUD/S to be exactly the same, but there is small nuances that elicit some of those characteristics we want to see, so can the staff be audibly aggressive or intense in interactions with the candidates? Absolutely, but that is a calculated move done to elicit a certain response to see a performance change or to see a character attribute change. There’s never, the only time staff ever comes anywhere near the students is for safety reasons or something like that. There’s no…It could be, I can see how a student would see cause they’re not behind the curtain, thinking that it’s sadistic, but in actuality, it’s a calculated, calculated method to elicit certain responses.
SW: No beatings behind the dunes and behavior like that?
S: If there are remediation tools that we use, and it is told to the students why this is happening before it happens, what they learned, when there’s discussions afterwards what they learned, and that’s, again, that’s a tool used to elicit certain responses or to promote good behavior vice bad behavior.
K: You know, we can’t speak for the past. I can only go two years back. That’s when I was hired on, and when I say our staff is more professional today than it ever has been before because of things like what Steven just put out there, we look for and we elicit behavioral responses based off of what we do. Now, in the past, had there been potential for instructors with students sadistic behaviors taking place, I can’t speak to that, but I will tell you today for the last two years, that does not happen.
SW: So, just a few years ago, Naval Special Warfare Center created the Instructor Qualification Course, the IQC, to formally professionalize the instructor cadre of all the phases. Have you seen that as a really significant step toward how instructors carry on their duties within first phase?
K: It has definitely helped in a sense of giving the instructor tools to be able to use as he’s in front of the student, student base. It has allowed a more confident instructor to stand before them with better knowledge and is equipped better to handle that student I want to say cohort ’cause it is. It’s about 150 to 200 people. So, from a professional standpoint, yes, it has.
SW: But I think the idea is that, or the impression is out there that BUD/S instructors have the latitude to on a whim decide they’re going to be tougher on the class today. And Steven, you spoke about this earlier, about how every response, every evolution out there is pre-briefed and is not as random as the students may think it is.
S: Just like certain operations are planned months in advance, you also have time sensitive operations that are done hours away from now. That’s almost the exact same thing with the BUD/S training pipeline, at least for First Phase. We have schedules, but if we are not seeing the attributes or the responses that we need to, we will change the schedule. We will add things, take things out, but every time we do that is to elicit a certain response. Every interaction with the student base is for a reason. It’s to have them display to us something that we want to see, and if we’re not seeing that, we can make minor tweaks. But the bottom line is those interactions with the student base are for a reason to elicit certain responses or to have them display certain attributes that we want to see.
SW: So, it’s not just the beatings will continue until morale improves. There’s, there’s an objective to every evolution and even remediation.
K: And there’s a curriculum that’s followed almost to a T, but there is the, if you’re not giving us the response that we need to see and that we’re looking to see, we have other tools to make you show us that. It may come off as we’re being sadistic, but we’re not. It’s just physical activity to elicit a response that we want to see.
SW: Now, I’ve heard this around the campus before that BUD/S is to some extent a bit of a mystery. Should it stay a mystery to candidates, or is some of the information out there actually good to have before they get here?
K: Can you give a specific?
SW: Some websites will give out training information, for instance, how to train for BUD/S. Is that worthwhile information to have before it gets here?
K: Sure. Again, the program itself, because of the length of it, and we’ll talk specifically just for first phase at BTC, you can know all the keys to the kingdom; you still have to physically go through it. So, log PT’s coming, you can practice log PT activities if you want. There’s plenty of videos out there showing you how to do it. It’s not the same until it’s game day, and you’ve got six other people on that log trying to do it. Working by yourself is easy. Working as a team, that’s what we’re looking for, is teammates, individuals who will work hard together. So, yes, we don’t mind, get yourself physically ready for this program, but the program itself is tough. You can’t hide from it.
S: I would concur. I don’t know, I don’t know how you would train for BUD/S other than putting in the work. You know there’s going to be running, you know there’s going to be swimming, you know there’s going to be a lot of calisthenics, so I don’t have any problem with anybody trying to get ready for that.
SW: But what is your best advice to a candidate that’s thinking about coming into the SEAL pipeline or getting himself or herself ready?
