Kyle Mullen Died During Navy SEAL Hell Week. Officers Face Punishment – Rolling Stone

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n Feb. 2,
2022, a line of cars halted outside Naval Special Warfare Command as a group of weary trainees carried a boat on their collective heads across the road. The command, a cluster of cinder-block buildings on the island of Coronado, California, outside San Diego, is the headquarters of the Navy SEALs, the secretive commando unit that led the daring 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.  

The trainees, wearing mud-spattered camouflage fatigues, gave a collective yell as they marched across the street. “Stay under the boat,” someone shouted, as they jogged in unison, trying to keep the inflatable vessel weighing 110 pounds balanced above them. They’ve been exercising nonstop for 63 hours. To keep going, they called upon reserves they didn’t know they had. Theirs was the kind of bone-aching exhaustion that soldiers in battle know.

This was the middle of Hell Week for the trainees, five days of extreme physical exertion on a total of four hours of sleep that pushes the would-be SEALs to the brink of mental and physical collapse. It’s one of the world’s most difficult entrance exams, designed to give the trainees a taste of the “suck factor” in the kind of missions they will perform around the world. Those who make it through say they learned the limits of their bodies and minds lay far beyond what they previously imagined. It’s said that Hell Week is a big part of what makes a SEAL a SEAL.

More than 200 men were in Class 352 in January when it began the first phase of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, or BUD/S, as it’s known. As they crossed Silver Strand Boulevard three weeks later in groups of three, only 24 were left.

It’s estimated that trainees run as many as 125 miles or more over the course of Hell Week. If they aren’t running, hoisting heavy logs, or dragging themselves and their teammates through the sand, then they are shivering on the edge of hypothermia in the Pacific’s winter waters. “Surf torture,” the trainees call it. Running miles in wet clothes chafes the insides of their arms and legs so badly that they resemble raw meat. Their feet are a bloody mess. A Navy investigation includes a sheet of paper the trainees were handed advising them not to go to local hospitals. They will almost certainly be admitted by those who are unfamiliar with SEAL training, the sheet says. They look, as one former trainee tells Rolling Stone, like prisoners of war.

As the two dozen trainees crossed Silver Strand Boulevard, a cellphone video shared exclusively with Rolling Stone shows that one of the men brought up the rear. Seaman Kyle Mullen wasn’t carrying a boat on his head; he was walking gingerly on aching legs. He’d been a solid performer, but lately he’d been struggling. His boat crew had started shouldering more of the weight.

Another cellphone video from earlier in the week shows the trainees playing a game of football. Mullen moved like a man on stilts, tottering on legs that looked like two swollen balloons. He wheezed in the night air. In an ominous sign, a Navy investigation will find, he was also coughing up blood.

Mullen was a tall, big-shouldered 24-year-old from New Jersey with a linebacker’s body from his days playing college football at Yale. “A mountain of man,” says one former member of his SEAL training class. “The nicest guy. A hard teammate. Very, very tough and very caring.” A guy that knew every Taylor Swift song by heart and could handle the punishment SEAL instructors deal out. He always had a smile on his face and a positive attitude, even during the worst of it. 

Mullen knew that Hell Week would be the hardest thing he had ever done, and he kept going as his health continued to deteriorate. He started spitting up a rainbow of phlegm: yellow, orange, and brown. Bloody phlegm is a sign of swimming-induced pulmonary edema or SIPE, a potentially life-threatening condition when the lungs fill with fluid after strenuous cold-water swims. Although rare in the general public, it’s seen frequently in SEAL training.

Mullen had gotten SIPE in the first week of training with Class 352 and recovered.

“If you get that again, you raise your hand,” his mom, Regina, told him.

“I can’t,” Mullen said.

It’s up to the instructors to decide whether a trainee needs to be medically examined, and besides, according to other trainees and his family, he didn’t want to be known as one of the guys who were always running to medical to escape training.

“You’re going to die for the Navy when I love you, when your brother loves you,” his mother told him over the phone. “When all these people love you?”

