CORONADO, Calif. – The sun is still below the horizon as the ocean breeze blows on a chilly winter morning in San Diego, where the latest group of Navy Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) and Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewman (SWCC) hopefuls hits the soft sand for some morning physical training. Overseeing this training is an experienced instructor, alternately observing and motivating the class to stay focused.
“Listen up! Eat, sleep and train. That’s all you’re getting paid for!”
These are the three things Chief Petty Officer Joan Jennings, an instructor at Naval Special Warfare’s Basic Training Command (BTC), wants candidates thinking about as they start their day. It’s an important lesson she knows from years of special warfare assessment and selection: keep your goals in the now – and make them simple. This is how candidates travel the long, arduous road to join the Navy’s elite commando force. Humility helps.
“When you get down to the basics,” she said, “you joined to serve your country.”
BTC’s instructor cadre has a broad range of experience, talents and backgrounds. Many, like Jennings, have deployed to combat zones.
“I was embedded with Army infantry prior to women being allowed in combat zones,” she said, reflecting on her time as a Navy second class petty officer deployed in a combat camera role to Bagdad in 2008. “There were moments when I realized I was the only female in the FOB (forward operating base), but I didn’t think of myself as some sort of trailblazer. The whole time I was there, the idea of me being a girl never really crossed my mind because we were all there to do a job, to complete the mission. I wanted to be in it and document the fight.”
The mission of the instructor cadre seems simple: assess and select the next generation of Naval Special Warfare (NSW) operators to go downrange. But it takes a lot of hard work and professional requirements to earn the title of instructor at one of the Navy’s most prestigious training commands, and BTC needs more than just a qualified staff – proven leaders are critical to the success of the mission.
“As a Chief and an instructor, I’m able to mentor not just SEAL and SWCC candidates, not just men or women who want to be special operators or boat team members, but young Sailors,” said Jennings. “And I think it is important for the female candidates who come through here to see senior leadership within the instructor ranks.”
Information Systems Technician 2nd Class Erika Neal spent five years deploying and working in support of multiple SEAL teams on the Mobile Communications Team before successfully interviewing for an instructor position at BTC. But that was just the beginning.
“I’ve always held the mindset that says, ‘you have to earn your spot’,” said Neal. In anticipation of joining BTC, she participated in a familiarization program to prepare her for the challenges of being an instructor. “I ran the beach with a boat on my head, I carried the log, swam the laps – to be a part of the team, a part of the community. We’re expected to shoulder our share of the weight.”
Now she serves as an instructor for the Basic Crewman Training course, helping candidates learn the critical skillsets of the SWCC community, the Navy’s elite maritime mobility operators. She finds working as part of a professional cadre with different values and perspectives to be rewarding.
“It’s actually really cool how different we all are, because I think that with this little group that we have, it’s important that we all balance each other out,” Neal said. “When we’re going over ideas regarding training, we’re not all coming up with the same thing. Our individual personalities help us to work interdependently.”
The women of NSW share a deep sense of camaraderie as they work to deliver on mission.
“This is something I want to do. The idea of supporting women in special operations spoke to me,” said Lt. Cmdr. Erica Young, force integration officer for Naval Special Warfare Command. “You see, I didn’t want to simply have a job, but a career where I could build upon skill sets – where what I’m doing is rewarding and meaningful, and I’m giving back. That’s important to me, and I knew I could have that here.”
Young believes the tough daily regimen of training for the next generation of warriors is worth it not only for candidates, but for the women who have earned the title of instructor.
“It’s important to have these women here, regardless of whether there’s a female candidate coming through or not,” she said. “Because it’s changing the outlook and mindset of the men, they’re seeing these women get the same respect as the other male instructors, even though they don’t have a SEAL or SWCC pin.”
Still, the focus remains on the candidates. Jennings said that what she concentrates on today, more than 20 years after she joined the Navy, has not changed all that much from the basics she tries to instill in the candidates today. “The people we train, both men and women, they’re so young and hungry. And no matter what job they pick, they’re thinking selflessly, and they’re committing to something bigger than themselves. We’re doing something we’re passionate about. And you have to be passionate about this – otherwise it’s just a job.”
Naval Special Warfare Center, located on Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, provides initial assessment and selection and subsequent advanced training to the Sailors who make up the Navy’s SEAL and Special Boat communities, a key asset of NSW. The NSW mission is to provide maritime special operations forces to conduct full-spectrum operations, unilaterally or with partners, to support national objectives. For more information on the NSW assessment, selection and training pathway, visit https://www.sealswcc.com/.