KEY WEST, Fla. - Water is unforgiving.
Even for a skilled and combat-tested Soldier, water can be the great equalizer that doesn't care how many qualification badges or special tabs you wear. If you don't respect water and conquer your fear of it, you will die.
Combat divers already know this, but every so often they need to relearn that respect.
This week, National Guard Soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group, are proving their combat diving mettle during a requalification course at the U.S. Army Special Forces Underwater Operations School in Key West. The Soldiers from the Florida and North Carolina National Guards are completing a battery of dive-training exercises at the prestigious Army school under the guidance of combat diving supervisors and medical technicians.
According to Maj. Sam Kline, whose unit directs training at the school, the Soldiers are being scrutinized and tested on their surface and subsurface waterborne infiltration skills. Simply put, this means a rigorous display of swimming, diving and parachuting for the National Guard members taking part in the training.
Kline, who has been in charge of the U.S. Army Special Forces Underwater Operations School for the past two years, said the training is especially meaningful since the school is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. He said the National Guard shares deeply in that rich history of training and certifying the Army combat diving community.
"They share in our heritage," Kline said while monitoring a waterborne operation in the clear blue waters next to the school on June 23. "They share in that 50 years of history... we have a lot of divers in the National Guard."
As National Guard members parachuted from a C-130 Hercules, they glided calmly into the water directly north of downtown Key West. A few jet skiers and pleasure boaters skirted around the saltwater drop zone, but recovery teams from the combat dive school quickly motored in and picked up the thoroughly soaked jumpers.
A few hours later, training moved to the school's 660,000-gallon pool - the largest in the Florida Keys - where Florida National Guard combat diving supervisors worked with a couple of Soldiers who are considering attending the school. The supervisors - some of Florida's most elite Special Forces Soldiers - took the potential candidates through a trial run of a few challenges they may face if they attend the six-week course: 50-meter underwater swim; a series of floats and flips with hands and feet bound; drown-proofing; and diving for 20-pound weights. Safety swimmers - or "sharks" - stayed close to the candidates in the pool, as other instructors and medical personnel offered encouragement and direction from the edge.
Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Betten of the Wachula-based C Company, 3rd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group, watched intently as the Soldiers tackled the underwater swim across the pool on just one breath. He estimated that fewer than three percent of Special Forces are combat divers, and he admitted that it is one of the hardest schools he has completed.
The graduates of the dive school are "the best of the best," Betten, a Silver Star recipient, said.
Florida Special Forces medic Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy St. Clair said the biggest risk during the drown-proofing portion of the course is hypoxia (lack of adequate oxygen), so the medics at the pool watch the swimmers very carefully. He said the key to passing the tests is not to panic, remain calm, and control your breathing. Otherwise, a few seconds of panic can be deadly in the water.
"This is particularly dangerous, but you mitigate a lot of the risks by having so many safety swimmers and medics standing by," St. Clair said. "This isn't for everyone. It is that selective and that difficult."
Master Sgt. Richard Spear, Operations Sergeant for the Ocala-based A Company, agreed the school was tough. He said it was one of the "most challenging training events I have ever been a part of" when he completed the course in 2005.
"For the Special Forces' guys it is one of the most rigorous programs out there," he added. "It is a challenge, and that is why we like it."
Spear added that combat diving is an especially valuable skill for the Army National Guard Special Forces in Florida since so much of the state is in a maritime environment with more than 1,100 miles of coastline. Separate from its federal mission, the 3rd Battalion, 20th Special Forces, can also utilize diving during counterdrug missions and Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) operations after hurricanes.
Each year about 330 students train at the U.S. Army Underwater Special Operations School. And even for expert swimmers like Florida's Command Sgt. Maj. Sean Keane, the course can be daunting.
"The water changes the environment," Keane, a lifelong surfer who said he always felt relaxed in the ocean before attending the course in 1995. "I realized I wasn't comfortable when I came down here. They made me uncomfortable…and then made me comfortable in the water. They put you in such a special environment that you can handle anything.
"That is why you see guys that are so cool and calm here," Keane added. "They could have an SF tab and a Ranger tab, but the water can change everything."
He also pointed out that combat diving can instantly become deadly…even more deadly than the airborne operations that the Army Special Forces community is known for.
"When you are jumping there may be only one way to die." Keane said. "When you are diving there are a hundred ways."