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The Navy SEALs have a reputation for being among the toughest, the fittest and the most secretive forces in the US military. They were the first American troops to set foot in Afghanistan after 9-11, launching the war against al- Qaida and the Taliban - and they've continued to operate there since October 2001 - and in Iraq, the forces going through the largest longest deployment in history. Both those conflicts have Navy SEALs at home working furiously to build up the ranks. NPR's Andrea Hsu got a rare chance to spend a few days with them to find out how they're doing it.

ANDREA HSU: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEN CHANTING)

HSU: 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-tatooed instructor shouts out orders. Other instructors pace up and down the aisles with megaphones, making sure that, say, during 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 phase one of the formal training.

Unidentified Group: ...two, three, four, five, six, seven...

HSU: This is a scene that makes commanding officer Captain Roger Herbert very happy. He oversees the recruiting and training of future SEALs.

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

HSU: And 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. Captain Herbert says it's not going to be easy.

HERBERT: This is not just a spigot you can turn on and off. From the day that a guy gets here, to the day that I give the guy his trident - the SEAL insignia - that takes 59 weeks minimum, if he makes it through the first pass.

HSU: Most do not. Historically, less than 25 percent of each class graduates. And so 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.

Commander Duncan Smith heads up Naval Special Warfare's recruiting directorate, also known as the Motivator Shop. Smith is blond, with movie star looks. He first joined the SEALs in the 1980s, left in the '90s, dabbled in television, got a graduate degree in marketing. But he re-upped with the SEALs after 9-11. Nowadays, he travels the country, spreading the word about the SEALs at triathlons, athletic camps, the ESPN X-Games.

DUNCAN SMITH: We find that wrestlers do particularly well in training, water polo players and some very nontraditional athletes - snowboarders, big wall climbers, ice climbers - who are able to crank out 42, 44 pull-ups. And you can recognize them immediately after just a short conversation that they got the personal discipline and the drive to succeed at any kind of physical or mental challenge.

HSU: And then there's the SEALs' own extreme sporting event, open to the public - the Super Frog Half Iron-Man, held on Coronado every September.

(SOUNDBITE OF DVD MOVIE CLIP)

HSU: They've produced a DVD of the event and are peddling it to cable networks. It's part "Survivor," and part infomercial for the force.

(SOUNDBITE OF DVD MOVIE CLIP)

BLOCK: A 1.2 rough water ocean swim. A 54-mile bike against hot wind, and a 13.1-mile soft sand run. Are you ready?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HSU: Commander Smith says putting this sort of public face on the SEALs was unheard of until now.

SMITH: Traditionally, we've had the luxury of not sharing any of our tactics, techniques, procedures. Today, we don't necessarily have that luxury. We want to make sure that the young man who has the interest, who has the desire and who has the drive also has the information.

HSU: Information and also preparation so that once he gets to Coronado, he has a better chance of making it through the training.

JOE FULLER: You're still rolling a little bit. You've got (unintelligible). Try and bend your arm a little bit more.

HSU: At a swimming pool known as the combat training tank, retired SEAL Joe Fuller is helping recruit Mike Bullard with his sidestroke.

FULLER: ...a little bit more, and bend your elbow just a little bit more, Mike. It'll hold more steady in the water, it's going forward. You're rolling a little bit.

HSU: 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 says he would have had little chance without Fuller.

MIKE BULLARD: You know, back in January, when I started working with him, I could barely swim a hundred meters. So to be able to go for a half-hour or longer, it's pretty good for me.

HSU: This mentoring is one of a number of new programs the SEALs are trying out in an effort to increase their graduation rates. But one thing they will not do, says Captain Herbert, is compromise standards.

HERBERT: If we compromise our standards we are putting our troops in jeopardy. We are putting the mission in jeopardy.

HSU: Herbert adds that the work of the Navy SEALs during wartime is dangerous enough as is. He won't tell parents of SEALs not to worry about their sons. Instead, he says this.

HERBERT: I can promise you that he will 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.

HSU: And here is where the public campaign ends. Herbert will not disclose anything 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.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News, San Diego.

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