The more sweat and tears you put into the training, the less blood you’ll shed in time of war.
—Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL motto
Have you ever heard of something called heart-rate variability (HRV)? It’s a real medical phenomenon discovered by a guy named Dr. Charles Morgan of Yale University that’s used to predict which soldiers are likely to perform most efficiently under the stress of combat.
Most people have a large degree of variability in their heart rates during the course of a day. In other words, your heart speeds up and slows down all the time, depending on conditions—like when someone is pointing a gun at your head or you’re lounging by the pool drinking a Dos Equis.
But many SEALs and other Special Forces types have what is called a metronomic heartbeat, meaning the heart thumps like a metronome, with the beats evenly spaced, not speeding up or slowing down.
And no, we’re not cyborgs.
Our hearts do this, it turns out, because our brains release a higher level of a neurotransmitter called neuropeptide Y (NPY) than most people’s brains do. NPY works as a natural tranquilizer that controls anxiety and buffers the effects of stress hormones like norepinephrine.
Dr. Morgan found that those with metronomic heartbeats perform better than others in survival school, underwater-navigation testing, and close-quarters battle because their systems are able to manage a very elevated degree of stress. Today, HRV is one of the factors used in the selection of SEALs.
But there’s a downside. Dr. Morgan also found that the metronomic effect is often associated with early heart disease and even sudden death. Apparently, the body chemistry that allows young people to survive under high stress does not translate into optimal heart health past the age of fifty.
I realized my own unusual response to danger the first time I had a gun pointed at me.
I was a newly licensed sixteen-year-old driving like a maniac down the Boston Post Road, my arm around my girlfriend, Lynn, and a beer in my lap. I had my ’68 Pontiac Firebird cranked up to ninety-five miles an hour and was trying to hit a hundred.
We were flying, passing other vehicles as if they were standing still, when this dark Chevy sedan pulled up beside me. The driver wore reflector shades, and his hair was buzzed short. You know the type.
Figuring that he was a cop, I slowed down to eighty. He motioned for me to pull over.
Lynn didn’t want me to.
I stopped and got out.
The thick-necked guy stomped over and grabbed me by the arm. He said, “You’re coming with me, punk. I’m an undercover cop and I’m hauling your ass in.”
I asked, “If you’re a cop, where’s your badge?”
“I’m not showing you shit! Come with me!”
He was big, loud, and aggressive.
I said, “No, I’m not.”
Lynn grabbed my other arm and said, “Let’s go with him, Don. Come on.”
For some reason I had a feeling that I could talk my way out of it if I held my ground.
Red-faced now, the big guy pulled out a gun and stuck it in my stomach. He said, “Now you’re coming. Let’s go, punk.”
We were eye to eye, so close that I could smell his breath. I said, “I’m not going with you.”
Lynn pleaded, “Please, Don! Stop arguing. Let’s just do what he wants.”
We stood nose to nose for half a minute, then the big guy put his revolver away, walked to his car, and drove off. Lynn was a mess, but I was perfectly calm.
Sometimes I think I’m at my best in dangerous situations. I thrive under stress and like living on the edge.
Another time, shortly before I went to BUD/S, my father and brother and I went to Easton, Pennsylvania, to see heavyweight champion Larry Holmes fight. We parked our car in a lot and walked to the arena, passing by this car parked across the street with a couple in the front seat.
They were both hysterical and holding a baby upside down by the ankles. I ran over to the car and said, “I’m a medic. Can I help you?”
Apoplectic with fear, they couldn’t answer.
The poor baby’s face had turned blue. I took it from them and held its head in my hand.
Immediately, my combat medic training kicked in. My brain was shouting at me, Airway, Don! Airway! Check the airway!
The baby was close to death, but I remained calm.
I looked down the baby’s throat, saw something stuck there, then reached in with my little finger and popped a white piece of plastic out of the way. The baby started making sucking sounds and crying. The blue around its lips started to fade and then changed to a healthy pink.
The parents grabbed the baby, thanked me quickly, and drove away.
In March of 1982, bursting with excitement, my girlfriend, Kim, and I packed our stuff and hopped in my black TR6, which didn’t have working brakes. We drove across country in three and a half days with only a handbrake. I arrived at BUD/S in Coronado (about five miles south of San Diego) on March 31, 1982, fired up and ready for action.
