For Bill Atkinson, homeland security starts with a good sidestroke. A 21-year veteran of one of the most elite combat units in the world -- the U.S. Navy SEALs -- Atkinson is working to fix an unusual problem for the branch of the military that spends most of its time around water.
"The Navy discovered recently that a lot of the candidates they were getting for their special operations programs don't swim very well," he says. So, eight years after retiring from the SEALs -- or Sea, Air and Land special forces -- the longtime Burlington resident has once again donned goggles and fins to ensure that promising young recruits don't go under.
Atkinson is a mentor in the Navy Special Warfare/Navy Special Operations Mentorship Program. The initiative was launched five months ago to help candidates for the elite forces reach their top physical and mental form, before they've ever donned a seaman's cap or set foot on a naval base. The effort is as much economic as strategic: Each year, the Navy spends more than $100,000 on the rigorous training of each SEAL candidate. And with an attrition rate of nearly 70 percent, the Navy wants to get more bang for its buck.
That's where Atkinson comes in. Hired by the private military contractor U.S. Tactical, his job is to prep as many qualified candidates as he can find in New England and eastern New York, while also weeding out those who don't have what it takes. Currently, Atkinson is working with about 30 recruits; ideally, he would have 100. He's got his work cut out for him.
On a recent Tuesday night at the Greater Burlington YMCA, Atkinson is standing in his bathing suit and goggles watching a lanky, redheaded young man swim laps. The swimmer, 19-year-old Robert Miller Sims of Essex Junction, is what the Navy commonly refers to as a "depper" -- or DEP, a new recruit in the Delayed Enlistment Program. When the Navy doesn't have a space available for a new recruit, his or her enlistment is put on hold until one opens up.
Sims, who's scheduled to ship out in November, has just begun his initial training session with Atkinson. His first task is to learn the "combat sidestroke," a variation on the traditional sidestroke but with more scissor-kicking and less arm movement. This stroke allows a swimmer to move through the water quickly and stealthily. Sims is struggling with it, zigzagging across the lane, occasionally stopping halfway across the pool or gagging on a mouthful of water.
But Atkinson never raises his voice or berates the young man, as a drill sergeant would. Instead, he's patient and supportive, offering Sims constructive criticism and helpful advice. "Think of the water as a hat on your head," he says, demonstrating the motion with an empty Gatorade bottle. "If your head is coming out of the water, that hat is coming off your head."
If Sims is the "before" model for the NSW/NSO Mentorship Program, the "after" model is training two lanes away. There, 19-year-old Matt Viscido of Ferrisburgh is demonstrating the combat sidestroke to another new depper -- 22-year-old Matt Nasveschuk, who drove up from Rutland for his first training session with Atkinson. Viscido moves through the water at an impressive clip. He's been working out with Atkinson for a few months, and the results are obvious.
"Two months ago, Matt Viscido swam like Robert Sims," Atkinson says. "That's why this program is so important."
At 5-foot-8 and 156 pounds, Viscido is neither massive nor muscle-bound. But he's got the chiseled, V-shaped build of a serious athlete. More importantly, Atkinson says, Viscido has the determination and intensity needed to make it into any one of the Navy's elite units: Explosive Ordnance Disposal, Navy divers, Search and Rescue, or SWCC (Special Warfare Combat Crewmember, the people who pilot the Navy's high-speed assault crafts). But the crème de la crème of the Navy's special forces are the SEALs -- the recruitment pamphlets boast they're "the toughest boys on the planet. Bar none."
Watching intently from a deck chair beside the pool is Viscido's father, Al, the YMCA's chief financial officer and a former Marine himself. The Y lets Atkinson use its facilities at no cost, he explains, and the young recruits pay nothing for training with the former SEAL.
Matt Viscido has already passed his preliminary fitness test and written exam, and is scheduled to ship out August 1. Both his father and Atkinson are hoping Matt will become a SEAL. But during a training break, Matt tells me that he plans to go into Search and Rescue instead so he can be aboard an aircraft carrier. When I mention this to his father, Al says, "Matt hasn't made up his mind yet."
