They gave us two weeks to recover, during which we did some lighter stuff, writing hydrographic charts and such, while we got ourselves ready for what came next: the seven weeks of Second Phase.
The dive phase of BUD/S is in a way the core of the whole course. BUD/S is, after all, fundamentally a course in underwater demolition, so the focus is on water skills. Because I was already a strong diver, I thought this phase would be a breeze.
As it turned out, dive phase was no joke. Yes, they now focused our time more on teaching us specific skills than on raking us over the coals and sifting out the early quitters. Now that we were wearing brown tee shirts, they treated us with a little more respect. But it was still brutal.
Our new instructors were just as intent as our First Phase instructors on letting us know they were not messing around. Right away, they had us on the ground doing pushups, yelling and screaming in our faces. Whatever else we were doing—our classroom work, dive training, instruction in scuba, how to use a rebreather, and other key dive skills—the basic physical training kept going in the background, every single day, and it got harder and harder, the bar higher and higher, the times shorter and shorter. Our conditioning runs went from four miles, to six miles, to eight miles. All our minimum times started dropping: the two-mile ocean swim dropped from eighty minutes to seventy, the four-mile soft-sand run (in boots) went from thirty-two minutes to under twenty-nine, the O course time dropped from fifteen to eleven minutes.
And while we were in the classroom most of the day, they were not what you would think of as normal classrooms. For example, they kept buckets of ice water (which we had to keep filling) placed above us on racks over our heads. If someone started nodding off in class, the instructor could tug on a string—and ice water would pour down over the entire table. This was not community college. This was BUD/S.
About halfway through the dive phase we had a test called pool comp (short for pool competence) that was Second Phase’s version of Hell Week.
I jumped in with my gear, a set of double aluminum 80s and an aqualung rig, and sank down about fifteen or twenty feet deep into the combat training tank. Suddenly three instructors were on top of me—they call this a surf hit—and without warning they ripped my mask from my face and yanked off my fins, leaving me with nothing but a set of tanks and a regulator in my mouth.
Then they started in on me, one of them ripping the regulator hose out of my mouth and quickly tying it in knots.
I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I knew it would be something like this, and I was as ready for it as I could be. That’s the drill in pool comp. They put you through five or six really bad situations underwater, and you have to get out of them. If you come up to the surface, you fail.
I also knew that right at the end of the ordeal we would be hit with a truly messed-up situation, something so difficult that it’s essentially impossible to get out of. This is called the whammy. You deal with it as best you can, then signal that you’re okay and head up to surface. You’re not expected to get out of the whammy, just to stick it out as long as you can.
I reached the point where I was sucking air directly out of the tank valve, because I absolutely could not undo the knot that bastard had put in my hose. I’d been down there for maybe fifteen minutes, getting worked over by several instructors, and it had seemed like an eternity. Now I was sucking in whatever air I could get out of that tank, trying to breath in the little air bubbles that were leaking off my regulator. Finally I figured there was no way out of this whammy, so I signaled and headed up.
As I broke the surface, my instructor said, “Webb, that wasn’t the whammy.”
“What?!” I gasped. That had to be the whammy. There was no way anyone could get that hose untied. And the pisser of it was, I could have stayed down there longer, but I was positive that my test was over. Well, it wasn’t.
I practically felt nauseous. I had failed pool comp on my first try—and we only got two tries. Occasionally they would hold a review board and decide to give someone a third shot at it, but that was the exception, not the rule—and I had no illusion that this would happen for me. No, I had just one shot left.
This was a Friday, so I would have to wait until Monday to retest. That weekend was torture.
Monday finally came. I went back down in the tank, and no matter what they threw at me, I stayed down there. I don’t even remember what the whammy was like, because I was so focused on the fact that I was not going to surface, no matter what. I’d stay down there until that tank ran out of air—and then stay down there some more.
Finally an instructor swam down and started shaking me, yanking me up by the hair and making urgent Come up! gestures. At that point, I figured it must be okay. It was. My whammy was over.
I was relieved that I passed, but it still blew my mind that it had taken me two tries. I was supposed to excel in anything water-related. There was that lesson again, which I would strive to remember always and in all situations: Don’t be cocky. Don’t make assumptions going into a challenge—ever. No matter what you know, or think you know, put your ego in check, and keep your eyes open to what you can learn.
