One of the most memorable moments of my adult life was the day I got cut from SWONEC Division 3. For those of you who don’t know, SWONEC is an acronym for Special Warfare Operations New England Candidates. It is a loose team of guys who train together while they try to earn their contract for one of four schools — Navy Rescue Swimmer, Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD), Special Warfare Craft Crewman (SWCC), or the most famous of the four, Navy SEAL. In order to become part of this brotherhood, you have to first try out. If the existing members think you have the potential to keep up with them, and the officer in charge approves it, then you start training. You are assigned to a boat crew led by a BCL (Boat Crew Leader). This person is usually a top performer that will probably earn his contract soon. He sets the pace and tone of each training session. The officer in charge can also override what the BCL wants to do, and sometimes a workout will be a combination of his preferences mixed with the BCL’s.
I had the privilege of being part of this group of men during the summer of 2011. My tryout came sort of unexpectedly, but the Petty Officer on the phone didn’t give me much of a choice — either I come in to tryout or I will not get another shot. In an effort to give myself a better chance at passing, I drank a little too much black tea and ended up getting a pounding caffeine headache. Not the intended outcome I desired. The tryout consisted of me completing the PFT (Physical Fitness Test) with decent numbers and then surviving that day’s session with the guys. Despite my self-inflicted migraine, I managed to force myself through the entire four plus hour ordeal and earned the respect of the group.
From then on I trained at Hanscom Airforce Base twice per week for 3.5 to 4 hours per training session. The sessions consisted of running, swimming, and calisthenics. They were each broken down into what were referred to as evolutions. Depending on the day, there might have been more emphasis put on one particular area over another. The idea was to take it one evolution at a time. Don’t look at the entire four hour stretch as a whole, but take it piece by piece. We almost always ended our workouts with what I like to call the ‘Circle of Pain’.
It was a punishing mind game designed to reinforce ‘mind over matter’.
It went like this:
About twelve to fifteen of us made a pushup circle around a pullup bar. A pushup circle meant that everyone was in the top part of the pushup (or plank). This was the ‘rest’ position. It was a closed circle with the pullup bar at dead center. One guy started it off by doing one pushup. Then the guy to his left did one and so on and so forth. Once you did your one rep you had to stay in the top part of the pushup as the rep traveled around the circle. After one full circle, when the rep made its way back to the first guy, he did it again and then got up to approach the center to perform one pullup. The one pushup rep continued to make its way around the circle. When he completed the pullup rep, he immediately went back to his spot in the circle. The guy to his left then got up and approached the pullup bar to do the same. Meanwhile the whole time the pushup rep was still going around, so at this point there were two simultaneous one-rep circles happening — the pullup one and the pushup one. The only time you could get out of the pushup position was if it was your turn to get up to do your pullups. The rest of the time you were ‘resting’ in the pushup position.
The pushups continued this way for one rep each time, while the pullups increased by one rep each time a full circle was completed, until we hit the five reps mark. This meant that every guy ended up doing five sets of pullups (1 rep, 2 reps…5 reps). Again, keep in mind though that the one-rep pushup circle was happening for the duration of this entire evolution.
We were only allowed to deviate from the pushup position in one of two ways — either lean to the side and shift your weight onto one arm OR hike your butt up into the air. Under no circumstances could you allow your knees to touch the ground. If your knees even grazed the ground you would get chewed out by the Petty Officer in charge so quickly that you’d be dizzy from all of the loud yelling in your face. Also, if you hiked your butt up, you couldn’t just stay like that. It was only for a few seconds. If you stayed there for too long you’d start getting screamed at.
The first time I did this finishing evolution I didn’t know that your knees couldn’t touch the ground, but I quickly learned my lesson. It never happened again after that.
This whole thing would last about twenty minutes or so — and this was AFTER we had already trained for about 3 to 3.5 hours. Sounds nearly impossible right? Well it borderline was, but that’s where mind over matter comes in. When you are in that circle with a bunch of other guys who are just as hungry as you, you don’t want to be the guy to quit. That hunger forces your mind to override whatever pain and discomfort and muscle failure you might be going through. It’s one of the most powerful learning lessons I’ve ever experienced in my life. It builds a never quit mentality that gets you ready for the actual Special Warfare schools if you make it that far. It’s also extremely useful for so many other areas of life outside of that environment.
I unfortunately — or fortunately depending on how you look at it — did not make it that far. As I told you when I started this particular story, one of my most memorable days as an adult was the day I got cut from this program. The reason for that is because it was also the toughest training session I ever went through. On that day two newer guys quit, but I did not. The reason it was the toughest session ever was because the Petty Officer in charge of our group had already made up his mind before the day even started that it was going to be my last day.
The only thing that would be under MY control was how it would happen.
I had my suspicions when he announced that the day’s training would be almost all water based. Water was my weakness and he knew it. It was the only aspect of training I continued to struggle with and he decided that he was going to break me down in the water to prove his point. His point being that I couldn’t make it because I wasn’t good enough in the water. My suspicions were confirmed within five minutes of the second evolution of that day — drown-proofing exercises in the deep end of the pool. The first evolution was a two mile swim to get us ‘warmed up’. Of course for me it was more than just a warm up. I was already tapped by the time we were done with it and we still had three hours of training to go.
