Loaded goes skydiving with Navy SEALs

Navy SEALs are trained to do two things: kill terrorists and rescue hostages.

Navy SEALs winter training
Feel the chill Navy SEALs undertake gruelling winter training. Image Picture Eric S Logsdon/US Navy/Getty

Navy SEALs teams are trained to do two things: kill terrorists and rescue hostages.

Back in 1995, Loaded went on a mission with the military elite to find out just what makes them tick. It all started intensely with four SEALs reciting Dennis Hopper’s iconic speech from Apocalypse Now.

“I mean what are they going to say, man, when he’s gone, huh? ‘Cause he dies, and it dies, man. When it dies, he dies. What are they gonna say about it? What? They gonna say, ‘Hewas a kind man? Hewas awise man? He had plans? He had wisdom? ‘Bullshit, man! Am I gonna be the one that’s gonna set things straight? Look at me! Wrong!”

Revisit our full Navy SEALs feature from the November 1995 issue below.

Words by Bob Drury

Four SEALs, part of the US Navy’s elite Sea Air and Land special forces, recite Dennis Hopper’s soliloquy from Apocalypse Now in unison. It says something about the SEALs that they chose to memorise this loopy creed, rather than the more warrior-like Robert Duvall line from the same film (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”).

It says they’re nuts. And that they like being considered nuts. There are 16 SEALs here, a platoon sliced from SEAL Team Two, based in Little Creek, Virginia. Unlike the Green Berets, who come in a variety of shapes and sizes, all the SEALs sport long sideburns and Popeye forearms grafted onto barrel chests. “Comes from them crazy Squeals shinnying all them anchor chains,” an Army Special Forces NCO told me later.

It is said that only the German Kampfschwimmerkompanie – combat swimmers – can match the SEALs as water fighters. In the words of Marcinko, SEAL teams are small, secretive, and trained to do two things: “Kill terrorists and rescue hostages.”

At San Vito, I notice that SEALs, who tend to be younger than other spec warrriors, travel in herds. Their quarters are stuck out in the boonies, at the rump end of the half-deserted base. SEAL house, they call it. Think Animal House on steroids. With automatic weapons.

The SEALs’ mania for “operational security” is evidenced by their reluctance to reveal their names to strangers, especially reporters. As if to underscore the point, while drinking with a group of Green Berets one night in the base bar, I was approached by a blond SEAL with the angelic face of a high school hall monitor, who warned me, “SEALs don’t much like having pictures of their face taken.” Indeed, they wouldn’t allow themselves to be photographed for this article.

Several nights later, after relations have warmed a bit, I sit in SEAL House, listening to the chorus recite Dennis Hopper’s psychedelic soliloquy and downing long-necks with “Elvis,” “Magua,” “Shooter,” and “Lunger.” “I wouldn’t expect me to get along with the army as well as I do,” offers Elvis, the thickest set of the brawny bunch. He notes, however, that even as we speak the Bosnian Muslim enclave of Bihac is being rocked by Serbian artillery shells. “It’s bad over there, man,” he continues. “I mean, look at Sarajevo.” He shakes his head. “Just unreal.” Elvis tells me he has seen Sarajevo from above. He was with an Air Force spec-ops crew that flew over the city last year aboard an AC-130 Spectre gunship, the armed cousin of the huge C-130 cargo transport.

Navy SEALs night mission
Preparation is everything A SEAL readies himself for a night mission. Image Picture John Moore/Getty

In 1994, Shooter interjects, when the Serbs began ringing Sarajevo with artillery, his platoon commander announced one day at the morning briefing, “We’re going to war tomorrow.” “The next day the platoon stood up, then sat down,” Shooter says.  “Nineteen out of 20 times nothing happens,” Magua says. Langer cuts him off. “We learned a long time ago-we don’t believe it till we’re there.”

Unlike Army Special Forces, SEALs adopt whatever individual weapons conform to their personal tastes. Officially, each member of a 12-man platoon is issued an M-16, with eight to 10 grenade-launchers and four M-60s to go around. But the unit here has gravitated toward MP-5 Heckler and Koch 9mm sub-machine guns, Uzis, even AK-47s.

“SEALs don’t much like having pictures of their face taken.”

