“Hooyahs” and other screams of motivation pierced the crisp Coronado, Calif., air in the early hours of May 4 at Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Center. The compound’s normally serene night was now a raucous scene as nearly 180 SEAL candidates rushed to their set of Frogman flippers checkered in white paint across a field of blacktop that is the dreaded BUD/S 1st Phase Grinder.
Instructors amplified by megaphones, a light rain falling from hoses, and good, old-fashioned adrenaline fueled prospective special operators through the traditional predawn PT session that signifies the start of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training.
For NSW Center, Class 342’s induction marked the resumption of training for three classes put on pause March 16 out of an abundance of caution due to COVID-19.
“We took a conservative approach to properly assess our student population and establish protocols in order to minimize risk to them during training,” said Capt. Bart Randall, commodore, NSW Center, which had nine classes continue training during the pause and delivered SEAL Qualification Training Class 336 to the Force, April 15.
The decision to restart BUD/S 1st and 2nd Phase, and Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewman (SWCC) Basic Crewman Selection was based on mitigation efforts put in place that follow CDC recommendations and DOD medical professional guidance, Randall said.
Instructors now wear facemasks, gloves, when necessary, and classes are seeing an increased emphasis on practicing social distancing to the greatest extent possible. This includes limiting the amount of students in a classroom and putting methods in place during group training events, like class runs and swims, to ensure adequate physical separation.
Also critical to mitigating the spread of COVID-19 is keeping SEAL and SWCC students in a “closed ecosystem,” said Randall.
This starts for most students when candidates enter the Navy at Recruit Training Command, where they are quarantined for two weeks prior to starting boot camp. The protective bubble carries over to NSW Prep, where students transit to another part of Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill., for the two-month training phase. Those who qualify for the NSW Orientation phase in Coronado are then flown on military aircraft to a military base to protect students from outside exposure.
“I want our students, instructors and staff to have the safest environment possible,” said Randall.
As students continue through their respective pipelines at NSW Center, so do the mitigation policies. Classes perform daily COVID-19 screenings; get to-go meals from the base galley, eating only with their classmates; and sanitize their water bottles daily.
And how do these mitigation efforts impact NSW’s exceptionally high standards?
“We are not going to change the training we have established throughout history of NSW,” said Randall.
There is “total buy-in” on the importance of COVID-19 mitigation efforts from leadership down to the instructors standing on the berm, he said. “The instructors are a few steps back now, they can stand off 10 feet, and, trust me, the students have no problem hearing them.”
Training cadre members also understands the importance of maintaining standards.
“They know they are here to create their future teammates. Our instructors will rotate from here right back to a SEAL platoon, and these young operators will be next to them in formation, downrange, defending our way of life,” said Randall.
Not compromising NSW Center’s high-caliber of training requires balancing risk to mission with risk to the Force.
The nature of many SEAL and SWCC training evolutions means students are going to be close to each other, Randall said. Physical proximity is not only needed for students to complete events. It is essential in developing tight bonds between classmates.
“The relationships developed is like that of a family member,” he said of SEAL and SWCC training. “They help you get to graduation and are later critical to the success of a SEAL or Special Boat Team.”
Still paramount is the health, safety and welfare of everyone involved in the training process, Randall emphasized.
“If any student shows signs of illness, we will pull them from training to be evaluated by medical professionals. We will take care of them and make sure they are healthy before getting them back in the fight,” Randall said.