It’s called a “beat-down” and ours would be starting any second now. At BUDS (short for Basic Underwater Demolition/ SEALS) beat-downs are a daily occurrence where Navy SEAL trainees are put through extreme physical & mental stress by instructors using all sorts of diabolical means. Taking place at the BUDS compound on a giant swath of concrete nicknamed “the Grinder,” body weight movements such as push-ups, pull-ups, flutter kicks, leg levers, etc. are doled out in unthinkable quantities. All the while the trainees are assaulted verbally and relentlessly pounded with cold water via high-pressure hoses, buckets, etc. The goal of the instructors is to make these guys quit, as many as possible, because the ones who are still standing when BUDS is over have a real good chance of earning the “Trident” and a place on the SEAL teams. Me and 11 other guys were about to experience our first beat-down in true Navy Seal fashion on the grinder just in front of SealFit HQ. It would last two hours and once over, we each would have completed four to five-hundred push-ups, sit-ups & squats, completed a 7-mile hill run and many other things. When it ended, there would only be nine of us left standing and we would still have 48 hours of continuous work remaining.
Let me explain what this is about. These young men and I were attending SealFit’s “Kokoro Camp.” Created by SealFit founder and former Navy Seal Commander Mark Divine, Kokoro is an intense fifty-hour crucible experience designed to test one to his very core. “Kokoro” is a Japanese word which by definition means “unbeatable spirit.” Patterned after BUDS “Hell Week” the camp was originally intended for Special Operations Forces candidates to see if they possess the mental & physical toughness required for an SOF career. More recently Kokoro has become popular with industrial athletes, fitness enthusiasts and adrenaline junkies. As Coach Divine says, “If you want to meet yourself for the very first time, attend Kokoro camp.” Four of the guys on my team were in the various stages of preparing for BUDS, to become Navy SEALS and had spent the prior three weeks attending the SealFit Immersion Academy. Kokoro camp was their graduation present, and was truly just a warm-up for them. The rest were guys like me looking for the opportunity to test themselves, the oldest among us was Joey at age 53.
I had an increasing level of anxiety in the days leading up to camp but it wasn’t until I first pulled in to the SealFit HQ parking lot when anxiety started to kick in. At Noon on Friday, my teammates and I had gathered in the “ready room” which would be our place of refuge for the next 3 days. We quickly bonded with each other, sharing tips & pointers that we’d heard or read about. We pooled all our supplies such as energy bars, first-aid materials, etc. At 1pm an intern entered the room and presented us with our “Warning Orders” which were detailed instructions on how to prepare for what was to come. Our gear consisted of boots, cammies, white t-shirt with our name written on the front, backpack (ruck) with two canteens of water and a scoop of electrolyte in it & two empty sand bags with our names written on them well. The sand bags wouldn’t stay empty for long and they had us mark them with our names because at various times the instructors would weigh them to make sure none of us dumped any sand to lighten our load. Our uniform was exactly the same as the first except workout shorts & running shoes were substituted for boots & cammies. Because I was packing a first aid kit, I was named a medic and had to mark all of my t-shirts with a red cross. I would end up using that first aid kit quite a lot throughout the weekend. Next we were instructed to memorize the Seal code and the final stanza of “Invictus” written by William Earl Henley.
It matters not how straight the gate
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul
We were told to hydrate with no less than two quarts of water and consume two protein bars. Finally, we were instructed to muster on the SealFit grinder at 1400 wearing our rucks with weapons at the ready. Unfortunately the fine seaside town of Encinitas, CA doesn’t allow Kokoro warriors to train with real guns so our weapons were five foot cuts of two-inch PVC that were filled with sand. Each weighed about ten pounds. It was time to get pumped-up because Kokoro was starting any second!
The First Beat Down
I don’t know how long the instructors left us standing there motionless on the grinder, but it seemed like days. They were huddled-up somewhere close by because every so often we would hear laughter break out. I figured they were probably taking bets on which one of us would quit first. In spite of the fact these guys were real SEAL’s, the baddest dudes alive, and at any moment all hell was going to break loose when they rained down on us, I found in myself a pleasant calmness. I took comfort in all my preparation and thought mostly about all of the great people in my life that had helped me train for this. I thought about my children and how there was simply no way I was going to let them see their father quit…just simply not an option! I risked a quick look around and noticed two guys were gone, simply got their stuff and bugged-out, and we were now a team of nine. Some guys were sweating, others stood there stoned-faced; no one looked comfortable. Suddenly, it was like a bomb went off…
(I apologize for the profanity in the remainder of this content but it’s accurate and necessary for effect. SEAL’s are world-class potty-mouths! Do NOT let your kids read this!)
“You are the sorriest group of pussies I’ve ever seen! Drop! Lean & rest position NOW!” (That means assume push-up position. “Push’em out!” (Defined as “do push-ups until we tell you to stop!”) I’d been warned about letting my guard down and allowing an instructor to sneak up behind me and rip my weapon from my hands. As much as I focused on it, they took mine from me many times, and the other guys too. When they stole it they would throw it into the street then they’d make us bear crawl after it and crab walk back. “Stop doing push-ups! Feet!” (That means stand up really fast!) “You fuckers better learn how to work as a team or else you’re all gonna pay!” There was much emphasis on performing every rep in perfect synchronization…up together…down together. “Drop! Push’em out!”
I had prepared myself physically for grinder PT and I knew I could hang with these guys. Although much harder to do, I also knew I could bang out my reps in unison with my teammates. What I hadn’t anticipated was the water torture. Water was coming from everywhere! Hoses, buckets, you name it, they were using it! I’m pretty good in the water but this was outright scary! Imagine working your heart rate up to maximum while doing flutter kicks, gasping for every breath, while at the same time an instructor straps a scuba mask filled with water to your face covering your eyes & nose and the next guy is spraying a high pressure hose down your throat. You can’t see, you certainly can’t breathe…I remember wondering how many seconds I had left before I passed-out. I could hear them laughing. The instructor-to-student ratio was 2:1, so we had plenty of personal attention. The ridicule was relentless! “Hey Boner, nice beach muscles!” one said. “It’s the big guys like you who always quit first Boner!” I hadn’t known these guys for five minutes and they’d already zeroed-in on the nickname I’d been bullied with since I was a kid. Didn’t they understand that I used to fight guys for less than that? More laughing, more leg levers, more water. “Maybe you should lay off the steroids Boner!” I hated them instantly.
Then the unthinkable happened. I guess it was inevitable with the water-filled mask, flutter kicks and fire hose, but water had made its way through my nose down the back of my throat and I started to gag. Like a jack-in-the-box I popped-up and over onto my stomach and puked-up whatever remained of my lunch. The celebration coming from the instructor cadre was immense. They were so proud of themselves. “Way to go Boner! That didn’t take long!” We were maybe ten minutes into our 55-hour camp and there it was, the word “QUIT” flashing in my brain. It was barely a thought, I mean a millisecond perhaps, but I saw it appear in my mind’s eye and it terrified me! The “Q-word” scared me more than the water. “How will I face my children?” That was all it took to get myself back online. Quickly I rolled back over onto my back, raised my weapon with elbows extended, and resumed banging-out flutter kicks with the rest of my team. Luckily, the instructors had moved on to terrorize someone else. That would be the only time I came even remotely close to quitting the entire weekend.
