Special-ops veterans feel frustrated about Afghanistan and want answers for the ‘scandal’ that kept them there for 20 years

Afghan flag Pekha Valley Nangarhar Province Afghanistan
An Afghan flag at an observation post in Pekha Valley of Nangarhar Province, October 19, 2017.

  • After 20 years of operations, US forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan.
  • In recent days, the Afghan government has collapsed and the Taliban has swept across the country.
  • The events have frustrated US special-ops veterans, some of whom question why they spent 20 years fighting there.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

After almost 20 years of operations, the US began its withdrawal from Afghanistan earlier this year, precipitating in recent days the fall of the Afghan government and the Taliban’s reconquest of the war-ravaged country.

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, US special-operations forces, alongside members of the US intelligence community, were the first in, partnering with anti-Taliban guerrillas and defeating Al Qaeda and the Taliban after a short campaign.

Throughout two decades of war, special-operations forces were at the tip of the spear, conducting raids, capturing high-value targets, trying to win over the population, and training and advising the Afghan military and police.

As usual, their contribution was disproportionate to their numbers, and they often achieved wonders with a few men. But as the years passed, the US military lost focus on why it was there in the first place.

Why are we here again?

A US Army Special Forces soldier in Afghanistan
A US Army Special Forces soldier on an advising mission in Afghanistan, April 10, 2014.

The US went to Afghanistan with the goal of defeating Al Qaeda and preventing the country from being used as a base for future terrorist attacks against the US.

The Taliban was only relevant as it was hosting of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda fighters. Initially, the US wasn’t planning to do any nation-building.

“After 9/11, we went into Afghanistan after Al Qaeda to ensure they could not use Afghanistan as a staging base and prevent further attacks. For nearly 20 years we have attacked and attacked relentlessly. Additionally, we have funded, equipped, and trained [hundreds of] thousands of Afghans to protect themselves. For this, I am proud,” John Black, a retired Special Forces warrant officer with several deployments to Afghanistan, told Insider.

“I am disappointed in Afghanistan and its failure to be able to secure itself after we told them we were leaving in 2014,” Black said.

US Navy SEALs in Afghanistan
US Navy SEALs discover a cache of weapons during a mission in the Jaji mountains of Afghanistan, February 12, 2002.

Fred Galvin, a retired major and former Marine Raider, told Insider that the “time and sacrifices” of those who fought in Afghanistan were not wasted but that Americans do need to hold to account lawmakers who imposed rules of engagement that “favored the enemy.”

Senior military leadership who promoted an unwinnable hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency strategy should be held accountable too, Galvin said.

Hearts-and-minds strategies involve efforts by one side in a conflict to persuade the local population that it is a better partner than the enemy, often as part of a counterinsurgency campaign.

The US failures in Vietnam and Afghanistan are perhaps the two most well-known examples of such a strategy, but it has seen success elsewhere – by the British against communist rebels in Malaysia and Oman, for example.

“Everyone, EVERYONE knew that would never work, and the officers who ordered the immoral hearts and minds [strategy] – especially those officers who retired and immediately went to board of director memberships at defense firms and coerced their former subordinates they left in the Pentagon to go along with the 20-year spending scandal – need to be exiled to Kandahar,” Galvin added.

Marine Corps Special Operations Command marine sandstorm in Afghanistan
A Marine with Marine Forces Special Operations Command takes cover from a sand storm in Farah province, Afghanistan, February 28, 2010.

After years in Afghanistan, and as an insurgency ravaged Iraq, the US’s goal in Afghanistan shifted from counterterrorism to nation-building, a tough proposition even in a cohesive, “normal” nation, which Afghanistan isn’t.

“Afghanistan is a tribal culture. Therefore few have love of ‘country.’ Their idea of country is lines someone else drew in the sand,” Black said. “It’s impossible to win against an idea or belief. The Taliban and others will continue to spread and hopefully we can look at containment, rather than defeat.”

“We should have left after a few years, leaving behind a small CT [counterterrorism] contingent to deal with any bad guys. We should have also trained only a few number of loyal Afghans, like the commandos and some other special units, and avoid[ed] any nation-building dreams,” a former Navy SEAL officer told Insider.

A sour aftertaste

US Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan
US Special Forces soldiers and Afghan National Interdiction Unit agents board CH-47 helicopters for an operation in Helmand province, September 12, 2016.

