A Hellish Day to be Thankful For

I recently conducted a “Hell Day” with six young men who are on the path to attend BUD/S, the Navy SEAL’s 26-week training program. We chronicled the event real time on Instagram and received a great many comments and inquiries. Enough, in fact, that I thought it might be worth a blog post to explain a little more about what we did, why we did it, and what it meant to me.   

Back in October 2019, I conducted a Wim Hof Method Workshop at Motivate Barre in Newburyport, MA. The owner of the studio’s son attended the seminar with two of his friends, all of whom want to be Navy SEALS. I was invited to lunch after the seminar and asked if I would share my experience as a SEAL with the young men and answer any questions they have. I get requests like this fairly regularly and am always humbled and happy to comply.

The young men were predictably courteous, kind, and curious. They also had the fire in their eyes you don’t always see from someone expressing interest in becoming a Navy SEAL. It’s an energy that is relatable only to someone who has felt it before, like I have felt it before. Those same feelings about becoming a Navy SEAL that I had at their age were being played out in front of me. I felt an eerie connection to the young men just from the energy being generated at a late afternoon lunch.

As I listened, I smiled to myself about all of the work they were doing to prepare for the opportunity to attend BUD/S training. Then one of the young men mentioned he and his friends wanted to do a Hell Day but couldn’t really make it happen. Before I could think about what I was about to offer I responded, “I can help you with that. I’d be happy to put you through a Hell Day.”

For those not familiar, “Hell Week” is the most famous part of the Navy SEAL training. Any documentary about the Navy SEALs invariably includes this portion of the training as part of the narrative. Hell Week happens very early in the 26-week training, week four or five if my memory serves. It starts Sunday evening and ends Friday afternoon. Cold, wet, sandy, and sleep deprived are the four consistent elements of Hell Week.

BUD/S training has a 70% attrition rate. Yes, seven out of every ten people who attend BUD/S training will quit. The overwhelming majority of those who quit BUD/S will do so in the weeks leading up to Hell Week and then during Hell Week itself. I don’t know the exact statistics, but I’d say 99% of those who quit BUD/S do so during this time frame, weeks one through five.  

For my part, many years ago I classed up with about 200 other wanna-be Navy SEALS. Before we officially began training as Class 193, they separated us equally and about 100 of us went through what they called “BUD/S Selection”. I was part of the group who went through this ad-hoc experiment in what amounted to nothing more than the first three weeks of BUD/S training…before BUD/S training officially even started. To form, we lost about 70% during that three weeks of unofficial training. BUD/S Class 193 formally classed up with about 130 young men after “BUD/S Selection” was completed.

After three or four weeks of training, and by the time we were ready for Hell Week, BUD/S Class 193 was down to forty men. By the end of Hell Week, we were ten. Essentially, counting the informal “BUD/S selection”, about 190 young men quit the training inside of four weeks. The instructors informed us that they estimated we got about two and a half hours sleep during Class 193 Hell Week. Not two and half hours per night. Two and a half hours total. My best recollection of Hell Week had us awake for over forty-eight hours before we were given some sleep.

So, a “Hell Day” for these motivated young men would minimally involve a day of training that included no sleep. As soon as the words came out of my mouth that I would facilitate a Hell Day for them I had a twinge of regret because I knew that I would also be subjected to 24 hours of no sleep as the “Instructor.”

To form, they jumped at my offer. “Yes, let’s do it!” In an effort to stave this off, I told them to think about it for a couple of weeks and then let me know if they were still interested. I asked them to consider the time it would take from their winter break from school and that it would be conducted in December in New Jersey. I described how a December, East Coast Hell Day, would look. They should expect temperatures in the 30’s, a far cry from what it will look like in Coronado, CA where BUD/S training takes place.

Two weeks to the second later I received a message, “Yes, let’s do it!” Ugh, what had I gotten myself in to!? I knew what needed to go into making a true simulation of a Hell Day. It would take a huge logistical effort, not to mention time. Time to prepare and time to execute. I run my own business with my wife and have three kids six years of age and younger…not to mention three dogs. Time is not exactly something I have in abundance these days.

Most importantly, I could not and would not put them through an event that was not truly representative of a day of Hell Week like they would see at BUD/S. Again, to do this right would take a huge effort. One that, quite frankly, I was not sure I was willing to give. I thought about telling the young men I simply wasn’t able to help out.

As I mulled over both what it would take to execute an effective and realistic Hell Day and how I was going to tell the men I wasn’t able to do it for them, I naturally began to reflect on my days as a young man desperately yearning to be a Navy SEAL. The feeling of want and desire to be a SEAL is as familiar to me today as it was over 25 years ago. It’s inexplainable to someone who has never felt it. It was a feeling I shared with these young men. And yet, I was ready to simply say no to them.

Then I thought about all of the areas of my life where someone went out of their way to help me, give me a kind word, or stick their neck out for me because they believed in me. Those memories overwhelmed me in the most fantastic way. I had forgotten how thankful I was for each of those gestures, both big and small. I had forgotten how they had either gotten me through a tough time or inspired me to something greater. In short…I had forgotten.

I had forgotten the power of giving back. I had forgotten the power of inconveniencing yourself for the cause of someone else. I had forgotten selflessness and being true to your word. I offered something to these young men and was about to flippantly and selfishly renege. I offered to share my experience and knowledge with them. I offered to share a piece of what I knew about something very few people in the world will ever know to some young men who wanted nothing more than that knowledge.

So many people showered praise on me after the event about how awesome I was for doing the Hell Day for the young men. The truth, however, is far different.

I was the one given the gift.

These young men reminded me what being unselfish means. They reminded me the importance of giving back. They reminded me that there is nothing more important than sharing your lessons with others so they can reach a higher plain, whether it be as a Navy SEAL or simply as a human being. They reminded me that the days of taking are long gone.

The young men received what they asked for; A day of hell. There was no motivation or inspirational words provided to them. They were put in unfair positions and then ridiculed and punished for not getting things right. They were encouraged to quit, not to tough it out. This is what they will see at BUD/S, so this is what they needed to see during their Hell Day.

They responded at each miserable turn that day with a maturity and poise that is uncommon for most adults, let alone 17-22-year olds. They adjusted and adapted as necessary and applied their lessons as they went along. By the end of 24 hours they were operating as a team. By the end of 24 hours, they were operating like future Navy SEALS.

To these six young men I say, “Thank you!” Thank you for your commitment to something bigger than yourself. Thank you for your courage to do something 70% of the people who try will fail. Thank you for inspiring confidence that our future generations are ready to do their part and lead.

But, most of all, thank you for reminding me that the spirit of giving back is life’s true blood.

As for their chances of making it through BUD/S training? Well, one thing is for certain when it comes to BUD/S: you can never tell who is going to make it until it’s over. That said, if I had my last dollar to bet…

My money is on them! Hoo-Yah boys go get ‘em!!

Errol Doebler is the founder of Ice Cold Leader, a leadership consulting firm. After successful careers as a Navy SEAL Platoon Commander and FBI Special Agent, Errol founded Ice Cold Leader to realize his passion of empowering great leaders and better human beings. Errol provides executive coachingkeynote speaking, and corporate retreats to individuals and teams across the world.

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