A sailor has died in three out of the last four Navy SEAL training classes, with one drowning days ago during a pool exercise and another committing suicide in April after failing to complete one of the U.S. military’s most demanding training programs.
A third sailor, who had been drinking heavily, died in November after his pickup truck rolled off the side of the road, less than three days after learning he had just barely missed the cut to continue training.
All three men were trying to complete a grueling six-month course that serves as a gateway into the storied community of Navy SEALs. The training includes a seven-day stretch of little sleep, self-induced hypothermia and brutal physical conditioning known as “Hell Week.” It is here the majority of SEAL hopefuls quit, also known as “ringing the bell.”
The rash of deaths raises questions about the safety of trainees and whether the Navy is providing adequate supervision for the approximately 80 percent of trainees who drop out, leaving many of them despondent after years of hope and preparation and months of brutal training.
A Navy spokesman said he was aware of concerns related to the deaths and was preparing a statement.
On May 6, James “Derek” Lovelace, 21, drowned at the Naval Special Warfare school in Coroado, Calif. after Navy officials said he was “having difficulty” during a pool exercise. The San Diego coroner’s office said a preliminary autopsy indicates he drowned. The Navy is investigating.
Four weeks earlier, Seaman Daniel DelBianco, 23, also a SEAL trainee, took the elevator to the top of a San Diego hotel and threw himself to the street 22 floors below. DelBianco had been in the middle of Hell Week, after 50 hours of no sleep, according to his father.
In November, late one night, Petty Officer 2nd Class Caplen “Cap” Weare’s blue pickup truck was found upside down next to the I-5 highway in San Diego. According to the county coroner’s report, his blood alcohol content was just under twice the legal limit and Weare, who was 24, wasn’t wearing a seat belt.
“I should have been there,” said his mother, Julie Weare, who said her son had wanted to be a Navy SEAL his entire life. “He never would have wanted anyone to take the blame but himself, but I should have been there and he shouldn’t have been out by himself that night.”
The course the men were trying to complete is the initial portion of a nearly year-long Navy SEAL training program, called Basic Underwater Demolition School, or BUD/S. The program is designed to weed out those who might not be able to endure the stress of being in combat. It is also supposed to train sailors in the basic skills required to be a SEAL. Candidates need to be in the best shape of their lives and be extraordinarily strong swimmers.
The training exercises are particularly tough because the SEALs are one of the most elite groups in the military, expected to execute some of the military’s most difficult special operations missions—including, for instance, the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden.
But that means that overall training for these sailors—including those who have already become SEALs—is inherently dangerous. In April 2015, two of the elite special warfare sailors died during underwater physical training near Virginia Beach, Va. In March that same year, SEAL Jason Kortz died in a parachuting accident in California.
It’s unknown how many deaths have occurred among sailors trying to become SEALs, making it difficult to determine if the recent fatalities in San Diego constitute a spike.
BUD/S is a component of Naval Special Warfare School, which reports to Special Warfare command, led by Rear Adm. Brian Losey. A decorated flag officer, Losey was recently passed up for promotion and will soon retire after multiple investigations found that he had retaliated against whistleblowers.
It’s unclear whether the Navy currently has a protocol for monitoring sailors who fail to complete training.
In the past, when trainees dropped from BUD/S, they were sent to a holding platoon, known as X Division. There they performed menial tasks around the base, off-loading supplies and working around the barracks.
“It was a terrible environment with next to no supervision” said Donald Carter, a former BUD/S trainee who dropped during Hell Week in 2008. “You have all these guys who spent their entire lives preparing for this one event and once they couldn’t have it…it was a cesspool of depressed and angry people.”
According to Carter, X Division was disbanded shortly after he left in 2009, forcing those who failed the rigorous training regime to go directly to their new units.
Lovelace, DelBianco and Weare had similar backgrounds: star athletes, intelligent and a desire to become a SEAL since childhood.
“He said it was God’s calling for him,” said Weare’s mother.
Weare called home almost every night. “I knew when he was doing boats, and I knew when he was doing logs,” she said, referring to the different types of physical training undertaken by the sailors.
Weare was on his second attempt through BUD/S after having failed a part of the swim qualification in a prior class, according to his mother. During the second attempt, on the Thursday before Hell Week began, he had trouble with a certain part of a pool exercise but ended up completing it successfully.
“They were gathering their things up from around the pool and the chief that was in charge called him over and said that…he had technically passed, but he couldn’t pass him in good faith,” his mother recalled. “He told the man that held the clipboard to change Cap from a pass to a fail.”
“He told me he didn’t blame the chief, he said he actually liked him,” his mother recalled. “He always took responsibility for himself.”
That day, Weare requested to drop from the course.
Weare had wanted to be a SEAL since he was eight and joined the Navy in 2010 with that goal in mind. His vision, though, wasn’t up to the SEAL’s standards. Instead he enlisted as a Naval Master at Arms and underwent corrective laser surgery on his own dime — and without the Navy’s knowledge — so he could pass the medical screening required for BUD/S.
His mother said that she spoke with her son after he had dropped from the class the Friday before he died. “I know there was sadness but he was also looking toward the future,” she said. They texted a little Saturday and that night, after dinner, Weare met up with some friends. He crashed his car later that night.
DelBianco, the sailor who died last month, had built his life around becoming a SEAL. Blonde-haired and square jawed, he was born in Arlington, Va and shipped to boot camp after he graduated from the University of Southern California in 2015 with honors, foregoing an officer’s career path because he wanted to be an “operator,” his father, Steve DelBianco, recalled. A varsity Rugby player in college, DelBianco graduated as the honor graduate of his Navy recruit class.
In an obituary posted online shortly after his death DelBianco is quoted on why he wanted to become a SEAL.
“My life won’t feel complete unless I do this,” he wrote. “Every time I read about or see pictures of SEALs, I feel motivated. The experience will shape and define the rest of my life.”
On April 5, hours after DelBianco dropped from training, he was allowed to leave the base alone and drove to the Marriott Gaslamp hotel in San Diego. Just after noon, he took the elevator to the rooftop bar on the top floor, where stayed for hours, even though the lounge was closed. One person saw DelBianco “staring off into the distance,” according to the coroner’s report. At 3:24 p.m., DelBianco jumped over the side of the building. There was no note and his toxicology report was clean, according to the coroner’s report.
His father had also seen him the week before and he “appeared to be doing fine,” said the report.
Following his son’s death, the elder DelBianco asked Admiral Losey, who attended the sailor’s memorial service, to promise that he would reform BUD/S training to ensure that there was proper oversight after a trainee dropped from the class.
“My family’s interested in the Navy making dramatic changes in their procedures and their priorities to care properly for someone who is dropped or drops on request,” his father said. “Especially in the middle of Hell Week…when they are at their most vulnerable, the Navy has the greatest responsibility to look after them.”
“I think my son would do it all again if he could, he added. “But it’s not right the way they are so careless about the well-being of a guy they’ve taken to the point of breaking and having broken him, to leave him unsupervised.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.