Testing of Navy SEALs May Unveil Scale of Performance-Enhancing Drug Use -- and Unleash Legal Battles

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

The Navy's Special Warfare Command is poised to begin regularly testing all Navy SEALs for performance-enhancing drugs next month, but the effort to root out the potentially dangerous substances could also lead the service into a legal minefield.

The move is being presented as a reasonable safety measure by the Navy following a highly publicized sailor death, reports of widespread abuse of the drugs in the SEAL training program, and damning investigations that painted a picture of instructors showing little regard for the safety of recruits -- often pushing them beyond their physical limits.

"This is really about just taking care of our damn people," Lt. Cmdr. Ben Tisdale, a spokesman for Naval Special Warfare, told Military.com in a phone interview Wednesday.

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The announcement in September of the new drug testing program came more than a year after the death of Seaman Kyle Mullen, a recruit who had just completed the first leg of the training pipeline to become a Navy SEAL. Following his death, a stash of performance-enhancing drugs, including testosterone and human growth hormone, was found in his car, raising further concerns about whether the practice had become part of the elite community's culture.

In a statement provided to Military.com in September, the Navy said it would be testing for anabolic steroids, which the service defines as "any hormonal substance, chemically or pharmacologically related to testosterone, that promotes muscle growth;" growth hormones; blood-boosting agents; and any substances designed to mask steroid use.

According to Tisdale, leaders at the top of the Navy's special warfare community are "just making sure that we have effective operators" and their No. 1 concern is long-term health of service members.

"Folks who decide to take [performance-enhancing drugs] really put their teammates at risk because now they're dependent on a drug that may or may not actually work," Tisdale said. "At worst, it puts them in a position where, say, they're out in the field and they [can] crash or whatnot from this drug."

Military.com spoke with two experts who agree.

Dr. Matthew Fedoruk, the chief science officer of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, told Military.com in an interview last week that "in many cases, we don't understand the complex side effects of taking one or more of these substances, and if you're not doing it in a medically supervised way, I think there can be serious health consequences."

Similarly, Brad Martin, a former Navy captain turned senior researcher at the Rand Corp. think tank, told Military.com that putting SEALs in the "situation of relying on some substance is probably going to have an unexpected reaction" and "result in operational failures."

But Tim Parlatore, an attorney who specializes in representing military clients, says the new testing policy runs the risk of "severely damaging" the entire Navy special warfare community.

"It's going to take a lot of money, it's going to take a lot of resources, it's going to create a lot of distractions, it's going to negatively affect unit readiness," he said in an interview Wednesday.

Parlatore represents a number of special operators and, particularly, Navy SEALs. He represented Eddie Gallagher, the now-retired Navy SEAL who was accused of war crimes by his former colleagues during a tumultuous deployment to Iraq in 2017 but was ultimately acquitted of the most serious charges.

The special operations community uses drugs and substances "so they can perform at a higher level and be better at doing their job and killing bad guys and coming home safe," he said. "They're making a calculated decision that the taking of these legal substances will increase the likelihood that they are successful on the battlefield and they and their brothers come home safely."

Navy investigations and media reports have revealed that drug use is prevalent in the SEAL selection course, called Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL, or BUD/S. However, just how widespread their use has become either at training or in the fleet is not clear.

"If we've created missions where we need to have Navy people doing drugs, we need to reevaluate those missions," said Martin -- a sentiment that Tisdale said Rear Adm. Keith Davids, the head of Naval Special Warfare Command, "would 110% agree with."

Both Tisdale and Fedoruk also stressed that there are far more traditional -- and proven -- methods to ensure top performance.

"If you follow just good basic principles about diet, nutrition, sleep, working out routines ... you don't need this stuff to really be the ideal operator," Tisdale said.

He said that one of the reasons behind the new testing policy is to help determine "how big this problem might be."

The new testing policy is complicated by the fact that, unlike the illegal drugs the military already regularly tests for -- opiates, methamphetamines and marijuana, at least some of the performance-enhancing substances can be legal in certain circumstances and have legitimate medical uses.

Many of the substances that athletes and special operators can take to increase the amount of oxygen being carried to their muscles, train harder or recover faster are also treatments for diseases like anemia and chronic kidney disease.

The drug erythropoietin (EPO) is prescribed for patients in kidney failure, chemotherapy and other situations where there is loss of red blood cells and anemia. It is also one of the drugs that famously brought down the cyclist Lance Armstrong because it allows the body to make more red blood cells than normal which, in turn, means muscles get more oxygen, boosting stamina and performance.

Testosterone replacement has also been prescribed for troops who have experienced traumatic brain injuries that have harmed their ability to produce testosterone.

However, it's also a substance that can be taken to enhance muscle growth. In those situations, the side effects can be severe, including heart problems and risks of permanently shutting down the body's own production of the hormone.

The Navy's investigation into Mullen's death found that his heart was more than twice the normal size. Nine months earlier, an electrocardiogram had found no abnormalities, according to the Navy's investigation.

Medical experts cited in the investigation were split over whether his enlarged heart was a side effect of performance-enhancing drugs.

Ultimately, the difference between taking a substance for therapy versus performance enhancement is often in the amount and whether it's being taken in combination with other substances. Fedoruk said that it's that type of use that makes the practice dangerous.

"What there isn't out there [in terms of medical research is] what happens when you're taking more than the therapeutic dose or you're taking these things in combination together," he said, at one point calling the practice of creating various drug combinations a "pseudoscience."

Tisdale said that the newly announced testing policy, like the Navy's regular drug policy, allows for exceptions for drugs that are noted in a sailor's medical record, and leadership hopes this will encourage operators to come forward and disclose any prescriptions they may have received from civilian doctors.

"We've had numerous sailors come forward to their primary care physician, and say, 'Hey, I'm on this for whatever reason. I was prescribed it out in town,'" he said.

The new testing policy will start fleetwide in November, which brings with it possible positive results but also the specter of administrative punishments for sailors.

Parlatore says he's ready.

"I expect that a lot of people will be calling me," he said, adding that he's "already told my team to gear up for it."

The Navy has said that any sailor with a positive test result that lacks a justification will be processed for separation, but Parlatore doesn't think discharges will necessarily follow.

"Everybody who pops positive must be processed -- it doesn't mean that they actually have to be separated," he said.

Sailors with more than six years of service will go before a separation board made up of members of the command. Parlatore said that he's had cases "where the board has said, 'We believe that they did commit the misconduct -- that they did actually take this drug -- but we don't think that separation is warranted.'"

Regardless of the legal or career implications, the long-term consequences of allowing performance-enhancing drug use are not worth the perceived benefit, the Navy and experts say.

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

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