Ask Stew: 10 Questions About SEALs and Special Ops

SEAL candidates participate in a rock portage evolution.
SEAL candidates participate in a rock portage evolution during Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training at Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Center in Coronado, Calif., May 13, 2020. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Anthony W. Walker/U.S. Navy photo)

I received a letter in the mail from a high school junior who was doing an English project on Navy SEALs and Special Operations.

What I appreciate from the young man who sent me the typed letter through "snail mail" was the perfect use of English. Usually, I receive these requests for information in text language -- often a paragraph of 15-20 lines with no punctuation, no capitalized letters and littered with misspellings. Many (not all) requests are just a mess of words like last week's email.

Since this young man took the effort and cared enough to actually write, I am going all-out to answer his questions as thoroughly as possible.

Here are the questions he asks. These are very commonly asked questions and should provide many future SEALs and​ Spec Ops members with some valuable insight:

1. Why did you want to be a Navy SEAL?

When I joined the military, I was 18. I was accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy. At that time in my life, I knew I wanted to serve, but I did not know in what way. Truthfully, I was looking at becoming a pilot mainly, because in 1987, there was not much information on Navy SEALs and what they did.

Once I got to the academy, I met and started training with the Navy SEALs in the mornings before school. I found it helped me quickly change from powerlifting football player shape to an advanced military shape that I needed to excel at the academy.

After a year, then two years of this type of training, I was hooked and got to know many other SEAL wannabes who successfully completed the program. I was determined to follow that path after countless people providing their positive feedback about the experiences of not only training itself but life in the teams. The SEALs seemed like a great job to pursue.

2. What distinguishes SEALs from other Special Forces in the military?

Mainly the ability to insert from/extract into and live in the water is the skill that sets us apart. SEALs always will have one foot in the water, and these skills are valuable as most of the people on Earth live near the shoreline. We also focus on land and air operations and have an outstanding record in Iraq, Afghanistan and other regions, but what makes SEALs different is their comfort in the water.

Personally, I think we have a huge respect for the ocean and what Mother Nature can bring down on you if she wishes. We do not conquer the ocean; the ocean lets us work in it when she wants us to.

3. Are there many career opportunities available within the Navy SEALs?

Sure. Even if you are not a SEAL, there are a number of opportunities for you, such as physiologist, psychologist, sports medicine, linguist, intelligence analyst and many, many more in a number of activities from underwater, air, weapons, martial arts, etc. You can spend 20-30 years in the SEAL teams as an officer or enlisted, doing a variety of jobs from instructor, team leader, recruiter, trainer and even retired SEAL consultant.

4. Generally speaking, what type of compensation and benefits do SEALs receive?

This depends on the number of years you have in the service, officer or enlisted, but all get medical, dental, life insurance, housing allowances and other compensation such as dive pay, jump pay, hazardous duty pay, language pay (foreign language skills) and bonuses as well. It all adds up to a nice living. See pay charts online, but you may have to search for updated pay charts as they tend to increase with cost-of-living changes.

5. What would you recommend doing physically and mentally to prepare for BUD/​S?

First, I recommend becoming a team player -- learn how to work together with others, as on a sports team. Know what it means to play for a common goal (mission) and even with pain sometimes. Work out hard for your sports to get bigger, faster and stronger and build more endurance, and all of these will help you at SEAL training. I have countless ideas about training and how to train, depending upon your athletic history. See other articles in the Spec Ops archive.

6. What is the best approach to be guaranteed a shot at BUD/​S training?

You have to ace the "entrance exam" first -- the BUD/​S Physical Screening Test (PST). It is composed of the following:

500-yard swim using the side stroke and breaststroke (underwater recovery strokes). Combat Swimmer Stroke is a nickname for a modified side stroke.

  • Push-ups two minutes

  • Sit-ups two minutes

  • Pull-ups max reps

  • 1.5-mile run

Above average:

If you can score a sub-nine-minute swim, 100+ push-ups, 100+ sit-ups, 20+ pull-ups and nine-minute run, respectively, you have an 85% chance of graduating SEAL training, compared to about a 6% chance of graduation if you score the posted minimum standards. That is why they started pre-​​screening students, and they have to reach closer to the above-average numbers before going to BUD/S now. 

You also have to have a high school diploma or some college credits with a GED, no felonies on your record and meet the height/weight standards.

7. What consistent characteristics do BUD/​S candidates who succeed have?

A competitive nature. I recently asked as many SEALs as I could why they made it through, and a majority of those had something to prove to themselves, to others who doubted them, as well as to their classmates at BUD/S. Each day was a competition -- not a day that we had to endure. When you think about winning a race, max pull-up contest or an obstacle course race, you get pumped up for it.

It is game on. Time to compete. If you think about competing every day, you never will think about quitting at BUD/​S. Successful students also know how to work with pain and discomfort.

8. What can I do to better prepare myself right now (3-4 years away from training)?

Play sports, work out hard and get good at swimming, swimming with fins, SCUBA diving, running, high-rep calisthenics and weights, too. You have to get good at all of the above. You do not have to be great at all of them; everybody has a weakness at BUD/​S, but get good at everything.

Learning how to be a team player right now is critical to you being able to work well as a team member on any Spec Ops unit. Study hard; make good grades. Learn a foreign language.

9. What was the hardest thing about SEAL training?

Like I stated above, we all had weaknesses. Mine was running. I had to put out every time to stay in the pack while running. I got better at running prior to BUD/​S and actually became a decent runner by the time I finished BUD/​S. But each run was a challenge.

I went through training at 200-​​205 pounds and always have been faster when lighter. Many people have issues with water confidence, cold temperatures and constantly being wet and sandy. Getting used to being uncomfortable is key; otherwise, it will drive you crazy. Getting yelled at by instructors got to people, and the daily head games they will play with you takes its toll if you lack any self-motivation or​ self-confidence.

10. After graduation from BUD/​S, what are the daily responsibilities of that SEAL?

Immediately after BUD/​S, you still have several months of training to complete before you are ready to become an active member of a SEAL team. So your responsibilities are to remain in "receive mode" and take in as much as possible from your instructors.

It is your job to learn advanced tactics/skills that will help you become proficient as well as keep you alive. After that -- once at a team -- your job is to prepare for upcoming deployments into foreign countries by training, training, training. You only get to be the best at something if you do it well over and over again -- not only yourself but as a team. That is why understanding team dynamics is one of the most critical skills you can learn as a teenager.

Thanks to the young man from New Hampshire for making this a much less painful process by taking the time to actually write. I wish you the best of luck with the project as well as any future dreams of becoming a Navy SEAL.

Take this as a lesson, young men and women out there. Sure, it is a cool thing to communicate in a quick text language, but if you are truly expecting to one day be in the military, law enforcement or firefighting profession -- or any job, for that matter -- you have to learn how to write.

Text language has its place, but when done as a request for information, it just shows you are too lazy to actually write or, worse, you cannot communicate with others properly. Writing requests to your boss, relaying information from headquarters, writing reports, planning missions and creating power points will be part of your profession. Do not lose this skill by only communicating in text language in your emails and written correspondence.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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