Under the Radar

Simulating 'Lone Survivor' With the Extreme SEAL Experience

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As part of its promotion for the Lone Survivor Blu-ray and DVD release, Universal Pictures took a busload of journalists from DC down to Chesapeake, VA for the Extreme SEAL Experience, a kind of special forces fantasy camp run by former Navy SEAL Don Shipley.

Shipley's got the legit credentials. He graduated BUD/S in class 131 in 1985 and later served on SEAL Team One and SEAL Team Two. After his Navy service, he worked with Erik Prince at Blackwater before creating the Extreme SEAL Program.

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We got a highly abbreviated, one-day version of the full program that included basic instruction in rappelling, a chance to fire automatic weapons and a helicopter ride over downtown Norfolk.  The real deal includes a basic 7-day event (with hell night), an advanced 7-day event or a full two-week course that combines the two.

Don runs the business with his wife Diane and a network of veterans who live in southern Virginia. He was joined by fellow SEAL Tom Black for our session. Don's website describes the ESE as a "mom and pop operation" and there's nothing canned, corporate or slick about the experience. It was a sharp (and welcome) contrast to the stage-managed hustle back up in DC. Don's program is designed to accommodate different abilities. He talks a lot about finding a way to push each participant to their own personal limits rather than holding everyone to the absolute standards you'd find in actual SEAL training.

photo: Eric Vespe

Our day began with some basic harness instruction from Don and Tom. We then loaded up in a truck for a drive to Ballahack Airsoft to rappel off a 50-foot tower. Our lesson was brief, but Don got everyone down the wall and comfortable enough to do it at least twice.

photo: Eric Vespe

We loaded up again and drove to an undisclosed location to shoot with former SEAL Dale McClellan, who now runs Special Tactical Services. Dale's team gave some basic safety instruction, offered a choice of foam earplugs or the headphone-style protectors and gave everyone the opportunity to fire the PPSh-41 and MP5 submachine guns and the M240 and M249 SAW machine guns.

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Everyone also got a chance for a helicopter ride with Jonathan Guibas from Hampton Roads Helicopters. Flying in an open four-seater is a much different experience than the big limo-style commuter helicopters. You're a lot more aware of what's going on with the wind. Piloting one of these things would be a lot of fun.

We barely scratched the surface of the full one- or two-week programs that add in a lot of physical training, climbing, survival training and boat work to the rappelling and weapons training. The emphasis here is more on "Experience" than "SEAL." These are good guys who are creating an opportunity for their clients to discover their limits and exceed them rather than creating an elaborate demonstration of just how much more badass they are than you'll ever be.

Was any of this remotely like the real deal as portrayed in Lone Survivor? Probably not, but movie studios seemed to have collectively decided that DVD releases need more creative promotion than just the usual actor roundtable interviews and they're going out of their way to create these unique experiences. After this trip, at least one group of people writing about action movies have actually fired automatic weapons and jumped off the side of a building. That's going to make everyone's work better and it gives a group of veterans like Don and his crew a chance to promote what they're doing to a broader audience.

Thanks for Eric Vespe for the top three photos. For some different takes on our trip to the Extreme SEAL Experience, check out the stories from ColliderAaron SagersComingSoon.net, Ain't It Cool News, JoBlo, Complex and Bullz-Eye.

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