Story and photos by Joe Lacdan
Army News Service
In the thick heat of a Missouri summer, the number of Army Engineer Dive School dropouts rises faster than the steamy temperature.
“Does anyone want to DOR (drop out on request)?” said Staff Sgt. Andrew Holdner, as Soldiers in soaked combat uniforms push through the pool’s waters in the early hours of a muggy July morning.
Holdner, a diving cadre instructor, looks over at the Soldiers struggling in the pool. Two raise their hands. Four leave the class before noon.
By the time the physical training session finished in the late afternoon, another five followed.
One day into the first week of Engineer Diver Phase I course, a class of 12 has dwindled to two: the first, a Soldier who had already passed the course two years ago. He left the Army and worked his way back. The other: a Soldier who struggled swimming the endurance laps necessary to be a deep-sea diver but passed other aspects of the course, including the classroom lessons and physical training exercises.
The cuts come swiftly. Some quit out of their own accord. Others simply did not meet the rigid standards of the course. The Army designed it this way; to weed out the weak-minded, weak-willed and those unable to remain calm during extended hours underwater. In maritime conditions, Army divers must be prepared to act in seconds; they must react to sudden changes in currents, waves and the elements.
More than 90 percent of students won’t advance past the school’s first phase at Fort Leonard Wood. Among those who didn’t make the first week: recruits who had years of competitive swimming experience and former high school athletes.
The instructors know oceans, rivers and lakes can be brutally cold, unforgiving places.
They attempt to make the course as unforgiving. At Davidson Fitness Center’s 25-meter pool, divers face two initiation tests. Holdner said the majority of students don’t make it past these two exercises.
The first, students must swim the width of the pool in a single breath — underwater. Then the new recruits jump off a high dive board, surface, and swim to the far side of the pool and back and tread water for 40 minutes.
During the first half, students keep their heads out of water while using their hands and feet. During the second 20 minutes, they perform the “dead man’s float” — a survival technique where they bend at the waist facing the water with arms out while holding their breath, simulating a floating corpse. When they need to breathe, they collapse arms and legs at the same time to raise their head above the water before dipping their faces back in the water.
In the second test, Soldiers must swim 500 yards in 12 minutes and 30 seconds using breast stroke or side stroke, then do 50 pushups, 50 curl ups and six pullups. Finally, they must run a mile and a half in 12:30 or less.
As students attempt each exercise, they face the possibility of being dropped from the course and being reclassified into another career field.
“Every single time I’ve got to drop somebody,” said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Bailey, the lead instructor. “I feel bad because I know that they got into something that they knew nothing about. Because we’re a small field, very few people know that we exist.”
Students spend up to three and a half hours per day in the water, but also spend time in the classroom, learning about diving physics and how to maintain their equipment.
Dive instructors put students through a series of rites of passage, and ultimately test whether students can remain calm in situations that often cause heightened panic. The first such test came on the third day of training.
Test of wills
A Soldier’s screams echoed in the swimming complex as he struggled to retrieve his equipment at the bottom of the pool. Instructors removed the diver’s mask, fins and air regulator and tossed them into the deep end of the pool. When the course began earlier that week, he struggled to finish the endurance swim laps.
Now at 1:30 p.m., the weather conditions in central Missouri hovered at around 95 degrees.
Inside the swimming complex the heat and humidity make the poolside area feel like a pressure cooker, not making the training any easier. During the test, instructors rip off pieces of the students’ scuba gear. Soldiers must descend 14 feet and retrieve the gear in a single breath.
Holdner and Bailey bobbed at the surface, shouting instructions. They slapped water into the faces of the two remaining students in an attempt to simulate the unpredictable sway of an ocean current.
Here both instructors attempted to escalate the stress level to a fever pitch. Their screams, combined with the splashing water, simulate what instructors call a “rough sea state.” On missions, a diver’s rig might fail and they would no longer be able to breathe. Or divers may get bumped by an obstruction, falling debris, marine life or land they didn’t see. The current can also knock their air regulator off their suit.
When faced with the possibility of drowning, the diving instructors said water fills a swimmer’s nostrils, invoking feelings of nausea and sometimes vomiting. It can cause extreme panic, breaking down even the best of athletes and the most confident swimmers.
“We say water is the great equalizer,” Bailey said. “We have plenty of people that come here that are great physical specimens … They can do everything on land … But then, you put them in the water and guess what? They fall apart.”
Water can create extreme panic causing Soldiers to lose their bearing, violently pushing fellow swimmers out of the way in order to reach for the shore. The violence of the water currents can push some to the edge.
“If you’re not comfortable,” Bailey said. “Water will bring out the worst in people.”
