Coronado, Calif. — It's the most rigorous military training in the free world, according to many military and civilian experts.
The United States Navy calls it ''special warfare training'' -- 25 weeks of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/S) on a sandy strip of beach at the southernmost tip of California. It's the Navy's way of ''drawing out certain characteristics required for unconventional warfare,'' says Comdr. Ray Smith, director of the program.
''Resolute'' seems to best describe the graduates of this program.
How tired is too tired? Two hours of sleep for an entire week? Less? How cold is too cold? Is it two hours or four hours in the ocean without a wetsuit?
SEALs are an outgrowth of World War II frogmen who assisted amphibious landings in Europe on D-day and cleared beaches of underwater obstacles for assault troops in the Pacific. Like the Army Special Forces, Rangers, and -Marine commandos, SEALs specialize in unconventional warfare. Their name comes from the environments in which they work: sea, air, and land.
To make ''the teams,'' as Navy personnel call the SEAL groups, enrollees receive extensive training in special combat techniques: advanced demolitions, field communications, and small-arms handling. In addition to being qualified for underwater demolition, SEALs must be qualified parachute jumpers. It's this range of expertise that eventually makes a BUD/S graduate into a combination frogman, paratrooper, and commando.
''Instruction in diving, small-arms use, hand-to-hand combat, underwater demolition and explosives, small-unit tactics, getting in and out of a harbor clandestinely, are all means to this one end,'' says Commander Smith.
They train for the kind of reconnaissance missions recently carried out by their British counterparts, members of the Special Boat Squadron, who landed on South Georgia Island days before its recapture by the British from the Argentineans.
''Making the teams is the highest honor, short of commanding a ship, a guy can get in the Navy,'' says Petty Officer Kevin Mitch, an enlisted man presently enrolled in the BUD/S program.
In any given cycle of BUD/S training, more than half the 50 to 75 men who start the program drop out. Since application is voluntary, dropping out is voluntary. No one enters with less than a three-year Navy commitment, which must be completed whether or not one makes the teams.
The same questions must occur to every SEAL trainee: Why would a grown man spend so much time crawling through the mud? Why would he sit in freezing water while instructors yell at him and percussion and smoke grenades explode overhead? Why would groups of seven run 14 miles, wearing combat boots and a full-dress pack -- while carrying a telephone pole?
''It's the ultimate mountain to climb,'' says Jack Menendez, a graduate of the Merchant Marine Academy who joined the Navy for the SEALs. ''I wanted the challenge, I know that,'' he says. ''I can't say exactly what you get out of this. Personal pride, definitely -- yes. But it's a quiet pride that goes beyond just me.''
Menendez left behind 3 1/2 years of commercial sea experience and good pay to train for the SEALs.
''I wanted into the teams,'' says Lt. Joe Kernan, a Naval Academy graduate with four years experience in the surface fleet. ''You don't see the cold, the mud, the telephone-pole carrying -- you see SEAL.''
Successful completion of SEAL training establishes the fact that a man will not only endurem on a special mission, he will prevail,m says Commander Smith.
Ann Hill, a former instructor at San Diego Community College, where BUD/S candidates attend pre-special-warfare-school training, says: ''You don't run into your average Joe Citizen in this group, just wanting to succeed. What amazes me is that . . . they are all highly motivated, (but) many will get thinned out.
''I think their motivation and willingness to take part in a program that will tax them to the absolute limit, mental and physical, is what most stands out about them,'' she says.
There are three distinct stages in the BUD/S program:
* Eight weeks of tough physical training.
* Nine weeks of diving instruction.
* Eight final weeks of demolition and combat-tactics training.
At first glance the training at Coronado looks like just another program in any of the military's special-warfare units -- although a little wetter because it's the Navy, and they're all going to be frogmen.
That would be a superficial comparison: BUD/S runs on individual talent in a spirit of cooperation.