When I looked out on the field where guys from the previous BUD/S class were running around with scuba tanks on their backs, with instructors yelling at them, I thought, This is for me! I’ve arrived. The first two weeks, known in those days as pretraining (it’s changed since), were intense. There were over a hundred men in my class. Most looked fit, but some looked like they’d been spending a lot of time drinking beer and eating pretzels.
Then the instructors handed all of us phase one green helmets and immediately started kicking our butts.
Phase one, which started on June 18, consisted of two months of grueling physical conditioning and training. It included:
Timed runs in the sand
Timed obstacle course
Hydrographic surveys and creating charts
Rock portage in a rubber raiding craft
We were constantly in motion and ran everywhere, including to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’m talking roughly six miles a day in boots just to eat, in addition to long daily runs on Coronado Beach.
First thing in the morning after the 0430 muster, the instructors would order us on the asphalt grinder and we’d do all kinds of calisthenics—flutter kicks, good-mornings, dive-bombers, push-ups, sit-ups, triceps push-ups, pull-ups, and rope climbs. If it was chilly, they’d spray us with cold water just to place another challenge in our way.
From their perspective it was all about seeing how much pain and discomfort we could take and how willing we were to push ourselves.
Being a wiry triathlete type with little extra meat on my bones, I developed an oozing sore on my tailbone from working out on the asphalt and had a constant bloodstain on my shorts.
From the grinder we’d run to the obstacle course, where we’d climb up ropes and walls, run through mud, crawl under barbed wire, hang by our arms, and so on. The instructors would launch a trainee every thirty seconds and challenge him to pass the guy ahead of him.
“Come on, push! For your sake, I hope you can move faster than that!”
And each time you ran the course, you were expected to beat your previous time. The instructors evaluated each candidate at the end of each phase of training and took great pleasure in eliminating the weak candidates, whom they referred to as “shit birds.”
Our first-phase proctor looked like he’d been ripped from the cover of Soldier of Fortune magazine. His name was Bob Donnegan and he happened to be the world arm-wrestling champ at the time—hard, and tough, with huge arms.
One morning he’d climbed up three towers to show us some aspect of the course when he lost his footing, fell about thirty feet, and landed on his back with a thud. The ground around us literally shook, and we thought he was dead.
My training kicked in again and I ran over, knelt by his side, and shouted, “Instructor Donnegan, can you hear me? Are you okay?”
He turned his head to look up at me and growled, “Get the hell out of here.”
Then he stood up in his blue and white dive shirt and UDT dive shorts, brushed himself off, and said, “Listen up, you hooligans. I never, ever want to see any of you do anything like that. You understand?”
“Yes, Instructor Donnegan.”
We stood in silent awe, figuring the guy must have bones made out of steel.
I found out right away that my reputation as an Ironman and long-distance athlete had preceded me, which was both good and bad. The instructors sort of grudgingly respected me but expected more from me too.
The reason for that was Ray Fritz, who happened to be a SEAL from my Navy Reserve unit and the friend of a BUD/S instructor.
Funny guy, Ray. Because when I met him, he actually tried to talk me out of becoming a SEAL.
Knowing that I was corpsman, he said, “Don, why do you want to go to BUD/S? Hell, you’ve already proved yourself physically. You and I should go into sports medicine. There’s a fortune to be made there.”
I said, “No, I want to be a SEAL. That’s my one and only goal.”
So before I got to BUD/S, Ray—who went on to become a very successful orthopedic surgeon—called his friend at BUD/S in Coronado, a guy named Steve Simmit, to let him know that I was coming.
The first week of BUD/S I ran into Steve as we were assembling before our weekly four-mile timed run on the beach. Steve was another amazing physical specimen—a pentathlete with a body so fit that it looked like it had been turned inside out, leaving all of his muscles on the outside.
I said, “Instructor Simmit, a friend of mine says hello.”
“Who is your friend?”
He grunted. “Drop down and give me fifty.”
No problem. It was a beautiful California summer day with a fresh breeze blowing in from the ocean. I enjoyed doing push-ups and I loved that I was finally at BUD/S.
As I was lifting myself up for the fiftieth time, he said, “Now get in the water and make a sugar cookie.” Sugar cookies meant getting wet and rolling in the sand.
So I’m in my shorts covered with sand when he barks, “All right, Mann, give me another fifty.”
“Yes, sir.” I did another set.
The inside of my thighs were starting to bleed because of the chafing from the sand.
Then he beckoned me closer and said in confidence, “What you gotta do now is win the run. I know what you can do, and I expect you to win every time.”
