Leaders Let Problems Mount at Brutal SEAL Course, Navy Finds

Reached by phone, Regina Mullen, Seaman Mullen’s mother, said she was pleased that the Navy was admitting to shortfalls in the medical system, “however, I am upset that there is still no accountability to date.”

In a statement, the commander of all of Naval Special Warfare including the SEALs, Rear Adm. Keith Davids, said that the SEALs would work to enact the report’s recommendations for making the training safe, adding, “We will honor Seaman Mullen’s memory by ensuring that the legacy of our fallen teammate guides us towards the best training program possible for our future Navy SEALs.”

The Navy SEALs have tried for decades to strike a balance, making the selection course challenging enough to select only elite SEALs, but not so difficult that it leaves good candidates broken. SEAL training is seen by militaries around the world as a gold standard for special forces, so the design of the course has influence far beyond the small community of Navy SEALs.

Historically, an average of about three out of 10 sailors who try the course graduate to complete it. But the graduation rate has varied widely over the years, based in part on the whims of instructors, and the course has at times resembled institutionalized hazing. In all, about 11 students have died, and untold others have been seriously injured.

After a new leadership team took over the course in 2021, graduation rates dropped steeply. When the commander of Navy Special Warfare at the time, Rear Adm. Hugh W. Howard, was warned about the drop, he told subordinates that it was fine if no one graduated and that it was more important that the course remain tough. According to the report, the admiral added, “Zero is an okay number; hold the standard.”

Instructors, who often had little experience or training for the role, began to view their jobs not as teachers building new SEALs, but as enforcers “hunting the back of the pack” to “weed out” the weak, the report said. A gradual elevation of harsh tactics that the report called “intensity creep” allowed instructors to push the demands of the course “to the far end of the acceptable spectrum,” leaving students exhausted, sick and injured.

The course had long employed civilian veterans of the SEAL teams to be mentors, as a way to temper the young instructors. But under the new leadership, these experienced veterans were marginalized. Soon, fewer than 10 percent of students in some classes were making it through the course.

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