Military Stories

Becoming An Army Diver – Part 1

“You’re going to be a what?!”

The day I was scheduled to pick my Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), my father sat me down. He is an ex-Army guy. Up to that day, I spent 17 years listening to each one of his Army stories no fewer than 20 times. He said, “Johnny, the recruiter will say anything to get you to sign on the dotted line. Don’t pick a job you don’t want.” I called him a few hours later and told him I signed up to become an Army Diver.

I was really excited to tell him. The recruiter had never seen this job available. He told me it was an elite group of soldiers; there were only 130 in the Army; and explained how challenging it would be to complete the schools. My dad’s response was, “you’re going to be a what?!” I really don’t remember what he said after that. I know there were a few swears and he hung up on me. Not a normal reaction from him and not the reaction I was expecting. He called me 15 minutes later and said “Dude, you know you can get stationed in Hawaii? Looks like a pretty cool gig.” I thought so, too.

My Next Chapter

I enlisted my junior year of high school through the Delayed Entry Program. This program allowed juniors in high school to enlist, gave them the option to complete basic training during the summer after their junior year, and return to finish their senior year. I decided to forgo basic training between my junior and senior year so I could spend one more summer playing baseball.

In August of 2004, I started my military journey at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Basic training was everything they made it out to be. Lots of yelling, mass punishments, early mornings, almost no time to eat, and very little contact with the outside world. With that said, I loved it. A lot of people who trained with me struggled. Sure, I had my own challenges, but I was loving it. I graduated basic training second in my class. This still rubs me the wrong way when I think about it. I missed graduating first in my class on the rifle range. I hit 38 out of 40 targets; he hit 39.

Dive School – Phase 1

Setting the stage

Dive school is broken down into two phases. Phase 1 takes place in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The three-week course is designed to assess the soldier’s physical and mental ability to become a diver. Phase 1’s attrition rate hovers around 85 percent. Students quit or fail out because of the academic course load or the physical demands. You’ll never read this, and likely won’t get this from an instructor, but their goal is to get you to quit. They are VERY good at their jobs.

To the best of my knowledge, the dive field is one of the only MOSs that allows you to quit, or as they call it, drop on request (DOR). During training, you can DOR and your MOS will be reclassified to needs of the Army. At best, you will reclassify to Combat Engineer or Infantryman. At worse, Water Purification or Petroleum Supply Specialist.

Diver candidates shared barracks space with non-divers. I believe the other soldiers were technical engineers. Their school was 17 weeks. Most of them would see three or four Phase 1 classes during their training. With 25 want-to-be divers in each class and an 85 percent attrition rate, the technical engineers would see very few pass Phase 1. Each time a new group of diver candidates came in, they made sure to let you know you weren’t going to make it.

Classing Up

Class Room Instruction

My Phase one class started with roughly 20-25 people. Over the next three weeks, I felt like I was drinking through a fire hose. We studied gas laws and why they mattered in diving. Intro to Diving Physics, which didn’t seem like an introduction at the time. Dive Medicine and how to identify the signs and symptoms of diving-related illnesses. Along with all the studying, we’d also have daily homework assignments. I’ll never forget having to write out gas laws as homework.

Our instructors would tell us to hand write; Boyle’s law, Charles’/Gay-Lussac’s Law, and The General Gas Law 25 times and bring them to class the next day. Because lights in the barracks go out early, we often did the homework in the dark or hiding in the bathroom. If there were any errors or omissions or we didn’t complete the required number, there was hell to pay. It was always by way of eight-count body builders The U.S, Navy devised the eight-count bodybuilder, a multi-part exercise that employs intense cardio with resistance training to promote weight loss, build lean muscle, and improve overall fitness. The unique exercise combines a traditional pushup with squatting and a variation of a jumping jack to work the entire body. At one point, I remember we owed the instructors over 1,000 eight-counts. They told us we would not graduate without completing all of them. We would spend 10-minute breaks, the time before class started, and at the barracks after class, knocking out as many as we possibly could. Just as we were in the low hundreds, more infractions, resulting in more eight-counts.

The Pool and The Grinder

Morning Physical Training (PT) usually incorporated a four- to seven-mile run, a slew of calisthenics, and some stretching. It wasn’t the morning PT that made most people quit. It was the pool that got just about everyone. There were many evolutions in the pool. The ones that always seemed to make the most people quit were drown proofing, over/unders, and treading water with weights.

