Navy Sailor and Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) candidate Kyle Mullen, 24, died following the completion of Hell Week in February 2022. Now, according to an autopsy report released by his mother, Mullen’s death was the result of bacterial pneumonia.
Specifically, the report stated that Mullen succumbed to pneumonia caused by streptococcus pyogenes, the same bacteria that can lead to necrotizing fasciitis, cellulitis, and strep throat, among other ailments. According to local reporting in San Diego, Mullen’s mother believed her son’s death was avoidable.
Hell Week is a 5.5-day stretch considered the defining event of BUD/S. During Hell Week, candidates are subjected to continuous, grueling physical training and only sleep for approximately four hours.
The specific accusation made by Kyle’s mother, a nurse, in the above news report is that the medical staff at BUD/S knew that Kyle Mullen was medically compromised, given that he was spitting up blood and was employing a wheelchair to move around. Despite that, the Naval Special Warfare Center — the parent command of BUD/S — still sent him to recover in his barracks room unsupervised by medical professionals following the completion of Hell Week.
Mullen, in fact, was not discovered to be unconscious and unresponsive in his barracks room until medical personnel responded to a separate BUD/S student in the barracks who was complaining of difficulty breathing. At that time, Mullen was found unresponsive and was transported to a medical facility and later pronounced dead.
Mrs. Mullen told a New Jersey-based Patch reporter in April that she did not want to put an end to Hell Week, stating that her son knew what he was signing up for, but rather that there needed to be more medical oversight of the candidates in that medically sensitive time frame. In the case of her son, her argument is hard to refute. Having successfully completed Hell Week back in 1999, this author can attest to the fact that, at that time, once students were released from the grueling five-day ordeal, we returned to our barracks with a Gatorade and a pizza, left alone to sleep and recover.
Deaths of BUD/S trainees are sadly not uncommon, and this author does truly believe that each and every one of them is investigated and taken with the proper degree of seriousness by the command. However, just as changes have been made in the past to specific practices at BUD/S in the wake of a fatality, changes should be implemented in this case, as well.
Two examples of changes made at BUD/S in the wake of medical emergencies stand out as models for how Mullen’s death might lead to another change in procedures. Firstly, the provision of prophylactic antibiotics for BUD/S students during Hell Week was put in place to battle the scourge of necrotizing fasciitis in the 1990s. Secondly, the relocation of the Third Phase 5.5-nautical mile swim from San Clemente Island to Coronado occurred after a student died at San Clemente from hypothermia after completing the swim.
The Naval Special Warfare Center should once again change its procedures as a result of this tragic fatality. While periodic medical checks in the immediate wake of Hell Week might be disruptive to the much-needed sleep of the BUD/S students after completing the ordeal, they might just also save some of those same students’ lives. The Naval Special Warfare Command, the overall parent command of the Navy SEALs, should direct such a change if it means future BUD/S students can be saved from another tragedy.