A Lieutenant in the Mist

 

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.

“I am.”

“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.

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  1. PHCheese Member
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    And then we have Joe Biden thinking he deserves to be President.

    • #1
  2. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Wherever he ended up, I’d be willing to bet that the experience, the lessons learned, and the company he kept during it made him a better man. A wonderful post and an uplifting story. Thanks. (More about SFC Nathan Chapman here. Wow.)

    • #2
  3. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    dajoho: Danny came around back and whispered “11:54.”

    Man, I hated the running in pre-scuba and CDQC. First coupla runs, I just thought it was a mind game (term amended for the CoC). Sure, we’re sprinting, but in a couple hundred meters or so, after the weak, lame and lazy fall out, they’ll slow it down to something sane. Nope. Two mile wind sprint. Good times.

    dajoho: I explained that water is a different environment that many cannot adapt to.

    Especially because every time you go subsurface, the sadistic basta people running the course make you come face-to-face with your own mortality.

    dajoho: Ah this is good. Humble pie never tastes good but it is infinitely good for you.

    I know this is hard to believe, but I’ve choked down my own portions of that particular recipe.

    dajoho: He ingeminated (@bossmongo)

    Words fail me.

    dajoho: Panic, the gremlin, is not your friend and it swims along with you during all these exercises induced by a lack of air.

    Whispering in your ear, “You’re so going to die in this event, you’re so going to die…”

    Great post, @dajoho. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go have a full on PTSD attack…

    • #3
  4. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    You had me at “ingeminated”.

    Merry Christmas dajoho. And prayers for SFC Nathan Chapman and his family.

    • #4
  5. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Excellent, dajoho.

    • #5
  6. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Great essay, thanks. I enjoyed the pre-scuba description. I surfed in Northern California. Panic in the Pacific will kill you. I got caught between a cliff and the incoming surf on one afternoon. Almost had to let my board go to try climbing the cliff. It all worked out. You have to a healthy respect for the water, and the danger never comes from the beach. The ride is great, but you always have to remember that all those great rides might one day come with a price.

    May SFC Nathan Chapman rest in peace. May his family and those that loved him find peace.

    • #6
  7. JimGoneWild Coolidge
    JimGoneWild
    @JimGoneWild

    Awesome! While in the 82nd, we worked with SF’ers who went to Norwegian Combat Swimmers Course. They said that was pretty tough. How do they compare if you know? 

    • #7
  8. dajoho Member
    dajoho
    @dajoho

    She (View Comment):

    Wherever he ended up, I’d be willing to bet that the experience, the lessons learned, and the company he kept during it made him a better man. A wonderful post and an uplifting story. Thanks. (More about SFC Nathan Chapman here. Wow.)

    Thanks She. I often wonder what it would be like to run into him today and ask him his view of the whole thing and how it played out later in life.

    Nate, as he was known was truly a great guy. Thanks for link. And Merry Christmas.

    • #8
  9. dajoho Member
    dajoho
    @dajoho

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    dajoho: Danny came around back and whispered “11:54.”

    Man, I hated the running in pre-scuba and CDQC. First coupla runs, I just thought it was a mind game (term amended for the CoC). Sure, we’re sprinting, but in a couple hundred meters or so, after the weak, lame and lazy fall out, they’ll slow it down to something sane. Nope. Two mile wind sprint. Good times.

    My whole team was a bunch of banshees, I swear my team sergeant could run 5 miles like that.

    dajoho: I explained that water is a different environment that many cannot adapt to.

    Especially because every time you go subsurface, the sadistic basta people running the course make you come face-to-face with your own mortality.

    dajoho: Ah this is good. Humble pie never tastes good but it is infinitely good for you.

    I know this is hard to believe, but I’ve choked down my own portions of that particular recipe.

    Me too my friend.

    dajoho: He ingeminated (@bossmongo)

    Words fail me.

    That was a Christmas treat served up especially for you.

    dajoho: Panic, the gremlin, is not your friend and it swims along with you during all these exercises induced by a lack of air.