One Long Run
After two hours of grinder PT, we were told to break up into boat crews, fall in to formation, and prepare for a nice run down to the sunny Encinitas oceanfront. I took a moment to admire the weather as it couldn’t have been more perfect. I’d been training all summer in 100-degree heat with max humidity and here I was standing in seventy-degree temperatures with nice dry air. I was excited about the run because it was being led by Coach Divine who appeared to have some fellow Seal officers with him. “How cool was this?” I was about to head out on a parade jog down to the beach led by the former Commander of Seal Team 3 and a few of his SEAL friends. All of these bystanders were watching. It was gonna be fun!
Oh was I wrong! Yeah, we started off at a slow pace allowing the instructors to fall in behind us. Then the tempo picked up. Within seconds we were running, not jogging! “Stay in formation fuckers! No more than six feet between you at all times or else you’re all gonna pay!” There is a hill my friends and I train on back home we call “Country Place.” It’s hardly a quarter-mile in distance but it sports a 15% grade. Running up Country Place is some of the best metabolic conditioning one can find and the best part is it’s free. When you crest Country Place hill, you literally need to stuff your lungs back inside your body!
If you’ve ever been to San Diego then you know the terrain there isn’t exactly flat. The hip little beach enclave of Encinitas is absolutely riddled with “Country Places.” There are hills everywhere, and we hit them all, every one of them it seemed, as we worked closer and closer to the beach. I was praying for a reprieve, even to run in the soft sand would be merciful, anything to get away from these damn hills.
Once we finally got to the beach park entrance Coach Divine went left instead of right taking the entire formation right back to the starting point. “Seriously? Is he really going to make us do this again?” Did I mention we were running with our rucks on and each of us carrying our weapons? “You really suck Boner!” one instructor said. “Stay in formation!” When we finally got to a beach head, called “Swami’s” by the surfing community, we had run nearly seven miles. Only fifty-one hours left to go…
Life is a Beach!
All that water I had been drinking had finally caught up with me. “You have five minutes to recover, fuel and hydrate,” said one of the instructors. Nobody mentioned anything about a bathroom and I sure as hell wasn’t going to ask. I was soaking wet already so what the hell, I let it rip right down my leg. It was the first time I’d peed my pants since I was a child (except for maybe a time or two in college!)
We were told to fill one of our empty sandbags with sand halfway to the top, tie it off and put it back in our rucks. Here’s where I made another huge mistake. I’d heard earlier that the instructors randomly weigh each man’s sand bag with hopes of busting someone for dumping his sand to lighten the load. So I decided to play the dutiful son and fill mine to about 60% full. No way was I going to do extra burpees as punishment for dumping sand! Wrong again! They had us put those sand bags back in our rucks and head straight into the ocean. “Lock elbows! On your backs!” That ruck sack was going to remain strapped to me the entire remainder of the weekend and wet sand weighs twice as much as dry sand. Now I was packing at least 60 pounds and add ten more for the weapon!
I’d been worried about the cold Pacific Ocean water with its energy-sapping chill. I’d seen all the BUDS videos on Discovery Channel like everyone else and noticed how cold those guys were. One guy who’d gone to Kokoro before me actually went hypothermic so the instructors buried him in the warm sand to get his core body temperature back up. Then they put him back to work. Fortunately for me, the water actually felt great, probably from all the running and PT the previous 3 hours. This was it, the break I needed. Yeah, the water is cold but it’s not freezing. At this point I knew I was going to make it! “Out of the water Boner, I said get wet not go for a swim!”
Next they had us drop and make ourselves into what SEAL’s call “Sugar Cookies.” “Drop down on your stomachs and bury your face into the sand. I want every inch of your body covered in sand. If we can see any part of you you’re all gonna pay!” My teammates and I spent the next two hours on the beach dressed as sugar cookies with sixtyy-pounds of wet sand strapped to our backs doing all sorts of agility drills, leap frogs, sprints, wheel barrel races and relays. This is when the often-heard SEAL phrase; “It pays to be a winner!” took on new meaning for me. Not being the caliber of athlete, and certainly not the age of the younger SOF guys, I can’t express how hard it was to win just one of those races! I did win just one, and it earned me a short break. It was just a few minutes to catch my breath and get my shit together but it was marvelous. “Way to put out Boner, go sit down in the ocean and don’t come out ‘til I tell you.” After we finished on the beach, we were given fifteen minutes to run the two miles back to SealFit HQ.
The Last Supper
We were allowed to change into shorts, running shoes and dry t-shirts. Coach Divine gave us a talk on the principals of SEAL fitness which I thought was fascinating. There were no chairs in our conference room. This was intentional as sleeping was prohibited during the entire 55 hour course and offenders would be punished severely. We were on our feet the entire time taking notes. At one point I was so uncomfortable I actually wished for more running!
Next it was back to the grinder for an hour of sand bag drills. We would use a different sand bag than the cold & wet ones that were stowed nice & tight in our rucks. This particular sand bag was the huge, black canvass type with nice big handles weighing every bit of ninety-five pounds. The instructors had us form up into a circle and then introduced us to a new-level of creative sand bag drills. They fried our legs over-and-over again. One instructor said, “The human body is capable of twenty times more than your mind believes. Soon the physical is going to detach from the mental and you assholes will realize what we’re talking about.” Until then,” just one foot in front of the other,” I kept telling myself.
We went up to the Instructors quarters for what would be our last hot meal of the weekend and definitely one of the highlights. As my team and I sat around the kitchen table gobbling pasta, lasagna and other fuel foods, each instructor took a turn introducing himself, sharing his background on the SEAL teams, and telling stories. Each was very forthright about the SEAL lifestyle, how punishing it is, how contradictive to a healthy marriage, and about killing people. They were mostly talking to the pre-SOF guys on my team, but it was all mesmerizing! If the instructors got one point across, it was that SEAL’s train every day with the same intensity as they fight. And they kill people, lots of them, more than anybody realizes or reads about, and are you prepared to live with that as your job in this world?
It was now approximately 10pm and I knew what was coming next. “Murph” is a WOD (workout of the day) that I excel at, and now that I was fueled-up, I was ready to own it and show these guys what “Boner” could do in the gym! I would be proven wrong on this thought too! Named as a tribute workout to SEAL warrior Michael Murphy who was killed in Afghanistan in 2005 (read “Lone Survivor”), Murph is 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups & 300 air squats sandwiched with a one-mile run on both ends, all for time. “You will wear your rucks with the wet sand bags the entire time. You have one hour to compete this evolution. Ready. Set. Go!”
All of us did a pretty good job staying together during the first mile with only a few guys falling behind, and one guy who somehow got lost. Then we each settled in to our own rhythm for the body movement rounds. I’d been keeping an eye on the SOF guys wondering if they’d smoke me or not. I thought to myself, “Looks like I’m keeping up pretty good. Damn this ruck is heavy! Shut-up Boner and quit feeling sorry for yourself!”
As I started round 6 of pull-ups I happened to look up and was fixated on the blood that someone had left on the bar earlier in the workout. It took three more rounds before I realized the blood was mine, and I had badly torn my left hand. No big deal I told myself, I simply plugged the wound with chalk, spooled it with some electrical tape and went on to round nine. That was when Michah, one of the SOF guys who stands 5’8” and weighs 160lbs soaking wet, turned the corner to begin his final 1-mile run. Damn the small guys! And the rest were right behind him. They were done already and I still had 10 rounds left to go.
