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'You let him die': A mother blames the Navy for her son's death after SEAL 'Hell Week' training

Navy SEAL candidates participate in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training in a 2018 photo. For nearly a week, candidates are submerged in the Pacific Ocean - forced to continually swim or march with boats on their backs.
Abe McNatt
/
U.S. Navy
Navy SEAL candidates participate in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training in a 2018 photo. For nearly a week, candidates are submerged in the Pacific Ocean - forced to continually swim or march with boats on their backs.

An autopsy showed Kyle Mullen received inadequate medical care for pneumonia after Navy SEAL "Hell Week" endurance training in February.

Regina Mullen says she trusted the Navy SEALs with her son Kyle’s life, and they failed him.

Kyle Mullen - a SEAL candidate - died of pneumonia February 4 on Naval Base Coronado near San Diego. He had just finished 'Hell Week,' an endurance test that's part of the notoriously difficult SEAL basic training called Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S).

“They're torturing our men,” his mother said. “You can't do that to prisoners of war .... and they're doing it to our own athletic young bright men that are willing to give up their lives to serve the country. They're torturing them; it's not training.”

Kyle Mullen was a former football player at Yale and Monmouth University when he joined the Navy.
U.S. Navy
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Kyle Mullen was a former football player at Yale and Monmouth University when he joined the Navy.
Kyle Mullen's mother said this photo of her son was probably taken a few hours before he died.
Courtesy Regina Mullen
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Kyle Mullen's mother said this photo of her son was probably taken a few hours before he died.

Regina Mullen recently received a copy of her son's May 2 autopsy from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner. It said Kyle was left in the barracks without medical personnel in the hours after Hell Week. He was unable to stand or walk on his own and was being tended by other SEAL candidates, who showed signs of being sick themselves.

It was only after another candidate called for medical help for himself that Navy personnel found Muller unresponsive on the barracks floor. He was found with a 36 ounce bottle filled with his own blood and mucous.

The autopsy revealed Mullen died of pneumonia caused by streptococcus pyogenes - a pathogen that's been associated with several outbreaks of serious disease on military bases.

“There's no way a 24 year old healthy boy should die of severe pneumonia, and that's a disgrace that he was not treated for days,” said Regina Mullen, a registered nurse. "They knew he had it."

She said her son was struggling to breathe when he called her a few hours before he died, just after he finished Hell Week.

“The medical team, the instructors, the lieutenant, the commander had to have known. They had all seen the guy spitting up blood," she said. "You sent him to the barracks, sent the medical team home, and you let him die.”

Kyle Mullen, 24, was raised in Manalapan, New Jersey. He played football at Yale and Monmouth University.

The Navy has not commented on the circumstances of Mullen’s death, but says it expects to complete an internal investigation later this summer. The commander who was in charge of SEAL basic training, Capt. Bradley Geary, was replaced in May, and Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro told Congress that the SEALs now will have medical staff available - instead of just on call - after Hell Week.

Hell Week is virtually unchanged since at least the 1970s. For nearly a week, candidates are submerged in the Pacific Ocean, forced to continually swim or march with boats on their backs. Candidates get little sleep, and some say that by the end, they start hallucinating and suffer a variety of physical and mental symptoms.

“Really the goal of it is to weed out people that aren't going to just have the mental fortitude to not quit when it gets absolutely terrible,” said former SEAL Jeff Butler. “I mean guys that will go until they have literally life-threatening pneumonia.”

Butler, whose father also was a SEAL, said instructors view themselves as gatekeepers to control who gets to join the SEAL community.

“It’s a ritual to see who gets to be part of their organization," he said. "That’s how instructors often saw themselves."

Regina Mullen says her son was told that the only way he could get medical help was to signal to instructors that he wanted to give up on the endurance test.

“You have to ring a bell, and then they'll give you medical, and ringing the bell is quitting,” she said.

Robert Adams, a medical doctor and former SEAL, confirmed that instructors may say things that seem to discourage trainees from seeking medical attention, but he said they're not serious about it.

“That is a game that the instructors play,” Adams said. “That's absolutely true that they say stuff like that. It is absolutely untrue that they meant it.”

Adams wrote Six Days of Impossible: Navy SEAL Hell Week - A Doctor Looks Back about his experience. He said medical teams are there to monitor candidates, at least during the exercise.

“I've over the years followed SEAL training as a physician… and seen numerous reports of pneumonia," he said. "Usually it’s somebody that's pulled out of Hell Week and told you can't go on, and they're screaming ’please don't pull me.’”

A bell hangs on the beach during Navy SEAL Hell Week at Naval Base Coronado. Sailors can voluntarily quit training by ringing the bell three times.
Brad Houshour
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U.S. Navy
A bell hangs on the beach during Navy SEAL Hell Week at Naval Base Coronado. Sailors can voluntarily quit SEAL training by ringing the bell three times.

Many candidates opt not to continue. In Mullen’s class of more than 200 candidates, fewer than 20 made it through. If they don’t continue, candidates either leave or can be “rolled back” to try again with a later class. Mullen had already been rolled back once.

Regina Mullen said SEALs told her that instructors liked Kyle and pushed him to finish the last couple days. But she says candidates shouldn't have to decide if they can do it.

“They probably don't even know what day of the week it is. They’re probably delirious," she said. "How can you expect them to make that decision, knowing what their medical condition is?”

Mullen is calling for an outside investigation of her son's death.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Military and Veterans Reporter, KPBS
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