Howard E. Wasdin was 21 and newly married when he enlisted in the Navy. He had planned to return to college. Instead, he embarked in an extraordinary career, becoming a SEAL (the Navy’s elite sea, air, and land fighter) and ultimately joining the legendary SEAL Team Six — which, Wasdin writes, is “tasked with counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, occasionally working with the CIA.”
Wasdin is the first SEAL Team Six sniper ever to tell his story. Here, in an excerpt from his bestselling memoir, he describes his training.
Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training began with a physical screening test at the NavySpecial Warfare Center in Coronado, California. We swam and did push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups, and a run. One guy failed; he hung his head as the instructors sent him packing.
That evening, SEAL instructor Lieutenant Moore* told us we could quit if we wanted to by walking outside and ringing the bell three times.
I thought he was bluffing, but some of my classmates rang the bell.
One of our first training evolutions included the obstacle course (O-course). One night, a SEAL might have to exit a submerged submarine, scale a cliff, hump through enemy territory, scale a three-story building, do his deed, and get the hell out. The O-course has broken more than one trainee.
When my turn came, I took off like a cruise missile. Partway through, I noticed someone stuck behind me on the three-story tower.
There stood Mike, who had played football at the University of Alabama, tears of frustration streaming down his face. Instructor Stoneclam yelled, “You can run up and down a football field, but you can’t get to the top of one obstacle. You sissy!” (Mike eventually became an outstanding SEAL officer.)
A number of the “racehorses” were the biggest crybabies. They’d probably been No. 1 much of their lives, and now when they had their first taste of adversity — BUD/S style — they couldn’t handle it.
Instructor Blah’s jungle boot stepped on a 13-foot-long black inflatable boat resting on our classroom floor. “This is the IBS. Some people call it the Itty-Bitty Ship, and you’ll probably have your own pet names, but the Navy calls it the Inflatable Boat, Small. You will man it with six to eight men who are about the same height.”
He drew a primitive picture of the beach, the ocean, and stick men in the water. “This is you guys after a wave has wiped you out.”
He drew a stick man on the beach. “This is one of you after the ocean spit you out. Guess what. The next thing the ocean is going to spit out is the boat. Now the 170-pound IBS is full of water and weighs about as much as a small car, and it’s coming right at you. What are you going to do? Try to outrun it? Of course not. You’re going to run parallel to the beach. Some of you look sleepy. All of you drop and push ’em out!”
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After push-ups and more instruction, we went outside and stood by our boats. Bulky orange life jackets covered our battle dress uniforms. “Ones in!” our boat leader called.
Our two front men jumped into the boat and started paddling.
I ran in water almost up to my knees.
Two more jumped in and started paddling.
I jumped in with the man across from me, and we paddled. In front of us, a seven-foot wave formed. I saw another boat clear it. We weren’t so lucky. As the ocean swallowed us, I realized, This could kill me.
Fear has a way of turning Einsteins into amoebas.
Eventually, the ocean spit us out onto the beach along with most of the other crews. The instructors greeted us by “dropping” us. With our boots on the boats and our hands in the sand, we did push-ups.
Then we went at it again — with more motivation and better teamwork. This time, we cleared the breakers.
Back on shore, a boyish-faced trainee picked up his paddle off the beach. As he turned to face the ocean, a passengerless boat raced at him.
Instructor Blah shouted into the megaphone, “Get out of there!”
Boy-Face ran away from the boat, just like the instructors told us not to. Fear has a way of turning Einsteins into amoebas.
“Run parallel to the beach! Run parallel to the beach!”
Boy-Face continued to try to outrun the boat. It sped out of the water and hacked Boy-Face down, breaking his leg at the thighbone.
Later, instead of landing our boats on the sand under the sun, we’d land on boulders at night while ocean currents cut at us from two directions. Legend had it that the boulders used to be one rock before BUD/S trainees cracked it with their heads.
The sun lay buried in the horizon as we marched double time through the base. The tension in the air was thick.
We arrived at the pool and stripped down to our swim shorts. An instructor said, “You are going to love this. Drown-proofing is one of my favorites. Sink or swim, sweet peas.”
I tied my feet together, and my swim partner tied my hands behind my back.
“When I give the command, the bound men will hop into the deep end of the pool,” Instructor Stoneclam said. “You must bob up and down 20 times, float for five minutes, swim to the shallow end, turn around without touching the bottom, swim back to the deep end, do a forward and backward somersault underwater, and retrieve a face mask from the bottom of the pool with your teeth.”
Although I did my duty, others didn’t. A skinny redhead jumped in the water, but instead of swimming straight, he swam in a horseshoe. The instructors found out later that Redhead was almost blind. He had forged his medical records to get to BUD/S.