The US withdrawal and the rapid collapse of the Afghan military has left many veterans of the conflict wondering what their sacrifices were for. In some cases, they’ve questioned in whose interests their commanders were acting.

Galvin and his MARSOC Fox Company, a Marine special-operations unit, were falsely accused of killing civilians while fighting off an ambush in March 2007. Seven Marine Raiders were prosecuted and ostracized, despite all available evidence indicated they acted within the laws of war, before finally being acquitted years later.

“Afghanistan was the ultimate military scandal fueled by retired generals influencing those in the Pentagon and lawmakers to spend, spend, spend forever,” Galvin told Insider. “America should never forget this, and the people must exercise their freedoms by removing and punishing the military officers and lawmakers who profited through the needless loss of lives, limbs, and trillions of American dollars.”

The killing of Osama bin Laden and degradation of Al Qaeda are often pointed to as important accomplishments in Afghanistan, but that is little consolation for some who fought there, especially as the future now looks dire for Afghans, with the Taliban expected to reverse any progress made over the last 20 years.

US Air Force pararescuemen board US Army CH-47F Chinook helicopter
US Air Force pararescuemen board a US Army CH-47F Chinook after an exercise at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, March 14, 2018.

“It definitely hurts to see the country collapse in such a short amount of time after all the blood, sweat, and tears we shed. I get the arguments that it wasn’t for nothing and that we made Americans safer and the Afghan people better off, at least for a few years, but it just feels bad right now,” the former Navy SEAL officer said.

Other special-operations veterans say it wasn’t all for naught. Black said he would remember his time in Afghanistan “with great love and sadness.”

“I have many trips and built incredible friendships there. My teammates and I fought hard and were very triumphant in battle,” Black added.

While many veterans may be upset or feel that their comrades fought and died for nothing, “that is the wrong way at looking at it,” Black told Insider.

“For nearly 20 years the US and its partnered forces fought tirelessly to help the people of Afghanistan, and for that we can be proud,” Black said. “In the end, we would much rather fight the Taliban in Afghanistan than in our home country. And for nearly 20 years there has not been a major successful attack against the US. We pray for the Afghan people and hope for peace in a war-torn land.”

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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Why real Navy SEALs actually hate the Charlie Sheen movie about Navy SEALs

Navy Seals movie
“Navy Seals.”

  • When it was released in 1990, the movie “Navy Seals” was an action-packed depiction of a little-known unit.
  • Thirty years later, the Navy SEALs are well known, while “Navy Seals” has largely been forgotten.
  • But for some in the SEAL community, the movie is memorable for all the wrong reasons.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In 1990, a military action movie about a not-very-well-known special-operations unit came out.

Starring Charlie Sheen, “Navy Seals” was another attempt by the Navy to attract recruits following the release Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun,” which had caused a recruiting boost a few years before.

Written by a former SEAL Team 6 operator, the film about the Navy’s special-operations troops was full of action and coolness, including direct-action raids, hostage-rescue operations, free-fall parachuting, combat diving from a submarine, and underwater fighting.

Despite its relative success, the film isn’t seen very favorably inside the Naval Special Warfare community. Among Navy SEALs, perceptions of the movie range from a widely inaccurate depiction of life in the SEAL Teams to a black mark on the Naval Special Warfare community’s reputation.

“Let’s just say when it comes to how we do things, the movie depicts a wholly different universe from what actually exists in the Teams. It’s good entertainment but bad reality,” a former Navy SEAL officer told Insider.

“That movie probably fooled more people into signing up for the program than anything else. It was our ‘Top Gun’ moment,” a retired SEAL operator said.

A plot full of everything

Charlie Sheen in "Navy Seals"
Charlie Sheen in “Navy Seals.”

In the film, a small element of Navy SEALs goes after a terrorist leader and his cell, who are responsible for the killing of US service members.

The terrorists have also gotten ahold of several FIM-92 Stinger shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles and threaten to use them to shoot down passenger airliners and commit other terrorist attacks. That was a realistic threat during the 1980s and 1990s, as international terrorism was becoming more common.

As the film progresses, the Navy SEAL team that Charlie Sheen’s character co-leads conducts increasingly difficult operations in the hunt for the terrorists, culminating in a dramatic escape in the waters off Lebanon.

