The Navy SEALs prefer to operate in the shadows, but the Pentagon’s need to increase the ranks of the elite terrorist-hunting commando force is prompting an unusually splashy recruiting effort.
Navy SEAL Mitchell Hall, who won a Bronze Star in 2001 in Afghanistan, hopes to use the upcoming Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii to spread the word about the need for more recruits.
The competition will make the 31-year-old chief petty officer a spokesman for the community of self-described quiet professionals and put him in front of the cameras he spent years avoiding.
The change in recruiting methods comes amid the Pentagon’s increasing reliance on special operations and the call for a 15 percent increase in SEALs over the next several years.
The SEALs have a legendary reputation as an elite, highly skilled fighting force, but it is hard to find candidates with the necessary physical conditioning.
Just to get a chance to try out, SEAL recruits must swim 500 yards, then breeze through a series of push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups and run 1.5 miles — all within strict time limits. This year, 500 of the 823 SEAL recruits — or 60 percent — failed the test in the first days of boot camp.
“We can’t survive on that any longer,” said Master Chief Petty Officer Andy Tafelski, 51, who has a key role in the recruiting effort. “The pipeline has to become more efficient.”
For the SEALs, who consider themselves the best of the best, lowering their standards is out of the question.
Hall, 31, will be competing in the Oct. 15 Ironman — a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon — wearing a blue jersey emblazoned with a Navy SEAL insignia. He won the Navy SEAL’s Superfrog Triathalon in September, and now his goal is to finish among the top 100 in Hawaii’s Ironman.
“When I’m out there at hour five or whatever it is, and I feel like I’m hurting pretty bad, I’ve had experience with the same things doing activities in the SEALs,” he said.
To boost the SEALs’ ranks, the Navy is also working with recruiters to begin testing potential SEALs before they get to boot camp and making sure they have the physical skills. Mentors will work with those who qualify to prepare them for what comes next.
Only 25 percent pass entrance exam
Every SEAL must finish one of the world’s toughest entrance exams, a six-month training program that typically weeds out three of every four candidates.
The Navy also is creating a SEAL rating — a formal job description — that should allow candidates to more quickly begin formal SEAL training. Previously, SEALs — the name stands for Sea, Air, Land — had to attend school to learn traditional jobs held by Navy sailors.
Driving the changes is the need to add 400 men by fiscal 2008, bringing the total number of SEALs from 2,600 to about 3,000. Special operations units in the Army and Air Force also are planning to increase their ranks, and U.S. Special Operations Command is offering bonuses of up to $150,000 to keep the most experienced operators from bolting to the more lucrative private sector.
The SEALs are looking to fill the grueling Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training program at Coronado, outside San Diego, to its full capacity of 850 students — something that has never happened, Tafelski said.