Questions remain unanswered year after Navy SEAL candidate's 'Hell Week' death: 'People are trying to cover their backsides'
MANALAPAN, N.J. - A Manalapan High School football helmet rests atop a dresser. A set of military fatigues dangles from a hanger. Photos are everywhere, including a large portrait of the strapping young man who went off to serve his country in the Navy.
This is Kyle Mullen’s bedroom. A year ago, on Feb. 4, the 24-year-old died hours after completing the grueling “Hell Week” portion of Navy SEALs training.
A year has passed and the Navy has not completed its investigation into the chain-of-command failure that left Mullen, a college football standout at Yale and Monmouth universities, without medical attention as he coughed up enough blood and fluid to fill a 36-ounce bottle.
The delay has exacerbated the grief of Regina Mullen, Kyle’s mother, whose crusade for answers — and reform — led to a flood of outreaches from mothers of SEAL candidates sharing their own anguished stories with her. The weight of it all has Regina wandering into Kyle’s room in the wee hours, gazing at the photos, wondering if an honest reckoning will ever occur.
“What is taking so long?” she said. “They don’t care. I’m just really disgusted, and I’m worried for the (other) men. It’s keeping me up at night.”
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'This seems to be extraordinarily egregious'
A Navy autopsy cited the cause of Kyle Mullen’s death as untreated pneumonia.
“This sailor had completed Hell Week and was being looked after by nonmedical personnel to help him tend to his basic needs,” the autopsy read. “He was in a wheelchair most of the time, unable to stand and walk on his own."
It added: He had reportedly been coughing/spitting up red-tinged fluid which had nearly filled a 36-oz. sports drink bottle.”
A separate Navy investigation concluded Mullen died “in the line of duty,” meaning there was no misconduct on his part.
But the burning question — why medical personnel on-site during SEAL training were sent home while Mullen was clearly struggling — remains unanswered. That’s the core of the chain-of-command investigation whose completion keeps getting delayed.
Since midsummer, Regina periodically has been told by Navy officials that it was nearly done. At one point they scheduled a briefing with her, only to cancel the day before.
'Just insane': Kyle Mullen's mom slams silence, mistakes after Navy SEALs Hell Week death
All that’s known is that three officers received a reprimand, including Capt. Brad Geary, the commander in charge of Mullen’s SEAL training. In the spring, Geary was reassigned from his post as commanding officer of Naval Special Warfare’s Basic Training Command.
Michael Detzky, a Freehold-based attorney who served 30 years in the Navy, is an expert in military law and has followed the case. While in the service he was a judge advocate general (a military attorney, known as a JAG) and retired as a captain of the JAG corps. In an interview with the Asbury Park Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, Detzky said he’s not surprised the chain-of-command investigation has lasted this long.
“Quite frankly, I’m sure people are trying to cover their backsides,” he said.
Regina Mullen has called for Geary to be court-martialed and dishonorably discharged.
“There is an adage in the Navy: The CO (commanding officer) is responsible for everything that comes out under his watch,” Detzky said. “That’s just the way it is. You can have the ship’s captain asleep in his stateroom, and if a junior office runs the ship aground, it’s the captain’s responsibility. Same way for this (Navy SEALs) unit.”
Based on his reading of the facts, Detzky said, “This seems to be extraordinarily egregious, that (Mullen) didn’t get the medical care he needed.”
He added, “Sure, SEALs have to be able to get through distressing, inhospitable conditions and be able to withstand much more than the average servicemen, but they’re not supermen.”
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Calls for reform
In the bigger picture, Regina Mullen seeks to reform the “Hell Week” process. Last summer it was modified to provide candidates with a 24-hour monitoring period by medical personnel upon the week's completion.
“That’s a start, but I want to know what their set protocols are,” she said. “What happens if they don’t follow them?”
Regina Mullen, who is a registered nurse, wants to see a larger safety net.
“They’re still not using stethoscopes to check their lungs,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to ring the bell (the only way candidates can receive medical attention, an act that typically ends their SEAL candidacy). They shouldn’t have to ask. After five days of no sleep, these guys are delirious. Yeah, you have to be exposed to the elements an conditions, but not to the point where you’re torturing people, killing people or giving them permanent injuries.”
She has enlisted the support of two New Jersey members of the House of Representatives — Republican Chris Smith and Democrat Andy Kim. Smith authored an amendment to the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act titled “Kyle Mullen Naval Safety Enhancements,” which directs the Secretary of Defense to provide oversight of SEALs training and better ensure sailor safety.
At Regina Mullen’s behest, Kim requested an independent investigation into her son’s death by the Department of Defense; he was told that would have to wait until the Navy’s investigation ended.
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Regina Mullen also has petitioned Congress to adjust the Feres Doctrine, which bars service members from suing the federal government for injuries in the line of duty — and bars family members of killed service members from filing wrongful death lawsuits.
“I get the idea,” she said. “But that was designed for combat.”
On Jan. 26, Regina Mullen received an email from Lt. Cmdr. Amanda Dattaro of the Navy’s personnel department saying that the report on the Navy’s chain-of-command investigation is still in the process of being finalized, with several steps remaining.
“I know this is not the news you’re hoping to hear, but the report is now in intermediate review to ensure a thorough and complete investigation,” Dattaro wrote in the email, which was obtained by the Asbury Park Press.
Once completed, Dattaro added: “The Navy will prepare to provide you with a briefing on its findings and will prepare a redacted copy of the report to leave with you after the briefing. I will reach out as soon as we have a better timeline to schedule this with you.”
In the meantime, an open wound festers.
“This delay makes it worse,” Regina said.
'Never held anyone accountable': Kyle Mullen's mom fears no Navy SEALs Hell Week changes
Detzky, the Freehold attorney and former JAG, said he would counsel Regina to keep applying public pressure.
“They can’t just brush this under the rug,” he said.
Regina Mullen believes that is exactly what will happen, which is why she is making so much noise — and losing so much sleep.
“This will kill me,” she said.
Contact Jerry Carino at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Kyle Mullen Navy SEALs Hell Week death: No answers after one year