I’d always thought drowning is one of the worst ways to die. The sun lay buried in the horizon, as my class marched double-time through the Naval Amphibious Base at Coronado, California. Wearing the same camouflage uniforms, all of us sang out in cadence looking confident, but the song of our voices was hollow.
Wake up, wake up, N.A.B.
We’ve been up since half past three
Runnin’, swimmin’ all day long
That’s what makes a tadpole strong
Whooyah hey, runnin’ day
Whooyah hey, easy day
Our anxieties manifested themselves as lingering mists from our warm breath hitting the winter air. The noise of our combat boots struck the black asphalt with melancholy.
Most of the men in my Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) class were about 21 years old—I was only 19. Together we were a smorgasbord of life: Egyptian army officer, MIT graduate, surfer punk, etc. Each of us had different reasons for becoming Navy SEALs: show patriotism, become king of the surfers, etc. But on that cool winter’s morning, we all had one thing in common: dread.
We arrived at the pool located at Building 164 and stripped down to our UDT swim shorts. The SEAL instructors watched us with shark eyes. We grouped ourselves in pairs with our swim buddies.
My swim buddy asked, “Do you want to go first or should I?”
“I want to get this over with,” I said.
We stood at the deep end of the pool. Goose bumps pricked our flesh as each of our partners tied us up with high strength cord. My partner tied my feet together.
“Tie it good,” I said. “I don’t want to have to do this twice.”
After finishing the knot, he proceeded to tie my hands behind my back.
Stoneclam wore his khaki UDT (Underwater Demolition Team) shorts and a dark blue t-shirt. The t-shirt had a thin yellowish-gold border on the sleeves. Two cartoon-like figures were on the left breast: a frog holding a burning stick of dynamite in its hand and a seal carrying a knife in its mouth. Written in small, yellowish-gold letters were the words: UDT/SEAL Instructor. Kneeling down on one knee, he touched the water reverently as if to consecrate it for us. He climbed up to the lifeguard chair and took his ritualistic position. “You are all going to love this. Drown-proofing is one of my favorites. Sink or swim, sweet peas.”
Half of my class stood at the edge of the deep end with our feet tied together and hands tied behind our backs. Our swim-buddies stood behind us. Instructors were joking, but it was all a peripheral blur to me.
I can’t let them get inside my head. Focused on calming my respiration and heartbeat.
Instructor Stoneclam said, “When I give the command, the bound men will hop into the deep end of the pool. You must bob up and down twenty times, float for five minutes, swim to the shallow end of the pool, turn around without touching the bottom, swim back to the deep end, do a forward and backward somersault underwater, and retrieve a face mask from the bottom of the pool.
“If your ropes come undone, you must start over from the beginning. If your ropes come undone a second time, you fail. If you break your ropes, you pass—but don’t try it. I only know of one student who ever broke his ropes. We’ll be watching you to make sure no one cheats.”
Standing on the edge of the pool, I should have realized how abnormal all this was. Just doing all that bobbing and swimming and somersaults without my hands and feet tied would be hard enough. My mind focused on how peaceful the water was. My breathing and heart rate slowed.
Instructor Stoneclam’s dark eyes probed us. “First group, enter the water.”
The smooth surface of the water broke as we jumped in. A flurry of thoughts assaulted me: panicking, suffocating, drowning. Block the negative. Be calm. Avoid the negative. The heated pool is warm. Focus on the warmth. Become one with the water. My classmates and rose and sank at different heights and depths. Some touched the bottom and were already rising to the surface. A negative thought wrestled with me: the guys at the top are going to breathe while I’m still down here. I waited helplessly for my feet to touch the bottom. Wait for the breath. Slow it down. Control the rhythm. I imagined soft ballet music. My toes touched the concrete bottom. Don’t shoot out of the water like a missile and draw the attention of the instructors. I gently pushed off. I wanted air, but I couldn’t think about it. My head cleared the surface. I heard screams and saw splashing on the other side of the pool. I closed my eyes and filled my ears with ballet music. My mouth formed a tight circle, sucking a bite of oxygen straight to my lungs.
I sank slowly to the bottom. The instructors can’t touch me here. The water is my haven. Pushing off from the bottom again, I opened my eyes and continued to imagine ballet music as my classmates and I continued to rise and fall in our new haven. The Egyptian officer smiled, looking like a brown, oversized water lily. Priest, the surf-punk, made a goofy face at me and wiggled his body like some sort of wacky water worm as he rose upward. I smiled, bobbing up and down in the water wearing my pink tutu.
On one of my trips to the surface, I looked over to the commotion at the other side of the pool. One of my classmates thrashed the water trying to get to the edge of the pool. “Help me, I’m drowning! Ahggh!”