“Yes, Mom. I won’t quit.”

Mullen, like all the trainees in Class 352, could drop out of training any time he wanted by ringing a brass ship’s bell three times. Mullen told friends and family he would  “not ring the bell no matter what.”

During their second two-hour rest break on Thursday, after the boat exercise, one of Mullen’s classmates later told Navy investigators, it sounded like Mullen was gargling water every time he drew a breath. When he woke and sat up, a dark fluid poured out of his nose and mouth. That night, the trainees paddled their boats in “Around the World” races as the temperature dropped to a few degrees above freezing.

On Friday, Feb. 4th, the last day of Hell Week, only 21 trainees remained. The end of Hell Week was hours away. Instructors made trainees “Hide the Grape,” submerging their bodies and shaved heads over and over in muddy water until they were told to come up. When Mullen came up for air, he vomited a “weird-looking fluid,” according to a Navy investigation. He was delirious and disoriented. “What’s going on?” he kept asking. “Where are we going?” 

The BUD/S medical staff pulled Mullen aside. He could only speak two or three words at a time. The level of oxygen in his blood was dangerously low. Clicking and snoring sounds known as rales and rhonchi were heard in his lungs. A Navy investigation released in May notes that the medical staff discussed whether to pull him from training, but decided instead to drive him to the Hell Week graduation ceremony. Mullen was so close to the finish line that pulling him at that point and potentially making him do it all over again seemed unfair, maybe even cruel. After an hour of treatment with an oxygen mask, Mullen’s vitals stabilized and he was breathing on his own. 

A corpsman and doctor looked Mullen over in the final medical check after graduation. Crackling sounds were heard in his lungs, which were assessed as “abnormal.” His legs were swollen more severely than most students’, the doctor noted. No one told the doctor that Mullen was given oxygen earlier in the day and he’d been cleared to go back to his barracks.

Mullen called his mom back in New Jersey. “I did it,” he told her. He could barely get the words out.

Hours later, when the paramedics arrived, they couldn’t find his pulse.

The training program that wanted men who wouldn’t quit and the would-be SEAL who embraced that ethos collided in a tragedy that has shaken the Naval Special Warfare community and continues to reverberate more than a year and a half later. 

This week, Naval Special Warfare Command took the rare step of moving to punish three senior Navy officers who oversaw SEAL training and medical care at the time of Mullen’s death. The officers were notified that the top SEAL commander, Admiral Keith Davids, has reviewed the facts and the evidence and decided that the men should face non-judicial punishment known as an admiral’s mast. 

“As a result of the investigation into the oversight and management of BUD/S Class 352 and the surrounding circumstances of the death of Seaman Mullen, Rear Admiral Keith Davids, commander, Naval Special Warfare Command, has decided to proceed with accountability actions for certain individuals,” said Commander Ben Tisdale, a spokesman for Naval Special Warfare. “As the actions are on-going, it would be inappropriate to comment further on any specific or potential accountability actions until they are completed.”

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Capt. Bradley D. Geary, commanding officer of Naval Special Warfare Basic Training Command in 2021.

Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Sean Castellano/US Naval Operations

Capt. Brad Geary, former commanding officer of Naval Special Warfare’s Basic Training Command; Capt. Brian Drechsler, the former commanding officer of the Naval Special Warfare Center; and Dr. Erik Ramey, the former head of BUD/S medical, face charges of negligent dereliction of duty, according to a Navy source with knowledge of events who was not authorized to speak publicly. The three men must decide whether they will go to admiral’s mast or fight the charges in a court-martial. A fourth, now-retired officer, the medical duty officer on call the day Mullen died, will receive a letter of censure. 

An attorney for Geary says the veteran SEAL was disappointed by his command’s decision and called the legal basis for the admiral’s mast “dubious.” Attorney Jason Wareham tells Rolling Stone, “When all the key facts emerge, the Navy’s improper actions will be exposed—and it will be undeniable that Captain Geary is being scapegoated as part of a larger scheme to cover up massive failures and abuses of power at the highest levels of the Navy.”

