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August 2003 Soft Shells

Stone Cold Campers

They kill swiftly and silently. They flit like ghosts through enemy forests. And they will brew you a fine cup of cowboy coffee. Meet America's deadliest hikers as we hump ruck with the Special Forces.

Williams holds back, motioning me off to the left. He’s chuckling again, not a good omen for the lads. I follow him northeast to a knoll with a commanding view across half of Kodiak, where the Master Chief pulls out sandwiches and cookies his wife, Bev, made.

Our already superb repast is further sweetened by an excellent view of one squad, then another, hitting the alder belt and hanging up in narrow, slate-banked gullies. The obstacles weren’t visible from the ridgeline, with its enticing view, but they’re clear enough on the map, had anyone thought to look. It’s all a masterfully orchestrated, albeit sadistic, lesson in terrain entrapment. The poor bastards never saw it coming.

Williams wads some foil, tosses on his ruck, and powers down through steep brush and mud-slick ravines. After an hour, we break out of the woods onto the shore of Middle Bay. Two squads have arrived, number three is pulling in, and everyone’s getting chilled waiting for group four.

Once they straggle in, it’s strip-down time. The beach transforms into a nymphomaniac’s dream sequence: cold gray cobbles littered with shed clothes, a stable-full of sweaty bucks, a sea of welterweight biceps and six-pack abs. A three-two-one countdown, and the whole pack of SEALs, accompanied by one stupid backpacker, surges into the surf with a triathlon roar.

Williams told me that the first 2 minutes would be the worst, and he’s right. The water stings like acid. I gulp uncontrollably for what seems like hours, trying to rein in my bucking windpipe. Then the cry goes out: “Minute and a half in.” All around me, guys are hollering with bring-it-on bravado, shouting off the cold. A couple of instructors and Seattle Chris just tread water with serene smiles on their faces, but most of these guys aren’t having any more fun than I am.

And then a strange thing happens: The fire lessens, and a sleepy acceptance creeps up. My skin still tingles, but it’s more like a down comforter fresh from the drier. Everything will be fine. Just sleep. All you have to do is bob here in the gentle sea.

It’s a bit like a dream, and my mind wanders. I recall how Mark Twight summed up the difference between us and these guys. “I’d always thought I was a cool guy, that I was doing these dangerous climbs and living through them while others weren’t, which made me special. But no matter how important I thought what I did was, it’s simply recreation. I waited until conditions were right. I turned back when I wanted. When these guys go into the mountains, they’re just commuting to their real work. If they haven’t slept for 48 hours, or eaten for 2 days, or the weather’s horrible, too bad. Add to that a bunch of men hunting you, and that’s another level entirely.”

The reverie snaps to a close. “Nine minutes,” someone shouts. “Outta the water!”

We roar out of Middle Bay, stumbling onto the beach to fumble with buckles, zippers, stoves, and sleeping bags. By the time I get my PCU on, I’m normal enough to realize how incapacitated some of these SEALs, graced with far less body fat than me, have become. I watch the stronger ones help their buddies get dry, clothed, and into sleeping bags. More unusual behavior from real men.

Minutes out of the chill water of Kodiak, I’m already anticipating my return to the comforts of civilian existence. Yet it’s just the start of things for these SEALs. They’ll spend 3 more weeks here, then some will go straight into a month of desert training. Quite a few of the Charlies will head to the Middle East. Like Master Chief Williams says, it’s a steep learning curve. Only this time, his boys will be wearing smarter clothes and humping a lighter ruck. And that may make all the difference in the world.

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