However, despite its Hollywood-style action and drama, the film does a poor job portraying the realities of the Naval Special Warfare community.

“The movie gives the audience the idea that SEALs are cowboys who do whatever they want whenever they want – that there is no accountability whatsoever and that there’s a mission waiting for you every night,” the former SEAL officer said.

Navy Seals movie
“Navy Seals.”

“Fast forward 15-20 years, that might have been the reality, or at least close to reality, for some units, especially at Dam Neck,” the former officer said, referring to Naval Special Warfare Development Group, formerly known as SEAL Team 6.

“That was and is certainly not the average. So you’ve got a whole generation of people who watched the movie thinking SEALs are a bunch of chest-beating cowboys, and that has definitely impacted our image to the outside. People, including some Team guys, think that actual Charlie Sheens exist in the community,” the former SEAL officer added.

The close-quarters combat depicted in the film “is dangerous and unrealistic,” especially the firing from the hip it depicts, which would be “a huge no-go” during hostage rescues, the former SEAL officer added.

Some elements of the movie are true to life. A free-fall parachuting scene was “pretty accurate,” the retired officer said.

“They go through the appropriate pre-jump final checks (although a thorough check is done on the ground), and then the guy who gets a malfunction goes through the correct procedure (cutaway the main chute before pulling the reserve cord),” the former SEAL officer added.

Not-so-special operations

Navy SEALs with AN/PAQ-1 laser M14 rifle
Navy SEALs with an M14 rifle, left, and an AN/PAQ-1 laser target designator, right, during an amphibious demonstration in 1988.

On the whole, however, the movie depicts a level of action that a non-SEAL Team 6 member likely wouldn’t see even in 20 years of service, the retired operator said.

“It’s a recruitment movie, so you want to show people not what the daily stuff is like – you know, [physical training], admin chores, cleaning weapons, picking up brass – but what the cool, high-speed missions you only get to do a few times in your career” are like, depending on which SEAL Team you’re part of, the retired operator added. “But I have to say the hair is on point!”

In the years since, the film became a go-to reference for what other special-operations units claimed was a broken Navy SEAL culture that takes the “special” in special operations too seriously.

That reputation has been bolstered by misconduct and scandals by SEALs in recent years. Naval Special Warfare is still grappling with that as it prepares to for a new role in an era of renewed great-power competition.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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Navy SEAL ‘hell week’ is worse than you’ve heard. Here’s how candidates who make it through recover from it.

Navy SEALs Hell Week training
A Navy SEAL instructor assists Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL students during a Hell Week surf drill, in Coronado, California, April 15, 2003.

  • The “hell week” that awaits Navy SEAL candidates has been widely documented and is well known.
  • What’s rarely discussed is the immediate aftermath of Hell Week and how successful candidates recover from the ordeal.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

For those curious about Hell Week, that fabled and terrible ordeal that all prospective Navy SEALs endure during Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training, there is plenty of information out there in the various forms of media to satiate that desire to experience second-hand a small slice of that infamous week.

There are countless books that discuss it, a fair amount of blog posts and articles that describe it, a handful of podcasts that converse about it, a couple of television documentaries that have documented it, and some scenes in fictional movies and television shows that have attempted to depict the ordeal, usually largely inaccurately (“Lone Survivor” is a rare exception, only because the movie uses actual documentary footage in its opening scenes).

Almost universally, those depictions – both fictional and true – fail to adequately convey to the uninitiated just how terrible and miserable Hell Week truly is.

That includes the articles that this author has written about the subject. It is not always a failing of the authors (surely not!), podcasters, or documentarians (though sometimes it is), but rather, the near-impossibility of translating into words and images Hell Week’s physical discomfort, tiredness, pain, cold, desperation, and meat-grinding churn.

Without making the reader, viewer, or listener feel that hallucination-inducing bone tiredness, that sand-chaffed full-body pain, or that saturated hypothermic cold, one can never really give them a true sense of Hell Week’s insidious nature.

Navy Seal trainees during Hell Week at a beach in Coronado, California in August 2010.

What you do not often find – if ever, in fact – is a discussion of the immediate aftermath of Hell Week.

