“Unclebach, Fail!” We’d just surfaced in the training pool after 16 minutes of grueling underwater mental and physical torture. The instructor had lead me to the surface letting me know the test was over. Mentally, I was thinking I could have passed, I was underwater for a long time, typically a good sign, but there was a particular challenge of the test, “The Whammy Knot,” that I did not see. Deep down though, I knew it was not a pass. And I didn’t have to wait long. As soon as I had caught my breath above the surface, I heard the instructor yell out my name loud enough for the record keeper, myself and all the class to hear. My name and the word you’d like least in the world associated with your identity, “fail.”
Pool Comp, short for Pool Competency, is the 2nd big hurdle in BUD/s (Basic Underwater Demolitions) the 6-month selection program used by the SEAL Teams to gather only the most qualified candidates. The first big hurdle is Hell Week. The 5 day, non-stop physical challenge, the unequivocal test of mental fortitude. None shall pass without the will to give every last ounce of himself before quitting.
So what's left to test? Others put it more simply. Hell week tests your body, Pool Comp tests your mind. This is accurate for pool comp other than you need a decent lung capacity. It is not a test of physical ability.
Let me paint the picture for you a little bit more. Hell Week is the 4th week of BUD/s. Pool Comp starts the 11th week of training. You’ve also been through 8 weeks of boot camp, 8 weeks of Pre-BUD/s, and 4 weeks of BUD/s Indoc. So at this point, you're twenty plus weeks in on a slingshot ride through some of the difficult challenges you will ever face. Like all things in BUD/s, you pass, or you go away. Pool Comp gives each individual 4 attempts to pass. If you don’t pass, you are removed from the class.
I was rather confident for 19, definitely too confident. You see I fancied myself the mental warrior. Where some of these men in their mid-twenties were far more physically developed then I was, I believed I was still in the pack because of my mind. So, conveniently, with my so-called mental training and no fear of water, I thought myself highly equipped for the mental test that is Pool Comp.
The test begins on a Friday. Everyone in the class gets two attempts on a Friday. If you don’t pass, you have to wait out the weekend, with your fate in the balance. And wait I did. The 16 minutes with no whammy knot was my first attempt. The instructor told me after the first failure, "You were testing perfectly except for twisted straps. Both times you donned your gear you didn’t trace from the tanks. You had a twisted strap on your right shoulder. You did it twice. I was supposed to fail you at that point, but you were doing so well I let you try a third time. If you had just put your gear on straight the third time, I would have given you the whammy knot, and you would have been done… Do you have any questions?” My pupils probably looked like marbles at that point. I burped out a “No Instructor” and exited the pool.
I swallowed the frustration of that attempt and turned it to confidence. All around me guys were failing after 2 or 3 minutes underwater. Four or five guys had managed to pass on their first attempt. I figured, hey, great first attempt, just don’t twist your straps and you’re good. After a bleak half hour on the pool deck, it was my 2nd attempt. Allow me to rabbit trail for a second, this one is worth it. Or skip the next paragraph, your choice.
That bleak half hour, haha. Definitely a wishful fly on the wall scenario. While you are awaiting your turn at pool comp, all students sit on the deck in rows facing away from the pool. It's eerily quiet compared to the typical days at the pool, but the calmness is broken up with gusts of unseen fear. Every few minutes you’ll hear a student surface in the pool. Most of the time they surface coughing up a lung of water, barely back from the brink of aquatic hell, as they attempt to say “I feel fine,” as we are instructed. And the others, you hear them surface in silence, except for an instructor calmly calling out “medic” as he drags an unconscious, drowned student to the edge of the pool. Then you hear the student pulled out of the pool. The instructor makes a judgment call on how to resuscitate. At some point the student will eventually take a big gasp of air and sit-up with an ok sign, flashing back mentally to his last conscious thought. So yeah, it was bleak on the pool deck those days. And the fear and anticipation only grow without being able to see, just left to your imagination. *Spoiler alert for life: your imagination is a scaredy cat, don't trust it.
Where was I? Oh yeah. My 2nd attempt. You’d think my next attempt would be a good one. It certainly was, but good doesn’t cut it. “Fail” again. The next instructor was much less encouraging, “18 minutes, twisted strap times two. Pretty stupid way to fail if you ask me. Do you have any questions?” And that's how my Friday ended. It was not a fun weekend.
The weekend is your opportunity for remediation, practice. Others spent hours on Friday and Saturday practicing and going over what they had failed. I didn’t even know what to do, I was dumbfounded. It’s so easy not to twist a strap in practice. I maybe spent an hour each day practicing. I thought I didn’t have much to practice, just don’t twist the straps. I was just so eager to try again.
Monday came and Monday went. “Fail” times two. Both attempts for more than 15 minutes. At this point, I’d spent a lot of time in aqua hell. My third attempt was a horrible display of overconfidence, two mistakes made going way too fast and trying to rush through it. And my 4th attempt, take a guess. Twisted strap times two. My time with Class 286 was over. What would become of me?