My swim buddy Jeff Hobblit and I always ran at the front of the pack. Steve Simmit said, “Don, you gotta beat him today.”
I did, and I beat him the next time too.
Instructor Simmit started acting real friendly and I was honored. When somebody told me that the instructors were taking bets on whether Jeff or I was going to come in first, I understood why.
So a couple days later, I ran down the beach as hard as possible to catch up with Jeff. When I finally pulled alongside him, I said, “Jeff, instead of us killing each other each time we run, why don’t we tie?”
For the next four months we ran at 99 percent instead of 100 and crossed the finish line side by side. I’m sure it threw the oddsmakers for a loop.
Jeff was on my boat team too, along with four other trainees, during small-boat-tactics training. We were the power guys up front—I was on the port side, Jeff was starboard. We paddled every day, some days for as long as eight hours.
One night the IBS (inflatable boat, small) we were in was lurching all over the place and we were losing speed so that the team behind us was closing.
I yelled at Jeff, “Come on, Jeff. Paddle harder!”
He turned to me and shouted, “I am paddling hard. You paddle harder!”
I looked behind me and saw that the officer, the coxswain, who only had to steer the boat, had fallen asleep. No wonder we were zigzagging all over the place. It took all my self-control not to smack him with a paddle.
Training was always highly competitive, and often highly dangerous. Rock portage was hairy as hell. The goal was to get your IBS through the surf and onto a forty-foot-high rock formation near Coronado Cays. Guys broke arms and legs all the time. The less fortunate broke backs and cracked their skulls.
When the waves reached their violent peak, a BUD/S instructor standing on top of the jetty would signal with his flashlight. If the moon wasn’t out, you couldn’t see squat.
Most times you’d get smeared and flip over. Sometimes you’d end up sailing over the bow. The boat would go flying. You’re getting tossed around, flailing through huge waves, doing your very best not to drown or hit the rocks. Then you had to regain control of your boat, paddle out, and try again.
I never hit the rocks hard enough to get hurt. But I saw plenty of guys from previous classes walking around the BUD/S compound with broken arms or hobbling around with broken legs or ankles from rock portage.
Hydrographic surveys and drawing beach charts were a snap in comparison. The instructor would give you a lead line and a slate board, and drop you into the water. The idea was to measure depths and check for obstacles.
The part I was the least proficient at was swimming. The BUD/S instructors had a fast way of testing our fight-or-flight response. They’d tie our hands behind our backs, bind our feet, then toss us in the pool.
Some trainees quickly figured out that the only way to avoid drowning was to relax, sink to the bottom of the pool, kick off powerfully toward the surface, get your mug above the waterline, gasp for a bit of air, then drop to the bottom again.
Many panicked, swallowed water, then coughed, choked, and eventually passed out. Divers retrieved them from the bottom of the pool, and the unconscious trainees were rolled on their sides and revived. Then instructors screamed in their faces, “Are you gonna quit? Did you get uncomfortable? What are you wasting our time for, quitter? You want to quit now?"
They were given thirty seconds to answer before they were tossed out of the program. Some guys left voluntarily—it was a challenge that got to the core of what it meant to be a SEAL, to face something profoundly uncomfortable and come out the other side.
Those who said they wanted to keep going were thrown back in the pool.
Who passed? The guys who refused to give up, who could suppress the need to breathe, who trusted that they’d be rescued if something went wrong and were prepared to lose consciousness—or even die.
The instructors called it drown-proofing.
I remember one particular trainee, a cocky EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) guy who went around bragging that he was going to finish at the top of the class. He tried to outsmart the instructors by resting the back of his head on a buoy in the pool. But an instructor saw him, grabbed the pool pole, and smacked him in the head. The EOD guy passed out and sank to the bottom.
The BUD/S instructor in charge motioned to the Navy safety divers to pull him out and resuscitate him. Like a number of the other big cocky men, the EOD guy ran home immediately with his tail between his legs.
I almost failed too.
It happened during an exercise in which we were instructed to stand on the side of the pool, do a forward flip above the water into the pool, then complete a fifty-meter swim underwater—twenty-five meters to one end, then a flip-turn and twenty-five meters back—without coming up for air.
I swam twenty-five meters, did my flip-turn, and, feeling that I needed air, came up for a breath. Almost immediately an instructor shouted, “Hey, you quitter! Get out of the pool and stand over there!”
Feeling about two inches tall, I joined the majority of my class along the side of the pool.