Most of the depictions end with Hell Week being “secured” (concluded) by the instructors, and then the weary, dazed, struggling BUD/S trainees staggering away into the distance, those still remaining having successfully passed through their terrible crucible. Where do they go? What happens to them? How the hell do they recover and continue through the rest of the training? (Hell Week is in First Phase, and usually around 20 weeks of training remain.)

Have no fear: I am going to tell you. Now, keep in mind, my experience was two-plus decades ago, but little has changed in this regard. I know that because my cousin just finished Hell Week last year.

In fact, not much had changed when I finished in 1999 from when my dad went though it almost 50 years ago. BUD/S is nothing if not consistent in its relentless culling of the not-quite-worthy.

So the slow, limping stagger of that SEAL trainee ends with a quick medical check-up by the on-site medical staff at BUD/S. They essentially want to make sure you are not going to immediately succumb to a flesh-eating bacteria, pneumonia, or some other Hell Week-induced ailment.

If you pass that exam (some do not, and are admitted into the clinic), you are given a whole large pizza and a large bottle of some rehydrating fluid, such as Gatorade or an equivalent. Then you are told that you are confined to your barracks room on base for the next 18-24 hours.

This is so that the staff can keep you on-site in case some medical emergency befalls you in the aftermath of what you just endured.

Navy SEAL BUD/S Hell Week
US Navy SEAL candidates during BUD/S training in Coronado, California, January 23, 2018.

You are also given your first brown t-shirt, stenciled with your last name across the chest. This is a huge deal for a BUD/S student, because it signifies that you have made it through Hell Week.

It differentiates you from the less-worthy and unproven “white shirts” who have yet to pass through it. It is almost unfathomable that you were wearing a tattered and soiled white t-shirt just a short time prior to receiving your brown t-shirt. You are not the same person you once were. You feel that, to your core.

Adorned in that warm and dry symbol of your newly-earned prestige, you take that pizza and drink, and if you are like me, you eat every last bite because you are ravenous, drink as much of the liquid as you can without puking, then you take the hottest shower your body can endure without going into shock (because all of the sudden, it is experiencing warmth again).

Then you call your loved ones for 17 seconds and say “I made it,” after which you fall into your bed and sleep for 18 straight hours, waking only to pee (hopefully), or to take some pain-relief medication because you hurt all over.

If you are like my buddy, Pete, a fellow officer who started and finished BUD/S with me, you don’t even make it through your pizza, or to the shower, before you collapse onto your rack in a coma-like sleep.

Navy SEAL hell week
A sailor in First Phase of BUD/S training recovers during a lunch break, August 18, 2016. This sailor successfully completed “Hell Week,” the previous week.

When I awoke for a pee break at one point, a nagging feeling told me that I should go check on Pete in his room next to mine. I found him, mouth agape, with one leg dangling off the made bed, and the pizza box open on his stomach, with about half the pizza remaining. A line of ants had formed, and was marching up the leg of the bed, onto his pizza, where each ant salvaged what he could, then marched back down the way he had come.

I stared in my post-Hell Week daze, mumbled, “Pete, there are ants on you,” or something similarly inane, and then stumbled back to my bed to fall back asleep.

The next morning, after 18 hours of body and mind-healing REM sleep – despite the trauma-induced sweating and instructor-filled nightmares – I returned to Pete’s room to find him snuggled under his covers, the pizza box out on the front stoop of his barracks room. I was relieved that he too had not been eaten by the ants.

At that point, we were free to leave the BUD/S compound, as we were on most weekends during training. This was Saturday morning. (Hell Week was secured around 1 PM Friday – I think – for our class.)

I had arranged with my Dad prior to Hell Week’s start that we would meet up Saturday morning, if I made it. He had flown into town to be there to see me finish. He took me, Pete, and a couple of other guys who had also made it through the week to the most delicious, filling, glorious breakfast I have ever consumed.

I do not even remember what I ate, but I do know that it was around 10,000 calories of breakfast food and pie at the Coronado Marie Callender’s restaurant. I am pretty sure I experienced explosive diarrhea afterward, but it was so worth it for that meal.

Navy SEAL BUD/S Hell Week
US Navy SEAL candidates during BUD/S training in Coronado, California, April 13, 2018.

The rest of that day and weekend are a blur, but I know I slept a lot more, and limped everywhere I went. I might have seen a movie, and I know I polished my boots and prepped for the next week of training. On Monday, we were right back into BUD/S, barely healed and recovered from Hell Week.

