How did NJ Navy SEAL candidate die? Mom relieved that feds ‘didn’t lie about it’
The death of a Manalapan Navy SEAL candidate on the same day that he finished “Hell Week” training was due to bacterial pneumonia and an enlarged heart through no misconduct of his own, according to a lengthy official report.
Three officials were reprimanded as a result of the death.
The findings regarding the February line-of-duty death of 24-year-old Kyle Mullen were issued Wednesday in a 320-page report by Naval Special Warfare Command.
The Group A strep found in Mullen’s organs during his autopsy was capable of causing multi-organ failure and cardiovascular collapse via toxic shock, according to an Armed Forces Medical Examiner.
Kyle Mullen's mother reacts to news
Regina Mullen said while the declaration about her son was nothing new she is glad "they didn't lie about it.”
She also said that “administrative action” taken against two officers and a doctor following her son’s fatal "Hell Week" have amounted to a verbal warning, which she said is far from real accountability.
While beyond frustrated, Regina Mullen said she is trying to put her faith in a broader investigation, ordered last month, and that the admiral overseeing it is “going to get to the bottom of this.”
Any other factors in Mullen’s death are “speculative,” and were therefore excluded from the report, which apparently included performance-enhancing drugs found among personal belongings.
“Kyle’s death will not be in vain. We have a moral obligation to learn everything we can from Kyle’s tragic death so that we can ensure the safety of all future candidates,” Commander, Naval Special Warfare Command, Rear Adm. Keith Davids said in a written statement.
Among notable changes, candidates now are under watch by medical personnel for 24 hours following Hell Week, NSWC Public Affairs Officer, Cmdr. Ben Tisdale confirmed to New Jersey 101.5 on Thursday.
'Hell Week', on second try
Kyle Mullen’s first try at Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training was in August 2021 — during which he was diagnosed with heat stroke and was removed from that class.
He underwent interim training and exercises for months, until being cleared in December to re-enter BUD/S training, which entails three, seven-week phases.
Kyle started phase one with a new class in January.
The line-of-duty-death report found other candidates saw Kyle have trouble breathing during the first week of BUD/s training, with symptoms of Swimming Induced Pulmonary Edema (SIPE), but that he seemed to recover within the next couple of weeks.
“Hell Week” for the class ran through the morning of Feb. 4, during which medical personnel saw Kyle for swelling, numbness and tingling in his legs, according to the command report.
They also heard crackling in Mullen's lungs from “rales and rhonchi” and he was given oxygen twice while still in the field, on the final morning of Hell Week.
The presence of both lung abnormalities can be a result of pneumonia, heart failure and SIPE.
Kyle returned to the barracks in a wheelchair due to swelling after 9:30 a.m. — after a medical check that lasted “five minutes,” according to a naval doctor interviewed for the report.
In a separate interview, the person in charge of Basic Training Command said that Mullen’s swollen legs did not raise alarms since “most students are swollen” after five-and-a-half days of intensive training.
As was protocol at the time, non-medical personnel were assigned to “watch” over the SEAL candidates who had just completed Hell Week, armed with their personal cell phones and a specific number to call for a "Duty Doctor," as needed.
The next routine medical check was the following day.
This has been among the biggest sources of torment for Regina Mullen, who is a nurse.
Had her son and his fellow SEAL candidates been under actual medical watch, immediately following Hell Week completion — her son would likely be alive, she has said.
Around 2:30 p.m., four of those tasked with watching for issues called the medical officer on duty, to say Kyle was unable to eat without vomiting and coughing and spitting up blood.
Over the phone, the doctor told them to decide whether 911 should be called, according to the command report.
By 4 p.m. one of the watch-standers called to say that Kyle had turned blue, was gasping for air and had fluids coming from his mouth — which is when the doctor instructed them to call 911, according to the report.
Several transcribed interviews within the findings said that first responders had actually been called at the request of another SEAL candidate.
When they arrived, they found Kyle Mullen unresponsive. They drove him to the nearest hospital, where he was pronounced dead around 5:30 p.m.
Regina Mullen said that she has spoken with the candidates who stood watch over her son in his final hours, including one who said that Kyle appeared to die in his arms in the barracks.
Attempt to ‘change the narrative’
Steroid substances were found among Kyle Mullen’s belongings after his death — testosterone, Anastrobol, human growth hormone and sildenafil, according to the command report.
There were no "screened drugs of abuse" in the toxicology portion of his autopsy.
An infectious disease expert whose evaluation was included in the report said that any “possible correlation” of performance-enhancing drugs and Mullen's fatal bacterial infection was "speculative."
The same expert said that Group A Strep is "a virulent organism and can rapidly progress when infection is deep-seated, as in the lungs. It can result in fatalities in healthy young adults, and I would expect this to be even more likely with underlying heart disease."
