Airman 1st Class Keigan Baker drowned on March 19 during a 2,000-yard surface swim. According to the Air Force’s report of the incident, the Air Force Combat Dive Center (AFCDC) “deviated from written policy when they did not implement the use of buddy pairs during the 2,000-yard surface swim training event.”

The use of buddy pairs is mandated by the Air Education and Training Command, which requires that such 2,000-yard swims should be conducted with each swimmer paired up with and tethered to another swimmer of comparable ability. This is to ensure that a swimmer doesn’t get separated and into trouble.

The report notes that classroom lessons on the surface swim listed buddy pairs and buddy lines as part of the swim, but the classroom instructor “verbally briefed the students [that] neither would be used for surface swim events.” Yet, it is required of instructors to “brief students that they will swim in buddy pairs for surface swim” training.

Baker had also taken two Unisom, an over-the-counter sleep aid, the night before the swim without medical authorization. This is in violation of Air Force instructions and the dive class’ policy. Unisom was still present in his blood at the time of his autopsy, the report said.

Baker, 24, was a combat controller who had enlisted in the Air Force in June 2018 and was assigned to the Special Tactics Training Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida, in January 2020. He was from Longview, Washington, and had received a bachelor of arts degree from Eastern Washington University.

Airman Keigan Baker was on temporary duty to the Air Force Combat Dive School at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center at Naval Support Activity Panama City, Florida. The dive school, officially known as the 350th Special Warfare Training Squadron, Detachment 1, teaches students introductory diving, advanced rescue diving principles, and advanced combat diving fundamentals.

Students at the dive school must finish a 2,000-yard surface swim — more than a mile — in simulated combat gear. The test is meant to check each student’s swimming ability. Like his classmates, Baker wore a mask, a load-bearing vest with a pair of two-pound weights to simulate ammunition magazines, a personal flotation device (PFD), a dive tool, and a rubber AR-15.

Combat Controller perishes during open water swim

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Baker was first noted missing at 11 a.m., about an hour after the 2,000-yard swim began when it was noticed that he had not posted his time for the event. The ensuing search involved nearly 90 local law enforcement, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Coast Guard personnel. A Coast Guard diver recovered Baker’s body from the bottom of about 16 feet of water a few hours afterward.

The swim, during which Baker drowned, took place on the fourth day of class. Baker and his classmates had taken part in multiple physical activities, including a 1,000-yard surface swim, while wearing gear, during the first three days.

There was no indication that Baker had attempted to inflate his flotation device in connection with whatever led to his drowning, and there were no signs of trauma or broken bones, according to the Air Force report.

In the days before the accident, the report notes, Airman Keigan Baker had been complaining to his classmates of strain on his hip flexors. Still, he nonetheless “had been able to perform well on the AFSOC [Air Force Special Operations Command] fitness test administered on March 16, 2020, and [at] the 1,000-yard surface swim on March 18, 2020.”

Concerning Unisom, the report notes that at the time of the autopsy, the level of diphenhydramine, the active ingredient in the sleep aid, in Baker’s blood was high enough to cause sedation effects, but not high enough to cause mental impairment.

Additionally, according to the report, there “was no evidence [Baker] suffered from a heart attack, stroke, or pulmonary embolus. The evidence suggests [Baker] did not have a seizure or engage in a vigorous struggle in the process of incapacitation and drowning.”

The report concludes that “although the exact cause is unknown, an incapacitating event occurred during the 2,000-yard surface swim that rendered [Baker] unable to signal, visibly struggle, or actuate his PFD before submersion, sinking, and ultimately drowning.”

This is not the only death at a military dive school in recent years. Staff Sgt. David J. Whitcher, a Fort Bragg Special Forces soldier, drowned in November 2016 during a diving training exercise off the coast of Key West in Florida. He was a student in the Army Combat Diver Qualification Course.

SSG Whitcher had graduated from the SF Qualification Course course in 2016. Before his attendance at CDQC, Whitcher was assigned to Company C, 2nd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group as a Special Forces engineer sergeant.