For those curious about Hell Week, that fabled and terrible ordeal that all prospective Navy SEALs endure during Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training, there is plenty of information out there in the various forms of media to satiate that desire to experience second-hand a small slice of that infamous week. There are countless books that discuss it, a fair amount of blog posts and articles that describe it, a handful of podcasts that converse about it, a couple of television documentaries that have documented it, and some scenes in fictional movies and television shows that have attempted to depict the ordeal, usually largely inaccurately (“Lone Survivor” is a rare exception, only because the movie uses actual documentary footage in its opening scenes).
Almost universally, those depictions — both fictional and true — fail to adequately convey to the uninitiated just how terrible and miserable Hell Week truly is. That includes the articles that this author has written about the subject. It is not always a failing of the authors (surely not!), podcasters, or documentarians (though sometimes it is), but rather, the near-impossibility of translating into words and images Hell Week’s physical discomfort, tiredness, pain, cold, desperation, and meat-grinding churn. Without making the reader, viewer, or listener feel that hallucination-inducing bone tiredness, that sand-chaffed full-body pain, or that saturated hypothermic cold, one can never really give them a true sense of Hell Week’s insidious nature.
What you do not often find — if ever, in fact — is a discussion of the immediate aftermath of Hell Week. Most of the depictions end with Hell Week being “secured” (concluded) by the instructors, and then the weary, dazed, struggling BUD/S trainees staggering away into the distance, those still remaining having successfully passed through their terrible crucible. Where do they go? What happens to them? How the hell do they recover and continue through the rest of the training (Hell Week is in First Phase, and usually around 20 weeks of training remain).
Have no fear: I am going to tell you. Now, keep in mind, my experience was two-plus decades ago, but little has changed in this regard. I know that because my cousin just finished Hell Week last year. In fact, not much had changed when I finished in 1999 from when my dad went though it almost 50 years ago. BUD/S is nothing if not consistent in its relentless culling of the not-quite-worthy.
So, the slow, limping stagger of that SEAL trainee ends with a quick medical check-up by the on-site medical staff at BUD/S. They essentially want to make sure you are not going to immediately succumb to a flesh-eating bacteria, pneumonia, or some other Hell Week-induced ailment. If you pass that exam (some do not, and are admitted into the clinic), you are given a whole large pizza and a large bottle of some rehydrating fluid, such as Gatorade or an equivalent. Then you are told that you are confined to your barracks room on base for the next 18-24 hours. This is so that the staff can keep you on-site in case some medical emergency befalls you in the aftermath of what you just endured.
You are also given your first brown t-shirt, stenciled with your last name across the chest. This is a huge deal for a BUD/S student, because it signifies that you have made it through Hell Week. It differentiates you from the less-worthy and unproven “white shirts” who have yet to pass through it. It is almost unfathomable that you were wearing a tattered and soiled white t-shirt just a short time prior to receiving your brown t-shirt. You are not the same person you once were. You feel that, to your core.
Adorned in that warm and dry symbol of your newly-earned prestige, you take that pizza and drink, and if you are like me, you eat every last bite because you are ravenous, drink as much of the liquid as you can without puking, then you take the hottest shower your body can endure without going into shock (because all of the sudden, it is experiencing warmth again). Then you call your loved ones for 17 seconds and say “I made it,” after which you fall into your bed and sleep for 18 straight hours, waking only to pee (hopefully), or to take some pain relief medication because you hurt all over.
If you are like my buddy, Pete, a fellow officer who started and finished BUD/S with me, you don’t even make it through your pizza, or to the shower, before you collapse onto your rack in a coma-like sleep. When I awoke for a pee break at one point, a nagging feeling told me that I should go check on Pete in his room next to mine. I found him, mouth agape, with one leg dangling off the made bed, and the pizza box open on his stomach, with about half the pizza remaining. A line of ants had formed, and was marching up the leg of the bed, onto his pizza, where each ant salvaged what he could, then marched back down the way he had come. I stared in my post-Hell Week daze, mumbled, “Pete, there are ants on you,” or something similarly inane, and then stumbled back to my bed to fall back asleep.
The next morning, after 18 hours of body and mind-healing REM sleep — despite the trauma-induced sweating and instructor-filled nightmares — I returned to Pete’s room to find him snuggled under his covers, the pizza box out on the front stoop of his barracks room. I was relieved that he too had not been eaten by the ants.
At that point, we were free to leave the BUD/S compound, as we were on most weekends during training. This was Saturday morning (Hell Week was secured around 1 PM Friday — I think — for our class). I had arranged with my Dad prior to Hell Week’s start that we would meet up Saturday morning, if I made it. He had flown into town to be there to see me finish. He took me, Pete, and a couple of other guys who had also made it through the week to the most delicious, filling, glorious breakfast I have ever consumed. I do not even remember what I ate, but I do know that it was around 10,000 calories of breakfast food and pie at the Coronado Marie Callender’s restaurant. I am pretty sure I experienced explosive diarrhea afterward, but it was so worth it for that meal.
The rest of that day and weekend are a blur, but I know I slept a lot more, and limped everywhere I went. I might have seen a movie, and I know I polished my boots and prepped for the next week of training. On Monday, we were right back into BUD/S, barely healed and recovered from Hell Week.
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Thankfully, the week following Hell Week at that time focused mostly on classroom instruction in hydrographic reconnaissance.
The instructors still sent us to the surf to get wet and sandy, and generally tormented us, but the physical torture was muted that week. We still spent lots of time in the cold water, shivering and hating it, but we did recover enough physically to go on.
So there you have it, the not-quite-as-glamorous post-Hell Week routine. It ain’t pretty, and it sure as hell was not enough to be completely and fully physically or mentally recovered from the ordeal, but it was enough to allow us to survive the rest of BUD/S, and to graduate. Just like I cannot adequately convey to you how shitty Hell Week is, nor can I convey the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment one feels in getting through it. You will just have to take my word for it.
Feature image: U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt