America’s special operators, from the Army’s Green Berets and Rangers to the Air Force’s Combat Controllers, Special Reconnaissance, and Para-Rescue to the Marine Corps Raiders and the Navy’s SEAL Teams, are all unique.
They have different selection, assessment, and training criteria. But the tenets of each unit are remarkably similar. They want physically fit, self-confident operators who can think on their feet under incredibly stressful conditions and will never, ever quit.
The Navy’s SEALs are probably the most well-known of any of America’s special warriors. In the past two or so decades, they’ve been the subject of countless books, films, television shows, and news stories. In fact, Hollywood is currently preparing to tell the story of another SEAL hero who gave his life to protect his countrymen and team members.
While SEAL Teams can operate anywhere, from desert environments, jungles, mountains, and even Arctic terrain, the SEAL’s (which stands for Sea, Air, and Land Teams) primary mission is that of maritime. They come from and return to the sea.
History of the Navy’s SEAL Teams
The Navy’s SEAL legacy, like the Army’s Special Forces, stems from the bloody fighting of World War II. With the U.S. island-hopping campaign across the Pacific against the Japanese highlighted the need to reconnoiter and clear beach obstacles as well as reefs, the Navy began the Frogman program.
These large-scale amphibious operations were new, and the military was learning on the job. The Frogmen turned into the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT). These and the Maritime Unit of the OSS are the forerunners of today’s SEAL Teams. They cleared beaches across the Pacific and in France for the Normandy (D-Day) invasion.
Korean War and Airborne Insertion Techniques of the 1950s
Underwater Demolition Teams in Korea fought throughout the conflict, especially clearing the way for the landings at Inchon in 1950. As early as 1951, UDT officers were convinced that airborne operations should be incorporated into UDT training.
After selected teams attended the Army’s jump school at Ft. Benning, it would later become a regular occurrence to see SEALs mixed among the Army’s troops during jump training. In 1959, UDTs joined the 77th (later the 7th) Special Forces Group for advanced airborne training and would reciprocate with SCUBA training for the Green Berets.
It began a long fruitful partnership with Army Special Forces that would continue when the UDTs transitioned into SEAL Teams.
SEALS and Special Forces also had a close relationship in Okinawa, training in airborne operations and various SCUBA techniques.
These relationships would serve both units well in the upcoming war in Vietnam.
The “Men With Green Faces” in Vietnam
SEALs were sent to Vietnam in 1962 to train with and fight alongside our South Vietnamese allies.
SEAL platoons, usually operating autonomously from SEAL Teams One and Two, carried out day and night ambushes, hit-and-run raids, reconnaissance patrols, and special intelligence collection operations. The Viet Cong called them the “men with green faces” because of the face camouflage they used.
SEALS and Special Forces were part of the Military Assistance Command – Vietnam, Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) and often just shortened to SOG. The casualty rates for SOG personnel were over 100 percent.
In all, 46 SEALS died in service during the Vietnam War. Three SEALS, Lieutenant Bob Kerrey, Lieutenant Tom Norris, and EM2 Mike Thornton, were awarded the Medal of Honor during the war.
SEAL Teams From Grenada to the GWOT
SEAL platoons served with distinction during the invasion of Grenada (Operation Urgent Fury), the operation to oust Panamian dictator Manuel Noriega (Operation Just Cause), and the First Gulf War.
As part of the new Special Operations Command (SOCOM), all of the special forces units in the U.S., as well as our allied partner nations, worked together under a joint unified command that ensured joint interoperability during the Global War on Terror (GWOT) after 9/11. SEALs brought the war to the terrorists from the seas to the mountains of Afghanistan to the arid land in Iraq.
In April of 2009, SEALs rescued Captain Phillips of the freighter ship Maersk Alabama.
In May of 2011, the CIA pinpointed the location of al-Qaeda head Usama bin Laden in a large house in Pakistan. Members of SEAL Team Six (DEVGRU) conducted a raid deep inside of Pakistan, eliminated bin Laden and several of his followers, and exfilled back to Afghanistan without a loss of their own.
SEAL Training … Not For the Faint of Heart
The training to become a Navy SEAL is long and tough; the SEALs like to say that theirs is the toughest training for any special operator in the U.S. military.
The first gate for candidate SEALs is the famous BUD/S training that encompasses 24 weeks of intense physical activity. During “Hell Week”, candidates are kept awake for nearly the entire 5 ½ days of training, where they are cold, wet, and exhausted. This is the area where most of the DORs (drop on request) occur. After that, potential SEALs must complete the Combat Diving and Land Warfare phases of training.
From there, a further 27 weeks of training, which includes Jump School and then SEAL Qualification Training, ensues. At the end of it, successful candidates will receive the coveted SEAL Trident and then be assigned to a SEAL platoon.
The graduation numbers, however, are a small percentage of those who volunteer. As one of the “truths” of all the special forces, “SOF can’t be mass produced.”
SEAL medics, like their Special Forces counterparts, are arguably the most valued members of each platoon. As with other units in the SOCOM community, SEALs often operate far from conventional support. And SEAL medics are the lifeline for U.S. and host nation partner forces.
SEALs used to attend the Army’s Special Forces Medical Sergeants’ Course, but now have their own outstanding training, the Tactical Combat Critical Care (TCCC) and Prolonged Field Care (PFC) training under the auspices of the Tactical Medical Cell (TMC).
All SEALs and SWCC operators must complete the Special Operations Tactical Medic (SOTM) course. SOTM is a 28-week course that consists of four phases. The course covers everything and anything related to TCCC and PFC, including IV Therapy, Dive Medicine, Prehospital Trauma Life Support (PHTLS), and Trauma, Airway, and Patient Assessment.
From the small teams of frogmen and UDTs of WWII, Navy SEALs continue to serve our nations interests in all four corners of the globe. As their motto says, “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday.”
Steve Balestrieri is a 1945 National Security Columnist. He served as a US Army Special Forces NCO, and Warrant Officer before injuries forced his early separation. In addition to writing for 19fortyfive.com and other military news organizations, he has covered the NFL for PatsFans.com for over 11 years. His work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers in Massachusetts.