Veterans not out of their league under the sea

By Marisa Petrich, Northwest GuardianJuly 25, 2012

Underwater welder
1 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Post-dive check
2 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Leak inspection
3 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

SEATTLE (July 25, 2012) -- After Matt Molina had finished his four years in the Air Force, he wasn't quite sure what he wanted to do next.

He went back to school for a bit. Then got a steady job as a heating, ventilation and air conditioning specialist.

"It was a good job, but I was super bored," the former aircraft electrician said.

Now, he's found a direction that suits him. Molina is a student at a diver's institute in Seattle, where he's learning to be a commercial diver -- and he's not the only one to find that it's a good fit. Former service members are so sought after by employers, the school is not only actively recruiting them but creating programs with military veterans in mind.

"Our industry is begging, as funny as that sounds, just begging for vets," Diver's Institute of Technology Director of Veterans Affairs Brad Grantz said.

The institute has seen demand grow steadily during the last three years for divers with military experience. Grantz's position was created earlier this year to help meet it, and he isn't alone in the industry.

"Veterans always make the best students and the best divers," the Association of Commercial Diving Educators treasurer Don Barthelmess said.

Many of the people hiring divers and running the schools have served in the military themselves, according to Phil Newsum, the executive director of Diving Contractors International. Seventeen of the institute's 38 staff members are veterans and 48 percent of its students are likewise former military members. In an area rich in military installations, the Seattle institute attracts veteran students who have served at nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Naval Base Kitsap, Wash., and Naval Station Everett, Wash., among others.

Commercial diving has always had a strong military presence because many service members undergo directly related-diving training. But Barthelmess, also a professor of marine diving at Santa Barbara City College, Calif., isn't just talking about them.

Even former service members who haven't so much as snorkeled have a leg up.

Veterans know how to be in the right place at the right time with the right gear -- even if that place is a dock at 2:30 a.m. They're also not fazed by the idea of spending months on a job far from home, and they're not easily put off by the thought of working alone, in complete darkness, hundreds of feet below the water's surface.

"Veterans are used to working in exciting environments, and commercial diving is no exception," Barthelmess said.

It's not a profession attractive to everybody, but there are plenty of veterans capable of meeting the physical and mental challenges diving offers. Among the biggest problems Grantz faces as a recruiter is that few have even heard of the job.

Everybody is familiar with construction, but few consider inspecting water towers, or repairing and resurrecting sunken boats. Commercial divers are often called for these jobs, but not before they're trained.

The rigorous training lasts seven months at DIT for a program that meets international certification standards. Students don't touch the water until Week 5, after spending initial weeks in the classroom. From there, students refine their diving abilities and practice skills like welding in low-visibility environments.

Students also receive introductions to offshore and Hazardous Material, or HAZMAT, diving, where they will practice timed repairs, sometimes working in the middle of the water column -- somewhere in between the surface and the floor.

"It's like riding a bicycle the whole time you're working," DIT offshore and HAZMAT instructor Don Schwalback said.

About 10 percent of students drop out by graduation, according to DIT Executive Director John Paul Johnston. But former service members tend to stay and do well -- and more importantly, get jobs.

"Literally dive companies will call, and the first thing is, 'Do you have any vets?" Johnston said.

Veterans like it, too. Many of the former military students have found the work is mission-oriented, active and involves a lot of teamwork, much like their old work.

"It's got the right amount of "militaryesque" discipline," student diver said Jamie Shadduck, a Navy retiree.

Shadduck took a year off after retiring to decide what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Like many others, he chose commercial diving because the work is engaging and he's comfortable with the structure.

Though he had already adjusted to civilian life by the time he started diver's training, Shadduck sees how it could help someone else ease back in.

That was true for Ben Kaminaga, a former Stryker-brigade sergeant from JBLM-based 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, who left the Army April 13, and started the program two days later.

"They kind of understand how it is," he said. "I didn't feel like a stranger coming here."

Staff members at the institute have worked to ease the transition from active duty and civilian life by creating a Student Veterans Association, complete with challenge coin for former military graduates.

Institute members also seek approval of a plan designed to credit former Army divers for their military training and award them civilian certification without having to duplicate any previous training they may have had.

Ultimately, many veterans entering commercial diving see the same appeal as Matt Molina.

"It brought me back to the military," he said.

Related Links:

Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Flickr

U.S. Army Diver (12D)

Northwest Guardian newspaper

Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Facebook