It’s true. I have a room key at the famed Hotel Del Coronado. I’m actually a guest here.
Yes, the same Hotel Del Coronado made famous by Marilyn Monroe. And the same Silver Strand beach that Navy SEAL wannabes run up and down almost every day or until they drop.
Hi, my name is Larry Fowler. I wanted desperately to serve my country and be a Navy SEAL and I graduated BUD/S Class 89. At my ripe old age of 60-something, it’s admittedly more enjoyable to observe groups of young men running and singing songs from the hotel seaward. At times, these men are carrying large rubber boats on their heads, then minutes later they’re swimming in a toasty 55-degree Pacific Ocean.
You see, a long forty years ago, it was the opposite. I was one of these men running up and down the Silver Strand. I still recall "gazing" at the movie-star like people who had the ultimate luxury of being dry and enjoying fine dining beyond human comprehension on the hotel patio, drowning themselves in pure comfort, while I was likely being nearly drowned in salt water or by my salty sweat. Likely, both.
Forty years later, what has changed about BUD/S?
Off hand, there looks to be little difference.
The sweating, the incriminating language that puts any imaginative prison inmate’s offensive directives to shame, the "Hit the Surf"’ commands from the instructors, constant running to the "chow"… and oh yeah, the cold water all appears to be the same.
But is it?
I traveled from Atlanta, a generous 2,000 miles, to Coronado to discover what has changed in all these years. Is it easier to graduate BUD/S today? Are the new SEALs tougher? Better trained?
Well, to begin with, they did away with the Tijuana mud flats, which is a real shame. That kind of misery should be experienced at least once in a lifetime. Thankfully, the last week in first-phase training is still called "Hell Week." You can only imagine why, right? Hell Week completes first phase, which is largely focused on physical and mental training.
If you’re unsure about your desire about becoming a Navy SEAL, this is the phase where you will surely earn your ticket home. During Hell Week, you’ll experience only a few hours of sleep with around-the-clock physical training, cold-water swims, Obstacle Course endurance, and much, much more. I cannot verify the official cause for the mud flats to be eliminated, but I can only imagine, based on my own illuminating experience. You see, during Hell Week, you receive medical checks three times per day, for good reason.
It was almost the final day of the week and we were about to paddle our IBS (large rubber boat) back from the mud flats (in Tijuana, Mexico) back to Coronado. Yes, if you’re still alive at this point, you have good reason to continue to hallucinate!
Bottom line: your mental tolerance for pain is minimized, especially during Hell Week. As such, following one of the three-per-day medical checks, it was discovered that some of my most delicate body parts were extremely swollen coming out of the mud flats. Quite literally, "the boys" were all bent out of shape. This would explain my inability to walk or even run in a semi-coherent straight line. I still recall the instructor’s quick peak and very audible gasp at this—and I dare say—ugly, perverse sight. But again, I did not care. I only knew that Hell Week would be concluding within 24 or so hours!
The explanation could be very simple. The mud flats are actually Tijuana's sewer system. It stinks. It’s filthy—home to likely every disease imaginable. In America, it would probably be considered contaminated land for anyone within a hundred miles, and here we were swimming in it.
But I was lucky! I got to go home with the same number of parts that I arrived with, even if some were worse for wear. When offered the option to row back to the next upcoming class, I quickly said no. No way. I’m almost home—just one more day of Hell Week. If I’m able to stand and waddle forward…I will not stop.
By many estimates, NAVY SEAL training is the toughest military training in the world. You’re tested both physically and mentally beyond human comprehension. What better perseverance training for becoming an entrepreneur?! For example, I had the buoyancy of a one-ton brick. One training exercise required us to "porpoise" the length of an Olympic pool with our hands and ankles firmly tied together. After barely making it from one end to the other end of the pool (and digesting a gallon of chlorine water), the SEAL instructors noticed that my wrists were bleeding from my obvious struggling. With that, they not only retied my wrists and ankles back together—and even tighter—but then also tied my elbows together behind my back! And yes, they then tossed me back in the pool to repeat the swim.
SEAL training taught me that we have no limitations other than the ones we place on ourselves!
So, back to the original question. Is BUD/S easier now?
I would say no.
Number one: from what I understand, there are still minimum timed runs and swims. If you don’t make it, you’re a goner. In fact, it has become much more complicated. Like the good old high schools days, if you mess up, you go to the principal’s office (or disciplinarian). At BUD/S, you go before a board of instructors. If I had been in this year’s BUDS class, I would have probably been on a first-name basis with all the board members.
All said and done, although I did okay on almost all physical evolutions, heart probably got me through BUD/S. But now, heart’s not enough! You have to be a superior athlete with agility on the "O" course, a swimmer who can endure many miles in cold-water swims at a motor boat pace, and lastly, a runner who can seemingly sprint for miles while wearing combat boots in the thick, hot California sand.
I conclude with the most important observation. Above all, regardless of whether it’s Class 89 or Class 289, you have to have HEART. The ability—or inability—to never quit, no matter what or how severe the sacrifice.
As I sit at the hotel, I cannot help but to well up a tear as I see these young men run through their paces while instructors verbally torment them to "be a winner." I wish that I could reach out to each trainee and tell him that completing BUD/S may be the most important single achievement that he will accomplish in life. It may become what he's best known for even 25 or 30 or more years later in life. I would cry to them not to quit. Then again, those who don’t will be Navy SEALs for life, never to have that honor taken away.
Article by Larry Fowler, BUD/S Class 89 (photo of Larry Fowler, Doug Young, and Scott Rawding with Class 89 motto: "The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday").