On Friday morning, June 14, 1997, two days after my twenty-third birthday, I arrived in my dress whites on the main quarterdeck of the pre-training office in Coronado to check in for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. It had taken me more than four years to get this far, and I was aware that the odds of making it through the course were somewhere between 1 and 3 out of 10. I was nervous as hell.
The grunt on duty handed me a check-in sheet with a list of signatures to collect that would grant me admission, signatures for such items as Medical, Dental, Admin, and Physical Training Rest and Rehabilitation, or PTRR. As I scanned the page I heard a roar like the crash of a gigantic surf coming from outside. The sound practically shook the building.
“FORTY-NINE! FIFTY! FIFTY-ONE!”
It was a BUD/S class doing their PT on the grinder, the legendary concrete-and-asphalt courtyard just outside the quarterdeck doors where BUD/S calisthenics take place. I can still feel the shivers that ran up my spine as I stood there in the sweltering June heat hearing the thunder those guys produced.
Walking outside, I saw about thirty hard-looking guys in brown shirts and tan UDT shorts doing PT in the courtyard with a chiseled blond instructor leading them through the exercises. The students were lined up on the black concrete, their feet positioned atop staggered rows of small white frog-feet outlines painted onto the grinder’s surface. Just off the edge of the concrete there hung a shiny brass ship’s bell with a well-worn braided rope trailing down from the ringer. At the foot of the bell, more than a hundred green helmets lined the ground in a neat, mournful row, each helmet inscribed with the name and rank of one more would-be SEAL who would never go on to graduate training.
“SIXTY-ONE! SIXTY-TWO! SIXTY-THREE!”
This was the infamous brass bell, one of the most dreaded symbols of SEAL lore. If you reached the point where you decided you just couldn’t take it, I’d heard, where the training was just too brutal to go on, you would signify that you were stepping out by leaving the grinder and ringing the brass bell three times. You would leave your class helmet behind. The brass bell was a one-way street out of BUD/S.
It was good to finally see that thing, sitting there silently suspended in the air as if it were taunting me. “Go on, sit there and wait,” I almost murmured out loud. “I’ll be damned if I’ll ever touch you.”
I walked to the PTRR check-in office to get my processing started. The door was closed and I had to knock quite loudly to be heard over the roar of the class as they counted out their push-ups.
“EIGHTY-FIVE! EIGHTY-SIX! EIGHTY-SEVEN!”
“Have a seat,” said a guy about my age, sitting on a bench outside the door. “They’ll be right with us.” I sat down next to him and asked him what duty station he was from. He told me he’d come here right out of boot camp. He nodded at the guys we were both watching.
“They just finished Hell Week,” he said. “That’s why they look so hard and fired up.” We both sat and watched the thirty guys pounding out their PTs. “That’s why they’re wearing those brown shirts,” he added. “They give you those when you survive Hell Week. If you survive Hell Week.”
Everyone in the Navy knew about Hell Week, which comes near the end of Phase One, typically starting on a Sunday evening and ending the following Friday. Hell Week is where you are pushed hard for five and a half days straight, with scarcely more than an hour’s sleep per day, right up to the limits of physical and especially mental fortitude.
I sat there gazing at these guys who were in a place I envied, chatting with my new buddy, swapping bits and pieces we’d heard about Hell Week, when I was suddenly snapped to attention by a voice that sliced the air like a steel blade.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?!” The blond instructor had focused his attention on the two of us. “What are you looking at?!” Clearly this was a rhetorical question and I didn’t even try to answer.
“You are not fit to breathe the same air as this class!” he yelled at us. “If you know what’s best, you will turn the fuck around and shut the fuck up, or I will personally ensure that you are on the first boat leaving San Diego Bay for the western Pacific ocean this week!”
Jesus. I hadn’t even started checking in, and here I was already being faced with the threat of going back to the fleet. I quickly turned the fuck around and shut the fuck up and my bench mate followed suit. A few minutes later we were let into the PTRR office and given our room assignments. We would be starting the following week.
BUD/S Class 215 consisted of 220 men, at least at the outset. That number wouldn’t hold for long. BUD/S training is broken into three phases, preceded by a five-week indoctrination phase, called indoc. The six weeks of First Phase focused on physical conditioning and included the infamous Hell Week. Second Phase consists of eight weeks of diving and water skills, and Third Phase, nine weeks of land warfare. The whole thing adds up to more than seven months, the whole purpose of which really boils down to one of two things: to prepare you for the real training, which comes after you graduate—or to spit you out.
