I have been through a lot of training over the years. After a few beers, people sometimes ask about the toughest training I have ever seen. After you read this story, I think you will agree that Combat Diver Qualification Course, or CDQC, at the Special Forces Underwater Operations School in Key West, Florida, takes the prize.

I went through CDQC before it was a seven-week marathon. My hat is off to those guys who took the course after I did. The drills have changed, but the objective remains the same. 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 ignore it or quit. There is no try. Every man in my class who failed to graduate quit in pool week. In Ranger School, there were hours and miles between meals where you thought about how powerfully hunger sucked.

Here is my simple question to you: Would you rather go without a meal for a day or without a breath for two minutes? The brain has special circuits to warn you that you are dying and cause panic. Key West teaches you to turn them off. That is what killed Chuck.

The first week, they issued full open circuit gear, complete with twin 80-cubic-foot tanks. While we got plenty of experience donning and wearing these primitive behemoths, we did not turn on the air and use regulators until week two. My least favorite exercise was bobbing, where you jumped up from the bottom of the deep end with your fins on your hands, got your head above the surface, took a breath and went back down.  Repeat until told to stop.  The purpose of this drill was explained several times, but the story was never the same twice and none of them made any sense. I did this correctly only once, on test day. But that is not what killed Chuck.

There was another drill called crossovers. Half the class lined up on each side of the long axis of the Olympic-sized pool. At that point, there were about 25 guys still in the class. They pushed us into the deep end so everyone was crowded. Everybody wanted to get as far from the wall as possible, but when they put you in, you couldn’t move that way because you didn’t want to screw your budddies, so there was a natural rotation. If the cadre thought you were sliding down, they would direct you over to the wall.

With Twin 80s, BCD vest, mask and fins, and weight belt, we clung to the edge of the pool. On the cadre’s whistle, you let go, pushed off and swam underwater to the other side. One side went low and the other went high. The low guys tried to stay as high as they could so they used less energy. The perils of this drill included running head-on into an opposite swimmer, causing both of you to lose all momentum or having the guy next to you take your mask off with his push-off arm stroke.

The cadre with the whistle controls the pace. He could drive you as far into oxygen debt as he wanted. We almost cheered evey time somebody lost a mask because they had to swim down and get it, and we all got an extra breath. The secret was to remain calm and breathe deeply with the time you had. Hyperventilation prior to diving depletes carbon dioxide in the system, leaving a diver susceptible to shallow-water blackout. There is no warning sensation, and victims typically drown quietly. The cadre were very familiar with shallow-water blackout and watched for it constantly. There was a designated safety officer who counted heads and made sure everyone came up.

Problem was, he didn’t control the whistle.

Staff Sergeant Chuck Gates was an active-duty Green Beret from 19th SFG in Utah. He was quiet and in great shape. He blew through the PT test and had no fear of anything through pool week. I overheard the cadre mention Chuck was a recycle. He recycled because of crossovers. I asked him about it. In a completely unemotional rendition, Chuck told me that in the previous class, they were in the officer’s pool at Fleming Key (this was before the school had their own pool). The water was hazy, and they could not see the bottom of the pool.  That is where he died.

Chuck didn’t remember much about crossovers that day, so I got another version from one of the cadre I knew.  As the class was crossing the pool, they somehow provoked the ire of whistle guy. Probably displaying too much affinity for normal breathing. He was blowing the whistle pretty fast. I am sure they had procedures and limits, but I never figured out what they were. Safety cadre guy missed a head count because the pace was so quick. The second count was one guy short, but the class was back underwater before he could stop them. Chuck died peacefully at the bottom of the pool. He had no breathing, no pulse, and water in his lungs. His airway was completely obstructed by a swimming pool full of water. They finally stopped the drill and pulled the lifeless body of Chuck Gates from the bottom.

If you have never worked with an SF medic, they are a wonder to watch. Cool under pressure, they move with no doubt that they can fix any medical problem from arterial bleeding to syphilis. Death was temporary, they had seen this before. With boring efficiency, they raised Chuck from the dead and got him breathing again. Just another day’s work. This is where Chuck starts telling the story again. He wakes up moving toward the bright light. Brought back from the dead, the first words he hears are, “Do you want to quit?”

Chuck said, “No,” but because he had pool water in his lungs, he didn’t get the second part of that speech.

“Well, get back in the pool.”

Say what you want about any other class anywhere in the world. There are plenty of other classes where they kill students. This is the only instance I know of, where the cadre killed a student through inaction, brought that student back to life to cover their mistakes, and then ask him if he wanted to quit. If you have a better story, I want to read it.

Now, I trust the Army and the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center, but I am only going to let them actually kill me once. If, after death, I am offered a chance to come back and quit, I am going to take it. Maybe it was hypoxia, but for volunteering to go back in that pool so recently after his death, with water still in his lungs waiting to kill him yet again, I say without hesitation, Chuck Gates is the bravest man I ever met and the Combat Diver Qualification Course is the hardest thing I have ever done, even though I did not die like Chuck.

(Featured Photo Courtesy: Army.mil)