All eyes are on the Navy SEALS after their extraordinary takedown of Osama Bin Laden. Here Marcus Luttrell, a former SEAL, recounts the beginning of Hell Week, the toughest physical and mental challenge in their training. An excerpt from Lone Survivor, Luttrell’s account of how he survived a 2005 mission in Afghanistan that resulted in the largest loss of life in Navy SEAL history.
After several weeks of hard physical training, Marcus Luttrell's group was given the weekend off before starting Hell Week, one of the hardest physical and mental exercises anywhere in the world. Over 5 days, the men who want to be SEALs will run, swim, carry boats, tread in freezing water, crawl through sand, and more. Many of those that start do not make it through and ring a bell to signal their departure.
The excerpt begins on Sunday night while they're waiting for Hell Week to commence.
I can't remember the precise time, but it was after 2030 and before 2100. Suddenly there was a loud shout, and someone literally kicked open the side door. Bam! And a guy carrying a machine gun, followed by two others, came charging in, firing from the hip. The lights went off, and then all three gunmen opened fire, spraying the room with bullets (blanks, I hoped).
There were piercing blasts from whistles, and the other door was kicked open and three more men came crashing into the room. The only thing we knew for sure right now was when the whistles blew, we hit the floor and took up a defensive position, prostrate, legs crossed, ears covered with the palms of the hands.
Hit the deck! Heads down! Incoming!
Then a new voice, loud and stentorian. It was pitch dark save for the nonstop flashes of the machine guns, but the voice sounded a lot like Instructor Mruk's to me—"Welcome to hell, gentlemen."
For the next couple of minutes there was nothing but gunfire, deafening gunfire. They were certainly blanks, otherwise half of us would have been dead, but believe me, they sounded just like the real thing, SEAL instructors firing our M43s. The shouting was drowned by the whistles, and everything was drowned by the gunfire.
Gallery: Navy Seal Photos
By now the air in the room was awful, hanging with the smell of cordite, lit only by the muzzle flashes. I kept my head well down on the floor as the gunmen moved among us, taking care not to let hot spent cartridges land on our skin.
There was indeed no mercy in Hell Week. Everything we'd heard was true. You think you're tough, kid? Then you go right ahead and prove it to us.
I sensed a lull. And then a roar, plainly meant for everyone.
"All of you, out! Move, you guys! Move! Move! Move! Let's go!"
I struggled to my feet and joined the stampede to the door. We rushed out to the grinder, where it was absolute bedlam. More gunfire, endless yelling, and then, again, the whistles, and once more we all hit the deck in the correct position. In barrels around the grinder's edge, artillery simulators blasted away.
I didn't know where Captain Maguire was, but if he'd been here he'd have thought he was back in some foreign battle zone. At least, if he'd shut his eyes, he would have.
Then the instructors opened fire for real, this time with highpressure hoses aimed straight at us, knocking us down if we tried to get up. The place was awash with water, and we couldn't see a thing and we couldn't hear anything above the small-arms and artillery fire.
Battlefield whistle drills were conducted in the midst of highpressure water jets, total chaos, deafening explosions, and shouting instructors… "Crawl to the whistle, men! Crawl to the whistle! And keep your goddamned heads down!"
Some of the guys were suffering from mass confusion. One of'em ran for his life, straight over the beach and into the ocean. He was a guy I knew really well, and he'd lost it completely. This was a simulated scene from the Normandy beaches, and it did induce a degree of panic, because no one knew what was happening or what we were supposed to be doing besides hitting the deck.
The instructors knew this. They understood many of us would be at a low ebb. Not me. I'm always up for this kind of stuff, and anyway I knew they weren't really trying to kill us. But the instructors understood this would not be true of everyone, and they moved among us, imploring us to quit now while there was still time.
"All you gotta do is ring that little bell up there."
Lying there in the dark and confusion, freezing cold, soaked to the skin, scared to stand up, I told one of them he could stick that little bell straight up his ass, and I heard a loud roar of laughter. But I never said it again, and I never let on it was me. Until now, that is. See that? Even in the chaos, I could still manage the smart-ass remark.
By now we were in a state of maximum disorientation, just trying to stay on the grinder with the others. The teamwork mantra had set in. I didn't want to be by myself. I wanted to be with my soaking wet teammates, whatever the hell it was we were supposed to be doing.
Then I heard a voice announcing we were a man short. Then I heard another voice, sharp and demanding. I don't know who it was, but it was close to me and it sounded like the Biggest Bossman, Joe Maguire, with a lot of authority. "What do you mean? A man short? Get a count right now."
They ordered us to our feet instantly, and we counted off one by one, stopping at fifty-three. We were a man short. Holy shit! That's bad, and very serious. Even I understood that. A party was dispatched immediately to the beach, and that's where they found the missing trainee, splashing around out in the surf.
Someone reported back to the grinder. And I heard our instructor snap, "Send 'em all into the surf. We'll sort 'em out later."
And off we went again, running hard to the beach, away from the gunfire, away from this madhouse, into the freezing Pacific in what felt like the middle of the night. As so often, we were too wet to worry, too cold to care.
But when we were finally summoned out of the surf, something new happened. The whistles began blasting again, and this meant we had to crawl toward the whistles all over again, but this time not on the smooth blacktop. This time on the soft sand.
In moments we looked like sand beetles groping around the dunes. The whistles kept blowing, one blast, then two, and we kept right on crawling, and by now my elbows were really getting hot and sore, and my knees were not doing that great either.
All four joints felt red-raw. But I kept moving. Then the instructors ordered us back into the surf, deep, so we could stay there for fifteen minutes, maximum immersion time in water hovering just under sixty degrees. We linked arms until we were ordered out to more whistles and more crawling.
