There is a saying in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training: Ideally, you want to become the gray man. In other words, you become invisible, nobody notices you, because you do everything so perfectly that you never stand out.
I had gone from that guy to gray man.
This is not to say that Hell Week was easy. It was as brutal as all the legends say, and then some. From the morning it began, my classmates started winking out like cheap light bulbs.
The first night they disoriented us: We were up all night, and that was only the beginning because we were going to be up for five days and nights straight. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were the worst. If you were hanging in there by Tuesday night you didn’t have a lot of company, because most of the guys had already quit. They really brought on the cold and the punishment those first three days.
They had us do something they called steel pier. At two in the morning, they walked us into the ocean and threw us on a steel barge, where we lay half-naked, our body temperature dropping to hypothermia levels. Then, just as we didn’t think we could hang on to consciousness any longer, they had us get up, jump in the water — and then climb out and get back on the pier. This went on for four hours. It was pure misery. That first night we heard the air break by the doleful sound of that brass bell ringing through the dark, again and again, each ring indicating that a candidate had quit.
One way they kept us busy during Hell Week was by having us do log runs. Seven of us would lift a huge log — essentially a telephone pole — and heft it up on our shoulders, carrying it while being force-marched at a steady trot, sloshing through the surf, instructors right behind yelling at us. After six miles through the surf line, we put down our telephone pole, drank a little water, then picked the log back up, turned around, and headed back the way we’d come, back six miles… Then dropped the log, grabbed our rubber boat and swung it up onto our heads, and headed the other way again. Another six miles, up and back, and so on, for about eight hours. There was one especially huge log, dubbed Ole Misery by past BUD/S students, that had the words “MISERY LOVES COMPANY” carved into its side. This thing was an evil creature worthy of Stephen King’s pen: One class stole it and tried to torch it, but it refused to burn. It’s probably still there today, torturing each new class of BUD/S students.
As hard as this all sounds, the physical punishment wasn’t the worst of it. It was the psychological torture that broke so many of us and kept that brass bell ringing. We never knew what they were going to pitch at us next. The whole five days were designed to throw us off balance and keep us off balance, and it worked.
On day three they put us in a tent to get some sleep. We laid our weary bones down on thin, uncomfortable cots, but to us, it felt like heaven. We drifted off — until about 50 minutes later when my sleep was interrupted by the most unwelcome sound I’ve ever heard. I don’t know if I had been dreaming or was just immersed in the heaven of inky blackness, but all of a sudden lights were going on and I was hearing a voice shouting at me.
“Up, Webb, time to go hit the surf!”
We had just slipped into REM sleep when they woke us back up to start in on us all over again.
I’ll tell you what it’s like when you have just gone through three solid days of physical punishment around the clock, and then you finally have the chance to get to sleep, only to be yanked out of it again less than an hour later: It’s torture, and that is no figure of speech. In fact, this is one of the most common techniques used in the actual torture of prisoners of war.
I opened my eyes. Guys around me were completely disoriented, jerking upright and staring around desperately, literally not…