BYU cadet passes Special Forces Underwater Operations school

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Cadet Pierce Bennett stands next to the Special Forces Underwater Operations school sign in Key West, Fla. (Photo courtesy of Pierce Bennett)
Cadet Pierce Bennett stands next to the Special Forces Underwater Operations school sign in Key West, Fla. (Photo courtesy of Pierce Bennett)

As of this summer only three cadets in BYU’s history had attended the Army’s Combat Diver Qualification Course, a training program that is just what it sounds like — learning to survive combat-like situations while scuba diving under water. Against the odds, BYU ROTC Cadet Pierce Bennett became the fourth to attend and pass this summer. He credits it all to hard work and divine help.

Achieving the spot

As a child, Bennett admired and respected superheroes, such as Captain America, for their strength and service to their country. It was his lifelong dream to become a super soldier, and he pestered his cadre for years for a chance to attend the Combat Diver Qualification Course (CDQC) at the Special Forces Underwater Operations school (SFUWO) in Key West, Florida.

Although spots are limited and he was told there was no chance he could go, he didn’t give up hope. His wife’s support and his focus on the fundamentals of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helped him achieve his goal.

When a spot miraculously opened up in his brigade for the CDQC, Bennett immediately jumped on the opportunity.

“It was an answer to my prayers,” Bennett said, noting that the spot opened up the week after he had paid his tithing. “It was very exciting and very humbling at the same time, because I had to work extremely hard to earn that slot. … Miracles happen when you pay your tithing.”

Bennett completed a preliminary, in-depth physical ability test that included many push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, runs and swims. He was first of 12 applicants and finished the two-mile run in 11 minutes and 15 seconds. Miraculously, the medical approval process only took a few weeks instead of the usual three to six months.

Sgt. Bret Jackson from the BYU ROTC has always had positive experiences with Bennett. “Just the fact that he got one of these spots,” Jackson said. “That alone says a lot about who he is.”

Surviving the school

Bennett served an LDS mission in San Jose, California. Service at the Fort Ord military post there introduced him to military personnel, and he gained the respect for U.S. service members that he once had for superheroes as a child.

“I found a lot of joy and comfort and fulfillment in service,” Bennett said. “It’s always been in the back of my mind that I wanted to be one of those guys that defends freedom, truth and righteousness.” That drive got him through the difficult weeks at underwater operations school.

The six-week combat diver course is largely seen as the most physically demanding school in the Army. Soldiers who get a spot in the training must first compete in a two-week, pre-scuba course for only 10 available spots.

Cadets Matt Priester (left) and Pierce Bennett (right) wear the closed-circuit breathing apparatus they used for stealth missions. (Photo courtesy of Pierce Bennett)
Cadets Matt Priester (left) and Pierce Bennett (right) wear the closed-circuit breathing apparatus they used for stealth missions. (Pierce Bennett)

Sgt. Dennis Emmons, the chief instructor at the CDQC, said graduates of the program “will always be held to a higher standard than the average soldier.”

The pre-scuba course focuses on pool training, including underwater exercises to increase breath-hold, underwater knot tying and surface swimming.

Soldiers don’t get breaks. They run everywhere, always with a gallon of water in hand. In-class academics teach physiology, underwater wildlife and the open- and closed-circuit scuba systems.

Making it through the end of the main course’s first two weeks and passing the one-man confidence test usually means soldiers have a good chance of completing the rest of the course.

But dive instructors don’t go easy on them, calling out soldiers for any mistakes and giving out mass punishments.

Emmons remembered Bennett as the “grey man” of his class — someone who didn’t bring attention to himself. “This is a good thing,” Emmons said. “Cadet Bennett was a good student who didn’t make a lot of mistakes.”

On top of being yelled at by instructors, underwater events created a different kind of stress. “In our minds, we were the ones creating the stress on ourselves,” Bennett said.

But Emmons said the most important quality in a student “is the ability to compose your wits in a stressful environment.”

Passing the one-man confidence test

The hardest part of the course for Bennett, and many other students, was the one-man confidence test. Everything he learned went into this one task.

After Bennett completed the safety lap underwater with his instructor Friday morning, he waited at the bottom of the pool for the test to start.

