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Don’t fall back….!!! My mind screamed as we rounded the corner for the Group Compound. My team was running the 1st Special Forces Group pre-scuba course and it was day one of physical training (PT), our first run. It was a short two-miler done at a grueling pace. We had been in Australia (bummer) up until @ two weeks prior and were not in our best running condition. One of our fastest guys (Danny) did not go and was completely prepared and thus designated the PT lead. We were running like banshees setting the PT tone for the next two weeks. We were running in a classic military formation and soldiers were falling out all over the place. I was only keeping up out of pure pride and the cost was building nausea. We stopped once inside the compound Danny yelling at those who did not keep up “C’mon men! That was a simple 14 minute two mile, the bare minimum to get into the CDQC!!! You have to do better than that!!!” Watches were not allowed during the events including PT so no one knew how fast we had gone. I was behind the formation listening in disbelief (14 minutes?? Australia must have really taken a toll) as I was wrestling with not throwing up. Danny came around back and whispered “11:54.” “Oooh,” then I whispered back some colorful language to match his charm. That’s when I spotted Lt. M just coming in, his face ashen and clearly despondent.
It all started about a week ago. “You Chief Dajoho?” said the voice behind me as I sat at my desk in the middle of my team room. I turned to see a muscular 2nd Lieutenant looking, maybe even bearing down on me. I glanced over at my Team Sergeant and he too was looking at the L-T somewhere between amusement and disbelief. Lieutenants were a rarity in Special Forces and a Second Lieutenant was like a unicorn, a flying unicorn being ridden by a talking monkey.
“You running a pre-scuba next week?” his guns flexing a bit at the end of the second question.
“We are.” bringing the bigger picture look at it as a team event. I was running nothing on my own.
“Can I go?” All his muscles flexing, air-lats at full capacity (those imaginary muscles one gets that do not allow one’s arms to hang straight to the sides but rather angle out from the body for no reason). He had a pretentiousness about him that was apparent.
At this point, the entire team was watching. Team rooms were not private events. Mine was a big square with lockers around the sides that served as storage and desks for the majority of the team. There were two to three classic gray military desks centered in the middle for the leadership and many tense discussions had to occur out back in the parking lot or you had to ask the team to leave and that always led to questions and discontent.
So there sat the team all facing the Second Lieutenant and watching to see what I would do.
“How’d you find us?” I asked, still amazed that a Second Lieutenant was in my team room.
“I have been assigned to the medical section up at Group Headquarters for the summer. I am a medical student, a doctor in training, and the guys up there said I should go to pre-scuba.”
Suddenly all my tumblers fell into place. Here comes this Lieutenant into Group Headquarters flaring his bodybuilding physique and with his hubris in tow. I am not sure why the hubris. Was it that he had the fortune of being assigned nay chosen for a Special Forces unit and it was going to his head? Was it that he was intimidated and decided that this was the way to deal with it? Was it that he considered being a young buff medical student worthy of arrogance? Mi luu (I don’t know in Thai). What I did know is that the NCO’s up at Group Headquarters smelled it immediately and it did not play well. Pre-scuba is legendarily hard, the attrition rate high, many in Special Forces don’t make it. I envisioned the conversation. “You know L-T there is some good training happening down in 3rd Battalion! Can you swim? (knowing full well he could). It’s called pre-scuba – you should go! It’s a full two weeks of preparing for scuba school. But you have to be in shape.” That last part just to jab him.
“Well, we have slots available,” I said. “I am not going to turn you away but what do you know about pre-scuba? It’s pretty tough..” Now he was looking at me like “can you not see what is standing in front of you? I can bench press a semi…”
At that point, I stood and said let’s go out back for a minute. He turned and walked out and I glanced back at my Team Sergeant and shot him a smile. Once outside I explained that pre-scuba was not “fun.” It was two weeks of preparation for the U.S. Army Combat Diver Qualification Course (CDQC) colloquially known as scuba school and a “must-pass” to be recommended for the school. The days start with hellacious physical training (PT), then pool training, lunch, basic dive classes, and then surface swims. I explained that water is a different environment that many cannot adapt to. Again the “can you not see me…” look. I told him about the basics one needs just to go to the school, not including passing pre-scuba. “L-T you need to be able to swim 500 meters, nonstop (on the surface), using only the breaststroke or sidestroke; tread water for two minutes continuously, with both hands and ears out of the water; swim 50 meters underwater without breaking the surface with any portion of the body; and retrieve a 20-pound weight from a depth of 3 meters, break the surface, hold it overhead, and state you name, rank, and SSN without going back under.” For the record most scuba qualified guys scoff at this test, not considered even remotely hard. I told him he was welcome but reiterated again that it was serious. He ingeminated (@bossmongo) his desire to go then we parted ways, his air muscles never faltering as he walked into the distance.
The initial conversation occurred on a Wednesday. Friday we were wrapping up final preparation for the next two weeks starting on the following Monday. Suddenly the L-T was in front of me, air-lats gone, looking forlorn, the arrogance seriously degraded.
