Writers note: In the approximately five months between graduating ‘A’ school at Great Lakes and starting BUD/S I was assigned to work at SEAL Team 5 along with seven other guys as part of an experimental assessment program. The idea was to give us a first hand look at the innerworkings of the Teams perhaps to up our motivation, and to assess whether this might increase our chances of ultimate success. Three out of the eight eventually graduated BUD/S. I really don’t think it proved a damn thing, except to let us have some fun, and continue to get in better shape.
Colasani as it turns out had graduated from college before enlisting in the Navy. When it became apparent to the powers that be what a stud-God he was, they pulled him out of class ‘A’ school at Great Lakes and sent him to Officer Candidate School. He was commisioned an Ensign. We both showed back up at BUD/S at the same time.
BUD/S class 150 forms up and wouldn’t you know it but not only is Ensign Magua right there in my class to serve as a constant benchmark for my inadequacy, but he is my boat crew coxwain. On day one of first phase of BUD/S, a class has sometimes upwards of one hundred guys in it. Typically a dozen to twenty are lost in the first seventy-two hours. These are guys who never really wanted to be there in the first place. In the following four to five weeks another thirty or so will drop out, usually due to being too weak physically to put up with the work, or just as often too weak mentally to handle the accompanying psychological abuse.
The administrative sub-unit within the class itself is the boat crew. This is literally the seven guys who man the each of the rubber rafts (known as an IBS, or ‘Inflatable Boat, Small’) that are a big part of first phase evolutions. You paddle the IBS through violent plunging surf, ride those same waves onto a huge rocky outcropping, run around the base with the IBS on your heads, do pushups with your feet high up on its gunnels and any number of other things the instructors can dream up. The constant throughout, regardless of whether or not the IBS itself is actually involved, is the ‘boat crew’. This seven man crew does everything together, and the dynamics within the crew can have a big effect on the relative harshness of first phase training. The highest ranking person in the crew is the coxswain, and this is an officer whenever possible. Ensign Magua (Colasani) was my boat crew coxwain.
BUD/S operates under the creed ‘It pays to be a winner’ and ‘second place is first loser’. In BUD/S training, as in combat, the only thing that matters is winning, and everything is a competition. The majority of evolutions in first phase involve some sort of competition pitting the boat crews against one another. These could be races through the surf or carrying a telephone pole a half mile through soft sand to name a couple. The point is that these races are miserable all by themselves. More importantly, no matter how strong you might be, it is the ability of the entire boat crew to pull together that leads to success. A huge part of this relies on the leadership of the coxwain. He has to be able to lead through example, motivation and keep his head up and eyes open to ensure the orders he is giving are the right ones. (The instructors intentionally try to make things as confusing as possible). The coxwain must do all of this effectively while going through the same exhausting drills, races and punishments as everyone else. Getting stuck with a weak, dumb or self serving officer as your coxwain in this situation is a guarantee of added torture, made all the worse by seeing the ‘good’ boat crews sitting and resting right in front of you.
I had Magua! We were a good boat crew. I would swear that there were times that he was carrying the boat all by himself and we were all just hanging on and trying to help. The guy was an absolute machine and a motivation volcano. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more jaded to ‘rah rah types’ and see right through their bullshit. However at this point in my life and in this human blender it was a huge psychological crutch to have the guy in charge ‘act like it’. Ensign Magua-sani never let up no matter how bad the sadistic bastard instructors were dishing it out. I found that I had mentally found a comfort zone of barely paying attention to what was going around me and rather taking my cues from Magua-sani and focusing on not letting him down.
As the days turned to weeks, more and more guys dropped out of training. The acronym DOR for ‘Drop On Request’ was made famous in the farcical Richard Gere movie ‘An Officer and a Gentlemen’. While we didn’t call it that, the concept of quitting BUD/S is the same. A large brass bell is brought by the instructor staff everywhere the class goes. At any time during training, any trainee merely has to walk up to the bell and ring it three times and it is over. Just ring the bell, and you will be cozy, comfy and free from BUD/S torture. You will also never be a SEAL.
I don’t know who came up with ‘The Bell’, but as I look back I find the entire concept absolutely brilliant. No one fades away here. You can’t just quietly opt out. Quitting training is an overt act, done loudly and in front of everyone. Those three strikes of the hammer against the brass bell shout out “I” “AM” “A QUITTER”. This may seem cruel or gratuitous to some, but I think its important to remember that the psychology that BUD/S cares about is that of the guys who remain, not the those who chose not to be. I can say for my part that every single guy who rang that bell made me stronger. I went farther than you. In combat as in BUD/S, it pays to be a winner, and every time that bell rings, I move a little closer to the front of the pack.
Meanwhile the Magua-sani crew just forges on, intact. There were myriad challenges to overcome but we would just push forward as a unit and while we were not always first, we were never last and our extra torture was infrequent. After more than two years of anticipation, I was a BUD/S trainee, I was in Magua-sani’s boat, and I was making it.
I must admit that there were times that I marveled in my good fortune. All the guys in our boat crew, I remember besides myself Bruce, Will, Darby, John and Nick were strong. But I don’t think it was lost on any of the guys that we were led by a kick ass officer, and all we had to do was look around at some of the conspicuous weakling officers leading other crews right into the ground. I however, had known Magua-sani for more than a year. The guy was my nemesis, a shining muscular example of everything I wasn’t that had haunted me from as far back as Great Lakes. Now I was riding his coat tails through the first five weeks of training, weeks which saw the class of well over a hundred guys winnowed down to fifty two. This is a necessary process to trim off the weak sisters in preparation for week six, or as it is more commonly known… Hell Week.