Drown Proofing

Drown proofing was a three-part evolution. First, we completed the basic survival stroke for five minutes. When we were growing up, we called this the dead man’s float. Normally, this wouldn’t seem that difficult. However, in this exercise, you have 20+ other trainees shoulder to shoulder doing it with you while instructors are splashing water in your face every time you come up for air. If your head stays out of the water too long, you failed. If you swam out of the group or swam to the edge of the pool, you failed.

Part two was the modified survival stroke. This iteration involved holding a line behind your back while performing the survival stroke. When you were holding the line behind your back, you weren’t able to use your arms to tread water. Again, another five-minute evolution. In the same fashion, the instructors are yelling and spraying water in your face while you are trying to catch a breath. You would fail in the same ways as the first iteration. However, in this iteration, they try to pull the line out of your hands. Lose the line, fail the evolution.

Part three was the modified survival stroke for five minutes with ankles tied together. This one was much easier than part two for me. I couldn’t then, and still can’t, do the “egg beater” with my legs to tread water.

Over-Unders

The pool at Phase 1 is 14 feet deep and 25 meters wide. Over the three weeks of class, each student becomes very familiar with every inch of the pool. Given the over instruction, you would swim the width of the pool doing the freestyle stroke as fast as possible. Get the under command, you would sink 14 feet while staying close to the side of the pool. Once you hit the bottom, you would swim the 25 meters on a single breath, hit the wall on the other side, and swim to the surface.

Individually, each iteration isn’t too challenging. Doing them back-to-back-to-back becomes a grueling evolution. The instructors allowed minimal time between each over/under. Just as you took five to six breaths, they’d call out the next command. There was nothing worse than hearing multiple under commands in a row. At least with the over, you had the ability to take a few breathes while swimming across the pool. When they sensed weakness from a trainee, the next command was always “under.” If I had to guess, I’d say 1/3 to 1/2 of the class quit during this event.

Treading Water With Weights

There were two types of weights, pencil weights and bricks. The pencil weights were around two pounds and the bricks around 16 pounds. We were instructed to swim to the middle of the deep end with two pencil weights, form a circle, and tread water with the weights above our head. As long as the weights stayed out of the water, you were following their instructions. I often found my head underwater, weights above the water, and getting one good kick to get a breath of air.

After a few minutes, the instructors would tell us to drop the weights to the bottom of the pool. We would be instructed to dive to the bottom, retrieve the weights, and start the process over again. This iteration would usually continue until people quit or the instructors became bored.

After that, we would be instructed to swim to the middle of the pool, form a circle, and pass the 16-pound brick in one direction. Sometimes there was one brick, sometimes there were multiple bricks. If the brick went underwater, there was a punishment. The real challenging part was having multiple bricks being passed in opposite directions. At some point, each person would end up with two bricks, one in each hand. You don’t want to be the one holding 32 pounds above your head while treading water, but it inevitably happened to everyone.

Everything we did in the pool was to build strength and confidence in the water. In the field, we faced fast currents, rough seas, zero visibility, and multiple hazards, all while being weighed down by our gear and equipment.

It’s Finally Over – For Now.

True to the attrition rate, and to the best of my memory, I was one of only two to graduate in my class. You’d think I’d remember! I have a good reason why it’s as clear as mud. After I passed Phase 1, there weren’t a sufficient number of soldiers to start Phase 2 in Florida. The dive instructors gave me two options. I could spend my days raking leaves, mowing lawns, and cleaning the barracks, or I could go through Phase 1 again with the next class.

There was a downside of going through Phase 1 again. If I didn’t pass a test, failed an evolution, or quit, my orders to Florida would be revoked. If my orders were revoked, I would be reclassified to needs of the Army. I’m not a fan of yard work or cleaning, so I rolled the dice and decided to go through Phase 1 again. I passed Phase 1 again. This time with three to four other guys. We now had the number of people needed to start Phase 2.

Teaser for Part Two

Phase 2 is a six-month course at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center in Panama City, Florida. I had just passed a class with an attrition rate of 85 percent, twice, and truly believed the hard part was over after hearing the attrition rate was half of Phase 1. Boy did I have another thing coming! The challenging parts of Phase 1 didn’t hold a candle to the mental and physical demands of Phase 2.