I finished in the middle of the pack. It was really amazing working out at that tempo with those young dudes. “Go change back into your boots and put some dry cammies & socks on. You’re the worst class we’ve ever had and you’re not worth our time! There are mats stacked in your ready room, lay them on the floor and take a nap, lights out in five minutes!” Huh? I hadn’t read nor heard about this. “A nap, a real nap? No way!” I thought,” I’m not buying it.” Besides, what was ten, twenty or even thirty minutes going to do? “No way! It’s not worth it. I’m staying up,” I said to myself. But we did comply. We got changed, spread our mats out, and then I turned off the lights.
I positioned myself on the floor so I could keep watch over the entrance to our ready room. It took no less than five minutes before several of the guys began snoring next to me on the cold and muddy floor. “Poor bastards,” I thought to myself. It wasn’t even 10 minutes before THEY were back again. BOOM! The door to the ready room was nearly kicked off its hinges and in poured the entire instructor cadre some slinging water. “What in the hell are you stupid fucks sleeping for? WHO SAID YOU COULD SLEEP?” Oh man were they pissed, and ironically it was one the same instructors who told us to go take a nap in the first place. As I shuffled past the screaming men, I silently patted myself on the back for not believing their lies. Some of my teammates looked shell-shocked.
Next, they had us remove our wet sand bags from our rucks and form up on the grinder. It was after midnight and the temperature had dropped to about 60 degrees. Out came the water hoses and we spent the next hour being tortured with cold water while performing sand bag drills. In my opinion, the most creative was when they had us race the entire 30-yard distance of the grinder while in a belly crawl. “You will push your sandbag across the grinder using only your nose. It pays to be a winner!” Try pushing a wet 60lb sand bag across cold concrete using only your face. “Did I really pay money for this?”
Log PT 101
Now I fully understood why they call it “the grinder.” My assumption was it’s because you’re made to grind-out so many reps, when in reality it’s short for “meat grinder.” All of us left a fair amount of skin back there on that concrete as it felt the same as crawling over sand paper. Finally, the sand bag drills were over and we were on to the next “evolution” (a SEAL term for training experience).
Each boat crew was instructed to pick up one of the 300-400 lb. logs and carry them into the gym. An instructor was waiting for us inside who gave us some safety tips about log PT and a few stern warnings. “Log PT is about team work and trust me that none of you can man-handle this log by yourselves. If you don’t put out as a team, you’re gonna get hurt. That goes for you too Boner you dumbass steroid-pushing meathead!” This particular instructor we found out lost seventeen friends from Seal team 10 when their Chinook helicopter was shot down on August 3rd, 2011. Five of them were his best friends and two had once saved his life in combat. Although he did his best to put on a good show for us, at times he seemed very sad.
We spent thirty minutes or so doing every exercise imaginable one can do with a log. Up log, down log, log push press, log squats, log burpees and the scariest of all was log bench press. It only takes one guy who isn’t putting out and the rest of us would be having a log sandwich as it crashed down onto our faces. Log PT also requires very precise and choreographed movements by the entire boat crew with the leader calling out each step, “Prepare to up log, right hand over, up log…prepare to down log, left hand over, down log.” My job as boat crew leader was to call out the commands. It sounds real simple but when you and your crew are already exhausted it requires an immense amount of concentration. “You will carry your logs down to Moonlight beach which is about one-and-a-half miles from here and look for the bonfire. An instructor will be waiting for you. You have 45 minutes to get there or else you’re gonna pay!”
Although painful at times, the extended log carry was a welcome reprieve from instructors. We cut-up a little on the way, talked some smack, and had a few laughs. Eventually we made it to Moonlight Beach and found the bonfire. The time was 0200 or thereabouts. “DO NOT COME NEAR THE FIRE DIP-SHITS! This is for us to keep warm not you.” “Not a big deal,” I thought to myself as the weather was cool but not freezing. WRONG AGAIN!
“Now drop your logs and go get wet & sandy. You have thirty seconds to get back here or else you’re all gonna pay!” He made us go back into the surf at least three consecutive times because we weren’t sandy enough. It was freezing! Next, they had us stand just far enough away from the fire that we couldn’t feel any of the heat. They passed-out shovels and gave us fifteen minutes to dig stadium seats that all of us could fit in. If we missed the time hack we would have to spend more time in the water. We failed two more times before we finally got it right.
Once snuggled in to our stadium seats we found it was quite comfortable. Several of us quickly learned that pissing on ourselves was a superb way to generate instant heat. It really works! The instructors told us we could remain cuddled-up in our warm cozy pee-filled sand pit as long as we maintained a steady barrage of dirty jokes. We laughed our asses off for at least a half-hour. At some point the instructors joined in with jokes of their own. They made us take turns describing in vivid detail how each of us lost our virginity. “You jerking-off over there Boner? Get your hand out of your pants!” Belly-laughing with a bunch of Navy Seals on the beach in the middle of the night, what else could be cooler than that? One of our teammates confessed he was still a virgin. Man they had a field day with him! Eventually we ran out of jokes and it was back to reality.
“Hey Boner, how long will it take you girls to fill in this pit and make it look as if it never happened?” I threw out ten minutes hoping he would go for it. “Nice try Boner, how about you guys take five minutes and if you fail you’ll all go get wet & sandy?” I think we finished in four minutes! None of us wanted to get back in that water! “You will log carry down the beach to Swamis which is one-point-five miles from here. You have twenty minutes and it pays to be a winner!”
The entire Encinitas, California beach head is saddled by a bluff approximately 200 feet above the sand. This means the only way to access the beach is via the ramps located at either end about two-and-a-half miles apart or else use one of the ten or so sets of stairs spread evenly about every other city block. Each set of stairs has somewhere between 200-300 steps to get to the top. The “Swamis Beach” access uses one of the stair routes. We made our time hack with the log but we were told to get wet & sandy anyway. Now we were really cold. I mean bone-shaking teeth chattering cold!
“You have ninety seconds to ascend the stairs. At the top you will find a box containing various objects. You will each spend sixty seconds memorizing every bit of information contained on the label of each object. We will quiz you on this information upon your return. Ready. Set. Go!” One major duty of any SEAL is to gather valuable enemy intelligence while inserted on the target area. Sometimes there’s only enough time to memorize whatever information they can with nothing available to write anything down. Failure to gather this information could mean the difference between life and death; either for themselves or other US soldiers in the war zone.
We spent thirty minutes climbing up & down those fricking stairs only to come back down and miss one question out of ten. It was very frustrating because we were each busting our asses to get it right. “Hey Boner, how many milligrams of sodium in a Rolaid?” I’d throw out my best guess. “Wrong answer, go get wet & sandy and get back up there for another look. We’re gonna keep doing this until you all get it right!” We must’ve run out of time because I don’t believe we ever answered all of their questions correctly. “You fuck-sticks are just plain stupid and I’m not wasting my time with you anymore. You will run down the beach to lifeguard tower number 17 and there the other instructors will meet you for your next evolution. GO!”
On the way, one of our teammates tried to quit. An often heard mantra is “Never quit at night.” I guess this is because it’s colder and more destitute. There’s also something about the first rays of the morning sun that brings new energy & hope. Besides, if this guy quit that would mean Boat Crew One would be down to four men on their log. We already only had four guys on Boat Crew 2, but we were bigger than them (boat crews are arranged by height). Essentially, it would make their lives a lot more miserable if they lost a man on their log! We rallied around our tormented brother and convinced him to wait until daylight before making his final decision.