After three weeks of indoctrination, we began First Phase, Basic Conditioning. Our class continued to shrink. Woe to the trainee who let the pain show. An instructor would say, “You didn’t like that? Well, do some more.” Likewise to the trainee who showed no pain. “You liked that? Here’s another kick in the crotch.”
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The hardest part for me was the four-mile timed runs on the beach wearing long pants and jungle boots. After I failed one run by seconds, I was sent with four or five others to form a goon squad. I knew this was going to suck. We ran sprints up and down the sand berm, jumped into the cold water, and then rolled in the sand until our wet bodies looked like sugar cookies. Sand found its way into my eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. We did all manner of acrobatic tortures until the sand rubbed our wet skin raw and nearly every muscle in our bodies broke down. It was my first goon squad — and the only one I ever needed. I may die on the next timed run, but I ain’t doin’ this again.
One thing sucked more than the runs: Hell Week. It began late Sunday night with what is called breakout. M-60 machine guns blasted the air. We crawled out of the barracks as an instructor screamed, “Move, move, move!”
Outside on an asphalt-covered area the size of a small parking lot, artillery simulators exploded. A machine pumped fog. Green chem lights decorated the outer perimeter. Water hoses sprayed us. The smell of cordite hung in the air. Over the loudspeakers blasted AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.”
Terror covered the faces of many guys. Minutes into it, the bell started ringing — people quit. I thought, You can’t be serious. Yeah, instructors are running around shooting machine guns, but no one has smacked me in the face. My tough childhood [with an adoptive father who beat him] had prepared me for this moment. More than physically, I knew that mentally, I had mastered pain and hard work, and I knew I could master more.
One legendary Hell Week event began on a steel pier. We took off our boots and stuffed our socks and belts in them. Wearing our uniforms, we jumped into the bay with no life jackets. I immediately lay out in a dead man’s float. When I needed air, I’d bring my face out of the freezing water for a quick bite of oxygen, then resume my face-down position. When I started to sink, I kicked a couple of strokes. Then I pulled off my trousers and tied the ends of the legs together with a square knot, grabbed hold of the waist, and kicked until my body straightened. I lifted my pants in the air, then slammed them forward and down on the water, trapping air in the trouser legs. As my upper body hung over the valley in the V of my homemade trouser flotation device, I felt relief. I had been so concerned about drowning that I had forgotten how frigid the water felt. Now that I wasn’t drowning, I started to remember.
Some of our guys swam back to the pier. Ring, ring, ring.
Instructor Stoneclam said, “If one more of you rings the bell, the rest of you can come out of the water too. Inside the ambulance we have warm blankets and a thermos of hot coffee.”
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After one more ring, Stoneclam said, “Everybody out of the water!”
We crawled onto the steel pier.
Instructor Stoneclam said, “Strip down to your undershorts and lie on the pier. If you don’t have shorts, your birthday suit is even better.”
I stripped down to my birthday suit and lay down. The instructors had prepared the pier by spraying it with water. Mother Nature had prepared the pier by blowing cool wind across it. I felt like I was lying on a block of ice. Then the instructors sprayed us with cold water. Our muscles contracted wildly. The spasms were uncontrollable.
We were in the early stages of hypothermia. I would’ve done almost anything to get warm. Mike said, “Sorry, man, I gotta pee.”
“It’s okay, man. Pee here.”
He urinated on my hands.
“Oh, thanks, buddy.” The warmth felt so good.
Most people think it’s gross — they’ve never been really cold.
Wednesday night — halfway through Hell Week — was the one time I thought about quitting. We had to paddle our inflatable boat about 250 yards to pylons, turn the boat upside down, then right side up, paddle back to shore, run half a mile, toss our paddles into the back of a truck, sit in the bay to form a human centipede, hand-paddle 400 yards, run 600 yards, grab our paddles and use them to centipede-paddle 400 yards, grab our boats, and boat-paddle out to the pylons, then back to shore. We all looked like we had stage two hypothermia. Stage one is mild to strong shivering with numb hands — most people have experienced this. Stage two is violent shivering with mild confusion and stumbling. In stage three, the core body temperature drops below 90 degrees, and shivering stops. There is no stage four — only death.
No SEAL has ever been held as a prisoner of war. Even when we’re outnumbered and outgunned, we still tend to think we have a chance to make it out alive.
It was standing room only at the bell. The instructors had backed up ambulances and opened the doors. Inside sat my former classmates wrapped in blankets and drinking hot chocolate. Instructor Stoneclam said, “Come here, Wasdin. You’re married, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Instructor Stoneclam.” My muscles felt too exhausted to move, but they shivered violently anyway.
