Hell week breaks you. Hell week breaks everyone. Hell week is five straight days and nights of constant physical activity, constant meaning save for a medically necessary two and half hour nap at the end of day four, you don’t don’t stop, and don’t sleep.
It’s been more than twenty five years since I went through Hell Week, and that time has given me plenty of perspective about what it takes to survive it and why it is so important. However when Hell Week was looming like a storm front on my life, ambitions and self-worth, my judgement was far too clouded for any kind of detachment. I was just flat terrified. Not only I was I likely to fail, but it would happen painfully. Every experience up to this point had successively set the record for my personal pain threshold. Now as the instructors were all too happy to point out, all those records were about to be shattered. Fear had driven me, but now it was running me over. Fear of failure. Fear of pain. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of final confirmation that I was a failure, and I had spent all this time and effort on a foolish lark for which I had told every disbelieving family member and friend that I was good enough. I had surely been bullshitting everyone, trying to seem different, have a ‘plan’, be special when the truth was I wasted everyones time and would now be shown the door by members of the very club I wished to join. ‘Just ring the bell, you know you don’t belong here’. I could hear the words and picture the moment.
In truth, to one extent or another we all felt it. Whatever demons any of us had were chirping in full song as the weekend prior to Hell Week drew to a close. A quiet resignation fell over the collective members of BUD/S class 150, each of us left alone to do battle with our own fears. Thank God for Ensign Magua-sani. True to form he seemed to take everything seriously, and his role as the leader of boat crew six was no exception. He had told us all to come over to his BOQ (Bachelors Officers Quarters) room that Friday night, the last full night before Hell Week was to begin. He said he wanted to have a chat and make sure we were all on the same page. Some chat.
Once all six of us had arrived and we all had eaten some pizza and had a beer or two, there was small talk of how each of us planned to spend the next 24 hours and some meaningless talk about what was to come, Magua stood up.
“OK guys, I wanna get a few things straight between us before tomorrow night”.
He started pacing around the small room, looking down and his words increasingly choppy and gaining volume.
“OK, this is how it is. This is still the fucking Navy, and I am still your fucking officer no matter what bullshit any asswipe instructor says”.
He most definitely has the floor. No one is even chewing at this point.
“Some of you guys are gonna think about quitting out there, some of you, hell they say all of us are gonna think about quitting hell week. Well, I’m gonna fucking tell you right now that they don’t know shit about me and I .. ain’t ..fucking ..quitting.”
He looked each of us in the eye during those last three words. Great, now I’m scared of HIM too. Getting even louder.
“Ya know what else? Huh? You know what else? You.. Williams, Mabry, Rogers…” he pointed at all six of us, “you fuckers work for me. I am YOUR officer and you are MY FUCKING MEN. I got room on my back for all you motherfuckers so lemme tell you this….. ANY of you even THINK about quitting, you gotta ..GO ..THROUGH ..ME. You having trouble? You having a hard time? You come SEE ME FIRST and we’ll ALL get through this TOGETHER”.
What I think I said was something like ‘yes, sir’ with appropriate conviction. Inside however I was screaming “FUCK YEAH!” This is MY GUY and now he has said the magic words. He’s got room on his back for me? Well I am SOOOO there! Im with you sir! We’re doing it together. This guy, who I have hero worshipped from afar for almost as long as I had been in the Navy, just bought me a ticket on his ride. I was ready to start Hell Week right then and there, and perhaps secretly cognizant that this adrenaline fueled confidence would wane in the hours, and days, to come. Right now though it was exactly what I needed to hear. Most of all, I felt like I had a plan. When the going got bad, there would be somewhere to go before facing the prospect of The Bell. And he would do it again then too. He’d kick my ass and say “Dave, get back in form fuck face, I need you! You’re my best guy!” or at least thats how I imagined it might go in my wildest fantasy.