S: There is going to be growth on the mindset side going through this program, specifically first phase. It is hard to plan on doing some physical growth when you get to this program. You need to show up physically ready to go through the program but also have an open mind that you’re going to grow mentally a lot more than physically here. We’re going to beat you down physically to grow you mentally. What I mean by that is I think students sometimes come, and they want to try to cheat the system on a uniform inspection or a barracks inspection when in actuality what we’re trying to ferret out is I’m only going to give you, I’m not going to give you a gun and a radio and a bunch of other high-speed gear when I haven’t seen if you can take care of just what I’m giving you. So, when we first get here, we just give them a uniform. That’s it. Show me you can take care of this one thing, and then we will move on in the pipeline, as you go through the pipeline, more stuff to take care of, but if you can’t take care of just your uniform, then you’re proving to me that maybe you don’t have the capacity to progress in the pipeline. So, I think if students come here with that mindset of, “Okay, I’m going to make some mistakes. I’m going to prove that I can take care of this one thing myself. I’m not going to cheat it, I’m not going to buy extra, I’m going to prove that I can do this one thing by myself,” then that will make it easier for you as you go through the pipeline to set those good habits of taking care of your stuff, you taking care of your stuff, not someone else, not buying it on town, you taking care of that stuff. That’s what we want to see. So, show up physically ready cause you’re, you’re going to need to. You can’t grow physically in BUD/S. It’s the complete opposite, but on the same hand, show up open-minded that you’re going to make some mistakes, but those mistakes will help you further in the pipeline if you just do the work yourself.
K: But from a physicality piece, back to your, the genesis of your question, so the person who wants to come to this program has to take a PST. And if you pass the PST, or you score within the range we’re looking for, you have the physicality to at least get to Prep [Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School]. And when you go to NSW Prep post boot camp, that’s an 8-week program that does nothing but collegiate level get the human system ready for BUD/S. But you’re only going to be as strong and as good as what you put into it. If you don’t put the work into it even during Prep, and you show up to Coronado day one of NSWO or BO, Basic Orientation, your life gets woken up really quick on, “Oh, my gosh, I probably should’ve put a little bit more into it.” So, I’ll use this analogy of if this is the field you want to get into, and you know that the physicality it takes to do it, make that your craft, hone that, but the system today gives the young person everything they need to be successful here at BUD/S. It’s up to them whether they choose to take that on or not. That gets to the mental aspect of it, which is another component to this, which I would argue is probably about 60 to 70% of first phase. Where are you mentally? Do you have a good anchor for why you’re here? The physicality piece, if you’ve got physicality, you’re going to be okay here, but it’s really the mentality that we’re looking for. Will you keep going and keep going even when you’re exhausted? So, that’s what we’re looking for.
SW: So, the cheats and the shortcuts, they, they start adding up, they start having sort of a cascading effect on your ability to mentally and physically perform when it counts as the pipeline progresses, so you might be able to beat it today, but the fact that you didn’t get that mental lesson cause you shortcut it means that tomorrow it’s going to be even harder.
K: That is correct. There’s another component to this as well, so you have the mental, the physical, but you also have the human dynamics. So, on any given class that comes our way, it’s about 150 young persons that are coming from Prep in Great Lakes. There’s a human dynamic there that has to take place as well. So, I would say for those individuals who are very individualized, you need to learn to be in a team, to work with people. The individual does not fare well here because that is not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for young men, young women that can work as a team.
SW: It reminds me of, you know, the proverbial college star quarterback who gets drafted into the NFL and thinks so much of himself that the rest of his team hates him, and that first season, he ends up falling on his face because he doesn’t have the support of the rest of his team. They don’t want him around no matter how good he is because he’s not a teammate.
K: Correct, but you’ll see that. You’ll see that in this program, the young man who, “It’s all about me, I’m going to worry about me, I’m not going to worry about anybody else,” they don’t do well here, and they either have to change that behavior and realize that it is a team concept that we’re looking for, or they just go away.
S: Everybody has bad days in this pipeline, and if you think, “I’m, I can just do this by myself. I’m never going to have a weak moment,” you are sorely mistaken because we will make sure that you have weak moments, and if you are trying to do this by yourself, and you’re not a good teammate, the team will not be there to carry you along or lift you up or motivate you when you’re at those weak moments. So, everybody’s going to have them. That’s why you have, that is for a reason, so just try to get that response be a good teammate, work as a team. If you are not working as a team, then when you are having one of those weak moments, your team is not going to be there to lift you up.
SW: Let’s talk about the operational relevance. Some people see First Phase as just a big beat down session to weed guys out, and that’s all there is to it. We’ve talked about how some of those suggestions out there may be a little misleading when it comes to, “Here’s some shortcuts. Here’s some cheats,” and we talked about how that cascading effect happens. It ultimately leads, leads to failure, but carry that forward for me, about the lesson learned now about doing it the right way, going through the pipeline and how that translates later on when you put on the uniform, and you’re deployed out in the country, overseas, maybe on a small S&R [Surveillance and Reconnaissance] mission.
K: Well, I would, I’ll start with this. My hardest day in 33 years was not BUD/S. It just wasn’t, but BUD/S set the template for how I could manage sleep deprivation, physical exertion, doing the job that I was doing many a times, and that is almost to a man on the staff that we currently have. It’s funny when you hear them talk cause they will tell the students, “This is not hard compared to what you are going to face in reality going down range or deploying somewhere. We’re going to ask more of you, but you got to be able to get through this before I can ask you more,” if that makes sense.
