Navy SEALs Seek to Build Up Their Ranks

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Transcript
Navy SEAL recruits participate in a surf drill on the beach, guided by an instructor.

A Navy SEAL instructor assists students with learning the importance of listening during a surf drill. During a six-month training course, recruits are pushed to their physical and mental limits. Naval Special Warfare Command hide caption

itoggle caption Naval Special Warfare Command
Navy SEAL recruits do push-ups by a pool while an instructor explains swim techniques.

An instructor explains swim techniques to students before rigorous swim conditioning, in preparation for their swim test. Naval Special Warfare Command hide caption

itoggle caption Naval Special Warfare Command
Navy SEAL recruits participate in a training exercise.

Students participate in log physical training. It is a demonstration not only of physical strength and endurance, but of the importance of teamwork. Naval Special Warfare Command hide caption

itoggle caption Naval Special Warfare Command

The Navy SEALs have a reputation for being the toughest, fittest and the most secretive force in the U.S. military.

They were among the first American troops to set foot in Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, launching the war against al-Qaida and the Taliban; they've continued to operate there since October 2001. And in Iraq, the force is seeing its largest and longest deployment in history.

These ongoing conflicts have SEALs at home working furiously to build up the ranks. Drive down Coronado Island, in the San Diego Bay, and you come across the Naval Special Warfare Center, home to the Navy SEALs. As military installations go, it's remarkably small. But pass through the gates, and you immediately sense a very robust presence.

Navy SEAL Training

In a courtyard known as the Grinder, more than 200 young men are well into a 90-minute, high-intensity workout. They're dressed in white T-shirts and camouflage pants. A shirtless and heavily tattooed instructor shouts out orders. Other instructors pace up and down the aisles with megaphones — making sure that on push-ups elbows are bent past 90 degrees and chests are hitting the ground. These SEAL recruits are in the last week of "in doc" — the ramp-up to the first phase of formal SEAL training.

This is a scene that makes Commanding Officer Capt. Roger Herbert very happy. He oversees the recruiting and training of future SEALs.

"For the first time in years, I've got a full class out there," he says. "We don't usually see that. In fact, we have so many people in the class, they're competing to get into first phase. This is a problem we've always wanted."

It's especially good news for the SEALs now. The Pentagon wants the force of just over 2,000 SEALs to expand by 500 by the year 2010. Herbert says it's not going to be easy.

"It's not just a spigot you can turn on and off," he explains. "From the day that a guy gets here to the day that I give the guy his trident — the seal insignia — takes 59 weeks minimum, if he makes it through the first pass."

Most do not. Historically, less than 25 percent of each class graduates. In order to meet their numbers, the Navy SEALs are making changes to how they recruit, and how they prepare recruits for what some consider the most grueling training pipeline in the world.

Recruiting Navy SEALs

Commander Duncan Smith heads up Naval Special Warfare's recruiting directorate, also known as the Motivators Shop. He's blond, with movie star looks. He first joined the SEALs in the 1980s, left in the '90s, dabbled in television and got a graduate degree in marketing. But he rejoined the SEALs after Sept. 11. Nowadays, he travels the country, spreading the word about the SEALs — at triathlons, athletic camps, the ESPN X-Games.

"We find that wrestlers do well," he says. "Water polo players, nontraditional athletes do well — snowboarders, big wall climbers, ice climbers... You can recognize immediately they have personal discipline and drive to succeed at any kind of physical or mental challenge."

And then there's the SEALs' own extreme sporting event, which is open to the public: the Super Frog Half Iron-Man, held on Coronado Island each September. They've produced a DVD of the event and are peddling it to cable stations. It's part Survivor and part infomercial for the force. Smith says the goal is to make sure that recruits are well-informed about what they're getting into.

Mentoring SEAL Recruits

Mentoring is one of a number of new programs the SEALs hope will increase their graduation rates. At a swimming pool known as the Combat Training Tank, retired SEAL Joe Fuller helps recruit Mike Bullard with his sidestroke.

Mike Bullard grew up in San Diego watching Navy SEALs train on the beach. He knows he's still a long ways away from his dream of becoming one — but he says he wouldn't have had a chance without Fuller.

"Back in January, when I started working with him, I could barely swim 100 meters," Bullard says. "So to be able to swim for a half-hour is pretty good."

The SEALs hope this mentoring will help recruits make it through the program, but Captain Herbert says the force will not compromise its standards.

"If we compromise our standards," he says, "we are putting our troops in jeopardy. We are putting our mission in jeopardy."

Herbert says the SEALs' work during wartime is dangerous enough as is. He won't tell parents of SEALs not to worry. Instead, he says this: "I can promise you he'll be the best-trained man on the battlefield, the best-led man on the battlefield, the best-equipped man on the battlefield. But ultimately, he's on the battlefield, and war is an uncertain thing."

Herbert will disclose nothing about what SEAL commandos are doing overseas. He'll only say they're making contributions that Americans would be proud of. To date, 18 SEALs have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.