The Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Command will begin randomly testing its personnel for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), following allegations that such drugs are in widespread use among the Navy's special warfare community.
Rear Adm. Keith Davids, the commander of NSW, announced the command will introduce incremental, random force-wide urinalysis testing starting in November.
“My intent is to ensure every NSW teammate operates at their innate best while preserving the distinguished standards of excellence that define NSW,” Rear Adm. Davids said in a Friday press statement.
NSW is most known for its Navy SEAL teams but the command is also responsible for training and deploying Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen and Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians.
Illicit substances have been a persistent concern throughout the military, even in the special operations community. Some leaders have balked at testing regimens for performance-enhancing drugs because they are often highly specialized and costly and require contracting through a limited number of labs that do such work. The military services have done occasional tests when they perceive a problem with an individual service member, but they must get special permission from the Pentagon to do routine, random testing.
New Testing Regime Follows SEAL Training Death
The NSW's new random uranalysis regimen comes on the heels of an investigation into the 2022 death of 24-year-old SEAL candidate Kyle Mullen, during his Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL course. The SEAL candidate collapsed and died of acute pneumonia just hours after completing the infamous "Hell Week" portion of the course.
A May 2023 investigative report (pdf) states that investigators uncovered a bottle of pills marked as sildenafil in Mr. Mullen's car following his death. Sildenafil is a substance used for erectile dysfunction treatments, but which can also be used to increase blood flow in strength training and can reduce the risk of swimmer’s induced pulmonary edema. Investigators also found vials labeled as testosterone and human growth hormone, and syringes.
It is unclear from the investigation whether Mr. Mullen used these PEDs, though it did determine that they were not the cause of his death. The investigation did find "strong indicators" of PED use among other members of Mr. Mullen's class.
"While SN Mullen’s death was not caused by PED use, PEDs use must be eliminated from NSWC and other high risk training," the command investigation states.
While these PEDs may give troops a competitive edge in the rigorous and highly selective special operations community, the command investigation states their use "creates significant, unquantified, and unmitigable risk to candidates going through the high intensity training."
Misuse of phosphodiesterase inhibitors—the class of pharmaceutical compounds that includes Sildenafil—can result in severe low blood pressure, cardiovascular collapse, and death. Other PEDs pose risks of kidney and liver dysfunction, strokes, heart attacks, blood clots in the lung vasculature, high blood pressure, mood swings, and a risk of contracting HIV or hepatitis from non-sterile needle use.
In addition to the health risks, the command investigation said PED use is also "contrary to the SEAL ethos and the Navy's core values."
The May investigative report recommended expanded PED screening regimens as one of several ways to improve safety within the various Naval Special Warfare training pipelines. The investigation also called for more careful screening and training of the staff overseeing Naval Special Warfare training, and reducing the stigma candidates face to avoid disclosing injuries.
"We will honor Seaman Mullen's memory by ensuring that the legacy of our fallen teammate guides us towards the best training program possible for our future Navy SEALs," Rear Adm. Davids said in May, at the conclusion of the command investigation.