Monday, November 12, 2007

BUDS and Hell Week

I have been reading Couch’s The Warrior Elite in which he chronicles Class 228 in 1999 through their BUDS (Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL training). The obvious question is… how has it changed since I went through beginning on December 28th of 1964? Some guys from my class (33) who stayed in Special Warfare for 30 years told me at our last reunion that it was easier by far. Maybe. We went through a long time ago. Memories fade. I do know one thing, if Training makes the young men who survive do things far beyond anything they could ever imagine they were capable of, then it’s tough enough.

Couch’s account reveals that a lot of things have not changed. The officers go through the same shit as the enlisted men… and more. They have to lead while doing it and, since the Instructors who run the actual training are all enlisted men, any officer they deem not fit to lead them will not make it. Guaranteed. They make sure to weed out the “Rambos” and the loners (it is after all called a Team and no one can make it through BUDS alone). Of course, it’s physically challenging to the point that most people think you’re full of shit when you talk about it. I always believed successfully completing training was largely mental. By the end of Hell Week everyone who was going to quit already had and you’d have to kill a guy before he’d quit. By Friday afternoon any further punishment is pointless.

So what’s different? In my day Basic was 16 weeks long followed by 8 weeks at Underwater Swimmers School at Key West and 3 weeks at the Army Airborne School (parachute) at Ft. Benning. It was mid August before I was assigned to a Team. Today it takes 25 weeks including the SCUBA training, which is done right at BUDS. The big difference is that after Basic all SEALs go through an additional several months of SQT (SEAL Qualification Training) before they receive their Trident and are assigned to a Team. In my day guys were sent to Army Ranger School for this extended weapons and tactics training. One of the big differences has to do with allowing guys to get medically dropped and then pick up with another later class. When I went through if you got sick or hurt you were dropped and that was it. Also, they let guys try again and they try to talk them out of quitting. In Class 33 if you gave your helmet to an Instructor you were out of the training area that day. No exceptions. Frankly, my biggest fear was getting hurt bad enough that I couldn’t continue. Everyone is hurting at some point. By the end of training I was taping my ankles before every swim because my tendons were stretched out and on the final 2000 yd swim I had a boil on my arm as big as my hand with a hole in the middle the size of a dime. I finished second. I’m not sure picking up guys who were dropped from previous classes to continue with another class is such a great idea. After eight months together everyone knows everyone in the class like a brother. Adding new guys to the class as it goes along seems wrong somehow. But, dropping guys who would otherwise make good SEALs just because of a sprained ankle or broken arm is a waste too.

I do think our Hell Week was tougher. It seems like Hell Week today is very difficult for a couple of days and then tapers off. Our evolutions got more and more difficult as the week wore on and the last day was the worst. Here’s what I remember. It started at midnight on Sunday with the usual explosions, whistles and mass confusion. Lots of Instructors screaming at us while we did PT until no one could do it any more. We then duck walked about 300 yards. While I was quacking away Jack Lynch, a second class petty officer at the time assigned TAD for Hell Week, came up to me and pulled a wad of bubble gum out of his mouth and stuck it in mine. He said, “Chew this awhile, Sir”. (Always Sir, as in “You’re a piece of shit, Sir”). Later he came back pulled the gum out of my mouth and popped in back in his own saying, “You’re not good enough to chew a frogman’s gum, Sir.” They kept us going all night… PT in mud puddles that had ice on them, running, crawling and endless push-ups. At dawn they organized us into boat crews and we got to carry the IBSs to breakfast. We carried them everywhere and it got to be such agony that guys had nightmares about carrying those fucking boats for months afterward. By the end of Hell Week my knees were so swollen from the boats that I could barely bend them.

One similarity I noticed from the book was the division of the class into “eaters and nibblers”. The eaters definitely had it easier. It was winter in Virginia and cold with skims of ice on the water. We were on the go constantly and wet most of the time, probably burning 6-8000 calories a day. I ate everything I could and still lost weight, but some guys couldn’t eat at all. (We’d get up from the table and start running with the boats). I have no idea how the guys who didn’t eat made it.

After breakfast we went to the beach for Beach Games… log PT, boat races and the like. They couldn’t keep us in the water for long as it was about 34 degrees but we managed to stay wet and cold. I don’t remember much about the rest of that day except a lot of guys were quitting and they reorganized the boat crews again. As the most junior officer I still did not have my own boat crew. That night we did a tour of the swamps and lakes on the base, dragging the boats through the mud and carrying them between swamps and lakes. I don’t remember when we first slept… not for at least two days, I’m sure.

The next day we went to the pool and had relay races and water sports. The races were unusual in that we did them fully clothed (no boots) with helmets and face masks full of water and, just to make it interesting, we had to hold onto a bucket with both hands. Sometime we did it on our stomach and sometimes on our backs. It was more like controlled drowning than swimming. It was here that I opened my big mouth. An Instructor asked me how I liked it and I said it was like swimming with a Danforth anchor. He said, “Great idea!” and sent someone to fetch an anchor. They had us race with two guys holding the anchor. That was truly difficult. We also played underwater hockey. The puck was a bucket… the 4 wheeled kind with the mop rollers on the top. The object was to push the bucket across the bottom of the deep end to the opponent’s side. As always, it paid to be a winner and conversely pained to be a loser. Painful game. Imagine about 50 guys in the deep end of a pool all trying to push a bucket across the bottom and occasionally come up for air.