“Chelsea” is a CrossFit benchmark workout very similar to Murph (which we’d just completed six hours prior). It is 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups and 15 air-squats, on the minute, every minute, for 30 minutes. We were made to use the railing of the lifeguard stand as a pull-up bar so “kipping” wouldn’t be possible. Another interesting twist which caused us great agony was the punishment the instructors threw in for falling out of step with one another. “If any of you idiots can’t keep up with the rest of the group then all of you will sprint up the ramp, touch the bathroom door, come back down, get wet & sandy, and then meet right back here for more!”
The Chelsea rounds were no big deal to me because I’d already stopped feeling any pain in my chest, arms & shoulders from performing “Murph” earlier. The hard part was executing each rep while staying together as it was still dark outside and some of us were starting to get a little gassed. The worst part for me was the hill sprints. We were averaging one penalty run for every three Chelsea rounds. I figured it was two-hundred meters to the bathroom door and we were moving either over soft sand or straight up hill. When it was over I think we must’ve run that hill at least ten times.
Just the math on “Murph” & “Chelsea” alone brought the nightly totals to 250 pull-ups, 500 push-ups & 750 air-squats. That doesn’t include all the other stuff we’d done! I tried not to think about it and focused on the current evolution. That’s what they told us to do. “One evolution at a time!”
The good news was it just starting to get light outside. We had survived our first night! Also good news, the instructors announced that it was time for breakfast. We were starving! They’d set up a small table just down the beach from us at the ramp. “You jerk-offs go get wet & sandy and then you have five minutes to eat your breakfast!” We didn’t care; we just wanted to eat something. No plates, napkins or silverware, just a bowl of cut-up fruit and plain dry bagels with cream cheese. I hate cream cheese but I ate it anyway. Since we were covered in sand and we had to grab the fruit from the bowl with our hands, the fruit took on a gritty, sandy texture as we chewed and swallowed. It was the best fruit & bagel with cream cheese I ever had. “Get moving, grab an extra bagel and put it in your pocket, it’s time for the next evolution dip-shits!”
Next, we essentially retraced our steps back to SealFit H.Q. We ran down the beach to where our rucks were stowed. Then we ran further down the beach to collect our logs, and log-carried all the way back to the grinder. Before we’d even left the beach, the bell rang. Our buddy quit. He was done and he wasn’t coming back.
Life is a Beach (Replayed)
Once we got back to camp and secured our logs, we were told again to change into dry cammies, socks & t-shirts. Coach Divine gave us another small lecture, this time on “mental toughness” (while standing of course). “Mental toughness is a trait that requires constant honing or else you go soft,” he says, “hard physical training doled out over long time domains, work that causes suffering, develops self-confidence & fortitude.” We talked about how SEAL’s live the same lifestyle as the ancient Spartans of the Agoge (read Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield.) He’s a great speaker and I hung on every word.
“You will don your rucks and run, not jog, back to Swammie’s Beach.” I hardly recall what torture we endured on that beach in the early morning haze, but I believe we were down there for at least three hours, alternating between running races (“It pays to be a winner”), and succumbing to extended rounds of surf torture. Active duty SEAL’s pride themselves on thriving where the enemy hates to be. If SEAL’s can catch the bad guys while they’re uncomfortable & bitching, then they stand a better chance at killing them without exposing themselves. That means SEAL’s love operating around the thickest swamps, densest jungles, hottest deserts and coldest glaciers. They embrace blue water (deep), cold & miserable weather conditions, and most of all SEAL’s own the surf zone.
We entered the water. “Drop and push’em out!” High volume push-ups are challenging enough without having cold Pacific waves breaking on your head. “Feet! On your stomachs! Feet! On your backs! One-hundred leg levers count’em out!” Just feel sorry for the poor sucker who attempts to count out loud as a wash of salt water mashes into his face leaving him choking. “Stop what you’re doing! Since Boner seems to be afraid of the water let’s help him overcome his fear. Put your heads under the water until I tell you dick-wads to surface!” I thought to myself, “How are we supposed to hear you tell us to surface if we’re under the surf?” Amazingly, once I simply quit feeling sorry for myself and focused hard on what I was doing, I could hear them talking while submerged. Remaining calm under duress is one lesson of surf torture, also a signature trait of all SEAL’s.
We had a British guy on our team we called “Beaver.” He and I hit it off rather well since we had roughly the same body mass. We shared the same pull-up bar during “Murph” and we stood next to each other while on the log. For a living he sells custom CrossFit equipment to gyms throughout Europe. As a rule, SEAL’s don’t like foreigners. I guess they were going to first try and convert Beaver to the US of A, and if that didn’t work they’d probably just kill him. “You will lock elbows and remained seated in the surf zone while repeatedly singing our National Anthem until dumb-ass Beaver gets it right!” As proud Americans, we worked at it for a long time while getting pounded by the waves, but Beaver never caught on.
We were fortunate to enjoy our lunch right there on the sunny beach, my first M.R.E. (meal, ready-to-eat). They’re like a grab bag of ready-made food. I actually enjoyed my cold “vegetable patty with sauce.” I’d been coached not to touch the peanut butter due to the gastric distress it causes. That’s when I looked over at my buddy who had already spread his peanut butter over his saltine crackers and was scarfing his down. I just chuckled to myself.
Back at SealFit HQ, we changed into work-out shorts, dry shirts & socks & running shoes. Coach Divine gave us an incredible lesson on various breathing techniques. “Breath is life,” he says. “When you learn to control your breathing you can survive most any situation.” He taught us five different techniques and I won’t cover them all, but on the low end of the spectrum he literally “breathed” us all to sleep. On the high-end, he “breathed” us into a full sweat, which actually ramped our core body temperature just by thinking about it. “That’s how you keep yourselves warm when you’re cold & wet,” he said. It was amazing!
At this point many of the instructor cadre entered the gym and prepared us for what was to be one of the longer evolutions. “We want to work out on the bluff above the beach head up there. You will empty the entire contents of this room and construct for us a functional gym at the beach park. You have three hours to make it happen and, while we’re working out, we want you to clean this place spotless!” The target area was beach park about four-hundred meters due West of SealFit HQ, and it was straight uphill. Every bar, plate, dumbbell, kettle bell, medicine ball, rowing machine…everything had to go. “And if we catch any of you fuck-twats dogging it you’re all gonna pay!” This is the point where I decided to step-up and take charge. We might not make the time hack but that gym was gonna be spotless, and those guys were going to have their equipment delivered for a just-in-time workout!
I can’t recall how many times we climbed that stupid-ass hill but after a few hours it fell like a thousand. Some instructors hung back to haze the guys who appeared to be struggling. I saw the pattern develop right before my eyes. The ones who were putting-out were often left alone. The guys who were feeling sorry for themselves, and giving in to the misery caught the instructor’s full attention and it would get worse for them. Many times I walked past a guy who was pulled-over as if at a traffic stop and made to do burpees. It never happened to me. “Way to put out Boner, now go and get me a pair of seventy-pound kettle bells before I start cooling down. You have six minutes to be back here!”
The instructors knew the perfect amount of time to allow a task to be completed. Anything less than 110% effort would mean failing to meet the time hack and cause more punishment. Sporadically, once we got to the top of the hill with a “delivery,” the instructors drilled us on excerpts of the Navy Seal Code. “Hey Boner, what’s line three of the code?” Any pause over one second meant instant failure and more burpees. “Ready to lead, ready to Follow, Never Quit, Coach Joey.” Then they’d hit you with the mind games. “That’s bullshit Boner you good-for-nothing dumb-ass. You just read me line 4. Drop, and push’em out!!!” I mustered-up a burst of courage. “Coach Joey I am one-hundred percent certain I just read you line three as you instructed. “Yeah, I guess you did. Nice job Boner, now get out of here.” I turned to jog away feeling empowered. “Hey, Boner!” I turned back and braced myself. “Hooyah, Coach Joey?” He smiles at me and says, “You’re still a dumb-ass!” Hooyah Coach Joey!