Jeremiah Sullivan, an attorney for Ramey, says the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery concluded in their investigation that his client met the standard of care. 

Drechsler did not respond to requests for comment.

It’s the first time in recent memory that the SEALs have sought to punish senior officers in the death of a recruit. Potential punishments at admiral’s mast are limited and might include reduction in rank, forfeiture of pay, extra duties, and restrictions. Unlike a court-martial, masts cannot result in a punitive discharge or extended confinement. Admiral’s masts can, however, trigger additional actions that could result in the officers getting kicked out of the Navy. 

The stunning decision to hold senior officers accountable follows a sweeping Navy investigation released in May that found that a “near-perfect storm” of missteps led to Mullen’s death from pneumonia due to streptococcus pyogenes, a strain of bacteria that’s been blamed for outbreaks at several military training facilities. “This investigation revealed what is correctly described as an individual and community tragedy and found failures across multiple systems that led to a number of candidates being at a high risk of serious injury,” the report found. 

The report singled out the BUD/S medical department as “poorly organized, poorly integrated, and poorly led” and blasted the care provided after Hell Week as “wholly inadequate.” After Hell Week, Mullen returned to his barracks in a wheelchair and was left in the care of SEAL candidates with no medical training. According to the Navy investigation, a sailor standing watch said he was told not to take Hell Week graduates to the hospital, and the medical center had closed for the day, leaving him unsure what to do with a man who sounded like he was drowning in his own lungs. When a trainee called the duty medical provider, the physician’s assistant who answered said Mullen could go to the hospital if he was in “bad shape” and they will check on him tomorrow.

Five former trainees tell Rolling Stone that the BUD/S medical staff showed a negligence that bordered on recklessness by sending hurt and sick young men back to training with what they learned later were broken bones, torn cartilage, or an inability to swallow food, and other ailments. Beth Lowrey said she grew increasingly worried after medical issues forced her son, Jake Kuykendall, to drop out of two previous BUD/S classes before he made a last attempt as a member of Class 352. In the middle of Hell Week, Kuykendall suffered a broken leg. According to Kuykendall, a female corpsman told him to lay on the ground and then kicked his leg — hard — to make sure he wasn’t faking. “Somebody’s going to die,” Lowrey recalled thinking. “We’re all saying it. The medical treatment and their lack of care was awful.”

But the medical failings were only part of the perfect storm that led to Mullen’s death.

BUD/S is the gatekeeper that determines who will be chosen to wear the gold SEAL Trident pin, and Mullen’s death has revealed that some trainees have been cheating to pass through that crucible with help from steroids. That discovery touched off a public battle between Captain Geary, the decorated officer in charge of SEAL training who claims he was being made a scapegoat, and Mullen’s grieving mother, who demanded accountability from the Navy leadership she blames for her son’s death. As the Navy now moves to punish the senior leadership, the deeper issues raised by the case involve no less than the future of the Navy SEALs.   

To tell the story of what happened in Class 352, Rolling Stone obtained exclusive videos and photos taken during Hell Week, spoke to several former trainees, including four of Mullen’s former SEAL classmates who have never spoken publicly before, and reviewed thousands of pages of Navy documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The result is a rare and perhaps long overdue look into the brutal world of SEAL training. 

Hell Week isn’t easy. It isn’t supposed to be. But Hell Week for Class 352 was unusually severe. Typically, 76 percent of those who start SEAL training make it through Hell Week, according to data provided by Naval Special Warfare for classes going back more than two decades. In Class 352, only one out of 10 made it. In addition to Mullen, six of his classmates landed in the hospital after Hell Week, according to documents seen by Rolling Stone. Kuykendall and one other man were hospitalized for suspected or actual pneumonia the same day Mullen died. And, like Mullen, both men were cleared by BUD/S medical earlier that day. There are about six Hell Weeks a year and six hospitalizations for a single class is well above the average of one, according to Naval Special Warfare.


U.S. Navy SEAL candidates participate in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training.

Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt/U.S. Navy

“It cries out that something is seriously wrong,” says Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey who’s been pushing to make the program safer. “It’s like a neon sign saying, ‘Wait, something is wrong with this training protocol.’” Smith inserted an amendment in last year’s defense bill that required the Secretary of Defense to recommend steps to make high-risk training for SEALs and others safer. To that end, the Naval Special Warfare announced in June that trainees are now closely monitored during Hell Week and for 24 hours after. Other reforms include advanced heart screens, increased steps to prevent or treat SIPE and pneumonia, and random urine tests for steroids.

All this upheaval is something that Mullen’s friends and family say he never would have wanted. He told his family and friends how happy he was at SEAL training; it was the kind of challenge he had been seeking all his life. A two-sport standout in high school, he led his football team in Manalapan, New Jersey, to a state sectional championship in his senior year. That helped earn him a full-ride scholarship to Yale, where he played defensive line for the  football team. He set his sights on the NFL; Wall Street was his backup plan, and friends and family say he had lined up a prestigious summer job with the Yale Endowment Fund.

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Kyle Mullen (98) during game vs Harvard at the Yale Bowl. New Haven, in 2017

Erick W. Rasco/”Sports Illustrated”/Getty Images

The direction of Mullen’s life changed in his junior year, however. In a case that made the Yale Daily News, a fellow student accused him of sexual assault. He was also accused of violating the no-contact order that Yale puts in place when a formal complaint is filed. Mullen had just been named captain of a Bulldog team that had won its first Ivy League Championship in years when he decided to withdraw from Yale with the university’s disciplinary charges still pending. The case went unresolved. (Rolling Stone was unable to see the records of the investigation. The accuser’s name was never released and a Yale spokesperson says the university doesn’t comment on or confirm the existence of specific complaints.) 

 His guilt or innocence never decided, Mullen came back home a defeated, depressed, and changed young man. It was the first time, a friend recalled, that he ever saw Mullen down. He ended up at Monmouth College in New Jersey. He got a chance to play football again, but the NFL was now a distant dream. After graduation, he took a job at a local fencing company and began to assess his future. “The whole idea of doing something elite certainly changed,” says Scott Cockburn, a friend from Yale. “So what else is something that 99 percent of the people around me either can’t do and won’t do. How do I go and do that?” 

None of his friends were too surprised that he chose the SEALs. “The way he was, he could do anything, so we didn’t question him or anything,” says Jayson Rybak, a friend since kindergarten. “Then one day, when he said he wanted to go be a Navy SEAL, he didn’t even surprise any of us because it was like he ran out of things to do that were the most elite things you could do, so he was like, ‘I’ll try to be a Navy SEAL.’” 

The night before Mullen left in June 2021 for boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois, Rybak threw a going-away party at his home. “I know that when he died, he was happy,” Rybak says. “Kyle probably didn’t think he was dying. He was probably delirious. But he knew that he had just completed Hell Week and that was the Mount Everest of his life.”

Mullen breezed through workouts as Class 352 got ready for the official start of BUD/S; his fellow trainees looked up to him. “He was the kind of person I went to when the days were dark and cold,” says a former classmate. “One thing I vividly remember him saying is, ‘Think of everything you’ve gone through to get here, everything you’ve gone through to get to this one moment.’ It gives me chills talking about it.”

Three weeks before Hell Week, Mullen had called home. “Mom, everyone’s doing steroids,” Regina Mullen says her son told her. “I’m thinking of doing it.”

 Mullen’s mother and friends say he had never done steroids through all his years of football and basketball. Like all trainees, he had signed a contract that prohibited him from taking any supplements, even energy drinks. But there was no denying that over the years steroids had given the BUD/S trainees who used them a definitive edge over those who didn’t. “The real issue is when students who are not using steroids cannot pull the same weight as those who are,” says Mullen’s former classmate. “Which brings more attention to those who fall short. In our first week, there were a couple of guys who, at the end of a day of hardcore training, acted as if they did three push-ups. I’m over here dying. I can’t move my left leg.” 