S: And just to build on what Ken said, as I was talking about doing your first PI [Personnel Inspection], you’re going to make mistakes. Put in the work. It’s going to pay it forward. There are a lot harder times in your career than BUD/S, but BUD/S is on that same path just walking you, getting you stronger, getting you mentally stronger, giving you the tools mentally and physically to be able to push through whatever it is you’re doing that is hard, so you can be hard when it’s hard. I don’t want to go down the line of difference, things, doing this job overseas, but it sets the tone to show you that you’re capable of way more than you think you can, and everything takes practice, and it’s good for BUD/S to, it’s important that you practice being hard. It is going to be harder once you leave the program, period.
SW: The thing that reminded me of deployment and kind of you’re on your own or a very small team is when you mentioned the Personnel Inspection. You know, we give you a piece of gear to take care of. Can you prove that you can take care of that piece of gear? And then later on, you start adding more pieces of gear. One day, you’re out there, and you have your gear, and your teammate has his gear, and there’s no one else to take care of your gear, and I think, when I think about that personnel inspection as the very first lesson in being self-sufficient, taking care of your own stuff, not relying on other people to do it for you, I think it’s one of those things that goes back to, “Well, how do we, how can we game the system on how to get around this?” There’s no gaming the system out there, is there?
S: With a pipeline as long as this is, I don’t, I don’t believe, or it would be extremely difficult to game the whole system. There’s so much that’s built on every day. That’s why they say ‘the only easy day was yesterday,’ and if you’re gaming the system over and over, you’re going to, it’s going to come out. It absolutely will.
K: One simple thing, the helmet. Have students in the past purchased extra helmets, had somebody out in town paint their helmet, put their numbers on their helmet, put their name on their helmet? Yes, that has happened, and we have found them. What are we looking for? We’re looking for the young man that’s, the young person that’s going to sit there and do his own helmet, paint his own helmet, sand his own helmet. Why? Cause he’s shown me that he’s going to take a weapon system later on in his career, and he’ll have it clean, so when I need him on the battlefield with a clean weapon that’s functional, he’s there. There’s no guarantee with the young man that goes out and has somebody else do his helmet that he will be there for me when I need him, so that very simple thing, a helmet. Just do your own helmet.
S: Just to add to what Ken said, mistakes you make on the battlefield do not impact you; they impact your teammates. And that being said, one of the things I tell the students is if you successfully make it through this program, you will be protecting our brothers on the battlefield, and we take this very seriously, so they should take it seriously because mistakes they make are going to affect their teammates, not themselves, and we take it seriously because if you make it through the pipeline, you are going to be protecting us or our brothers on the battlefield. That’s a fact.
SW: I think I saw somebody, I think it was maybe the safety officer, and this was a while back as I was crossing the grinder, had a sign above his door that said, “The enemy thanks you for not training or not giving 100 percent effort today.”
K: I’ve seen that before, yeah.
SW: 100 percent effort is something that you guys really need to see from, from your candidates, and when they don’t give 100 percent effort, what’s the result?
S: I would say I don’t need to see, I’m going to assume that what I’m seeing is 100 percent, and then I’m going to measure that 100 percent against the standard, so whether you give me 100 percent or 70 percent, I don’t care. If you’re having a bad day, I don’t care. I’m going to automatically assume that what I see from you is the best you can do, and then I’m going to measure your best against the standard. If you did not meet the standard, I’m sorry, I told you up front give me your 100 percent. I’m going to assume you’re giving me your 100 percent, and if I, I’m just going to see what you give me, assume that’s your 100 percent and measure it against the standard. And if you don’t meet the standard, then it’s not my fault. I was measuring what you gave me. I’m assuming it’s your 100 percent, so it’s risky I think for students not to give their 100 percent because I’m going to assume every time how you run, your uniform, your room, all the test gates, I’m assuming automatically you’re giving me your 100 percent.
K: It’s a great way to put it. It all circles back to what Steven said in the beginning: the candidates we’re looking for are those that are going to be hard when it’s hard only every day.
S: Be a good teammate when it’s hard to be a good teammate, when you’re tired, the boat’s been on your head all day, but you have to do your part. That is what we are looking for.
K: And we don’t get to see that all the time. There’s what the instructors see from a student, and then there’s what the students do on their own. There are a lot of activities that take place at the end of a workday. You’re judged by your peer group on did you do your part today, even though we were all tired, did you do your collateral duties, or were you the first one to go back to your rack and go to sleep? Everything’s watched from multiple angles, and it all gets laid on the table because we will do a picture of the whole man, the whole person to see what they’re like, and it’s not just what we see, it’s also what their fellow students see.
SW: All right, gentlemen, thanks for joining me. It was very informative. Any last parting shots?
K: Be hard when it’s hard.
CLOSE: Find out more at SEALSWCC.com, and join us again for the next NSW podcast.