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Combat is the single highest-risk life event known to mankind. So much so that as many as 96 percent of the men who stormed Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day of WWII were killed or wounded. And if you consider the mental state of the four percent who were not physical casualties… well, where did the percentage lie then?
High-risk training is how the military attempts to simulate the arduous conditions of combat. But how risky should the high-risk training be, and how does the military quantify the level of risk to which it is exposing troops? This is done by coming up with the casualty rate incurred during training events; that is, the risk is weighed against the percentage of casualties the military is willing to accept for the training of troops.
The flaming question now, is what number — the magic percentage — of casualties in training does the military accept? I’ll only tell you that it is in the vicinity of five percent, though the exact number is not available for us to know. I’ll also tell you that by comparison, the Russian military accepts ten percent casualties in training in its armed forces. Numbers of course are all relative, sure, but ten percent is high, in the realm of shocking, in comparison to our own military doctrine.
Ah, and here are some figures that you may find quite surprising, as I certainly did:
“Between 2006 and 2018, 31.9 [percent] of active-duty military deaths were the result of accidents, according to a congressional report updated last month. By comparison, 16.3 [percent] of service members who died during that time were killed in action.” (CNN’s Jamie Crawford [politics])
Knock me over with a feather! What is that even saying to the troops?
“Johnny… man, we need to think of something and we need to think of it fast… we’ve got to get out of this deathtrap comptrollers office job and up to the front lines where it’s safe — we’re dropping like flies! We’ve got better chances in the trenches than back here with all these staplers and letter openers!”
“GAAAAAA… Johnny… I’m hit! I’M HIT!! The letter opener got me; it got ol’ Bill Garnere after all; the crummy letter opener… Johnny, everything’s getting dark… so cold… Johnny… promise me you’ll tell Martha I love’er — PROMISE ME, DAMN YOU!”
“Sure, Bill… I’ll tell her; I’ll tell Martha.”
“See yooz on the other side Bill, ya crumb — uuuggghhh…”
As far as training goes, anytime you put men into training environments that are not their inherent habitat, the risk level ratchets up: the air and the sea both bring that higher level of risk. Parachute operations of any altitude and operations in bodies of water come with a higher risk than operations on land.
The AAV accident on July 30th that claimed the lives of nine servicemembers and the recent helo crash that killed two — both off the California coast near Coronado — are tragic reminders of the dangers of high-risk training.
During my tenure with the Green Berets, I was assigned to a Combat Dive team. We all had already gone by basic entry-level into the Green Berets where paratroops qualified at low-level parachute operations. Combat Diving was a high-risk environment. But of all the work we did underwater none was more dangerous than submarine operations; that is, going out to sea on a submarine and working on the various techniques for getting into and out of the submarine both on and under the ocean’s surface.
There were only two locations where it was possible for us to train on ingress and egress of a subsurface submarine: Key West, Florida, and Coronado Naval Air Station, California. Both locations boast submarine trunk mockup facilities attached to substantial water tanks that quite deftly replicated ingress (lock-in) and egress (lock-out) from a submerged submarine escape trunk.
The Army Special Forces Combat Diver Academy is located in Key West. They have an actual escape trunk from a nuclear submarine that was removed and connected to a 5,000-gallon freshwater tank at a depth of 33 feet (one atmosphere). In earlier days when I was stationed there, the submarine escape trunk training facility was an older model trunk from a diesel submarine; it was cylindrical in shape. The modern nuclear submarine trunks are spherically-shaped, though the principles of operation are the same in both.
In Coronado, they also have a nuclear trunk attached to a 50-foot deep tank of many thousands of gallons of water. Their trunk is also at a one-atmosphere depth (33-feet), the tactical depth for submarine lock-in/lock-out operations. That training facility belongs to the U.S. Naval Special Warfare BUD/s training complex.
Our work at the BUD/s submarine trunk training facility always began with a basic training course of trunk operational procedure. We were trained on the essential function of controls in the trunk and given a review of all safety precautions ad rigor by one of the SEAL training cadre brothers. After the introductory briefing, the SEAL turned over control of the trunk to us, remaining on station to observe and assist as needed.
Our typical rotation for lock-in/lock-out (LI/LO) training was to choose a man to be the trunk operator for several cycles, then rotate the operator out with another man until all of the brothers had a chance to be the operator. Subject to an operator’s tenure were the dreaded trunk emergencies — yikes!
Outside the trunk was a man with access to all the controls inside the trunk and the ability to override them, thus creating one of several emergencies. Among those were loss of light in the trunk — I hated it. There was also loss of communication with the ship’s crew, which I did not stress over too much. Then there was loss of drain valve, flood valve, vent valve, and blow valve, all of which created their own set of really aggravating problems to work through.
A thing that we took on ourselves to do in order to raise the risk and tension in the trunk was to attempt to lock out an F470 CRRC Zodiac rubber boat. The SEAL overseeing us cautioned that the smaller IBS (Inflatable Boat Small or Itty-bitty-small) was the largest boat that would fit in the trunk. With much-spirited preparation on the ground, we managed first to get the Zodiac in the trunk. And with an even more spirited struggle, we managed to lock-out and float the Zodiac to the surface of the water tank much to the amazement of the SEAL.
Aggressive, dangerous, spirited, creative, and risky training is what prepares soldiers for the unspeakable horror of combat. If you can train a man to the extent that he will not be petrified with fear and lockup in the fight, you have given him and his unit a chance of survival and to be proactive in achieving success in their mission.
During my first combat experience, rather than being strapped by intense fear, I was afflicted with deep concern and nervousness over my ability to perform and fight effectively with the brothers in my unit. That was a very good recipe for survival and mission success. I achieved that composition through high-risk combat training of all kinds. Even the massive amount of submarine trunk training — though not directly combat training — helped greatly forge my character and audacity to take on extreme danger with a heightened level of intrepidity.
By Almighty God and with honor,
This article was originally published on September 1, 2020.