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Regina Mullen at her home in Manalapan, N.J., Aug. 4, 2022. “Heads should roll,” she tells Rolling Stone.

Desiree Rios/”The New York Times”/Redux

Mullen told his mother he was being encouraged to take steroids. Who was encouraging him? “I don’t know it exactly for sure,” Regina Mullen tells Rolling Stone. “He was saying ‘they.’ I don’t know who ‘they’ were. ‘They’ told him: ‘You’re not going to get through it without the steroids.’” Regina Mullen told him not to listen to “them,” whoever they were.

The day after Mullen’s death, agents with the Navy Criminal Investigative Service searched his car and found vials of human growth hormone, testosterone, and Viagra, which a Navy criminal investigation found trainees were using to treat SIPE. (Regina Mullen says all those vials may not have been her son’s. Kyle was sharing his car with other trainees to avoid the watchful eyes of instructors.) On his iPhone, agents discovered text messages with Mullen discussing a bad batch of performance-enhancing drugs and complaining of pain in his rear end at an injection site. There were texts discussing the purchase of “H,” “test,” and “Eutropen” and where to meet to pick them up. 

This discovery fueled speculation at Naval Special Warfare Command that steroids lay behind Mullen’s death due to bacterial pneumonia. Dr. Michael Baden, the former chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police, says the evidence for this theory is thin. “Steroids can make one more susceptible to such an infection but the great majority of persons taking steroids do not die of such infection. And the great majority of persons who do die of pneumonia did not take steroids,” says Baden, who has investigated the JFK assassination, testified at the trial of O.J. Simpson, and conducted independent autopsies of George Floyd and Michael Brown. “Proper medical treatment should have prevented his death.” Baden reviewed Mullen’s autopsy at Rolling Stone’s request and agreed that the cause of death was pneumonia, not steroids or heart disease, as some have suggested.

SEAL commanders were aware of a steroid problem at BUD/S. In January 2022, as Mullen and Class 352 began training, a former trainee told an officer about “widespread” use of performance-enhancing drugs in BUD/S. “People would be shocked,” one former trainee tells Rolling Stone. “I wouldn’t be surprised if 20 percent of a class of 200 was on some kind of steroids.” The Navy’s investigation shows the command tried for years to get a handle on the issue without success. There were investigations in 2011, 2013, and 2018 into suspected steroid use by SEAL candidates and several trainees were punished.  

Exactly how big the steroid problem is in SEAL training remains unclear, the Navy found. After Mullen’s death, urine testing of all trainees revealed that 62 of 1,461 trainees, or 4 percent, showed elevated testosterone levels, a possible indication of steroid use. (Those tests would not detect human growth hormone or other steroid-like compounds known as SARMs that were sold over-the-counter at supplement stores around San Diego.) Under a new policy, SEAL trainees are now subject to random urine testing for a host of performance-enhancing drugs, including human growth hormone and SARMs, Naval Special Warfare says. As of May, 150 randomly selected trainees tested negative.

The steroid issue has divided the SEAL community — some see it as a performance booster; others view it as a character defect. Although steroid use in BUD/S is branded as cheating, its use in the SEAL teams is an open secret. “If they tested the teams, we wouldn’t have SEAL teams,” ex-SEAL Jeff Nichols said on a podcast shortly after Mullen’s death. “Can I say that? You bet your ass I can confidently say that.”

Many BUD/S instructors interviewed and surveyed by Navy investigators believed that the quality of trainees making it through the SEAL pipeline had slipped too far. The feeling was captured in T-shirts some SEALs wore that read “MAKE BUD/S HARD AGAIN,” says Jack Kuenzle, who left the SEAL teams in 2021. It wasn’t unusual in some recent years to see half of all trainees in a class make it through Hell Week, according to statistics that Naval Special Warfare shared with Rolling Stone. ​​By the time Mullen arrived, attrition had spiked to 90 percent or higher. “No, the program has not become harder to pass,” a retired SEAL officer tells Rolling Stone. “The applicants have become weaker and more numerous. Everyone and their brother wants to be a SEAL now that we are a household name.”

