Mondays usually mean evaluations—pull-ups, sit-ups, push-ups, a three-mile run, 1500-meter fin, underwaters, mask and snorkel recovery, buddy breathing, treading water and then a break for lunch before heading back to the school house and paying the man. All through evals, every time, cadre keeps track of slip-ups from the team, things that would usually get us all dropped. The cones have to hit newer standards each week, and an extra set of iron mikes or 8-counts would only subtract from the maximum effort expected of us. Tick marks accumulate until after the events, which is when the instructors finally get to unload a day’s worth of collected animosity on defenseless trainees.
Today, when cadre pulled the team leader and team commander aside, they came back with nervous smiles.
“Well, it’s ETD. Pack up and get ready for alternates at the Skylark,” Smith said to everyone a little anxiously.
Suddenly motivated, everyone took to their rucks, packed up quick and made for the busses. It’s a twenty-minute ride from the Palo Alto pool to the Skylark back on Lackland, offering plenty of time to either prep for the impending obliteration or let the anticipation eat away at whatever confidence once remained.
One of the cone from balls 001, Grosso, sat next to me towards the front as I tried to muscle down an MRE and some snacks. I was chewing over my food, thinking about how long of a day my team and I were in for. Under my helmet, my ruck on my lap and my dummy rifle resting on the floor by my leg, I tried to stay calm. That’s the name of the game: stay calm.
“You nervous?” Grosso leaned over and asked.
“I’d be an idiot not to be.”
“Yeah, just stay calm and keep your head on straight. It’s nothing anyone of you guys can’t handle. Just take it one event at a time,” he replied.
I looked forward and sat back, trying to let the music from a teammate’s speaker ease the nerves. Down regulating, you know?
By the time the busses passed through the gate and pulled up at the Skylark, we shifted from down regulating the nerves to up regulating into adrenaline mode. We shuffled out ready for the next however many hours of burning lungs waited for us. Before we even made it in to drop off rucks, cadre had us down in the leaning rest position, counting out pushups and throwing loose gear wherever the hell they wanted. That’s all it took to light a fire under our asses.
We lined up our rucks and fumbled to don ABU tops. A five-minute time crunch to prep the pool means uneasy cones hustle every which way, scattering like ants with no distinct pattern but a collective goal in mind.
Needless to say, we missed the timeline, but that’s practically guaranteed. It’s what Cadre wanted. They wanted us on the side of the pool, masks flooded, fins on, hands under our asses, flutter kicking away. They wanted our heart rates jacked up before the underwaters hit.
Before we even lined up on the gunnel, one cone dropped out. The first of many to hold their hand up and their head down, yelling “I quit!” to the sound of the blow horn ringing out.
Underwater, after we’d lined up to make our way across the pool, the muffled sound of the horn wasn’t as abrasive. Of all the things going on—oxygen converting into carbon dioxide, cadre circling above like sharks sniffing out blood in the water, eyeing the slowly nearing crack at the other edge of the pool, pulling harder as the burning sensation grew—the only thing worth focusing on was maintaining a sense of calm.
On the way back from the deep end, when lined up waiting for another iteration, when crunched over on the gunnel ready to fall in, it was always about breathing deep and calm, slow and smooth.
From underwaters, we stepped into dive booties, grabbed snorkels and stacked up for buddy breathing. Rows of four with teams of two formed sitting with legs around backs. Being one of the last to finish underwaters, I brought up the end of the group. Looking for a buddy to share breaths and a snorkel with for two minutes underwater as cadre let loose, I ended up forced to settle with one teammate every other cone avoided.
The trick with buddy breathing is, like every other water con event, to stay calm and focused. Instructors always tell us to focus on the task at hand rather than the discomfort. The advice seems like taunting when they say it, but it’s best in any military training situation to listen to what, rather than how, something is said.
Unfortunately, once the snorkel starts passing back and forth, then the instructor lets loose capping, ripping and whaling, all the effort to remain calm disappears. All anyone wants is a clear breath of dry air, but the only way to ever get it is with a straight snorkel with one end above the water line and the other with an unbroken seal between your teeth.
Smith and I made it through, but just barely.
Cadre lined everyone up again, ready to throw us back in for another round.
“Do not simply expect to survive these events,” one instructor yelled at us. “You have to come into these events ready to crush them. There’s still plenty more to come. Now line up for ten ups!”