Navy Seal Code
Loyalty to country, team and teammate
Serve with honor and integrity on and off the battlefield
Ready to lead, ready to follow, Never Quit!
Take responsibility for your actions and the actions of your teammates
Excel as warriors through discipline and innovation
Train for war. Fight to win. Defeat our nation’s enemies
Earn your Trident every day
It took us three hours and twenty minutes to empty the gym, assemble the equipment atop the bluff, clean the gym and put it all back again. “You idiots failed the mission. Why don’t you all just quit right now and spare us the trouble!” I didn’t care, we busted our asses and that gym looked beautiful when we got done with it. I was proud of my team! HOOYAH Kokoro 18!
Palomar Mountain Mission
Back in the ready room and freshly changed into our boots & cammies, Coach Divine told us to prepare ourselves for the “endurance” phase of Kokoro. He gave us a full mission profile very similar to the manner in which the SEAL’s do it: tasking, planning, rehearsal, insertion, infiltration, reconnaissance, actions at the objective, exfiltration, extraction and debriefing.
In short, we would insert at the base of Palomar Mountain, ruck to the summit, recon an insurgent safe house, exfiltrate back the way we came and finally debrief with Commander Divine upon our return. Unfortunately, we’d lost another team member, this one to injury. My British friend Beaver had apparently cut his leg while performing Murph the previous night and now his entire leg was starting to swell. The real medics among us, the SEAL’s, had taken measures to nurse it along but at this point he was taken to the emergency room. Now we were down to a team of seven.
Palomar Mountain is about an hour drive inland from Encinitas. From the base of the mountain the summit lies at an elevation of 6,100 feet and it’s a thirteen-and-a-half mile hike, almost straight-up, to the top. Thank you Country Place hill! Coach Divine asked me to be team leader. It would be my job to make sure we executed the mission as planned, and more importantly to ensure the welfare of the guys on the team. We would insert at the base at 1900 and would need to have completed our reconnaissance of the insurgent safe house and be off the target area by 0100. Again, “it pays to be a winner!”
We were ordered to pack our rucks with our wet sandbags, 2ea M.R.E’s, 2ea canteens, one glow stick and any cold weather gear we wanted to take with us. I was issued a radio and was required to report-in every hour on the hour. “Don’t even think about being one second late Boner or else you’re all gonna pay!” I was pumped up for this hike! This was my “op” and I was in charge. Of the seventeen previous Kokoro Camps, supposedly none had made the time hack to the summit. It would be over my dead body that Kokoro Team 18 wasn’t going to be the first to make it happen!
We piled in to a large cargo van and started off for the mountain. We were told to eat one of our M.R.E.’s and hydrate with one full canteen of water with electrolyte mix. Mine was cold pasta & meatballs. Again I looked around and the guys that had peanut butter were eating it. Poor souls! “Wow,” I thought. “A whole hour to do nothing but sit.” It would be a welcome relief! WRONG AGAIN! The drive was sheer misery. “Hey Prick-wads, listen up! You will not make one sound during this drive. Not one word or you’ll pay up when we get back!” “Fine,” I thought. “I can handle that. I’ll be napping anyway.” “One more thing, if any one of you dip-shits closes your eyes it’s 50 burpees for all of you for each infraction!”
We were really screwed now! Most of us had already been awake for thirty-six hours so sleep would come easy. To make our journey even more cozy and conducive to dozing-off, the instructors turned the heat up to maximum and played smooth jazz on the radio. It wasn’t twenty minutes before our cumulative burpee count had already rolled two-hundred. Those guys were just plain evil!
Soon after, guys needed to urinate. We’d hydrated like crazy prior to departure then consumed the additional canteen while in the van. It was going right through us. One-by-one, as discreetly as we could, we took turns improvising in the only way we knew how. We pissed in our empty canteens! Line #5 of the SEAL Code reads, “Excel as warriors through discipline and innovation,” keyword “innovate.” And that’s what we did. Hooyah!
Soon enough, we were on our feet, marching in formation as instructed, and making our way up the mountain. “Don’t fuck this up Boner! We’ll see you at the first water station.” As we climbed higher and higher, with the sun setting over the Pacific, I can hardly describe how beautiful it was just to marvel over the golden California countryside. I can’t speak for the other guys, but I hadn’t felt that “alive” since my children were born. Just outright gorgeous!
At 2000 hours I made my first call, “Base this is Kokoro Leader, all is well and we are moving along nicely, over and out.” It was dark outside now and we only had a quarter moon providing any sort of light. We were not issued any flashlights (SEAL’s love the darkness!), and to keep track of each other we used glow sticks we had tethered to our rucks. The footing was rocky and dangerous. All we could do was trod through it and hope nobody rolled an ankle or worse.
The ascent was relentless. It was literally straight uphill and it never seemed to level off. I did my best to keep the team motivated by counting steps, using the breathing techniques we’d learned, even telling a few jokes. Our initial plan was to take a five-minute break on the hour, but that plan was out the window thirty minutes after we started. It was just too steep, so we were stopping every fifteen minutes or so for 1-2 minutes rest. Did I mention we were also lugging our weapons?
In total, I figure we were each carrying a seventy pound load. By this point many of us were showing blood on our white t-shirts where the ruck straps were cutting into the skin around our chests and shoulders. The wounds were either from the rucks or the logs, likely combination of both. During the briefing Coach Divine mentioned we could expect to hallucinate at some point during the journey. “It’s your mind playing tricks on you when you’re tired,” he said.
At 2200, we came upon the first water station which was great because our canteens were empty. One of the guys was complaining of chest pains so the instructors quickly yanked him out of there. Now our class was down to only six men.
Most of the team was looking forward to the journey back down the mountain since they thought it would be “easy” as we’d be moving downhill. Sounds rational but I knew better, and I kept my mouth shut. We were making great time and I didn’t want to squash the morale. Do you remember the peanut butter from the M.R.E.’s? Well whatever effect it had on the GI tract had come full-circle in some of these guys because every so often one would break formation and bee-line for the ditch next to the road. I’d never heard a butt make noises like that before! This was camaraderie at an entire new level!
We made the summit just before midnight. Victory! First boat crew ever to do it! However, our success was quickly overshadowed by failure when we breezed right past the safe house we were supposed to recon. “Hey Boner, I knew you were stupid! Where in the hell are you going? Come back 200 meters and recon the fucking house so we can get the hell out of here. By the way, that dumbass move just cost yall another five -hundred burpees!” Part of me wants to use the extreme blackness outside as an excuse. However, the truth is I was so set on getting us up the mountain in time that I lost focus and led us right past the target. We literally walked right past the damn house!
We finished our recon, took notes and drew our diagrams of the target site, and got back to the van around 0030 hours. “Great,” I thought, “That gives us thirty minutes to get off our feet and eat a nice cold M.R.E. and maybe catch a little nap before the thirteen-and-a-half mile ruck back.” WRONG AGAIN! We had just sat down and started opening our dinner when over the radio came, “Kokoro Leader, this is base, intelligence shows 200 armed insurgents headed your way from the Southwest approximately 100 mikes from your location. Pack your gear and head to the rally point soonest, over.” I was tired and pissed. I didn’t even try to play “SEAL warrior-talk” over the radio anymore because my guys and I were both hungry and tired. “What about our dinner?” I asked, throwing-in a little attitude. “Eat while you’re moving dumbass,” was the response.