By the time pool comp was finished, we had lost another twenty guys, one of them being our class officer in charge (OIC), Clay Tippins.
Every BUD/S class has a senior OIC, typically the highest-ranking student in the class. Tippins was a gifted athlete who swam for Stanford and was probably the best swimmer in our class (along with his swim buddy, Ornay, about whom I’ll say more later). About halfway through Second Phase he ended up being rolled for medical reasons and we got a new OIC named Rob Byford. Rob was a mustang officer, meaning he started out as an enlisted man before eventually becoming an officer. Having Rob take over as our class OIC was a gift: he was a standout leader who always stood up for his guys, and everyone looked up to him. I keep in touch with him to this day.
Toward the end of Second Phase we had one more test, an open ocean swim that covered a course of five-and-a-half nautical miles (a little over six statute miles). This evolution had no time limit; we just had to complete it.
When the day came for our swim the weather had turned bad. In fact, it turned out that we had the worst conditions our instructors had ever seen for this evolution. A persistent south wind had risen up that morning, making the waves choppy. We were going to be swimming due south, the wind and chop in our faces. That wind never let up, not for a moment.
They stood us on the Coronado beach for inspection. We wore nothing but our UDT shorts and a wetsuit top with a beavertail; equipment consisted of a dive knife (which had to be kept sharp as hell), canteen, and signaling flare, along with a mask, pair of Scubapro fins, and UDT life vest with CO2 cartridge inflator. There would be a safety boat hovering in the general vicinity, but that was only for dire emergencies. We would be swimming in pairs, on our own out on the open ocean.
We swam out until we were about a quarter-mile from shore, then turned left and headed due south, bound for the Mexican border. That nagging south wind blew in our faces the whole time, making the ocean rough and choppy and dashing cold salt water in our mouths. It made the swim take forever. That far offshore, and with that constant wind and chop, even keeping our sense of direction was a challenge. Fortunately for me, I had learned how to do this as a kid and was able to pick out landmarks from the mountains on shore, keep my bearings, and swim pretty much a straight line. Looking up every once in a while, I saw other guys (including some who were much faster swimmers than I was) tacking back and forth as they went, swimming in a long series of S patterns.
After a few miles, my swim buddy Stella was having problems keeping up, and he started tapping me periodically so I would slow down. We stopped every so often to tread water and drink from our canteens, but never for more than a few seconds. In an exhausting situation like that, you don’t want to lose your momentum, because once you do you might not get it back. Eventually, Stella got so tired he went belly up, a dead stop in the middle of the ocean. We had about a mile left to go.
“I need a break, man,” he said. “We need to stop.”
“No, we have to keep swimming,” I said.
“I need some water!”
Both our canteens were empty by now, and Stella was starting to hallucinate.
“Dude,” I said, “the only water around here is salt water. We can’t stop.”
“No, I gotta stop now,” he said.
“Look,” I pleaded, “just keep going for another mile, we have to make it to the finish line—there’ll be plenty of water there.”
But it did no good. He wouldn’t budge. Finally I grabbed him by the belt and started swimming. I swam the whole last damn mile dragging him along with me. I thought that mile would never end. When we finally reached the finish line and I pulled him in to shore, I felt ready to die.
On the bus back to base that night, nobody said a word. Instead of the usual joking and giving each other shit, the bus was filled with a weird, solemn silence.
Third Phase was nine weeks of the basic soldiering skills of land warfare, SEAL-style: explosives and demolition, marksmanship, land navigation and reconnaissance. It didn’t get any easier. Our O-course time dropped from eleven minutes to ten and a half, the four-mile timed run went from twenty-nine minutes to twenty-eight, and they added a thirteen-mile run, in boots.
As third phase began we were issued new equipment. Now, instead of the BUD/S greens we’d been wearing, we got camouflage outfits and were issued our web gear, what we call second-line gear. (First-line gear would be the clothes you’re wearing, your pants, your belt, and so forth. Second-line or web gear is your chest harness, which carries all your magazines for your bullets, your compass, and your other kit. Third-line gear is your back pack.)
We started out doing basic firearms training, both rifle and pistol, first with classroom study and then on to practical application in labs, taking apart the weapons and putting them back together. We also did some shooting, although nothing like what I would be doing later on, in advanced SEAL training. The bulk of this part of third phase was a big land navigation course up in the Laguna Mountains east of San Diego. We packed up our gear and a load of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) and headed up there. It was December 1997, just before Christmas.
