Combatant Diver Course

The Marines makes one final gear check before leaning back and receiving the thumbs up from their partners to plunge into the warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Marines falling into the water are some of the Corps’ most elite warriors reconnaissance Marines.

First Force Reconnaissance Company Marines and sailors from Camp Pendleton spent a month training with Marines throughout the Corps at the Marine Combatant Diver Course in Panama City, Fla., to learn how to use the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, scuba.

During the 35 training days, the students complete 15 surface swims and swim more than 60,000 meters of water to hone their skills.

The course begins with a 500-yard introductory swim or “fin” to familiarize the students with open-circuit scuba gear.

While some of the students have some training on conventional scuba diving, most are newcomers to the world of underwater operations.

“This new scuba gear takes some getting used to but eventually you get the hang of it,” said Cpl. Elliot Hlabaty, 21, reconnaissance operator, 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

But not every recon operator has a shot at attending the seven-week course. Individual Marine recon units hold a grueling two-week, pre-qualification course prior to attending the course in eastern Florida.

The goal of the pre-qualification is to introduce the students to what happens to their bodies while they are underwater.

But diving is no dip in the pool. There are a lot of concepts to learn, such as the effects of compression and the decrease of gasses in the human body, said Master Sgt. Gregory D. Miller, staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge, Marine Combatant Diver Course.

The students must learn how to use the scuba equipment in a swimming pool before applying their competence in the deep blue ocean.

During one particular morning in their fifth week of training, the Marines receive an early morning safety brief, pack on the scuba gear, load up into two 15 passenger boats and head out into the ocean.

The Marines are eager to plunge into the ocean following weeks of bookwork and drills inside the pool.

Their assignment is to demonstrate their diving capabilities in the ocean, since this is precisely the environment they will be working in during missions.

The equipment the students are using is a closed-circuit re-breather unit attached to their chest. This gear enhances their ability to approach an objective in a quiet manner. As Marines exhale, no bubble are created since the air is returned inside the unit, making them invisible to the enemy’s view topside.

A conventional open-circuit scuba unit, which is strapped on the back, emits a large amount of bubbles, rendering a stealthy approach ineffective.

The morning marked the first time the students demonstrated their mastery of the closed-circuit unit in a real environment. They already went through numerous hours of practical application with the instructors earlier.

“After completing the practical application, I definitely feel ready to whoop it on and take care of business,” said Cpl. William J. Johns, 21, from Granite Bay, reconnaissance operator, 1st Force Reconnaissance Co.

In between classroom work, safety briefs, practical application, and tests, the students are still required to maintain rigorous physical fitness standards. Any given day of the week the students run an average of five miles in between lesson plans.

The course culminates with an astounding 6.2 mile open-water swim in a team buddy line. The buddy line is a rope, which attaches two divers together within an arm’s reach of each other. The lead man, or “driver,” steers the team under the close attention of an azimuth, which is a predetermined direction via the aid of a compass. Navigates using a tack-board, an underwater compass

The rear operator shares the responsibility of the two-person team because there is so much going on.

“I have to trust my partner because he’s the one driving,” said Cpl. Geore W. Ruble, reconnaissance operator, 2nd Recon Bn., Camp Lejeune, N.C.

“I also have to make sure he’s alright, buoyancy is good and he’s not going up and down in the water column,” said the 23-year-old Pensacola, Fla., native. “The whole time he’s focusing on the azimuth,”

“There are so many hazards in diving that if you don’t look after each other’s health, you can have some serious issues down there,” Ruble added.

Even though students receive a full day of instruction during the course’s final week of diving, met grueling physical fitness requirements, and continuously demonstrate practical application, not one of them has even signaled the slightest aversion to the course

“It’s a new challenge. I get to work in areas I’ve never worked in before. Working in the water like this is the main challenge,” said Lance Cpl. Isaac J. Moore, 20, reconnaissance operator, 2nd Force Reconnaissance Co., who transferred jobs from being a radio operator.

The school enrolls Marines in the reconnaissance community, but also support Air Force combat controllers and air rescue men together in the same class.