One of the instructors made his expectations for Class 352 clear the weekend before it started. “Do what you need to do to get through,” several trainees who spoke to Navy investigators recall the SEAL instructor telling Class 352. “All types of people make it through BUD/S. Steroid monkeys and skinny strong guys. Don’t use PEDs, it’s cheating, and you don’t need them. And whatever you do, don’t get caught with them in your barracks room.” After an awkward silence, the instructor, known in the teams as “Blank,” said, “That was a joke.” Some trainees were shocked and felt that it was an “implicit endorsement” of steroid use, according to the Navy’s investigation; however, most believed Blank made it clear that performance-enhancing drugs were not allowed and unnecessary. (An attorney representing Blank and other instructors says, “The allegations against the instructors are disputed by other students within the Navy’s own report.”) 

As BUD/S training began for Mullen and his classmates, 127 candidates — an unusually high number — quit en masse in one four-day period, according to documents obtained by Rolling Stone under a Freedom of Information Act request. The officer in charge of the first phase of training pulled aside Jake Kuykendall, the trainee who by then had been medically dropped from two previous classes. “Are we doing something wrong?” the officer asked. “Is the staff being too hard? Is it too cold?”

“I’ll say this until I go to my grave,” Kuykendall, now a civilian, tells Rolling Stone. “As far as the first week of training goes, this is the easiest BUD/S class I’ve been a part of.” Kuykendall says things got much harder during a frigid Hell Week, but the instructors in Class 352 did nothing out of the ordinary and nothing he thought of as cruel or dangerous. Kuykendall questions the competence of the BUD/S medical department in response to Mullen’s distress. 

The Navy’s investigation tells a different story, one of inexperienced instructors who became overly focused on weeding out candidates or “hunting the back of the pack,” as it’s referred to in the Navy’s investigation. There were punishing “burnout” sessions, hours-long physical training to complete exhaustion, right before Hell Week with no “slack,” or recovery time, to heal and rest. Instructors believed they had been encouraged to focus on attrition by the top SEAL at the time, Rear Admiral Hugh Howard, who said it was fine if no trainees made it through Hell Week. “Zero is an okay number on the berm – hold the standard,” the Navy’s investigation quotes Howard as saying. (Howard told the Navy he meant to convey that instructors should not focus on numbers alone.) 

As the instructors ratcheted up the pressure, former trainees say that they began to turn on each other in a win-at-all-costs scenario straight out of Lord of the Flies. “We were told by class leadership that if we could get certain people to quit over the weekend, we’d have an easier Monday,” said one former trainee, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “On one occasion, we were running boats and we’re told we could secure our boat (put it away and rest) if we could get one guy to quit. I’m not proud of this but, during a brief break, we beat him when no one else could see us.” 

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Mullen (far right, front) struggling and in pain during the boat drill.

 A second trainee tells Rolling Stone he lasted until Monday night of Hell Week when one of his teammates stomp-kicked him in the back while running in the dark with boats on their heads. “I had been putting out with them,” he said. “My neck started bothering me and I needed to switch. No one would switch with me.” He rang the bell. “The whole thing of your brotherhood, I wish I didn’t care as much, but I do. They were begging me to quit. I didn’t want to be the teammate that was bringing them down. They psyched themselves out to think I was the problem.”

Informed of these new allegations, Commander Ben Tisdale, the Naval Special Warfare spokesman, says the Navy investigation released in May examined the issue of peer abuse and found all reported allegations to be unsubstantiated. “If there are former candidates who feel that they were mistreated during their training at BUD/S and have not already reported, we implore them to report it,” Tisdale says.

Mullen gave friends back home a terrifying description of SEAL training. To civilian ears, it reminded them of a scene from Saving Private Ryan. One of Mullen’s classmates snapped his leg “like a twig,” Scott Cockburn, his Yale roommate, recalls Mullen telling him. “People are going down left and right. It’s very brutal and mentally straining.” 

