The elite force’s selection course is so punishing that few make it through, and many of those who do resort to illicit tactics.
U.S. Navy SEAL candidates participating in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training in 2018, in a photo commissioned by the Department of Defense.Credit…Abe McNatt/Naval Special Warfare Command
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For this article, Dave Philipps interviewed, among others, 17 active-duty Navy personnel, including senior leaders, active-duty SEALs and current and former trainees and instructors.
CORONADO, Calif. — Kyle Mullen always had the natural drive and talent that made success look 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 course in the best shape of his life — even better than when he was a state champion defensive end in high school or the captain of the football team at Yale.
But by the middle of the course’s third week — a continual gut punch of physical and mental hardship, sleep deprivation and hypothermia that the SEALs call Hell Week — the 6-foot-4-inch athlete from Manalapan, N.J., was dead-eyed with exhaustion, riddled with infection and coughing up blood from lungs that were so full of fluid that others who were there said later that he sounded like he was gargling.
The course began with 210 men. By the middle of Hell Week, 189 had quit or been brought down by injury. But Seaman Mullen kept on slogging for days, spitting blood all the while. The instructors and medics conducting the course, perhaps out of admiration for his grit, did not stop him.
And he made it. When he struggled out of the cold ocean at the end of Hell Week, SEAL leaders shook his hand, gave him a pizza and told him to get some rest. Then he went back to his barracks and laid down on the floor. A few hours later, his heart stopped beating and he died.
That same afternoon, another man who survived Hell Week had to be intubated. Two more were hospitalized that evening.
The SEAL teams have faced criticism for decades, both from outsiders and their own Navy leadership, that their selection course, known as Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training or BUD/S, is too difficult, too brutal, and too often causes concussions, broken bones, dangerous infections and near-drownings. Since 1953, at least 11 men have died.
For just as long, the SEAL teams, who perform some of the military’s most difficult missions, including lighting-fast hostage rescues and the killing of high-level terrorists like Osama Bin Laden, have insisted that having a bare-knuckle rite of passage is vital for producing the kind of unflinching fighters the teams need. Without BUD/S, they argue, there could be no SEALs.
Privately, they talk of training casualties as a cost of doing business. A former SEAL, David Goggins, wrote in his memoir about a sailor who drowned during his Hell Week. Soon afterward, he wrote, an instructor told his class: “This is the world you live in. He’s not the first, and he won’t 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 have also died in training. But few if any courses have so high a rate of failure.
After Seaman Mullen died, the SEAL teams appeared to try to deflect blame from the course and frame the incident as a freak occurrence. Though Seaman Mullen had coughed up blood for days and had needed oxygen, the Navy announced that he and the man who was intubated were “not actively training when they reported symptoms,” and that neither “had experienced an accident or unusual incident” during Hell Week.
The official cause of death was bacterial pneumonia, but Seaman Mullen’s family says the true cause was the course itself, in which instructors routinely drove candidates to dangerous states of exhaustion and injury, and medical staff grew so accustomed to seeing the suffering that they failed to hospitalize him, or even monitor him, once Hell Week was 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 the proper medical care. They treat these guys worse than they are allowed to treat prisoners of war.”
Seaman Mullen’s death immediately resurfaced the old questions about whether the curriculum of intentional hardship goes too far.
And soon those old questions were complicated by something new.
When the Navy gathered 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 had either tested positive or had admitted using steroids or other drugs in violation of Navy regulations.
The Navy has not tied the sailor’s death to drugs. The service is expected to release reports on the training death and the drug use in the fall. A Navy spokesman declined to comment on Seaman Mullen's death or on allegations of widespread drug use, saying it would be inappropriate to do so before the reports are released and Seaman Mullen’s family is briefed on their findings.
Still, the prevalence of drugs at BUD/S has some men in the top reaches of the SEALs deeply unnerved — not just because drugs may have contributed to the death of a sailor, but also because they see their spread, and the lack of discipline and order it implies, as a threat to the entire SEAL organization that could grow in unpredictable and ugly ways.
Sailors who enter the program bolstered by steroids and hormones can push harder, recover faster and probably beat out the sailors who are trying to become SEALs while clean, said one senior SEAL leader with multiple combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The inevitable effect, he said, is that a course designed to select the very best will end up selecting only the very best cheaters, and steadily fill the SEAL teams with war fighters who view rules as optional.
“What am I going to do with guys like that in a place like Afghanistan?” said the leader. “A guy who can do 100 pull-ups but can’t make an ethical decision?”
The Navy has so far been officially silent about the discovery of drug use at BUD/S. Details of Seaman Mullen’s death and the subsequent drug sweep, many of them reported here for the first time, are based on interviews with Navy leaders, medical staff, enlisted SEALs and recent BUD/S candidates. All of them spoke on the condition that they not be identified by name, because they were not authorized to comment publicly.
Without comprehensive testing, there is no way to assess the full extent of the 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 last decade.