Half the remaining cones on one side of the deep end lined up shoulder-to-shoulder in the leaning rest position, the rest on the opposite side, waiting for the deck man to call the pushup cadence. One cone yelled out from across the water, “high siiiide,” in an annoyingly high-pitched soprano. From the opposite end, everyone retorts, “loowww siiiide,” in a bass tessitura.
“Doooowwwn,” yells the deck man as every trainee lowers to a ninety-degree bend in the elbow. “Uupppp. Go Go Go.”
A quick breath out as everyone’s feet shuffle to the edge of the deck and a quick breath in before splashing water leads to a sudden quiet fury underwater. Across the width of the pool to the bottom corner on the other end, each cone scrambles for traction while trying not to kick his teammates in the face.
Up for air, we crawled out and lined back up, trying to breathe slow and smooth again as instructors in the pool threw waves in our faces with shouts for everyone to straighten their backs. Two more slow pushups, then plunging back in. Again, again, each time with one more pushup as heart rates climbed higher, faster, and the stinging sensation in lungs grew more concentrated.
I climbed out fast each time, ready to run from the water, gasping for air. I looked back across the deck to see Fykson being pulled from the water by a flight medic, his face white and the buoyancy compensator fully inflated around his neck. The horn continued to echo across the way as quitting cones hung heads in self-inflicted defeat and exited to their dry ABUs in rucks outside. Fykson pulled the oxygen mask from his face and lined back up with the team, not willing to pull out while the team carried on.
Another breathless travel across the width of the pool and I climbed out ahead of my team. Sadowski hung from the wall, trying to mount the gunnel with lifeless limbs. “Andersen, get me up,” he pleaded.
I reached down, grabbed him by the BC and pulled him out, rolling over onto the deck and squaring up for another round. That’s the way the team works. If anyone falls short, two more come in—despite tiring motivation—to pick up the slack without hesitation.
“Alright, line up for buddy breathing,” the deck man bellowed out.
“Fuck, again?” every cone thought internally.
This time around, I paired up with Hulbert, thinking he had the cool head ready to tackle the situation. Below the surface, with a dive mask wrapped around the mouth and PJ instructors throwing you around, no one stayed calm this time around. Cadre capped the snorkel every two out of three breaths, offering a chance at air every twenty seconds or so. When nervous hands kink the shared plastic tube the only time hope for a breath passes by, the last glimmer of hope flies out the window. I popped twice, Hulbert a couple times.
Accordingly, we both had to go again. This time, they paired me with Hamilton, who was far from relaxed. Wide-eyed and already breathing heavy, he linked arms with me and we submerged. Not even thirty seconds in, he broke grip and popped. I tried my best to stay underwater without my buddy, passing my snorkel to myself, but a broken grip alone is grounds for failure. After trying again a couple times to link up, we were sent to the corner to await instruction.
“You’re receiving a failure to train,” the deck man said to us.
“Hooyah, Sergeant,” I replied with resentment.
“If you don’t pass this time, I have no choice but to pull you from the team. Get back in there and pass or you’re no longer trainees.”
I convinced myself it wasn’t my fault, that my buddies blue-falconed me and I was more than capable of passing this time around. In reality, any trainee should be able to pass with any partner, but this kind of thinking is what I needed to muster up the confidence to charge into this challenge.
I linked up with another new buddy, Ajila, and swam out to a different proctor. We held tight, stayed close and passed fast for two minutes until cadre tapped our heads and sent us off to our gear. Red, chlorinated eyes looked around bewildered in a haze, but we made it through. It’s funny how the threat of failure, and the close relationship between failure and a life of regret, can lead to the strength enough to grip tighter and hold faster.
Another hundred flutter kicks with fins on the ide of the gunnel, then we lined up for over-and-backs. Just like ten-ups, but without the pushups and wearing fins, lined up in the water as close together as possible. When cadre calls the green light, everyone fights for a place on the wall to push off and streamline towards the other end. It seemed more like a game of sharks and minnows from simpler times with the swim team, but not everyone fighting to make it through had the same outlook. To stay out of the way as most fought tooth and claw to make it across, I stayed streamlined and narrow, out of everyone else’s way, content to wait my turn.