Thankfully, the week following Hell Week at that time focused mostly on classroom instruction in hydrographic reconnaissance.

The instructors still sent us to the surf to get wet and sandy, and generally tormented us, but the physical torture was muted that week. We still spent lots of time in the cold water, shivering and hating it, but we did recover enough physically to go on.

So there you have it, the not-quite-as-glamorous post-Hell Week routine. It ain’t pretty, and it sure as hell was not enough to be completely and fully physically or mentally recovered from the ordeal, but it was enough to allow us to survive the rest of BUD/S, and to graduate.

Just like I cannot adequately convey to you how shitty Hell Week is, nor can I convey the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment one feels in getting through it. You will just have to take my word for it.

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US Navy SEALs are training to fight on land and water in a ‘strategic location’ near Russia

Navy Special Warfare Hungary Danube Budapest
Hungarian special operations forces and Naval Special Warfare operators test Special Operations Craft-Riverine (SOC-R) capabilities in the Danube River in Budapest, May 5, 2021.

  • During the first half of May, US and European special operators teamed up for an exercise across Eastern Europe.
  • The drills were meant to test how conventional and special-operations units would work together in a major conflict.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In early May, the US Special Operations Europe (SOCEUR) conducted its largest annual exercise in conjunction with a smaller one, training with special-operations units from several NATO member and partner countries.

Trojan Footprint 21 and Black Swan 21 are especially pertinent as tensions with Russia in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea are still simmering.

SOCEUR planned both exercises to happen at the same time to simulate a full-blown conflict with Russia ranging from the Baltic states and Scandinavia south to Ukraine and the Black Sea region.

Army Romania Ukraine Special Forces Green Beret
Romanian, Ukrainian, and US Army Green Berets conduct close-quarters-battle training during Trojan Footprint 21 in Romania, May 6, 2021.

US Navy SEALs, Navy Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCCs), Green Berets, and Air Commandos were joined in the exercise by special operators from Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Georgia, Hungary, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Spain, Ukraine, and the UK.

The realistic exercises took place in Romania and across Eastern Europe.

Besides testing the interoperability of different national special-operations units in skill-sets such as close-air support, close-quarters battler, and visit, board, search, and seizure, the two exercises, particularly Trojan Footprint, focused on how conventional and special-operations units would work together in a major conflict with Russia.

Integration between conventional and special-operations troops is essential in a near-peer conflict environment.

Navy SEALs vs. Russia

Navy special operations Croatia Hungary Adriatic
Naval special-operations forces from Croatia, Hungary, and the US conduct maritime training in the Adriatic Sea during the Black Swan 21, May 8, 2021.

In a potential conflict with Russia, Naval Special Warfare units would be extremely valuable for several reasons.

Since the annexation of the peninsula, the Russian military has bolstered its presence in the region, making it a seemingly impenetrable fortress guarding Moscow’s southern flank both from land and air.

In addition to potent radar systems that can track surface vessels hundreds of miles out, Russia has deployed several batteries of the formidable S-400 anti-aircraft system – the same one that caused Turkey to be kicked out of the F-35 program – to Crimea.

Indeed, Moscow has turned the peninsula into a prime example of the anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) concept, which aims to defeat US air and naval supremacy by threatening ships and aircraft with missiles and other weapons and thus preventing them from getting within range.

Air Force MC-130J special operations Albania
A US Air Force MC-130J during low-level flight training over the mountains of Albania, May 4, 2021.

Crimea, however, would be an ideal environment for Naval Special Warfare operations.

SEAL Teams can conduct over-the-beach raids and ambushes, maritime and land special reconnaissance, and underwater special operations, such as placing sensors on the ocean or limpet mines on enemy vessels.

Russian radar installations and A2/AD batteries and command-and-control systems would be a logical target for SEAL platoons.

But SEALs aren’t the only Naval Special Warfare element that could play an important role in a potential conflict with Russia.

An unknown gem

Croatia, Hungary, and the US Navy special operations Adriatic Sea
Naval Special Operations Forces from Croatia, Hungary, and the US conduct maritime training in the Adriatic Sea during the Black Swan 21, May 7, 2021.

Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCC) are one of the smallest special-operations in the US Special Operations Command.

