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These are 3 popular misconceptions about the Navy SEALs

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Navy SEALs on 24

It has been a bit of a wild ride for the Navy SEAL community since the Global War on Terror kicked off in 2001. That conflict thrust the SEALs – some would say certain members willingly leaped – into a public limelight that was brighter and sometimes harsher than had ever before been experienced by Naval Special Warfare. One result of that increased public notoriety, which has reflected both positively and negatively on the SEALs, has been the growth of certain misconceptions held by the wider public about the Navy SEAL Teams.

The first erroneous view this author has noticed to be held fairly widely is that all Navy SEALs are self-promoting glory hounds. As one who has personally been accused of such behavior, I am well-placed to address this particular misconception. I can say with absolute certainty that the great majority of SEALs, both current and former, in no way seek to glorify their service, promote themselves as some sort of superhuman warrior elite, or even talk publicly at all about their service (again, this author notwithstanding).

Now, do some SEALs write or host podcasts talking about everything from self-improvement to physical fitness to politics to simply “SEAL stuff?” Of course they do. Do some even discuss their involvement in various military operations (as approved by the DoD’s review process)? Again, yes. And sure, there are even some shameless charlatans that exist amongst the community of former SEALs who seek to profit or acquire political power at any cost.

Sadly, the SEAL Teams are not immune to the presence of certain personality types, including self-aggrandizing blowhards. That being said, those are the exception, not the rule. The great majority of Navy SEALs have never and will never speak publicly about their service. Some don’t because they believe in the ethos of the “silent professional.” Others don’t because they simply move on from the SEAL Teams and have no desire to live in the past. And others are just too humble to speak at all about themselves publicly. The point is, do not fall prey to the cheap laugh and easy meme that all SEALs are out to write books, seek public fame, and glorify themselves. It just isn’t true, despite the irony of a former Navy SEAL telling you so in an article.

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US and Korean SEALs close quarters combat
.S. Navy and Republic of Korea Navy SEALs clear out rooms during simulated close-quarters combat scenarios during a bilateral training exercise at Silver Strand Training Complex. NSW is the nation’s premier maritime special operations force, uniquely positioned to extend the fleet’s reach and deliver all-domain options for naval and joint force commanders, Coronado, CA, November 2022. (U.S. Navy Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Gaither/Naval Special Warfare Group ONE)

The second big misconception civilians tend to hold about SEALs is that they are all hand-to-hand combat experts – super-ninjas, even – adept at killing with a knife, their bare hands, or really, with just about any nearby kitchen utensil. That one has always made me chuckle as it simply is not the case. The number of military disciplines required to be mastered by each SEAL to simply form up a platoon adept at accomplishing its various SOF missions is pretty significant. Those skills range from combat diving to marksmanship to explosives to parachuting to land navigation to small unit tactics to close-quarters combat, and a bunch of others.

We used to say in my platoon that as SEALs we were jacks of all trades and masters of none. Yes, there is some hand-to-hand combat training and use of close-quarters defense and grappling-style techniques, but in no way can the average SEAL devote enough (official) training time to any particular fighting discipline to become an expert at it. Now, some do become expert fighters on their own time, and that is a different story. Also, each and every SEAL will absolutely fight to the death with whatever weapon is at hand if the need arises. However, that does not mean that the average SEAL could take the average UFC fighter in the octagon.

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SEAL candidates weapon training
SEAL qualification training students from Class 268 take aim during a 36-round shooting test ranging from 100, 200 and 300 yards at Camp Pendleton. SQT is a six-month training course that all SEAL candidates must complete before being assigned to a SEAL team. (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Michelle Kapica/U.S. Navy)

Finally, we have a misconception that is best illustrated by the following question that I’ve also been asked many times since leaving the SEAL Teams: “Oh, you were a Navy SEAL? What do you think of the [insert the name of any obscure German-made assault rifle]? I’m thinking of buying one.”

Apparently, many civilians think that all SEALs are “gunheads.” That’s the name we used to bestow on SEALs back in my day who could answer questions like the above. Yes, they do exist, but they are not the norm, even in the SEALs. While some Team Guys know everything about every weapon ever made, ballistics, various types of sights, the performance of various types of ammunition rounds, and everything else related to small arms, that was not the case for the average SEAL.

Your average Team Guy absolutely did know everything about his own issued weapons. Don’t be mistaken: he could tell you the rate of fire, operate and clear the weapon in the dark, recite the specs on the various optics, and disassemble and assemble it blindfolded – just like pretty much all infantrymen and women in the U.S. military could. The big difference is, SEALs usually get more range time, have access to more training rounds to fire, and get more hands-on access to their weapons than the average infantryman. At the end of the day, though, your average SEAL saw his weapon as a critical tool to do his job, and not as some object of weird fetish-like significance. It was a means to an end, and the love affair with the weapon was usually limited to its use on the battlefield.

With that, I hope I have helped clear up a few of the misconceptions about the Navy SEALs.

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Frumentarius is a former Navy SEAL, former CIA officer, and currently a battalion chief in a career fire department in the Midwest.