From cross-overs we moved to a full 25-meter mask and snorkel recovery. After completing five underwaters with the ABU top and BC, one more underwater didn’t seem impossible. Make it across, smooth out the straps, clear the mask, snorkel in mouth, ascend, “hooyah, sergeant I feel fine,” and back to the gear.
Water con would usually end there, but the deck man obviously wanted to keep us longer. We buddied up again, counted off and lined up to carry each other across the pool. Fifty-meter buddy carries, competing against each other for the right to exit the water. After an exhausting session, a simple task like this turned into an arduous struggle with restricted breathing. Anderson and I missed our first chance to exit the water, but claimed the spot our second time around.
As the others continued to pull each other back and forth, cadre lined us up for a couple hundred air-squats on the side of the pool. We counted out quietly, watching each other’s reflections in the glass wall, keeping a subdued chuckle behind controlled grins.
Back outside, clear of the chlorine for the day, we dressed hurriedly under the Texas sunset and loaded onto the bus for a tired, triumphant ride back to the schoolhouse. We blared music, patting ourselves on the back for making it through the first test. We scarfed high calorie snacks and tried to figure what trial lie ahead.
Far from finished, we cones repacked rucks outside under the awning, adding four MREs for the night’s caloric intake, enough diving weights to reach the minimum capacity for a seven mile ruck and glow sticks on the front and rear to ensure accountability in the lightless night.
After an hour on the pavement, trying to stretch out, eat and prep for the ruck, the pace man stepped out and we lined up in two column formation. Follow the fence, stay ahead of the pace man, turn around at the checkpoint and don’t stop for the 15-minute/mile pace with a fifty-pound ruck. It seemed simple enough.
“If you’re behind me, you’re wrong!” the pace man called out.
I started a light jog, moved towards the front and eventually linked up with Deckard. Despite stinging shins and creaking hips under the continuous, shaking weight of the ruck, we kept the jogging pace for the first three or four miles. A sense of distance dissipates in the dark as sweat starts dripping from a ballistic helmet. The only distance that mattered was that stretching out between the pace man and me.
At the checkpoint, we stopped to hydrate, checked our time with the Senior and split up. I chased after the lead on my own at a slower pace with soaking wet combat boots.
Alone in the night, trudging onward towards an invisible finish line, I started to feel the shoulder straps digging in and waist straps rubbing raw on my hips. The only thing to do, the only option and the quickest path to relief, waited forward, ahead somewhere over the next hill. I came in third out of the group, an hour-and-a-half in after seven miles.
Only one more cone quit at that event.
I unrucked next to Dinsmore and Rick, aired out my feet, changed my socks and loaded up on calories. Every chance to try and relax was taken advantage of. We capitalized on any small comforts available: muscle rollers, moleskin, baby powder, and shitty, morbid jokes.
After our brief reprieve, we strapped back up with sore necks and aching shoulders for the next trial: jerry cans. One mile from the obstacle course to the schoolhouse with full rucks and fifty-pound gas cans in each hand. We lined up as usual, and the instructor started his watch.
Mazur, the 210-pound soccer playing outdoorsman took off and never looked back while the rest of us had to stop every 50 yards to ease the tension in our forearms and fingers.
Deckard and I leapfrogged through the parking lot. I’d find a checkpoint up ahead and refused to stop until I hit it. He’d catch me just as I picked back up and carried on. Rick kept the same pace, leap-frogging with Deckard.
Leg strength wasn’t the challenge. Holding on with cramping forearms presented the worst of the troubles. The trick, we soon found out, was to move as fast as possible in between breaks. The faster we crossed, the less time we had to hold the jerry cans. Just outside the schoolhouse we lost the luxury of landmarks. The only thing to do was sprint until we couldn’t, stop, and start all over again.
I dropped my cans across the finish line second for my class.
“Way to put out,” said the instructor recording times.
I could have been happy had I not been so focused on dropping my ruck and rushing to take a seat on the ground. As the rest of the team trickled in, I ran to the classroom with an MRE, filled my Gatorade bottle and sat down in depleted liberation.
We stretched, ate, hydrated and filled out paperwork as cadre gathered in the camper outside to plot the next challenges. By the time everyone started to recover, an instructor came in to direct us.
“Grab your running shoes and form up in two groups,” he ordered.