After a few days of orientation, we spent a week of classes doing map and compass work. The whole thing culminated in an individual land nav exercise, almost like a race. It was freezing, snow on the ground. We didn’t get much sleep. The instructors were sitting around a raging bonfire in the middle of their camp, drinking beer. Not us. In the earlier phases we’d been organized in boat crews; now we were organized into squads of seven guys each, all the squads sprinkled around this big camp. None of us had fires and they took away our MRE heaters, so we were eating cold food. We were in our tactical layout, boots on, standing watch and rotating every couple hours.
After a while the instructors started giving radio calls to make sure we were up and paying attention. God help you if you missed a radio call, because if you did, it would be a long night. Luckily in our squad we had our stuff pretty wired tight. When we got called we answered, and the instructors didn’t mess with us. But we could hear other guys getting rousted in the middle of the night, and the next morning we could tell they hadn’t slept. The instructors had them running back and forth between their camp and the instructors’ camp, doing pushups in the snow, making their lives just miserable. They were cold and wet all night long. In many ways, it was not so different from what we would be doing a few years later in the mountains of Afghanistan, although there, the stakes would be higher.
We walked away from that land nav exercise knowing how to navigate even without a map or compass.
The land nav portion concluded with a test that dissolved the squads: now it was every man for himself. The air started crackling with tension. We all knew that if we didn’t pass, we didn’t graduate.
For the land nav test the instructors had planted a series of navigation points out among the mountains. At each point there was an ammo box with a unique code inside, and when we reached that point we would open the box, radio in that number along with our coordinates, so they’d know we were on the right mountain, and then move on to the next. We had to hit all the points, and hit them in the right sequence.
I ran into another one of the guys out there and said, “Hey, how’s it going?”—and he just stared at me, frantic. “I think I just missed my last point!” he blurted, then pointed off into the distance. “I’m supposed to be on that mountain way over there!” and he went trundling off frantically through the forest. Poor bastard.
I was lucky: for some reason I did not have much difficulty with the navigation. Here again, I think my background helped: growing up on the sailboat, being around charts and maps and compasses, I’d learned how to find my way around without street signs, storefronts, and all the usual landmarks most of us learn as kids. As a result, I finished my test a few hours early. I didn’t want to go back to camp; they would just find something else for me to do. So I slipped back near to camp, tucked in under a bush and lay down to catch a few hours of shut-eye.
Next thing I knew I was getting kicked and hearing a familiar voice: “Webb, what the fuck are you doing?” I opened my eyes and looked up. Was I awake, or was this some cruel nightmare?
It was Instructor Shoulin.
I thought I’d left him behind in First Phase. No such luck. He had dropped in on our Third Phrase land nav test to help out. And of course, he had found me.
“What. The fuck. Are you doing?” he repeated slowly as if speaking to a child.
I didn’t really have an answer, and I was just coming out of REM sleep after a long time of no sleep at all, so I wasn’t all that coherent. Besides, the question was rhetorical: he knew damn well what I was doing. He checked my coordinates and could plainly see I had finished the course. “You sonofabitch,” he growled, and he cracked a slight, evil smile. Oh, shit.
For the next thirty minutes, he had me bear-crawling up and down this mountain, on all fours, in the snow. That was my reward for trying to sneak some time off. After torturing me for a while, he finally sent me back to camp. He had made me pay for that little bit of stolen sleep. Although I had to admit, it was worth it.
That day something happened that shook us all.
We had an officer in the class named Ornay who had been Clay Tippins’s swim buddy. Ornay was another outstanding athlete, an absolute physical specimen, and up to that point he had been a gray man, performing smoothly and quietly blending in. During the land nav portion of Third Phase, Ornay’s squad started screwing up right and left—falling asleep on radio watch, messing up their patrols, just not getting the hang of things and consistently being called out and punished for it. Suddenly, because of the poor performance of his squad, Ornay was that guy. He couldn’t take it—and he threw in the towel. He quit.
I was absolutely stunned. We all were. Ornay was not only an accomplished athlete, he was a frigging U.S. Naval Academy officer. The standards for these guys are so high and they have been so thoroughly vetted by the time they’ve reached this point that for one to quit BUD/S was unheard of. And here he had quit in our sixth month—just five weeks before graduation.
Of all the things that happened throughout BUD/S, Ornay’s quitting was one of the most sobering. People often assume that Hell Week is the big thing, that once you get past Hell Week you’re over the worst of it and it’s all downhill from there. But I would have rather done Hell Week twice than gone through Third Phase. They just kept cranking up the pressure, pushing us to our limits, adding on layers of physical and mental stress, sleep deprivation, increased responsibility (like working with demolition and live fire while exhausted), and it never let up for a moment.
The next day, Friday, we packed up our site, loaded the trucks, and were just about to pull out when the last few guys who had failed their tests and spent all night doing it over ran into camp wild-eyed and caught our convoy just in time. They were so exhausted they couldn’t say a word, but they’d made it.
And just when I thought we’d all made it, I found out that for me, at least, it wasn’t over yet. Sitting on that bus, as we relaxed and headed back to civilization, my left quad suddenly seized up, just above the knee. It was excruciating—and crippling. I don’t know if it was all the adrenaline coursing through my system from the land nav, or the sheer cold, or what caused it, but when I woke up the next morning in Coronado I could barely put any weight on my left leg.
I was now in deep shit. Third Phase wasn’t over yet. To meet the criteria for Third Phase we needed to pass minimum of two out of four timed runs. I still needed one more run. And I could barely walk. I spent that weekend worrying.
The following Monday I went into BUD/S Medical and told the guy I had a bad quad. He pulled my file, glanced at it, and said, “Holy shit.”
“What?” I said.
He looked up at me. “You’ve never been in here before!”
A few of the guys (we called them Sick Call Commandoes) were constantly going in to Medical, complaining about this or that. And almost everyone had been in at least once or twice. But in six months, I had never once come in to Medical.
The guy took care of me, hooked me up, got me on crutches. And I lucked out. It happened that we were just then hitting Christmas break. For the next two weeks all we had to do was show up for one PT a day, and since they didn’t count towards our passing, I could miss them without it having any impact on whether or not I passed Third Phase. That gave me two weeks to heal. I went in every day, and while everyone else did PT I sat and read magazines.
When January came there was no more putting it off. I had to get out there and finish that four-mile run, and do it in less than thirty minutes. Strange to say, the instructors were quite encouraging. They knew I was dealing with an honest injury and wasn’t sandbagging it. They could see I was in pain.
It took everything I had to finish that run. Four miles is about six thousand, four hundred thirty-six meters, and a meter is about my stride, which means that during that race, my left leg came down hard three thousand, two hundred and eighteen times, and each time was agony. But I finished the run.
After Christmas we shipped out to San Clemente Island, about eighty miles off the coast of San Diego. This island is completely dedicated to Navy activities, and the SEALs have the northwest end to themselves with a BUD/S camp out there we call The Rock.
Once we all got out there our instructors said, “Hey, fellas, no one can hear you scream out here. You’re pretty far away from the flag pole!”—flag pole meaning base command on the coast. There was not a lot of oversight here, no commanding officers strolling by at lunch to see how things were going. These instructors had us out here to themselves, and they made sure we knew it. This was our final four weeks before graduating—or not graduating, as the case might be. They would make sure we each earned it.
There was some sort of physical evolution before each meal, and how well we did determined what our meal experience was going to be. Every meal, we had to earn the right to eat dry.
For breakfast we all lined up outside the compound, separated out by squad. On their signal, they told us, one squad would sprint over to Frog Hill, a big hill nearby, and climb to the top as fast as possible. The first four to reach the top would come down and go eat breakfast. The three stragglers (there were seven men to a squad) would come down off the hill, go jump into the freezing cold ocean, and then take breakfast outside, covered with sand and soaking wet.
On the signal we lit out at a dead sprint—seven guys clawing their way up this hill. My lungs were burning. I am not a great runner, and I could still feel that pulled quad. Every morning I found myself smack in the middle of the pack, worried I would fall behind the cut-off point and end up with sand up my ass while I wolfed cold eggs. Somehow I managed to make it into the top four every day.
That was breakfast. For lunch, we had to bang out a minimum of a hundred push-ups with all our gear on: a canteen full of water, magazines full of ammo, and all the rest of our H-gear kit. If we didn’t get all our push-ups in on time, we ate lunch wet.
For dinner we had to do an eighty-foot rope climb, and then a minimum of twenty pull-ups with full kit. Do it, or we were getting wet.
Every morning I woke up with the same thought: “I hope I don’t have to eat wet today.”
