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Seal Teams

Jun 1

In In The Field at 5:12am

The Navy SEALs have been in the news a lot lately, something they regard as a dubious blessing, I’m sure. Navy SEAL Team Six went in and dropped a hurt on bin Laden and created a legend. You know you’ve hit the big time when Disney tries to trademark the rights to your team. The Mickey Meisters backed off when they became the centerpiece of virtually every late night comic’s routine out there. It wasn’t a good move. When the troops you can muster on your side have names like Goofy, Ariel and Tinker Bell, you should think twice about messing with the SEALs, right?

I’ve worked out in Coronado with the SEALs a couple times, and was stupefied by the demands, the stress, and the resultant call to excellence. It’s a narrow funnel you pass through as a SEAL, and many don’t make it. I was one of the first journalists allowed to spend all of Hell Week with one class of hopefuls. (As my guide and adviser, himself a SEAL, told me, they had been reluctant to let the press into Hell Week, ’cause they “didn’t want America’s moms seeing what we were doing to their babies.” I gained entree by virtue of being on assignment for the National Geographic, doing a story on the limits of the human body. When you do a story like that, you pretty much have to make SEAL training one of your objectives.)

Just keeping pace with the week photographically was daunting beyond much of anything I had previously tried. I would hump cameras through various exercises and drills at all hours, then go back to the PAO office and grab a piece of linoleum floor and crash. I didn’t leave the base much during the week, and I got so tired that linoleum felt like a feather bed at a Marriott. But all I was doing was carrying cameras. I had breaks, and was often ferried about in a truck while they ran in wet fatigues. What they faced, night and day, was a schedule designed to break them.

That particular Hell Week started on a fairly easy going Sunday, in the very late afternoon. The class was summoned to a general meeting hall, and lulled into a sense of well being by being shown a movie. In the darkened room a DI walked in and started screaming at them to get outside. As they went running out of the room they were greeted with the din of machine gun fire into the air (dummy rounds) and flash bang grenades going off all over the place. The air was thick with smoke, and they were told to run over the berm and into the ocean. From that Sunday afternoon, until the following Friday, they all remained constantly wet.

They generally lose about 70% of the class during Hell Week. It is easy to see why. From Sunday through late on Thursday, they are generally allowed no sleep. They are constantly drenched in salt water, even when on land. Often times, they are actually in the water, and depending on what month your class is going through, the waters around San Diego can range from just plain cold to an ice bath.

During training like this, recruits are organized into boat crews, based on their respective heights. Tall guys with tall guys, and so forth, reason being that they carry their boats on their heads, so everybody’s gotta be in the same ballpark. The short crew generally gets dubbed “The Smurfs.” Interestingly, though, during the week I observed, the shorter crew did very well. In fact there seemed to be no actual body type that would guarantee success. A lot of the bigger, body builder types dropped out. My PAO confirmed that often happens. He chuckled and told me, “Yeah, when you see some of these skinny little guys make it all the way through, you know you got yourself one tough little motherf@##$%!”

One particularly difficult stretch involves a length of time staying afloat in San Diego bay at night, and then laying down, shirtless on a steel pier. From what I was led to believe, while embracing the pier, certain classes have chanted, “The cold steel is sucking the life from my body. The cold steel is sucking the life from my body.”

One really tough evolution is through an area called “Mud Flats.” Recruits basically have to perform maneuvers in muck so thick it can render them immobilized.

If you screw up, you meet Misery. Misery is a 300 pound piece of lumber emblazoned with the words “Misery loves company.” Boat crews who under-perform, or displease an instructor, do a round with this log.

While I was making this picture, the DI came up beside this struggling recruit and shouted at him, “Oh good, they’re gonna put your picture on the cover of Whiner magazine!” I felt bad, but I kept shooting. They do their job, and, as a shooter, you do yours’.

Protein intake is important, even though guys are literally falling asleep in their plates. The instructors move among them, pushing them to stay awake, and eat.

At the end of Hell Week, a handshake from the Bullfrog, the oldest active SEAL. It is a handshake well earned. In this week after Memorial Day, if it were possible, we should all shake their hand.   More tk….

73 Responses to “Seal Teams”

Patrik Lindgren says:

on June 2, 2011 at 12:55 pm

The stories never seems to stop. That´s what i like about you, you really got a lot to tell, and you do it so well.
Thanks for sharing your past, present and future. Keep em coming!

Don says:

on June 2, 2011 at 8:58 pm

There is a reason these guys are the very best in the world at what they do. As one SEAL put it: “hell week is just a kick in the nuts!”

Morten Berring. says:

on June 3, 2011 at 3:46 am

Fantastic pictures Joe! You realy capture the spirit of the team, and the struggle they undergo. And in doing so, you show exactly what it is, that the enemy should fear. Determination and hard work!

Lou says:

on June 3, 2011 at 8:54 am

Fantastic vignette of those who strive to be the best of the best and thereby lead the efforts to protect the freedoms too many Americans take for granted. If there’s a SEAL Team Six equivalent among photographers, I’m pretty sure you’re on it, Joe.

