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Coming to shore - first AF Combat Dive Course class graduates

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AETCNS) -- During the final test, teams of two kicked subsurface in murky water for 2,000 meters to reach the shore. Their goal was to hit a precise targeted objective there without being spotted by anyone on boat or land.

An underwater compass and a buddy harnessed three feet from their bodies provided direction. A 25-pound breathing device strapped to their chests gave them oxygen while submerged without making surface bubbles. A 50-pound rucksack and weapon on their backs were the tools they needed to infiltrate the beach when they got there. Fortunately, they succeeded in their objective and passed the test.

The Air Force's new Combat Dive Course graduated its first-ever class of 17 special operations Airmen recently, after students completed more than six weeks of rigorous training at the Panama City Naval Support Activity's shoreline.

To graduate, the students had to build underwater confidence and teamwork. "Underwater confidence is the most important thing here, and the reason this course is one of the hardest they will have to complete," said Capt. John Graver, CDC commander. "The Pararescue Indoctrination and the Combat Control pre-scuba prepare these men for this caliber of training."

The Air Force CDC is one of nearly 10 schools the special operations students attend on their way to becoming pararescuemen, combat controllers, combat rescue officers or special tactics officers. Pararescuemen are trained medics prepared to recover and rescue people in all types of environments. They need to get to the location by any means available - parachuting, repelling off a helicopter, ice climbing or diving into rough waters. Combat controllers manage air space wherever close air support needs to be coordinated. Combat rescue and special tactics officers are the leaders within the ranks, and they train side by side with their troops.

Graduates here had a variety of backgrounds. But no matter where they came from, they now share a bond in what lies ahead as members of a small, unique military family. Some have seen their class number go from 100 to 20 in the early stages of training, and all continue to be intensely graded by instructors while hoping they are not in the handful who fall from the ranks during technical training.

'Pool week' is the most challenging part of the course, according to dive instructors. "No one likes to be underwater without being able to breathe," said Captain Graver. "That's why it takes special people to do these special jobs. These men must be comfortable under the water and familiar with their equipment to correct deficiencies put in place by instructors."

For that reason, the first two weeks of dive school are spent in the classroom learning diving physics, decompression tables, diving physiology and life-saving skills while gaining aquatic knowledge of tides, waves and currents.
Pool week is an intense test in buddy rescue, equipment donning and loss-of-breath exercises so the students will be ready to handle the situations they may face in open water. A typical requires a trainee to retrieve a lost breathing hose by holding one's breath for a minute while untangling their equipment or sharing an airway with a buddy.

During the last 12 days, trainees learn closed-circuit diving in open water. The difference between open-circuit and closed-circuit is in the breathing equipment. Instead of using the 80-pound oxygen tanks most scuba divers use, trainees use the sophisticated Mk-25 breathing system that allows them to circulate their own air through a tank from up to 20 feet below the surface.

"It's not natural for anyone to do what we do but it becomes natural with training like any part of our everyday activities," said Senior Airman Phil Dreyer, CDC student. "We have to give to the instructors what they give to us and live up to their expectations," said Airman Dryer. "They build our confidence."

For one year, instructors developed a curriculum before bringing in the first class of students. They put combat experience and teaching techniques they learned from their military service into the class requirements. "We tie everything we do operationally into training to try and get students to think and act like good operators - whether they are in the water or not," said Staff Sgt. Tobin Berry, CDC instructor. "They have to be able to mentally think and react to solve problems both underwater and in combat."

The new combat dive school is prepared to host six classes a year with 40 students per class to meet the Air Force's increased need for divers. The elite school's 16-person teaching staff is assigned to the 342nd Training Squadron/Detachment 2 in San Antonio. Previously, students attended an Army Special Forces combat dive course in Key West, Fla. In 2004, the Air Force hosted its own course at the naval station in Panama City because of the need to increase graduates and the available infrastructure at that location, said Captain Graver.

"We are able to start a whole new chapter in the book for the Air Force," said Sergeant Berry. "This is a huge accomplishment for all of us."

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