Those who made it through Hell Week, however, saw a different side of instructors that the dropouts never get to see. BUD/S was a selection course up until Hell Week. The candidates who finished Hell Week — the ones who got to wear a coveted brown shirt — were the chosen ones the instructors had selected to be their teammates. Kyle Mullen saw this other side of instructors midway through Hell Week, a critical cutoff point where those left standing were seen as having endured the worst instructors could dish out.  

“Yeah, I’m pretty sick,” Mullen told instructors during a brief break after lunch Wednesday. It was not long after he had limped across Silver Strand Boulevard behind his boat crew. He was standing on the beach in a new, dry uniform, waiting for the rest of the trainees to finish medical checks so they could resume training. 

“You’re already a brown shirt. So who cares?” instructor Blank told him according to a witness. Mullen stood on the cusp of finishing the hardest thing he had ever done. But he had two days left to live. 

One thing to know about Hell Week is that it’s older than the Navy SEAL program itself. When President Kennedy established the SEALs in 1962, the Navy had been putting people through eight weeks of training compressed into seven days since the middle of World War II. “Even in the early classes, as many as half the men who started did not complete the week,” ex-SEAL Benjamin Milligan wrote in By Water Beneath the Walls. “No Navy unit had been subjected to a training course whose essence so closely resembled that of a real war – the frantic harassment, the inescapable cold, the relentless exhaustion.”


Military funeral at St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church for Kyle Mullen, the former Manalapan HS football star who died while trying out for the Navy SEALs.


Eleven people, including Kyle Mullen, have died in BUD/S training since then, according to Naval Special Warfare. Each one is a tragedy, but few, if any, have had the impact of Kyle Mullen’s death. Much of that is due to the relentless efforts of Regina Mullen to find out what happened to her son and ensure that someone is held accountable. A tall blonde with sad brown eyes, and a no-nonsense Jersey attitude, Regina Mullen says she feels compelled to speak out not just for her son, but for the others in SEAL training who she believes remain at risk of permanent injury. Her background as a registered nurse gives her a deep understanding of what the training is doing to their bodies. Her outspokenness has made her the center of a hub of two dozen or so concerned parents and young men who are dealing with injuries from BUD/S. Her phone rings at all hours of the day and night. The young men tell her what Kyle meant to them. The parents want to talk about what the Navy SEALs did to their children.

Above all, she wants accountability and permanent oversight. “Heads need to roll,” Regina Mullen says. “The world is watching this.” She believes instructors need to have their Tridents pulled, the medical corpsmen who repeatedly declared her son fit to continue should never be allowed to treat another patient, and senior commanders should be punished and separated from the Navy. Disciplinary actions would show there are lines that can’t be crossed. 

Regina Mullen made her case to the lawyers who prepared recommendations for Admiral Davids, the top commander for the SEALs, who agreed with some of her suggestions. 

A name at the top of her list is Captain Geary, the officer who oversaw her son’s training. Geary traveled to New Jersey to pay his respects in the wake of Kyle’s death, and the SEAL Foundation flew Regina to SEAL headquarters in Coronado. Initially, Regina stayed quiet. But as she continued to hear stories of trainees who had suffered devastating injuries, she began to think that Geary was part of the problem. “Do I think he meant for this to happen? No,” she says. “But no one feels bad for anything until they get caught.” 

Also driving Regina Mullen is what she says is Geary’s ongoing effort to pin her son’s death on steroid use. An early, internal investigation last year by Naval Special Warfare that focused on the role steroids played in Mullen’s death was deemed insufficient by the Navy and sent back to be reinvestigated a second time. The report in May by the Naval Education and Training Command was the third investigation into Kyle’s death and it appeared to put the matter to rest. “Mullen’s death was not caused by PEDs,” Navy Rear Admiral Peter Gavin, head of the command, wrote.

