Few facilities or schools train better divers than the intense seven-week Combat Diver Qualification Course or CDQC at the Special Forces Underwater Operations School located in Key West Florida. The school is a by-product of Christian Lambertsen’s formative OSS days, and fittingly his ashes were spread in the very same waters. This course is demanding both physically and mentally, and in order to be accepted divers must pass rigorous physical and swim tests at their home unit – and when we say rigorous, we mean among existing SF teams, certain other qualifying special operations units and elite DoD and partner forces – so this is hardcore stuff. Once there, completion is no guarantee, nearly 30% fail the course – so we’re really talking about one of the toughest schools in the Army.
The school is administered by C Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group, U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School and generally the course is open to Special Forces and Ranger noncommissioned officers. The primary focus of the course is to master surface and sub-surface waterborne infiltration methods but there are technically two courses other courses taught, the Combat Diving Supervisor Course and the Diving Medical Technician Course for MOSs rated 60-65.
The facility is nearly totally self-sufficient, with a fully functioning administrative and training facility, barracks, dining facility, classrooms, parachute-drying tower, hyperbaric chamber, boat maintenance shop, docks, the largest pool in Key West, and a dive tower equipped with a nuclear submarine lockout trunk.
The school was founded when three special forces soldiers from JFK Special Warfare Center Scuba Detachment, Fort Bragg, N.C. were sent to Florida in 1964 tasked with locating a spot for dive training, and over the following 20 years, Fleming Key became the dive school it is today. The early OSS Maritime unit had been disbanded at this point, so the school was picking up a rich legacy of waterborne infiltration and became the field tester in the 1970s for a rebreather unit that used mixed gas in a closed-circuit system. The success of these early rebreathers continues today with the Draeger LAR-V being the primary rebreather utilized and still closely resembles the LARU.
While divers do practice SCUBA at this course, the primary focus of the course it is training divers to utilize the Draeger rebreathers which allow divers to remain underwater for nearly four hours.
Over the years, the course has changed and continues to get longer to further pre-screen candidates. Much like the ‘Bolters’ we mentioned in the Deep Sea Diver selection course, the newest version of the course is built to weed out those that panic underwater. While initially 4 weeks long, the course was expanded to six weeks and recently seven weeks to encapsulate a ‘zero week’ which includes several pass/fail tests including a 50 yard swim in a single breath, and ‘drown-proofing’ which means soldiers bob up and down in the water with their arms and legs restrained in a calm rhythm.
Breath too much and you are too buoyant but push off the bottom too hard and you break the straps affixed to your legs and wrists. This is followed by a 2-minute surface float and 100-yard swim around the pool, with the hands and feet remaining bound. Finally, swimmers move on to front flip and back flip underwater in the deep end of the pool without touching the bottom or sides before grabbing a facemask on the bottom of the pool with their teeth. Swimmers then complete 5 more bobs with the mask in their teeth without breaking restraints or panicking. Two fails and you’re recycled to the next class start date.
From here, the course really starts to pick up pace – with candidates getting familiar with open-circuit equipment and open-water swims and the final weed-out of those not meant to be combat divers. Weeks two and three focus on closed-circuit training, navigational diving, buddy breathing and tactical swims in full gear and equipment.
Week four picks up with boat and watercraft training, including usage of diver propulsion devices (DPDs) which are commonly referred to as SDV. This coupled with the previous rebreather training means divers can be dropped off far from shore and work on covert infiltrations. At this point their dive skills are fairly well developed. However, everybody knows the effectiveness of a dive unit is teamwork, so from here the school starts to work on team dynamics. Given the smaller class sizes and wash out rate, it’s certainly conceivable that the remainder class size is 10-12 people, or incredibly similar to an ODA size.
This enables the class to practice training as a full unit and work on clandestine and covert beach assaults, infiltration and other insertion tactics such as zodiac boats or helocasting. Week six closes out with a large scale operational exercise, similar to Lambertsen’s Operation Cincinnati, that lasts 48 hours and the instructors serve as opposing forces. Once the FTX (Field Training Exercise) is complete, divers complete a 9-mile run and then focus on cleaning and maintenance of the facilities and gear.
When you take a human being, a common air-breather, put him under the water and take away his source of air – it can make the biggest, meanest, baddest human being become very weak, panic-stricken. It drains the will to survive. We’re looking for people who can overcome those pitfalls and remain confident.
Special Forces Dive Cadre Member
We’ve covered some details on how physically demanding it is, but it’s important to remember the challenges to successful completion are immense. From just people deciding it’s not for them, to the classroom, it’s a difficult course throughout. The classroom focuses on what can kill a diver – and news flash – there are lot of things. Everybody knows you can’t survive without oxygen, but where it gets tricky is all the permutations, depths, pressures, compressions and mixtures can be fatal if misjudged. That’s why if anybody falls below 75% grade standard in academics, they’re on restriction. You have to be above 75% just to go grab a bite to eat downtown, and 85% or above to qualify as a diver.
To get these demanding standards, the school seeks out the best. Already a notable filter, not just any Green Beret or Special Forces cadre can transfer over to teach at the dive school. In order to graduate, and especially to teach, you have to be very comfortable in the water. There are plenty of SF and partner forces that simply do not feel comfortable diving for long times or at great depths, and the class attempts to weed those people out.