Uncommon Grit

A Photographic Journey Through Navy SEAL Training


By D. McBurnett

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Retired Navy SEAL and professional photographer Darren McBurnett takes readers behind the scenes into the elite SEAL training program, BUD/S, in Coronado, California.

Striking, beautiful, and haunting, Uncommon Grit takes a unique, unprecedented look at the toughest training in the military — and the world — from the vantage point of someone who lived through it. Retired Navy SEAL Darren McBurnett includes vivid descriptions of both the physical and mental evolutions that occur as a result of the immensely challenging SEAL training process.

His stunning photographs, partnered with his compelling insights and sharp sense of humor, allow the reader to laugh, cringe, gasp, and even envision themselves going through this extraordinary experience.





Out of the ordinary; unusual.

abnormal, rare, atypical, uncustomary,

unconventional, extraordinary




Courage and resolve; strength of character.

backbone, spirit, courage, valor, fortitude,

toughness, hardiness, resolve, determination


Each image in the book has a small symbol to identify which evolution is represented.























Hell Week

Hell Week is the crux event in first phase. It’s the hardest week of military training, testing students’ ability to withstand cold, sleep deprivation, exhaustion, physical and mental pain, and display characteristics of leadership under adverse and stressful conditions with a never-quit attitude. I just settled for being alive when it was over. When you arrive at BUD/S you are told Hell Week exists. For me it was like saying UFOs and Bigfoot exist. They may be real, but I have a hard time believing it. I was convinced there was no way it was physically possible for anybody to make it through Hell Week. I could barely slime my way through one day of training in first phase, let alone conceive a week straight without sleep or stopping. Hell Week is everything you do during the day but at night too, with little sleep. You and your boat crew of poor souls perform evolutions continuously that require you to think, lead, make decisions, and function while sleep-deprived, hallucinating, and in the state of being on the verge of hypothermia.

During Hell Week you are in a constant state of movement. However, there are landmark evolutions through the week that are their own special kind of misery. You don’t just run with an IBS (inflatable boat small) on your head for a week straight, there are fun little stops along the journey. Historical evolutions like Steel Pier (redefining what you thought your definition of cold is), Around the World (14–16 hours of paddling your IBS at night in the sea monster–infested ocean), Mud Flats (cold and shivering whilst covered with cold mud), Pool Games (Olympic swimming at night in the open-air pool), and Breakout (the grand opening of the door into hell). You get the point: each evolution is laced with its own personality of doom and gloom that you have to endure. It’s pretty sad when you get done with a legacy evolution and you find yourself happy to be running and shivering with the boat on your head again.

Throughout Hell Week you run with the IBS on your head everywhere you go, and when you are not running with it, you are paddling it out in the ocean for miles. Paddling at night was where the hallucinations came into play for me. When you are experiencing no sleep; constant movement; nonstop shivering from the wet and bitter cold; numbness in your legs, face, hands, and swollen feet; cracked lips; every joint aching; continuous burning from your raw, chafed body; permanent, stinging salt layered on your eyes and eyelashes; toenails falling off; blisters; and sunburn—this is where hallucination comes into the mix. My most vivid hallucination was that the sky was always red and swarms of bats kept dive-bombing me. I would swat away the imaginary bats, then tell my boat crew to keep their heads down. There is a point where you question what you are doing and realize that the good idea fairy who told you that becoming a Navy SEAL is cool left a long time ago.