Dive supervisors came fast. They took away his fins and face mask and gave him a blackened face mask so he couldn’t see. “The surge” came next.

Instructors use the surge to recreate extreme tides and currents underwater. They hit his chest, smashed him against the side of the pool, dragged him along the bottom, flipped him around and shook his tanks back and forth. They tried anything to create panic and test how he recovered his air source and completed self-checks.

The next section focused on untying knots in the scuba gear. The instructors stole Bennett’s mouth piece and made a rat’s nest of wraps, or knots, with the hoses behind his head. The soldier is supposed to untie the knots while holding their breath, until they reach the “unrecoverable knot,” which means they can ditch their gear, find their regulator, and surface. If they ditch their gear before they reach the true unrecoverable knot, they fail the test.

The task’s purpose is to get a soldier hypoxic, or lacking oxygen, to test soldiers ability to complete the task while outside of their right state of mind or physical ability. “But the soldier relies on the training that he’s been given to perform this life-saving task of recovering their air source while underwater,” Bennett said.

Bennett stayed calm as he held his breath underwater, methodically tracing and untying the knots in his hoses. He reached the unrecoverable knot, but he had no way of knowing he had reached the end and continued to fiddle with the knot.

Soon he felt a regulator being forced into his mouth. He surfaced, thinking he had passed. But the instructors were mitigating the first round’s number of shallow water blackouts. Bennett was underwater so long that his instructor stopped Bennett before he blacked out.

Bennett was upset, but after anxiously awaiting his next turn hours later, he was determined to push through and pass.

He got hypoxic fast on his second try, but he was stubborn. He withstood the surge but realized he was getting no where fast with the knots. Still, he threw away the regulators instructors tried giving him.

Two or three seconds after one last failed attempt to give Bennett a regulator, Bennett’s body went into immediate convulsions. He lost all control of his body.

“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life,” he said. “My legs started to twitch, my arms started to seize and I had this gulping feeling in my stomach. My chest was burning. And I had black and white flashes in my eyes and all of a sudden I just blacked out.”

Bennett woke up as supervisors pulled him out of the water. In disbelief, his supervisor told him all Bennett had to do was ditch his gear and surface in order to pass, but if he’d had five more seconds he would have untied the knot that was supposed to be impossible to untie.

Bennett’s last chance to re-test was the following Monday, and he said the weekend of waiting was terrible. All he could think about was possibly failing this lifelong dream.

But he read the Book of Mormon, called his wife for support and prayed. He drew strength and inspiration from the last chapters of 3 Nephi; Moroni, Mormon and Helaman were examples of standing for truth and righteousness amid temptation and turmoil.

Their unwavering faith in God “gave them great strength and ability to do whatever they were asked or whatever they deemed righteous,” Bennett said. That gave him strength in his own training throughout the course, but especially before his final chance to pass the one-man confidence test.

Monday arrived. He was extremely nervous during the surge and the knot section, but he ditched his gear as soon as he thought he reached the unrecoverable knot.

His instructor said Bennett was the jitteriest little creature he’d seen at the bottom of the pool. But he passed. Bennett was overwhelmingly relieved.

He knew he could trust his instructors and rely on his training. “It was the most mentally draining, the most physically strenuous and emotionally damaging thing that I have ever been through,” Bennett said. But the one-man confidence test and the whole course were, in a word, fulfilling.

He pushed himself everyday, in every aspect of his life. “Whether it was the spiritual, the emotional, the physical or the academic,” Bennett said, “I was able to do it. I realized I could do extremely hard things.”

Preparing for the future

Bennett plans to dive at Camp Williams when he’s not at school, but he dreams of becoming an infantry officer in the Special Forces. He’ll compete with qualified soldiers, but the combat diver badge shows he’s willing to push himself more than most people are willing to go.

His unit leaders compared his accomplishment to being the first pick in the NFL draft. “Down the road, I think, there’s no way of telling what doors will open,” Bennett said, “I hope for me, one of my biggest accomplishments will be knowing that down the line, my posterity will have that same motivation, knowing they can do hard things as long as they trust in God and never give up.”

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