US Navy orders high-level outside probe of Seal course after sailor's death

Few sailors who attempt the course complete it and the proportion has been shrinking. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON - The US Navy has started an independent investigation of the brutal selection course for its elite Seals after a sailor's death this year revealed a tangle of physical abuse, poor medical oversight and use of performance-enhancing drugs in the course.

The order for the new investigation came from the highest levels of the Navy - the outgoing vice chief of naval operations, Adm. William Lescher. It was given to a rear admiral from outside the Seals, signalling that the Navy had given it high priority and wanted it to be independent.

Lescher issued the order in a letter obtained by The New York Times. The letter is dated the day after the Times reported that the sailor's death had exposed a number of problems at the harrowing selection course, known as Basic Underwater Demolition/Seals, or BUD/S.

Among the problems were a damaging ethos of forced suffering that often dismissed serious injuries and illnesses as weakness and a growing subculture of students who saw illicit performance-enhancing drugs as the only way to get through the course.

Lescher's letter ordered investigators to focus on a broad swath of issues in the course, including its safety measures, the qualifications of instructors and medical personnel, and its drug testing policies for students.

It also asked what, if anything, had changed at the course since February, when a 24-year-old former elite college athlete, Kyle Mullen, died hours after completing its most punishing phase. The vice chief gave investigators 30 days to report their findings.

The Naval Special Warfare Command, which includes the Seals, had been looking into Mullen's death and the surrounding issues on its own, and its findings were supposed to have been released in August. But they were held back after top Navy leaders indicated that they thought the report placed too much blame on the sailor and not enough on failures in the Seals, according to a Navy official who is familiar with discussions about the report. The official asked not to be identified by name because he was not authorised to comment on an unreleased report.

The vice chief's letter now directs the Special Warfare Command to stick to a very narrow inquiry into whether Mullen's death occurred in the line of duty and to leave the larger questions to the outside investigators.

Asked about the admiral's decision to start the new investigation, a Navy spokesperson issued a statement saying that "the Navy remains committed to transparency and ensuring the final reports are thorough, accurate, impartial, and that confidence and credibility are maintained throughout the entire process."

The BUD/S course takes place on the gritty beach sand and in the cold ocean waters of Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, near San Diego. It has a reputation as the most physically gruelling selection course in the military. Candidates endure weeks of carrying heavy logs and inflatable boats, lengthy sessions of situps and pullups in frigid surf, "drown-proofing" exercises underwater with bound hands, and days and nights spent cold, wet, sandy and exhausted.

The Seals say they need that kind of unforgiving rite of passage to select the rare individuals who can perform some of the military's most challenging missions.

Few sailors who attempt the course complete it - over the past 20 years, an average of just 1 in 4 - and the proportion has been shrinking.

According to Navy data, the average passing rate plunged suddenly in February 2021 to about half of what it typically had been in prior years. Since then, in some classes, only 7 per cent of sailors have made it through.

Several Seals and BUD/S candidates said that the course had recently become even harder and that warnings to commanders about dangerous changes had largely gone unheeded. NYTIMES

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