Persons of the Week: U.S. Navy SEALs

SEALs maneuvered the successful rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips from pirates.

April 17, 2009— -- For the U.S. Navy's special operations force, rescuing the American captain of the Maersk Alabama from the grips of armed pirates off the coast of Somalia is part of the daring job description.

"This week's operation off the Somali coast was one operation," said Capt. Duncan Smith, SEAL spokesman. "There are other operations going on around the globe constantly."

U.S. Navy SEALs, "a special breed of warrior ready to answer our nation's call," so says their creed, are trained to carry out covert missions across sea, air and land.

"What sets SEALs apart is our diversity in terms of the environments in which we operate," said Smith, an active duty SEAL for 24 years. "We operate at 10,000 feet in the Hindu Kush Mountains. We operate in desert regions in Iraq and elsewhere. We operate in jungles throughout the world. But we are also able to operate very effectively in maritime environment."

Adept at sea, a team of U.S. Navy SEALs parachuted out of a C-17 cargo plane into the Indian Ocean last Friday night -- with all their gear and the inflatable boats needed to get to the U.S.S. Bainbridge and, if necessary, to launch a stealth rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips, who was being held hostage.

The Navy was towing the lifeboat carrying Phillips and three Somali pirates, slowing reeling it closer. The SEAL snipers positioned themselves on deck of the U.S.S. Bainbridge. At dusk, the three snipers determined that they had their shot and they took it -- instantly killing all three pirates.

"My reaction when I heard what went down in Somalia was one of knowing that hours and years that these men spent preparing for that one moment that is so critical was time well spent," said Smith.

Most SEALS go through a grueling training for three years before their first deployment.

SEALs Put 'Service Above Self'

"You have to be able to endure a lot of physical pain and sometimes emotional pain and you just have to dig deep. It's an elite organization and so it can't be for everybody," said Paul Tharp, master chief of the Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School and SEAL for 24 years.

Once through basic training, SEAL recruits enter an intensive six-month training program that starts with the appropriately named "hell week."

"Hell week is a five-day-long continuous training evolution," said Lt. Michael Loureiro, SEAL instructor. "They get about four to six hours sleep throughout the whole week. It's a test of their mental fortitude and their ability to endure uncomfortable circumstances and duress and how they handle that stress."

Only a third of the recruits who begin the training ultimately become SEALs.

There are 2,500 active duty SEALs. With the expanding war on terror and missions in 30 countries, the Navy needs more, 500 more. But, finding young men who can meet the SEALs' standards is a challenge.

"We are not looking for cocky kids," said Senior Chief Hans Garcia, SEAL recruiter. "The perfect person would be a candidate who is remarkably physically fit, but is pretty humble, an analytical thinker, a problem solver -- someone who is very value-oriented, patriotic, puts service above self."

Endurance, determination, and above all, humility, are key because SEALs' brave work normally goes unnoticed.

"A lot of those missions -- a majority of those missions -- are ones that the public will never know about... and that's a good thing," Smith said.