VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Bill Goines recalls going for a swim in a public pool in Lockland, Ohio, when he heard a whistle blowing. That was a cue for him and other people of color to leave.
As they exited, officials drained the water and refilled it for white people to take a swim. It was that experience that compelled Goines to take swims on his own, eventually learning how to swim in the neighborhood creek where his childhood friend died. He wouldn't let anything stand in his way.
Goines, 82, believes it was sheer grit and determination in the face of all obstacles that helped him become one of the first original U.S. Navy SEALs, a military team created by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. It wasn’t until later in his career that Goines realized he was the unit’s first African-American. The Navy SEALs are most popularly known for their 2011 raid in Pakistan on the compound housing former Al-Qaeda leader and Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, a covert operation conducted by SEAL Team Six.
“I was one of 40 selected to become the nucleus of future Navy SEALs,” Goines said. “I remember asking this lieutenant, ‘what was our mission gonna be? And he said, ‘It's too secret to talk about.’"
Over the span of a 30-year career, he jumped out of moving planes on stealth missions. He swam for miles unaided, and survived the trenches of Vietnam after exposure to Agent Orange.
“When I left the Navy, I had 640 free falls and 194 static line jumps,” he said.
Goines retired as a master chief from the SEALs in 1987. He now spends his time traveling the country — mainly the East Coast — to recruit young men and women of color who could potentially become Navy SEALs. According to data provided by the U.S. Navy, of the more than 3,000 active duty SEALs, 1.3 percent are African-American and 8.8 percent are Hispanic.
While it’s hard to pin down the exact cause, Goines believes those low numbers are related to one thing: the unavailability of swimming pools in minority neighborhoods. Training to become a Navy SEAL exposes potential candidates to one of the toughest training programs any soldier can expect to endure, requiring strength in the sea, air and on land.
“In my travels around, I found that a lot of predominantly black schools don’t have swimming pools,” he said. “There are public swimming pools, but with very little instruction.”
Lt. Sean Johnson, who now serves as a Navy doctor after a distinguished career with the SEAL team, said his mother once told him that there's "no such thing as a black Navy SEAL."
Goines and other top recruiters are now trying to fight against that sentiment and they are having a good degree of success.
Goines identifies top candidates and sends them over to a recruiting office — they must be under 28 years old, pass a physical screening examination and be a U.S. citizen eligible for security clearance before even joining the team.
“I began training with the mindset that I was going to either complete training, or I was gonna die,” said a senior U.S. Navy SEAL team commander, who spoke with NBC News on the condition of anonymity due to his involvement in stealth missions. “[Goines] allowed me to focus on training, as opposed to focus on being the first.”
After years traveling the world for the SEAL team and going on secret missions, Goines sees it as his life’s work to diversify the U.S. military’s most elite unit. And the new front line for that mission begins at schools with young people.
“The SEAL team is dangerous, I wouldn’t lie to you,” Goines said to a packed classroom of ROTC students at Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk, Virginia. “The instructors are there to see how much you could take and if little things can bother you, that’s going to affect your entire mission.”