5 Surprising Facts About U.S. Navy SEALs

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The United States Navy SEALs (Sea, Air, Land) have been a premier special operations unit since the Vietnam War. SEAL teams operated extensively in coastal areas and rivers of South Vietnam, earning distinction in the Mekong River delta region where there was heavy enemy activity. Since 9/11, the SEALs have played a vital role in the War on Terror, conducting numerous missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here are five surprising facts about the U.S. Navy Seals.

5. JFK’s ‘Man on the Moon’ Speech Launched the SEALs

John F. Kennedy requested funding for the Navy SEALs and other special ops forces in the same 1961 speech in which he vowed to send an American to the moon.

Photo credit: Department of Defense

President John F. Kennedy gave a famous speech on May 25, 1961 to a special session of the U.S. Congress that came to be known as the “man on the moon” speech. Embedded in the text of the speech was a call for a large increase in funding for “…paramilitary operations and sub-limited or unconventional wars.” This line underscored President Kennedy’s commitment to the military’s nascent special operations community. Kennedy signaled his support of special operations forces when he signed off on the Army Special Forces A-Team’s attempt to wear green berets in violation of existing regulations. As a Navy veteran himself, Kennedy also saw a role for Naval special warfare operators in counterinsurgency missions in the Cold War.


4. SEALs Have an Important Air Component

Navy SEALs have a strong airborne presence.

Photo credit: SSgt Brian Ferguson (US Air Force)

When we think of Navy SEALs, we understandably picture warriors in scuba gear emerging from the surf on a moonless night, speeding up to an enemy ship in a Zodiac boat or fast roping from a hovering helicopter. However, the “A” in SEAL stands for Air and is a vital and often overlooked part of their training and capabilities. One of the more unique ways special ops forces go to war is the HALO, or High Altitude-Low Opening jump. In these high-risk operations, SEALs exit an airplane at 25,000 feet or more and free-fall for several minutes. The sailors open their chutes within 500 feet of the ground. Jumpers can travel as many as 25 miles before reaching the ground.


3. Public Can See SEAL Training at Beaches Near San Diego

The public can see prospective SEALs training on beaches near San Diego.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Eric S. Logsdon

Visitors to the San Diego area can go to Seal Rock at Children’s Beach in La Jolla and see seals frolicking lazily on the sunbaked rocks. The curious can see prospective Navy SEALs in action in the California sun at Imperial Beach on Coronado during SEAL recruit training. Sightseers can watch as squads of sailors struggle at the surf line with inflatable boats, hoist logs overhead and rack up mileage in the warm sand. This is not most people’s idea of a vacation, but for the recruits it is just another day at the beach.


2. SEALs Operate Extensively in Land-Locked Regions

Navy SEALs operate extensively in landlocked areas.

Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Christopher Menzie

Vietnam’s long coastline and extensive network of rivers made SEAL operations a natural part of U.S. counterinsurgency efforts there. Most of the United States’ military operations since then have involved nations with extensive coastlines, major rivers or both. The 1983 intervention on the island of Grenada, for example, offered many opportunities for the SEAL teams to use their amphibious skills. SEALs also participated in Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989, and in 1992 they were deployed in Somalia, where SEALs came ashore in the middle of the night only to be met by the bright lights of camera crews documenting their arrival as security for a United Nations humanitarian effort.

Iraq only has a 58-kilometer-wide outlet to the Persian Gulf, but the nation has the extensive river networks of the Tigris and Euphrates. SEALs have played a major role in actions in that country, especially in securing oil facilities, beaches and waterways, and in reconnaissance missions. Afghanistan is a completely landlocked country, yet SEAL teams have operated continuously in the mountainous country since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. Of course, on May 2, 2011 the SEALs enjoyed their Mount Suribachi moment when members of SEAL Team Six, the ultra-elite counterterrorism unit, raided a Pakistan compound and killed Osama Bin Laden. That raid occurred in the mountain city of Abbottabad, located hundreds of miles from the Arabian Sea. By all accounts, SEALs have made fine use of their air and land warfare skills far from the water.


1. The Washout Rate for SEAL Recruits is Nearly 80 Percent

SEAL training is brutal, and some 80 percent of recruits drop out.

Photo credit: Department of Defense

When a sailor decides he has had enough of the Navy’s Basic Underwater Demolition Course, or SEAL recruit training, all he has to do to make it stop is ring the class bell three times. This happens quite often, as approximately 75 to 85 percent of young men who volunteer to become a SEAL wash out before completing the rigorous program. The BUD/S program is perhaps the toughest training in the world where swimming, rafting, running in the sand and endless calisthenics are just part of your daily routine. Recruits who make it past that stage then must master intensive weapons training, small unit tactics, Scuba and airborne school. Hell Week looms over BUD/S like a shadow. Recruits must endure 132 hours of physical training on the beach and in the surf with four hours of sleep, a grueling test of mental and physical toughness. Those who stick with it join a proud brotherhood of warriors.

Written by

Mike Phelps earned a B.A. in history from the University of Connecticut and an M.A. in military history from Norwich University. He published a book about the War on Terror called A Short History of the Long War.