Typically, by Tuesday night or Wednesday morning you have formed a complete boat crew you will finish with, barring any unforeseen occurrences. By that point, the lads who decide to DOR (see “The Bell”) have done so. Some get injured or sick and are gone, so you are in a constant state of shuffling bodies to different boat crews depending on your height—smaller guys (the renowned Smurf crews), middle guys (Average Joes), and the giants (6’ 2” and above). Now you are with your dysfunctional, hallucinating boat crew, shuffling along until you get secured (military word for end or completion). The guys in your crew are an interesting group of misfits: the overachieving, false-motivation-is-better-than-no-motivation boat crew leader stereotypically from the Naval Academy, his raspy voice always yelling, “Come on guys, put out!”; the quiet, creepy guy with a constant smirk who you want to punch every time he looks at you; the Dante Hicks guy from the movie Clerks who wasn’t even supposed to be there; the angry guy who is mad at everyone and everything and constantly telling everybody they suck and this whole Hell Week thing sucks; the stud who somehow is managing to get through the week without a scratch, nothing phasing him, and getting stronger as the week continues (hated that guy); the optimist who is constantly giving us the “glass is always half-full” speech on every miserable evolution we were doing (example: if we were out in the ocean in our IBS getting pounded by freezing-cold six-foot waves, well at least they weren’t eight-foot waves and at least we can’t hear the instructors yelling at us!); and finally the hippie, the guy in a constant state of everything-is-awesome. Pretty much a bad Partridge Family episode, but with hallucinations.

The average amount of sleep is typically three to four hours total, plus or minus an hour depending on how well your boat crew does. If, in some metaphysical paradox, you and your boat crew win a race or event, you get to prop your boat on its side with the paddles and sleep until the rest of the class finishes that physical evolution. The only problem is, by the time you get your boat prepped and inspected by the instructor staff (it has to be done correctly to maintain discipline standards), the other boat crews are starting to finish. So you may get a few minutes of shut-eye if you are lucky, but realistically none because you are busy correcting your boat crew’s deficiencies. I was fascinated by how the instructor staff always managed to time that with precision. Or if your Hell Week class gets down to three or four remaining boats, it doesn’t matter where you place, you are pretty much all together.

One of the most demanding challenges you have to face as a student going through Hell Week is nonstop cold and shivering. I mentally broke my shivering down to four levels of shiver. Level one is baseline shiver. It’s the “I’m cold because it’s cold outside and all I have on to stay warm is underwear, a T-shirt, boots, top and bottoms of my military uniform, and this stupid hat with an orange lanyard tied on it that’s connected to my shirt so I don’t lose it.” Your mental goal is to stay at or get back to baseline shiver. Level two is the jackhammer shiver. It’s baseline shiver but with water and ocean surf zone added. Level three is the four-F shiver because now you are shivering so hard that you say the F-word in between each breath of air four times. Kind of like this—hard shiver, F-word, F-word, F-word, F-word, hard shiver—and it repeats endlessly. The last level of shiver is the “God? Am I dead?” shiver. It’s where your body is all out of shiver. You are so stiff and cramped from hard shivering that your body shuts off the shiver mode. Shivering is your body’s built-in defense mechanism to stay warm, so it’s pretty bad when it’s on empty. Your whole body aches, every muscle is stiff, and you swear you can’t move. And if you do move, you are sure pieces of your body will break off. In my mind, in this non-moving, ultimate cold state, this is it. I’m going to see St. Pete at the pearly gate soon, so at least I can plead my case that I didn’t quit. But somehow you dig deep in your misery, reach down and grab the IBS boat handle with the rest of your lads, and start moving again. But then you are back to jackhammer shiver because you are moving again! When the sun starts to creep up and you are doing evolutions on the beach, you actually start to warm up a little. You are delighted because you are back to baseline shiver and baseline shiver feels good. It’s about finding a way to keep yourself from cracking and staying focused on moving forward and yes, we all have a few screws loose.

One of the most painful, underestimated, and not really discussed aspects of Hell Week is chafing. You are constantly moving 24/7 in the same uniform that is always wet and covered with sand. It’s a fantastic recipe for ripe chafing. It’s not all over your body, but in certain designated places where your uniform and life preserver rub the most—between your legs and groin area, under your arms, on your neck, and around your waist. All of these parts get attention from your equipment and clothes, so there comes a point where it just becomes raw meat and you feel every nerve ending stinging with each movement. It even gets to the point where chunks of your body get ripped out, which is the opposite of pleasant—unpleasant.

