The Hotel Del Coronado has been made famous over the years for a few reasons. A living legend for 130 years, The Hotel Del has a rich heritage as the proud host to Hollywood celebrities, royalty, and U.S. Presidents for generations. It sits overlooking the same Silver Strand Beach that was made famous by Marlyn Monroe. And it’s that same beach Navy SEAL team recruits run up and down, sweating and groaning until they drop, working to gain acceptance as an elite team member.
It is a lot different to be visiting here as a guest, and a great deal more enjoyable for me to sit with a cute tropical drink with a colorful umbrella in it as I observe the newest members of the Navy Special Warfare brotherhood, as they work carting their rubber zodiac rafts over their heads, chanting and singing songs. It’s especially more comfortable from my relaxing seat as I watch them swimming in the Pacific, knowing it’s a bone-chilling 55 degrees.
That is all too memorable to me. It feels like a lifetime ago. But yet, I’d gladly do it all again.
Nearly forty years ago, I was one of these young lads, running and working to please my Basic Underwater SEAL (BUD/S) instructors, refered to as “the Coronado gods” in my book, Dare to Live Greatly.
I remember running up and down the Silver Strand, glancing at the onlookers and gawkers. I remember wondering what they were thinking as I busted my hump running endlessly back and forth, straining and sweating, running in and out of the salt water, as I worked in my SEAL training. I remember gazing at the guests looking down at me, wondering if they were movie stars. They were enjoying fine dining—comfortable, dry, and cozy—while I was nearly drowning in my own sweat, salt water, or both.
That was in 1976 when I was a member of BUD/S Class 89, the class that coined the motto, “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday.” And I now I ponder, has BUD/S changed from what I experienced nearly 4 decades ago?
On the surface, I don’t see very much difference.
The sweating, the running back and forth, and rushing to “the chow.” The incriminating language that puts any imaginative person to shame, words strung together that would make a prison inmate look tame. Cries of “Hit the surf!” the instructor commands, and, of course, the blasting in and out of the cold Pacific surf. It all looks the same. But, are looks deceiving?
I have just traveled from Atlanta, Georgia, over 2,000 miles to Coronado, California, to rediscover and examine if anything has changed in BUD/S training after all of these years. I want to know if it is easier to graduate now than it was for me nearly 40 years ago. Are the SEAL graduates today better trained? Tougher? Or has the system become easier?
Well, to begin with, they have done away with the “Mud Flats.” No more crab walks and endurance games in mud sometimes a foot deep. The last week in first phase, which is largely focused on physical and mental training, is still called “Hell Week” for good reason.
If you are not sure if you want to become a SEAL, this is the phase where you will surely earn your ticket home. During Hell Week, you will experience only a few hours of sleep, with constant around-the-clock physical training, cold water swims, obstacle course endurance, and much, much more.
I don’t know the official reason the “Mud Flats” were eliminated, but I can only imagine why. You see, during Hell Week, you will receive medical checks three times a day, for good reason. I remember my own experience well. It was nearly the end of my “Hell Week,” and my team was about to paddle our large rubber boat (or IBS) back to Coronado from the mud flats in Tijuana, Mexico. At this point in our training, if you were still alive, you had a good reason to continue to hallucinate!
The routine medical checks caught a problem and I was not sure if I had been hallucinating about or not. At that point, I was largely beyond pain. After being sleep deprived, physically depleted, and being pushed beyond endurance, I was “on automatic.” At this point, you are no longer mentally together and you just simply don’t care what happens next. This is what happens to everyone during Hell Week!
However, my ability to walk or run in any coherent manner had been interrupted. The medical check disclosed that my testicles had swollen to nearly five times their normal size. My instructor’s quick look and very audible gasp did not affect me. I was literally beyond pain, beyond caring. I only knew that Hell Week would be over in less than 24 hours!
But cases like mine are perhaps some of the reasons that the Mud Flats have been eliminated. The “Mud Flats” consist of the area just where Tijuana meets the Pacific, and it is literally the sewer for Tijuana. As such, it’s filthy, contaminated, and likely home to every bacteria and disease you can imagine. If it were located in America it would be condemned.
And back then, this is the area where we and every other BUD Class regularly swam in!
I was lucky though. I got to return home with everything I arrived with. When they offered to let me “row back” to the next upcoming class I quickly said no way. I was one day short of finishing Hell Week. If I could stand, I wouldn’t stop.
But with that portion gone, is the Basic Underwater Demolition School that SEAL recruits attend now easier than it was for me and my SEAL teammates back in 1976? No, its not.
Timed Runs: There are still minimum times required in runs and swims. If you don’t make the grade, you are out. Back in high school, if you messed up, you would go to the principal’s office or Dean, whoever handled the discipline. At BUD/S, you appear before a board of instructors. If I had attended the BUD/S training now, I would likely be on a first-name basis with all of the instructor board members.
Agility And Physical Ability: Back in the day, I did okay on the physical evolutions, but it was likely “heart,” that took me through BUD/S training. But now heart is just not enough! You have to be a superior athlete on the obstacle course, a swimmer who can cover many miles in cold water at a motorboat pace, and you have to be able to run at a sprint pace for miles in combat boots in the thick, hot California Sand.
Heart: While heart alone is not enough, even with superior physical traits, the most important observation I have, whether it is back in my BUD/S class of 89, or BUD/S class 289, you still have to have “HEART,” the ability to never quit, no matter what the situation, no matter how severe the sacrifice to continue.
As I sit here at the Hotel Del Coronado, I can’t help but feel a tear well up as I observe the young men run through their paces as their instructors berate and verbally torment them, and urge them onward, to “Be a Winner.” I wish I could reach out and tell each of the BUD/S SEAL recruit trainees, and let them know that this training experience may be the most important single achievement that they will ever accomplish in life. It may become what they are best known for, even 30 years later in life. I would cry out to them, “Don’t quit!”
But then again, those who do not quit will be Navy SEAL team members for life, and that is something that can never be taken away from them.
Larry graduated BUD/S Class 89 and is the Publisher of NavySeal.com and author of Dare To Live Greatly. Larry also welcomes comments and thoughts anytime.