Image: Navy SEALs training
Handout  /  U.S. Navy via Getty Images file
An instructor puts Navy SEAL candidates through a Hell Week training drill in this 2003 file photo taken in Coronado, Calif. Sailors are pushed to their  physical and mental limits in the six-month initial training.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/4/2011 4:43:05 PM ET 2011-05-04T20:43:05

It’s good to be a Navy SEAL right now. The elite sailors are being showered with praise for their successful operation in Pakistan that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden this week.

“If the world ever learns the names of those Navy SEALs who took out Bin Laden, those guys will never have to buy their own drinks again,” said @acarvi in a tweet Monday that captured the sentiments of many Americans.

The positive publicity will probably boost recruitment for the special operations unit, but before you apply you need to look beyond the excitement and figure out if you have what it takes.

“It’s not a Rambo movie,” said Jeff Everage, a former SEAL who spent most of the 1990s in South America in anti-drug operations and then went on to Iraq until he retired in 2003. “Instead of focusing on the glamorous outcomes in the news I would focus on what it takes to become a Navy SEAL, the mental and physical demands.”

Only up to 25 to 35 percent of those who enter SEAL training make it through the Basic Underwater Demolition training, known as BUD/S, and go on to become full members of the force and get their Trident pin, military sources said.

It’s not just the physical demands of SEAL training that breaks sailors.

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“Traditionally what has broken candidates is they can’t handle it mentally,” said Ward Carroll, editor of Military.com, a privately run website. “It’s more about being hypothermic and you’re told to get back in the water. Will you do it without flinching?”

That kind of training paid off in the raid on Bin laden's compound, when one of the expedition's two helicopters crash-landed "and they had to keep their wits about them and finish the mission,” Carroll said.

To qualify, sailors have to pass physical, mental and intelligence screening before they can even start training. Only men ages 17-28 with good eyesight and no felony record are admitted.

After six months of initial training candidates need to be able to swim 1000 meters in 20 minutes, do at least 70 pushups in two minutes and run four miles in under 31 minutes wearing long pants.

Then comes Hell Week: five and a half days in which candidates train for 20 hours a day, run more than 200 miles and sleep a total of just four hours.

"Hell Week finds those candidates who have the commitment and dedication required of a SEAL," according to the unit's website (not working at last check). "Hell Week is the ultimate test of a man’s will and the class’ teamwork.”

Carroll described a drill called “sugar cookie” in which recruits go into the cold Pacific Ocean and then have to roll in the sand over and over again. “Right when you’re just warm enough, they order you back in water, and you have to do this when tired and hungry.”

If a recruit makes it through the initial training period, there is an addition six months of special skills training, which could include foreign languages, freefall parachuting and sniper lessons. Training continues even after candidates have made it into the force, said Gidget Fuentes, senior writer for Navy Times.

Everage, who became a SEAL at age 22, says he trained for about three years before he went out on his first mission. “I saw a wash-out rate of 87 percent of people who quit or got hurt" during the initial training, he said.

Because of the tough requirements, the Navy has had a difficult time recruiting enough qualified individuals and has made efforts to bolster its recruitment, especially over the past six years, Fuentes said. She said the force has roughly 2,500 members and could probably use another 400 to 500.

Young men with a background in water polo, triathlons, lacrosse, rugby, swimming, wrestling and boxing tend to be successful in the SEALs, according to an article last year in the North County Times, a San Diego area newspaper. 

Despite the challenges, the Bin Laden killing is likely to boost the SEALs' popularity and help recruiting, Fuentes said.

“I call it the 'Top Gun' effect,” she said, referring to the 1986 movie starring Tom Cruise about pilots at a Navy flying school. “'Top Gun' was a huge plus, and Navy recruitment went up.”

Men who enter the SEALs for the glory should forget it, said Everage, 42, president of a professional services firm called Trident Proposal Management.

“This is real life and people are dying,” he said. “So you need to take the decision to prepare and become a SEAL seriously.”

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