“You don’t need this. Come here.” He walked me to the backs of the ambulances so I could feel their warm air. “Have a cup of this hot chocolate.”
I held it in my hand.
“If we’d wanted you to have a wife, we would’ve issued you one,” he explained. “Go over there and ring that damn bell.”
I looked at the bell. Then I caught myself. “Hooyah, Instructor Stoneclam.” I gave him back his hot chocolate.
“Get back with your class.”
Handing him back that cup of hot chocolate was the hardest thing I’d ever done.
Thursday night, we’d had three to four hours total sleep since Sunday evening. The dream world started to mix with the real world, and we hallucinated. In the chow hall, an instructor said, “Wasdin, I want you to take this butter knife and kill that deer in the corner.”
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Slowly rising from my oatmeal daze, I looked over, and sure as hell, there was a buck in the chow hall. I stalked up on it with my Rambo knife and got ready to make my death leap.
Instructor Stoneclam yelled, “Wasdin, what are you doing?”
“Getting ready to kill this buck.”
“Look, that’s a tray table. It’s what they haul trays in and out of the kitchen with.”
What the …?
“Just sit your dumb ass down and finish eating.”
The instructors had a big laugh.
On Friday, we sat in the frigid ocean with our arms linked, trying to stay together. Instructor Stoneclam stood on the beach talking to our backs. “This is the sorriest class we’ve ever seen. We have just received permission from Captain Bailey to extend Hell Week one more day.”
Somebody said he wasn’t going to do an extra day. He’d rather quit. Fortunately, he didn’t have to. “Turn around and look at me when I’m talking to you!” Instructor Stoneclam said.
Like a platoon of zombies, we turned about-face.
There stood our commanding officer, Captain Larry Bailey. “Congratulations, men. I am securing Hell Week.”
Some men jumped for joy — I was hurting too bad for that. One man had walking pneumonia and went directly to the infirmary. They screened the rest of us. Some of the guys had infections deep inside the skin from cuts. Others had damaged the bands of tissue over their pelvis, hips, and knees. All of us were swollen. The next day, I rolled over the top of my bunk and jumped off the way I always did, but my legs weren’t working. My face hit the deck, giving me a bloody nose and lip. I tried to call my wife collect, to let her know I’d made it through Hell Week, but when the operator came on, my voice wasn’t working. It took hours for it to return.
BUD/S prepared us to believe we can accomplish the mission — and to never surrender. No SEAL has ever been held as a prisoner of war. Even when we’re outnumbered and outgunned, we still tend to think we have a chance to make it out alive — and be home in time for dinner.
Nevertheless, sometimes a SEAL must make a choice between fighting to the death and surrendering. For many brave warriors, it’s better to roll the dice on surrendering in order to live to fight another day — SEALs have incredible respect for those POWs. As SEALs, though, we believe surrender would be giving in, and giving in is never an option. I wouldn’t want to be used as some political bargaining chip against the United States. I wouldn’t want to die in a cage of starvation or have my head cut off for some video to be shown around the world on the Internet. My attitude is, If the enemy wants to kill me, they’ll have to kill me now.
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Wasdin served in Operation Desert Storm. Then, at 30, he applied for a spot on the elite — and secretive — SEAL Team Six. After six months of the daunting “selection course,” he was chosen for SEAL Team Six’s red team — and was determined to go even further.
Now I belonged to a “cover” organization with an official commander, address, and secretary. Nobody breathed SEAL Team Six.
So if, for instance, I was applying for a credit card, I gave out the information for my cover organization. I showed up to work in civilian clothes rather than a uniform.
Although I was the new guy, I had my eyes on the next challenge: becoming a sniper. In 1992, my team allowed me and “Casanova” to train at Marine Corps Base Quantico, in Virginia. The first day of the ten-week course, a few men failed the physical fitness test and were sent home.
The next day, we sat in a cinder block building with blacked-out windows. A gunny sergeant stood in front of us. “A sniper has two missions,” he said. “The first is to support combat operations by delivering precision fire on selected targets from concealed positions. His second mission, which will take up much of the sniper’s time, is observation. Gathering information.”
Out on the range, Casanova and I alternated between spotter and shooter. A lot of guys failed the range. They just couldn’t shoot well enough.
We also did field sketches. The instructors took us out and said, “Draw the area from the left wood line to the water tower on the right. You’ve got 30 minutes.” We drew as many important details as we could, in perspective. On the bottom, we wrote what we saw. The instructors graded us for neatness, accuracy, and intelligence value. Later, we would have only 15 minutes.
