Bin Laden kill spotlights Navy SEALs

May 02, 2011|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

There is a motto etched on a Navy SEAL training school building in California: "The only easy day was yesterday."

It captures the grit and willpower required to be a member of the Navy's elite force, a group that includes Naval Academy graduates and is supposed to have the training and smarts to be sent on any mission, anywhere in the world at any time.

Sunday's operation was one that two presidents have called America's No. 1 priority: Bring Osama bin Laden to justice.

It shoved the SEALs into the limelight. A spokeswoman for the group said Monday she could not say a word about the mission, even to confirm that the force was involved. Some major news organizations identified the group as SEALs while others were more circumspect, referring more broadly to special forces.

Meanwhile, "Navy SEAL" was one of the top search terms on Twitter. The group's official Facebook page was covered with thank-you notes.

Former SEALs and military experts said the mission had the hallmarks of the Navy's top fighting team. "It was a classic, textbook SEAL operation," said Kurt B. Olsen, a former SEAL who based the comment on news accounts describing the way the American teams went into bin Laden's compound.

Olsen graduated from the Naval Academy in 1984 and was one of four in his class selected to "try out" for the SEALs right after graduation. He and one other from his Navy class made it.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the numbers of slots for Navy grads have swelled. This year, 30 Naval Academy midshipmen plan to attend the grueling SEAL training after graduation, up from 16 selected in 2001. They will join other officers and enlistees hoping to make the cut. There are about 2,500 active Navy SEALs.

Lt. Catherine Wallace, a spokeswoman for the Naval Special Warfare Command, did not respond to questions about what proportion of SEALs come from the Naval Academy or attrition rates in the training program.

By all accounts, the training is designed to be physically and mentally exhausting. The point: "Weed out the weak," said Olsen.

Olsen, a SEAL for 41/2 years in the late 1980s, said there are two classic characteristics for SEALs: Never quit and always think.

"These are not the kinds of guys where you stick a gun in their hands and they charge up the hill," Olsen said. "They will sit and think of a way of taking the hill and minimize the risk of getting shot."

Olsen recalled a training exercise known as "surf torture." A line of aspiring SEALs would stand in frigid ocean waters at night with glowsticks clenched between their teeth.

Teeth chattered so hard that men would chew through their plastic lights, Olsen said.

Occasionally trainees would be ordered back on shore, where they would warm up and then be told to go back in. "Cold water tests a man's resolve," Olsen said.

Trainees could quit at any time. All they had to do was ring a bell.

Another exercise involved swimming underwater for fifty yards without taking a breath.

Not everyone has the lung capacity, so some would black out before reaching the end. Those men would pass: They'd proved that they would push so hard that their bodies quit before their wills.

"If and when you become a SEAL you know your teammate has been through a very intense level of training and will not quit," said Olsen. "You can depend on that person without hesitation with your life."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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