The worst part is the salt water on your chafed parts. To me it was like sitting in an acid bath when we started lining up in the surf zone. Think about when you were small and took the salt shaker from your kitchen and sprinkled salt on an unsuspecting slug you found while looking for bugs. When you poured salt on the slug I’m pretty sure if you listened closely you could hear it screaming. Yep, this was all those slugs getting back at me—salt water from the surf singed every nerve ending to a level of pain I never knew existed. Then you have to get up, roll around in the sand (which is basically adding sandpaper to the mix), and run back to your boats or whatever evolution your class was doing over and over and over. I still have residual scars from Hell Week, but they are a reminder of what I thought was impossible and made possible.

Surf Conditioning

That’s what it’s called now. Back in “the day” it was called surf torture, but no matter the verbiage, it is still just another unpleasant tool designed to make you suffer physically and mentally. The instructor staff can even make going to the beach miserable.

It’s not a hard physical exercise and it’s mostly done after other physical training. The training you just did was physically battering, and you are already depleted of strength and energy. You are in the hurt locker right out of the gate. Yes, it’s done on purpose because it gets you that much colder.

The class forms a line on the beach and you hook arms with the guy to the left and right of you and upon command of “forward march,” the class walks forward in one line into the cold embrace of the Pacific Ocean until everyone is waist deep. Next command is “take seats” (which in military terms is “please sit down”). Then you just sit down and start counting the waves, timing your breathing just right and preparing to take a big breath when you see a bigger-than-average wave come in. Everyone settles into a comfortable pattern of breathing and waiting for the next wave. In time, the beating of the waves slowly washes you back to shore just in time to stand back up and repeat.

You would think hanging out in the ocean sounds nice, but it’s not. The ocean is cold and it’s colder at night and even colder in the very early hours of the morning. Often I believed the ocean was alive and actually coming up with ways to make things worse by teaming up with the instructor staff—throwing heaps of seaweed on you, waves that somehow came in full of rocks that pelt you, riptides that yank you away from your buddy, and the double wave that hits you once, then again while you are underwater, then slams you backward and you don’t know the direction of up or down. Ha-ha, very funny, Mr. Ocean, that was a good one.

All the while, the waves are pulling heat from your body and that’s the worst part and the most painful—the cold. The only warmth you get is when you pee on yourself, and if you’re lucky, you feel a little warm pee from your buddy next to you. The ocean and the cold are great friends and it’s that tag team effort you have to endure. It really doesn’t matter how fast, strong, or physically fit a person is lying in the surf zone, it’s the bitter cold and wet you are dealing with mentally. You don’t get that type of training at your local CrossFit gym, that’s for sure.

Log Physical Exercise

Log PT, as it’s called, is an iconic fundamental exercise in first phase. In my learned opinion, it is the only first phase physical training you do where everybody is angry from beginning to end and even afterward. I’m sure the game Angry Birds was influenced by log PT. As a matter of fact, you get angry immediately when you find out it’s on the day’s schedule of events. There is always an emotion associated with any training evolution you do at BUD/S. For example: grinder PT—determination; o-course—dread; two-mile ocean swim—fear of getting eaten by sea monsters; surf passage—sort of happy and fun when riding the waves, but still miserable; room inspection—hope; and swimming evolutions at the combat training tank (i.e., pool—pool being that body of water that used to be fun until you became a BUD/S student)—anxiety.

Log PT is the most grueling of exercises and it’s your first introduction to the word “teamwork.” Up to and before you do log PT, you mostly focus on yourself—your own self-loathing, trying not to be called out, hiding amongst the class, concentrating on individual test gates you have to perform to stay in class, and trying to survive the cold. With this particular exercise you are exposed and there is no hiding. Every part of your attitude, strengths, and weaknesses is exposed to everybody. Once you start to buckle and stop putting effort into it, the other guys on the log suffer even more because they have to pick up your slack. And yes, the other lads on the log, I assure you, will let you know as well as the instructor staff. Everyone has a moment of struggle during log PT, but you dig deep and keep going because your crew is counting on you.