By this point, most of the team started growing irritable. We argued outside with sarcastic jabs about which group the faster runners should join, but it didn’t matter once the two instructors came out to take us for a run. Two miles at a six-thirty pace shouldn’t usually take so much effort for special operations candidates, but the day’s tribulations were stacking up fast. Fatigue was setting in.
Somehow, only one trainee fell out during the run, but he caught back up by the time we sprinted back into the schoolhouse. We walked in a circle to cool down as the instructor told us to form up down below the schoolhouse for grass and gorillas.
Groans, grunts, chuckles, none of it mattered. We still had plenty coming our way.
Down in the grass, six wide and six deep, formed up for tumbling PT, we went to attention as the instructor crossed the trough. Across the way, some of the pre-team trainees hosed down the mud hill, greasing it over for us to rub it up and down in a low-crawl caress.
But first, time for some up downs, fireman carries, crab-walks, front and back rolls and springing pushups. By this point, sheer exhaustion started to tease the psyche with the alluring thought of sweet sleep. The only thing to keep people moving was the light at the end of the tunnel. If we made it this far, and were 19 hours in, how much more could there really be?
By the time we started crawling up the hill, any thought of backing out faded away. Cadre made sure no part of our bodies stayed clean of mud. A front crawl up, then a bear crawl back down. A backwards low crawl up, then a bear crawl back down. Face in the mud all the way. As the instructor ran inside to grab a camera, I noticed ants biting my wrists, neck, waist and legs. The stinging didn’t matter, all we had to do was cover head to toe in mud, leave no space uncovered other than our eyes, and form up for a muddy group photo.
After the flash snapped off, the instructor gave us the go ahead to run to the creek and clean off. Dirty, cold, creek water never seemed so refreshing. We submerged and scrubbed away what we could before running back across the field.
The orders were to change into dry ABUs and head to the classroom. But, by this point, we had no clean ABUs left. I dressed in one pair of dry trousers and the chlorine soaked top from water con, then jogged in to the classroom without boots.
Inside, the long-sought blue ascots were displayed on the desks. The instructor told us to stand, so as not to soil the clean office chairs. He spoke for a while about the value of these ascots, what they represent, and what a PJ’s job really entails.
“Anytime, anyplace. That’s when we’re ready and that’s what the job demands of us…. So, needless to say, you’re not done for the day.”
One more task, at least that’s what we assumed. The Mogadishu Mile—where teams of seven carry a litter and a patient for a mile at a time—is meant to commemorate the battle of Mogadishu, in which special forces had to run through a combat zone for an hour without any vehicular cover. There’s no time to stop, to rest, to refuel, to recover. All you can do is press on and deal with the circumstances with full effort.
I dropped the litter once while changing hands with a teammate, but cadre didn’t seem to notice. We picked up quick and continued to try and take the lead. We set down the litter at the finish line and waited for the next instruction. One lap, one mile, and the rain continued to fall.
Everyone left by this point could have kept on till the morning, and Cadre new that. They yelled for us to march back to the classroom once again.
“Alright, no jokes this time, there’s no more events for the night. You’ve made it.”
We were relieved, but new the night was far from complete.
As the instructors were about to explain, we still had to clean our team gear, wash our laundry, re-tape all our equipment and be ready for the next day’s training.
The Master Sergeant continued to reiterate with a fat dip in that we had yet to achieve anything, that we weren’t PJs yet and that the pipeline had yet to start with four weeks of indoc still to make it through.
Marching back in the rain after 21 hours of training, dripping wet, 12 cones down with a full load of team gear, it turned into every man for himself. We bolted and came back together in the laundry room, where everyone stripped down and threw everything into shared washing machines.
It took hours to clean everything up. Teamwork came through once again though. All the prior trainees and the pre-team guys came together to clean our team gear while we worked on personal equipment. In fact, all those guys took care of us from the moment we learned was starting. They prepped our gear. They cleaned the pool deck. They guided the washouts. They refilled our water bottles. They had pizza waiting for us back at the dorms. They reassured us before and after every event.
In the end, the team—those who stayed and what was left of them—pulled each other through. When personal motivation waned, we turned to one another, not to ask for help, but to offer it.
I taped until 0600, teammates falling asleep in their chairs around me, then called it a night. With just under two hours of shuteye, we headed out the next morning for another training day.