    Whispering in your ear, “You’re so going to die in this event, you’re so going to die…”

    Amen brother 

     

    • #9
  10. dajoho Member
    dajoho
    @dajoho

    Ekosj (View Comment):

    You had me at “ingeminated”.

    Merry Christmas dajoho. And prayers for SFC Nathan Chapman and his family.

    Thanks Ekosj! “You don’t look ingeminated….” And a very Merry Christmas to you.

    • #10
  11. dajoho Member
    dajoho
    @dajoho

    Percival (View Comment):

    Excellent, dajoho.

    Thanks Percival. Merry Christmas.

    • #11
  12. Barfly Member
    Barfly
    @Barfly

    dajoho: “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!!!”

    I timed my Hindu squats this afternoon. 100 in 3:30. 

    • #12
  13. cirby Inactive
    cirby
    @cirby

    When I was in USAF Basic (yeah, I know), one of the instructors pulled me aside.

    “I noticed that you can run pretty fast.”

    (This was after I knocked out a five minute mile on a bet, in boots. Yeah, I could run.)

    “They’re looking for people to apply for Pararescue.”

    They say it’s bad luck for a trainee to laugh in an NCO’s face.

    The PJs have a training regimen similar to what’s described above. Lots of running, way, way too much swimming and not-quite-drowning.

    No thanks.

     

     

    • #13
  14. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    dajoho (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Excellent, dajoho.

    Thanks Percival. Merry Christmas.

    Merry Christmas, dude.

    • #14
  15. dajoho Member
    dajoho
    @dajoho

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    Great essay, thanks. I enjoyed the pre-scuba description. I surfed in Northern California. Panic in the Pacific will kill you. I got caught between a cliff and the incoming surf on one afternoon. Almost had to let my board go to try climbing the cliff. It all worked out. You have to a healthy respect for the water, and the danger never comes from the beach. The ride is great, but you always have to remember that all those great rides might one day come with a price.

    May SFC Nathan Chapman rest in peace. May his family and those that loved him find peace.

    Thanks Doug. Water is an unforgiving bee-ach. Many think the difficulty of pre-scuba and then scuba school is unnecessary. Later on when you are in Puget Sound doing a night dive you and things are going a little sideways realize just how valuable that training is. Thanks for the note on Nate as well. Merry Christmas Doug.

    • #15
  16. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    cirby (View Comment):
    The PJs have a training regimen similar to what’s described above. Lots of running, way, way too much swimming and not-quite-drowning.

    So, CDQC is, I think, the only school in the services with such convoluted roots. The DoD proponent for diving is the Navy. The Air Force pays, mostly, the bill, because it’s part of the initial training pipeline of any airman who is going to be either a PJ or a combat controller. The Army Special Forces runs the course. It’s crazy, but hey, it works.

    • #16
  17. dajoho Member
    dajoho
    @dajoho

    JimGoneWild (View Comment):

    Awesome! While in the 82nd, we worked with SF’ers who went to Norwegian Combat Swimmers Course. They said that was pretty tough. How do they compare if you know?

    Thank JGW. I do know some folks that went to that school! It’s been better than 40 years so the only specifics I can remember is you surface swim your hiney off and they too had a 50M underwater swim (using fins) but it was in the Atlantic and not a pool and you never knew how far you went or when you were going to stop unless you managed to swim a straight line. Merry Christmas. 

    • #17
  18. dajoho Member
    dajoho
    @dajoho

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    cirby (View Comment):
    The PJs have a training regimen similar to what’s described above. Lots of running, way, way too much swimming and not-quite-drowning.

    So, CDQC is, I think, the only school in the services with such convoluted roots. The DoD proponent for diving is the Navy. The Air Force pays, mostly, the bill, because it’s part of the initial training pipeline of any airman who is going to be either a PJ or a combat controller. The Army Special Forces runs the course. It’s crazy, but hey, it works.

    I had 4 PJs in my CDQC class. Young guys and strong in the water. Turns out they had like a 4 month train up prior to coming, no issues whatsoever.

    • #18
  19. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Thanks, Dajoho.

