NAVAL BASE KITSAP, Wash. — A sailor fresh out the elite Navy SEAL selection course slung his gear over his broad shoulder and clomped down a steel ladder into the guts of a Navy ship to execute a difficult, dayslong mission specifically assigned to him: scrubbing the stinking scum out of the ship’s cavernous bilge tank.
Hardly the stuff of action movies, but it’s how many would-be SEALs end up.
The Navy attracts recruits for the SEALs using flashy images of warriors jumping from planes or rising menacingly from the dark surf. But very few make it through the harrowing selection course, and those who don’t still owe the Navy the rest of their four-year enlistments. So they end up doing whatever Navy jobs are available — often, menial work that few others want.
The recruits are almost all hyper-motivated overachievers, often with college degrees, who have passed a battery of strength and intelligence tests. But many find themselves washing dishes in cramped galleys, cleaning toilets on submarines or scraping paint on aircraft carriers.
Unlike civilian workers, they cannot quit. To walk away would be a crime. Until the enlistment is done, they are stuck.
“I’m just thrown away here — a nobody,” the sailor who was assigned to clean the bilge said in an interview. “My supervisor doesn’t even know my name.”
Like other sailors who were interviewed for this article, he requested that his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak publicly and feared retribution.
“Almost everyone I know who tried out ended up the way I did,” the sailor said. “Basically, we’re all scraping paint.”
Relegating promising candidates who don’t quite clear the bar to years of drudgery would be a harsh arrangement even if the SEAL selection course were running as designed. But, lately, it hasn’t been. Classes that were always hard became dangerous. A number of sailors were hospitalized. Others were forced to quit if they wanted medical care. And, in February, one sailor died.
The course, known as BUD/S, is meant to simulate the extreme stress of special-operations combat missions. Recruits who can’t take the long days of struggle and cold announce their decision to quit by voluntarily ringing a brass bell near the beach where they train.
On average, about 70 percent of each class over the last decade has rung the bell. But the rate suddenly soared in 2021, reaching as high as 93 percent.
The Navy is now conducting a high-level investigation into what happened. A spokesman said he could not comment on the causes until the investigation concluded. But in interviews, Naval officers, SEALs and sailors who attempted the course say instructors started pushing it beyond what safety regulations allow: kicking and punching recruits, making already grueling tasks hazardous and, at times, denying medical care to injured sailors unless they first dropped out of the course.
Some candidates turned to illegal performance-enhancing drugs just to get through. Others were pushed to the breaking point.
Classes that started with 150 recruits were finishing with fewer than 10. In Navy records, nearly all the dropouts appeared to be voluntary, but sailors said that, in reality, a majority were sick or injured. It was not unusual, they said, to see men carried to the bell because they could not walk.
After the death in February, the service disciplined three officers and made changes to rein in instructors and provide better medical care. Graduation rates improved. And the Navy says it is working to offer better alternatives for recruits who drop out.
But little has been done to give the sailors who rang the bell when the course was at its most brutal, and are now deckhands, janitors or dishwashers, a second chance at becoming a SEAL or a quick exit from the Navy.
“We all wanted to do something extraordinary, and are now doing what feels like the farthest thing from it,” said a sailor who arrived at the selection course in 2021 with a marketing degree and good civilian job prospects, but who quit after a leg injury that required hospitalization. He now sweeps the hangar deck of an aircraft carrier.
He and others have asked to transfer to the Army or Marines, hoping to do the kind of intense work they signed up for with the SEALs. But he said his chain of command seemed determined to keep him a deck sweeper.
“It feels like prison,” he said. “I don’t feel like there is any way out. Honestly, I’ve contemplated jumping off the boat.”
What can feel like punishment is mainly just a flawed process. The SEALs created a selection course that prioritized identifying the toughest handful of candidates, while casting aside the vast majority who attempted it. The SEAL leadership treated those who left the course as an afterthought, and did little to put them on a meaningful career path. Instead, the bell-ringers were hurried off into a vast military system that often had no obvious place for them, and plugged them into whatever low-level job needed filling at the moment.
Navy officials say they are working to improve the process. But every few months, the SEALs still send scores more sailors to scrape paint and sweep decks.
Things were different before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In those days, sailors were required to train for a regular Navy profession, known as a rate, before they could attempt the SEAL course. Dropouts from the course could return to the rate they had trained for.
But, in 2006, faced with a mandate to drastically expand the SEALs, the Navy began allowing new recruits to go into the course directly. That helped fill the training pipeline, but it also produced thousands of “undesignated sailors” — washed-out SEAL recruits with no rate, eligible only for low-skilled labor.
Sailors who went through the course said that what separated bell-ringers from newly minted SEALs was, at times, little more than luck — whether a wrong step led to a sprained ankle, or if high bacteria counts in the ocean caused sickness. But the reverberations last for years.
Sailors said they knew going into the course that ringing the bell might mean serving out their enlistments in low-skilled work below decks. What they didn’t know, they said, was that they would attempt the course when SEAL instructors were striking students and blocking medical care, and when other sailors were using drugs to get ahead.