Geary, a decorated SEAL and Naval Academy graduate, has signaled that the issue isn’t over. His attorney, Jason Wareham, tells Rolling Stone it’s “inconclusive” what role steroids played in Mullen’s death and made it clear that if Geary is held accountable, steroid use will be an issue in his defense. “If forced to litigate that issue, we will be compelled to answer that question ourselves to fully defend Captain Geary and his legacy of strong leadership and unwavering commitment to duty,” Wareham said. (Through his attorney, Geary declined to speak to Rolling Stone.) 

Geary’s attorney has made much of Mullen’s previously undiagnosed, enlarged heart. Performance-enhancing drugs like testosterone and human growth hormone can be associated with enlarged hearts, but they also occur naturally among athletes. In the first of several Navy investigations into Mullen’s death, four military doctors and medical experts consulted in the Navy’s investigation were evenly split over whether steroid use was one of several factors that contributed to Mullen’s death or whether it was mere speculation. Dr. Zhongxue Hua, a civilian pathologist who conducted an autopsy of Kyle Mullen at his mother’s request, calls the focus on Mullen’s enlarged heart “a self-serving and non-medical opinion.” There can only be a single cause of death, Hua says, and in Kyle’s case it was pneumonia.

In May, Regina Mullen brought Jake Kuykendall to brief Rep. Smith and the staff director of the GOP-led House Armed Services Committee. Kuykendall claims he fell victim to what he maintains was an egregious error in leadership and judgment. Days after Hell Week, the remaining members of Class 352 lined up before dawn at a local hospital to give urine samples. The samples were sent, somewhat unusually, to a civilian lab where they were subjected to levels of scrutiny used on Olympic athletes, which went well beyond the Navy’s protocols. After Mullen’s death, the SEAL captain gathered every trainee on the “grinder,” a paved slab used for exercises, to discuss the tragedy. A member of Class 352, still depleted and dehydrated from Hell Week, passed out and was taken to the hospital, Kuykendall recalls.

Kuykendall wound up getting kicked out of the Navy, not for a steroid, but for a substance used to build endurance and lose weight. “I might be one of the only people to be kicked out of the Navy for the equivalent of drinking a protein shake,” Kuykendall says. 

He says he didn’t knowingly take the compound at issue, GW1516, which may have come from an over-the-counter water additive. At worst, he says it was a mistake made in the fog of his own hospitalization and his friend’s death. “That is an injustice that needs to be repaired as well,” Rep. Smith says.

Navy tradition would hold a different standard. SEAL candidates are required to be accountable for every mistake they make, no matter how small. Yet Regina Mullen and some of the men of Class 352 say the same lofty goal must be held for command. They point to Geary’s leadership and a seeming lack of accountability.  

For his part, in a series of media interviews, Geary rejected the findings of the Navy investigation that found fault with his “insufficient” leadership. “That entire report mischaracterizes, misrepresents and misquotes our organization and Naval Special Warfare, because it was built off a bias that was inappropriate and regurgitated untruths that simply don’t exist,” Geary told ABC News.

Geary explained that he was breaking the SEAL code of silence to correct the record about his leadership and defend himself and his training staff. To Kuykendall, a casualty of what he calls Geary’s “witch hunt” for steroids, that rings hollow. “He sure as shit didn’t fight for me after I made it through Hell Week and lost one of my friends due to medical malpractice,” Kuykendall says.

Still, as the Navy’s investigation makes clear, and Geary acknowledged, reforms were needed in the wake of Mullen’s death. Geary eliminated “ruck runs,” the workouts with a backpack weighing 35 pounds or more, in response to the high attrition rates. He mandated a minimum of six hours of sleep a night until Hell Week, and candidates were given more “slack” to rest and recuperate. Trainees no longer run with boats on their heads; they now walk or shuffle. Attrition rates have returned to the historical norms.

But those changes came too late for the men of Class 352. Many lost out their dreams, their future, and years of work and sacrifice spent preparing for BUD/S. And the men who trained with Kyle Mullen say they also lost a brother. Mullen gave every last measure he had to the SEALs, and they failed to protect him from his own unshakeable drive to never give up.

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