America's new obsession: the training program of the elite forces who got bin Laden. After hours of calisthenics and surf torture in cold water, you're certain to get buff, writes Tony Dokoupil. Plus, full coverage of Osama bin Laden's death.
Days after Osama bin Laden’s demise, America's burning concern—the most urgent outstanding question, at least according to Google search trends—had nothing to do with al Qaeda, terrorism, or torture. No, the death of the world’s most-wanted man has the country thinking about something else entirely: how to get buff.
“Navy SEAL training,” followed closely by “Navy SEAL workout,” were the only bin Laden-related search terms in the Top 10 on Wednesday, narrowly beating “Jesse James” (who opened up about his ex, Sandra Bullock) and “Flowers Online” (note: Mother’s Day is Sunday). Surely, this says something unflattering about the national id, or at least American Web-surfing habits. But since inquiring minds want to know…
SEAL training is the most ferocious workout in the free world, according to Navy memoirs and other published reports, a bone-wrenching, spine-rattling affair that takes about two years, and overwhelms most men who attempt it. Those who pass go on to restock the 2,500-man rotation of active-duty SEALs. The best are eventually tapped for the elite Seal Team Six—the squad that got bin Laden. And as perhaps goes without saying, the average Googler wouldn't survive the pre-training requirements: 50 sit-ups and 42 pushups (in under two minutes each), a mile-and-a-half run (at sub seven-minute-mile pace), a 500-yard swim (in less than 13 minutes). There are no women allowed.
The trial begins with BUD/S (basic underwater demolition/SEAL training) at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California, an otherwise lovely island in San Diego Bay. On the "grinder," a black asphalt courtyard, would-be SEALs spend hours doing mass calisthenics. In the pool, they are "drown-proofed" by swimming with bound arms and legs. On the shore, they experience "surf torture" (official name: water immersion), a prolonged bob in the 60-degree Pacific Ocean, or are made to jump on and off a pier while being hosed down with cold water. After hours of this—literally—men begin to crack up, and a class of 100 can shrink by 10 percent in a few minutes. Those who stick it out end up as "sugar cookies," wet, blue-lipped men belly-flopping on the beach: "Up! Down! Up! Down!"
Gallery: Navy SEALs
• The Daily Beast's Complete Osama bin Laden Coverage
Then a whistle blows: Time for a four-mile run. Or time to retrieve a raft from a distant shed and support the 150-pound object—packed with paddles and gear—on your head, which ends up red and rubbed bald. Or time to go into the surf for a 17-mile lap around the island, or to practice landing on a patch of jagged shore. The most sacred rite of passage, the peak of SEAL training, is known as "Hell Week," a five-day regime of simulated battle stress—and a total of four hours of sleep. Some would-be SEALs turn to gallows humor to endure the pain, telling themselves “the only easy day was yesterday.” Others call their megaphone-wielding instructor “The Antichrist.” Men can quit at any time by ringing a bell, and historically, two out of three do so.
Those who endure the full six months swim more than 150 miles, and run some 1,300 more. Then it’s time for more advanced material: high-altitude parachute training, combat tactics, and finally, at least a year of platoon training. By the time a SEAL is combat-ready, the transformation from deck hand to Sea-Air-Land commando costs $350,000 to $500,000, according to estimates—more than the price of two armored Humvees.
In recent years, the Navy has stepped up its efforts to find people worth this investment, offering a $40,000 bonus to recruits who survive basic training, and scouting out men who can do just that. The profile is very specific. The men most likely to succeed as SEALs, according to a 2010 Gallup study commissioned by the Navy, are at least 5-foot-8 and 162 pounds, eschew Big Four sports for pastimes like water polo, snowboarding, and lacrosse, and hail from "New England, the northern Plains, or the West Coast." Their average age is 22 to 25.
Men can quit at any time by ringing a bell, and historically, two out of three do so.
But bin Laden's killers were probably much older. It takes a decade, in many cases, to ascend from general enlistee to top commando who attracts the attention of Team Six. Then it's yet another six months or a year of specialized training, followed by still more years of proving oneself before landing the top assignments. "Most [SEAL Team Six] members are in their 30s, and even up past their 40s," says Don Mann, who retired from the squad in 1998, at 40. By that time, he adds, "Vitamin M," for Motrin, is "everybody's daily candy."
So don't try this at home. SEAL training humbled even Charlie Sheen, who played an elite commando in the 1990 cult hit Navy Seals. Off screen, he was humbled by the role. "I wouldn't assume on any level that I possess the qualities of a SEAL,” he said at the time (long before becoming what he is now, of course, "a rock star from Mars"). The truth is, most of us don't—and never will, no matter what we Google.
Tony Dokoupil is a staff writer and editor at Newsweek.