The mud feels grimy and viscous, with a greenish tint that makes you think of Superfund sites and names for new diseases. I’m crawling through it on my elbows with 25 other slimy recruits.
“Dicks in the mud!” a drill instructor shouts.
The scene is a boot camp called Extreme SEAL Experience, held in the tidewaters of Chesapeake, Virginia. It caters to young SEAL aspirants, macho fortysomethings, and, on this occasion, an unprepared and out-of-shape reporter. That would be me.
I’m here for Hell Night, a grueling 24-hour marathon that simulates the real SEALs’ infamous Hell Week. Mud plays a big part in both. And the proprietor knows where to find the best mud. His name is Don Shipley, and he was a SEAL for 19 of his 24 years in the Navy—an explosives expert, a platoon chief, and the recipient of a Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism. But I found out about him from a badge of honor he acquired more recently: Don Shipley is a YouTube sensation.
Over the past six years, Shipley has exposed people who falsely claim membership in the country’s most fabled military unit, and he has starred in a web series he calls “Phony Navy SEAL of the Week,” in which he ambushes the culprits. Part slapstick comedy, part To Catch a Predator, the show has racked up millions of views and earned a following among Navy brass, too.
While veterans and active military devour Shipley’s vigilante-style justice—the perfect counteroffensive for con men sullying the SEALs’ reputation—you don’t need to have worn a uniform to get sucked in.