WASHINGTON (AP) — The Navy SEALs’ training program has been plagued by widespread failures in medical care, poor supervision and the use of performance-enhancing drugs that have increased the risk of injury and death for those aspiring to become elite commandos. an investigation sparked by the sailor’s death last year.
Medical surveillance and care were “poorly organized, poorly integrated and poorly directed, and placed candidates at significant risk,” concluded the nearly 200-page report compiled by the Naval Education and Training Command.
The highly critical report said the deficiencies in the medical program had “probably the most direct impact on the health and well-being of SEAL candidates” and “particularly” on dead sailor Kyle Mullen. It said that if the defects had been corrected, his death could have been prevented.
The investigation also dug deep into the long-standing problem of sailors using steroids and similar banned drugs as they try to pass SEAL qualification training. The report recommends much more robust drug testing — a move the Navy and military more broadly have been slow to implement — and better education for service members to prevent their use.
Mullen collapsed and died of acute pneumonia hours after completing the grueling Hell Week trial last year. A report released in October by Naval Special Warfare Command said Mullen, 24, of Manalapan, New Jersey, died “in the line of duty, not as a result of his misconduct.”
It said there was no evidence of performance-enhancing drugs, but he had an enlarged heart that contributed to his death. The report said, however, that he failed to test for certain steroids because the required blood and urine samples were not available, and that several vials of the drugs and syringes were later found in his car.
His death shed light on the brutal ordeal that pushes SEAL candidates to their limits. During the five-and-a-half-day test, which includes underwater demolition and survival and other combat tactics, sailors are allowed to sleep just twice, for just two hours each. It tests physical, mental and psychological strength along with leadership skills and is so grueling that at least 50%-60% don’t complete it.
Navy leaders have conducted multiple reviews and investigations in the wake of his death, and this latest report makes a series of lengthy recommendations for changes in medical care personnel and training, as well as drug testing.
Rear Adm. Keith Davids, who heads Naval Special Warfare Command, said the Navy will learn from the tragedy and is already taking steps to prevent it from happening again.
“Our effectiveness as the Navy’s maritime special operations force requires demanding, high-risk training,” Davids said in a statement. “Although rigorous and intensely demanding, our training must be conducted with an unwavering commitment to safety and methodical precision.”
He said the command will “honor the memory of Seaman Mullen by ensuring that the legacy of our fallen teammate guides us toward the best possible training program for our future Navy SEALs.”
US Congressman Chris Smith said the investigation “revealed a culture in need of radical change, and the Navy has given every indication that it will make major changes to fix a deeply flawed command structure and the failure that followed. a failure that led to Kyle’s death.”
Smith was briefed on the investigation Thursday by Mullen’s mother, Regina, a registered nurse, who vowed to work to force changes so it doesn’t happen to another family.
“Looking at the continuing colossal failures, there needs to be serious accountability,” he said. “The next phase of reporting is where I’m focused.”
The command has already taken steps to overhaul procedures, increase medical staff and improve their training, especially for heart and respiratory problems that are common during Hell Week. Commanders are also doing more drug testing and heart screening.
The latest report notes that special operations forces are typically required to conduct high-risk military operations and thus require demanding training. But that said, SEAL instructors in recent years seem to have focused on removing candidates rather than teaching or training. Compounding that problem, the report said, is that candidates were often reluctant to seek medical attention because it would be debilitating and could get them kicked out of the course or delay their completion. According to the Navy, about 888 SEAL candidates are considered each year, and the goal is to graduate 175.
“The ability to continue training despite anxiety and a somewhat compromised physical condition was seen as a positive trait by faculty and understood by candidates,” the report said.
As a result, candidates carried on and did not tell medical staff or supervisors about their injuries, and were pressured to use drugs to help them continue.
The use of performance-enhancing drugs has been a persistent problem. Investigations into suspected steroid use by SEAL candidates in 2011, 2013 and 2018 led to discipline and enhanced testing requirements.
The use of hair follicle testing has been rejected by Navy leaders at least twice during that time. Random steroid testing was not authorized by the Department of Defense. The Navy has asked the department to investigate the testing and authorize random drug tests and sweeps, but those requests have not been approved by the Pentagon. In the wake of Mullen’s death, however, the command began some additional testing.
A new report, however, suggests there may have been mixed messages to the candidates. In one instance, during a policy discussion with Mullen’s class, an instructor, who has not been identified, was said to have told the sailors that all kinds of people pass the course, including “steroid monkeys and skinny tough guys. Don’t use PEDS, it’s a scam and you don’t need them. And whatever you do, don’t get caught with them in your barracks room.”
After an “awkward silence,” the instructor added, the report said. “It was a joke.” It said some candidates interpreted it as an implicit endorsement of drug use. The barracks are subject to routine inspections, which the report said were done once a week during Mullen’s class, and cited several instances where drugs were found or sailors admitted to using them.
According to the report, Mullen told her mother that she was considering buying some performance-enhancing drugs “because she didn’t want to be at a disadvantage because so many other candidates were taking PEDS.” It said his mother encouraged him not to. The report details that in addition to the drugs in his car, there were text messages on his phone discussing their use and attempts to buy them.
The report concluded that Mullen’s death was not “unforeseen,” noting that candidates had 11 visits for pneumonia in 2021 and early 2022, and there were 112 visits for other similar problems.
Three Navy officers received administrative “non-punitive” letters as a result of Mullen’s death. Navy Capt. Brian Drechsler, who commanded the Naval Special Warfare Center, received a letter and was fired this month. The commander of Naval Special Warfare Basic Training Command, Capt. Brad Geary, and an unnamed senior medical officer also received letters. The report never names the paramedic, but does mention a number of concerns about his command.
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