It started spitting us out right away.
That first week of indoc we all did the initial BUD/S PT test over again, and not all of us passed. Just during indoc, we lost twenty guys. Boom. Ten percent of the class, gone, and we hadn’t even started First Phase yet.
There were two guys in my BUD/S class whom I already knew from that pre-BUD/S course we’d taken in Great Lakes a year earlier: Rob Stella and Lars the blond überdude with the tree-trunk thighs. Stella was quite the comedian and became a good friend. Lars I never had the chance to know well: in our first week of First Phase, he quit.
Our first week. This completely flipped me out. Seeing guys like Lars quit, especially so early on, was a revelation. This was not about who could do the most push-ups or the shortest run times. This was about persevering, about not quitting. These guys might be able to knock out twice as many pull-ups as I could, but that didn’t necessarily mean they could handle the mental stress—being constantly yelled at, ripped apart, and put down, at the same time that we were being put through physically punishing environments.
Over the coming months, I saw guys who looked like Conan the Barbarian, accomplished athletes who had been at the top of their game in professional sports, who had qualified for Olympic trials, seriously tough, mean-looking dudes, cry like babies as they walked across the grinder to go ring that brass bell. And I saw guys who weighed barely over a hundred pounds take the most brutal physical and psychological punishment and keep on trucking without complaint.
However, there was little time or cause to feel smug about any of this. Frankly, I was relieved to have made the first cut. I knew that the first six weeks was a weeding out process—and that I was already a pretty good candidate for being one of the early weeds. As I had feared would happen, my long months on the USS Kitty Hawk had made me soft. Before checking in to BUD/S I had taken a thirty-day leave, and I spent a lot of those thirty days trying like hell to get back into some kind of condition. By the time I got to BUD/S, I thought I was in pretty decent shape. I quickly learned that I was wrong.
In fact, I learned it on the first Monday morning of First Phase.
Our PTRR instructor in charge said a few words and turned us over to the First Phase instructor staff. Everyone in the class knew that we were about to enter a world of hurt, and the moment we were handed over to the First Phase staff on that warm mid-July morning, we did. All two hundred of us had lined up on those staggered white frog feet painted on the black grinder, and we now faced someone we would quickly recognize as our worst enemy.
The men who gravitate to become First Phase instructors are among the most physically fit people on the planet. They see themselves as guardians of the gate, and they are there to punish and bring the pain. They are the most feared, the meanest, ugliest, most physically conditioned guys you’ll ever meet. We had eight instructors for First Phase, but four of them comprised the A list, the ones who would be a constant abrasive presence in our lives until we either made it on to Second Phase or rang that damned brass bell.
Instructor Gillespie was a monster of a guy, six-foot-four, pushing three hundred pounds and all of it muscle and bone.
Instructor Getka, a menacing Irishman with strawberry-blond hair, six-three and completely ripped, looked like he was carved out of a freaking piece of granite.
Instructor Buchanan was slightly younger and not a monster in appearance: smaller, with a more average build. But he had a cocky swagger and the excellent conditioning to back it up, a tremendous athlete and mean as hell.
And finally, there was Instructor Shoulin.
In Greek mythology Nemesis was the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris, that is, arrogance before the gods. Nemesis was a goddess without remorse, a deity whose sole motivating force was exacting vengeance. In modern usage, the word has come to mean archenemy. Sherlock Holmes had his Moriarty, Superman had his Lex Luthor.
In BUD/S, I had Instructor Shoulin.
I never knew Instructor Shoulin’s first name. He was a small guy, Norwegian, with ice blue eyes and an ice cold heart. He was all business. Of the four he had perhaps the least imposing appearance, at least superficially—and appearances most definitely are deceiving. All our instructors were incredibly tough on us, but if they were demons from hell, as far as I was concerned, Instructor Shoulin was Satan himself.
I would learn about Instructor Shoulin in time. Today it was Instructor Buchanan who gave us our initiation. Shirtless, cut like a jungle tiger, he stood on his four-foot podium looking down at us, ready to stomp us all, his vantage point ensuring that any weakness would be immediately identified and dealt with accordingly.
Part 2 of 4 coming soon.
To read more check out Brandon’s NY Times Best Selling Memoir, The Red Circle by clicking on the image below or click here.
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