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Navy SEALS amend their grueling training regimen after a recruit's death

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

U.S. Navy SEALs, the elites of the elite, have modified their notoriously grueling basic training. They did that after a recruit died earlier this year. But some families worry the changes don't go far enough. Here's Steve Walsh in San Diego.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Five days of little sleep and almost constant exertion is seen as a central part of what makes a SEAL. Here's how one anonymous retired SEAL put it in the official U.S. Navy SEAL podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NAVY SEAL: Hell week is our primary filter to truly test the resiliency, will, determination for a young man to become a SEAL.

WALSH: In February, 24-year-old SEAL candidate Kyle Mullen died of pneumonia just after finishing the punishing hell week, part of basic underwater demolition SEAL - or BUD/S. It's basic training for SEALs. His mother, Regina Mullen, says she's gone through her own hell since his death as she tries to get answers.

REGINA MULLEN: Before he left, I said, if something happens to you, how am I going to live my life? He said, Mom, you're the strongest person I know. You'll be fine. I said, no, I won't.

WALSH: Mullen had been left in the barracks under the supervision of other recruits, coughing up blood and sputum. Mullen FaceTimed his mother, who is a nurse. A few hours later, he was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital after paramedics tried to revive him. A recent Navy report says Mullen was not tested for pneumonia even when his symptoms became severe.

MULLEN: And when I asked them - why wasn't he sent to medical? - they don't really give you an answer. They'll say, well, he didn't want to go. I'm like, OK, so how could someone not sleep for five days, on low oxygen, off in mental status even know how sick they are? That's what the medical team is for. Does he know how bad he is?

WALSH: Group Strep A, the type of pneumonia that killed Mullen, is well-known in military circles. There have been numerous outbreaks over the years, mostly at basic training. Several Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton were hospitalized during a 2019 outbreak. Paul Graf is a microbiologist with Navy medicine in San Diego.

PAUL GRAF: It's spread by respiratory droplets. People who are living in close proximity - when you talk about military recruits all living in the same room and breathing on each other.

WALSH: In a small number of people, including those under stress, it can turn into a potentially deadly form of pneumonia. Regular Navy boot camp inoculates its recruits with antibiotics that prevent the spread. That protection wouldn't have helped Mullen by the time he got to BUD/S, Graf says.

GRAF: Anyone who had gotten that in boot camp, it's worn off by them. So it's not a vaccine that lasts either for your lifetime or it lasts for years and years and years.

WALSH: SEALs only started inoculating its recruits during BUD/S after Mullen's death. They're making other changes, including more detailed medical screenings before training. SEAL basic training has earned a grueling reputation, in part because of a notoriously high failure rate. Nearly 70% of enlisted SEALs fail, mostly by hell week. But Naval Academy officers have an 89% success rate, mainly because they go through years of training and evaluation before they arrive. Former Navy SEAL Officer Jeff Butler.

JEFF BUTLER: I absolutely think they want to make the enlisted pipeline more professionalized and better at preparing those guys. Yes, I think that's been a goal for a long time.

WALSH: The secretiveness of the community makes it hard to get answers. Nadia Vetter's husband, Robert, died at BUD/S in 2004. It took her a decade before his former classmates revealed Vetter collapsed during a forced run after he fell behind.

NADIA VETTER: I know that he wasn't going to give up. And he just kept pushing and pushing, and which is just crazy. But can't believe it's still affecting me this long.

WALSH: To regain the trust of families who have lost loved ones in training, Vetter says the Navy should create a more independent process that takes death investigations out of the hands of the Navy. Under the glare of the spotlight, the SEALs are also expected to look at the use of performance enhancing drugs among students.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.