Thursday, October 30, 2008


I quit.

I quit at the "Steel Pier" on the first night of Hell Week.

Sailors have filthy mouths. I can attest to that. In the Special Warfare community, however, there's no dirtier word than "quitter." Like everything else in the Navy, there's an official term for what I did: Drop on Request or DOR. But have no doubt, I was a quitter.

Class 187's Hell Week started in early November 1992 with a pizza party and video on Sunday afternoon. By majority vote, the class chose to watch Point Break with Patrick Swayze. Horrible movie, but it didn't much matter -- it was hard to concentrate on the movie knowing that in just a few hours Hell Week would kick off.

It must have been around 7 p.m. or so when the party ended and we were moved to the beach. A couple large military tents had been constructed right on the beach, complete with cots for the 60 or so guys still left in Class 187.

We all laid back on the cots fully clothed and the instructors ordered us to go to sleep. A few hours later -- around 9 p.m. -- those of us who were finally beginning to doze off were awakened by all manner of loud noises, including shouting and automatic weapons fire. At BUD/S, this tradition is called "Break Out." If you want to see it for yourselves, check it out here.

From the tents, we were shepherded a few hundred yards over to the "demo pit" by instructors shouting through bull horns, more automatic weapons fire, and small explosions. The demo pit was a large hole dug deep into the sand, partially filled with water. Once there, we were told to "drop on down" and start doing push-ups in the water.

The water was cold and tasted nasty. A BUD/S graduate, whom I had met earlier in training and who was still taking some kind of advanced medical course before reporting to his SEAL team, stood over me firing an M-60, Rambo-style. He was firing blanks, but the spent casings raining down on me were still hot. We must have been at the demo pit for about an hour before the instructors told us to run down to the ocean and get wet.

That's when surf torture began.

Surf torture is straightforward. The class lies down in the incoming surf until the instructors give the word to "recover." It's meant to lower the students' body temperatures. Oftentimes, before Hell Week, surf torture is used punitively -- to punish a class for some real or imagined fuck up.

Class 187, however, pretty much had its shit together, thanks to our two fine class leaders. For that reason, we really didn't get the treatment very often before Hell Week. During Hell Week, though, surf torture -- particularly for "winter" Hell Weeks like ours, when the water temperature dips into the low 60s in November -- was simply meant to weed out the weak.

For us that night, it went on for a while and at least once we were lined up -- shivering uncontrollably -- to be inspected by a staff physician. He said we could withstand more. So, back in we went. It was brutal, but I still had some juice in the tank when we were told to recover and get our boats. We then jogged the boats over to the bay side of the base to some metal causeways jutting out into the San Diego Bay.

The Steel Pier.

The Steel Pier evolution was surf torture with a purely mental twist. The students were told to repeatedly jump into the cold, dark bay and tread water, each time removing an article of clothing before jumping in again.

The first time we all jumped in, we were fully clothed. As we treaded water, the instructors told us to take off our boots, tie them together, and then sling them around our necks. It wasn't easy to do with fingers already getting numb. Not surprisingly, one poor bastard lost hold of his boot. It sank.

"Dive down and get it!" shouted one of the instructors with derision. The rest of us were going to have to keep treading water until the boot was recovered. I have no idea how that guy found the boot in that inky black water, but he did and we were told to get out and lie down on the pier. We looked like fish, the way we were all flopping around with cold on the deck.

While we laid there, the doctor walked up and down the pier looking for signs of hypothermia. There were also two instructors with garden hoses, spraying us down. I remember the water from the hoses feeling warmer than the night air. One instructor, speaking through a bull horn, told us that there were warm doughnuts and blankets available for anyone who'd had enough. Nice of him to offer.

With the doctor's blessing, the instructors told us to take off our green tops and get back in the bay. We treaded water again for five or 10 minutes and then got out. Rinse, repeat. Eventually, we were down to just our underwear. That's when I began to crack.

I jumped in with everyone else, but as I treaded water, I looked up at the clear night sky and stared at a bright star overhead. I began wishing I were somewhere else. I was aware of a faint disappointment creeping into my consciousness as I considered that all my hard work would come to naught if I gave up now. The cold, however, had sapped my will to go on. I just didn't give a fuck anymore.

The instructors got us out again. The doctor took his time looking us over -- it couldn't go on much longer -- and then the instructors ordered us back in. I balked, ever so slightly and told Bob -- my swim buddy for Hell Week -- that I didn't want to get back in. Bob was still game, though, and he physically moved me to the edge and we jumped back in together.

Once out of the water and back on the pier again, the evolution appeared to be over. I heard one of the instructors haggling with the doctor for just one more minute in the drink. Apparently, I hadn't been the only one to hesitate before jumping back in the bay the last time. The instructors smelled weakness.

The doctor relented. The instructors ordered us back in the water and that was it. There was no way I was getting back in. To Bob's dismay, I turned around and walked towards the instructors and quit. Needless to say, perhaps, but there were no doughnuts.

As I recall, about a half dozen guys quit at the Steel Pier. While the rest of Class 187 was still lying on the deck in their underwear, flopping and twitching and getting hosed down, we quitters were lined up in front of the bell and told to ring it three times and then request to "DOR" (Drop on Request).

This was another BUD/S tradition: "Chiming the Hog."

As we chimed the hog (which is pictured above), our now former classmates sang "Hit the Road Jack!" with gusto, at the instructors' request.

Here's a great written account of Class 183's Hell Week. Class 183 graduated when Bob and I were still in Fourth Phase. All the instructors named in this account were still there when Class 187 classed up.


Feeling Minnesota said...

My brother just DORed from Hell Week in a similar fashion. I googled "The Steel Pier" when he didn't seem to want to talk and found your blog. Speaking as a civilian your writing gives good insight into what you guys experience. I would assume that it resonates with those who have actually lived it...

Y. said...

I'm sorry to hear that. My best to your brother. It's quite a blow to the ego. You're a good sibling for trying to understand.

Ultimately, I found that everything good sprang from my own failure, but it's still very hard to swallow. I'm 43 now and I still, from time to time, day dream about trying to get back there somehow.

On the positive side, perhaps you can remind your brother that many guys who eventually made it into the Teams went through BUD/S multiple times.

I know a guy personally who quit Hell Week twice, but made it on his third try and just got back from his third tour in Iraq.

In any event, thanks so much for the kind words.

Anonymous said...

Was fascinated by your account. I have incredible respect for all military no matter what they are doing. Seals are a different breed to be sure. I was engaged to a marine, who as we all know have egos that are HUGE beyond any measure, but he said that the 'seals' were a cut above and more that they were a group to deserve the respect they demanded. I think that even getting into the beginning phase is a very huge accomplishment. Not sure all the torture tactis are necessary, toughness is built in many ways not necessarily by pain and discomfort. Thanks for you writing.

Y. said...

Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I really appreciate your kind words.