August 2, 2007
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Three years ago, Aaron Brown was among the first United States Marine Corps grunts to punch into the Iraqi city of Fallujah in what would prove to be one of the bloodiest battles of the war in Iraq.
After several weeks of dodging bullets, RPG fire and improvised explosive devices, you’d think Brown would be content to take a breather in a desk job.
As an encore, Brown decided to submit himself to one of the world’s most grueling tryouts to become part of the elite Navy SEAL (Sea, Air and Land) fighting force. Brown — the son of Swift House Inn owners Dan and Michelle Brown — recently ran the gauntlet through months of rigorous SEAL training, including the infamous “hell week” that usually claims scores of candidates.
“It was miserable,” Brown said of the training, which included long runs — sometimes with a colleague in a boat on top of your head — along with extended periods of time in the water. “You’re cold, wet and sandy the whole time.”
Still, Brown had wanted to become a SEAL since he was eight years old. It was only when he didn’t get one of the few, coveted “billets” for SEAL training that he enlisted in the USMC after graduating from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in 2001.
“My next choice was to be a Marine,” Brown said. “I wanted to be in combat.”
After serving in the Philippines, Japan and Korea, Brown got his wish to be in a combat zone — in Iraq. As executive officer of Charlie Co., 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, Brown led a group of 138 soldiers whose ranks were thinned by more than 60 percent during some of the fiercest fighting in the Iraq war.
But instead of easing out of the service upon his return stateside, Brown recommitted himself to his original goal of becoming a SEAL.
He applied for, and received, a billet to be considered for the state-of-the-art fighting force, and began his training in Coronado, Calif., near San Diego, in September of 2005.
“It is touted as the world’s hardest military training,” Brown said. “I had just come out of Fallujah and then went right back into a training environment where they just beat the crap out of you. It was interesting.”
Brown and the 120 other members of his class entered a three-phased program called “BUDS (Basis Underwater Demolition SEAL).” The first, seven-week phase was what Brown jokingly referred to as the “beat-down.”
“It’s about physical conditioning, and the culmination of it all is ‘hell week,’” Brown said.
He described hell week as “five continuous days of running around,” with one of the exercises involving walking around in the water with a boat, containing up to five men, on top of your head. The aspiring SEALs also underwent a nighttime drill known as “surf torture,” during which the candidates line up along the beach, link arms, and forward march into the surf. When they are thigh-high in the water, they are asked to “take a seat,” then lie completely flat, with arms still linked, allowing the water to push them around.
“It does nothing but demoralize you and make you completely cold and borderline hypothermic,” Brown said.
As an added “treat,” the SEAL instructors sometimes add a special wrinkle to “surf torture” — “surf laundry,” where candidates are ordered to take off articles of clothing while they are being pushed around by the ocean.
“I got two hours of sleep in five days,” Brown recalled. “Needless to say, that was absolutely miserable.”
While “hell week” was tough and at times seemingly sadistic, Brown realized the meaning behind it. The SEALs want to make sure soldiers in their ranks have the mental and physical endurance to withstand the harshest elements during the challenging missions to which they could be assigned.
“They tell you hell week is training for combat — well, I did combat first and then did hell week,” Brown said with a smile. “I thought, ‘OK, at least they’re not going to kill me.’”
Only 50 of Brown’s 120 class colleagues survived hell week.
He noted instructors do not cut any recruits any slack — even combat veterans like Brown.
“There is never any encouragement,” Brown said.
If anything, the instructors try to goad the SEAL candidates into failure. During their training, the aspiring SEALS must go through weekly, timed swims and runs. They must improve on their times for each event during each succeeding week — or else.
“If you don’t, they’ll make sure that you pay,” Brown said. “You get an hour-long session of ‘extra BUDS.’ They’ll make you miserable for the day.”
Fortunately, Brown always improved his times. As the officer in charge of his class, Brown felt an even bigger responsibility to persevere through the training, even though he tore muscle between his ribs during BUDS.
Phases two and three of the SEALs training involved diving and land warfare drills, respectively. While hell week was over, the candidates still persevered through long hours of grueling physical activity, through which instructors would again show them no mercy. Part of their marksmanship training took place on San Clemente Island, where instructors warned “no one can hear you scream.”
13 of 120 graduated
Only 13 of Brown’s original class of 120 made the cut for graduation ceremonies last October, when he received the coveted trident insignia worn by SEALs. Brown is proud of his accomplishment and what he has been able to endure.
“Mentally, it was never an issue,” he said of his confidence in making it through SEAL training.
Upon graduation, Brown was assigned to SEAL Team 5, based near San Diego. He has already served his first seven-month stint abroad, divided between the Philippines and Afghanistan.
As a SEAL, Brown knows that he can be deployed anywhere in the world, inserted behind enemy lines to carry out vital reconnaissance for military operations. While he said the Marines are called upon to deliver “sledgehammer” blows during military operations, SEALs are asked to conduct more “surgical” strikes.
“(SEALs) go in, conduct an operation and get out,” Brown said.
While the SEALs have what Brown called “amazing firepower” at their disposal, the biggest weapon they have is a radio.
He’s looking forward to the next phase of his career.
“Being a SEAL was the only job I ever wanted,” Brown said. “I was too stubborn to think of anything else.”