By this point there were about forty of us. Of those forty, seventeen had been medically rolled in from a previous BUD/S class, which meant that of the original 220 when we started six months earlier, there were now twenty-three of us left. One of those who had rolled in was a guy named Eric Davis.
Eric is a charismatic red-head who looks out for everyone and is impossible not to like. He fit in right away, and we clicked immediately. He’s one of the funniest people I know—and one of the most creative. In fact, the way he got himself into BUD/S in the first place involved considerable creativity on his part. When he first applied he was crushed to learn that his colorblindness disqualified him from even trying out. That defeated him—for about five minutes, which was how long it took him to come up with an elaborate plan for faking his way through the color blind test. No easy task, but somehow he did it and, sure enough, made his way through BUD/S. He guards his secret strategy to this day.
Call it karma or historic irony, but this came back to bite him many years later, when Eric decided he’d had enough and was ready to get out. I asked him how he planned to do that, since he had just signed up for a lengthy reenlistment. He assured me of his foolproof plan: at his next physical he was finally going to come out to the doctor about his colorblindness. He fully expected that this would give him an early out from his contract—but the doctor refused to believe him, would not even administer the test, and blew Eric off with a clean bill of health. I still give Eric a hard time about this whenever I see him.
Our schedule at The Rock was so intense it felt like we weren’t getting any sleep at all. By third phase standards, a good night’s sleep was three to four hours. Our first week there, Eric said, “Hey, they can’t keep this up forever. I mean, we’re handling explosives, right? Next week, they’ve got to let us sleep more.” As the days wore on he kept assuring us (and no doubt assuring himself at the same time) that it would get better, that they would have to let us get a little more sleep.
They didn’t: not the next week, or the week after that, or ever.
One night things reached a point where they just about broke us. We had screwed up some exercise or other, and our instructors had us in the water in the northwest harbor for fours hours or so, torturing us. We were just miserable. I heard guys muttering, “Jesus, when is this going to end?!”
We had been through treatment like this before, many times in the past few months. But somehow, this was worse. Whether it was the accumulated weight of the past months’ experience or simply the bitter cold that February night, at some point everyone just stopped talking. An eerie silence fell over us as we continue hammering out our PTs, the sounds of legs and arms thrashing in the cold surf punctuated only by the instructors’ periodic barked commands.
It’s one thing when guys bitch and moan, but when everyone stops bitching and moaning, when it all goes silent, that’s when you know things are truly serious. We were pushing up against the absolute limits of our physical and mental capacities.
Mercifully, right at that point they called us out of the surf and onto the beach, where they ran us up and down the sand hills for a few minutes to get our circulation going. I have no doubt that as we ran, every one of us was thinking the same identical thought: Thank God that’s over….
“Hit the surf!”
Were they serious? They were. Just as we started feelings our limbs, they put us back down in that ice cold surf again, flutter-kicking, arms linked in one long chain of human suffering.
The guy next to me, Chris Osman, started muttering under his breath. “Fuck this… fuck this…”
Osman was a former Marine Corps who had rolled into our class and was on my squad, and I did not like him. I had to admit, the guy was amazing: he could recall every bit of military minutiae, every detail—the effective range and fire rate of any rifle, which weapons were used in which conflicts, the blasting capacity and recommended application of every conceivable kind of explosive, all kinds of random crap. I thought he must have grown up reading military manuals instead of comic books like the rest of us. The dude was hard core. But I could not get along with him. I thought he was a loud-mouth. We had almost come to blows a few times. And now it looked like maybe he was starting to crack.
I glanced over Osman’s head and caught Eric’s eye. Eric happened to be on Osman’s other side. Eric and Osman were good friends. Eric and I were good friends. Osman and I hated each other. It was a complicated sandwich.
Suddenly Osman stopped muttering and said out loud at full volume, “Okay, fuck this. I am out of here! I am not doing this any more!”
“Chris!” Eric hissed. “C’mon, keep it together!”
I shook off Osman’s arm and thought, Good riddance. But I didn’t think he was serious. He was. He shook himself, clambered to his feet, and started walking out of the surf and up onto the beach. Eric and I both gaped at him, stunned. He was quitting the exercise, quitting BUD/S, quitting the SEALs. We were only days away from the end of our course, so close to the finish line—and he was quitting.
