CORONADO, Calif. — Kyle Mullen always had the natural drive and talent that made success look easy. Until he tried out for the Navy SEALs.
The 24-year-old arrived on the California coast in January for the SEALs’ punishing selection course in the best shape of his life — even better than when he was a state champion defensive end in high school or the captain of the football team at Yale.
But by the middle of the course’s third week — a continual gut punch of physical and mental hardship, sleep deprivation and hypothermia that the SEALs call Hell Week — the 6-foot-4 athlete from Manalapan, New Jersey, was dead-eyed with exhaustion, riddled with infection and coughing up blood from lungs that were so full of fluid that others who were there said later that he sounded like he was gargling.
The course began with 210 men. By the middle of Hell Week, 189 had quit or been brought down by injury. But Mullen kept on slogging for days, spitting blood all the while. The instructors and medics conducting the course, perhaps out of admiration for his grit, did not stop him.
And he made it. When he struggled out of the cold ocean at the end of Hell Week, SEAL leaders shook his hand, gave him a pizza and told him to get some rest. Then he went back to his barracks and laid down on the floor. A few hours later, his heart stopped beating and he died.
That same afternoon, another man who survived Hell Week had to be intubated. Two more were hospitalized that evening.
The SEAL teams have faced criticism for decades, both from outsiders and their own Navy leadership, that their selection course, known as Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, or BUD/S, is too difficult, too brutal, and too often causes concussions, broken bones, dangerous infections and near-drownings. Since 1953, at least 11 men have died.
For just as long, the SEAL teams, who perform some of the military’s most difficult missions, including lighting-fast hostage rescues and the killing of high-level terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, have insisted that having a bare-knuckle rite of passage is vital for producing the kind of unflinching fighters the teams need. Without BUD/S, they argue, there could be no SEALs.
Privately, they talk of training casualties as a cost of doing business.
Mullen’s official cause of death was bacterial pneumonia, but his family says the true cause was the course itself, in which instructors routinely drove candidates to dangerous states of exhaustion and injury, and medical staff grew so accustomed to seeing the suffering that they failed to hospitalize him, or even monitor him, once Hell Week was over.
“They killed him,” his mother, Regina Mullen, who is a registered nurse, said in an interview. “They say it’s training, but it’s torture. And then they didn’t even give them the proper medical care. They treat these guys worse than they are allowed to treat prisoners of war.”
A new complication
Mullen’s death immediately resurfaced the old questions about whether the curriculum of intentional hardship goes too far.
And soon those old questions were complicated by something new.
When the Navy gathered Mullen’s belongings, they discovered syringes and performance enhancing drugs in his car. The captain in charge of BUD/S immediately ordered an investigation, and soon about 40 candidates had either tested positive or had admitted using steroids or other drugs in violation of Navy regulations.
The Navy has not tied the sailor’s death to drugs. The service is expected to release reports on the training death and the drug use in the fall. A Navy spokesperson declined to comment on Mullen’s death or on allegations of widespread drug use, saying it would be inappropriate to do so before the reports are released and Mullen’s family is briefed on their findings.
Still, the prevalence of drugs at BUD/S has some men in the top reaches of the SEALs deeply unnerved.
Without comprehensive testing, there is no way to assess the full extent of the drug use in the program. But more than a dozen current and former candidates described a culture in which drugs have become deeply embedded in the selection course over the past decade.
SEAL leaders say they don’t have the authority to start a testing program to attack the problem. They formally requested permission from the Navy in June to start testing all candidates but are still awaiting a response.
Meanwhile, the drugs are there.
The Navy has made hundreds of changes over the years meant to improve safety and increase graduation rates. But no matter how much the Navy has tried to make BUD/S easier, it seems to only get harder.
In the 1980s, about 40% of candidates graduated. Over the past 25 years, the average has dropped to 26%. In 2021, it was just 14%, and in Mullen’s class this year, less than 10%.
A second attempt
When Mullen started BUD/S in January, it was his second attempt. His first try was in August 2021, and he had spent more than a year running, swimming and lifting weights to prepare. He lasted less than a day.
Instructors call the first three weeks of BUD/S the attrition phase, a maw of punishing exercise, frigid water and harassment meant to wash out anyone lacking strength, endurance and mental fortitude — individuals the instructors derisively call “turds.”
That first day, the instructors put candidates through a gantlet of running, crawling, situps and pushups on the hot sand with no breaks, Mullen’s mother said. Late in the afternoon, the men were racing in teams, carrying 170-pound inflatable boats over their heads, when Mullen passed out.
He called his mother from an ambulance a short time later and explained that he had not had a drop of water all day. When he fell, he told her, an instructor hurled insults at his limp body and told him to get up. When he did not respond, medics measured his temperature at 104 degrees and sent him to the hospital with heatstroke.
Mullen was assigned to an internal recovery unit, where he had four months to mend before a second attempt at BUD/S.
During his four-month wait, his mother recalled, Mullen started talking to her about performance-enhancing drugs.
Men he met in the recovery unit were using steroids and human growth hormone, he told her, and he was considering it. He told her he would have to buy a used car as a place to stash the drugs.
“In all his years playing sports, he had never touched that stuff,” she said. “I told him not to do it. But he ended up getting the car and sharing it with a bunch of guys.”
Outfoxing the course
In a perverse way, the drug problem at BUD/S is a natural outgrowth of the mindset the SEALs try to cultivate, according Benjamin Milligan, a former enlisted SEAL who recently published a history of the force, “Water Beneath the Walls.”
The SEALs want operators who can find unconventional ways to gain an advantage against the enemy, he said in an interview.
“You want guys who can solve problems in war, guys who know how to play dirty, because war is a dirty game,” he said.
An often heard unofficial adage in the SEALs holds that, “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”
During BUD/S, he said, the “enemy” to be outfoxed is the course itself.
“No one can do everything the instructors ask, so you have to learn how to cheat to get through,” he said. “Everyone knows it happens. The point is to learn how to not get caught.”
“Basically, you are selecting for guys who are willing to cheat,” he added. “So, no surprise, guys are going to turn to drugs.”
In the months since Mullen’s death, the family has pushed for accountability. The military is shielded by law from wrongful death lawsuits. Instead, Mullen’s mother says her goal is to have Congress impose independent oversight on BUD/S.
Officers in charge of BUD/S have removed some of the most punishing aspects of the course in recent months, clamping down on predawn workouts and runs with heavy packs. Six hours of sleep a night are now required in all weeks but Hell Week; outside auditors have been brought in to watch instructors; and a higher percentage of sailors are now making the cut.
But on the beach, sailors say, the problems continue. A month after Mullen died, there was another close call. After late-night training in the frigid surf, one sailor — cold, wet, hungry and exhausted — started shivering violently, then became unresponsive while huddled in the arms of another sailor who was trying to keep him warm, according to two sailors who were there.
The sailors immediately called the BUD/S medical office, but they said there was no answer. They put their classmate in a hot shower, called 911 and were able to get him civilian medical help.
The next morning, the two sailors said, instructors let the class know they were not happy. To punish them for calling 911, the sailors said, the instructors made the class do long bouts of pushups. Whenever anyone dropped from exhaustion, instructors made the man who had been treated at the hospital for hypothermia plunge again into the cold surf.