Soldiers at one of the military's most dangerous special-ops courses say leaders are putting their lives in danger

·8 min read
Army Special Forces combat diver qualification course
Special Forces Combat Diver Qualification Course students surface after a 1,000-meter underwater swim, February 21, 2020.US Army/K. Kassens
  • Two soldiers have died while preparing for or during the Combat Diver Qualification Course in recent months.

  • CDQC, as it's known, is one of the most rigorous and hard-to-complete special-operations courses.

  • Current and former soldiers told Insider they're concerned by the deaths and the official response.

In recent months, the US Army special-operations community has suffered several fatalities in training incidents.

Two of the deceased Special Forces operators were attending or preparing for the Combat Diver Qualification Course, a challenging and notoriously difficult-to-finish course that trains US special operators for combat in and underwater. (A third Green Beret during a separate course in North Carolina on October 27.)

Current and former soldiers familiar with the course told Insider they're dismayed that these deaths have failed to prompt a wide-ranging safety review and procedural changes, noting that the military's shift from focusing on counterterrorism missions to competing with peer adversaries may require more time for troops to adjust to new standards.

After a death during the CDQC in July, course leaders halted training for a safety review. A spokesperson said that review is complete and training has resumed, though they declined to disclose the cause of death, citing ongoing investigations.

Combat Diver Qualification Course

Army Special Forces combat diver qualification course
Students enter the water for the 3,000-meter open-water swim off of Key West during the CDQC, March 11, 2010.US Army/Maj. Dave Butler

There is a common misconception that only Navy SEALs are combat divers. Although all SEALs become combat divers during their selection course, they aren't the only ones in the US special-operations community who can learn that skill.

The Army Combat Diver Qualification Course (CDQC) teaches Army commandos to be combat divers. Army, Marine, and Air Force commandos can attend this or other schools, but CDQC is notorious for its attrition rate even among qualified and seasoned Green Berets and Rangers.

Because of the course's difficulty, deaths do occur, but two deaths in a few months have caused alarm in the community.

On July 27, Staff Sgt. Micah Walker died during the CDQC at Naval Air Station Key West in Florida. On September 23, Staff Sgt. Paul Lincoln Olmstead died at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, during a maritime assessment course, a pre-selection event that all CDQC hopefuls must pass.

A 1st Special Forces Command spokesperson declined to comment. In a statement on November 9, Janice Burton, a spokesperson for the US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, said Walker didn't drown but that the cause could not be disclosed while investigations were ongoing.

The course at Fort Campbell was not part of the course held in Key West, which is run by the Special Forces Underwater Operations School.

Army Special Forces combat diver qualification course
A student in a Special Forces maritime assessment class bobs underwater while bound hand and foot, September 25, 2019.US Army/Staff Sgt. Christopher Case

Current and former soldiers who have experience with the course expressed concern about the deaths.

"The course is very dangerous, even for extremely fit and intelligent individuals. It definitely takes a toll on the body, and you have to be in a phenomenal physical state to graduate," a Green Beret assigned to a National Guard unit told Insider.

In the statement, Burton said officials in Key West halted training immediately after Walker's death to review all safety protocols, doing so in conjuction with other investigations into the death. "Training resumed only after these reviews indicated all necessary precautions were in place to safeguard students and cadre," Burton said.

The maritime assessment course is meant to ensure only troops who are ready for the course are able to participate in it, according to the Green Beret with the National Guard unit, who spoke anonymously in order to be candid.

Students need to excel and be comfortable underwater during night and day and in any weather conditions. To achieve that level of proficiency and comfort, instructors put the students through rigorous testing throughout the course.

Students need to pass a 50-meter underwater swim without breathing, retrieve a 20-pound object from the bottom of the pool, and tread water for two minutes while wearing diving gear that weighs dozens of pounds.

During other events, instructors will "assault" the students underwater — simulating heavy currents — and tangle their breathing apparatuses. The students, wearing blacked-out masks, can't see and need to fix their breathing source in the dark while under adverse conditions.

Army Special Forces combat diver qualification course
A Green Beret retrieves his scuba mask with his mouth while restrained during a maritime assessment course, January 2020.US Army/Staff Sgt. Travis Fontane

An ambulance and a dive medic are always on standby for any emergencies, and the medic is called in often as students sometimes suffer a shallow-water blackout or faint due to lack of oxygen.