“What’s up Lieutenant?”
“I went to the pool last night…..and there was a guy there going through the basic swim quals for scuba school….and I….I couldn’t do ANY of it……”
Ah, this is good. Humble pie never tastes good but it is infinitely good for you. Special Forces have some of the most arrogant people around, some of it earned, some of it not and it’s not one of our better characteristics. I’ve sat eating heartily at the humble pie counter more than I’d like to admit. I looked dead at him and told him that he was still welcome. The idea was to prepare for the CDQC and it would ultimately give him an inside look at Special Forces, what we do, and who we are; more so than sitting around at Group headquarters looking at our blood work and EKGs. He looked tentative and then shook my hand and said “I’ll be there.” I said, “see you at 0500 Monday morning right here.”
So Lt. M entered into and pretty much stayed in his own personal version of hell. PT continued to be brutal, the poor L-T suffering (it’s all part of it but he seemed to suffer through everything) through the runs, sprints, calisthenics, even burning in on the rope climb the first-day peeling skin from his hands and inner thighs despite our class on how to use your legs and feet.
Pool time was no better for the L-T. Utter terror filled his eyes through most exercises. Panic, the gremlin, is not your friend and it swims along with you during all these exercises induced by a lack of air. Endless swims underwater the length of the pool and if you did not make it you did flutter kicks with fins on and a mask full of water. The weight belt swim consists of swimming in a circle in the deep end of the pool with a 16lb weight belt on for 7 minutes surrounded by 25 or more of your closest friends. Sounds easy enough but it’s a bit of a nightmare. IF you can establish a rhythm it’s okay but most cannot. And then you spiral with the gremlin tearing at you. There’s tying one, two, and then three knots underwater on one breath in the deep end of the pool of course (why won’t this damn rope cooperate!!!) thus calling the gremlin. And bobbing. Bobbing is jumping up and down in the deep end with all your equipment for 2 minutes and the gremlin loves this one. As a bonus during all of it you can see when your buddy freaks out signaling your own gremlin to go high order. And to add to this it was an outdoor pool in the great Northwest and the weather had been 60 plus degrees the week prior. It was 38 degrees on the first day and the pool was not heated. The water was freezing and when you weren’t swimming you were shivering. After lunch there were basic dive classes (great, all I want to do is eat and sleep and now we’re going over Boyle’s Law….), and then we’d go to the local lake and conduct surface swims of 500, 750, 1000, 1500, and 3000 meter swims all for time.
This went on for a week, the runs, the pool, the classes, and the swims. The L-T bearing it all and never saying the words. Our policy was if you don’t quit you can stay. The first week came to a close and the weekend arrived. This is when attrition happens. The troops have the weekend to think about the previous week and not being able to face another week just quit or don’t show up the second Monday.
The L-T showed up at Monday PT in his uniform. He was so stressed I thought he was going to cry. “Chief….I have to attend ATLS this week (Advanced Trauma Life Support, an intensive emergency medicine evolution that our medics attend each year) and I have to drop. Group Doctor said that I wasn’t here to go to pre-scuba, I was here to learn about Special Forces medicine – I have to go….” He was devastated, he wanted to finish. For the record, you can finish and not get recommended, happens a lot, but you still finish. I understood the rationale but felt for the L-T.
“Can you be here tomorrow morning at PT?”
“Well, yeah…….” He said somewhat questioningly.
“Good, we’ll see you then.”
The next morning I called him forward. “Men, for those of you that don’t know this is Lieutenant M. He’s a medical student, on his way to being a doctor and was assigned to Group for his summer internship. He came here to see what this was all about. We told him and he attended anyway without any chance of attending the CDQC.” It is noteworthy that even if the L-T had been the number one graduate from our pre-scuba he would NOT be attending the CDQC. He was signing up to endure this with no golden ticket at the other end.
The night prior I had taken the least loved of my daughter’s dozens of Barbies, removed the head, and painted the eyes so they were in a panic. Then I took a jar of water, immersed the head, the hair floating nicely, and twisted on the lid. The effect was exactly what I was looking for mirroring the look we saw every day in the pool. Now facing him I said, “Lieutenant M, next semester and into the future whenever you are struggling, handing him the jar, I want you to look at this and remember that a breath of water is like no breath at all and what a bad day can really be.” I shook his hand and he got a rousing ovation from the class.
As I watched him walk away, jar in hand, minimal air-lats, a sizable dose of humility to be sure, and maybe it was me, but I thought he stood a little bit taller knowing that he’d earned some of our respect. I never saw him again and often wonder if he made it through the arduous medical pipeline. Godspeed L-T wherever you are.
*This story is dedicated to SFC Nathan Chapman. He was the first soldier killed in Afghanistan post 9/11 and was a graduate from this very pre-scuba and went on to graduate from the CDQC. He was tough, smart, and very likable. And he is missed.Published in