The van took off down the mountain and passed us along the way making sure to kick-up a nice thick dust cloud as it slammed the brakes while it skidded past. The team was just looking at me dumbfounded. Then I risked everything and made the call. “Fuck it, I said. Everybody drop your rucks and let’s sit down for a nice dinner.” Nobody argued! “Just don’t fall asleep or we’re screwed,” I said.
I knew from rucking up-and-down Country Place hill that the hike down, although easier on the lungs, actually hurts more on the thighs and especially the feet. Gravity mashes your toes into the front of your boot with every step and after a while the pain starts kicking-in pretty well. This is also when the blisters start to form-up on your toes and heels.
None of us cared, we were all hallucinating so badly in the pitch black darkness it seemed like we’d been cast in an “Alice in Wonderland” movie. Coach Divine wasn’t kidding; it was like a creep show out there in the blackness. At first it was real subtle. I started ducking lower-and-lower to avoid striking the branches that didn’t exist. Then I started to see buildings, skyscrapers, bridges- all sorts of interesting structures. It was surreal! When a baby giraffe crossed the road in front of me, it freaked me out to the point that I stopped walking for a second. The other guys were dealing with demons of their own. “Hey, Bonser there’s monkeys following us! They’re all over the place!” We heard strange noises too. They seemed to be coming from just outside the trail. We would hear rustling in the leaves as if what little sound we were making was scaring-off wild animals who were trying to sleep. .
At exactly 0300, I called in as ordered, “Kokoro Leader to base, all is well, we are moving, over.” I was so tired it had taken me what seemed to be fifteen minutes to piece together that single phrase. “Very well, keep moving,” was the response. I thought about our fallen brother who was dealing with chest pains just a few hours before. The one they took away in the van. “How’s Johnson?” I asked. “Johnson is dead. Keep moving,” the voice said curtly. Coach Divine taught us that injecting humor into bad situations is one of the keys to mental toughness. All of us got a chuckle over that and it was enough to get us the rest of the way to the extraction point.
The Southern California sky was just starting to lighten as we each took our seats in the van. We had rucked an entire night while the rest of the world slept. Imagine yourself back in grade school fighting the biggest war of your life trying to keep your eyes open so you wouldn’t get busted by the teacher for sleeping in class. Multiply that feeling times a hundred and that’s what it was like for us, battling to keep our eyes open in the van; fighting for our lives to avoid burpees! We were passing around Tabasco & antiseptic hand cleaner which we’d rub under our eyes, anything to keep us from falling asleep.
It seemed like every five minutes the instructors would erupt in celebration as someone amongst us earned the group another fifty burpees for sleeping. It was like that the entire drive back to SealFit HQ. When we finally arrived, I think our burpee count totaled over a thousand reps.
Pay Your Debts
Once back at SealFit HQ, we spent about thirty minutes cleaning & securing all of our equipment. They made us clean the cargo van too. Sometimes the tiniest of adjustments in thought make all of the difference in your overall attitude. Coach Divine calls this a “pattern interrupt.” Out of nowhere, the three remaining pre-SOF guys in the class approached me with smiles on their faces. “Hey Bonser, we wanted to thank you for getting us up & down that mountain last night. Don’t know if it would’ve happened as smoothly as it did without you. For an old guy, you’re a pretty bad dude!” That one act of kindness by those young men was all it took to recharge my batteries to maximum!
It was Sunday morning and I figured we had less than eight hours before the class was secured. Not only was I going to make it through Kokoro, but I was going to dominate! I loved those guys for saying those words to me! We snuck a few minutes to hydrate and scarf down a few protein bars then it was time to meet up on the grinder to make good on all the burpees we had accumulated the previous night.
“Bet you losers thought we were gonna forget, huh? Since you shit-balls can’t follow the simplest of instructions and you’re all feeling sorry for yourselves, well guess what? You’re all gonna pay! You owe me one-thousand two-hundred and fifty burpees. Count’em out!” Most of us could hardly walk, stand, bend-over, or whatever. I could only marvel at how this was going to go.
Amazingly, once we started moving, my body no longer felt any pain. It was as if all my nerve receptors had been switched to the “off” position. I was in complete control of my breathing as well. When I started getting winded I would simply “breathe” myself back to a steady rhythm. Fortunately, he mixed it up a little and it wasn’t an exclusive repayment in burpees. The instructors blended-in flutter kicks, push-ups, leg levers, and the other usual suspects.
My personal best for a single round of air squats prior to this event was fifty. I had even completed multiple rounds of fifty squats before, but never more than fifty reps at once. During this particular beat down we executed a single round without rest of TWO-HUNDRED NINETY air squats! At one point I just broke out laughing. It was literally comical the things they were having us do after having accomplished so much already. “Your body is capable of twenty times more than you think it is!”
YOUR WILL TO LIVE
The time was approximately 0700, and we knew something big was about to happen because many of the instructor cadre suddenly appeared along with Commander Divine. He told us we had a decision to make as there would be two teams working the next evolution simultaneously, one would be an “assault” team and the other a “support” team. He didn’t hold back in letting us know that, although both would be quite challenging, the output & intensity required for the “assault” team would be much greater. Then he left the room.
As we changed into dry cammies, t-shirts, and this time, running shoes, the room got quiet as everyone took a moment for inflection to make their decision. My three SOF buddies approached me. “Hey Bonser, you’re with us on the assault team right?” I smiled and gave them the “Hooyah!” they were expecting from me. Everyone else had chosen the support team.
When we formed-up outside on the grinder one of the instructors said to me, “Hey Bonser, you’re going assault right?” It was the first time any of them had called me by my real name so I knew this must be a big deal. “This is Coach Divine’s favorite evolution. You’ve made the right decision and it’s gonna change your life forever!” I remember feeling all kinds of emotions, anxiety, anticipation, courage, and mostly excitement.
Coach ran both teams the two-mile distance to Moonlight beach then down the hard-packed sand to Swammie’s before splitting us up into our respective groups. All of the Sunday morning families were just starting to stake their claims on the sand for the day and many were cheering us on and taking pictures. I drew strength from that and I could see the other guys did as well.
Next, Coach Divine pointed out a lifeguard tower down the sand just over a mile away. “Insurgents have taken over Lifeguard Tower 16. You have ten minutes to assault the tower, and liberate the prisoners,” he said. “If you fail to meet the time hack, you die.” He went on to clarify what “to die” means in SealFit speak. “Surf torture,” we replied. “Exactly!” he said.
I recall thinking to myself that even over the sand, ten minutes to cover the mile dstance to the tower was gonna be cake. This time I really had it wrong! Remember the bluff I was writing about earlier with the massive staircases from the sand to the top? Well, between us and the tower were six of those bad boys and Coach Divine had us ascend them all! Up the stairs, around the shower head, and back down again, each we ran faster than the next.
We ran in the soft sand, not the hard pack, each step sucking the life out of our burning thighs. One hundred yards remaining to the tower and now we were running in an all-out sprint. Next, Coach instructed us to climb the tower without using the stairs, so this meant we’d have to get creative with our teamwork. Since I was the tallest guy, I lifted the first two on my shoulders to where they could reach the bottom of the railing with their fingertips. Then they pulled themselves up and over the railing using what strength they had left. I went next grabbing one of my teammates dangling arms and essentially rope-swinging to where I could grip the railing with my free hand and pull myself up and over. To get the remaining man up, two of us dangled the 3rd guy over the railing so our 4th teammate could grab on with both hands and we pulled them both up together. We completed the tower assault with only seconds left to spare.
