Outside Investigation of SEAL Training Underway in the Wake of Death and Reports of Drug Use, Navy Confirms

Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training is held.
U.S. Navy SEAL candidates participate in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training. (Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt/U.S. Navy)

The Navy has confirmed that it has begun an investigation into the training that Navy SEAL recruits undergo in the wake of the death of Seaman Kyle Mullen -- a sailor who died just after passing the initial phase of the training in February -- as well as reports that the program is rife with drug use, cheating and abuse.

A service spokesperson said in a statement that "senior Navy leaders have initiated a separate investigation to look at the broader circumstances that were, in part, raised by Mullen's death."

The spokesperson also noted that "the Line of Duty investigation into the tragic death of Seaman Kyle Mullen is being finalized and reviewed," adding that once it is complete, "it will be given to his family and released."

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Mullen, 24, was a Navy SEAL candidate who died just hours after completing the grueling "Hell Week" in early February. Early statements by the Navy said he began "experiencing symptoms of an unknown illness."

However, months after Mullen's death, his mother, Regina Mullen, now armed with more information given to her by the Navy, began to speak out. In July, she revealed that Mullen's autopsy showed that he had managed to complete "Hell Week" -- widely believed to be one of the toughest military training regimens -- while suffering from pneumonia.

The coroner's report said that, in the hours after Hell Week ended, Mullen tried to recover but his lungs filled with fluid and he filled a water bottle with bloody sputum. Medics spent 30 minutes trying to revive the young sailor before finally taking him to a civilian hospital in San Diego.

"My son was tortured," Mullen's mother told Coffee or Die Magazine. "He was lying in the barracks on a filthy mattress on the floor. He should have been in the hospital."

Later reporting by The New York Times revealed that Mullen wasn't the only sailor to develop serious issues in that group of trainees. That same afternoon, another sailor had to be intubated, and two others were hospitalized that evening.

The reporting by the Times also described a culture of drugs and performance-enhancing substance consumption that has developed over the last decade. However, the revelations in the reporting, along with Mullen's death, have led the Navy to grapple with the question of whether its famed training is now too punishing -- that it drives sailors to the brink of death or into cheating with drugs and other substances.

The Navy spokesperson said that the service "cannot provide an exact date as to when these investigations will be completed" but asserts that it "remains committed to transparency and ensuring the final reports are thorough, accurate, impartial, and that confidence and credibility are maintained throughout the entire process."

The investigation, first reported by The New York Times, will be run by a rear admiral from outside the Navy's special warfare community, according to that report.

Allegations that the SEAL training program is too brutal and unsafe are not new. In 1991, a Government Accountability Office report noted that instructors were "conducting some training that was not approved by higher authorities as part of the curriculum and some that may involve unacceptable risks to students." The report added that some exercises that were observed "did not belong in a basic SEAL course" and cited examples like waterboarding the trainees.

At the time of that report's release, the Chief of Naval Education and Training assured investigators that the "waterboard torture demonstration would definitely not be approved" for SEAL training in the future.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: 'My Son Was Tortured': Mom of SEAL Candidate Who Died Hours After Completing 'Hell Week' Speaks Out

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