Among military trainers and SEAL candidates interviewed for the command report, none said they had any knowledge of Kyle Mullen taking performance-enhancing drugs.
At least two also said that use of PEDs would have likely been more evident in Kyle Mullen’s performance, which was more “middle of the pack” among the remaining trainees.
Regina Mullen said the PED substances were found in Kyle's car and that there’s no definitive proof that they were even his — as he often loaned the vehicle out to other SEAL candidates.
She is also not ruling out the possibility that they could have been planted there, to try and misdirect the case.
Mullen, as a trained nurse, said regardless of the findings, steroids don’t cause acute bacterial pneumonia — her son's cause of death.
She said any repeated mention of performance-enhancing drugs among Kyle’s belongings is "an attempt to try and change the narrative."
‘Increased resolve’ turned fatal
While grappling with her intense grief, Regina said she has also dealt with some hateful messages online from those defending Navy SEAL medics, suggesting in direct messages that Kyle Mullen was weak or should have just quit.
Hell Week is “the defining event of BUD/S training,” according to a website for the U.S. Navy SEAL program.
“On average, only 25% of SEAL candidates make it through Hell Week, the toughest training in the U.S. Military. It is often the greatest achievement of their lives,” according to the same online description — adding “it’s as much mental as it is physical. Trainees just decide that they are too cold, too sandy, too sore or too tired to go on. It’s their minds that give up on them, not their bodies."
The handwritten medical observation log during Kyle Mullen’s Hell Week — as seen in a redacted copy in the line-of-duty report — shows his class went from 58 candidates to 21 remaining by the final morning.
Multiple interviews included in the report also said that Kyle Mullen was never named on the SIPE watch list, as written on a whiteboard by medical staff.
“While Instructors could get anyone to quit if they wanted to, that’s not what they’re after. They apply great physical and mental stress, sow the seeds of doubt, and give tempting invitations for trainees to quit. It’s up to the individual student to either turn it into increased resolve, or decide on his own to quit,” the SEAL online description of Hell Week continues.
Among interviews in the command report, one of the doctors with Naval Special Warfare Medical Center said that they were unsure if they saw Kyle Mullen two days in a row, as “med check pages had missing pages or misaligned dates.”
When asked if it is common for students to go to the ER after Hell Week, the same doctor said “Yes, two or three students typically go after med checks Saturday morning.”
However, that trip to the emergency room typically causes the individual who just went through Hell Week to still get “rolled” from training, the doctor confirmed.
“The majority of the students who make it through Hell Week go on to graduate BUD/S and become SEALs. Having survived that severe trial, they feel literally unstoppable — that they can do anything,” according to the Navy SEAL website.
A fellow candidate who had known Kyle Mullen since before BUD/S training, interviewed for the report said after their post-Hell Week medical checks, he saw Mullen coughing up fluid into an empty bottle — so dark that other candidates thought he was using tobacco.
Multiple other witnesses confirmed he was spitting up red-tinged fluid, possibly blood or phlegm, into a 32-ounce Gatorade bottle, during his final hours after Hell Week.
According to another person interviewed, when a call was made about Mullen and another individual having trouble breathing later that same day — they were told the on-site medical office was closed until the next morning and to call 911.
In September, Naval leaders ordered a broad investigation of how “Hell Week” operates — from safety measures, qualifications of medical personnel and instructors, and drug testing policies for SEAL candidates, as reported by The New York Times.
Meanwhile, “administrative action” has been taken, following Kyle Mullen’s death, against the former Commanding Officer of Basic Training Command, Capt. Bradley Geary, the Commander of Naval Special Warfare Center, Capt. Brian Drechsler and senior medical staff under their command, the Navy said, as cited by a CNN report.
Regina Mullen said the action is far from meaningful, as “they get to retire with a note in their file.” She was told the letters of censure were issued back in August.
She has tried to remain hopeful that the active investigation will lead to more significant changes, as the amount of serious injuries from Hell Week are “under reported and under-documented," saying “They have a responsibility to do what’s right and protect no one - no cover-ups.”
Following Kyle Mullen's death, the Navy has already begun a cardiac screening program and increased prevention measures for pneumonia, as well as urine testing for “medically safe-to-train” performance-enhancing drugs.
There has also been an "extension of the observation period for 24 hours post securing both BUD/S Phase 1 Assessment and Selection crucible events," according to a written release.
When asked whether that meant candidates were now under the watch of medical personnel for 24 hours following Hell Week, Tisdale said yes.
Last month, the Manalapan High School football team retired Kyle’s jersey number, 44, on Sept. 9, which Regina Mullen said was a meaningful tribute to her son.
She said some of the surviving SEAL candidates that he trained with have also shared their own fond memories of Kyle as a very positive young man — adding “It’s amazing how one person can impact so many other people.”
Erin Vogt is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach her at email@example.com
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