Special Forces Staff Sgt. Paul Lincoln Olmstead died while undergoing training for the 5th Special Forces Maritime Assessment Course (MAC) which prepares Green Berets for the Combat Diver Qualification Course (CDQC). According to the Army report, SSGT Olmstead submerged during a surface swim at the Joe Swing Reservoir at Fort Campbell Kentucky on September 21.  SSgt Olmstead was conducting a surface swim when he apparently submerged and did not resurface.  Divers found and recovered his body the next day.

Olmstead joined the Utah National Guard in February 2016 and had been a Special Forces Engineer since 2019. Olmstead was assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group.

Speaking of the death of SSgt. Olmstead, Maj. Gen. Michael Turley, adjutant general of the Utah National Guard said, “While training accidents like this are rare, it is a reminder of the enormous sacrifices made by our service members and their families every day.”

Olmstead was just 29. He left behind a wife and two young children.

Paul Lincoln Olmstead Green Beret
Staff Sgt. Paul Lincoln Olmstead (Utah National Guard)

The death of SSgt. Olmstead during MAC follows the loss of SSgt. Micah E. Walker in July, who died during CDQC water training at Naval Station Key West. Walker was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group.

SSgt. Walker is survived by his wife and three children.

The Combat Diver Qualification Course (CDQC) is among the most physically demanding courses in the U.S. military. Its graduates represent a tiny fraction of Green Berets: There may only be one SF Combat Diver in an entire company of Green Berets.

The Maritime Assessment Course is the “pre-scuba” phase of the Combat Diver Qualification Course.  It’s meant to screen out those with substandard swimming skills and physical conditions that could prove serious problems during scuba training. It is also called the “pre-Combat Diver Qualification Course.”

Two deaths connected to this program in three months suggest a safety problem with the course that may be in the medical screening of the Dive Physical given to each trainee or a failure of safety instructors in supervising students while in the water.

In April of 2020, SOFREP reported on the neglected state of the Special Forces Combat Diver capability. We pointed to units not having the proper gear, or waiting years to obtain it, and on funding problems that resulted in the 3rd Special Forces Group laying off the contractor hired to maintain the unit’s “Dive-Locker” equipment for a year.

While training accidents are expected given the inherent dangers present in military service, these deaths are different. Unlike, parachute deployment mishaps or vehicle rollovers, there are instructors immediately present in MAC and CDQC that are supposed to be ensuring the safety of students during hazardous training evolutions.

And this may be at the heart of the issue.

These instructors are not only responsible for the safety of trainees, but also for reporting accidents during training. This would naturally result in a tendency for instructors to underreport or minimize the severity of accidents since they would be held responsible for them. The effect of this could be a slackening of safety standards and procedures resulting in a breakdown of safety procedures.

Another issue that may mask the hazards is the manner in which the Army categorizes these deaths during water training. Outside of the military, civilian coroners who find water in the lungs of a deceased person will generally report the cause of death as drowning since most civilian drownings occur during recreational swims in lakes rivers, and the ocean.

These training deaths in the MAC and CDQC did not occur during leisurely recreational swims, but during swims that involve very high levels of physical exertion and mental stress. When cardiac arrest occurs in the water, the incapacitated trainee also drowns. Cardiac arrest may have caused the incapacitation, but it also caused the victim to inhale water into their lungs and then drown. If the Army finds the heart attack to be the cause of death, it isn’t likely to raise safety concerns whereas two drownings in a couple of months certainly would.

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In the case of SSgt. Walker, the Army is reporting that his death was not due to drowning, but has not announced the cause of his death after more than two months. Either the Army doesn’t know, or it would rather not say.

SOFREP contacted the Public Affairs Officer of the 1st Special Forces Group headquarters and inquired about the status of the investigation into the death of SSgt Walker in July, and whether the cause of death has been determined. We also asked if safety swimmers/instructors were in the water during these mishaps as per Army directives on conducting these exercises. We have not yet received a response.

There are facts that point away from an underlying and undiagnosed medical issue present in both these young soldiers that contributed to their deaths in the water during training.

Both Walker and Olmstead could be presumed to have exceptionally good health to qualify and retain their status as  Green Berets on active duty. Both were under the age of 30, fit, and strong. The physical training regimen for those in Special Forces would be ongoing with an emphasis on their cardio-fitness.

Prior to attending MAC and CDQC, both received elaborate Dive Physicals to assure that neither had heart or respiratory problems that could prove debilitating or fatal in training. These Dive Physicals are as extensive and specialized as the Flight Physicals given to service members in military aviation. The results of these Dive Physicals are reviewed and signed off by Army Flight surgeons.

Staff Sgt. Micah E. Walker, of Peyton, Colo. (U.S. Army photo)

There is a well-known and studied risk of sudden death from cardiac arrest during high exertion swimming. A story published by Cardiovascular Business in September 2017, cited a study published in The Annals Of Internal Medicine that examined sudden death in triathletes during competition. The researchers reported that fully 67 percent of deaths during triathlons occurred during the swimming portion of the event. Whether the triathlon was of long duration or a “sprint” event made no apparent difference in the risk. The average age of the deceased was 47; 85 percent of the deaths were among men. Some of these deaths were attributed to Long QT Syndrome.

Long QT Syndrome is something that the Army is familiar with and on which it has a specific policy. The Army Class II Physical required for trainees to begin CDQC requires screening for Long QT Syndrome as outlined in this memorandum of July 2014. While a service member having congenital or acquired Long QT Syndrome can be retained in the military if the condition responds to treatment the condition leads to medical disqualification in either MAC or CDQC.

If the Army is attributing deaths occurring during swim training to cardiac arrests instead of drownings resulting from a heart attack, it could obscure a serious safety issue in the CDQC and MAC courses regarding how students are being screened medically, how the training is conducted, and how well the safety of the students is being supervised by instructors. Green Berets are trained to ignore pain and discomfort by constant training. In a water environment, ignoring the kind of pain and discomfort common with physical training on land can be fatal as it may signal a pending cardiac arrest.

Again, instructors are there to watch over the trainees, identify those in distress and ensure their safety in the water.

The deaths of two Green Berets suggest there may be a serious safety problem that needs to be examined from the standpoint of instructor training and responsibility which is where the problem seems to lie, just below the surface.