The best combat diver competition was a true feat of human skill

Major Brandon Schwartz, commander of Special Forces Underwater Operations, joined Good Morning Keys on KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM this morning. 

The inaugural US Army Special Operations Command best combat diver competition came to the Keys last week. 

Major Schwartz said, “We had a fantastic showing. Thirteen teams showed up and after a three day competition, Army Special Forces Green Berets crowded the podium taking first, second and third. Seals took fourth. Army borough it and we’re very thankful for everyone that showed up. We think that it speaks volumes about the interoperability and the the human capital potential of all special operators that are in the Army and the Navy.”

Mike Stapleford of KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM said, “We are so indebted to you. Your people are really the cream of the crop. I would venture to say that the rigors that these soldiers go through when they come to the Special Forces Underwater Operations command here, the rigors here are really unparalleled, probably worldwide. Is that a fair statement?”

Major Schwartz confirmed, “Yes, absolutely. This is largely known as the hardest course in the in the Department of Defense.”

Competitors were from the Special Forces Green Berets, the Army Rangers, Navy Seals and Air Force Special Operations, as well as Marine Special Operations, competing in 10 events. 

Major Schwartz said, “We’re coming up on our 60th year anniversary. We started out focused on the Army and the Marines. In the 70s we started also producing Air Force combat divers. We’re open to all the services but the Seals have part of their basic pipeline to go through combat diving. So we very seldom ever see Seals come through our course. But we do see the Air Force and the Marines, as well as the Army come through.”

What does the training provide? 

Major Schwartz said, “I’ll speak about the Army first. Army Green Berets were purpose built to do partnerships with foreign militaries. Whether that be a Coastal Defense Force, or that be a land based force. So we just need to be interoperable and able to do operations on the surface and subsurface. When we’re in cooperation or competition, within one conflict, we have to provide a means for a clandestine infiltration into a enemy area to perform some sort of action to disadvantage the enemy, enable our partners or enable our joint force to succeed.”

The core attributes for the Army Special Operations Forces are integrity, courage, perseverance, personal responsibility, professionalism, adaptability, team player and capability. 

How did the combat diving competition come to be? 

Major Schwartz said, “We had a couple couple of models that we wanted to base ourselves off of, but it was an idea that kind of just at the operator level a couple years ago and our chain of command basically endorsed this about a year ago, saying that they want to scale it out eventually become like the best Ranger competition or the best international sniper competition. So we do have some milestones we want to hit over the next couple of years to where we’re opening it up to the entire joint force in larger numbers, but also inviting some international allies and partners and their special operators that have those maritime capabilities to compete. So this is going to be a great opportunity for the community of Key West as we move forward.” 

The soldiers who came to compete were regarded as the best of their divisions. 

Major Schwartz said, “We left it up to each of their units to nominate a two person team that they thought would best represent their unit on a national stage. The talent that showed up, extremely proud of everyone. Regardless of where they placed, they all left better humans and everyone left in awe of their capabilities and their grit.” 

We’re there any rivalries between competitors before hand? 

Major Schwartz said, “No, not to my knowledge, not this time. But I think that with Army Navy football between this competition and next year’s competition, I think the Green Berets kind of shocked everyone by crowding the podium. I think that there’s going to be some chatter back and forth as we go forward.”

What were the details of the competition? 

Major Schwartz explained, “Ten different events, PT tests, academic exams on dive physics. That’s kind of the norm but the atypical events were a static line parachute operation into Fleming Bay from 12,000 feet, into a kayak race. So that’s one event. Other ones were 1,500 subsurface, closer, good dives at night, contour dives in the South End, where they’re replacing devices on different target vessels. Then also helo cast into a 3k surface swim, and then a four mile run, and a bunch of other physically demanding things in the pool that was probably a crowd pleaser. One of the individuals did a dynamic surface swim on one breath, hold to 340 feet. Going back and forth between pools. You could see him turning purple from the from the the surface.”

How many soldiers go through this training? 

Major Schwartz said, “I won’t speak to the exact numbers of how many come through, but we run our courses back to back to back all year round, except in December and July. We offer five course offerings here and we’ve done a lot of work over the past couple years to increase our graduation rates. Historically, our graduation rates are about 60 percent of the people that show up because it is that demanding, but we’re in the upper 70s now because we’re providing more resources there during training on human mental performance and those type of things that are really helping these guys maximize their potential.”

Safety is a major consideration in these exercises. 

Major Schwartz said, “At certain inflection points in the course, we have more instructors in the water than we do students. We take safety very seriously. We have a growth mindset when it comes to safety and we have a long memory. So all my instructors that are currently serving, know about the tragic safety incidents that have happened all the way dating back to 1964. So we’re constantly keeping that in mind as we seek to improve our safety standards and reduce the residual risk of this very dangerous training.”

Once students complete the course, they are deployed even during peace time. 

Major Schwartz said, “Especially the Green Berets. We’re constantly forward, working with our partners, enabling them to overcome their own internal or external threats to their sovereignty. And so really, this capability in peacetime provides us the credibility to partner with various types of partners all around the world. We use this skill set if we’re not actually diving, we’re using it or teaching others how to do it so that we don’t have to deploy the joint force to resolve problems that are affecting our partners.”

There will be another competition next year. 

Major Schwartz said, “We’re having an internal debate on what time of the year we want to choose to make this most conducive for it being programmed for the foreseeable future. We’re looking at May or December. But again, we have to take into account what’s the best interest for the locals here and other chain of commands but also for the competitors and our chain of command. So there’s plenty of priorities we have to wade ourselves through. One of the things we do want to do next year is make sure that we’re opening our doors up to the public and we’re able to get over the bureaucratic hurdle that is getting on to post, because we want to show this to everyone because we think it’s unique and the Keys is the home of combat diving in my opinion. So we want to we want to celebrate that with our with our Key West friends and partners.”

Stapleford said, “We certainly hope that you do feel the gratitude from the community here, because again, what is asked of you and your soldiers that go through your course and eventually are deployed worldwide, we can’t say enough about how we are so grateful that you’re defending our freedom.”

Major Schwartz said, “That means the world that you feel that. We feel the love and this event if it wasn’t integrated with the community and the community wasn’t a part of it, it would just be a regular training evolution. So we really appreciate all the support that you give to myself, my family and my soldiers’ families on it on a daily basis. There’s no better place for this school house than the Keys and we love you all.” 

Stapleford said, “Thank you so very much to you and your family and all of the soldiers who serve with you.”