NAVAL AIR STATION KEY WEST, Fla., July 20, 2015 —
Two miles down a lengthy oceanside road into an outwardly “Navy” air station, there sits a compound where, just before sunrise, a class of rightfully exhausted yet bright-eyed Army Special Forces soldiers have already begun their hellish day.
The Army Green Berets, Rangers, and even a few West Point and ROTC students comprise the combat-dive certified hopefuls who volunteer for the rigorous and selective six-week, 28-acre Special Forces Underwater Operation School. They are trained to keep secrets -- albeit unofficially at times.
“I don’t tell [my mother] much of what we do because of the stress of the events and what could happen,” said Army 2nd Lt. William Ryerson, who recently commissioned from the University of Central Florida’s ROTC program. “It does not happen because of our training, but there’s potential harm that I cannot tell her about.”
The courses have five iterations per year, each with about 35 soldiers per session, including open- and closed-circuit diving, pool exercises, open-water and sub-surface training, and search and navigation.
Most students already have acquired specialized skills, such as Special Forces or Army Ranger qualifications, and all have passed a prerequisite maritime assessment course.
Rigid Training Style
Among the youngest students in the class, Ryerson, aspires to be a dive team commander. He said he looks not only to the instructors for mentoring, but also to his peers, who will also experience the cadre’s gradual transition from micromanagement to coaching as they progress in the class.
Underwater, one mistake can snowball, which keeps the instructors alert for even the smallest missteps.
“They put a lot of stress on you every day, but they do it for a reason, because the water is unforgiving. It does not care what you do,” Ryerson said. “The current will take you, the tide will take you, there’s marine life out there, which is why they make us pay attention to detail.”
And those who keep their wits about them still face what students describe as murky, low-visibility conditions with no margin for error in prepping and cleaning their equipment and maintaining and using their oxygen supplies.
“A problem with the equipment such as a retainer strap being twisted or a weight belt not being fed through properly … can lead to a catastrophic event out in the ocean,” Ryerson said.
He admitted to such a slip, a twisted strap that cost him precious energy when instructors demanded he perform lunges while shoulder carrying his 180-pound dive partner about 30 feet back and forth multiple times.
One Challenge Tops Them All
Ryerson acknowledged his older classmates might have a rougher go at the corrective tasks, but the strain remains on them all. “Being the youngest guy here gives me an advantage because of the physical strain on our bodies, but it still takes a toll -- the aches and pains in the morning.”
Most students seemed to agree that of the many crucibles they faced, the one-man competence exam in which a student is paired with an instructor in the deep end of the compound’s pool was particularly daunting.
“Each instructor takes the students’ … tank from their mouth and ties a deficiency in that air source,” said Army Capt. Brandon Schwartz, a dive team detachment commander at Fort Carson, Colorado. “So it’s up to the student to remain calm and trace his air source in order to breathe and stay conscious throughout the exam.”
Among the more experienced students, Schwartz said he volunteered for the class because of and not in spite of its rigorous reputation.
Depending on the day or hour, student divers could find themselves aboard Zodiacs, also known as combat rubber raiding crafts, kayaks, or even military aircraft, from which they jump to land on water targets.
That diversity of vessels and tactics is part of the course's water infiltration techniques that ease movement with minimal detection in varying water depths.
Evolving Training Techniques
Army Sgt. 1st Class Dennis Emmons, a Green Beret and class instructor, said the staff members make every attempt to train, teach, coach and mentor, especially in critical training aspects such as open- and closed-circuit dive training, which requires a deliberate and meticulous process.
“The training has evolved [and uses] a lot more pertinent information,” Emmons said. “Now a lot of it’s geared toward what’s going to be asked from the operational units.”
Expecting and embracing training stressors are a significant part of the mental requirements for students, but it doesn’t hurt to be in great shape, he said.
“He’s willing to sacrifice his body for a little bit of pain -- for the greater good,” Emmons said of the ideal student. “To see them show up timid and then to finish as a diver, fully qualified and proficient, to me, it’s awesome.”
Army Sgt. 1st Class Brian Gosselin, head of the force modernization program at the dive school, said maritime warfare is rapidly advancing worldwide.
“It’s our job to make sure we’re training the students with the most up-to-date equipment and techniques that are out there,” Gosselin said.
As such, the school house seeks joint and coalition situational awareness to exchange best practices and develop the equipment and curriculum for its students.
The Value of Calm
Army Sgt. Blake Gorey, who's soon heading to the 10th Special Forces Group at Fort Carson, Colorado, grew up on a sailboat and said he aspired to join Army Special Forces and serve on a dive team early on, despite coming from a long line of Naval operators. Still, he asserts, certain skillsets apply to each of the services.
“The biggest goal for us here as students is to learn how to remain calm under situations that you don’t think you’re going to make it out of,” he said.
Gorey recounted a day of closed-circuit dive training where he realized he was 1,500 meters off from a mark on the beach.
“You have to trust the skills that the instructors have taught you,” Gorey said. “You have to trust your navigation board, your compass, you have to trust your dive buddy to get through.”
But the divers and instructors at the school, about 166 miles southwest of Miami, share the vast Atlantic Ocean with much more than just each other. During a night training mission, Gorey said he held the compass to navigate for his dive buddy, when the two found out they had company.
“About 20 minutes into the dive, we start getting a tug on the buoy and the buddy line,” Gorey said.
He paused, noticed shadows around his dive buddy, and the two realized that dolphins apparently wanted to join the training.
A Storied History
According to the Army’s web site, the military has a storied connection to dive technology. In about 1943, an Army officer, along with representatives from the Army, the Army Air Corps, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, helped develop a recirculating oxygen rebreather -- the Lambertson Amphibious Respiratory Unit, which gave divers the ability to travel underwater farther and for extended periods of time.
This technology over years evolved into the Draeger underwater breathing apparatus, which protects combat divers by recycling the CO2 the body produces upon exhaling.
That history and evolution has culminated in a course that several students lamented for its imposing demands and day-to-day grind. They mentioned the relentless thirst and hunger as their bodies blaze through calories, and the unyielding need to stay mentally sharp. But at every turn, the instructor cadre is there to remind them why the pain is worth the gain.
“Someday when I go back to a team, the guy I’m teaching today is going to be the guy next to me subsurface, so I want to make sure that they’re safe, confident and smart,” Gosselin said.
(Follow Amaani Lyle on Twitter: @LyleDoDNews)