You might have a sense from reading the news that the U.S. military is the last place people want to be these days. If so, you may be surprised to learn that the Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy have all made or surpassed their recruiting goals so far this year, according to the Department of Defense.

Here in the Gopher State, Navy recruiting is thriving, though Minnesota is about as far from the ocean as you can get.

"People are always surprised when they see my uniform," says Petty Officer David Carter, a public affairs officer at the Navy Recruiting District-Minneapolis. " 'I didn't know a ship pulled in' -- that's what people say to me all the time."

Carter oversees the Navy's outreach in a five-state area. "We bring bits and pieces of the Navy to the heartland," he explains. On July 19-20, the Blue Angels -- the Navy's crack flight demonstration squadron -- will come to Duluth for Navy Week, and on July 21-23 the "Leap Frogs," the Navy's parachute team, will jump in the Twin Cities.

But some recruits, like 18-year-old Alex Mahs of Brooklyn Park, don't need bells and whistles to grab their imagination.

Since age 12, Mahs has dreamed of joining an elite group of legendary warriors: the Navy SEALs.

In sixth grade, Mahs saw a TV ad that featured a SEAL with a camouflaged face, paddling with his team along a river in their inflatable boat.

"From that moment, I wanted to be that man and I wanted to work with those people," he said. "Something inside of me just screamed out, 'This is what you have to do in life.' "

Last year, as a senior at Champlin Park High School, Mahs joined the Navy's Delayed Entry Program, which prepares recruits physically, mentally and emotionally for boot camp. He shipped out a few days ago, and will learn over the next eight months whether he has what it takes to become a SEAL.

An unconventional force

The SEALs -- the name stands for Sea, Air, Land -- are special forces who use clandestine methods to carry out missions that larger, conventional forces can't conduct without detection. Involving groups of two to 16, their missions include special reconnaissance, direct action operations and unconventional warfare.

A recent advertisement for the SEALs says it all. It features a jungle background, with a caption that reads "pictured from left to right" and the names of eight people. But you can't see a single human being -- as SEALs, they're the ultimate "silent professionals."

"In the last few years, the SEALs have opened the door to the public," says Carter. "They'll tell you, 'Here's who we are and what we do.' But they won't tell you how and when they do it."

Fewer than one in three candidates who begin the grueling, six-month SEAL training actually graduate.

It's surprising so many do. The training -- called BUD/S, or "basic underwater demolition" -- drives men to physical exhaustion. It includes arduous four-mile timed runs in boots, two-mile ocean swims wearing fins, combat scuba training and small-boat seamanship. Its Hell Week is notorious -- five days of constant training, with a maximum of four hours sleep total.

Difficult? That's easy

As a mock SEAL business card puts it, "The difficult done easily, the impossible by appointment only."

SEALs say that success is 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental.

"Every person will reach the point of physical failure," says Carter. "It's what happens in your mind after your body reaches failure that determines whether you stay or go."

Mahs puts it this way: "Anyone can do 20 push-ups. What makes the difference is finding the strength to do them even though you're cold, wet and exhausted, your body aches, and your best buddy has just dropped out."

What will be the biggest challenge of SEAL training? Mahs says it won't be the one that sounds worst to me -- "drown-proofing," or learning to swim with your hands and feet bound.

He expects it will be "pool competency."

"In pool comp, your instructors give you scuba gear, and then rip off your mask, grab your air regulator, unstrap your harness, and spin you around to disorient you," he explains. "You have to keep your cool and do the procedure you learned," he says, to prepare for survival in later combat situations.

'I can't wait'

Most of us would do anything to avoid this. Not Mahs and his fellow SEAL aspirants. "I look at all the things I'll have to do and I smile," he says. "I can't wait to do all those horrible things that no one can imagine doing."

Why accept this challenge? These words from the SEAL credo give a hint:

"I persevere and thrive on adversity. ... If knocked down, I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission. I am never out of the fight."

Katherine Kersten • kkersten@startribune.com Join the conversation at my blog, www.startribune.com/thinkagain.