Army Special Forces Underwater Operations School makes its mark on Key West
January 14, 2013
The U.S. Army Special Forces Underwater Operations School is well-known throughout the military community. However, when tourists and residents flew over Key West, Fla., and saw the school's 50-foot free ascent dive tower on a Naval base, many thought it belonged to the U.S. Navy.
That changed on Dec. 7, 2012 when the school hosted a ceremony unveiling the tower's new ink which reads "U.S. ARMY SPECIAL FORCES" on the roof and displays the Army's Special Operations Combat Diver Badge and Green Beret around the sides of the building, making their presence known.
"The recent painting of the dive tower is extensively what sparked our creative side," said Maj. Samuel W. Kline, commander of C Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group (Airborne), which runs the Special Forces Underwater Operations School, during the unveiling ceremony. "It wasn't the combat dive bubble and Green Beret painted larger than life that inspired us … rather, it was what those icons represent."
Since World War II and into modern conflicts across the globe, divers have played an integral part in not only the military's war records, but also in the country's history.
"People in the [Ranger and Special Forces Regiments], they know they can go to that dive team or that combat diver, and they can get a solid product out of them, they can get success in a mission," said Col. Alan Shumate, a graduate of the Combat Diver Qualification Course and the son of one of the school's most revered founders, Sgt. Maj. Walter L. Shumate.
Leaders in the diving community hope that the newly crested dive tower will motivate future trainees during the rigorous six-week course and remind them of the lineage they will become a part of after completing the CDQC.
"It does suck, and there's a reason for it," Shumate said about the physical intensity of the course.
"You can't just fall out of a plane, pull your chute and be good," Shumate continued. "You've got to hold your breath and go subsurface and re-enter that sub or do whatever mission is given to you."
Annually the school trains more than 300 service members in three courses and conducts support training for more than 1,000 troops preparing for deployments or conducting certifications.
The dive tower is more than just a symbol. It is a critical training tool that transitions future divers from the pool to the ocean.
"It's the safest environment to do the deeper water dives," said Sgt. 1st Class Alexandros J. Jaferis, an instructor at the school.
"A pool is only nine feet deep, whereas the ocean can be infinitely deeper, but [the tower is] a confined space where you can have control to do 50-foot free ascents and it's a controlled space before going into the ocean," Jaferis said.
Shumate explained how training in the dive tower can translate into real world scenarios.
"This is instrumental in training combat divers how to successfully conduct a submarine exfiltration or infiltration," Shumate said while looking up at the giant Special Operations Diver Badge, consisting of a diver's head in full gear in front of two crossed Sykes-Fairbain Commando daggers pointing up. Encircling the diver's head are sharks, and around the mouth piece is a leaf of laurel.
"Picture leaving a sub on a breath hold, say you didn't even have [air] tanks, and getting to the surface, that tower… gives you that simulation," Shumate continued.
In the mid-1960s, Sgt. Maj. Walter L. Shumate, Alan Shumate's father, was put in charge of securing a site and setting up a combat dive training area, which is now the esteemed U.S. Army SFUWO School.
In the Combat Dive Qualification Course, dive school trainees learn surface and subsurface waterborne infiltration. The school also conducts the Combat Diving Supervisor's Course and Diving Medical Technician Course.
As tall as the tower stands at the tip of Fleming Key -- Key West's northern point -- it is dwarfed by the many accomplishments of the late Walter Shumate, for whom the structure was dedicated to when it was first built in 1994.
"He left an indelible mark in U.S. Army Special Forces, as a whole, and a good deal of his story is woven throughout the fabric of the Special Forces dive community," said Lt. Col. Steven P. Basilici, commander of 2nd Bn., 1st Special Warfare Training Group (Airborne). Basilici's battalion oversees the SFUWO School as well as special-operations free-fall, mountaineering and sniper training in locations across the United States.
"Throughout his career he continuously refined his combat diving skills and went beyond the norm in mentoring young Soldiers through strenuous combat dive training and combat dive operations," Basilici continued.
While he was never forgotten in the minds of the divers who followed him, it is clear that Sgt. Maj. Shumate's legacy will live on with each person that swims through or even flies over the free ascent tower in Key West.