    • #19
  20. cirby Inactive
    cirby
    @cirby

    dajoho (View Comment):

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    cirby (View Comment):
    The PJs have a training regimen similar to what’s described above. Lots of running, way, way too much swimming and not-quite-drowning.

    So, CDQC is, I think, the only school in the services with such convoluted roots. The DoD proponent for diving is the Navy. The Air Force pays, mostly, the bill, because it’s part of the initial training pipeline of any airman who is going to be either a PJ or a combat controller. The Army Special Forces runs the course. It’s crazy, but hey, it works.

    I had 4 PJs in my CDQC class. Young guys and strong in the water. Turns out they had like a 4 month train up prior to coming, no issues whatsoever.

    The one guy I knew who got in was basically a monster before he even applied for PJs. He could already beat the running standard by a good margin, and was only a few seconds below the swimming standards. He was halfway to being a paramedic, too. Before he started “official training.” All they did was put some polish on his skills and teach him the military stuff.

    • #20
  21. Some Call Me ...Tim Coolidge
    Some Call Me ...Tim
    @SomeCallMeTim

    dajoho,

    Great post. These types of stories are always fun, interesting, and have some life lessons built in. I love reading them.

    Checked out your profile and saw other posts you’ve done. I’m going to check them out. They all look to be of the same caliber.

    Tim

    • #21
  22. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    dajoho: swim 50 meters underwater without breaking the surface with any portion of the body;

    While shivering in the fetal position overcoming the trauma of this post, it came to me: please understand, it’s not swim 50 meters pushing off a wall. It’s 50 meters from a cold start, “go underwater and start swimming.” I thought that was quite scandalous. And it sucked.

    • #22
  23. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    I imagined it was more like this. 

    But yeah, so much pain! Glad you all made it through & became stronger.

    • #23
  24. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Good story. I’ve never even heard of CDQC, so not only was it enjoyable; I learned something.

    • #24
  25. dajoho Member
    dajoho
    @dajoho

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Thanks, Dajoho.

    You are most welcome Arahant. Merry Christmas.

    • #25
  26. dajoho Member
    dajoho
    @dajoho

    Some Call Me …Tim (View Comment):

    dajoho,

    Great post. These types of stories are always fun, interesting, and have some life lessons built in. I love reading them.

    Checked out your profile and saw other posts you’ve done. I’m going to check them out. They all look to be of the same caliber.

    Tim

    Thanks SCM…T. Appreciate the read. I hope you enjoy them all. Still working of my next instantiation of The Malaysian Chronicles. Merry Christmas.

    • #26
  27. dajoho Member
    dajoho
    @dajoho

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    dajoho: swim 50 meters underwater without breaking the surface with any portion of the body;

    While shivering in the fetal position overcoming the trauma of this post, it came to me: please understand, it’s not swim 50 meters pushing off a wall. It’s 50 meters from a cold start, “go underwater and start swimming.” I thought that was quite scandalous. And it sucked.

    Yeah that threw me off as well. And then the w/o breaking the surface clause. That meant if your foot broke the surface while you were swimming you got a NO GO. We usually went from the shallow to the deep and would go deep just to make sure this did not happen. For the record Boss I am dredging up some flashbacks too. 

    • #27
  28. dajoho Member
    dajoho
    @dajoho

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    I imagined it was more like this.

    But yeah, so much pain! Glad you all made it through & became stronger.

    Ha! So clearly the black shirt is someone thinking they are ready for pre-scuba and the CDQC and then the Zohan is clearly an instructor / already qualified diver…..Thanks for reading TT. Merry Christmas.

    • #28
  29. dajoho Member
    dajoho
    @dajoho

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Good story. I’ve never even heard of CDQC, so not only was it enjoyable; I learned something.

    Thanks Skyler. I am working / collaborating on a CDQC experience but it’s still in the works. It was hard in the “water is a different environment” way. I saw some tough guys fall by wayside during training – way tougher than me in a lot of ways but no so much in the H2O. Thanks for reading. Merry Christmas.

    • #29
  30. JimGoneWild Coolidge
    JimGoneWild
    @JimGoneWild

    What happens when only half a SF A-team is scuba qualified versus the full team? Assignments change or what?

    • #30