One evolution at a time though. That’s what I was taught. Just make it through this one. Worry about the next one when it comes.
Drown-proofing exercises are mostly physical, but can become very much psychological if you start gasping for air in lieu of following a normal breathing rhythm. Your psyche quickly gets taken over by fear and you tense up. You no longer float with each breath. The ten pound brick you are holding above your head feels like it weighs fifty pounds as you tread water with your legs to hold yourself up. Being in the middle of a dense triangle formation with your shipmates makes you feel claustrophobic. Your chin starts going under. You start swallowing water. You try to catch air through your nose but the water starts covering that too. You hear the sound of the Petty Officer yelling at you from the edge of the pool — This can all be over Dubovic. All you have to do is say ‘I quit!’ — and it’s tempting to do so. Very tempting. BUT you know that it’s all a mind game.
You know that if you quit you will have to live with it for the rest of your life.
You will not let that happen. An ambulance will be there before you utter those words. Your head sinks even deeper and you can no longer breathe…
…then all of a sudden you feel a combination of hands, feet and knees nudging you back above water. Just enough so that you can gasp for some air. It’s your shipmates keeping you afloat. Two or three of them take turns providing slight yanks at your swim trunks, light knee and foot bumps to get you through the next few minutes.
A whistle blows. We all rush to get out of the pool and are ordered into two columns of six men each. Ranger pushups (Google it). Not just reps though. The reps are few. The wait between each one…slow and deliberate. We start by simply staying in the top part of the pushup position. Water dripping off of our shoulders while we struggle to catch our breath. The guy at the front and the guy at the back of one of the two columns are the two newest guys. They have it the easiest. The one in front doesn’t have anyone else’s weight to support and the one in back gets to rest his feet on the floor. The Petty Officer (P.O.) in charge crouches down in between the two columns and begins to give us the generic ‘this program isn’t for everybody’ talk. Every thirty seconds or so he pauses his speech and commands us to go “DOWN!”, then pause, and then “UP!”. We oblige. There is no other choice. About two minutes into this slow torture and the new guy at the back of column one collapses. The P.O. immediately shifts gears from the soft, slow tone of his motivation speech to a loud, commanding voice instructing the weak link to “GET UP!”. The man keeps trying and the P.O. just keeps yelling at him, watching him struggle with no success. After about a minute of this he tells him to unlink himself from the column.
He is done. Not for the day. For good. Have a nice life.
The rest of us suffer through another few minutes of this before we are whistled off back into the deep end for more drown-proofing mixed with dolphin swims.
The remainder of the day’s evolutions continued on similar to this. The P.O. taunting me with promises of how it can all be over if I just quit. Despite his best efforts, he was unsuccessful. I forced him to cut me. At the end of that day’s session he pulled me aside and had ‘the talk’ with me. He told me that I had a lot of heart and that he really didn’t think I was going to make it through the day. He was expecting me to quit and admitted that he had designed the day just for that purpose. That part was already obvious to me, but it was nice to hear him say it. He concluded that unfortunately he didn’t think I’d be able to improve my performance in the water by the time I turned 30 years old (the age cutoff for earning a contract) and therefore he was letting me go. I thanked him, said my my goodbyes and good lucks to the rest of the boat crew, and retreated off to my car. Then I just sat there quietly watching the sun go down for about twenty minutes.
It was the greatest feeling of failure I had ever experienced.
I failed, but at the same time I was victorious. I experienced a powerful life lesson that will stay with me forever. If you give something everything you have and it doesn’t work out, then you can only learn and move on. There is no disappointment. Disappointment can only come from giving up. As long as you don’t quit and keep pushing, you will either succeed or life will steer you in a different direction. In this case, it was probably for the best and in retrospect made sense. I am a pacifist at heart. I probably wouldn’t have made a very good soldier and I didn’t really want to be one. The whole reason I had signed up for this was for the physical and mental challenge of training. For most of these guys the goal was to become either Navy Rescue Swimmer, EOD, SWCC or SEAL. My goal was to prove that I could survive the training. Deep down inside I had no real desire to go on special missions or any of that and my destiny responded correctly in that sense. I have no regrets and I am grateful and appreciative for the life lesson it taught me.
It’s worth noting that there was a secondary takeaway that came to me a little bit later as I thought about the whole experience. It’s that even the hardest worker in the room sometimes shouldn’t be afraid to ask for, or accept, help from others. Were it not for my shipmates keeping me afloat during those drown-proofing exercises, I would have in fact drowned. I was mentally prepared to do so. I probably wouldn’t have died, but dangerously blacked out with water in my lungs was all but certain. Having a good team in your corner is a great resource in life. If you have one, be grateful for them.
Thank you for taking time out of your day to read my thoughts. I appreciate you.
…and remember — NEVER QUIT!