By Paul Vercammen
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CORONADO AMPHIBIOUS BASE, California (CNN) -- Just as a new wave of Navy SEAL recruits on Coronado Island, California, crawls out from under barbed-wire obstacles, muscles burning and sand sticking to sweat, the Navy has launched an aggressive recruiting campaign to expand the maritime special forces to their highest levels ever.
The target is a total SEAL force of 3,038 in five years.
"We need to grow our special operations forces across the services," says Navy SEAL Capt. Roger Herbert. "And for the Navy that means an additional 500 SEALs. (Watch SEAL recruits in training)
"My job is to grow the force, to get more guys through here, but never reduce the quality."
The SEALs, which stand for sea, air and land units, were formed by President Kennedy to carry out secret operations. They were the first American troops to set foot in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, and they are assigned some of the most dangerous, and secretive missions, in the military.
Because the SEAL training includes 5˝-mile swims, sleep deprivation, bone-jarring obstacle courses, constant running, climbing, jumping, diving and other tortures, historically just 25 percent of the recruits graduate to become Navy SEALs.
But that number jumped to 32 percent last year, because the SEALs are targeting young men who have a better chance of enduring the mental and physical challenges of training, according to Herbert.
Jake Williams just graduated as his class honor man and flashes a tooth-paste commercial smile when asked how he prepared for the SEALs' notorious training on land and water.
"I ran a lot, swam here and there," Williams explains. "When I was old enough, I got certified so I could go scuba diving. I did a lot of outdoor rock climbing and that kind of stuff."
The SEALs are now encouraging extreme-sports enthusiasts and athletes from a variety of sports to try to prove themselves in an ultimate contest of attrition, the SEAL boot camp.
"We've got to bring in the right candidates," says Navy SEAL Cmdr. Duncan Smith. "So we're going after water polo players. We're going after wrestlers. We are making people who may not traditionally thought of a career as a SEAL, we're making them aware of the opportunity to serve in Navy Special Warfare."
SEAL recruit Christopher Maddox played soccer and baseball in high school and now wears the brown T-shirt that shows he's survived SEAL Hell Week and is tantalizingly close to graduation.
"A lot of people come here, and they're all different shapes and sizes," Maddox says. "It doesn't matter. You could be in the best physical shape of your life and not last one day here."
Once a SEAL recruit decides he cannot take the pain anymore, he must walk up to a bell and ring it. The end is called "ringing out." The failed recruit then puts his helmet on the ground. The green helmets sit in a row. The last names are prominent in white letters.
The helmets stay lined up until graduation -- stark reminders to every SEAL of how few recruits survive.