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A Growth Spurt For The SEALs

The Navy special operations forces are also attempting the delicate and difficult task of expanding the ranks of their elite warriors without sacrificing quality. Naval Special Warfare's orders are to grow by a third by 2012.

Adding 2,000 Navy SEALs will be a tall order, but Rear Adm. Joe Kernan, No. 2 at the Naval Special Warfare Command, is confident that goal can be achieved through more aggressive recruiting. "We've had so much success on the battlefield that we're just reticent to do anything to change the program," Kernan tells U.S. News.

As with Army Special Forces, the SEALs (an acronym for Sea, Air, Land) and the Navy's special warfare combat crewmen have always had a hard time finding enough folks who can pass the legendarily tough Basic Underwater Demolition School selection course. Hell Week at the Naval Special Warfare Center at Coronado, Calif., has been featured in countless movies: Young men are pushed through endless drills in the frigid sea and along the Coronado beaches day and night until they collapse from exhaustion.

Seeing results. In the past year, the Navy made finding more SEAL candidates its top goal. "For the Navy to give us their No. 1 priority in recruiting is a huge step," Kernan says. The force is already seeing results. More young men have been recruited in the past three months than in the past decade, and the current BUDS class is the largest ever. Recruiting chief Cmdr. Duncan Smith says that the graduation rate has risen to 32 percent, from 27 percent. Kernan credits that increase to better instruction methods, more mentoring, and targeted recruiting.

One new requirement has made a big difference.Candidates must now pass a 500-meter swim test before they even get to the tryout. To help interested young men prepare, Navy recruiting centers and the 888-USN-SEAL hotline offer DVDs on how to improve swim test scores. Enlistment bonuses are $40,000 for SEALs and $25,000 for special warfare combat crewmen.

Even with all this help, though, Naval Special Warfare still has a long way to go. Currently, only 89 percent of its authorized billets are filled, and that figure will drop to 78 percent next year when the additional slots are added. But Kernan would rather fill those slots gradually. "I'm a little concerned that if over the next four years we fill all of those billets with SEALs out of the pipeline, we'll grow too fast and populate the SEAL teams with too many young people," he says.

Since most SEAL teams find themselves in a combat zone, Kernan prefers that no more than half of their members be new SEALs. Naval Special Warfare officers are concerned about retaining midgrade officers. Like experienced Army Special Forces soldiers, older SEALs are offered substantial bonuses to re-enlist, and Kernan says the current re-enlistment rate, 82 percent, is the highest in the Navy.

By Linda Robinson

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