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
The evolution wasn’t over yet. Next Commander Divine ran us further down the beach until we came to a swift-moving river which empties into the ocean. Together we crossed the river and ran upstream on the opposite river bank about another hundred meters. Coach Divine challenged us to swim through the current to the other side and select a large rock which represented our “will to live.”
“Choose a rock that’s too small and that’s how little you think of yourselves,” he said. “Pick one too large and you’ve made an irresponsible decision because here’s the kicker, if your rock touches the ground it means you’ve quit on yourself, your will to live, and you will die.” This was clearly a test of backbone and fortitude.
As we swam to the other side, the water became real deep for a stretch of about ten yards. I wasn’t sure how deep but I knew my feet were well clear of the bottom. Each of us spent a good five minutes looking for the right size rock. Most were huge, jagged pieces of granite. Out of the corner of my eye, I found mine at the water’s edge. After picking it up I figured it weighed about 45 lbs. There wasn’t a smooth edge on it and knew it was going to be an uncomfortable farmer’s carry. Regardless, I was committed now. I threw it on my shoulder and started moving.
I looked over and saw that the other guys had located their rocks as well, and all of us re-entered the water to make our return. I don’t know why I thought I’d be able to swim on the surface while carrying a heavy large rock under my arm, but no sooner did I hit the deep water I sank right to the bottom. Panic set-in for a second as I struggled to fight back for the above-water footing I’d just held. Once I had my head above water again I looked over at Coach Divine and the instructors standing alongside him for any sort of clue as to how to make it back. They just stood there stone-faced staring back at us. We would need to figure this one out on our own.
The solution hit me a few seconds later. I suddenly knew what to do. “Guys,” I said. “Here’s how we do this. Three deep breaths then jump of the side and ride your rock to the river bottom. Once our feet hit the bottom, we run like hell ‘til we get to the other side!” They each gave me a crooked grin and off we went. The river bottom was thick with mud & silt that sometimes came up to our knees, but it was working. Four heads popped out of the water on the other side almost simultaneously. We had made it!
We ran back the way we came, this time carrying our rocks and remembering, “…if you put it down, you die.” And of course we hit all six of the huge staircases along the way. I could almost see smoke radiating from my legs and aching shoulders but there was no way I was dropping that stupid rock! We ran all the way back to where we had originally split from the support team.
While we were off assaulting towers and hunting for big rocks, the “support team” had been busy digging a big sand pit for which they spent the rest of their time laying down, buried in sand, and camouflaged in in seaweed. The biggest challenge for them it appeared was trying to stay awake. I was glad I had chosen the assault team. I would rather do anything at this point than attempt to fight off sleepy eyelids again!
At the finish line, Coach Divine had us take a knee while still holding our rocks. He told us to close our eyes and to focus on the energy we had created- our will to live. It must sound corny reading this, but I swear I had bonded with my rock! “One…two…three…drop your rocks!” They hit the sand with one giant “thump.” “Now bury them in the sand and let’s go have some breakfast!”
The Potato Shack
We ran back to SealFit HQ with all of us in formation, even the instructors. Most of what happened during the run back was a blur, but I remember an instructor singing one of those military marching rhymes, something about pancakes and Kokoro Class 18. When we got back to the ready room we were told to change into dry workout shorts, t-shirts and running shoes and to make it quick because we were headed to breakfast and not to keep Coach Divine waiting.
Once we got out to the grinder thinking we were headed for some food, we were instead formed into a circle and made to do thirty more minutes of grinder PT: push-ups, sit-ups, lunges, air squats. It really didn’t matter anymore because none of us could feel a thing. The instructors commanded and we executed. Our group had really come together as a team.
Suddenly, Coach Divine appeared. “Let’s go get some breakfast,” he said. And this time we really did! Before I knew it we were sitting in a real restaurant, staring at a real menu and being waited on by real servers. There were other customers in the building too so it seemed too far-fetched that they’d make us do more grinder PT in this restaurant.
There were three rules during breakfast: 1) no talking, 2) no sleeping and 3) “Order whatever you want but you must clean your plates, or else you’re all gonna pay.” It was nice they didn’t cuss at us in there! Although starving I knew not to order too much food. The Pototo Shack served these huge dinner-plate sized pancakes, and some of the guys were ordering two and three of them. “Poor bastards,” I thought to myself.
The entire ordeal was quite comical because every so often one guy would literally fall asleep at the table, and his face would splat right into his pancakes. Five minutes later, the guy doing the laughing next to him would be the one with runny eggs all over his face. We ended up wearing more food than we ate!
The Final Beat Down
After breakfast we knew we were down to our last 3-4 hours. Coach Divine took us back for a final lecture on “leadership.” We were to remain standing of course. This time he had us standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the event someone passed-out while on their feet. As far as the lecture goes, he may as well have been talking to himself because not one of us heard a word. On two separate occasions that I can remember, guys on our boat crew were saved from busting their melons on the hard floor by the teammate standing next to him. By now, even the simple task of standing required all our combined strength and concentration.
Next Commander Divine took us into the gym for an hour-long class of warrior yoga to get us loosened-up. I’d never tried yoga before, but I am an absolute believer now! Not to be confused with stretching, as I thought it was, Yoga is an extremely intense practice which does wonders for one’s durability.
The team knew we were at the end. Anyone who watched the Kokoro videos on You-Tube knows the final yoga class is simply a set-up for the grandest & ugliest beat down of all. The “queen-mother” of hazing parties would be starting soon, and this time the instructors knew our weaknesses and fully planned to help us face our fears. I knew they had picked-up on my gagging incident on the grinder two days earlier, and during the yoga class I was preparing myself mentally for the inevitable water torture I knew they were planning to throw my way.
As seen in the videos, the yoga class slowly winds down into a final relaxed-state where everyone is laid-out on the floor in what’s called “the dead-man’s pose.” It should come as no surprise that snoring could be heard within seconds of commencing the dead-man’s pose. “Poor bastards,” I thought to myself once again.
There was no way I was going to sleep! I instead chose to work on my breathing, a technique called “the energy breath.” It worked like a champ too! While those guys were sawing logs, I was lying there making myself stronger! “No way am I going to sleep!”
I don’t know how long I had been asleep, and was likely dreaming about baby giraffes, when suddenly I was literally jolted to my feet. “WHAT ARE YOU FUCKERS DOING SLEEPING; GET YOUR SORRY ASSES OUT ON THE GRINDER!” It was on! The grinder had come alive. They told us to put our shoes back on but they didn’t give us any time so none of us did. Water was coming from everywhere. Here I am one minute sound asleep, and the next, I’m out on the grinder doing five-count burpees on the coarse concrete in my bare feet. It was medieval the things that were happening out there, but strangely I felt good. I felt really good! Unlike the first beat down, the fear of the unknown, the pain, the pity I felt for myself, it was all gone. All I really cared to focus on was the welfare of my teammates, and my first objective was to somehow start getting us back in to our shoes.
