(dedicated to Staff Sgt. David J. Whitcher)
I’m the combat diving sort, a salty sea-faring fellow, that I do fancy myself. I had the great fortune, or the grand derangement, of attending the Special Forces Combat Diver Qualification Course (CDQC)—twice! Indeed, I did not make it through the first week of hell and high water.
It was on Wednesday, middle of the week, during the crossover exercise that I suffered a mild shallow water blackout, hallucinating that Apache Indians were galloping along the deck of the pool shooting arrows into the water as we swam back and forth: “Engines!” I cried out, “Circle them wagons!”
Apache charge or not, I was out of the course, of course, and spent the rest of my 28 days in Key West landscaping the school grounds during the day, and performing Gilbert and Sullivan on Duval Street for free beer in the evenings. Great work if you could get it.
I returned to my Green Beret dive team, which immediately deployed to the Frozen Triangle, just south of Fairbanks, Alaska. I had one month before I would return to Key West Florida for my second chance to pass the dive course.
Fairbanks Alaska! Why, I couldn’t possibly divine a fairer place to train up for what is arguably the toughest course in all of the Army. Sure, why not; I can just do some crunches on my bunk, I can toss this mat over there next to the shitters and do some yoga and pilates. Is this great or what? I’ll pop in my Buns of Steel tape as soon as the brothers are done watching Devil in Miss Jones, one of those exorcism stories, me thinks.
In truth, I shoveled a path through the snow between two telephone poles, and packed it down good, giving me ~100 meters of dash room. It was there that I ran hundreds of icy wind sprints in desperate attempt to keep my wind up for the school. My lungs were ever so grateful for the article cyclone I force-fed them. When I was done with wind sprints, I would just shovel snow mindlessly as hard as I could. I imagined it was like chopping wood, only the opposite. By the time I left Fairbanks I had cleared enough space to land the Space Shuttle, and at no time did I even once hum the theme to the Rocky movie. Oh Goddamn… but I’m humming it now in my head and it won’t stop!!
And so it went.
“What do you want to be?!?”
“What do you NOT want to be?!?
That’s right, we all wanted to be combat divers there at CDQC in Key West, FL. A sea pig was our epithet for any sailor in the Navy. We the few, the bold; we Army, Air Force, Marines, all from Special Forces branches military-wide came together in our tiny CDQC training compound on the northern tip of the venerable Fleming Key, dwarfed by the surrounding US Navy forces ‘on all sides.’
Far be it for us all to show any respect for the Navy’s hospitality in letting us establish our Special Forces Underwater Operations school smack in the middle of their prime real estate. We further overstayed our welcome by looping our morning Physical Training (PT) formation through the Navy’s Truman housing area screaming: “Wake up Sea Pigs!!” at the top of our lungs at the ripe break of the hour of our Lord, 0430 local Key West hours. The Navy wives were incensed.
In truth, we really only did that one time, before we took immediate heat from the Boca Chic Naval Air Station Commander—SNAP!
I remember it like it was just 30 years ago: in the barracks the night before the first day of training. We had already been read the riot act concerning barracks rules, namely, the prohibition of alcohol and women on the premises. One of our mates was ‘getting rid’ of beers by passing them out from a six pack, rather than throw them out in honor of the regs.
“Incoming!” my bro called out as he slung a Coors across my room at me. I caught it and shoved it in my sock drawer. Lights out now; big day tomorrow!
Never mind the story of the first day of PT training that kicked off at the saintly hour of 0400hrs… suffice it to say, I would rather ride a JDAM out of the bomb bay of a B-52, and land with it somewhere in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
From the hundred thousand flutter kicks, I still have stickers deep in my back that meandered too close to my heart for surgeons to operate. That’s a fine how-do-you-do; any day now a sticker could jab my heart and it’s curtains for me, mmyeah see… it’s curtains!