  • "No book I've ever seen captures the essence of SEAL training quite like UNCOMMON GRIT. It is visually stunning, with amazing photos that bring out the pain, the exhaustion, the determination, the camaraderie, and the ultimate satisfaction of completing the world toughest military training. If you want to know what SEAL training is all about -- this book is for you."—Admiral William H. McRaven (U.S. Navy SEAL, Ret.), #1 New York Times bestselling author of Make Your Bed and Sea Stories
  • "McBurnett's artistry elevates the training of warriors with a mixture of bracing realism and cinematic romanticism, appealing as much to fine photography fans as the military crowd."—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
  • "This is as close as you can get to being a Navy SEAL without being there. I still get goosebumps every time I look at this book. These are the same training evolutions that every Navy SEAL has gone through since inception and will be forever. McB has captured this torture and made it beautiful; which it is. It was the worst time of my life. It was the best time of my life. And it's all here."—Robert O'Neill, Navy SEAL Veteran, SEAL Team Six, and New York Times bestselling author of The Operator: Firing the Shots That Killed Osama bin Laden and My Years as a SEAL Team Warrior
  • "UNCOMMON GRIT is a unique look into what it takes to become a Navy SEAL. From Hell Week through all of the evolutions, McB gives us his perspective on how he was able to overcome the pain, disorientation and frustration, and lack of sleep to finish BUD/S training. All the photos of the men going through the different evolutions gives us a little taste of how hard it really is to become an elite warrior. I salute all who have tried and especially those like McB who were able to graduate and go on to defend our country. I'm in awe of people like McB who put everything on the line for us here in the USA and I'm honored to call him my friend."—Jim McMahon, Hall of Fame NFL Quarterback, Super Bowl Champion
  • "The images in this book will vividly remind every American of the unyielding determination of our military to defend life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!"—John Rich, singer-songwriter, Big & Rich
  • "UNCOMMON GRIT is a book of how hard our men and women fight to give us our freedom in the greatest country on Earth."—John Daly, professional PGA Golfer
  • "Nothing has or will ever come close to this trip down memory lane. McB has somehow managed to capture the true essence of BUD/S by showing the trials and tribulations, victories and defeats of what these men actually go through -- of what we went through. You can see the men being forged into steel right before your eyes. As a SEAL I can only say 'Hooyah' and thank you frogmen for this."—Ray "Cash" Care, Navy SEAL Veteran
  • "McBurnett makes you feel the cold of the surf, the chafing grit of sand, and the length of the day. UNCOMMON GRIT is an uncommon work of art documenting a little-seen aspect of the forces that keep us safe."—Booklist
  • "UNCOMMON GRIT is no less uncommon. It is a battle-line view that many outside of the SEAL program do not have the privilege of seeing. With the experience of author D. McBurnett, U.S. Navy SEAL Ret., we get a glimpse through his lens of pure, unadulterated hell during this military arm of self-evaluation and survival. Both physically and mentally challenged with endless exhaustion combined with limited resources to cope, these unique men achieve a goal many aren't suited to attain. It is an exceptional tribute to the men who complete the training and become elite war fighters. I highly recommend picking up a copy wherever available!"—Lorenzo Lamas
  • "Nothing helps a civilian understand BUD/S better than UNCOMMON GRIT. The photos truly capture the toughness and fortitude that the men who go through Hell Week possess. It allowed me to visualize the stories someone close to me told, and actually see what he went through during training. Reading stories is one thing, and hearing them is another. But SEEING exactly what that kind of training is like is just mind boggling to a civilian. Just looking at the photos makes you truly appreciate the sacrifice that our service men and women, especially those in Special Operations, make -- not only overseas, but also in the preparation they do at home. I cannot thank McB enough for taking these photos, sharing these stories and captions, and most importantly, giving me the opportunity to learn."—Dan Vitale III, NFL fullback, New England Patriots

On Sale
Oct 20, 2020
Page Count
224 pages

D. McBurnett

About the Author

Darren McBurnett (U.S. Navy SEAL, Ret.) is a combat veteran, professional photographer, author, ambassador, and motivational speaker.

Learn more about this author