Meanwhile, Atkinson is still working with Sims, whose combat sidestroke is already showing signs of improvement. At one point, Atkinson hops into the pool to demonstrate. He puts on his goggles and pushes off the wall, gliding effortlessly through the water like a submersible. The former SEAL lifts his face just inches out of the water for each breath, his arms barely breaking the surface. Despite eight years of retirement, he seems to have lost none of his aquatic abilities.
Atkinson, who turns 50 in September, doesn't look his age. "Kiwi shoe polish," he jokes, stroking a full head of short, black hair. But in order to train future SEALs, he's had to resume his old workout regimen of daily running, swimming and lifting weights.
Unlike today's young recruits, Atkinson didn't know a thing about the Navy's special operations when he enlisted in 1977 -- initially, he signed up to become a hull technician to learn plumbing and welding. It wasn't until he arrived at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois that he was recruited for the SEALs.
Moreover, unlike the young men signed up for the mentorship program -- so far, there are no women -- Atkinson entered the service during peacetime. He saw some combat in Grenada in 1983, then went to Beirut later that year after the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks. He was also in Haiti during the 1990s, and hovered off the coast when Air Force pilot Scott O'Grady was shot down over Bosnia in 1995. Mostly, though, Atkinson served 21 years during a time of relative calm for the U.S. military.
I ask him whether his work is made more difficult during wartime, especially in Vermont, which has no full-time active military base but a vocal antiwar movement. He doesn't think so.
"I certainly don't want to give you the impression that I'm a war monger or I believe in war. Far from it," he says. "I believe in preserving and protecting the peace. But that's enabled by having good special forces and good people in our armed services."
That said, Atkinson doesn't pull any punches when deppers and their parents ask him about the realities of special ops missions in the 21st century. The Navy hasn't suffered the same recruitment problems as other branches of the military, largely because of the public perception that the Navy isn't in harm's way. But as Atkinson points out, there are a lot of missions underway and not enough special forces units to go around. That means SEALs are being called upon to perform duties that they never did before, particularly in hostile urban environments.
"My stepson is a SEAL, and he deployed in April and comes back in October, maybe," Atkinson says. "I'm sure he's been to Iraq already, and I'm sure he's been to other trouble spots. That's what they do today. They're in the thick of things."
Regardless of the high demand for able bodies, the qualifications for becoming a SEAL have never been tougher. To enter BUD/S, or Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL training, a candidate must to able to swim 500 yards in less than 12 minutes, 30 seconds; run 1.5 miles in under 11 minutes, 30 seconds; do at least 42 pushups in two minutes, at least 50 situps in two minutes and be able to do at least six pull-ups.
Atkinson knows there are a lot of topnotch athletes to choose from in this area. And in spite of Burlington's ideological leanings, or even the current geopolitical climate, Navy recruits from around the region are seeking him out. Just like today's college applicants, they're doing whatever they can to get a leg up on the competition.
It's a sweltering morning in downtown Burlington as a contingent of nine deppers assembles outside the YMCA. They've driven from as far away as Rhode Island to train with Atkinson for the day. Standing beside Vermonters Viscido and Nasveschuk, the out-of-towners look more like stereotypical Navy SEALs -- green fatigue pants, combat boots, crew cuts, Mohawks, tattooed biceps and cut bodies.
But as the team makes the mile-and-a-half run from the Y to Texaco Beach on the waterfront, both Viscido and Nasveschuk arrive near the front of the pack. After a short rest, the men strip down to their shorts and wade into the lake for a 500-yard swim to North Beach.
Sure enough, on their return swim, both Nasveschuk and Viscido are among the first ones out of the water.
"I drank about a gallon of water," says Nasveschuk.
"Yeah, it's like swimming in a washing machine," Viscido agrees.
It sounds like they're complaining, but they're not. Both are smiling and seem pleased with how the Green Mountain boys stack up against the out-of-town competition. Though the odds are against them -- more recruits wash out of special forces than succeed -- they're hoping that they've got an edge; namely, the help of someone local who's been there before.