Instructor Stoneclam used the lifesaving pole to push him away from the edge, “If you were drowning, you wouldn’t be telling me about it.”
The panicked guy bit the pole.
I got my bite of air and sank down. When I came back up, the panicked student was being helped out of the pool—he had enough of training.
After bobbing, I floated for five minutes. Next, I began my dolphin kick along the length of the pool. Keep it slow. Keep the rhythm. I kicked then turned my head to breathe—side-stroke style. Kick-and-breathe, kick-and-breathe. I reached the shallow end of the pool and began making a dolphin-turn right. Parsons was turning left, aimed for a head-on collision course with me. If either of us touched the bottom of the pool, we’d fail. I became anxious and started to lose my rhythm. Parsons dove underneath me as we made our turn. Our bodies scraped each other, but neither of us touched the bottom of the pool. I became more anxious.
I dolphined my way back to the deep end. There I bobbed once. I did my forward somersault. I still hadn’t recovered my breathing rhythm after the near-collision with Priest. Most of my classmates had already finished their forward and backward somersaults. Nineteen face masks lay on the bottom of the pool. One-by-one the masks disappeared as each of my buddies grabbed a mask with their teeth and rose to the surface, completing their job. I was the last one in the pool. I could feel Instructor Stoneclam’s eyes on me.
I did the backward somersault. My breathing and movement became uncoordinated. The threat of failure attacked me. My chlorine-saturated eyes frantically searched the blurry bottom for a face mask. I spotted one mask on the bottom at the far end of the pool. I can’t make it that far. Suddenly, my blurred vision caught sight of a mask down to my left. My feet touched the bottom—my toes only inches away. I dropped to my knees. I tried to lean over to grab the mask with my teeth. But I had swallowed too much air during my somersaults, and my body floated up before I could bite the mask. My body stopped halfway up. There was no air in my lungs to float me to the top and too much air in my stomach to allow me to sink to the bottom. The taste of chlorine made me want to vomit.
Fear stepped aside to let discouragement make its entrance. Discouragement was infinitely more powerful than fear. I felt myself shrinking. I heard voices—my classmates cheering me on. They seemed so far away. I was too weak. I failed. Discouragement smashed me, destroying every particle of human energy from me. The hammer of discouragement rose high in the air, preparing to make its final blow. But I didn’t want it to end this way. I didn’t want to fail.
I started to get angry. Angry at fear and discouragement. Angry at Instructor Stoneclam. Angry at anything that would get in my way from succeeding—including myself. My spirit exploded. Its heat and power rumbled through me. The shockwave overwhelmed my senses.
My feet kicked rapidly, propelling me upward. I surfaced with half of my body shooting out of the water. I flipped like an angry fish and dove head first into the water, frantically kicking my tied feet.
I shot down at the mask, and my forehead smashed into the floor, stopping me. I twisted my head around and clenched the black strap with my teeth. I kicked and wiggled without oxygen, managing to move head-first toward the top. My head felt so dizzy.
Complete the mission. I struggled halfway to the surface. My body was heavy. My peripheral vision became grey. I kicked harder. Every part of me craved oxygen as the grey circle around my vision became smaller, darker. My body started to tingle. I felt like I was losing consciousness--getting harder and harder to focus on anything.
I managed to poke my head out of the water. Madly, my feet kept kicking. Some classmates started to applaud.
“Shut up!” Instructor Stoneclam barked.
I refused to stop kicking unless Stoneclam told my swim buddy to help me out, and I refused to let go of the mask. Instructor Stoneclam studied me leisurely. I sucked air and water through my teeth. I figured he could either let my buddy help me out from the pool, or Stoneclam could rescue me when I became unconscious and sank to the bottom. Either way, I wasn’t going to let go of the mask.
Instructor Stoneclam told my swim buddy, “Pull him out.”
I felt incredible relief as my partner and another student pulled me out. The ground felt strange, and I had to sit down because my legs didn’t support me well. My classmates untied my hands. I felt like a fish, not knowing what to do with my hands except flap the kinks out of my wrists. My head ached. Steam rolled off my wet body.
An instructor told me, “I’ve never seen anyone pull their mask out like that. You’ll have to explain your technique.”
The other instructors smiled.
Instructor Stoneclam barked, “Next!”
I helped tie my swim buddy’s feet and hands.
“Second group, enter the water,” Instructor Stoneclam said.
I no longer thought drowning was one of the worst ways to die. Drownproofing replaced my old fear with a new one: failure without trying everything I can do to succeed.
You can read the rest of my story in Navy SEAL Training Class 144: My BUD/S Journal.