CORONADO, Calif. – Kyle Mullen has always had a natural drive and talent that made success easy. Until he tried out for the Navy SEALs.
The 24-year-old arrived on the California coast in January for the SEALs’ punishing selection in the best shape of his life — even better than when he was a state defensive champion in high school or captain of the football team at Yale.
But in the midst of the third week of the course — a constant onslaught of physical and mental hardship, sleep deprivation and hypothermia the SEALs call Hell Week — the 6-foot-4 athlete from Manalapan, N.J. exhausted, riddled with infection and coughing up blood from lungs that were so full of fluid that others who were there later said it sounded like he was regurgitating.
The course started with 210 men. By the middle of Hell Week, 189 had finished or been knocked out by injury. But Seaman Mullen struggled for days, spitting blood all the while. The instructors and medics who ran the course, perhaps out of admiration for his audacity, did not stop him.
And he did it. When he dug himself out of the cold ocean at the end of Hell Week, the SEAL leaders shook his hand, gave him pizza and told him to rest. Then he returned to his barracks and lay down on the floor. A few hours later, his heart stopped beating and he died.
Another Hell Week survivor had to be intubated that afternoon. Another two were hospitalized that evening.
For decades, SEALs have faced criticism from outsiders and their own Navy leadership that their selection course, known as SEAL Basic Underwater Demolition/Training or BUD/S, is too difficult, too brutal and too often results in concussions, broken bones , dangerous infections and near-drowning. At least 11 men have died since 1953.
For as long as the SEALs, who carry out some of the military’s toughest missions, including lightning-quick hostage rescues and killing high-level terrorists like Osama bin Laden, have insisted that the bare-knuckle ritual of passage is vital to producing the kind of steadfast fighters who teams need. Without BUD/S, he claims, there would be no SEALs.
Privately, he talks about training sacrifices as a cost of doing business. Former SEAL, David Goggins, wrote in his memoir about a sailor who drowned during his Hell Week. Soon after, he wrote, an instructor told his class, “This is the world you live in. He is not the first and will not be the last to die in your line of work.”
BUD/S is hardly the only dangerous selection course in the military. Many army special forces soldiers and air force pilots also died during training. But few, if any, courses have such a high failure rate.
After Seaman Mullen died, the SEAL teams appeared to try to deflect blame from the course, calling the incident a freak occurrence. Although Seaman Mullen coughed up blood and needed oxygen for days, the Navy reported that he and the man who was intubated “were not actively exercising when they reported symptoms” and that neither had “experienced an accident or unusual incident” during the ordeal. Week.
The official cause of death was bacterial pneumonia, but Seaman Mullen’s family say the real cause was the course itself, in which instructors routinely drove candidates to dangerous states of exhaustion and injury, and medical personnel became so accustomed to the ordeal that he failed. hospitalize him or even monitor him after Hell Week is over.
“They killed him,” his mother, Regina Mullen, who is a registered nurse, said in an interview. “They say it’s training, but it’s torture. And then they didn’t even give them proper medical care. They treat these guys worse than they’re allowed to treat prisoners of war.”
Seaman Mullen’s death immediately resurfaced old questions about whether the intentional deprivation curriculum was going too far.
And soon these old questions were complicated by something new.
When the Navy collected Seaman Mullen’s belongings, they discovered syringes and performance-enhancing drugs in his car. The captain in charge of BUD/S immediately ordered an investigation, and soon about 40 candidates either tested positive or admitted to using steroids or other drugs in violation of Navy regulations.
The Navy has not linked the sailor’s death to drugs. The service is expected to issue reports on exercise deaths and drug use in the fall. A Navy spokesman declined to comment on Seaman Mullen’s death or allegations of extensive drug use, saying it would be inappropriate to do so until the reports are released and Seaman Mullen’s family is informed of their findings.
Still, the prevalence of drugs in BUD/S deeply unnerves some of the SEALs’ top brass — not only because the drugs may have contributed to the sailor’s death, but also because they see their proliferation and lack of discipline. and the order marks it as a threat to the entire SEAL organization that could grow in unpredictable and ugly ways.
Sailors who enter the program boosted by steroids and hormones can push harder, recover faster and likely beat sailors trying to become SEALs while they’re clean, said one senior SEAL official with several combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The inevitable effect, he said, is that a course designed to select the best will end up selecting only the best crooks, and SEAL teams will be constantly filled with warfighters who view the rules as optional.
“What am I going to do with people like that in a place like Afghanistan?” said the leader. “A guy who can do 100 push-ups but can’t make an ethical decision?”
So far, the Navy is officially silent on the discovery of drug use on BUD/S. Details of Seaman Mullen’s death and subsequent drug bust, many of which are being reported here for the first time, are based on interviews with Navy leaders, medical personnel, SEALs and recent BUD/S candidates. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Without comprehensive testing, there is no way to assess the full extent of drug use in the program. But more than a dozen current and former candidates described a culture in which drugs have become deeply embedded in the selection course over the past decade.
SEAL leaders say they don’t have the authority to launch a test program to attack the problem. In June, they formally asked the Navy for permission to begin testing all candidates, but are still awaiting a response.
Meanwhile, there are drugs.
One young sailor who went through BUD/S in May said many would-be SEALs find the course too difficult to complete without drugs. Despite Seaman Mullen’s death, he said, some sailors were still using illegal performance enhancers – particularly a group of unregulated supplements called SARMS, which are difficult to detect.