With less than 1,000 commandos – out of about 70,000 special operators in the entire US military – Special Boat Teams specialize in maritime direct-action, special reconnaissance, and infiltration/exfiltration of other special-operations units.

“SWCCs are a perfect fit for a near-peer contingency. We’re such a small community people tend to underestimate our capabilities. But we bring so much to the table. We’re more than the ‘boat guys’ who transport SEALs on target. We can conduct operations unilaterally in both an open-sea and riverine environment,” an active-duty SWCC operator, who was granted anonymity to speak about the unit’s role, told Insider.

There are three Special Boat Teams, two focusing on blue-water, or ocean/sea, operations and one on brown-water, or riverine, operations.

Special operations forces helicopter repel Hungary
Austrian, Croatian, Hungarian, Slovakian, Slovenian, and US special-operations forces during exercise Black Swan 21 in Szolnok, Hungary, May 12, 2021.

They operate several special-operations platforms, including the Combatant Craft Assault (CCA), Combatant Craft Medium (CCM), Combatant Craft Heavy (CCH), which are all geared toward littoral and open-sea operations, and the Special Operations Craft-Riverine (SOC-R), which is essentially a gun platform designed for riverine operations.

“But perhaps our greatest asset is our stealth and firepower. Done correctly, the enemy would never know we were there, or they would be too dead to care,” the SWCC operator added.

Besides clandestinely transporting SEALs to Russian installations in Crimea, SWCCs can be very effective in rivers with the SOC-R. Riverine operations offer some great advantages, namely, speed, firepower, and stealth.

During Black Swan 21, SWCCs honed their riverine skills on the Danube River, Europe’s second-largest, which flows from Germany to the Black Sea and passes through 10 countries.

US special-operations units do have some real-world experience on riverine environments and riverine operations.

Naval Special Warfare SWCC Hungary Danube
Hungarian special-operations forces and Naval Special Warfare operators conduct infiltration and exfiltration training with Special Operations Craft-Riverine (SOC-R) in the Danube River during Black Swan, May 5, 2021.

During counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, Navy SEALs and Rangers sometimes used rivers to their advantage when the improvised explosive device (IED) threat made roads too dangerous.

In a number of operations, SWCCs transported a SEAL or Ranger ground force close to a target by river, where insurgents wouldn’t be waiting for them, to great success as the insurgents were caught unawares.

In the 2012 movie “Act of Valor,” which was sponsored by Naval Special Warfare Command and starred active-duty SEAL and SWCC operators, showcased the utility and advantages of riverine operations during a fictional hostage-rescue scenario.

In the movie, SWCCs clandestinely insert a SEAL squad that rescues the hostage from the terrorist base – located very conveniently right next to a river – and extracts them under fire.

Despite its fictional aspects, the movie shows how riverine special-operations capability can be used to strike very deep behind enemy lines, where an enemy wouldn’t expect it and thus would be less prepared.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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All US special operators train for combat diving, but Navy SEALs take it to another level

Navy SEALs
Navy SEALs.

  • Special-operations units from each US military service branch train to conduct combat diving as a part of their missions.
  • Navy SEALs take that capability further, however, practicing not only to travel through the water but to conduct underwater missions as well.
  • With the military refocusing for a potential conflict in the vast Pacific region, that diving capability is taking on new importance.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Water covers more than 70% of the earth, making maritime operations a must-have capability for any competent military.

Besides having the strongest Navy in the world, the US military possesses potent maritime special-operations resources, with the majority of its special-operations units having some combat diving capability.

Marine Raiders and Reconnaissance Marines have different training pipelines but go through the same dive school in Panama City.

Navy Marine Corps combat diver
A Navy special amphibious reconnaissance corpsman, left, and a reconnaissance Marine in underwater gear during a Marine combat diving course in Okinawa, May 20, 2020

Army Green Berets have dedicated combat diver teams, and some Rangers go through the arduous Special Forces Underwater Operations School in Key West, Florida, one of the most challenging courses in the Army, where even special operators wash out.

Air Force Combat Controllers, Pararescuemen, and Special Reconnaissance operators also go through dive school in Panama City before finishing their own training courses. Those units often send students to the Army’s course.

With some exceptions, such as Special Forces dive teams who teach combat diving to foreign troops, for these units combat diving is primarily an insertion method – a way to the job rather than the job itself.