Suddenly a scuba mask filled completely with water was strapped to my head covering my eyes and nose. We were rolled-over onto our backs and forced to count-out flutter kicks. “Focus!” I kept telling myself, as two different hoses were simultaneously aimed at my mouth. “You’re afraid of the water aren’t you Boner? Well here, let us help you overcome your fear!” I could hear them but I was controlling it. I was focusing on taking one breath at a time. The flutter kicks were on autopilot. I could’ve done a thousand without even realizing. “On your stomachs blow-holes!” was the command. “Push’em out!” I led the count with my mask on. “Down!” came my command. “Thirty!” replied the team. I knew had this “Boner-is-afraid-of-the-water” issue licked and the instructors knew it too. Any water that entered my mouth I simply swallowed while keeping my mouth open. Eventually, they got bored with me and moved on to someone else. “It was over!” I thought to myself.
“You will log carry Boner over to the water-filled 55-gallon trash can and submerge him upside down until his head touches the bottom. There you will hold him in a vertical position for a ten-count while reciting the SEAL Code. Failure to recite the code correctly starts the clock over.” Forget terror. I was beyond that! Strangely, I remember thinking about how my wife responds with a very condescending, “Really?” when I say or do something stupid. At that moment, I actually said it out loud, just like she does, “Really?” And then I just laughed. I took a deep breath and down I went.
It was all up to my teammates at this point, and all I could do was wait. They’d put ice in the water and it was bitterly cold! “If I’d somehow gotten stuck head first into a toilet, this is exactly what it would feel like.” I was thinking all kinds of strange thoughts, anything to take my mind off what was happening. “Man I hope the Redskins do well this year…” Suddenly, I was yanked back out. It really wasn’t that bad! I’d even had air left over in my lungs to spare.
Each of us took a turn at the dunk tank, and then it was laps around the grinder, bear crawling, low-crawling, and crab-walking all in our bare feet. Guys were bleeding at their hands, back, feet, and shoulders. One on our team had somehow broken his front tooth in half. During this time we all managed to get our shoes back on. Water was still coming from everywhere. Hoses, buckets, they were even using the 55 Gallon trash can now.
Over to the logs we went. At least we had our shoes on! Two guys had apparently run out of gas because they were yanked off their log and were drawing most of the attention from the instructors. Now we were down to a boat crew of five guys working a single log. It seemed like an hour that we threw that log around. More log presses, log sit-ups, log burpees, and log bench press all the while being relentlessly pounded with water. I can’t remember the point that I actually started looking forward to taking the hose in my face but it’s true. I took comfort in the opportunity to hydrate with a few gulps of cold water.
“Prepare to up log!” came the next command. “Prepare to up log, left hand over!” I called out. We stood there for a second waiting for the next instruction. “You have been the sorriest class we’ve ever had since we started this thing!” said one of the instructors. “And for that you’re gonna pay! You will log carry down to Moonlight Beach, then over to Swamies, then back again. Kokoro doesn’t end until we say it does! You have one hour. Go!” It was deflating but no one said a word. We simply got moving with our log as instructed.
We walked about fifty meters when Coach Divine appeared. He had us hold our log in an extended press position while we recited both the SEAL Code and Invictus. He made us do it several times until we said it in perfect unison, with accuracy and conviction. Then he hit us with those magical words we’d all worked so hard to hear, “KOKORO 18, YOU ARE SECURED!”
We got that log down as fast as we could! Next was a “group hug” like no other. Some guys were crying and others were jumping up-and-down. I just stood there with a big grin on my face. I was too exhausted to jump and too happy to cry. Joey led us in a few Kokoro chants. “This is what it must feel like to win the Super Bowl,” I remember thinking. The instructors even carried the log back for us. Our work was finished for the weekend. Without a doubt one of the highest peaks I’ve climbed in my life! I knew the others felt the same.
A Party to Remember
We got cleaned-up with real showers and street clothes (I hadn’t brushed my teeth in over sixty hours!) Next we had one-on-one debriefs with Coach Divine and the entire instructor cadre. When it was my turn, they asked me a question. “What the fuck was that all about Bonser?” I took a second to remind myself that this thing was in fact over with and I wasn’t going to be punished anymore for giving the wrong answer. “I’m not sure I’m reading you Coach?” He smiled and asked, “How does a guy your age bring with him that level of intensity and obvious preparedness? I would expect that from one of these younger guys headed to BUDS. What’s got your fire going?” It was the ultimate compliment! I went on to explain how what began as a mid-life guy looking for a challenge, quickly morphed into an opportunity to lead from the front as a parent. I wanted my children to see their father work hard to achieve a goal, and most importantly, to never quit. “Good for you Bonser,” he said. “I saw that picture of your kids you had taped on the wall in the ready room. Good lookin’ crew you’ve got there. How old are they?”
After debriefs, we packed our gear and headed-up to the instructors quarters for BBQ and beers. Coach Divine took turns presenting us with our certificates and of course the coveted “Kokoro t-shirt.” Next was the award for class “Honor Man.” It went to Micah and he deserved it! He literally smoked all of us during every evolution and he was on his way to BUDS. Only fitting that Honor Man go to a future SEAL!
Coach Divine presented a second award that afternoon, the award for Exemplary Leadership. When he called me to the front of the room to receive it I was blown away. He said some really nice things about me which I’ll keep to myself, but one thing I’ll share was how he noticed on many occasions, when he knew things were going really shitty for us, how I always seemed to be smiling. “One of the keys to mental toughness & leadership is to never let’em see you sweat. Smiles can be contagious to the rest of the team.” We went on to have a great meal. And we got to drink beers with a bunch of Navy SEALs…literally a dream come true!
I’d like to give thanks to my teammates Michah, Jay, Durkin, Ditkoff, Olson, Joey & Beaver. Hooyah Kokoro 18!
I’d want to offer my gratitude and utmost appreciation for the support, instruction, time & encouragement I received from so many friends, family and even absolute strangers! The SEAL’s view an individuals’ performances as secondary since all efforts are about the TEAM. It was during fleeting moments of doubt (which usually came at night when the cold was so bad I thought my teeth would chatter right out of my head!) that I drew energy from reflecting on the TEAM of people who, sometimes unknowingly, prepared me both physically and mentally for this challenge and gave me the strength to keep going when death seemed imminent.
As awesome as this personal triumph was for me, completing Kokoro, pales in comparison to what I consider to be the greatest accomplishment of my life; the privilege of being husband to my loving wife and bad-ass CrossFit coach, Gretchen and father to my three incredible children, Taylor, Reeve & Ryder! Kids, you guys essentially sacrificed your entire summer so Dad could train. You never once complained and you were always first support me! It goes without saying how proud I am of each of you and the good kids you’ve become!
Gretchen & I have forbidden the word “quit” in our family. We tell the children how the “room of quit” will open its door to us many times throughout our lives. Sometimes you can’t help taking a look inside but the first time you step inside the room of quit you’re doomed to permanent residency!
Gretchen, thank you for being my rock and my soul mate! You know me better than I know myself and you’re always there to prop me up when I need it most! Thank you for giving me this gift and for being my number one supporter! I could not have made it through Kokoro without you, I love you like crazy and, of course, I owe you big time!
So this journey is over. I got to hang out with US Navy SEALS, the baddest dudes alive, for three days. We received only a micron of the pain & hardship those guys go endure every Wednesday without even thinking about it. They don’t whine or complain, they just do it. I’m in awe of the SEAL’s and what they’re capable of accomplishing, the pain threshold, the adversity they brush-off as nothing which would sidetrack any one of us for days. We should all be glad they’re fighting for our side! Please support them in any way you can at www.navysealfoundation.org.