It’s hard to say what role performance-enhancing drugs played in one death when there are so many other complicating factors, Dr. Matthew Fedoruk, Senior Scientist, United States Anti-Doping Agency. Still, he said, the chemicals some sailors rely on can disrupt the function of the heart, liver and other critical organs, which are already under incredible stress from brutal training.
If enough people in the community dope, it spreads the risk to those who are clean as the level of competition rises and more people are pushed to exhaustion and injury.
“It makes it harder for people who do the right thing to shine,” he said.
Navy leaders say they are committed to fixing the problems. BUD/S now requires all candidates to be medically monitored for 24 hours after Hell Week, leaders have dropped some of the most inappropriate course requirements, and several SEALs have been quietly removed from instructor positions after Seaman Mullen’s death.
Broader questions about the punishing nature of the course and what role it played in drug distribution and the young sailor’s death may prove more difficult.
The Navy has made hundreds of changes over the years to improve safety and increase graduation rates. At the same time, the SEALs running the course quietly resisted anything they saw as a lowering of standards. So no matter how hard the Navy has tried to make BUD/S easier, it just seems to be getting harder.
In the 1980s, about 40 percent of applicants graduated. Over the past 25 years, the average has dropped to 26 percent. It was just 14 percent in 2021 and less than 10 percent in Seaman Mullen’s class this year.
When Seaman Mullen launched BUD/S in January, it was his second attempt. His first attempt was in August 2021 and he spent more than a year running, swimming and lifting weights to prepare. He lasted less than a day.
Instructors call the first three weeks of BUD/S a phase of attrition, a maw of punishing exercise, freezing water, and harassment designed to extort anyone who lacks strength, endurance, and mental fortitude—individuals the instructors derisively call “shit.”
That first day, instructors put the candidates through nonstop running, crawling, sit-ups and push-ups on hot sand, said Sailor Mullen’s mother. In the late afternoon, the men were racing in teams and carrying 170-pound inflatable boats overhead when Sailor Mullen passed out.
A short time later, he called his mother from the ambulance and explained that he had not drunk a drop of water all day. When he fell, he told her, the instructor hurled insults at his limp body and told him to get up. When he was unresponsive, paramedics took his temperature to 104 degrees and sent him to the hospital with heatstroke.
Heatstroke, concussions, fractures, muscle tears and lung problems are common in BUD/S, said one Navy medical staffer at the SEAL Training Base in Coronado, but the injuries are often handled internally, avoiding the SEALs’ outside scrutiny. The employee said injured candidates are often encouraged to leave the course voluntarily rather than being pulled out by medical personnel, and their injuries are never formally reported to Navy Command, which oversees workplace accidents.
Seaman Mullen was assigned to an internal rescue unit where he had four months to recuperate before attempting a second BUD/S. During that time, he helped care for other wounded candidates recovering in the barracks, according to his mother, who he regularly called for medical help.
Many of the men coughed up bloody fluid from a condition called swim-induced pulmonary edema—a potentially life-threatening condition so common among men training in cold water in BUD/S that SEALs refer to it casually as SIPE.
His mother recalled that during the four-month wait, Seaman Mullen began talking to her about performance-enhancing drugs.
The men he met in the recovery unit used steroids and human growth hormone, he told her, and he considered it. He told her she would have to buy a used car as a place to hide the drugs.
“In all the years he’s been playing sports, he’s never touched it,” Ms Mullen said. “I told him not to. But he ended up getting a car and sharing it with a bunch of guys.”
In interviews, SEALs say they knew of men using drugs during BUD/S at least as early as 2009. The Navy uncovered what a senior SEAL leader called a “steroid ring” in 2012. He said BUD/S began that year test candidates. , but testing ended a few years later.
By 2016, former candidates said drugs were back. Then 19-year-old Brandon Caserta went through BUD/S and told his father, Patrick Caserta, a retired Navy chief petty officer, that the drugs were “tumultuous.”
“He denied doing them, but he said the guys who did it definitely had an advantage,” Mr. Caserta said.
After three weeks, sailor Caserta collapsed while carrying the ship. Instructors yelled at him to get up, and when he said he couldn’t, his father said, they made him leave the course. X-rays later revealed a broken leg.
Candidates who do not complete BUD/S often must serve out the remaining years of their enlistment in undesirable, low-level Navy positions. Sailor Caserta has finished manning the refreshment counter at a remote base.
“He was really down,” his father said. “He felt like he was cheated out of something he worked hard for.
In 2018, a Caserta sailor left a note for his parents criticizing the Navy for its treatment and saying he did not want a military funeral, before throwing himself into the tail rotor of a Navy helicopter.
In a perverse way, the drug problem in BUD/S is a natural consequence of the mindset SEALs try to cultivate, according to Benjamin Milligan, a former SEAL who recently published a history of the force, “Water Under the Walls. “
The SEALs want operators who can find unconventional ways to gain an advantage against the enemy, he said in an interview.
“You want guys who can solve problems in war, guys who know how to play dirty, because war is a dirty game,” he said.
An often-heard anecdotal saying in the SEALs is that “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”
During BUD/S, he said the “enemy” to outwit is the course itself.
“Nobody can do everything the instructors ask, so you have to learn to cheat to get by,” he said. “Everybody knows it happens. It’s about learning how not to get caught.’
“You’re basically selecting people who are willing to cheat,” he added. “So no surprise guys turn to drugs.
Seaman Mullen showed up for his second BUD/S attempt in January with fresh determination and a used car. But by the end of the second week, he was spitting up bloody fluid and struggling to breathe.