Some of us were taught to swim as kids, and some weren’t. While you think that
would be a huge factor for those training to be Army divers, it actually isn’t.
During a recent visit to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where Army deep sea divers
get their start, I discovered that not all of them started out as good swimmers – or
even swimmers at all, for that matter.
“As crazy as it sounds, we get soldiers who can’t jump into the deep end who signed
up to be a diver,” said Staff Sgt. Samuel Winter, an instructor for the Army Diver
Phase 1 Course.
What recruits do need, however, is mental and physical toughness, as well as the
will to learn. “I asked my recruiter for the hardest job I could sign up for, and he sent
me here,” said Pvt. Dylan Dubas, a recent course graduate. The 22-year-old
Nebraska native never took formal swim lessons growing up, but he was ready for
The daily routine is far from easy. After PT in the mornings, the recruits have to
study basic diving physics, charting and the medical aspects of the job. They then
hop into the pool for at least three hours a day, where they have to learn to pass the
“bay swim” – flutter-kicking 1,000 yards in fins – as well as in-water proficiency
training, drown-proofing and instructor-imposed underwater problem-solving.
I got to watch several of the recruits in action. On Day 8, after their daily bay swim,
their proficiency training consisted of getting their masks and snorkels from the
bottom of the deep end, clearing them on the surface, then going back to the bottom
and getting a 16-pound weight they had to tread water with for one minute.
Next came the problem-solving. Each recruit had to swim along the bottom of the
deep end, where their instructor pulled off some of their gear and tossed it
everywhere. They had to find it and put it back on – all in the same breath – before
calmly coming back to the surface.
More drills followed, including one in which the recruits passed a few 10-pound
bricks around in a circle while treading water for however long their instructor chose.I
was tired just watching them, especially knowing that not a lot of them make it
Dubas’ class started with 12 recruits. He and only two others passed the three-week
course. Winter said in the past two years, the graduation rate has been about 30
percent to 45 percent.
So what’s one of the hardest parts? Winter said it’s actually one of the basics –
pullups on Day 1.
“They have to do a minimum of six pullups to pass a Diver Physical Fitness Test,
and a lot of soldiers struggle with that,” Winter said. “Also, just being comfortable
and confident in the water.”
For Dubas, the hardest part was the bay swim. The most memorable, however, was
what’s known as mask appreciation.
“You get a hose sprayed in your face with a mask full of water, trying not to swallow
the water, and you have to sing cadence,” he said of the drill that teaches them the
value of a well-fitted mask. “A lot of people threw up that day. I didn’t … but the
average was probably about three.”
Dubas said he felt himself getting better every day. That’s something the instructors
see a lot. “Two soldiers since I’ve been an instructor here went from not being able
to swim one length of the pool without grabbing the wall to graduating Phase 1,”
Winter said. “One of those soldiers is on a dive team now; he graduated Phase 2.
The other soldier is at Phase 2 right now.”
Seeing that progress is one of Winter’s favorite parts of his job.
“It’s a pretty good feeling when you see someone go from having zero confidence to
passing the course,” he said.
Phase 2, which is 26 weeks of further training in Panama City, Florida, is held at the
Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center, where all military divers are trained. After
that, there are many possibilities for those who pass.