But I love this country, yes I do! As we lined up for morning meal formation the Commanding Officer unexpectedly stood to our front, face of granite, can of beer sitting on the ground in font of him. His face of beer twisted as he thrust a knife hand at the can of granite.
“You men were briefed last night SPECIFICALLY… that beer was forbidden in the barracks. This morning during your PT barracks inspection, one son-of-a-bitch decided he was better than the rest of you, and deserves to break the rules!” and he pumped his knife hand again at the beer thar below—ahoy!
“Yeah!” I thought; “Some poor dumb non-team-playin’ son-of-a-bitch!” And I looked around the formation at the other men who were looking around the formation for the rat. “A rat, boys… looks like we got us a rrrrrrat, in our class!” I thought loudly as I cut my eyes this way and that. “I can smell a rat a mile away!”
Say… that… isn’t that a can of Coors? Fancy that; yes, yes I think it is. My mind scrolled like a centrifuge. And suddenly the can of Coors beer halved its distance to me. Coors. Then again closer it halved its half distance to me. COORS!! And then the beer can was right in front of my face, touching my nose! My mind sprinted toward the barracks door, which it kicked in, and hooked right, flailing down the hall. It button-hooked into my room and thew open my sock drawer and… no beer; beer was not here, I fear–oh dear!
“This man will be pulling extra duty until farther notice!” our granite commander barked. “Dismissed!” and he commanded his way to his office. “Fall out and fall in on the bus!” Our class leader called out. We packed aboard in full murmur over who the rat might be.
I sat with my usual bud, Ranger Matthew Rierson, on the ride to the Navy galley (dining facility). “Who do you think the rat is, Geo?” Matt ventured. I sat silent with my head back, turned toward the window, forehead pressed against the glass, looking at nothing. “What did you do with that beer you had last night?” …forehead still pressed against the glass. “Riiiight.” Matt realized.
I have to admit, my ‘extra duty’ was pretty slack, but the boss made his point, and I deserved it. I had to sweep the floor in the instructors’ lounge. So that was a real treat; they didn’t want me in there anymore than I wanted to be in there.
“What do you say, Hand?” a beer-soaked instructor belched.
Easy; stay real still and he may go away… shhhhhh.
“I said, what do you say, Hand??” he seconded. Steady Geo… if you don’t show fear, he wont bother you; hold your ground, mon neg!
“Sergeant, my unwillingness to speak to you today, is only surpassed by your indifference to hear what I have to say.”
“Gittdafukouttahere, mister!” he slurred. I took that as liberty call, and was gone in a Wall Street flash.
WTF… did I really just get away with that? Why yes, yes I did!
I happened upon a pack of my town-bound mates as I shook the dust mop out the front door. “Come have a beer, Geo?” one queried, and the pack chortled.
“Eat shit (Kimber approved epithet); I hope you all end up drunk and in the pokey—welcome to gay Key West, studs!” I didn’t want a beer anyway. What I really wanted, was a mirror and a pair of tweezers to pick the stickers out of my ass and lower back. Ha ha… I could probably get that done at a bar in town, I chuckled to myself. I made a funny, ha ha ha. Sigh.
My first time to Key West I was coming from the newly formed 1st Special Forces Group from Washington State. Being newly formed, we needed HALO jumpers to fill the HALO teams, and divers to fill the dive teams. My new SF unit flooded Key West with 60 candidates to fill the school’s usual 34 student billets, much to the chagrin of the school’s cadre.
To harness the overwhelming attendance, the school split us into half, with half doing the dreaded pool training in the morning, while the other half did classroom work, and then we rotated. I was pretty solid on the pool training; comfortable in the water, no real drama to speak of, but then we had not done the last drill of the day, the scourge of the universe, =whisper= the crossover drill =whisper=.
Alas, as the academy cadre keenly expected, at the end of the first week, the week of excruciating pool training, the class was miraculously tapered to a manageable 30 students again—an attrition of over 50%. I’m not saying it was harder back then, but back then… it was harder.