Except it was so dark out there that no one but the two of us had seen Osman stand up and leave the line. By the time he reached about the halfway point between our miserable surf line and the invisible huddle of instructors up on the sand hill, we had almost lost sight of him ourselves.
Suddenly we heard a whistle go off, and a crisp voice. “Okay, move it! Out!”
The instructors were calling us out of the surf and back onto the beach. There was a dark clatter of splashes as we all scrambled to our feet to make the mad dash up the hill, but by the time we got there Osman was already surrounded by the instructors, not fully grasping what was happening. One instructor grabbed his arm, jerked it up into the air, and yelled at the rest of us.
“You see this? That’s what I’m talkin’ about! Osman here is the only one out of all you fuckers who’s really putting out!”
Suddenly Osman was a hero. The instructors handed him a mug of hot chocolate and told us again what losers we all were, that we hadn’t gotten there nearly as fast as Osman did. No one but Eric and I ever knew that the only reason he got there first was that he was in the middle of quitting when they blew the whistle.
And here’s the amazing thing: Osman and I eventually became friends. In fact, we ended up serving together as SEAL snipers in Afghanistan. We’re good friends to this day.
I still give him shit about that night on the beach.
As part of our final training exercise, we went through a major nighttime op on a Zodiac, a large inflatable boat. The surf was big that night, and at one point we abruptly got a signal to come in. Our lane grader, the SEAL instructor who was evaluating our whole operation, was worried because the water was getting rough. But I knew this particular section of beach: we were dangerously close to a seriously rocky shoreline. Beaching a rubber boat on a shoreline filled with sharp rocks is not something you want to take lightly. It can kill you.
Rich Suzuski, our boat crew leader, said, “Okay, they’re signaling us, we’ve got to go in right away.”
“Guys,” I said, “I think we have to wait and time it so we don’t get wrecked on the shore.”
No, said Rich, we had to go right in, right then and there.
“Look,” I said, “I surf, I know this area. The waves come in sets. The only way we’re not going to get pummeled on those rocks is if we wait for the big set to come, and then haul ass right after that.”
But he insisted, and he was the crew leader, so there was nothing I could do about it. We were going right then, immediately. Oh man, I thought, this is not going to be good. We started paddling like crazy, heading slowly for the shore. There was no way we would make it in time. I could feel the swell coming. Sure enough, we started rising, then lowering, and then the next rise was bigger—and then I knew we were about to get hit.
“Guys,” I yelled out over the roar of the surf, “get ready, the big one’s coming!”
A moment later a monster wave broke right on top of us. The next thing I knew I was the only one left in the boat, and I was hurtling toward shore. If I didn’t want to get sliced to ribbons on that treacherous shoreline I was going to have to manage the entire damned Zodiac myself. This was bad. In fact, there was no way this situation could get any worse.
And then it got worse.
Darting a look backwards, I caught a glimpse of something at the stern of the Zodiac. I looked closer—it was someone’s fingers. One of the guys had managed to hold on. Then a head bobbed into view, and I groaned. It was Mike Ritland.
Mike was an Iowa farmboy who had never seen the ocean live until the day he showed up for SEAL training. He swam in pools at school and was a decent swimmer, but the ocean was totally foreign to him and his entire time out on the Rock had been a struggle. And now here I was, alone in our runaway Zodiac with everyone else back there somewhere in the ocean, with Mike hanging onto the stern for dear life—and the two of us were about to hit the rocks.
I had one thing going for me: I still had seconds’ worth of the lull that follows after a big set breaks—but only seconds. Somehow I got control of the Zodiac and managed to surf the damn thing safely up over the rocks and close enough in that I could touch bottom. I glanced back for a split second. No more fingers on the stern. I didn’t know what had happened to Mike and had no idea where anyone else was, but I couldn’t let myself think about it. I jumped out and scrabbled for a foothold in the rocks, then grabbed the Zodiac and started hauling it in, timing the moves so I was pulling it a little further each time a wave came in. As I approached the shoreline I hopped back into the boat to make sure everything was strapped down … and felt something strange at my feet. What the hell? There was something underneath the boat, something pushing up.
No, not some thing. It was some one.
“Holy shit!” I yelled as I threw myself out again, grabbed the Zodiac with both hands, and heaved with all my might to free it from the pull of the water, pushing it up, up, and finally flipping it over to the side. A figure came gasping up out of the surf like a creature in a horror movie.
