Interrogation

A Death in the Military’s Most Controversial Elite “Training”

A 24-year-old man died hours after he completed the course. Not everyone is so sure the process is broken.

Navy SEAL training in California.
Navy SEAL training in California. U.S. Navy/Getty Images

The third week of the Navy SEALs’ Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, or BUD/S, is nicknamed “Hell Week” for a reason. Hopeful Navy SEALs go through an agonizing process designed for sailors to find their maximum pain and exhaustion threshold, and break through it. On its website, the Navy SEALs proudly boast that most people fail the test. Kyle Mullen, a 24-year-old from New Jersey, was one of the less than 10 percent to make it through to the end of the course in January. He ended it with lungs full of fluid, coughing up blood. Afterward, Navy instructors told him to go lie down. He died on the floor of his barracks within hours.

Advertisement

Dave Philipps last week published an investigation into the death and what led up to it in the New York Times. He interviewed Mullen’s mother, who blames the instructors (“They say it’s training, but it’s torture,” she told him. “They killed him”). He reported excruciating details about Mullen’s last week alive, his final moments, and the controversy after investigators found performance-enhancing drugs in his car. I spoke to Philipps over the phone about the culture surrounding Hell Week and what Mullen’s story tells us about the inner workings of the most difficult and painful process in the American military. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Aymann Ismail: How did you first encounter Kyle Mullen’s story?

Advertisement

Dave Philipps: When a Navy SEAL trainee dies, they have to release a press release. I knew that it was probably lying, because it said like, “This guy died in the barracks right after they had done Hell Week’s training. There were no injuries or anything in training. To be determined, we’ll get back to you.” They treated it like a mystery. But this guy died right after the hardest part of all this training in the barracks. Something happened here.

Can you talk to me about reporting this piece—how do you get these men to open up to you?

I didn’t mean to end up writing about the military. My parents were Ivy-educated hippies who had moved to Colorado in an orange VW bus. They were the furthest thing from the military possible. But I grew up outside of a really big Army base in Colorado called Fort Carson. And probably half the kids in my school had parents who went to work in combat boots. The military was what somebody’s mom and dad did for work. So, I approach it that way.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

One of the things I learned really quickly is the front door is not a good way to report. In this BUD/S selection course, the statistic they’re most proud of is only 25 percent of people who show up make it through. The vast majority quit. I was like, “Oh, the vast majority quit! They’re not SEALs, but they were there.” That’s a heck of a lot of people who have a pretty good idea of the dynamic there is, and probably have reason to talk because maybe they felt like they weren’t treated very well. So, that’s really the angle I started working. It’s just a mass attack on these former candidates and reaching out to them cold. My failure rate on that approach is really, really, really high—95 percent, if not more. But you don’t need that many to get a beachhead. If I can get one or two guys and talk, not only is that really good firsthand information about what happened, but if I talk to someone for two hours, I have a much higher success rate with someone they know than I do with a cold call. So slowly, piece by piece, you build this landscape where you can figure out what happens. Bit by bit, I get enough to tell a story.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Can you describe “Hell Week” to me? What does this training actually involve?

I think it’s important to not call this “training.” They’re not training you to do anything. The BUD/S selection course is just to weed people out, and figure out who can take how much suffering. It’s exercise-induced suffering—physical pain from carrying heavy things, discomfort from being repeatedly put into cold water and then roll around on the sand on the beach, not given enough sleep—just to see who are you left with in the end. And in the end, you have taught them no new skills. You’ve just gotten rid of a bunch of people. And many of those people, by the way, haven’t quit because they’re like, “Wow, this is hard.” They’ve quit because they’ve sprained their neck or they’ve broken their leg or they have heat stroke or they have something called rhabdomyolysis, which is essentially your muscles work so hard that little bits and pieces of them flood into your blood and overwhelm your liver’s capability to clean the blood because it’s so clogged up with dead muscle tissue. Hell Week is essentially five days with almost no sleep—I think they get a total of five hours of sleep. And during that time, you’re pretty much kept moving all the times doing various physical tests, whether that’s running or paddling inflatable boats out into the surf or nighttime swims or carrying heavy logs, just one thing after another with no rest. And usually by the end of that, they’ve weeded out everybody that they want to weed out. In Kyle Mullen’s class, they started with 210 sailors. They finished Hell Week with 20. And in the next class they finished only with 10. The whole point of this phase is to find your safety barrier and push through to find out what you can really do. They view it as this crucible where SEALs are forged.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Nobody offered Mullen help, even though he was “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,” as you wrote. You also reported that “the instructors and medics conducting the course, perhaps out of admiration for his grit, did not stop him.” Did you talk to any of those men directly?

I wasn’t able to talk to any of the instructors that specifically were in charge of Mullen’s class, but I talked to people who were BUD/S instructors. And I knew enough background to generalize the dynamic. They have a deep respect for this process because they think it reveals something really important and they don’t want to interfere with it. If someone’s still slogging forward, and they say, “Yeah, I’m good,” the last thing they want to do is say, “Whoa, buddy, we think you’ve had enough.” They definitely do that at times, but I think that Kyle Mullen was a really well-liked high performer in the first three weeks. So, just because in those last couple days before his death he started having problems, no one wanted to be like, “Hey, you’re out, dude, we’re taking you to the hospital. You can’t finish that week. You won’t be a SEAL.” They were all pulling for him.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Where the safety valve should have been was on the medical side. There’s a reason that you have medics there who are specifically not SEALs watching everything. But I think they’ve all drank the Kool-Aid. They’re surrounded by SEALs all the time. These guys are really charismatic people, and it’s easy to fall under their spell. So, maybe medical didn’t perform its role right or felt that what its role was had over time changed and morphed until everyone standing there saw no problem with what happened. BUD/S is so sacred, and this process of suffering and grit is so sacred, that no one wants to step in and be like, “This is crazy, you’re going to hurt people.” I bet if either of us hung out there for a year or two watching students go in, we would adopt the same thinking.

