After completing phase 1 of dive training, I received orders to Panama City, FL where I would start Phase 2 at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center (NDSTC).
Phase 2 of training is roughly six months. The training consists of classroom, controlled diving evolutions in pools and tanks, and open water diving. The attrition rate in Phase 2 is roughly half of Phase one, about 40 percent. Not because Phase 2 is easier, but because 85 percent of students were weeded out before being sent to PCB.
Every day started around 5:00 a.m. with physical training (PT) led by a handful of instructors. On cardio-specific days, it was common to run anywhere from four to eight miles. At that time, it was NDSTC mandate that runs should not be any faster than an eight-minute, 30-second average mile pace. What was supposed to be, and what reality was, couldn’t have been more different.
I was never the fastest runner and usually ended up in the back of the pack during group runs. Because I found myself at the back of the pack, I’d constantly get extra “motivation.” Their motivation was telling me if I didn’t maintain pace and stay with the rest of my class, I’d risk being dropped from school.
As a class, we all knew we were always running at a pace much faster than 8:30 per mile. But we weren’t allowed to wear GPS watches during our runs, for obvious reasons. During PT, we were required to carry camelback hydration packs filled with water. One day, with some pushing from my buddies in class, I put a GPS watch into my camelback to verify our suspicions. Sure enough, the watch showed we were averaging a sub seven-minute mile. Since I was always in the back, the rest of the class was probably averaging a six-minute mile.
Outside of the runs, we’d do hundreds of pushups, sit-ups, eight-count body builders, and flutter kicks every day. Sprinkled in would be 50-100 pull ups and carrying a rubber zodiac boat around the NDSTC compound. The instructors were great at finding unorthodox ways to test your mental capacity, but also ways to make you quit. The dead hang was one of those techniques and was always done at the end of PT.
In this event, you would jump up on the pull-up bar and just hang there. The instructors would tell us if everyone hung on the bar for 90 seconds, we were done. If one person dropped, everyone had to get off the bar and we’d start over. 90 seconds doesn’t seem like a long time, and it really isn’t, but it’s a challenge even if you hadn’t just completed a 90-minute workout.
I’d guess we only completed the dead hang as a class maybe two to three times. Once the instructors realized the class can complete the event together, it becomes less enjoyable for them and we stopped doing it all together. I remember students quitting because of this event. After seven or eight attempts and only being able to hold yourself up for 15-20 seconds, it seems like there is no way to make it 90 seconds. After someone quit or the instructors got sick of watching us constantly fail, they call PT for the day and it was off to the showers.
Some days PT was conducted in the pool and others in Alligator Bayou. In the pool, we’d swim laps for time, laps for distance, tread water for an ungodly amount of time, or work on breath holding by completing over-unders. Any time spent in Alligator Bayou was usually for distance swimming. In the Bayou, we could swim anywhere from 500 meters to three miles. Depending on the season, the water was either warm and filled with jellyfish or so cold a wetsuit was required. I’m not sure what was worse. It’s not easy to swim long distances in a thick wetsuit, but it’s also terrible getting stung by jelly fish.
Most water PT events were timed. If someone in the class didn’t meet the time requirements, everyone would do it again. While running wasn’t my strong suit, water events were. I remember days when the only event we had to complete was a 500-meter swim under a certain amount of time. By the time we were finished, we had all swam around 2,500 meters, the price of not finishing in the allotted time. That type of mental trickery happened often. The events varied, but the carrot of “all you have to do is…” with unrealistic times, remained the same.
Classroom and Controlled Diving
The day to day was not much different than a normal 9-5 job. We would spend the mornings learning, break for lunch, then head back to the classroom until 5:00. In the first few months of training, there were mandatory study sessions after the day was over. We’d break at 5:00, grab dinner, and then head back to the classroom from 6:00 – 8:00 to study.
It felt like we had a written test once a week or once every ten days for six months. Drinking from a fire hose is the best way to describe the learning environment. Just as you thought you were grasping the content; you were tested on it; and we moved on to another topic. I’m not sure I genuinely understood all the information I’d learned in school until after I graduated, was in the field, and could spend time processing the material. I was just able to retain enough information to pass the tests.
At this point in the training, most students were not going to fail out because of the PT; it was going to be because of the testing. If you started class with 20 students and lost eight along the way, six would have failed because of failing tests. Like with all tested events, physical or classroom evolutions, you had two chances to get a passing grade. If you failed the second test, there was a 99 percent chance you were kicked out of the school. Rarely did someone fail a second test and get to stay in the course.
We were studying everything from line pulls (how divers and those above water communicate) to dive medicine and how to treat diving-related illnesses, like the bends.
Army Divers can do most of what an engineer does on surface; they just do it underwater. Our training would start in the classroom. We would practice what we could and then move to the large tanks at the schoolhouse to practice in a controlled environment.
