Veterans of the armed forces can tell you there was a time during training when they had to face a gut check. It may have come during a forced march when they were weighed down with equipment and weapons, or it could have come during those quiet moments just before they fell asleep. Pushed to what they think are their limits, new soldiers can be tempted to quit - mentally and physically.
No one knows that better than the members of the US Navy's elite SEAL units, perhaps the world's most competent and feared soldiers.
SEAL is an acronym for SEa, Air, and Land. Thanks to their training, SEALs are experts at combat swimming, diving, parachuting, navigation, demolitions, weapons, and a laundry list of other skills necessary to accomplish their special missions. In addition to the maritime environment, where they feel most at home, SEALs also train in the desert, the jungle, cold weather, and urban surroundings.
It is their training that former SEAL and CIA officer Dick Couch documents in "The Warrior Elite: The Forging of SEAL Class 228." Couch was allowed to follow the training of 98 men who started the 27-week Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL course (BUD/S) in October 1999.
In this super-macho book, Couch details the brutal process that takes some of America's finest soldiers and weeds out those who don't have the desire or ability to become "the tip of the spear." Told with close empathy for his subjects, it's an inspiring, often grueling story.
Following Class 228 through a steady process of attrition, Couch attempts to answer the question of what would make a man volunteer for this extraordinary challenge.
BUD/S training is divided into three phases: conditioning, diving and weapons, and tactics. Not surprisingly perhaps, trainees usually identify Phase 1 as the most difficult. There they go through four weeks of "calculated mayhem, designed to force each man in the class to reassess his personal commitment" to become a SEAL. Their ranks are winnowed each day.
The first phase is capped off by the ultimate Darwinian test: Hell Week. For five days, the remaining trainees participate in what is essentially around-the-clock training with only five hours of sleep. To survive the experience, each man must learn that he simply has to take the physical punishment and not anticipate what's yet to come.
Phase 2 raises the physical requirements even higher, as they learn skills needed in the water. The physically battering regimen emphasizes long-distance underwater dives to train students in techniques for moving from their launch point to their combat objective.
Remarkably, the nine weeks of Phase 3 are even more difficult, when the students learn navigation, patrolling, small-unit tactics, and demolitions.
BUD/S training takes a terrible toll on the men of Class 228. At the end of Hell Week, only 19 original members of the incoming class are left standing. Replenished by the return of men forced to postpone their training in other classes, Class 228 nevertheless ends with 20 men who will go on to more advanced courses.
So what is it that drives the successful men of Class 228? Why would the best of America's sons volunteer for this torture? Couch points out that some men are driven by their need to prove that they can stand with the best. Others simply refuse to quit.
Whatever that intangible quality is, America is the better for it. Their predecessors were the frogmen who cleared the beaches ahead of the Normandy landings during World War II. And "the tip of the spear" is likely at work right now in Afghanistan. Written before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the book is eerily prescient: "The Middle East, with its unique blend of religious fundamentalism, despotism, and petroleum-driven wealth, could quickly draw us into another regional war."
Whatever powered the men of Class 228 to suffer through the ordeal that creates a SEAL, the Taliban and their allies will likely experience it firsthand.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.