It was Mike. He’d been trapped under the Zodiac for more than two minutes, wedged in the pitch blackness.
“I was— I was—” he tried to talk at the same time he was wheezing and gasping for air. When he finally got enough breath in him, he finished the thought: “I was— … gonna die. I was— … sure I— … was gonna die.”
And no doubt he was absolutely right. Mike had the look of someone who had stared death in the face and known it had beaten him. “Fuck this,” he mumbled as I pulled him up onto shore. “I shoulda been an Army Ranger … fuck this … this water stuff is not for me … you can have it.”
As Mike and I stood there on the shore, him leaning on me while he caught his breath, one of the instructors came running up to us. I figured he would be anxious to know if Mike was alive. I was about to shout out, “It’s okay! He’s okay!” but I was cut off by a string of obscenities followed by these words in a familiar voice:
“Webb! Get me a count of those fucking weapons!”
It was Instructor Shoulin.
It was like the guy had been put on this earth to find me and torture me. Just as with our land nav exercises up on Laguna Mountain, here was my nemesis, helping out in Third Phase—and busting my balls.
Fortunately for all of us we’d had our guns clipped in tight on the Zodiac. These were real weapons, and if any of us had lost one we would have been in seriously deep shit. Losing a gun is a career-ender for a full-fledged SEAL, let alone a BUD/S student. If we had lost any of those weapons while we were out there, we would all likely have been kicked out, and it would have been a problem for our instructors, too.
But we didn’t lose any firearms, and we didn’t lose any people, either. Within another half-minute everyone else was coming in to shore. Suzuski, our crew leader, came up to me and said, “Man, we should have waited for that set.” I didn’t reply.
Poor Mike had recovered his breath, but not his composure. He was beaten and he’d made his decision. He was going to go find that brass bell and ring it hard.
He didn’t, though, not that night and not the morning after, either. For the next few days he kept talking about it, and I kept talking him through it. “It was a freak thing, man,” I said. “Don’t worry about it. It could have happened to anyone. You’re fine.” I couldn’t tell if he was hearing any of it. It didn’t look like he was. Those two minutes had really rattled him. He’d been sure he was a dead man, and he was quitting.
But he didn’t quit. Ritland stuck it out and saw the thing through. In fact, we ended up together later in our first platoon deployment as part of SEAL Team 3, and Mike went on to become a solid operator and have a strong career as a SEAL. The brass bell never got him.
By the time we all got off that island we were a pack of uncaged animals. Stepping off the plane back in San Diego we felt like we could conquer anything. Nothing I’ve ever experienced quite compares with how it felt to know that we had made it all the way through BUD/S.
Of our original two-hundred-plus, just over twenty of us had made it to the end.
The night before graduation, it’s tradition for all the graduating students to take the instructors out for a night of drinking. We went with them to a pub on Coronado Island called Danny’s that was strictly off limits to students. The instructors started buying me shots, and then the night devolved into an endless series of beers. At some point I turned and looked at who it was that had shoved the latest beer in front of me.
It was Instructor Shoulin.
It was the weirdest thing. Here was this maniac who had done everything in his power to get me to quit, this guy that I hated, this guy who was my nemesis. And we were having a guys’ night out, drinking beers together.
“You know, Webb, I hated you,” he said. Hey, don’t hold back, I thought but didn’t say. Tell me what you really think. He took a slow sip of beer, then continued talking in that soft, icy, killer’s voice. He was looking straight ahead, speaking almost as if I weren’t there and he was talking to the bar in front of him.
“I did not want you to make it through. I did not want you to be a SEAL. And we all thought you were going to quit. We thought we could make you quit.”
He stopped talking again. Maybe he expected me to say something. Maybe not. In any case, I kept my mouth shut and waited to see if he had anything else to say. He did.
“But you shoved it in our faces. You stepped up. I watched you turn a corner—and I was impressed.” He took another long pull on his beer, then quietly added, “You earned our respect.”
Those few minutes were worth all the shit I’d been through.
We drank until the sun came up. I overslept the next day and almost missed my own graduation. One by one, they called us up to receive our certificates. My parents were there, along with my grandparents, down from Canada. It was an unbelievably great feeling. I had made it through BUD/S. I was finally on the threshold of becoming a Navy SEAL.
I was still completely hung-over from the night before.
To read more check out Brandon’s NY Times Best Selling Memoir, The Red Circle by clicking on the image below or click here.