However, Navy SEAL Teams take maritime special-operations to another level.


Office of Strategic Services OSS frogmen
Office of Strategic Services Special Maritime Unit Group A frogmen on Santa Catalina Island, California, December 1943.

Navy SEALs trace their lineage to the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) of World War II.

These frogmen were tasked with amphibious reconnaissance and clearing beaches before the Marine Corps or the Army landed. They saw action in Normandy during D-Day and in almost every major operation in the Pacific.

Since then, the combat diver capability (or combat swimmer, as SEALs call it) is part of every SEAL’s DNA. SEAL students receive combat diving training during the initial and the advanced portions of the SEAL pipeline.

Aspiring SEALs learn the basics of combat diving during the Second (or Dive) Phase of the six-month Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training course. This portion of the training contains Pool Competence, the pipeline’s second most difficult event after First Phase’s Hell Week.

During Pool Comp, students go through increasingly stressful underwater tests in a monitored environment. The goal is to see if they can follow basic procedures that could save their lives in a real-world operation while under extreme physical and mental stress.

During the SEAL Qualification Training (SQT) course, which comes after BUD/S, aspiring SEALs receive additional and more advanced combat diving training.

Navy SEAL diver
A Navy SEAL assigned to Naval Special Warfare Group 2 during military dive operations in the Gulf of Mexico, October 11, 2018.

The reason for the additional training is that SEALs are the only special-operations unit tasked with underwater special operations, such as placing limpet mines on enemy ships or conducting reconnaissance of an enemy harbor.

One of their better-known underwater missions took place in 1989 during Operation Just Cause. A four-man SEAL element was tasked with sinking Manuel Noriega’s personal boat to prevent the Panamanian dictator’s escape. Despite some resistance from a few vigilant guards, the SEALs were able to plant limpet mines and destroy the vessel.

Although the SEAL Teams’ missions might be different than those of other US special-operations combat diver units, the basic training isn’t.

“Actually, the military’s combat diver communities are all very similar in the curriculums being taught,” a highly seasoned Special Forces combat diver told Insider. “We all fall under SOCOM [US Special Operations Command], and the Navy is the proponent for all diving operations. They approve and monitor tasks being taught at each school.”

“We all use [combat diving] for the same reason – clandestine infiltration using an oxygen rebreather,” the operator said, referring to the MK25 MOD2, made by Dräger.

“[We all] get to work using our fins,” added the operator, who has taught at the Army’s combat diver school and at BUD/S.

A potential conflict in the Pacific is a reason for all services to maintain or even improve their combat diver capabilities. However, there is still a lot to be done on that front, especially for Army special-operations units, where the capability has been neglected to a dangerous extent.

Diving into the future

Army Special Forces combat diver
A combat diver assigned to 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) off the coast of Washington, August 14, 2014.

With the Pentagon focused on great-power competition, maritime special-operations are increasingly relevant and important, and that’s where the SEAL Teams can shine.

“The Teams can do so much in conflict with China,” a former SEAL officer told Insider. “We have the ability to conduct small unit surveillance and reconnaissance during over-the-beach ops; place sensors to aid intelligence gathering, again during over-the-beach ops; train foreign forces (for example, training the Taiwanese in all manner of stuff to balance Chinese capabilities); and also do direct action (an extreme example, but doable if so required).”

Unlike other special-operations units, in the SEAL Teams everyone is combat diver qualified. As a result, there is a vested interest in the capability, both from an operational and budgetary standpoint.

us navy seal submarine delivery vehicle SDV
SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team Two members prepare to launch a SEAL Delivery Vehicle from Los Angeles-class attack sub USS Philadelphia during an exercise.

“Compared to other special-operations commands, NSW [Naval Special Warfare] as a whole will be more relevant in a great-power competition setting, at least in the Pacific, because of the maritime nature of the environment,” a SEAL officer told insider. “We might see platoons diving but not to place a limpet mine on a Chinese warship but a sensor on a ship of interest.”

Aside from traditional combat diving operations, the SEAL Teams also possess the SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) capability.

There are two SDV Teams that are manned by SEALs who undergo even more combat diving training and operate the mini-submarines. Although much of their mission-set is classified, they are known to conduct special reconnaissance and stealthily transport SEALs closer to a target.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (National Service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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