The instructor shouted to the eight or so guys who had passed, “These losers quit. You want to go to war with these quitters? They were feeling a little uncomfortable and had to come up to breathe. The hell with them. We can’t allow lower than whale shit quitters into the teams.” I was scolding myself, saying, What the hell’s wrong with you? You came this far and just because you were a little uncomfortable you had to come up for air? That’s pathetic!
Meanwhile, a couple of the instructors were huddled together talking. One of them announced, “All right, let’s give these quitters one more chance.”
I thought, Whatever happens, I’m not coming up for air. I don’t care if it gets so bad that my head explodes. I’m not quitting this time. I swam underwater, did my flip-turn, and started back. My lungs started screaming. I desperately wanted to take a breath.
Please! Please! my brain was saying.
I forced myself on and blacked out just before I reached the wall. I don’t remember seeing it or feeling it. All I know is that the divers pulled me out, and I heard one of the instructors say, “Okay, you passed.”
I learned later that the first time you think you need air, it’s really the CO2 receptors in your brain telling you that it’s time to exhale. If you exhale a little you can last a minute or so longer.
I met some real characters during BUD/S. One guy who stands out was Chris Klauser, who paddled up to BUD/S in a rubber boat on the first day. He beached his boat and removed his dry suit; he was wearing his white dress uniform underneath.
He marched up to the quarterdeck, stood at attention, and said, “Petty Officer Klauser reporting for duty.”
Klauser was a short, bald guy who weighed about a hundred and fifty pounds and had one long eyebrow. He looked kind of odd, but he could bench-press four hundred and fifty pounds—three times his weight! There were guys who could lift even more, but for muscle-to-body-weight ratio, Chris was at the top.
He gave the BUD/S instructors a hard time right from the start, which all of us thought was insane.
One of our instructors caught him clowning around one morning and shouted, “Hey, you, Klauser. Who do you think you are?”
Chris leaned against a palm tree and mimed smoking a cigar. “Burt Reynolds?”
The instructor, who didn’t find it funny, barked, “Drop down and give me fifty.”
Chris’s comeback was “Which arm?”
He passed BUD/S with ease and went on to become a distinguished SEAL pilot and cigarette-boat captain.
Cockiness and apparent fitness weren’t necessarily indicators of future success in the SEALs. It was impossible to tell which guys were going to pass. Big tough-looking football-player types were falling out. Bodybuilders broke legs and ankles. Cocky guys broke down and cried.
My third roommate (the first two washed out) was a soft-looking Mexican American who seemed to be failing everything. He was a weak swimmer, a slow runner, and did mediocre on all our tests. I kept wondering when he was going to quit or be sent packing. But he toughed it out, slowly improved and ended up having a very distinguished career in the SEALs.
A trainee who wanted out at any point during those two months had to ring a bell outside near the grinder and place his helmet beside it. Guys usually did this at night to avoid embarrassment. You’d be half asleep and hear the bell ring. And in the morning you’d look out and see more green helmets.
There was actually one BUD/S class a couple of years before mine where no one passed. From my perspective, BUD/S was 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical.
Halfway through phase one, the forty or so of us who remained began hell week—five days and five nights of continuous training on a maximum of four hours of sleep. Torture, some people might call it, from sundown Sunday to sundown Friday. We didn’t know when it was coming.
Hell week started with the instructors tossing smoke grenades in our tents while we were sleeping and firing blank rounds, yelling and screaming. That initial high-anxiety moment was followed by nonstop boat exercises, carrying inflatable Zodiacs over our heads, timed runs, crawling through mud, calisthenics. Seems like we never got a chance to catch our breath.
The instructors almost never gave us time to sleep either, and when they did, they made sleeping difficult. Once four of us were told we had an hour to nap, but we had to do it under a sprinkler. And one of us had to be on patrol the whole time, running around the other three.
During meals you’d see guys pass out and their faces fall into their plates. Guys actually closed their eyes and dozed off while they ran. A couple of times I managed to paddle in the ocean and sleep at the same time.
It was nonstop cold, wet, sore, and exhausting. I thought the Ironman race was tough. Hell week was like ten Ironman competitions in succession.
Day five I was hiking through the Tijuana mudflats at night, thinking I was following a guy with long black hair, a black leather jacket, and black pants. I followed him for about an hour and was trying to remember who he was when I realized there was no one in front of me. I’d been hallucinating the whole time.
Guys imagined they were seeing witches, pigs, and babies in trees. Beautiful mermaids smiled at them and waved. Rocks turned into talking turtles.
