MANALAPAN, NJ — The New Jersey mother of a 24-year-old Navy SEAL candidate who died in February at the Naval Base San Diego — just hours after completing "Hell Week" — wants answers about how and why her son died.
And she said she's not getting them from the U.S. Navy.
Nearly three months after the death of her son, Kyle Mullen, Regina Mullen has still not received her son's autopsy from the Navy. Nor has the investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS, been completed or any information about it released to her, she said.
"My son died on the floor of the barracks with no medical treatment, in the arms of a 19-year-old fellow sailor," said the grieving mother. "I actually don't want the Navy to end Hell Week. My son signed up for those rigorous drills knowing what it would be like. But there needs to be more medical oversight."
"Why in the world would anyone sign up to become a SEAL after what happened to my son?" she asked.
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Kyle Mullen, 24, died on Feb. 4, less than eight hours after he and the rest of his Navy SEAL class successfully completed the last day of Hell Week training, according to a statement from the U.S. Navy announcing his death.
Hell Week involves five days of intense physical and mental training, plus sleep deprivation. Only about 25 percent of those who attempt Hell Week complete it.
On that final day of training, Kyle Mullen and another candidate developed breathing problems after completing cold water training called surf immersion in the Pacific Ocean.
One was hospitalized immediately after the training and put on a ventilator; he survived.
Kyle Mullen did not.
As a registered nurse, Regina strongly suspected that both young men had swimming-induced pulmonary edema, or SIPE, she said. This is fluid in the lungs caused by vigorous exercise in cold water.
"It's actually pretty common," she said. "Navy SEALS are known to get it, as are triathletes who do long-distance swimming. But a 24-year-old boy does not have to die of pulmonary edema. It's entirely treatable, as that other boy who got proper medical care survived. Instead, they left him on the floor of the barracks to be checked by other 19-year-old boys."
Regina Mullen said nobody checked the men's blood oxygen levels with a pulse oximeter, and nobody listened to their lungs with a stethoscope. Regina Mullen said she asked the Navy repeatedly if such tests were done, but they won't get back to her or tell what those tests showed.
On Monday, she called the Naval medical examiner's office in San Diego and was told it was checking his blood for steroids, she said.
"I said, 'You don't die from steroids,' and they know my son died from pneumonia! He said, 'Thank you for calling,' and then swiftly hung up," she said.
In response to Patch's request for comment, the U.S. Navy issued the following statement.
"Naval Special Warfare continues to extend our deepest condolences and full support to the Mullen family. Multiple independent investigations are ongoing into the circumstances surrounding Seaman Kyle Mullen's death. Until the investigations are complete, it is inappropriate to speculate on the cause of death or contributing factors."
Won’t Remain Silent
Kyle Mullen grew up in Manalapan, where his mother and family still live. He was a star football player who led Manalapan High School to its first-ever championship in 2014, his senior year, and maintained a 4.4 GPA. He also played baseball for the Manalapan Braves. He was recruited by Yale University to captain the football team and later graduated from Monmouth University. After college, he chose to join one of the most elite U.S. military units: The Navy SEALs.
"He wanted to be part of a team," Regina Mullen said. "He likes teamwork where they work together for a greater good, similar to how they won that football championship. He wanted to be part of a team to do greater good in the world."
Regina Mullen said the pain of losing her son was "unimaginable." But she's not staying silent.
She gave this account of what happened on the day of her son's death.
Immediately after successfully passing Hell Week that Friday, all the young men were given initial medical checks from the Navy, she said. They were not examined in a hospital but were simply checked in the barracks, she said. She did not know if a doctor or nurse examined them or just a medic, she said.
The young men were given pizza and Gatorade to celebrate and then told to lie down on their mattresses in the barracks with their legs up in the air to recover, she said. All the men passed that initial exam and were told by the examiner they were in good physical health, she added.
Clearly, two young men were not.
She said her son called her to tell her he had passed the training but sounded "out of breath, like he couldn't catch his breath." Regina Mullen said she became very worried: "I was yelling at him to FaceTime me. But I never heard from him again."
One of Kyle Mullen's classmates FaceTimed his father, who happened to be a doctor, she said. The man's parents told her their son had blue lips on the call, and the father immediately insisted his son go to a hospital, she said.
The parents told her the man, who was not identified, was intubated for 24 hours with pneumonia. He survived and is now recovering, Regina Mullen said.
Regina Mullen said she wished the Navy had done the same for her son, who started coughing up blood while lying on his mattress on the floor, she said.
"He apparently started coughing up blood on the floor of the barracks, the other boys in his class tell me," Regina Mullen said. "Another boy turned my son on his side, and he was spitting up blood. I am told by those same boys that they called the on-base medic three times, and nobody ever came. So they called 911."
The EMT who showed up that night told her what happened, she said. "When he got there, there apparently was blood from him all over the floor," Regina Mullen said. "He was being propped up in another 19-year-old boy's arms, and he died in that boy's arms. He had no pulse. He was unresponsive. The EMT told me they tried to revive him for half an hour. But he died on that barrack floor that night."
Kyle Mullen was rushed to a hospital off base and intubated, Regina Mullen said. He was pronounced dead at Sharp Coronado Hospital in Coronado, California, at 5:42 p.m. on Feb. 4, the Navy said in its statement.
A Mother’s Demands
Mullen wants the following to happen.
- More medical oversight. "I really want to know exactly what medical oversight was done on these boys, and what kind of medical training that person had. Did they do blood work on the boys? Did they listen to their lungs with a stethoscope? Did they check all the boys for pneumonia?"
- She wants a private investigation into the SEAL Hell Week training. "I want [Department of Defense acting Inspector General Sean O'Donnell] to launch a separate investigation, in addition to the NCIS investigation. To me, having the Navy investigate itself is like having the mob investigate the mob. I am hearing things about what the trainers do in Hell Week. ... There are no checks and balances right now. People could be getting away with potential murder."
Regina Mullen has enlisted the help of U.S. Rep. Andy Kim (D-Moorestown) and U.S Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey (D) to help her get answers. Kim sits on the House Armed Services Committee.
Patch reached out to Kim's and Booker's offices for comment.
Kim joined her call for an independent investigation into Kyle Mullen's death, writing on April 14 to the Department of Defense asking for a private investigation.
The Department of Defense declined to launch a separate investigation before NCIS completes its own review, Regina Mullen told NJ 101.5.
"I think the Navy SEALS are one of the best entities in our country," she said. "But I think there are some bad people in charge of that training program right now, and an independent investigation needs to be done. I just don't want any future young men like my son — the team leaders — to go through this."
"It's a tragedy. Kyle was one of the best kids I ever coached, on and off the field," said longtime Manalapan High School football coach Ed Gurrieri. "He was in the National Honor Society; his GPA was in the 4.2 to 4.4 range when he graduated. He was all state and led our team to its first state championship. He played defense. When you look at his qualifications and who you want in a Navy SEAL, he's the guy."