About five years ago, the Coronado-based Naval Special Warfare Command was having a tough time recruiting men to become Navy SEALs.
To capture that key 18- to 24-year-old male market, production company Bandito Brothers was hired to use flashy cinematography to document Navy SEAL training.
Impressed by the action shots, Bandito Brothers turned the footage and concept into a screenplay.
“Act of Valor,” which took five years to produce, hit theaters in February and helped popularize the SEALs. That Hollywood buzz, paired with a down economy and a high unemployment rate, caused more men to sign up.
The command includes 9,000 active duty, civilians and subject matter experts. Some 2,000 are enlisted Navy SEALs, 550 are Naval SEAL officers and 750 are combatant-craft crewmen.
“For every kid who steps in the door, five get turned away,” said Rear Adm. Garry Bonelli, deputy commander for Naval Special Warfare Command, who spoke at the University Club’s monthly military happy hour on Monday.
A post-9/11 world has dramatically changed the size and scope of the force.
“We’ve doubled in size and tripled in budget,” he said. “The hard part is we’ve quadrupled in missions.”
Navy SEALs are gone 255 days out of the year, out in the fight or training.
“We are not putting heads in beds at home with their wives and families,” he said. “That’s probably one of the biggest dynamics that’s changed.”
When Bonelli enlisted in the Navy in 1968, he was surrounded by other single guys. Today however, half are married, and of that half, most have children. The government is reacting to that paradigm shift, he said.
“The DoD is finally putting money where their mouth is and trying to help families, too,” he said. “With resilient warrior families, I can get resilient warriors.”
Surprisingly, the types of warriors that make great SEALs aren’t usually Division 1 football players or wrestlers, he said (though some SEALs are former gold and silver Olympians).
“They are more like Rudy,” he said, referring to Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger in the film that depicts the life of a young man who dreamed of playing college football despite significant obstacles. “The guy who gets knocked down and gets back up and contributes to the team.”
That team ability means being able to both lead and follow.
“The biggest bad asses I know are the most humble people in the world,” Bonelli said. “You’d never know.”
The strenuous psychological and physical process knocks down plenty of applicants, revealing those desirable Rudy gems early on. Lots of attrition occurs during the infamous “hell week,” when trainees are kept awake for long periods of time.
Out of the 5,000 applicants a year, 1,000 are accepted into the program.
“Out of that we are lucky to graduate 250,” he said. “We’ve spent a lot of your tax dollars figuring out who can become a Navy SEAL.”
The selection and training process takes a lengthy two and a half years before a SEAL can be placed overseas.
“Our Achilles heel right now is diversity. Most of the guys look like Southern Californian surfers,” he said. “Most of them are white, well-tanned and good looking guys.”
And that’s whether they come from Oshkosh, Wisc., New York City or Southern California, he said.
“What I need is diversity. When I am putting people in the world, I need people of color, people who have diverse backgrounds,” he said.
The ideal diverse candidate has lived somewhere other than the United States and can speak second and third languages, like French or Spanish. Today, knowing Middle Eastern languages is especially helpful when being stationed overseas.
“They are difficult to recruit and we are having a heck of a time doing that,” he said.
The U.S. Naval Academy is doing a good job of diversifying its student body, Bonelli said. Many of its graduates breeze through the SEAL’s strenuous training program and become officers.
“People can identify with those young leaders,” he said. “That is how we hope to diversify the force, but it’s a long-term investment.”
A SEAL’s talents don’t just include putting bullets on a target; being a diplomat and problem-solver is also essential in order to help foreign nations fight their own fight and secure their own country.
The preponderance of Bonelli’s Navy SEAL force is in Afghanistan, but they are also in about two dozen other countries at the moment.
They’re at some locations because they’ve been invited; other places absolutely don’t want them there but they are there anyways, he noted.
“Some places we are there and they don’t know we are there, and other places they think we are there but we’ve never been there,” he said.
By Tierney Plumb
Wednesday, April 25, 2012