That night was the 18-mile run with about half of it on the beach. That night was as close as I came to washing out. One of my fellow officers was Ed Burnap, a fellow Cornellian who had been the tight end on our football team. Ed was a husky 6 footer. About half way thru the run he was really hurting and ready to drop out. I helped him until he got a second wind. Near the end of the run my thighs started to cramp up and I leaned on Ed for support. Forty years later we both remember that night vividly. If we hadn’t helped each other neither one of us would have made it.

After that we got some sleep. The Instructors were supposed to let us sleep for an hour or so, wake us up, put us in a dark room to watch cartoons (where we would, of course, fall asleep), give us a test on the cartoons which we would fail and then “punish” us for failing. The punishment was really to loosen us up after the run. But, the Instructors screwed up and overslept. We got about three hours and when they woke us up we could barely walk.

Fortunately, the next day was the Laskan Boat Trip, which was mostly paddling. It was about a 35 mile jaunt from deep in Virginia Beach through the back channels and out to Chesapeake Bay. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing about 30 knots… dead into us. An IBS is not like a canoe and has a lot of sail area. Paddling into the wind was nearly impossible in some places and we had to get out and drag the boats or carry them. By this time I had gotten my own boat but, I had the “Smurfs” all the short guys and I had only seven counting myself. (I think we actually used the IBLs during Hell Week which was the 10-man boat). It was so cold that the water in our bottles froze and our pants and jackets were stiff with ice. We were dead last, long out of sight of the other boats and when we finally arrived at the entrance to the bay I spotted all the boats lined up on the shore outside a small tavern. Natch, we pulled in there too. The whole class was inside eating hamburgers and getting hot coffee. I was just wrapping my hands around a hot cup thawing them out when Chief Blasé, the baddest Instructor of them all burst through the door. To say he was pissed was an understatement. After chewing out the boat officers for awhile they told us to paddle across Lynnhaven Inlet and meet them on the other side. It was about half a mile of 3’ chop and howling wind. When we got across we did boat push-ups until we couldn’t do them anymore and they started us down the beach toward the Base. The original plan had been to paddle back since it was about 10 miles, but the wind and waves made that idea impossible. In the soft sand it was quite a hike carrying that boat. One of my guys wanted to quit and I didn’t think 6 of us could carry the boat in that wind so I used all my persuasive powers to keep him from quitting (including threatening to kill him). When we got to the base there was a big rock jetty blocking our way with a chain link fence atop. We had to manhandle the boats around the jetty in the waves and got completely soaked in the process. We got to paddle thru a series of lakes back to the training area.

It was dark by the time we got back and we had completely screwed up the schedule. They loaded us into trucks and hauled us to Ft. Story, a big Army base of sand dunes and swamps right on the Bay where it enters the Atlantic.
We set up pup tents and ate cold C rations for dinner. We crawled into our sleeping bags and promptly went to sleep. No sooner were we all asleep than they woke us up and said we had to pack up and move camp. We stumbled I don’t know how far and set up camp again. They woke us again and again during the night and I can’t honestly say how many times. I was pretty much a zombie by then.

Dawn broke bright and cold. Everything was frozen with about a quarter of an inch of ice on the standing water. After a breakfast of cold C rats So Solly Day began. The drill: One whistle drop; two whistles crawl to the Instructor; three whistles get up and run. They led us into the swamp and when we dropped we broke the ice with our bodies and elbows. Every five minutes or so they would set off half a dozen 1/2 lb blocks of TNT around us blowing sand, mud and ice high in the air and down on top of us. We were all shaking uncontrollably from the cold. One guy, Ed Furguson, one of only two black guys in our class had his shoe blown off and several guys had the paint burned off their helmets. That’s how close the charges were.
At noon they passed out cans of C rats while we lay on a road surrounded by swamp. They continued to set off charges blowing mud, water and ice down on us as we ate lunch. I’ll never forget. I had a can of cold chicken and noodles…. Mixed with mud and sand. I ate it all and never ate chicken and noodles again.

Because guys were getting hypothermic they led us away from the swamp into the sand dunes but the crawling and blasting continued. They used 15 second fuses and would holler “Fire in the hole” when they lit them. I’d cover my ears, cross my legs and open my mouth to get prepared for the blast and then fall asleep only to be jolted awake when the charges went off.

Finally we arrived at the Death Trap, a long rectangular pit filled with water. There were two telephone poles, one at each end. There was a fixed cable about fifteen feet up stretched between the poles with a rope about six feet above that which was connect thru a series of pulleys to the back of a jeep. The object of the exercise was to walk across the bottom cable holding onto the rope. Of course, this was impossible since the driver of the jeep would back up putting slack in the rope and then pull ahead quickly snapping it taut. We all wound up in the mud and water below.

It was about 5 pm and we were done. We had survived Hell Week. Of the 200 or so guys who showed up for Class 33 only 36 made it to the end.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing.

Patrick said...

Sounds pretty close to the Hell Week in Lone Survivor - that is hard and really hard. I'd say both Class 33 and Class 226 truly earned their tridents! The hardest Army training I did was Airborne school and it was pretty easy physically. They of course played mind games trying to get people to quit. Say we would do a five mile run and keep going for 5 and an extra couple hundred yards. It was amazing how many soldiers fell out at exactly the 5 mile mark!

Joe Hohmann said...

Hi Dick,Nice summary of the training. I went through class 14 Little Creek. Was the first trainee to make it across the death trap. At a reunion in1999 I found out that no other trainee had made it across. Respectfully yours, Joe CUDA Hohmann