SEAL leaders say they don’t have the authority to start a testing program to attack the problem. They formally requested permission from the Navy in June to start testing all candidates but are still awaiting a response.
Meanwhile, the drugs are there.
One young sailor who went through BUD/S in May said that many would-be SEALs had come to believe that the course was too hard to complete without drugs. Despite Seaman Mullen’s death, he said, some sailors were still using illicit performance enhancers — in particular, a group of unregulated supplements called SARMS that are difficult to detect.
It is hard to say what role performance-enhancing drugs played in one death when there are so many other complicating factors, said Dr. Matthew Fedoruk, the chief science officer of the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Even so, he said, the chemicals some sailors are relying on can interfere with the function of the heart, liver and other critical organs that are already under incredible stress from the brutal training.
If enough people in a community are doping, he said, it spreads risk even to those who are clean, as the level of competition rises and more people are pushed to exhaustion and injury.
“It makes it that much harder for the people doing the right thing to shine,” he said.
Navy leaders say they are determined to correct the problems. BUD/S now requires all candidates to be medically monitored for 24 hours after Hell Week, leaders have dialed back some of the most abusive course requirements, and several SEALs were quietly removed from instructor positions after Seaman Mullen’s death.
The broader questions about the punishing nature of the course, and what role it played in the proliferation of drugs and the death of a young sailor, may prove harder to address.
The Navy has made hundreds of changes over the years meant to improve safety and increase graduation rates. At the same time, the SEALs who run the course have quietly resisted anything they see as lowering standards. So no matter how much the Navy has tried to make BUD/S easier, it seems to only get harder.
In the 1980s, about 40 percent of candidates graduated. Over the past 25 years, the average has dropped to 26 percent. In 2021, it was just 14 percent, and in Seaman Mullen’s class this year, less than 10 percent.
When Seaman Mullen started BUD/S in January, it was his second attempt. His first try was in August 2021, and he had 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 the attrition phase, a maw of punishing exercise, frigid water and harassment meant to wash out anyone lacking strength, endurance and mental fortitude — individuals the instructors derisively call “turds.”
That first day, the instructors put candidates through a gantlet of running, crawling, situps and push-ups on the hot sand with no breaks, Seaman Mullen’s mother said. Late in the afternoon, the men were racing in teams, carrying 170-pound inflatable boats over their heads, when Seaman Mullen passed out.
He called his mother from an ambulance a short time later and explained that he had not had a drop of water all day. When he fell, he told her, an instructor hurled insults at his limp body and told him to get up. When he did not respond, medics measured his temperature at 104 degrees and sent him to the hospital with heatstroke.
Heatstroke, concussions, fractures, muscle tears and lung issues are common at BUD/S, one Navy medical employee at the SEAL training base in Coronado said, but the injuries are often dealt with internally that avoids scrutiny from outside the SEALs. Often, the employee said, injured candidates are encouraged to quit the course voluntarily, instead of being pulled out by medical staff, and their injuries are never formally reported to the Navy command that oversees workplace accidents.
Seaman Mullen was assigned to an internal recovery unit, where he had four months to mend before a second attempt at BUD/S. During that time, he helped care for other injured candidates recovering in the barracks, according to his mother, whom he called regularly for medical advice.
Many men were coughing up bloody fluid from a condition called swimming-induced pulmonary edema — a potentially life-threatening ailment that is so common among men training in the frigid water at BUD/S that SEALs refer to it casually by the acronym SIPE.
During his four-month wait, his mother recalled, Seaman Mullen started talking to her about performance enhancing drugs.
Men he met in the recovery unit were using steroids and human growth hormone, he told her, and he was considering it. He told her he would have to buy a used car as a place to stash the drugs.
“In all his years playing sports, he had never touched that stuff,” Ms. Mullen said. “I told him not to do it. But he ended up getting the car and sharing it with a bunch of guys.”
In interviews, SEALs report knowing of men who used drugs during BUD/S at least as far back as 2009. The Navy uncovered what the senior SEAL leader called “a steroid ring” in 2012. He said BUD/S began testing candidates that year, but the testing lapsed a few years later.
By 2016, former candidates said, drugs were back. That’s when 19-year-old Brandon Caserta went through BUD/S and told his father, Patrick Caserta, a retired Navy senior chief petty officer, that drugs were “rampant.”
“He refused to do them, but he said the guys that did definitely had an edge,” Mr. Caserta said.
Three weeks in, Seaman Caserta collapsed while carrying a boat. Instructors yelled at him to get up, and when he said he couldn’t, his father said, they made him quit the course. An X-ray later revealed a broken leg.
Candidates who don’t complete BUD/S often must serve out the remaining years of their enlistments in undesirable low-level Navy jobs. Seaman Caserta ended up manning a snack counter at a distant base.
“He really was disheartened,” his father said. “He felt like he’d been cheated out of something he had worked hard for.”
In 2018, Seaman Caserta left a note for his parents criticizing the Navy for its treatment of him and saying he did not want a military funeral, and then hurled himself into the tail rotor of a Navy helicopter.
In a perverse way, the drug problem at BUD/S is a natural outgrowth of the mind-set the SEALs try to cultivate, according Benjamin Milligan, a former enlisted SEAL who recently published a history of the force, “Water Beneath 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 unofficial adage in the SEALs holds that, “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”
During BUD/S, he said, the “enemy” to be outfoxed is the course itself.
“No one can do everything the instructors ask, so you have to learn how to cheat to get through,” he said. “Everyone knows it happens. The point is to learn how to not get caught.”
“Basically, you are selecting for guys who are willing to cheat,” he added. “So, no surprise, guys are going to turn to drugs.”
Seaman Mullen showed up for his second attempt at BUD/S 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.
“I said, go to the hospital right away,” his mother recalled. “He said, ‘No, ma, if you want to go to the hospital, they will make you quit first. Besides, it’s just SIPE.’”
Ms. Mullen said her son, on the advice of other SEAL candidates, started secretly taking the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra, which was against Navy rules but used by SEALs as a potential treatment for SIPE. He recovered enough to keep training.
Then came Hell Week — days of cold-water swims and sand-pounding runs totaling over 200 miles, with only about five hours of sleep in five days. The SIPE came raging back, and the fluid pooling in his lungs started to drown him from the inside.
Seaman Mullen fell behind on runs, according to a candidate who was there with him, and instructors singled him out for what they call “remediation” — extra push-ups, situps and plunges in the freezing surf that may have made his condition worse.
He collapsed at one point, and an instructor kicked him repeatedly and told him to quit, the other candidate said. Instead, the sailor struggled back to his feet.
Navy medics are present for every moment of Hell Week and give candidates daily medical checks. Anyone whose vital signs show dangerous changes gets sidelined, a medical officer there said. But, the officer added, the medical staff avoids interfering with the pain and suffering that are the purpose of BUD/S.
By Wednesday, medics were intermittently giving Seaman Mullen oxygen in the back of a medical truck parked on the beach as he continued stumbling through the course, photos from the time show.
In any other job, pushing people to exhaustion while fluid floods their lungs would seem reckless, but it has been happening in Hell Week for so long that the practice has come to seem somewhat normal, according to Mr. Milligan, the historian. He went through Hell Week in 2001 and said a man in his class who had fluid in his lungs was given medication through a nebulizer, a practice Mr. Milligan said was “not uncommon.” A few hours later, while the class was swimming in a human chain in a pool, the man slipped from Mr. Milligan’s grasp, sank to the bottom and died.
Seaman Mullen was determined to persevere. On Friday morning, at the completion of Hell Week, he and 20 other remaining men emerged from the freezing surf. He was too weak to walk on his own, so he staggered in the other candidate’s arms, his eyes filled with tears of joy and relief.
After a short speech by the admiral in charge came medical checks, and the class insisted that Seaman Mullen go first. The other candidate said he was stunned when his friend emerged from the check just five minutes later, saying he was told he was fine.
Seaman Mullen was coughing so much that he soon filled a 32-ounce Gatorade bottle with bloody sputum, according to his autopsy, but by then there was no one with medical training present to notice. The medical staff had gone home after Hell Week finished. Instead, according to the candidate and Ms. Mullen, who spoke to several of her son’s classmates who were there, the men were watched by newly arrived BUD/S candidates, called white shirts.
A few hours later, one of the white shirts called the medical staff phone to report an emergency, the candidate said, but no one picked up, so the white shirt called 911. When a civilian ambulance arrived, the medics found Seaman Mullen with no pulse, according to the autopsy.
The next morning, five men in white Navy dress uniforms appeared at the Mullen family home in New Jersey. Ms. Mullen opened the door, saw them and said, “My son is never coming home, is he?”
In the months since, the family has pushed for accountability. The military is shielded by law from wrongful death lawsuits. Instead, Ms. Mullen says her goal is to have Congress impose independent oversight on BUD/S.
Officers in charge of BUD/S have removed some of the most punishing aspects of the course in recent months, clamping down on pre-dawn workouts and runs with heavy packs. Six hours of sleep a night are now required in all weeks but Hell Week, outside auditors have been brought in to watch instructors, and a higher percentage of sailors are now making the cut.
But on the beach, sailors say, the problems continue. A month after Seaman Mullen died, there was another close call. After late-night training in the frigid surf, one sailor — cold, wet, hungry and exhausted — started shivering violently, then became unresponsive while huddled in the arms of another sailor who was trying to keep him warm, according to two sailors who were there.
The sailors immediately called the BUD/S medical office, but once again, they said, there was no answer. They put their classmate in a hot shower, called 911 and were able to get him civilian medical help.
The next morning, the two sailors said, instructors let the class know they were not happy. To punish them for calling 911, the sailors said, the instructors made the class do long bouts of push-ups. Whenever anyone dropped from exhaustion, instructors made the man who had been treated at the hospital for hypothermia plunge again into the cold surf.
The elite force’s selection course is so punishing that few make it through, and many of those who do resort to illicit tactics.