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Schoolhouse Rocks: Navy Center Trains Military Divers

PANAMA CITY, Fla., July 21, 2016 — From Day One, as young certified-diver hopefuls test their mental and physical limits through challenging academics and grueling daily endurance requirements, it likely becomes clear to the students that the Navy Diving and Salvage Training Center is the wrong address for coddling.

Military divers might find themselves engulfed in a murky abyss during a mission, laden with scuba gear in bone-chilling water, submerged deep in darkness, with perhaps only the faint glow of distant vessel lights or a translucent marine animal. So confidence amid chaos -- the elusive leap from “following instructions” to “following instinct” -- is the ultimate litmus test in sculpting a successful student, and guides much of the training.

The lessons are meant to be tough, and instructors rigidly ensure that students emerge “aquatically adaptable” and reliable before they graduate, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Mark Anderson, the training center’s executive officer.

“It’s easy to dive when things are nice, when it’s good visibility, there’s no current,” Anderson said. “If you’re a Coast Guard diver in the Arctic under three feet of ice and something goes wrong, you want to make sure you look over at your dive buddy and know that he has your back and he’s going to be able to rescue you if you need rescuing.”

What They Learn

Their first crucible, Anderson said, is “pool week,” in which instructors give the students problem-solving exercises after they master basic dive medicine and dive physics concepts, the “nuts and bolts” that must be ingrained long before the students are even allowed to breathe under water.

“What we want to do at the end of the day is put the best divers in the world out to the fleet,” Anderson said. “We give them problems under the water to teach them to be confident divers so when they’re down there with their shipmates, they’re ready to face any issue that might happen and they’re ready to do it safely.”

To that end, the school offers 23 different courses designed to create sharp Navy divers who can adeptly support underwater ship husbandry and salvage operations with the Army and with the “Seabees,” trained underwater construction technicians, or with Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard combat divers who can more fluidly conduct joint operations.

“We get lawyers, doctors [and] other people who have been all over the world to come here because they want to do something for their country,” Anderson said, “and they’ve heard the great work that’s being done, so they come here to be a part of that.”

Courses range from five weeks for a basic scuba course to several months or more for the joint diving officer course, and students hone their skills in basic gas laws, diving medicine, recompression chamber operations, salvage mathematics and salvage operations.

The training center was built in the 1980s to accommodate about 300 students, and today, about 1,400 students come to the center each year from across all services and numerous government agencies and allied nations, Anderson said.

Over the last decade, the school has shifted to direct accession from the fleet, so both Navy divers and explosive ordnance disposal divers typically enter the school right after boot camp, then continue to follow-on schools or their first duty stations.

Home of Military Diving

Though Navy divers are the backbone of the schoolhouse, Anderson said, the testbed training facility, widely acknowledged as the “Home of Military Diving,” is in all but name a joint command.

“We do on average 22,000 dives a year here, which is about a quarter of all dives in the Department of Defense,” said Anderson, adding the dives occur safely with a low mishap rate, thanks to ample recompression chambers, tested equipment, and able staff at the ready to handle address any issues. “If we have equipment here that we can’t take care of, that doesn’t survive the rigors here, it probably shouldn’t be in the fleet,” he added.

Similarly, Anderson said, the school’s curriculum also ensures people are fit to stand the rigors of training, and one of the greatest things he gets to witness is the evolution of each class.

“You see a class come in, and whether on purpose or not, it’s a mess and they’re not doing anything right,” he said. “But you watch them Day One to whatever is the last day of training, and they go from a group of 30 individuals to a dive team. It’s just phenomenal to watch, … that the instructors can take that and every time they’re putting out an amazing product where everyone wants to have more military divers.”

Bringing in the best divers in the world to teach at the center naturally produces the best diver graduates, Anderson said. “The instructors want to be here,” he added. ”They’re motivated. They’re taking people who, for the most part, have no diving experience and turning them into phenomenal divers.”

Navy Diving and Salvage Training Center graduates include Navy Experimental Diving Unit and Naval Surface Warfare Center divers, as well as qualified candidates from across the services to become proficient military divers in support of naval, joint and allied operations.

“We are the gateway -- there’s one standard and it’s been here for decades,” Anderson said. “From the ‘2 Charlie’ diver who just graduated a week ago to a master diver who’s been in 30 years, you know that we’ve all met the same standard.”

(Follow Amaani Lyle on Twitter: @LyleDoDNews)
Distribution channels: Military