By Lolita C. Baldor | Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Navy will begin randomly testing its special operations forces for steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs beginning in November, taking a groundbreaking step that military leaders have long resisted.
Rear Adm. Keith Davids, commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, announced the new program Friday in a message to his force, calling it necessary to protect their health and military readiness. The Navy will be the first to begin random testing, but Army Special Operations Command said it will soon follow suit, although no start date has been set.
The Army and Navy have the largest and most well known special operations forces, including the Navy SEALs and Army’s Delta Force, Green Berets and Ranger Regiment. They are often called on to do the military’s most sensitive and dangerous missions. The physical and mental challenges of getting through their selection and training programs and the pressures of the risky missions can lead to some to use performance-enhancing drugs, although officials say the numbers are small.
The use of these drugs has been a somewhat limited but persistent problem across the military, but leaders have balked at increased testing because it is highly specialized, costly and requires contracting with the few 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.
The Air Force and the Marine Corps special operations commands said they have not yet requested a similar policy change.
According to the Navy command, four units will be randomly selected each month, and 15% of each will be tested. That will amount to as many as 200 sailors monthly, and those testing positive face discipline or removal.
A driving factor in the announcement, which has been in the works for months, was the death of a Navy SEAL candidate early last year.
Kyle Mullen, 24, collapsed and died of acute pneumonia just hours after completing the SEALs’ grueling Hell Week test. A report concluded that Mullen, from Manalapan, New Jersey, died “in the line of duty, not due to his own misconduct.” Although tests found no evidence of performance-enhancing drugs in his system, a report by the Naval Education and Training Command said he was not screened for some steroids because the needed blood and urine samples were not available, and that multiple vials of drugs and syringes were later found in his car.
The NETC’s broader investigation into SEAL training flagged the use of performance-enhancing drugs as a significant problem among those seeking to become elite commandos and recommended far more robust testing.
Investigations in 2011, 2013 and 2018 into suspected steroid use by SEAL candidates led to discipline and requests for enhanced testing. The use of hair follicle testing was denied at least twice by Navy leaders over that time, and random testing for steroids wasn’t authorized by the Defense Department.
Davids requested the policy change to allow the screening, and in January, the Pentagon undersecretary for personnel approved an exemption authorizing random testing within the Naval Special Warfare force. The testing only affects the roughly 9,000 active-duty military personnel and reservists on active-duty orders in the command. Civilians are not included.
The, random force-wide testing initiative, Davids said, is a commitment to the long-term health of every member of the Naval Special Warfare community.
Lt. Col. Mike Burns, spokesman for Army Special Operations Command, said it also has been approved for random testing and is working on developing a program.
The Navy has provided $225,000 to fund the testing contract through the end of this month, and it’s expected to cost about $4.5 million per year for the next two years.
Noting that the drugs are illegal, Davids has told his force that any number above zero is unacceptable, whether during training or downrange when sailors are deployed. He has urged sailors to talk to their teammates and commanders about the drugs and their risks.
“My intent is to ensure every NSW teammate operates at their innate best while preserving the distinguished standards of excellence that define NSW,” he said in his message to the force.
According to the command, personnel will still be allowed to get prescription medication to treat legitimate medical conditions.
Command leaders also stress that there is only anecdotal evidence of performance-enhancing drug use within the ranks.
Between February 2022 and March 2023, the Naval Special Warfare Center conducted more than 2,500 screening tests and detected 74 SEAL or Special Warfare Combat Crewmen with elevated testosterone levels, the command said. It said three candidates ultimately tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. The testosterone tests are more common but less precise, and additional screening is needed to identify steroid use.
The new random testing will require that sailors provide two urine samples. One will be sent to the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory, a cutting-edge lab used by international sports to test for doping, and one will go to the Navy Drug Screening Laboratory Great Lakes to check for standard drugs.
If the test result is positive, the sailor will be notified, there will be a preliminary inquiry and if there is no legal reason for the drugs, the sailor will be subject to discipline and removal from the force. A SEAL or SWCC candidate will be removed from training.
Under Navy procedures, all SEALs and SWCC are informed of the substance ban and sign an acknowledgement of the prohibition.
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The NETC report released earlier this year suggested that SEAL candidates may have gotten conflicting messages about the use of performance-enhancing drugs. In one case, it noted that during a discussion about the policy with Mullen’s class, an instructor, who was not identified, told sailors that all types of people make it through the course, including “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.”
The report said that after an “awkward silence” the instructor added, “that was a joke.” It said some candidates interpreted it as an implicit endorsement of using the drugs. And it noted that routine barracks inspections have found the drugs or sailors have admitted their use.