We learned how to salvage large objects, like boats and barges; underwater cutting and welding; hyperbaric chamber operations; scuba and hard hat diving basics; and my favorite, surface and underwater demolition. We would commonly say we were a jack of all trades, but a master of one, doing it underwater.
Every day in dive school has its own unique challenges. One day it’s PT and then the next it’s classroom learning. However, there was nothing more challenging than pool week. Pool week happens within the first few weeks of dive school. This week is arguably the hardest week of the six-month school.
Morning PT gets a little more intense during pool week. I think the instructors’ goal is to get you as tired and uncomfortable as possible before getting into the pool for the day. It was during this week that I was introduced to the sugar cookie. We were instructed to get into the ocean, do some type of exercise, then roll in the sand until every inch of our bodies was covered. The act of becoming a sugar cookie isn’t bad, it’s what follows that is painful. Whether it was lunges, zodiac carries, or a run, the sand caused extreme chafing that would last for days. It didn’t help that on most days we would be wearing Underwater Demolition Team shorts. A khaki short with about a 3-inch inseam really does nothing but intensify the chafing. The act of doing sugar cookies was nothing more than seeing who had the ability to suffer, be in pain, and mentally get through a task.
Outside of morning PT and a few meals, your entire day is in the pool. The hardest days were the “pool hit” days. The video below gives some insight to pool hits.
The purpose of pool hits is to simulate rough water conditions. Each diver needs to maintain composure, recover equipment, and continue the task at hand. While it doesn’t seem like there’s a method to the instructor’s mayhem in the video, it’s common to have zero visibility conditions in fast-moving currents while in the field. Those conditions can feel like someone is ripping off your gear and throwing you around.
There’s a process that every dive student goes through after the initial hit. Step one, don’t lose your tanks; that’s your only means to get air. If you lose your tanks, it’s an automatic failure in the event. While the instructors are performing the hit, sometimes they would take the regulator hose and tie it around the tank manifold, making it difficult to grab. If they were feeling extra devilish, they’d shut off the air, drain the hose of air, wrap the hose around the manifold, and then turn the air back on. By doing this, it’s impossible to untie the knot they created without turning your air source off, draining the hose, untying the hose, and then, if you’re lucky, you have enough air in your lungs to get it back on.
In scuba diving, each time you exhale, bubbles come out of the regulator in the diver’s mouth. Prior to performing a pool hit, the instructors will wait until they see bubbles before the strike. Each hit lasts 15-30 seconds. If you’re quick, you can get yourself put back together in 30 to 60 seconds. 60 seconds seems like a lifetime when you just exhaled all the air in your lungs.
To pass pool hits, you must complete six evolutions. Three as a single diver and three as a two-man tandem. In both, you must complete an easy, medium, and hard hit, graded as go or no-go. An easy hit may include turning off your air and removing your mask, weight belt, and the straps on your vest that holds the tank to your back. A hard hit could include all the above, but the instructor might tie your hose and throw you around. The hard hit is often longer in duration.
The culmination of passing pool week is moving from white shirts with your name stenciled on them to a black t-shirt with your class logo on it. Typically, there are multiple classes going on at any time — a mix of Army divers, Navy Seabee divers, Navy scuba divers, and Marine and Air Force special operation divers all in different phases of training. Those in the white shirts were the newbies. Students in class shirts were the ones who’d made it through pool week.
One More Obstacle
My Phase 2 class was three months into the six-month training when we were called into a formation by our commanding officer. He informed us that he had good news and bad news. The good news was we had made it through three months of one of the Army’s hardest schools. Then came the bad news. Each class needed at least seven students to safely continue training. We’d lost more than half of the class through the first three months and were now standing in front of him with six students. He informed us that, because we were below the seven-student minimum requirement, we couldn’t continue training. We’d be recycled as a class and would have to start from day one with a new class of students who were due to arrive in a few short weeks.
As a student, you knew that if you made it through the first three months, unless you did something foolish, you’re going to graduate. This was a challenging blow for the six of us standing in formation. Having to start from day one and repeating each evolution was going to be another challenge all together. But we had no other choice. They gave us the option to reclassify to another job, but none of us had plans to do that.
After a few weeks, we classed up again as day one students, back in our white t-shirts with our names stenciled on the front and back of our shirts. Eventually, we all crossed the graduation stage as the newest class of Army Second Class divers ready to head out into the field.
I spent the next six years stationed in Hawaii traveling across the Pacific and Middle East conducting a wide range of missions. In the Marshall Islands, our team was the first military unit to ever implode a building. In Cambodia, we searched the waters off a small island looking for soldiers missing in action from the Vietnam War. I spent 27 months of two deployments in the Middle East where we conducted various missions in Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain. To this day, I still believe the dive field is one of the Army’s best kept secrets and I’m proud to be a member of this elite community.