What It Takes to Survive Navy SEAL Hell Week
"I think I may have slept two or three hours over the course of that entire week," says ex-SEAL Kaj Larsen.
Kaj Larsen is a combat veteran Navy SEAL who served in the War on Terror during Operation Enduring Freedom, who transitioned into the US Naval Reserves following active duty and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. Following his military career, he has worked as an onscreen correspondent, commonly reporting from conflict areas and war zones. His latest project is The Business Of Drugs, a docuseries now streaming on Netflix. This story appears as told to Charles Thorp by Larsen.
Hell Week is generally considered the hardest week of the hardest military training in the world. It is a five-day crucible that all Navy SEALs have to go through. I think I may have slept a total of two or three hours over the course of that entire week. The principle has always been you want to get as close to simulating combat as possible, to see who might fold under that pressure.
The first night you are running 20 or 30 miles, parts of it pulling boats or carrying logs. It is all brutally physically, with multiple phases that progress. The beginnings of these evolutions are where you lose most people.
The instructors aren’t just instructors, the guys working at BUDS will rotate back into operations and you will serve with them downrange and overseas. They take pride in their position as gatekeepers of the community for that very reason. They want to weed out anybody who doesn’t fit the standard of who they think should be in a SEAL platoon.
From the very start you are sandy and wet, and you basically stay wet for the entire five days. Some say it takes four years off of your life.
One of the most excruciatingly painful challenges was on the final night. They do what they call the “Around The World,” where you and your boat crew have to paddle around Coronado Island [in California] in this inflatable rubber boat. I don’t even remember how long it takes, somewhere between eight to 10 hours, because at that point time plays out like a Salvador Dalí clock — it just merges all together.
Every now and then you hear a splash, and that’s because some poor guy has fallen asleep while paddling and fallen into the ocean. That’s when you have to stop, get your crew and pull him out, back into the boat. Once they are in your raft, it is back to paddling. By that point in the week you are delirious and hallucinating. I saw an aircraft carrier levitating, which as cool as the US Navy is, we haven’t invented yet.
I also have a vivid memory of the second day, some time around 4 in the morning, this instructor made me lie down on the cold cement, took a hose and misted me with freezing water. This went on for about half an hour or more. This instructor didn’t like me for whatever reason, maybe didn’t like my California kid vibe, and I felt like had it in for me. Sometimes the instructors have it in for you for a good reason, like they want you to succeed, and sometimes they have it in for you for real.
I started to feel my core temperature going down. I started to just shiver and shiver. My body was doing everything that it could to generate heat. I eventually passed out. They took my core temperature there, and apparently it was 88.9 degrees. That is a pretty serious place for your internal temperature to be.
At that point time plays out like a Salvador Dalí clock — it just merges all together.
So there I was, passed out and hypothermic. At that point, they started to do active rewarming on me. It is not just drying off. They throw you into a hot tub, to get your core back up. I think it took them almost 20 minutes to get me back into a good place.
I was still wet, and I got out of the hot tub wearing nothing but athletic shorts. They towel me off and they hand me a nice, dry pair of our old camouflage woodland uniforms after they did their med check. It was the first time I had felt anything warm or dry in ages. It felt like heaven in my hands. I just wanted to stand there, holding it, and try to absorb the heat from it.
They hand me these beautiful, dry clothes … and tell me to put them on in the ocean.
I just stared at them and for the first time I wondered if I really wanted to be there. It was the only time I really questioned myself on that. I took a moment, thought, put them on, and then marched out into the ocean.
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