At San Vito, Shooter explains, they are training for a variety of contingencies. “Could be we got hostile forces movin’ in on, say, eight UN guys. We extract them.” He smiles. “We can do it. We’re competent on land. Just that the brass doesn’t think so.” The words, testosterone-fuelled, recall a notion that as long as SEALs have water in their canteens, they consider themselves to be in a maritime environment. The SEALs boast they are even trained in “urban terrain fighting.” But they don’t tell much more.

Fifty years ago, the New York Times correspondent CL Sulzberger described the Balkan Slavs as “a race who loved and murdered easily, and had a splendid talent for starting wars”. He might as well have been describing San Vito’s over-eager SEALs.

The half dozen black helmeted SEALs stand out among the forest of 21 Special Forces green hats strapped into the orange can­vas mesh inside the belly of the MC-130 Combat Talon cargo transport. Static-line jump from 1,200 feet. You have not truly experienced flight until you have sat in the dark fuselage of a C-130 and had the “clamshell” yawn open in back. The plane ends in mid-air, leaving a ten-by-ten foot hole where the tail should be.

The afternoon is clear. The snow-capped mountains of Albania glisten on the horizon. The rush of air is sweet, cutting the stagnant cloud of grease, metallic dust, bad breath, and farts inside the packed, overheated fuselage. The MC-130 is not pressurised. As it ascends, various body organs begin to release vile gasses. Aside from me, no one appears to notice. I spot Elijah Murphy, near the front of the plane, nod­ded out. Swooping over the Adriatic at 230 knots, the fuselage is consumed by sound, a steady roar that suffocates like a giant down pil­low. The four Dash-15 turboprop engines expel parallel, 50-foot crown slipstreams that smudge the sky like cigar smoke on pale blue drapes.

US Navy SEALs parachute jump
HALO jump High altitude, low opening. Image Picture James Woods/Getty

A 250-pound cargo crate slides down a track of metal rollers and is catapulted by bungee cords out of the plane’s tail. The clamshell creaks closed, reopens. Another cargo drop, slow speed, 130 knots, 1,200 feet. The maw closes. Reopens. The Air Force crew clears the rollers. With a command from the jump master­ “Stand up! Hook up!” – the first of five drop teams clasps their chute cords onto the static line. Then they step off the back of the plane.

A split-second later, six-olive-green mushroom caps sprout in mid-air over the Italian coastline. Forces can be dropped from higher altitudes – as high as 36,000 feet, called HALO (high altitude/low opening), or HAHO (high altitude/high opening), in which the jumpers free fall to, say 26,000 feet and then open squares (winged chutes) and sail for miles. Today’s exercise is a relatively simple “insertion.”

They are jumping with nothing more than a main chute, emergency chute, water wings and kit bag (to store the rolled chute). “Hollywood jump!” screams Tony Yost, pacing the fuselage, preening for the SEALs. The SEALs call Yost “Chief Running Mouth”. But today’s jump, a qualifier, is indeed Hollywood. As the chutes begin to billow below, the scene looks like something from The Longest Day.

“It’s like going into combat carrying Danny De Vito on your back.”

In either a ‘real world drop’ or ‘full-mission profile’ exercise, each paratrooper-Green Beret and SEAL alike-would be stepping off the end of the C-130 laden with more than 100 pounds of combat gear. This has been described to me as “going into combat carrying Danny De Vito on your back”. Murphy recalls leaving for a 40 mile, two-day training hike and returning-sans ammo, food, or water – with 93 pounds still strapped to his body.

Indeed, the vision of the huge Tony Yost falling from the sky with his 23 pound M-60 and a minimum of 15 pounds of ammo, 18 pound, steel-lined Kevlar flak vest, 11 quarts of water, Baretta 9 mm sidearm, several Claymore mines, entrenching tools, yards of bungee cord, several day’s rations, maps, survival gear (infrared strobe light, infrared pointer, radio, wrist com­pass, knife, fishing gear) load-carrying vest (LCV) equipped with grenades, communications and encrypting equipment, an extra set of fatigues (including poncho), night vision glasses, medical kit, goggles, and a five pound helmet “that feels more like 50 pounds after walking a couple of miles,” and in Yost’s case – a century-old tomahawk presented to him by the elders of his tribe, is truly someone’s worst nightmare.

Maybe his own. For all their training and equipment, everyone here knows how easily things can go wrong in combat. As Staff Sergeant Paul Ivaska, an Alpha Company medic, sums up the jump experience: “Basically, you’re just a pile of shit going out the door.”

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