Then they sent us down to the surf for flutter kicks, heads in the waves. Then more whistles, more crawling, and back into the water for another fifteen minutes. Right next to me, one of the top guys in the class, an officer and a boat-crew leader, great runner, good swimmer, quit unconditionally.
This was a real shaker. Another officer in his crew went running up the beach after him, imploring him not to go, telling the attending instructor, on his behalf, the guy did not mean it. No, sir. The instructor gave him another chance, told him it wasn't too late and if he wished he could go right back into the water.
But the man's mind was made up, closed to all entreaties. He kept walking, and the instructor told him to get in the truck right next to the ambulance. Then he asked the guy doing the pleading if he wanted to quit too, and we all heard the sharp
"Negative," and we saw the guy running like a scalded cat down the beach to join us in the water.
The temperature seemed to grow colder as we jogged around in the freezing surf. And finally they called us out and the whistles blew again. We all dived back onto the sand. Crawling, itching, and burning. Five guys quit instantly and were sent up to the truck. I didn't understand any of that, because we had done this before. It was bad, but not that bad, for chris'sakes. I guess those guys were just thinking ahead, dreading the forthcoming five days of Hell Week, the precise way Captain Maguire had told us not to.
Anyway, right now we were ordered to grab the boats and get them in the surf, which we did without much trouble. But they made us paddle hundreds of yards, dig and row, lift and carry, dump boat and right boat, swim the boat, walk the boat, run the boat, crawl, live, die. We were so exhausted it didn't matter. We hardly knew where we were. We just floundered on with bloody knees and elbows until they ordered us out of the water.
I think it was just before midnight, but it could have been Christmas morning. We switched to log PT in the surf. No piece of wood in all of history, except possibly the massive wooden Cross carried to Calvary by Jesus Christ, was ever heavier than our eight-foot hunk of wood that we manhandled in the Pacific surf. After all of our exertions, it was a pure backbreaker. Three more men quit.
Then the instructors came up with something new and improved. They made us carry the boats over the O-course and manhandle them over the goddamned obstacles. Another man quit. We were down to forty-six.
Right then we switched to rock portage and charged back down the beach to get the IBS into the water. We crashed through the light incoming waves like professionals and paddled like hell, using the remnants of our strength, to the rocks opposite the Hotel del Coronado. My swim buddy, Matt McGraw, was calling the shots in our boat by now, and we drove forward, crashed straight into the rocks, and the bowline man leaped for his life and grabbed on to the painter. We steadied the boat with the oars, and I thought we were doing real good.
Suddenly the instructor, standing up on the top of the rocks right there at damned near two o'clock in the morning, bellowed at our crew officer, "You! You, sir. You just killed your entire squad! Stop getting between the boat and the rocks!"
We hauled the boat out of the water, over the rocks, and onto the sand. The instructor gave us two sets of push-ups and sent us back the way we came. Twice more we assaulted the rocks, slowly and clumsily, I suppose, and the instructor never stopped yelling his freakin' head off at us. In the end we had to run the boat back along the beach, drop it, and get right back into the surf for flutter kicks with heads and shoulders in the water, then push-ups in the surf. Then sit-ups. Two more men quit.
These DORs happened right next to me. And I distinctly heard the instructor give them another chance, asking them if they wanted to reconsider. If so, they were welcome to press on and get back in the water.
One of them wavered. Said he might, if the other guy would join him. But the other guy wasn't having it. "I'm done with this shit," he said, "and I'm outta here."
They both quit together. And the instructor looked like he could not give a flying fuck. I later learned that when a man quits and is given another chance and takes it, he never makes it through. All the instructors know that. If the thought of DOR enters a man's head, he is not a Navy SEAL.
I guess that element of doubt forever pollutes his mind. And puffing, sweating, and steaming down there on that beach on the first night of Hell Week, I understood it. I understood it, because that thought could never have occurred to me. Not while the sun still rises in the east. All the pain in Coronado could not have inserted that poison into my mind. I might have passed out, had a heart attack, or been shot before a firing squad. But I never would have quit.
Soon as the quitters had gone, we were put right back to work.
Lifting the boats into a head carry for the run over to the chow hall, only another mile. When I got there I was as close to collapse as I'd ever been. But they still made us push 'em out, lift the boat, to work up an appetite, I suppose.
Eventually they freed us to get breakfast. We had lost ten men during the nine hours that had passed since Hell Week began; nine hours since those yelling, shooting gunmen had driven Class 226 out of their classroom, nine hours since we had been dry and felt more or less human.
They were nine hours that had changed the lives and perceptions of those who could stand it no more. I doubt the rest of us would ever be quite the same again.
Inside the chow hall some of the guys were shell-shocked. They just sat staring at their plates, unable to function normally. I was not one of them. I felt like I was on the edge of starvation, and I steamed into those eggs, toast, and sausages, relishing the food, relishing the freedom from the shouts and commands of the instructors. Just as well I made the most of it. Seven minutes on the clock after I finished my breakfast, the new shift of instructors was up and yelling.
"That's it, children—up and out of here. Let's get going. Outside! Right now! Move! Move! Move! Let's start the day right."
Start the day! Was this guy out of his mind? We were still soaked, covered in sand, and we'd been up half killing ourselves all night.
Right then I knew for certain: there was indeed no mercy in Hell Week. Everything we'd heard was true. You think you're tough, kid? Then you go right ahead and prove it to us.
Excerpted from the book LONE SURVIVOR by Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson. Copyright © 2007 by Marcus Luttrell. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.