A few weeks ago, I read a fascinating article written by Ray Vawter that was published by Military.com. It concerned the Selection courses of the Special Operations community; it referenced the SEALs’ BUD/S course and SEAL candidate Kyle Mullen who tragically passed away soon after passing “Hell Week.” Later it was found that Mullen had Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) in his system along with 40 members of his class.
Vawter brought up many solid points in his article, including that “SOF training, and specifically, selection events are severely flawed.” These “are causing deaths and making tactical athletes less prepared for the mission.”
Wanting PEDs out of Special Operations Selection courses is the right call, but the problem is the military will have to begin testing and maintain testing for them as a matter of course. The Navy began testing for PEDs in 2012 after it uncovered what it called “a steroid ring.” But by 2016, the testing had stopped, and steroids were back.
The back-breaking deployment schedule has definitely played a large role in this issue for all Special Operations units.
“We’ve mortgaged the future in order to facilitate current operations that have impacted readiness, and it’s also impacted the development of force for the future,” Theresa Whelan, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations, said back in 2017. “And as the threats grow, this is only going to get worse.”
The military toyed with the idea of administering PEDs to special operations troops back in 2017. The thought was that the PEDs will allow fully trained operators to recover faster from injuries received during training or operations, as well as from fatigue, and low testosterone that many operators suffer from when returning from combat deployments.
“For performance-enhancing drugs, we’ll have to look at the makeup and safety in consultation with our surgeon and the medical folks before making any decisions on it,” Ben Chitty, the senior project manager for biomedical, human performance, and canine portfolios at US SOCOM’s Science and Technology office told Defense News at the time.
Related: Death of SEAL trainee should force a change in how BUD/S candidates are monitored
Ethics concerns vs. win at all costs
However, besides maintaining proper monitoring the services have to be able to track illicit use. While some officers and NCOs view PED use as an ethics issue, others have a “win at all cost” mentality and an “if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’” outlook on the use of PEDs.
As far back as the late-80s, steroid use was ongoing in Special Forces, including at the schoolhouse. One morning the cadre from a couple of committees were in the gym working out. One instructor slid up to me and asked, “Are you juicing?” when I said no and asked why he asked me that, he told me that many of the Special Forces guys in the room were using PEDs. I was surprised later to learn that it was more widespread than I would have believed.
The situation will require much more investigation, but viewed from the cheap seats now, the long-term implications for the operators, to me, would outweigh the short-term benefits, but coming from the background, I understand the mindset. Further, the ethical conversation goes right into murky territory if the command is the one administering PEDs. They also don’t give an advantage to those using them in Selection courses.
But the bottom line is that the PEDs will only be a band-aid fix on a sucking chest wound. If the command insists on keeping the deployment schedules similar to what was transpiring at the height of the Global War on Terror no amount of PEDs will suffice. The operators, as trained and elite as they are, are still human. One can only artificially inflate a body’s performance for so long before it breaks down. Some believe that PEDs will create a group of superhuman operators. That is a myth. They will, however, create a ton of problems down the road.
Related: Can older candidates make it through special operations selection?
Changing Selection courses is a difficult decision
Each Selection course is run differently and all are very effective in selecting candidates for further training. Yet, questions remain about whether some instructors take things too far.
In the case of the BUDs, Vawter wrote in his piece that the SEAL instructors valued the candidates suffering “more than eliciting useful training adaptations.”
The counterargument to that is that the missions that SOF operators conduct are not for the faint of heart. Troops in all of the services are lost every year in training accidents because it is the nature of the beast, as the missions are inherently dangerous. The risks can be mitigated but not completely eliminated, as the training and rehearsals for combat operations have to come as close as they can to the real thing.
The Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) course taught by the JFKSWC at Fort Bragg, NC, is no less physical than any other course out there, but it is built around the unconventional warfare model, and after initial individual assessments are conducted, candidates move into “team week.”
The team exercises of SFAS mirror and amplify many tasks that operators will see in a third-world country. The course is designed to identify candidates who won’t quit and who will make good decisions when they are hurting, tired, and hungry. There is no harassment, no screaming at candidates, and no abuse of any kind. The course is the only difficulty that a candidate has to deal with. If they perform the way they should, their assessments will take care of themselves.
Related: The Army’s Special Forces are evolving to fight adversaries in the space and cyber domains
However, if the New York Times piece on Kyle Mullen is accurate, then several SEAL instructors overstepped their bounds. And there should always be medical coverage for SEAL or any other SOF candidates while their training, especially just after finishing a phase as physically intensive as Hell Week.
At the same time, as Vawter wrote, the tasks have to mirror real-world situations that operators will be expected to conduct. When it comes to the Army’s Special Forces, at least, I’m convinced that they have designed an excellent course, especially after the changes made by Brian Decker.
Special operations aren’t for everyone, and the selection, assessment, and training have to be that way.
Steve Balestrieri is a proven military analyst. He served as a U.S. Army Special Forces NCO and Warrant Officer in the 7th Special Forces Group. In addition to writing for Sandboxx.com, he has written for 19fortyfive.com and SOFREP.com; he has covered the NFL for PatsFans.com for over 11 years. His work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers in Massachusetts.
Feature Image: Navy SEAL candidates during BUD/S. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt)
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