''The goal is men capable of operating in effective team units,'' says Lt. Joe Yarlborough, a third-phase combat tactics instructor. ''Cooperation with fellow students is high on any evaluation of performance, and no 'loners' make it through BUD/S.''
When students learn to disembark in a seven-man rubber raft, all seven have to carry it ashore. ''You can't decide you're tired today and let the other guy shoulder the weight,'' says Lieutenant Yarlborough. Hence the seven-man, telephone-pole carry: The pole approximates the raft's weight.
The buddy system used in scuba diving, keeping track of an assigned partner, reinforces in the water what is learned on land: You do things together.
''Beyond teamwork, we emphasize individual initiative and leadership among our men. Following the book won't do them much good when many of the conceivable missions they will undertake have no book. They'll write the book,'' says Commander Smith. (It's also a sealed book when it comes to what missions SEALs have been on: The Navy won't talk about missions.)
For all candidates the major test during the first phase of training is ''hell week.'' (In classic understatement, it is officially called ''Motivation Week'' by the Navy.) A high-stress environment is simulated -- much like UDT and SEAL teams will experience in real operations. It is during this week that the greatest number of men drop out -- often 30 to 50 percent of a class.
Any more than two hours of sleep -- total -- for the entire week from sundown Sunday to sundown Friday is considered luxurious treatment. Instructors push the candidates to the limit. ''Their best qualification,'' Commander Smith says of the instructors,''is that they are all SEALs themselves. They made it through BUD/S, they know what the young men are going through.''
Leaving the program is just a matter of walking to the center courtyard between the barracks and classrooms and ringing a solitary bell three times. ''You can be warm and dry again,'' says one recruit who left.
''For many, the walk to the bell is the longest walk they can imagine,'' says Commander Smith. ''They believe they'll never take it, but many do.
''Quitting does not hurt any sailor's career record. There is no stigma attached to ringing the bell and leaving BUD/S,'' he says.
Those who get through ''Motivation Week'' move into the second phase, nine weeks of scuba training.
In this phase the emphasis shifts to academic achievement. Physical training is still stressed, but not as intensely.
Besides a five-mile swim in the strong Pacific currents off Coronado, learning Red Cross drown-proofing techniques and enduring prolonged periods in cold water without wetsuits each day, students must master three diving systems: open-circuit, using compressed air; closed-circuit Emerson, using 100 percent oxygen (no bubbles are released, a requirement for underwater missions in hostile waters); and the MK-15 scuba Swimmer Life Support System, a computerized variable-gas rig. Classroom study during this phase also requires a working knowledge of mixed-gas systems for prolonged periods underwater, diving physics, and diving medicine.
During lectures it is perfectly acceptable for students to stand up and take notes, rather than sit at their desks. One practical reason for this: Besides making sure they don't doze off, students learn how to think on their feet.
Following academic training, students take what they've learned into the water. They must pass tests, or appear before a performance board to pass each phase. The ever-present physical requirements become tougher. By the end of diver training, their hair -- shorn off at the beginning of the training -- has had 17 weeks to grow back, and is at the point where it can be parted again.
Training in navigation, small-unit tactics, patrolling, ambush techniques, river crossing, rappelling, weapons, military explosives, and booby traps, takes place on the beach in Coronado.
As a sort of final test, squads of students perform comprehensive land and sea reconnaissance under simulated crisis situations. The exercises include an actual demolition raid on land and an underwater demolition raid against obstacles placed in the island's surf zone. Successful completion of this phase means graduation and the end of 25 weeks of BUD/S training. The final phase before assignment to one of the teams is three more weeks at Army Parachute School at Fort Benning, Ga.
Three photographs of congressional Medal of Honor winners from the Vietnam war hang in the BUD/S school lobby. All three were products of BUD/S training at Coronado. The fact that -- out of the small number of SEAL personnel (actual numbers are classified) involved in that conflict -- three earned such distinguished awards speaks loudly about the type of missions undertaken -- and the calibre of men who fulfilled them.