Recruited for Navy SEALs, Many Sailors Wind Up Scraping Paint

Things were different before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In those days, sailors were required to train for a regular Navy profession, known as a rate, before they could attempt the SEAL course. Dropouts from the course could return to the rate they had trained for.

But, in 2006, faced with a mandate to drastically expand the SEALs, the Navy began allowing new recruits to go into the course directly. That helped fill the training pipeline, but it also produced thousands of “undesignated sailors” — washed-out SEAL recruits with no rate, eligible only for low-skilled labor.

Sailors who went through the course said that what separated bell-ringers from newly minted SEALs was, at times, little more than luck — whether a wrong step led to a sprained ankle, or if high bacteria counts in the ocean caused sickness. But the reverberations last for years.

Sailors said they knew going into the course that ringing the bell might mean serving out their enlistments in low-skilled work below decks. What they didn’t know, they said, was that they would attempt the course when SEAL instructors were striking students and blocking medical care, and when other sailors were using drugs to get ahead.

Not all bell-ringers end up in work they hate. A spate of suicides in 2016 prompted the Navy to improve the options for them. Many are now trained to become divers, rescue swimmers or explosives experts. But paradoxically, sailors say, the first few to give up in each class have seemed to get the best opportunities, while those who stick it out the longest are left with the dregs.

Many go to new assignments hauling the weight of dashed dreams. They can feel cheated, angry or consumed by blame. In October, a sailor threw himself from the fifth-floor window of his barracks shortly after ringing the bell, according to two military officers with knowledge of the suicide attempt who spoke on condition of anonymity. The sailor lived, but sustained serious injuries.

Members of Congress are now asking whether fundamental changes are needed. In November, Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, who chairs the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel, spent two days in Coronado, Calif., where the course is held. In an interview, she said she was concerned about how some were being treated.

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