Advertisement
Advertisement

You reported some SEALs privately talk about the death during this training as a “cost of doing business.” Can you walk me through that logic, and what you think motivates it?

I encountered that a lot. I talked to a lot of SEALs that I really respect, both current and non-active-duty SEALs. I said, “Hey, I’m going to write about this death and the things that happened. Is BUD/S just too hard?” Not one of them said to me, “Yeah, BUD/S is too hard, we need to dial it back.” They all said to me, “Dude, the stuff that we do, it needs to be really hard. We need to have that really rigorous selection process.” My gut tells me they think keeping it at a level where a death is possible will save you from having deaths later. Keeping things at such a high level will produce operational SEALs that will be safer and more effective in combat. Is that true or not? I don’t know. But that is a widely held perception.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Now, when I tell them more details about how this kid was essentially told to go lie down after Hell Week even though it was obvious he was in really bad shape, they all think that’s crazy. None of them are like, “Oh, well, what are you going to do?” They’re like, “Jesus, we need to fix medical care there.”

Did you get the impression many or most of them thought something went wrong here?

The instructors blamed the medical staff: We got them through there, and then they just let them die. They view this death as an aberration because they’d never had anyone die after finishing BUD/S before. They’ve had plenty of people hospitalized, and maybe the mistake was they didn’t hospitalize this guy, but they’d never had anyone die. Then, they found drugs, and they’re like, “Oh, that’s probably why he died. So, they were able to wash their hands of it and say, “This isn’t our fault; it’s because he chose to do something against the rules.” I should say that we don’t know one way or another how drug use influenced his death. I always try to be really careful with that. I don’t know what medical thinks about it. I’m astounded that no one’s been fired for how they treated or didn’t treat this guy. But I think that that’s probably where the biggest fault lies. The family can’t sue because the military is completely shielded by federal law. So, there’s no recourse against those guys. But hopefully, they’ll do something internally.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

There is a national dialogue underway about the “decline of masculinity,” and the end of the all-American man and real grit and so on. Did you see an undercurrent of that in your conversations? How did it factor in, if at all?

Certainly, one of the things that probably motivates young men to be SEALs is it’s the manliest effing thing you can do. It probably feels really great to push through this and become a SEAL. And that’s totally based on really old ideas of what it is to be a man. The world of Navy SEALs is a very hetero male world. There are no female Navy SEALs, and I don’t know of any openly gay Navy SEALs either, not to say they aren’t there. But if it is there, it’s pretty quiet. There is definitely an old-school type of male competitiveness there. Everyone’s trying to measure up to everyone else ,which is really tough, because you’re in a room full of top performers. And so, that can certainly be toxic. I don’t know if that’s what killed Kyle Mullen. But do they hurl insults at each other all the time that if you can’t make the grade you’re a pussy or a woman or something like that? Absolutely. And that happens in the instructor cadre too. They just have their little area there that’s very old school and very masculine and they want to keep it that way. I think that the SEALs are concerned about any modern value assault on their SEAL values. Could that soften their culture? They think this is really important. They don’t want anything to interfere with their ability to kill the enemy. Period.

Advertisement
Advertisement

It attracts certain people who want to see if they can do the hardest thing. And so, there’s never any shortage of people who want to become Navy SEALs. You and I type for a living. I don’t think we’re made of the same stuff as those guys. I wrote a book about the SEALs that came out a year ago. And I got to know a lot of guys really closely in the process. They’re also extremely great people. Very humble. If you met them in any sort of casual circumstance, you would never guess that they’re Navy SEALs. But yeah, underneath the hood, they’ve got something special, for sure.

Advertisement
Advertisement

I thought about Edward Gallagher when reading this story, and you’ve reported extensively about him in your book and the Times, about how upset some SEALs were that other SEALs would have testified against him. Do you see these two stories connected at all? Is there a struggle for the future of the SEALs within the SEALs?

Advertisement

One of the things that I kept finding when I was writing about Eddie Gallagher was this culture of corruption. Everyone’s got a little dirt on you, and so no one can stand up and accuse someone else of something because they’re all a little guilty. Whether it was some drug use or that night that they all went out and got whores even though that guy’s married—everyone’s got dirt on everybody else. And so, there were a lot of people that never stood up and said anything about Gallagher. The assumption was that he had compromising counter-material on them.

One of the things that was interesting to me about the Mullen’s story was the drug use. It seemed to me that by not testing for drugs in the training pipeline and allowing this culture of performance-enhancing drug use to flourish, they were letting that type of Edward Gallagher situation take hold in the very earliest parts of a SEAL’s career. You’re all compromised. You’re all cheaters. You all have to have each other’s back. Because if you don’t, someone else has dirt on you. And where does it go from there? Look, it’s a really, really hard job, and you need really exceptional people to do it. I’m not saying it’s easy. But man, if you’re selecting for cheaters, you’re handicapping yourself before you even start.

Advertisement