We played Keep in Memory (KIM) games. The instructor would pull back a tarp on a table and expose a dozen small items. In 10 to 15 seconds, we had to memorize everything. Then we went into the classroom and drew the items. Finally, we had to verbally describe them.
Those who succeeded entered the stalking phase. We learned to make our own ghillie suits and camouflage our M-49 scope, binoculars, and other gear. The location of each stalk varied, and we had to change our color schemes and textures to blend in.
The closer a sniper gets to the target, the more slowly he moves. At two miles away, the sniper stalks smoothly and quickly from cover to cover for a mile. He becomes stealthier for the next half mile. Within the last half mile, the sniper’s movement becomes painstakingly careful — crawling low to the ground.
In training, if the Observer spotted us with his scope before we got within 200 yards, we got only 40 points out of 100 — failure.
Upon reaching 200 yards of the Observer, we had to fire a blank at him. If snipers couldn’t properly ID the Observer, give correct windage or elevation, or shoot from a stable platform, we scored 60 points — failure. If we could do all of that but the Observer spotted the muzzle blast, we’d get 70 points — a minimum pass.
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If the Observer didn’t see the shot, a Walker in the field shouted to the area where he believed the sniper to be, “Fire the second shot!”
Most people got busted because the Observer saw brush movement on the second shot. Eighty points.
The final part of the stalk was to see if the sniper could observe a signal from the Observer. “Target is patting himself on the head,” I said.
The Walker radioed the Observer, “Sniper says you’re patting yourself on the head.”
“Yep, good stalk. Go to the bus.” One hundred points. We needed at least two perfect stalks out of ten, and at least 70 percent overall, to pass.
Regardless of how well we did, we still had to pass the final three-day op. Under cover of night, Casanova and I made our sniper hide. First, we dug down four to six inches, carefully removed topsoil and grass, and laid it to the side. Next, we dug a pit six by six feet wide and five feet deep. At the bottom, Casanova and I dug a sump to drain any rainwater and for any unwanted grenades. Then we cleared an area where we could rest our elbows. After that, we covered our hole with logs, rain ponchos, rocks, dirt, and the sod we had placed to the side. Finally, we created a rear exit hole, camouflaging it with fallen tree branches. Inside the exit hole, we placed a claymore mine to welcome any guests.
We kept a log of everything that went on at the target area, a house in the middle of nowhere. A patrol walked over us but couldn’t see us. At one-hour intervals, Casanova and I alternated between spotting and sniping. We ate, slept, and relieved ourselves in the hole. The hard part was keeping one of us awake while the other slept. At night, we had to get out and look at the back of the house. Listening to our radio at the designated time, we heard: “The man in the red hat will appear at 0200 on November 8. Take him out.” A man with a blue hat showed up. Wrong target.
Before the op, Casanova and I had prepared a range card, shaped like a protractor, of the target area. We divided the card into three sectors: A, B, and C. Using prearranged arm and hand signals, Casanova motioned that our target had arrived in Sector B, 1200 on a clock face, 500 yards away.
I acknowledged with a thumbs-up. My crosshairs rested on the chest of the mannequin with a red hat standing in front of a window. If I missed, I wouldn’t graduate. I calmly squeezed the trigger. Bull’s-eye.
Back at the schoolhouse, Casanova and I gave a brief about what we saw on the way in and on the way out and when we saw it, using photographs and sketches. When the major told us, “You two gave an excellent brief,” we breathed a sigh of relief. One Marine was an excellent marksman, but he and his partner were caught sleeping at the same time. Their briefing showed no delivery skills. If a sniper can’t communicate, his information is useless. He and his partner failed.
Dressed in our battle dress uniforms, those of us who passed had an informal graduation. One at a time, our names were called to receive the diploma and the patch our class had designed: a skull with a hood and sniper crosshairs in the right eye — silver on black.
The script on the bottom read: The decision is mine.
Less than a year after graduation, Wasdin nearly had his legs blown off in an attempt to kill a Somalian warlord. He was awarded the Silver Star and medically retired in 1995. He went back to school and became a chiropractor. He has a clinic in Jesup, Georgia.
*Some names, places, times, and tactics have been changed or omitted in order to protect operators and their missions.
SEAL TEAM SIX: MEMOIRS OF AN ELITE NAVY SEAL SNIPER, BY HOWARD E. WASDIN AND STEPHEN TEMPLIN, COPYRIGHT © 2011 BY HOWARD E. WASDIN AND STEPHEN TEMPLIN, IS PUBLISHED AT $26.99 BY ST. MARTIN’S PRESS, 175 FIFTH AVENUE, NEW YORK, NY 10010.