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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Thai Navy Seals: One hell of a week

Some people are willing to push themselves to breaking point to fulfil their dreams

'Hooyah!" shout the exhausted, trembling Navy Seal trainees in unison to their demanding instructors as they prepare for the most dreaded part of the infamous "Hell Week". They are so tired that they can barely stand in a straight line. Their muscles ache beyond any pain they have ever experienced, and their bodies are chilled to the bone.

They have been submerged in a pool of ice-cold water as part of the Basic Underwater Demolition component of Hell Week. The tough task is not only intended to help their bodies cope with hypothermia, but also to test their mental resolve.

There hearts pounding, the mission is far from over - what lies ahead of them is a 3.2km run and then another obstacle course that would challenge the strongest men.

The trainees knew beforehand it would be the toughest task they have ever faced. But the challenges don't dull their determination to become Royal Thai Navy Seals, the country's elite maritime warriors.

Hell Week consists of 120 hours of continuous training in April, the hottest month of the year, at the Naval Special Warfare Centre in Sattahip, Chon Buri. Trainees get by on only a few hours sleep. Hell Week is the second phase of the training, designed as the ultimate test of physical and mental prowess.

MAXIMUM EFFORT: Trainee Seals struggle through a pool of mud, part of the obstacle course

''To become a Seal is my dream,'' says 26-year-old Petty Officer 1st Class Praiwan Taengmanee, who graduated from the gruelling Underwater Demolition Team Reconnaissance class, the first phase, last year.

''It's the toughest thing I've ever done. Hell Week is the most challenging phase of the training,'' added the driven sailor, who is among the 43 remaining trainees. At the beginning there were 89, but over two months their numbers have been more than halved.

For those who make it, Hell Week is proof that the human body and spirit can endure far more than the average person believes possible. In this phase, trainees are expected to learn, apart from physical fitness, the value of keeping a cool head, perseverance and teamwork.

''Ultimately, we seek candidates with whom we can entrust the lives of fellow frogmen,andwhocan operationally complete underwater tasks upon entering a real-world combat scene,'' says instructor Captain Suwicha Koirum. ''In Hell Week, they are often cold, miserable and xhausted. That's the physical, emotional and mental tests these young men must endure, and it's not going to get easier.''

After Hell Week, they will carry on with training in land warfare, marine combat, hostage situations and guerrilla techniques. Thailand's Navy Seal training course is based on a similar elite programme devised by the US military, and the two countries participate in joint naval special warfare training every year.

So how tough the is Hell Week?

The aspiring young Seals must dip themselves into an ice-filled pool where their physical conditioning and mental tenacity are put to the test. They must also wade through a pool of mud before completing a 6.4km run up and down hills, plus obstacle courses such as carrying a 90kg canoe or 100kg tree log. Other tests include pulling an oar with their teeth, and crawling naked on hot concrete to toughen them up.

READY TO ROLL: The Seal trainees are poised for their obstacle courses

They are also thrown into the ocean with their hands and feet bound and need to untie themselves before swimming 3.2km in the open sea. Learning small boatmanship is also required.

After the first few days, the men are already tired and famished. Their lips are parched. Their eyes are red and sore from the lack of sleep as stress mounts. Their sunburned skin is ripped and bruised. They often gasp for breath. Some, inevitably, yield to their physical limitations. Others push themselves to stay for another day. The unlucky succumb to injury. Though allowed to receive medical care, they must report back to the base within an hour, otherwise they will be disqualified.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Wirat Yuen-un, 22, who fainted during the training and was in an intensive care unit for two days, said he cried once he regained consciousness. ''I knew I was out of the team. My heart was there but my body failed me,'' he said.

Hecameback, though, to congratulate his peerswhocompleted Hell Week training. The disappointed sailor shook his head, but then beamed: ''I'll enroll again. I'll be back next year. I'll become a Seal.''

SHOULDERING RESPONSIBILITY: Men carry a log on one shoulder while holding an oar as they climb a hill

HERE’S MUD IN YOUR EYE: A trainee wipes sludge from his eyes.

CRASH LANDING: Trainees somersault into a muddy lake.

TAKING THE LEAD: An obstacle course where trainees have to pull a canoe to the shore with their teeth.

BATTERED: Their skin is ripped, torn and bruised all over.

MAN DOWN: A trainee receives medical care as he collapses during the training.

A HELPING HAND: Getting across a muddy lake

CLEANING UP: An instructor sprays water onto his trainee to wipe away mud and refresh him.

BREATHTAKING: A soldier grimaces as he is pushed into icy water.

PLAYING IT COOL: Trainees take a plunge in a pool of ice-cold water.

About the author

Writer: Wassana Nanuam
Position: Reporter

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