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Special Forces soldier drowns in underwater combat training

A Special Forces staff sergeant has drowned during underwater combat training in Key West, Florida.

The deceased soldier, who has not yet been identified, was a staff sergeant in the 10th Special Forces Group, according to the Army Times

He was taking part in the grueling underwater combat training at the Army Combat Readiness Center and the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School on Tuesday – said to be the toughest course in the Army. 

His death is the second at the facility in five years.

‘During the training event, the soldier submerged and did not resurface. The cadre immediately entered the pool and found him unresponsive,’ said press releases issued by the facility.

 The latter release called the training ‘one of the most physically demanding courses in the Army.’ 

One third of trainees, chosen from the best of the Army’s Green Berets and Rangers, quit the training partway through, according to Men’s Health

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The unidentified soldier died during a conditioning exercise that ‘stresses students’ cardio, respiratory and muscular endurance’ (file image at the Army Combat Readiness Center and the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School) 

'During the training event, the Soldier submerged and did not resurface. The cadre immediately entered the pool and found him unresponsive,' said press releases issued by the Army Combat Readiness Center and the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.

‘During the training event, the Soldier submerged and did not resurface. The cadre immediately entered the pool and found him unresponsive,’ said press releases issued by the Army Combat Readiness Center and the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.

It also has, the release said, some of the most stringent safety protocols. The CRC, according to representative Michael Negard, has launched a safety investigation at Naval Air Station Key West where the death took place. 

‘The brain has special circuits to warn you that you are dying and cause panic. Key West teaches you to turn them off,’ wrote Green Beret Mark Miller of the experience

‘If you have any trace of claustrophobia or fear of drowning, the clever instructors will find it. They will push that button again and again until you forever ignore it or quit.’ 

In 2016, Staff Sergeant David Whitcher of New Hampshire drowned during a training exercise at the facility, according to the Army Times

Staff Sergeant David Whitcher died during training at the Special Forces Underwater Operations School in 2016

Staff Sergeant David Whitcher died during training at the Special Forces Underwater Operations School in 2016

Students on the course learn to use heavy closed-circuit dive equipment, which does not produce bubbles and is therefore clandestine, for covert missions underwater – for example, infiltrating a beach landing site undetected.

Trainees are tasked with swimming underwater for 50 meters without coming up for air or even breaking the surface of the water, according to an official guide of course requirements

‘For me, one of the hardest things was the underwater swim test,’ Staff Sergeant Samuel Winslow told an Army reporter covering the program. ‘You build up your lung capacity, but it just comes down to being confident. You have to say, ”I know I can do this!”

In one of the courses most daunting exercises, the ‘One Man Confidence Swim,’ divers must wear a blackout mask and be able to reassemble their breathing equipment after it has been thoroughly dismantled by instructors. 

In another exercise called ‘drown-proofing,’ soldiers bob up and down in 10 feet of water for five minutes while their hands and feet are bound with tight Velcro straps. 

Breaths must be taken in a measured manner during this exercise – if the soldier takes in too much air when they come to the surface, they will become too buoyant, lengthening the amount before they float back up from the bottom of the pool and take their next breath.

Trainees must then float on top of the water for two minutes before taking a 100-yard swim around the training pool, hands and feet still bound. Then, they must perform a front and back flip in the water before grabbing a mask off the bottom of the pool with their teeth and complete five more ‘bobs’ without dropping it. 

The key to passing the ‘drown-proofing’ test is to remain calm, and recruits who touch the sides of the pool or break their straps fail. Students are only given two chances to pass their tests, and must start their training over again if they don’t pass a second time.

‘It’s vital for them to not lose their cool when something goes wrong,’ head of school operations Master Sergeant J.T. Reed said to army reporters. ‘We put as much pressure as possible here, so they are prepared out there.’

‘The ocean does not care, it will kill you.’

The aforementioned tests are all completed in the ‘zero week’ of the course, before the hopefuls even learn how to wear their dive gear. Instructors, according to the army’s guide, say that this week weeds out ‘those who aren’t meant to be divers.’ 

‘When you take a human being, a common air-breather, put him under the water and take away his source of air – it can make the biggest, meanest, baddest human being become very weak, panic-stricken,’ Sergeant 1st Class Benjamin Tabberer, an instructor at the Combat Diver Qualification Course, said. ‘It drains the will to survive. We’re looking for people who can overcome those pitfalls and remain confident.’

Then, trainees take to the bay, spending a week doing open water swims and becoming comfortable with open-circuit breathing apparatuses. Typical diving equipment is ‘open circuit,’ but creates tell-tale bubbles on the surface that would give away the position of a diver on a covert operation.

'If you have any trace of claustrophobia or fear of drowning, the clever instructors will find it. They will push that button again and again until you forever ignore it or quit.'

‘If you have any trace of claustrophobia or fear of drowning, the clever instructors will find it. They will push that button again and again until you forever ignore it or quit.’

Students learn to use heavy closed-circuit dive equipment, which does not produce bubbles and is therefore clandestine, for covert missions underwater - for example, infiltrating a beach landing site undetected.

Students learn to use heavy closed-circuit dive equipment, which does not produce bubbles and is therefore clandestine, for covert missions underwater – for example, infiltrating a beach landing site undetected.

Closed-circuit training starts in week 2 –  the recruits use the Draeger LAR-V, based on the very first ‘mixed gas’ system that was developed by the army in the 40’s. The ‘rebreather’ removes unusable gases from the diver’s exhalations and recycles the unused oxygen back to them, adding additional pure oxygen as needed.

 In addition to the closed circuit training, weeks two and three are dedicated to navigational diving, ‘buddy breathing’ and tactical swims in full gear and equipment.

Week Four includes boat and watercraft training, and would-be combat divers get comfortable using diver propulsion devices – miniature open submarines capable of carrying two divers. These devices allow the divers to be dropped off even further from shore, and to move much more quickly. 

In their fifth week, trainees are deposited at different shallow channels within the Florida keys to find their way back using their new tools and navigational equipment. 

After completing a 48-hour training exercise in their last week with instructors acting as opposing forces for underwater combat. Per tradition, passing recruits take a nine-mile run the following day and spend their last period of time at the school cleaning for the next bunch of trainees. 

Although most that don’t pass the course after failing these intense physical exercises, others  struggle in the academic portion of the course – hopefuls gather in the classroom as well as the pool to learn about physiology and anatomy.  

Neither representatives from the 10th Special Forces Group nor the 1st Special Forces Command could be reached for comment. 


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