CAMP HANSEN, Okinawa, Japan -- As the divers descend into the deep blue, pressure builds --- enough pressure to rupture an eardrum, collapse a lung, and plunge a Marine into a sleep from which he’ll never awake. That’s what these reconnaissance Marines experience every day, with the hopes of earning the U.S. Marine Corps Combatant Diving Badge, commonly referred to as a “bubble.”
On Camp Schwab, Okinawa, 34 Marines with the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion are gasping through an eight-week USMC Combatant Divers Course.
“You get a little nervous before, not knowing what to expect,” said Capt. Justin Lenio, a student in the course and native of St. Augustine, Florida. “Reconnaissance Marines have a good background under water, but the pre-dive instructors definitely know how to push your limits even further ...”
During the last course, 30 percent of the students failed. All of them were physically fit reconnaissance Marines who had already completed rigorous swim training sessions known to induce shallow water blackouts. During these sessions, they often treaded water while carrying heavy weights, swam long distances, and dove to the bottom of the combat pool to retrieve various objects. They often perform these activities in combination with land-based events, such as the obstacle course and long-distance conditioning hikes, yet the Divers Course proved too much for nearly a third of them.
Right now, six instructors from the Navy Diving and Salvage Training Center, in Panama City, Florida, are attempting to tear the Marines out of their comfort zone. During one portion of the training, the instructors simulated rough seas by ripping off the students goggles, cutting off their air supply, and disorienting them.
“We want to put them under the harshest, most demanding, stressful situations now, while a safety structure and safety parameters are in place,” said Staff Sgt. Evan Rodeffer, an NDSTC diving instructor from Dallas, Texas. “We don’t want them to react to a situation that they haven’t encountered before because that is when people get injured.”
Many risks are involved with diving, some of which include arterial gas embolism, decompression sicknesses, and various pulmonary over-inflation syndromes. To prepare the divers for these dangers and others, Rodeffer and his fellow instructors combine practical application exercises, like the aforementioned diving simulation, with classroom instruction in diving physics and medical aid.
Rodeffer said the divers must be ready for everything.
“Three feet in the water, if you do something wrong, you can actually mess yourself up,” he said.
In the end, only those with the fitness and mental fortitude sufficient to the task will earn the bubble.
“In this course, every day is a challenge,” said Rodeffer. “From day one’s physical strength test, to the last dive that they do, the Marines can get dropped for something.”