About half of the class managed to make it through phase one. Those of us who did got to exchange our green helmets for blue ones.
Phase two consisted of eight weeks of rigorous dive training. We were still required to do all the runs and PT (calisthenics, obstacle course, and so on).
Included were something called jock-up drills. We’d be down on the cement holding ourselves in push-up position for hours while wearing weight belts and twin scuba tanks on our backs as the instructors screamed at us, “Straighten up your back! Get all the way up! Hold it! Hold it longer!”
Your hands would be burning into the asphalt; your back would be sagging under the weight. The instructors didn’t stop until all of us gave up. Added to that were at least two dives a day. We learned both open-circuit diving (using tanks with compressed air) and closed-circuit diving with the Dräger LAR V (breathing 100 percent oxygen).
With the Dräger, exhaled breath passes through a chemical filter that removes the carbon dioxide and replenishes the oxygen. The advantage of the Dräger is that it produces no bubbles that can be detected by an enemy. The disadvantage is that breathing 100 percent oxygen for more than four hours or deeper than thirty feet leads to oxygen toxicity.
We also learned how to dive using another closed-circuit re-breather system—the MK 15, which is a closed-circuit mixed-gas underwater apparatus especially suited to deep-water dives.
We worked in two-man swim teams, starting with two-mile ocean swims and going all the way up to five-and-a-half-mile swims. Instructors taught us how to approach land undetected and how to attack ships.
At the end of phase two, all remaining trainees exchanged their blue helmets for red ones and began phase three—nine weeks of land-warfare training. The second half took place on San Clemente Island—an uninhabited island owned by the Navy since 1934, about fifty-five nautical miles south of Long Beach, California. A beautiful place.
Again the intensity of PT went up. We ran and swam longer distances (five and a half miles in the ocean) and still had to continually lower our time on the obstacle course run, and swim. But the twenty-six of us who had made it this far were now in terrific shape.
The training became more operational in a sense. Instructors taught us how to fire, take apart, and assemble different weapons—9 mm SIG Sauer P226 and MK23 Mod 0 .45-caliber handguns, MK43 and M2HB machine guns, HK MP5 9 mm automatic submachine guns, an M16. We fired mortars, shoulder-held rockets, and grenade launchers. And we learned how to blow up underwater obstacles with C4, dynamite, and TNT.
We spent many days and nights practicing land navigation, small-unit tactics, and patrolling techniques. Then we were taught how to both rappel and fast-rope from a helicopter.
Since rappelling is safer (and slower), we learned that first. From a helicopter hovering anywhere from twenty to seventy feet off the ground, the trainee was taught how to snap into a rappel line using a locking carabiner that was strapped to his shoulders. A beener or D ring was attached to each trainee via a rappel seat that went around his waist and upper thighs.
From a sitting position with the legs out the door of the helicopter, the trainee pivoted 180 degrees on the skid so he faced the inside of the helicopter—feet shoulder-width apart, knees locked, balls of the feet on the skid, body bent at the waist, the brake hand on the small of his back.
On the go signal, he had to flex his knees and push away from the skid gear, allowing the rope to pass through the brake and guide hands. Optimal descent was roughly eight feet per second with no jerky stops. The trainee had to start braking about halfway down by releasing tension on the rope and moving his brake hand (the bottom one) out at a forty-five-degree angle.
One guy fell in front of me and broke his back in two places, both his feet, and his right femur.
Fast-roping is a whole lot quicker. Wearing a pair of leather gloves, the trainee grabbed the rope with both hands held at about chest level and then put the rope between his boots and stepped out. The idea was to slide down using hands and feet as brakes.
We practiced slowing our descent and stopping. And when we started carrying fifty-plus pounds of gear on our backs for a seventy-foot descent, we had to pull our gloves off fast when we hit the ground because the leather felt like it was on fire.
By the last days of November we felt like warriors. But even at the very end of BUD/S, guys were selected out if they didn’t keep improving steadily.
Over a hundred trainees had started BUD/S with me, and only twenty-three of us stood on the podium in our white dress uniforms on December 3, 1982, to receive our BUD/S graduation certificates.
It would be another six months at least, during which we were on probation and completing our advanced SEAL training, before we could earn our coveted Navy SEAL tridents and become SEALs.
From INSIDE SEAL TEAM SIX: My Life and Missions with America’s Elite Warriors. By Don Mann with Ralph Pezzullo. Reprinted with permission from Little, Brown and Company.