The Navy announced Friday that it will begin regularly testing all Navy SEALs and the elite force’s recruits for performance-enhancing drugs, signaling a major public shift for a community that was hit hard by investigations and criticism in the wake of a death in 2022.
Rear Adm. Keith Davids, the commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, told the entire special warfare community that it will now face random, forcewide urinalysis for the drugs, or PEDs, beginning in November.
The move is one of several safety measures the Navy has taken since the death of Navy SEAL recruit Kyle Mullen in 2022. Subsequent reporting publicly revealed that recruits have been turning to PEDs in order to pass what is considered to be one of the hardest and most prestigious training courses in the military.
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In a statement provided to Military.com, Davids said that the move was “to ensure every NSW teammate operates at their innate best while preserving the distinguished standards of excellence that define NSW,” Davids said.
According to Navy documents provided to Military.com, the PED testing will closely mirror the Navy's long-standing urinalysis program that tests sailors for drugs like marijuana, opiates and methamphetamines.
The documents say that "15% of a unit's population must be tested per month" and that commanders will have the ability to do a "unit sweep," where every sailor in a unit is tested.
Selected sailors will provide two samples -- one to be used to test for PEDs by an outside lab and a second to test for traditional drugs by a Navy lab. The PED testing will also move away from a less precise test that was used during the trial portion to one that is able to test directly for banned substances, such as anabolic steroids, growth hormones and masking agents that can conceal the drug use.
The documents say that if a sailor tests positive and can’t offer a legal justification for the result, they will be "processed for administrative separation for either an orders violation or for the commission of a serious offense."
Also, positive tests in recruits will result in instant removal from the training pipeline, while sailors in the fleet could face "being held back from a pending/immediate deployment while the preliminary inquiry process takes place," according to the documents.
The move, one of several changes that the usually secretive Navy SEAL community has undertaken since Mullen's death in February 2022, suggests that leaders are serious about making changes to how operators are trained and overseen in the fleet.
Aside from the drug testing, the community has cooperated with a rare, outside investigation of its training methods after Mullen's death, and more recently, it has begun non-judicial punishment proceedings against three top officials who served at the time of the mishap.
Months after Mullen's death, a rare outside investigation revealed that the training regimen that the community uses to determine who can begin the training to become a SEAL operator -- commonly called "Hell Week" -- had become too brutal and vindictive, even by the SEALs’ own grueling standards.
Mullen had completed Hell Week, which is an early and key part of a larger course known as Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, or BUD/s, but had ignored breathing issues throughout the ordeal out of fear of being dropped from the course. This was revealed in the first official investigation conducted by the SEAL community itself.
By the end of the course, Mullen was visibly swollen and had to be wheeled out of a medical screening. Instructors told investigators that this was common.
He would die that night while refusing medical attention and coughing up blood. A later autopsy pinned the death on a pneumonia infection but noted that the sailor's enlarged heart was a contributing factor.
However, that second outside investigation would go on to note that investigators found a stash of performance-enhancing drugs in Mullen's car, including testosterone and human growth hormone, but his blood and urine were unable to be tested for the drugs. Two of Mullen's fellow candidates tested positive.
Around the time of Mullen's training, Rear Adm. Hugh Howard, Davids' predecessor as the commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, told the leaders and instructors at the unit who ran the training that their drop rate had spiked to nearly one in two recruits not making the cut.
However, Howard stressed that it was important not to relax standards to solve the issue, and investigators found that some "may have misunderstood his intent."
What followed was a change among the instructors to a mindset "focused on 'weeding out' candidates and 'hunting the back of the pack.'"
The command moved quickly to put in drug-testing protocols after the discovery of drugs among Mullen and his fellow candidates, but was hindered by its inability to order blood tests that, according to a CNN report, required approval from the Pentagon.
So, instead, from February 2022 to March, leaders ordered testing of candidates with a more basic testosterone ratio test, which only served as an indirect indicator of PED use and was used as a way to provide probable cause for further testing.
Navy spokesman Cmdr. Ben Tisdale told Military.com in an email that out of 2,558 tests, they found 74 candidates with elevated testosterone levels, and three candidates tested positive for "an anabolic substance." Tisdale did not say how many of those candidates also tested positive on follow-on tests.
More recent figures suggest the problem truly is minimal. The service says that only three of 434 recruit candidates -- 0.69% -- have tested positive for banned substances, including PEDs, since March.
Navy documents released Friday say that the community only has "anecdotal evidence of PED use amongst our ranks, and PED-usage amongst our candidates are significantly less than some media reports suggest." An August 2022 report by The New York Times cited more than a dozen current and former candidates who alleged that drugs have become “deeply embedded” in the selection course over the past 10 years.
Regardless, the documents say that service leaders “hold firm that any number above zero is unacceptable -- whether in training or downrange."
Just like the Navy's regular drug-testing program, the new PED testing regimen also offers a carve-out for those prescribed substances like testosterone for legitimate reasons. Testosterone replacement therapy can be prescribed by doctors for individuals who suffer from abnormally low hormone levels.
"There are legitimate medical conditions that can, and should, be treated with prescription medications under medical supervision. We encourage members with concerning symptoms to speak with their medical providers to get diagnosed and properly treated," according to the documents.
According to Davids, the new policy is "a proactive demonstration of our steadfast commitment to the health, safety and operational readiness of every member of the NSW community."
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on X at @ktoropin.