The next day was my DRB (disciplinary review board). I and 8 other candidates individually took our turn standing before a panel of 6 of the highest ranking instructor staff. It was a 15-minute absolute verbal beat down. The DRB’s are a test in and to themselves. They are putting you under pressure to see how you’ll react. I had my story straight from the beginning, and I kept it short. I answered questions with a yes or no, and when asked for an explanation I said that I would mature before the next class and learn to pay attention to the details. I learned a lot about myself in that review board. You want to talk about humble pie?
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention. Let me go back. I had to go last, they were processing in alphabetical order. Seven of the eight before me had walked out the door, glanced up at the rest of us standing in formation and shook their head no as they took off on a run back to the barracks. Only one, my friend Pete, had been granted a 2nd chance. He would try again with the next class.
As I stood there with a mouthful of humble pie, I heard their conclusion, Instructor Brown said, “I don't know why, because you're young and we should just send you back to the fleet, but I think there’s about a 2% chance you’ll figure it out.” Another said, “I wouldn’t mind a second chance at drowning this turd.” Thanks man. Finally, the officer spoke, “Unclebach” He glances down at my file, “You’ve got a lot to learn” extremely long pause, “in a short amount of time. You’ll join Class 287 in February. Beat it.”
I was out the door before they could change their mind. And that was one of the most peculiar feelings I have ever felt. There was no one standing outside the door for me to greet. I allowed the biggest grin to cross my face, and I wore it all the way back to the barracks, while at the same time feeling the most dejected I had ever felt in my life.
I had three months to think about everything they had said, “immature” “too young” “not ready” “moves too fast” “doesn’t pay attention” and many others. I remembered what my father had always told me. “If the shoe fits wear it.” Unfortunately, a lot of those shoes did fit.
(I’m guna move quick for all you ADD folks and get to the point now)
So I waited it out from December to March for the next class to start. All the while wondering why I had been chosen over the other 7 candidates they had discarded. Thinking about all the things they had said about me.
Fast forward back to Pool Comp, I feel I’m finally ready, and my first attempt is one of the instructors who has a reputation for failing nearly every student he tests. I was no exception. I don't remember the failures from that test, I just remember it wasn’t good. 2nd attempt, “17 minutes, twisted strap times two.” You’ve got to be kidding me I thought. How could I come this far and make the same stupid mistake? Long weekend again.
All these thoughts came flashing back that weekend. Thoughts that I wasn’t ready and I had wasted all my prep time. My practice on Friday was horrible and pathetic, but I mentally reset that evening. Saturday I practiced and rehearsed for 4 hours until I was utterly exhausted.
Monday came. 3rd/7th attempt. I’m really not sure what happened. If any of my attempts were a waste, it was this one. I don’t want to try and label it, what I do know is that it was my worst attempt, a total waste.
I went back to the pool deck and sat down. Hardly anyone around me. I only sat for a couple of minutes. Everyone else had either passed or taken their 4th attempt.
I jocked up for the last time and shuffled to the edge of the pool. I get goosebumps thinking back. My thoughts transformed in a split second. I can remember the nerves nearly taking over. At that moment I fully came to terms in a way I hadn’t before. Failure here would indeed mean my journey was over. I accepted the possible defeat, but there was a quiet confidence, a different kind of confidence. I didn’t feel like I deserved to make it. I didn’t feel like I could just push through until I passed. This was my absolute last chance, and there was a high chance of failure, but I reminded myself of my first thoughts about BUD/s, “It's hard, but it’s possible,” and now I am prepared. The instructor at the edge of the pool asked if I was ready and I quipped, “First last attempt. I'm ready Instructor.” He gave me a look for the added verbiage, then said, “step to the edge.”
I stepped to the edge of the pool and waited for the next instructor to surface. It was Instructor Brown. He surfaced with Pete on his final attempt, and Pete had failed. Wow, great last thought. Brown looked straight at me and said: “enter the water.” I did so aggressively, shoving off the thought of Pete’s failure as I entered the water. I hit the bottom of the pool, and the test was on.
19 rough minutes later, “I feel fine,” I said as I surfaced. Immediately Brown says to me, “What was that?” I just looked at him, I didn’t say anything. He didn’t call out my test status as was the norm. We swam to the short end of the pool and stood up. He looked at me and said, “why didn’t you do that the first time?” Short pause. “That was a good test Unclebach. You still have a lot to learn. You don’t want a pattern of failure to follow you. Take what you learned here and stop making simple mistakes… Unclebach PASS!” He yelled out.
Long one today. Thanks for hanging in there. Pool Comp was one of the hardest lessons I learned in my life. Hell Week was only 5 days, but my Pool Comp was over 4 months long. Between my 8 attempts, I spent over two hours underwater gasping for breath.
I learned what it meant to own my failures truly. I thought something about myself that at that time, was not true. I didn’t have it together like I thought I did. It was also one of the most humbling moments of my life. I had been spared by the mercy of my instructors. For whatever they didn’t see, they also saw potential. I could have just as easily ended up like Pete.
When you face failures don’t brush them off. Learn from your mistakes or repeat them. Choose to be humble, or you will be humbled.