From the water, I could see them getting wrapped in towels and led off toward the coffee-and-doughnut truck.
We treaded that water for about 10 minutes, I’d say, every second of it horribly numbing and cold. I was sure I was better off than some of my classmates. Look at those little guys, I said to myself, glancing over at a couple of the smaller ones. I’m a big polar bear. They don’t carry the body mass I do. I’m in a good position compared to them.
That didn’t raise my body temperature one degree or make me feel any warmer. But it did bring some comfort. Plus, I kept reminding myself, that freezing-cold water was working as an anti-inflammatory, healing and helping my body to recover from the previous rounds of abuse.
At that point, a loud whistle blew. The instructor with the bullhorn started to yell: “Okay, everybody out!”
We scrambled out of the water and hustled back up the steel grating onto the concrete pier. The same way concrete gets hot in the summer, it gets cold in the winter. It takes on the temperature of the day. Well, we were all about to get a lesson in thermal conduction right on that pier.
“Take your green tops off,” the bullhorn instructor demanded.
“Lie on the concrete,” he said.
“Arms out. On your backs. This is your rest time. Put your arms out so you’re nice and cold on the concrete.”
That’s when someone turned on the hoses and fans, letting that frigid mist rain down on all of us.
Some people’s bodies were jackhammer shivering so hard, they just couldn’t keep their limbs down. Their muscles were cramping. Their arms were seizing up. Honestly, it was hard to know which was worse—dog-paddling in that mid-50s bay water or lying on the icy wet slab of concrete.
But there was no time to ponder. “Back in the water,” Instructor Bullhorn demanded.
We went back and forth like that, from bay to pier to bay to pier, discarding an article of clothing each round, tossing away our T-shirts, then our boots, then our pants until we were down to our swim trunks and nothing else. The experience brought a whole new level of understanding to the concept of wet and cold.
But whatever the instructors were throwing at me, I had the same response: “Fine. I can get through this. I have no doubt I can. Let other guys quit if they want to. I’m not going anywhere, no matter what they put us through.”
Years later, when I began to supervise SEAL training, including Hell Week, I came to understand more clearly the fine line between tough and torture. We were always careful in walking that line. As instructors, we took precise measurements of the wind speed, the water temperature, and how exhausted the students were likely to be. After years of putting recruits through Hell Week, we know how hard to push them. And we push right up to the edge of that limit.
During Hell Week, each 24-hour day is divided among three shifts of instructors: Alpha Shift handles 4 p.m. to midnight, Bravo Shift has midnight to 8 a.m., and Charlie Shift takes 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The later it gets, the crueler the instructors are.
Just before 4 p.m., after eight full hours of Charlie Shift, it’s Alpha time. The Alpha Shift instructors load into a convoy of work trucks, announcing their arrival over a bullhorn as they slowly roll up. “The sun is going down soon,” one of them will say as the trucks approach the class. “Alpha’s here now. No more of this daytime bullshit. The night belongs to us.”
They then proceed to prove it.
That round-the-clock relentlessness is eventually what is toughest about Hell Week. Day and night, the evolutions are never over. From one horrible trial to another with hardly any breaks—the demands are trying in deep and profound ways. Across the full five days and nights of Hell Week, the schedule calls for two short bursts of sleep. We barely got that in my class. Shivering and numb, we were finally taken back to the tents on Wednesday afternoon and invited to collapse on the cots. Thank God no one has found a way to bottle the smell in there. Thirty guys under stinky canvas—raw, miserable, and snoring, some not even bothering to get up to urinate—lay like zombies for an hour or two.
If I had known what I would feel like when the instructors burst into our tent again—blowing whistles, blasting an air horn, yelling as loud as they could—I wouldn’t have taken that nap at all. My ankles, knees, and legs were swelling badly. I didn’t feel one degree warmer than I had. My nervous system seemed to be going haywire. I could tell my bodily fluids were badly out of whack. We were all young, strong men in peak condition. But humans just aren’t built for this.
By the time my class hit the surf again and returned for the next evolutions, pretty much everyone was looking spent. Easily half the class had quit already. At each step, several more of our classmates had decided, “SEAL training isn’t for me.” In whatever style they chose, they walked to the exit bell and pulled the cord. By now, the ones who remained didn’t seem likely to leave. No matter how grueling or weird the process got, they’d be seeing it through.
I was with a group of guys I could easily see again on a battlefield, guys who were on their way to being SEALs. Beyond the powerful bonding and the intense competitive drive, the real salvation of Hell Week was the calendar. No matter how exhausting the superhuman demands, Friday eventually came for my class.
Late that final morning, the instructors told us to paddle inflatable small boats up to the water line in front of the compound. At that spot there were huge sand berms that blocked your view of anything past the beach.
“Line up your boats on the shore,” one of the instructors ordered. “Get ’em dressed up and ready and looking sharp.”
One of the instructors met us at the water’s edge.
“About face,” he commanded. “Look out at the sea. Lock arms.”
At this point, no one was going to quit. If one of the instructors had said, “We just got word from the admiral that Hell Week is two weeks instead of one,” no one would have left. These guys would have gone on for a year. Anyone who remained in the class was here for good now.
Now the orders sounded especially urgent.
“Forward march! Forward march! March forward to the surf!”
But just as the water was licking at our feet, the same instructor said, “Everybody halt.”
Then “About face.”
We all turned around. Up on the berm across the beach, I saw something so beautiful, I thought it might be a mirage. There was the entire cadre of instructors, dressed in uniform, all the chiefs in khakis. A dozen senior officers were standing with them.
One of the instructors, a captain, was holding a huge American flag, which was fluttering in the sharp ocean breeze.
I was sleep-deprived. I was physically exhausted. I was emotionally drained. I was 100 percent, totally smoked. I was standing there with my arms around my Hell Week buddies on the road to somewhere amazing, exactly where we wanted to be. We were swaying slightly from side to side and leaning on each other for support.
“Class two two three,” the captain said. “Hell Week secure.”
With that, a tight huddle of hopeful Navy SEALs, fewer than 40 of us now, let out a huge, whooping roar. Everyone started hugging each other. Then, like idiots, we turned around, ran to the surf, and dove in.
Excerpted from the book Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior by Rorke Denver and Ellis Henican © 2013 Rorke Denver. Published by Hyperion. All Rights Reserved.