Bob Guercio says:

on June 3, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Becoming a SEAL also involves alot of rigorous cerebral training. These guys are smart!


Mads Barnkob says:

on June 5, 2011 at 5:14 am

Great story and picture series! I never went through such a hard training for more than a day or two, respect to the seals.

joop says:

on June 6, 2011 at 8:50 am

Joe, out of all ‘photography’ blogs, yours is easily the most fun to read. It’s almost like your own little magazine. Just wanted to say that.

Diane Young says:

on June 6, 2011 at 12:11 pm

My son is in Basic Training right now, and has been accepted into the SEAL program, which he should begin in September.

You are right: No sane Mom (me included) would willingly subject their “baby” to this training.

But my son is an adult and has accepted this challenge with eyes wide open. We are very proud of him and so grateful to all those who have gone before him in this noble pursuit.

God bless!

Antonio says:

on June 7, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Having served in the Marine Corps and gone through training, I understand the commitment required. On the other hand, The mental and physical anguish that these MEN subject themselves to for the protection of this great nation…no one but a SEAL will ever understand that. Hats off to the SEAL’s and to you JOE for the great images.

”I felt bad, but I kept shooting. They do their job, and, as a shooter, you do yours’.

I have to tell you, I love that line!

Rick Rouse says:

on June 9, 2011 at 9:04 am

Anyone with even a passing interest in the military was well aware of the incredibly demanding training those guys must endure even before they were thrust into the spotlight by the killing of Bin Laden. Your experiences and memories of photographing “Hell Week” will stay with you forever I’m sure.

DrSpelling says:

on June 17, 2011 at 10:43 am

For someone ‘on assignment for the National Geographic’ you should probably look at your spelling… “…gained entree[sic]…”? I’m sure you mean “gained entry”.

Joe McNally says:

on June 18, 2011 at 5:48 am

hi…no i meant entree….it generally needs an accent, but my program doesn’t seem to do that when I write my blog. My word program on my computer does automatically insert the accent. It really could be interchangeable in this instance. The definition of entree, outside of a main course for a meal, is “to gain entry or access.” Gaining entry to me, though, really has the sense of physical access, such as, “gained entry to the building.” The sense I tried to impart (obviously with limited success) here was that I gained entree into their lives, their world. Shades of difference there, to me anyway. Of course, I did need entry in the physical sense to gain entree in the psychological, cultural, lifestyle sense. Hmmmm…does this make any sense? :-) ))))

Timmy says:

on July 27, 2011 at 8:02 am

The training schedule these guys go through is really tough. I friend of mine told me a story, which is more like a comparison. Let’s say a norman soldier and a seal go in to the Arctic ocean and they stay in the water for some time, few minutes. Afterwards give them both a gun, pistol, and tell them to shoot a target. The normal soldier from 10 shots he will hit 2-3 in the mark, few off, simply said he won’t be very accurate. Unlike the seal, he will hit almost each and every shot in the mark. The difference is that the seal knows how to cope with the shivering feeling he has and use it to his best advantage.

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Anibal Baltruweit says:

on September 28, 2011 at 7:52 am

great work, love your look, suits the page well :-)

John says:

on May 1, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Mr. McNally,

Sir let me first and formost say that you are my photographic mentor and I so admire your work and respect you as a professional and a photographer. I want to thank you for everything that you have done for me and everyone else that you have touched in your career. I felt compelled to comment on this post because it was military oriented and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I am currently active duty Army with three trips to Iraq. I am in the Infantry and I have seen combat. Although I am not Navy or Special Operations for that matter, I do have an understanding of what these guy do and they give everything they have to be where they are. It just really touched me to see how eloquently and respectfully you treated these men. It makes me proud to see a professional that I admire so much use his talent to express his own respect for America’s military and my own profession. So, thank you for that and everything else that you do with your lens….

One of your biggest fans,

SFC John H. Panowich
United States Army

Markita Wininger says:

on July 14, 2012 at 3:08 pm

Gnarly article mate, keep the good function, just shared this with ma friendz

KMJones says:

on March 15, 2013 at 6:48 pm

My son joined the Navy on 3-15-93. In Aug. of 98 he completed Buds and became a SEAL. As the mom of one of these “machines” I am extremely proud, fearful, and confident. Since 98 my son has been in Afghanistan, Iraq, Columbia, South America and more. He is proud of the work he does though it’s incomprehensible at times. He has seen things a human should never see. He has hundreds of freefall jumps, hundreds of dives, etc. He has smashed his ankle, broken his back at L2,3,4, and shattered his tailbone. He has busted his knee. He has been involved in a 6000ft. mid air collision while parachuting and luckily “only” broke his leg. My son has been through soooo much but he never complains; “it’s part of the job”. But NONE of these injuries compare to hell week, he says. THIS should tell everyone something. Yes, I am a very proud mom!

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