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“What time is it?!?!?!” Roared the ultra-fit NCO running pool week.
“It’s magic time!!!” We answered back hanging on the sides of the pool in the deep end.
“And what are we gonna do?!?!” He snapped back.
“Let the good times roll!” We replied, our vocal enthusiasm not conveying our consternation of what we all knew was coming.
“Prepare to crossover….crossover!!!” punctuated with a whistle. We all took a breath and pushed off the side of the pool.
A crossover is an exercise where you swim the width of the pool underwater with all your equipment on: Fins, mask, 16lb weight belt, twin 80 cubic inch SCUBA tanks, a horse collar buoyancy compensator (full deflated), and a breathing regulator turned off and nicely tucked away in the front pocket of the buoyancy compensator. All of us were in the deep end, one line hanging on each wall facing each other when the whistle blew.
I pulled my heels up as close to my butt as possible, feet flat against the wall, and when I heard the whistle I took a deep breath and using my legs pushed off the wall along with the other 18 men on my side. Once underwater I started finning, counting the lines. It was a seven-lane pool so there were six lines. We were “high” side so I positioned myself with another student swimming straight at me crossing over from the other side of the pool and he was “low”side. I reached with my hands as he went under me and grabbed the bottom of his tanks and pulled mightily. This is sanctioned and helps both of us get to the other side. Line five, then six and touch the wall before you surface. Everyone is surfacing and gulping for air. The instructors are in our faces yelling for us to pack it in, meaning we all face the deep end hanging on with one arm, using our legs as friction as well to hang on the wall. Then we squished towards the deep end, your chest against another man’s tanks. There’s a 30-second interval from the time the first man surfaces.
He bellows again “Prepare to crossover….crossover!!!” Whistle. And so it goes…
I was in Pool Week at the Special Forces Combat Diver Qualification Course (CDQC).
Six months prior I had just graduated language school, been promoted to Sergeant (I’m the king of the world), found and married my Silver Haired Queen (SHQ) clearly getting the better deal, and was on my way to my first overseas assignment to Bad Toelz, Germany, 10th Special Forces Group. I was young, really young. I was what was known as an “SF baby” coming off the street straight into Special Forces during the Reagan Administration. I had already been on my first team but only for a year, barely scratching the surface in the Special Forces world. Now I was on my way to a forward Battalion in Western Germany during the heart of the cold war.
I touched down in Munich Germany without incident. Failed in deciphering the efficient but confusing train system and foolishly took a taxi to Bad Toelz to the tune of 40 marks. Upon arriving the Kaserne, roughly translated as barracks and most definitely not a post or fort that we would think of in the U.S. Bad Toelz is small and quaint and I immediately ran into an old friend inexplicably standing in a line for chow at parade rest, not something SF guys generally do. He quickly shook my hand and went back to parade rest looking dead ahead. Then in staccato he told me that I was on his team, it was a “SCUBA” team, and that he was in PLDC and couldn’t talk. Then he went silent. Turns out he could have gotten in trouble for even acknowledging me as PLDC is the Primary Leadership Development Course designed for young Non-Commissioned officers and you were not to acknowledge anyone outside the program. As I walked away scratching my head at his welcome I was absorbing the information he gave and kept repeating “I am on a SCUBA team….”.
SCUBA is a bit of an anomaly in Special Forces. It’s known as a “specialty team”, the other being HALO, and it comes with its benefits and drawbacks. Generally speaking, you don’t just get on this kind of team. For SCUBA you swallow the pill and go to pre-SCUBA to see if you make the cut. This allows for being selective of who manages to make it to your team. “Hey, you should go to pre-scuba!” And if they made it it was easy to roll them up. Conversely, it’s easy to lose sight of basic Special Forces missions basking in the glow of the infiltration method of a specialty team, and trust me we would hear about this. All. The. Time. “You SCUBA guys are just prima donnas” and in many cases, it was absolutely true. Fortunately the teams I was raised on and eventually led focused on being a Special Forces soldier first SCUBA second and at the end of the day, you ruck up and start walking just like everyone else. Some of you may ask why would we even have water teams because we have those other guys. Fair question. Aside from the fact that we are smarter and better looking, we used SCUBA as a means for infiltration and exfiltration and left the large majority of those other types of water operations to them.
Earning a SCUBA badge, like them or hate them, says something about the individual. It’s a tough school (hey wanna wrestle with drowning face to face? Nothing like it…) and it’s not for everybody. Managing yourself underwater without air takes unique discipline. There was well over 50% attrition rate in the early ’80s. Then Special Forces instituted “pre-SCUBA”, a two-week course designed to decrease the attrition rate. It mimics the first week of the CDQC for two consecutive weeks. Despite the advent of pre-SCUBA the attrition rate still hovers close to 40%. Just to be fair I assess there are plenty of guys who could put the beat down on me that did not make it through pre-SCUBA, as I said it’s a unique environment.
My class in October of 1986 started with 18 dive teams (sets of two for a total of 36 folks) and finished with eleven teams or 22 folks. This means fourteen individuals from across the SOF world (Green Berets, Rangers, Air Force Pararescue and Combat Controllers, and Marine Force Recon) were gone when the smoke cleared. So if you saw someone with a SCUBA badge, much like a Ranger Tab, they got a modicum of respect. Sidenote: It was a unique, seldom seen badge looking somewhat like an astronaut helmet resulting in numerous questions from those not initiated as to what it was. “Space Badge” of course was the standard answer usually followed by “door gunner on the shuttle” and guffaws. It was changed some years back and now gets way more cool points.
To attend one had to pass an Army PT test with a score of 60% or better, you have to run a sub-fourteen-minute two-mile, a CDQC qualification test consisting of a 50-meter subsurface swim, tread water for two minutes without using your hands, and 10lb clump retrieval from the deep end of the pool culminating in remaining on the surface stating your full name and social security number and lastly a 500-meter swim in the pool using only the breaststroke or the sidestroke. Assuming you got through this you went on and this was the easy part. This is the “official” test. Pre-SCUBA became a prerequisite as well requiring one to be recommended by your unit to attend after pre-SCUBA.
The school when I went through was four weeks long colloquially consisting of pool week, open circuit (O/C) week, closed-circuit (C/C) week, and the “all other” week covering various and sundry military diving know-how.
And all the weeks had “specialty PT” which is code for it was hard, like harder than Chinese encryption. Embedded across each of these weeks was classroom work applicable to diving. Dive physics & injuries, tides, waves, and currents (“…do not affect the Combat Diver…”), dangerous sea life, maritime operations, and CPR just to name a few. Notably, the course has morphed several times adding and subtracting skills as required including removing c/c week, adding surface operations (long-range boating, kayaking, navigating, etc.) adding an additional three weeks to an already exhausting school but as for me I can only speak to what it was like when I attended.
I thought I’d walk you through this experience via a series of vignettes with an introduction then address the rest of the school as it rolls out of my memories.
Maybe if we ask nice @bossmongo will weigh in as well. “Hey can you tells us about the time you almost died in the pool again??? I love that one…”
What do you wanna be?