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Navy SEALs’ first task: Survive ‘Hell Week’

As demand for specialized units grows, selection process as difficult as ever

Robert Colvill / NBC News
U.S. Navy Sea, Air, Land (SEAL) recruits training on the beach at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California during "Hell Week."
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Gene Choo


CORONADO, Calif. — “Hit the surf! Start moving or we’re gonna do this all night!” barked a U.S. Navy Sea, Air, Land instructor. “You show me you really want to be here!”

Navy SEALs, counted among the best commando forces in the world, are at the forefront of the Pentagon’s war on terror as modern warfare continues to evolve from Cold War-era tactics that use large ground forces to small units that battle insurgents.

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But as demand for special operations forces on battlefields from Iraq to Afghanistan has increased, the selection process to become a SEAL is still as rigorous as ever.

Every recruit must still survive “Hell Week,” and endure many other weeks of training, in order to earn the highly coveted gold Trident pin.

‘Hell Week’
By 10 p.m. on the third day of “Hell Week,” only 32 out of the 120 men who began as SEAL candidates for Class 258 remain. They have been up and moving for more than 72 hours, but their spirits remained high. “Hooyah 258 — Hooyah!” the recruits yelled in unison. “Get motivated! Don’t quit!”  

The 32 were divided into four teams of eight — what the SEALs call a boat crew. For an hour, they have been running into the icy surf of the Pacific and back to their boats to perform “boat push-ups.”
Robert Colvill / NBC News
U.S. Navy Seal recruits training on the beach during “Hell Week.”

The young recruits, all in their early to late twenties, were cold, wet and shivering from the brisk ocean breeze as each crew struggled to hold aloft their inflatable boat.

“Lock your arms out,” said Instructor Dave. Because of the covert nature of their missions, active-duty SEALs do not give out their full names. “Get that boat up! Don’t let that boat touch your head.”

Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, or “BUD/s” as it is more commonly known, is a 26-week selection process designed to test the limits of a recruit’s physical and mental abilities. 

The fourth week of this phase — called “Hell Week” — is five and half days of continual, around-the-clock training with a maximum of four hours of sleep.

The tests include timed runs on the beach in combat boots; ocean swims up to two miles; running timed obstacle courses; countless sit-ups and push-ups; small boat seamanship; and live fire exercises. 

No ‘typical’ SEAL
“I have to be really aggressive because they have never been confronted with something like this — it’s sensory overload,” said Instructor Steve. “We have to see if they can withstand the pressures and stresses that they will face in battle.”

The most seasoned SEALs are invited to come back to the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, Calif., to help train the next generation of recruits. As a front line combat unit, only males can apply. A sign hanging over a doorway there reads, “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday.”

The center is housed in a set of nondescript buildings on a beach shared with some of the most expensive residences on Coronado Island. Even with the incredibly rigorous process, the Navy insists there is no cookie-cutter for who makes a good SEAL.

“There is absolutely no typical profile of a Navy SEAL,” said Capt. Chris Lindsay, commanding officer of the Naval Special Warfare Center. 

“They come from all over — all races, all ethnic groups. They’re all not 10-feet-tall, all-American athletes. A lot of these guys are little scrappers.”

“Usually it’s the guy who is quiet — who’s unassuming but they’ve got heart inside,” continued Lindsay. “The big Rambo guy beating his chest is probably not the one.”

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