Bailey, a Soldier with a neatly-combed crew cut and a stocky, fit build, teaches the class with a cool demeanor. He barks instruction with stern authority, but minutes later will crack a joke to put the students at ease.
An experienced veteran diver of 15 years, he tested his mettle at sea on a diverse array of maritime missions across the globe. He faced one of his most difficult challenges during a deployment to Iraq along a river. A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device had damaged a bridge and infantry units needed engineer divers to perform reconnaissance underwater.
At the river’s center in the shadow of the bridge, Bailey, then a young diver, entered the water. He and another diver descended nearly 40 feet into the river’s depths. Almost immediately after he entered the river’s pitch-black waters, disaster struck.
“As soon as I hit that water, I lost my grip,” Bailey said. “The current took me and immediately just threw me back.”
As he felt the pull to the bottom, the river broke his helmet’s seal. Cold water rushed into his head gear. His suit remained attached to an umbilical air supply cord, restricting his movement. He had to wait for a teammate to pull him back to shore while remaining calm in the face of extreme conditions.
“I couldn’t swim to the shore,” he said. “I wasn’t moving. The only way I was getting out of there is if I was getting pulled out. And now my helmet was flooded. So what would have happened if I had panicked or I was not able to remain calm?”
Soldiers must face the fear of drowning and their own mortality on each mission. And each time, they must remain calm or lives will be at stake. In the worst conditions, they will operate with limited visibility while carrying up to 80 pounds of gear.
“I’ve been in situations where I’m using my hands as my eyes,” Holdner said. “One little mistake can be an injury for you. It’s not an environment that’s going to go easy on you.”
Holdner, a youthful-looking staff sergeant with slicked back dark hair, graduated from the course in 2010. He entered with a larger class — 96. Only six made the cut and advanced to Phase II. Holdner said the mental hurdles the course poses can be the most difficult to overcome.
Even the second-time student looked visibly rattled as the two jockeyed for position before descending below. Athletically built with a wide upper body, the student easily passed the physical fitness tests and he seemed likely to survive to the next phase in Panama City, Florida.
Then the unexpected happened.
Inexplicably, he swam to the poolside and signaled to the instructors he wanted to drop out. He decided he had enough.
One student remained.
The private’s expression reflected his extreme duress. Of the 12 students who attempted the course, he was the only remaining. The shortest student in the class, this Soldier struggled to finish the swimming endurance drills earlier in the week. But he persevered to make it to the third day.
But his chances have dimmed.
As he spent more time bobbing his head above the surface, he lost valuable time that could have been spent underwater searching for equipment.
An instructor then blew his whistle. The Soldier didn’t make the cut.
Slowly, the Soldier swam toward the pool’s edge. Still breathing heavily, he gingerly exited the pool and walked toward his gear. He must now wait for the Army to reclassify him into a new career field.
About 12 to 20 students begin each class. Only one to three normally graduate. Sometimes, as with the July 2018 students, none make it.
Although instructors must cut the majority of the students, they don’t take each decision lightly. Often before they pull recruits from the course, they have counseling sessions. They sit down with each student and explain why they cannot advance to the next phase.
Often, emotions spill.
“They’re in tears,” Bailey said. “This is something that they’ve wanted to do for a long time or this is something that they’ve told their family about and everyone is rooting for them and they don’t want to disappoint their family.”
Bailey said recruiters and drill sergeants often don’t have accurate accounts of engineer diver training. Soldiers then arrive at Fort Leonard Wood with misconceptions about the realities of training.
Two Phase I diving school graduates joined the class of students who trained here in the July heat. Instead of sporting the black Army shirts with gold letters, they donned white shirts and brown swimming trunks to distinguish themselves from the current class. They continued to train with incoming classes to keep their skills fresh as they waited for Phase II in Panama City.
Pvts. 1st Class Stephen Olinger and Nolan Hurrish are only months into their Army careers.
Olinger, a bright-eyed recruit who was raised in a military family, carries a swagger and self-confidence as he approaches each exercise. He graduated in March. Hurrish, a soft-spoken but diligent recruit from Wisconsin, has quietly passed each test. They don’t know if they will survive the next six months at Panama City. But they remain optimistic that in less than 16 weeks they will join the fewer than 150 Army divers worldwide.
“I have an attitude like ‘this is it,” Olinger said. “This is what I came here to do. If I fail out, I fail out. But I’m going to give it everything.”
The world’s five oceans, where many of the 12 dozen or so Army divers throughout the world must perform, can be ruthless.
Students will get their first taste of that adversary off the shores of the Florida Panhandle in Phase II of the diving school.
(Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on the Army’s engineer diver training.)