Not all bell-ringers end up in work they hate. A spate of suicides in 2016 prompted the Navy to improve the options for them. Many are now trained to become divers, rescue swimmers or explosives experts. But paradoxically, sailors say, the first few to give up in each class have seemed to get the best opportunities, while those who stick it out the longest are left with the dregs.
Many go to new assignments hauling the weight of dashed dreams. They can feel cheated, angry or consumed by blame. In October, a sailor threw himself from the fifth-floor window of his barracks shortly after ringing the bell, according to two military officers with knowledge of the suicide attempt who spoke on condition of anonymity. The sailor lived, but sustained serious injuries.
Members of Congress are now asking whether fundamental changes are needed. In November, Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, who chairs the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel, spent two days in Coronado, Calif., where the course is held. In an interview, she said she was concerned about how some were being treated.
“It’s painful to watch,” she said of the course, noting that one sailor was hospitalized while she was there. “I know it has to be tough. But there must be some way to get the talent they need without ruining people.”
Ms. Speier called for an outside audit to examine how many students were being injured, and how many were winding up in menial jobs.
“Truly, these are committed young men you want to see succeed,” she said. “We don’t want to just discard them.”
Candidates who drop out of the SEAL course are usually given a few days to choose a new Navy job from what they say is generally a very short list. Their civilian skills and qualifications, they say, rarely get much weight. One sailor had a nursing degree; another spoke Russian. Both are now swabbing decks.
A spokeswoman for the Chief of Naval Personnel said in a statement that only a minority of sailors who quit the course end up undesignated, while many go on to fulfilling careers. The spokeswoman, Capt. Jodie Cornell, added that “the Navy has made substantial efforts over the last couple of years to work with sailors reassigned from BUD/S in order to place them in specific ratings to the benefit of the Navy and the sailor.”
In the fleet, former SEAL candidates are often labeled “BUD/S duds” and have a reputation for showing up riddled with physical and mental health problems from their time with the SEALs, and for harboring toxic resentment toward the Navy, two Naval officers said.
The service has tried for decades to improve graduation rates. It standardized curriculums meant to limit overzealous instructors. The course is now meticulously scripted in three-ring binders, and physical abuse is forbidden.
The Navy also has tried better vetting and more preparation. To get into the course today, candidates must pass a demanding physical conditioning course that weeds out dozens of hopefuls.
Even so, graduation rates have not improved. And, in the beginning 2021, they took a dive.
Why the course suddenly got so much tougher is a mystery to sailors who attempted it in that period. The Navy says it can’t comment while investigations are in progress. Whatever the reason, sailors say, the course took a vicious turn.
One sailor — a 27-year-old with a computer engineering degree and top physical fitness scores — was carrying a 300-pound log up a steep sand berm with six other men when, he and other witnesses said, an instructor lunged at him, kicking him in the back with both feet, knocking the whole team to the sand with the log on top of them. When they got up and hefted the log again, the sailor said, the instructor punched him in the head.
The sailor never complained about the beating. He kept going, determined to make the cut. A week later, a crashing wave threw another sailor’s helmet into his face, breaking his jaw and giving him a concussion that left him bleary-eyed and vomiting. When he asked to go to the medical clinic, he said, the instructor who had hit him told him that he was making excuses because he was weak and that he would have to quit the course to see a doctor. He rang the bell.
With his head still pounding a few weeks later, he was ordered to pick a new job. “The options were terrible,” he recalled. “Everything was basically scrubbing the deck on an aircraft carrier.”
Desperate to avoid years of mind-numbing toil, he refused to be vaccinated against Covid-19, and the Navy discharged him. A few sailors told The New York Times that they sought similar exits. Others attempted suicide and were discharged on medical grounds.
Those who serve out their enlistments often face bleak years of low pay and slim chances for promotion.
The sailor cleaning bilge tanks was in a SEAL selection class in the winter of 2021, when the ocean was especially cold. By Week Two, his lungs were so full of bloody fluid that friends told him they could hear gurgling. When he asked to go to the medical clinic, he said, an instructor ordered him to do push-ups — as punishment. The next day, the sailor said, he nearly blacked out on a run that would have been easy for him when healthy. Unable to catch his breath, he rang the bell.
A few months later, the sailor was mopping floors on a ship. He was so ashamed of washing out, he said, that on the rare occasions when he could bring himself to look in the mirror, he called himself a quitter, a coward and worse. One night, he decided to drive his truck off a bridge, telling himself, “Time to ring the bell for real.”
Seconds before crashing over the edge, he said, he saw his mother’s face and jerked the truck back onto the road. In the light of the dashboard, his cheeks were streaked with tears.
After nearly two years, he has still not advanced in rank, but he has found a slightly better job — night guard duty on a dry-docked ship. It is oppressively dull work, but at least it isn’t the bilge.
He says he sometimes dreams of trying out for the SEALs again. Part of him thinks it’s a bad idea. But he also knows that he would go back in a second if given the chance — and do anything he could to make it through, including drugs.
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