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New Navy SEALs Undeterred by Recent Loss of 11

October 03, 2005|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CORONADO, Calif. — Mario Romero was in the middle of training to be a Navy SEAL when he heard about it: the largest loss of life in a single mission in the 40-year history of the elite force of Navy commandos.

Eleven SEALs had died in Afghanistan -- three were part of a Special Forces unit that disappeared June 28 in the mountains of Afghanistan, and eight were aboard a helicopter shot down by Taliban guerrillas while attempting to rescue the unit.

The most SEALs killed in a single incident in Vietnam was five.

"We were all feeling anger and sadness," said Romero, 22. "But it also inspired us, made us motivated, driven to get over there."

That motivation paid off Friday as Romero and 34 other enlisted sailors finished the 50-week training course and were each awarded the coveted Trident insignia.

It was the first graduation at the SEAL training school here since the loss in Afghanistan. Although there was no direct reference to the 11 deaths by the SEAL brass who addressed the graduates and their family members, it was difficult not to hear references embedded in their official comments.

Vice Adm. Eric T. Olson, a SEAL and deputy commander of the U.S. Special Forces Command, said the graduates had "crossed a bed of hot coals" to graduate but that the rigor of being a SEAL had just begun.

"You will earn your Trident every day as a SEAL," he said. "You have to prove yourself every day."

Class 253 began a year ago with 166 would-be SEALs. The washout rate was 79%, about average for a SEAL class.

Each of the graduates had run 1,310 miles in the sand with their boots on, swum 150 miles in the ocean, completed a grueling half-mile obstacle course 39 times, spent 57 hours submerged in cold water, and performed five parachute jumps. Collectively, they fired 850,000 rounds and detonated 5,500 pounds of explosives.

The SEALs are one of the military's smallest groups, numbering about 2,400 SEALs, 600 combat crewmen and 2,000 support personnel.

The graduation of Class 253 was the first since the writing of the SEAL Ethos, which was read aloud by a senior enlisted SEAL.

Its conclusion reads, "Brave men have fought and died building the proud tradition and feared reputation that I am bound to uphold.... I will not fail."

SEAL Capt. Garry Bonnelli, a reservist and Vietnam veteran, said he was not surprised that Afghanistan and the loss of the 11 SEALs were not mentioned directly. It didn't have to be, he said in a telephone interview.

"We're a small community, and everyone felt the loss and still feels it," he said. "But the SEAL code is to look forward, not backward."

The Afghanistan loss, Bonnelli said, was a tragic affirmation of what SEALs have always known about the dangers of being part of a special operations unit that specializes in risky missions: "When things go wrong, they can go wrong very quickly and profoundly. A lot of [military] units say they're the tip of the spear, but SEALs really are at the tip of the spear."

Romero and other members of Class 253, along with four officers, leave Tuesday for cold-weather training in Kodiak, Alaska. Months of additional specialized training lie ahead before they are ready for combat assignments.

Romero, who grew up in New Jersey and attended college before enlisting, had just finished training as a Navy weather specialist when he earned a spot in Class 253. He had enlisted with hopes of becoming a SEAL.

"There's always been a void, an emptiness, inside me," he said. But the moment he walked on stage and pinned on "the bird" -- SEAL jargon for the Trident -- "it was finally filled in. It was a great feeling, down to my toes."

Even thoughts of what happened to the SEALs in Afghanistan couldn't change his joy at becoming one, Romero said.

"There's got to be people to do this job," he said. "Why wouldn't I do it?"

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