The mother of a New Jersey sailor who died after completing “Hell Week” exercises to become a Navy SEAL isn’t satisfied with the investigation of her son’s death or the “letter of warning” that the Navy issued to three officers in charge of the training.
“They say he died from pneumonia and an enlarged heart,” Regina Mullen said of the investigation into the death of her son, Seaman Kyle Mullen, on Feb. 4. “But you can’t have two causes of death.”
Mullen, a registered nurse from Manalapan, said she met with Rear Admiral Brett W. Mietus, who is head of the office of sailor fitness in Washington, D.C., at her lawyer’s office last Wednesday night. Also at the meeting was her congressman from New Jersey’s 4th District, Rep. Chris Smith, who has called for the Armed Services Committee to hold a hearing on high-stress SEAL training exercises conducted by the Navy in Coronado, California, where Mullen died.
The autopsy conducted by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, which is included in the investigative report, found that Mullen’s heart was twice the normal size. An electrocardiogram of his heart nine months earlier found no abnormalities, according to the Navy’s investigation, NBC News reported.
An enlarged heart can be a symptom of performance-enhancing drugs, and drug paraphernalia was reportedly found among his possessions. Regina Mullen doesn’t believe Kyle was using steroids and said her son let other SEAL candidates use his car, so someone else could have stashed the needles. No drugs were found, she said.
Mullen believes the Navy’s focus on steroids is a distraction from the real issue: the lack of medical care after he got pneumonia during Hell Week.
“He may have had an underlying condition,” she said. “But this has nothing to do with steroids. My son died of pneumonia, because he was rowing a boat all night in freezing water, and didn’t receive the proper medical care.”
The Naval Special Warfare Command released a statement that cleared Kyle Mullen of any misconduct in his own death, and said performance enhancing drugs “were not a contributing cause” in his death.
“Our deepest sympathy extends to Seaman Mullen’s family and friends during this difficult time,” said Rear Adm. Keith Davids, the commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command.
Two captains and a senior medical officer were reportedly issued “letters of warning” as a form of discipline more than eight months after Mullen’s death. His mother says the letters are little more than a slap on the wrist.
“It’s just a piece of paper that they stick in your file,” she said.
Smith, who represents Manalapan in the 4th District, sponsored an amendment to the 2023 defense appropriations bill that requires the Secretary of Defense to recommend improvements to medical care and oversight of individuals engaged in high-stress trainings, like the Navy SEALs. That amendment is now before the Senate and expected to pass.
He’s also written a letter to the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, calling for a hearing on high-risk, high-training exercises. “Regina has been tenacious,” Smith said. “She not only wants answers for herself. She wants to make sure other SEALs are not exposed to neglect or abuse.”
Mullen says she spoke to her son just hours after he completed Hell Week, so weak from pneumonia that he was brought into the barracks in Coronado, California in a wheelchair. She urged him to seek emergency treatment at a hospital, but her son feared if he did, he would be rolled back in the training.
“They call it ‘ringing the bell,’” Mullen said. “It’s like quitting. And he wouldn’t quit.”
The Navy says that since Mullen’s death, it has begun urine testing for performance enhancing drugs, and has extended the medical observation period for 24 hours following the conclusion of Hell Week. It has also begun a cardiac screen program and increased its focus on preventing pneumonia.
“Kyle’s death will not be in vain.” said Davids. “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.”
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Richard Cowen may be reached at email@example.com.