What was coming was no fantasy however, and it wasn’t a homecoming game against the big rival school either. Professional killers intensely motivated to weed out those who didn’t have what it took to serve right next to them, to BE them, were waiting. They were waiting for me. In eighteen hours Hell Week would begin, and that was no fantasy. Eighteen hours after that, I would find my beaten frozen body shuffling over to the same officer who had just gotten my heart racing, desperate for him to do it again.
Ask any SEAL and he will tell you that his Hell Week was the hardest one ever. Of course it was, and mine was too. Class 150’s Hell Week however does have one distinction that to my knowledge hasn’t been beaten to this day, the coldest Hell Week ever recorded. BUD/S training as a whole and Hell Week in particular are all about being cold. Water is cold, and we are training to be warriors of the water. The entirety of SEAL training is a succession of events performed while soaking wet, freezing cold and covered from head to toe in sand. Cold is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter who you are, when you are cold to the bone, shivering uncontrollably and dripping wet, the only priority you have is to stop being that way. This is one of the great secrets of BUD/S. Mother nature does most of the work, and she is a bitch who hates you.
Hell Week begins after sunset on a Sunday night, and the class is told to be in their racks (beds) fully dressed and ready three hours beforehand. What any of us might have known had we been smart enough to watch the weather was that during that three hours a record cold front moved over Southern California. While we were safe inside the barracks, the temperature outside dropped to 30 degrees. Now, thirty degrees might not sound that bad, but when you are about to be swimming, flopping, crawling and paddling in the 48 degree ocean (the water off San Diego is notoriously cold) for five straight days and nights, thirty is deadly.
By lunchtime on the first full day of Hell Week, eighteen hours in, I found that I was only capable of gross motions with my hands. I could grab the paddle to my IBS with my fists, but I would stare at my fingers as I tried to manipulate the plastic spoon of my MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat) while sitting up against the IBS out on the grinder. I had been shivering since the night before, and the muscles in my back had spasmed to the point where I had a very hard time getting my hands to come together in front of me to scoop some of the pureed turkey tetrazini vomit in the little plastic MRE pack. I resorted to holding the pack by my nose and trying to shake the food down into my mouth. Just then one of the instructors, who hadn’t shut up since Hell Week started, announced that Log PT (the telephone poles) would be the next evolution. This dreaded announcement of the worst possible ‘next thing’ was a punctuation of the incessant reminders that we were only a few hours into this nightmare and we were still “days away from halfway baby!”.
We were given almost an hour to sit there an eat, and to think, and this was no mistake. There are no mistakes at BUD/S. As chaotic and improvised as things sometimes seemed, BUD/S is a tightly choreographed series of events, each building on a previous misery to break the trainee. While we sat there to eat, outside, beyond cold, the instructors occasionally would yell some announcement or miserable reminder, but for the most part we were left on our own, and most importantly to our own thoughts. This is when it happens.
The anticipation of misery and pain is a far more powerful force than misery and pain themselves. Given enough time, a weakened mind and with proper prodding, your own imagination can do far worse things to you than the instructors ever could. This isn’t just an effective tool to weed guys out, it truly is combat training. Combat is about being at your absolute best during the moment you are in. Sitting around mulling over your chances for survival or even whats gonna happen five minutes from now is defeatist. Just get through now, and worry about then, then. I know this now and of course our instructors knew it then, as the Bell started to ring, and ring.
We had lost a few guys through the night. I think the intensity of it had just scared the hell out of them. But now with time on our hands, and the precedent being set all around us, trainees were dropping like flies. About one guy every five minutes was making his move. Some would go silently, just walk up and DING DING DING, and an instructor would shuttle them into an open van nearby. I saw one guy, I have no idea who now, walk up and want to discuss his impending bell ringing with one of the instructor staff. “OK, then fucking ring the fucking bell then” the instructor replied to whatshisnames ‘discussion’. He did.
