Note: Per Special Operations Command guidance, no special operator is identified by surname. Some photos have been digitally altered to remove surnames in accordance with policy for security reasons.
On the edge of a glistening pool, under a cloudy Florida sky, 14 drenched men stood ready to dive in. To an observer, the only differences between them were their sizes and the names stenciled on the fronts of their white T-shirts.
It was the first week of advanced skills training at Hurlburt Field for the combat controllers. They waited for the next command from the lead instructor pacing poolside.
“Recover your mask and snorkel,” the instructor barked.
Then the men plunged into the pool’s 78-degree water.
Combat controllers set up air traffic control and perform close air support in remote locations. And it takes some time to groom them — more than 24 months from start to finish. Trainees go from basic to advanced special operations skills. Physical, mental and emotional toughness are essential.
Wet and wild
At Hurlburt, the trainees have already completed 35 weeks of training, including Army airborne, survival, combat control and air traffic control schools.
With just four weeks of prescuba sessions in the program, water confidence is the goal.
Students are divided into seven “buddy” teams — clutching each other’s shoulders — never farther than an arm’s length apart. Although it’s a little odd to see men scurrying around holding onto each other, it serves a purpose. The concept is to condition them to stay close, as an instinctual response and diving safety precaution.
And safety measures aren’t just stressed underwater. Students are told not to touch the sides of the pool and must announce when they step over a line. Although they’re seemingly trivial safety tips, the idea is that paying attention to surroundings can mean the difference between life and death in a combat situation.
The slightest mistake reinforces that detail by sending the students into a series of exercises, the least of which is the dreaded flutter kick. Students lie on their backs, legs extended and held 6 inches off the ground, with hands under the hips and lift alternate legs to about a 45 degree angle.
The grimaces confirm the level of pain. No matter how strenuous, to some students the physical exercises aren’t as difficult as other aspects of the training.
“Keeping mentally focused and learning to work in unison is the hardest part,” said 2nd Lt. Derek, an academy graduate and water polo champion the instructors call “Mr. Water Polo.” “Because if you bring personal burdens to the pool it affects everyone.
To slow him down, the phase one lieutenant totes a large tree stump throughout the course. The ritual started more than eight months earlier at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., when combat control proctors realized he wasn’t being physically challenged.
“I don’t know how they found out about the wood [here], but somehow here it is,” Derek said.
Although the young officer wasn’t thrilled to see the trusty stump waiting for him at Hurlburt, he quickly admits carrying the extra weight has built his endurance and increased his speed.
“Even those who are strong and can run well are tested in the water,” said instructor Tech. Sgt. Calvin. “It’s physically challenging even if they feel comfortable in the pool.”
Master Sgt. Art, an instructor and 17-year combat control veteran, agreed and believes the water is an equalizer regardless of skill level.
“Getting acclimated to the water is key,” Derek said. “But right from the get-go you’re getting kicked, and you’re forced to work as a team.”
Article Courtesy of Airman's Magazine