Training is tough because it saves lives in the real world, but that shouldn't come at the expense of safety, soldiers said.

In the statement, Burton said safety measures at the course in Key West "meet or exceed those necessary" and that the initial findings of Kennedy school and Army Combat Readiness and Safety Center investigations did "not reveal any concerns with existing dive training, certification, or safety measures."

The underwater operations school "consistently re-evaluates and adapts training protocols" based on lessons learned and updated risk assessments and has had 8 deaths since it began operations in 1969, Burton said.

"Deaths in training are always sad, but that is the nature of our very dangerous job, but the schoolhouse and the leadership must follow the necessary procedures," the Green Beret with the National Guard unit said. "There is no excuse for taking the shorter path when it comes to the lives of operators."

The primary difference between a safety stand down or a safety advisory is the severity of the incidents they respond to, a retired Green Beret who served in a dive team told Insider.

Army Special Forces combat diver qualification course
A Green Beret attempts to float while his wrists and ankles are restrained in a drown-proofing event during a maritime assessment course, January 2020.US Army/Staff Sgt. Travis Fontane

"A safety advisory is disseminated for any type of injury to a service number. A safety stand down usually takes place when there is a fatality or fatalities, especially of undetermined cause," said the retired Green Beret, speaking anonymously because he still works with Army Special Forces.

The standard operating procedure to address a fatality differs between levels in the Army special-operations community, said the retired Green Beret, who was an instructor at the Army Combat Diver Qualification Course and taught Navy SEALs.

"I myself have been part of many safety stand down, particularly when working with NSWC [Naval Special Warfare Command], following fatalities," the retired Green Beret said.

Sources in the Special Forces community told Insider that Green Berets, especially younger ones, are concerned by recent events, worrying that more time is spent "on banal stuff and not enough on the actual life-saving procedures."

"I've already been in conversations with active-duty guys discussing this, especially young [Green Berets] that are still training for different schools, selection, etc.," the retired Green Beret said.

Shifting standards

Army Special Forces combat diver qualification course
A Green Beret retrieves a 20-pound weight during a maritime assessment course, January 2020.US Army/Staff Sgt. Travis Fontane

The retired Special Forces operator, who maintains very close ties with the community, said there may be several factors behind concerns about Army special-operations leaders following standard procedures.

"I think that we are rounding a major corner after two decades of hard, focused combat operations. I think it will take some time for the military as a whole to lift and shift back to a pre-9/11 atmosphere. This is a critical time due to soldiers having spent their entire career focused on the theaters we have left and are leaving currently," he told Insider.

Two decades of conflict in the Middle East, where the opportunities for combat dives were limited or non-existent, allowed that capability to atrophy.

Dive teams and dive lockers, which are responsible for combat-diver-related matters in a Special Forces group, received fewer funds to train and purchase new equipment, while existing gear became outdated, though the situation varied by unit.

Army Special Forces combat diver qualification course
A student gives an "OK" sign to a dive supervisor during CDQC pool training in Key West, March 10, 2010.US Army/Maj. Dave Butler

"There are a lot of aspects of training that haven't been practiced on a regular basis in quite some time. Unfortunately, the training requirements set forth by United States Army Special Operations Command haven't been adjusted to allow for a gradual climb back into establish[ed] training requirements," the retired operator added.

Conventional and special-operations troops also say they're being saddled with more administrative tasks and other requirements that aren't related to combat effectiveness.

"More than ever, our special operators are being asked to do many tasks and be proficient at them," the retired Green Beret said, describing "a litany of other distractors" that prevent soldiers "from focusing on their most dangerous and primary jobs," including specialized skills such as diving, military free-fall, and mountaineering while assigned to operational detachments.

"Frequently we find at operator-level that we have to introduce the right arm to the left arm," the retired instructor added, describing a disconnect between headquarters and troops in the field. "This is something that should be happening at head level, or Army Special Operations Command."

After this story was published, the US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School provided a statement to Insider detailing the steps it took after Walker's death, including a halt to training, and describing the initial findings of the investigations. The story has been updated throughout.

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