I wasn’t getting any stronger watching all this. It wasn’t like before. I was staying the same, staying miserable. I couldn’t think past it. I was freezing, in pain, afraid to move as the parts of my ocean-soaked clothes that were touching me seemed one degree warmer than the parts that weren’t. I couldn’t eat, my cramped back felt like the spine was on the outside. I knew, I knew for a fact that I was in way worse shape than everyone else. I’d be the next to go anyway. As soon as Log PT started and I couldn’t move, or run from the sand scarred chaffing between my thighs, and couldn’t raise my arms above my head to lift anything because, well, I just couldn’t, everyone was gonna find out what I already knew. I didn’t belong here. I wasn’t gonna quit, but I could tell that I couldn’t go any further either… so then why not quit? It was about then that the instructor who we called ‘Big Kahuna’ came out of a nearby building with a stack of blankets to cover up all of the guys who had quit, right in front of us. Right there in front of us they were getting under blankets, stream was rising off their bodies and they were warm!
That really hurt to look at and my brain started thinking things that I did not want it to think. It was only a matter of time for me and I started think that if I just explained to people how bad it was they might understand my decision to leave, and I could probably get a good job somewhere else in the Navy and that I was pretty smart and that I could hook up with that girl I met in Mission Beach the weekend before and and and… it was spinning out of control. I stopped myself and remembered, thankfully that I had a plan. Just stop thinking and go talk to the big fella. Magua-sani was right across the grinder and all I had to do was get up and go talk to him and maybe things could seem different. Just get up and talk to him. Ask for help. So I got up.
The officers were sequestered on one side of the grinder away from the rest of the class. However, no one stopped me as I walked in their direction, and perhaps not coincidentally in the general direction of The Bell. They were all standing, not talking much or anything. Just a bunch of officers standing around like,… officers. I approached Magua and he turned to face me as I forced the words to come out. I couldn’t quite face him or look him in the eye. I felt like a kid who’d screwed up and had gone to a disapproving father for absolution.
“Mr. Colasani. I uh, .. I’m having a tough time”
He didn’t respond so I went on, feeling like more of a burden on him with each passing second.
“I don’t know if I’m even physically able to go through Log PT right now…”
Still nothing. I didn’t dare look up to see him looking disapprovingly back at me. I was waiting for him to cut me off, like a slap in the face.
“I’m not sure if I made the right decision, I’m just just in a hell of a lot of pain right now”
Still no response so I looked up. He wasn’t moving and my eyes met his, and there where my intense leader had always been…. there was no one home.
“Yeah man, me too.” …and he turned right around took three short strides to the bell and rung it DING DING DING.
I suddenly realized everyone was looking in my direction and I quickly turned around walked right back over to where I had been sitting, sat back down and started eating.
Did that just happen? Did I just see that? I kept eating and the muscle cramps in my back, the cramps were gone and my back felt fine. I was still cold as hell but it wasn’t really even bothering me that much. I looked up and realized that the other guys in the boat crew were all staring at me. Will leaned over to me.
“Dave, what the fuck did you do?”
“Nothing! I just went over and told him I was really hurting and then he quit!”
“OK, well don’t fucking talk to ME, ok?” Will smiled and leaned back.
I friggin worshipped that guy. He was Magua! I practically idolized him. Then I hated him. Then I came to admire him and look up to him. Then I depended on him.
Then I beat him.
The thought of quitting never crossed my mind after that.
Four and a half months later myself and eleven other men from that Hell Week graduated Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training and were given orders to join the U.S. Navy SEAL Teams.
About the author: Upon graduation from BUD/S training, Rogers was assigned to SEAL Team Two at Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Virginia. While at SEAL Team Two, Rogers was deployed to the Republic of Panama in support of Operation Just Cause in which General Manuel Noriega was arrested. Rogers was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal with Bronze Combat “V” and the Naval Combat Action Ribbon in recognition of heroic action during these operations. In all, Dave received 13 different military decorations in his seven years of service.
A two time candidate for United States Congress in 2002 and 2004, Dave works as a consultant to the defense industry.
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