It was 2 AM, and we had not slept more than a few fitful minutes in the last four days. This was the middle of the dreaded SEAL Hell Week, and it was winter. We were all feeling a bit dingy. As the class leader, I was certainly no exception.
“OK sir, here is your mission. You are to patrol from the fire to the ocean, using the sand dunes for cover. Once you hit the hard-packed dirt beyond the dunes, turn south and patrol for thirty minutes. Do not pass into Mexico. There is a fence marking the border. Once you have patrolled thirty minutes, reverse course, and patrol back to this location using the dunes for cover. The fire will be visible.”
“Oh, and by the way, we will be looking for you, and we have night vision goggles. Do not cross the fence into Mexico or get spotted by our roving vehicles. Clear?” I repeated the plan and acknowledged that I would carry out the mission. I wanted very much to join my team at the fire.
As soon as I arrived at the fire, and my own clothes started to steam and dry, Rosy Rosenzweig came up to me. “Sir, I am not leaving this fire.” Though he would not look me or the others in the eye, he sounded quite firm. It was our job to start the dialog we had all used before.
“Don’t do it.” “Don’t think about it.” “We are all in this together; we need you.” Our different voices chimed in with similar messages, but we were not making much of an impression. It seemed a cruel test to allow us to get warm after all this time being numb. Once again, the instructors seemed to have devised a diabolical test. It was clear that no amount of talking was going to change his mind, so I came up with a plan.
“Rosy, look, I have an idea. We don’t leave here for a few minutes yet, and we need you to come with us.”
“Not doing it, sir. I hate to let you down, but I think I am done now.” I could hear the new resolve and deep sadness, in his voice. He was glancing at us sideways, afraid to see what our reactions might be. The crew watched in tired disappointment. We all liked him.
“Think about this, Rosy. We are alone here, and the instructors are elsewhere. Go down the ridge to our tents where our gear is. Pull out your dry field jacket and put it on under your wet shirt. You will be warm. It is still dark, and they will never know.” We had given him both a glimmer of hope and a fighting chance to survive the biting air. He looked at me, and he looked at the fire, and the others whispered encouragingly for him to try. We were a team, we believed in each other, and we wanted him to stay with us. This was what he needed to reach deep inside, and be willing to face the extreme, indescribable ache of a wintery chill again. We were his friends, and one day, we would likely be asked to put our lives on the line for each other. Now, it was simply our goal to complete the next event.
The sense of team we had worked weeks to develop seemed irrelevant to Rosy at this time of individual survival, but quitting was a failure too, and we had sworn to each other that we would not allow failure if as a team, we could help. We were offering him help. Save face now. Take one more step with us. He took it, and off to the tent he and his swim buddy slithered carefully, to execute this new plan for warmth.
“Guys, let’s get ready to go as soon as they get back. The fire must not be allowed to tempt him again.” Rosy and his smiling swim buddy returned with Rosy looking a bit huskier. The thick dry jacket was now under his shirt, but he was smiling again. A few of us were jealous.
“Move out in single patrol file,” I ordered. “Remember, we are being watched, so keep it slow and move quietly.” We moved away from the fire immediately, on patrol, as directed. Another idea began to form, as I moved the team off on our silly, time-gobbling mission. It seemed to me that they were just trying to keep us moving until dawn when food and a new set of instructors would arrive. Like clockwork, new instructors arrived every eight hours, fresh and full of innovative ideas on how to test our resolve. So, after patrolling 300 yards along the muddy canals, halfway to the ocean, wooden guns at the ready, I hesitated. As was mission typical, I was second in the patrol order, while the point man, MM3 Dave Banton, was setting the direction and speed of the patrol. The point man looked back when I paused. We were in a depression surrounded by small dunes, so I held up a single fist signaling stop. All six men stopped with me as directed, and I moved to our point man.
“Rally up, I have an idea,” I passed to Dave. I waved my index finger in a circle over my head, and he followed me back, as we all gathered.
“This is all on me guys, but I don’t think they can see us now, and the more we move, the more likely we are to be seen. Let’s stay here in the dunes for thirty minutes, or more, and get some sleep. We will rotate sentry duty every five minutes, and Rosy you are first. If anyone sees an instructor coming, get us all up, and we will pretend to be returning from our patrol.” It seemed logical and dangerous at the same time, but no one wanted to argue at a chance for a few minutes’ sleep, especially if the boom would likely fall on someone else if caught. And just like that, poof, there were sleeping bodies huddled together in the soft dune sands.
There had been some initial grumbling and whining about getting caught, but the lure of sleep, even a few minutes, had been too great to resist. Anyway, they could all say I ordered it, and the pain of punishment would be mostly mine—they hoped. I could not sleep, as I lay flat and burrowed into the soft earth, looking for warmth that was not there. I was worried that I was making a mistake. Mistakes were allowed it seemed, but failure was not. I could see the instructors’ truck driving around. I suspected they were looking for us.
I would learn, as training went on, that other training classes had figured out this same ploy, and the instructors admired the deception. After all, we were training to do difficult missions, in places where we were not supposed to be, and where there were no rules. The men were already asleep, bundled, hugging tightly in pairs for warmth, as Rosy peeked up over the dune looking for the “enemy.”
Here we were in the muddy, stinking slime of sewage and ocean brine, and I was the new class leader. There was no more hiding. My plan to hide had been rewritten by fate. I was not sure that I could convince the instructors that I had what they needed in a combat-capable officer. I was watching them, and they were watching me.
The other boat crews were scattered about making it harder for instructors to keep track of movements. The missions continued all night, and by dawn, four more men had called it quits. They were just suddenly gone. But our boat crew was intact. Rosy had taken a chance by accepting our help. Overwhelmed and exhausted he almost quit. Teammates rallied around and we made it together. Rosy would graduate and serve over 20 years in the SEAL Teams and retire with honor thanks to a little help from his friends.
“When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you… never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”
—Harriet Beecher Stowe
This is an excerpt from my first book Six Days of Impossible Navy SEAL Hell Week – a Doctor Look Back.