CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (Army News Service, June 10, 2008) - The Texas Army National Guard is currently preparing Soldiers to be a part of the 627th Heavy Dive Team, the National Guard's first team of divers.

An anchor of the new 627th HDT is 43-year-old Sgt. Lance Little, who has been developing the physical and academic training plan that will prepare the prospective divers for their two diving qualification courses.

Little earned his second-class diver and salvage diver qualifications as an active-duty Army diver during the 1980s. He said there were fewer than 100 divers Army-wide when he was diving. Now the Texas Army National Guard has the opportunity to provide about 20 to 25 of its Soldiers to the diving corps.

Once the unit has a group of qualified divers, Little said he will focus his energy on getting himself prepared for the rigors of first-class dive school next summer.

"Every detail and situation of underwater missions must be planned for," Little emphasized. "For every hour underwater, there are about 10 hours of preparation. You don't want your brain to go to mush during a stressful situation if something goes wrong."

To ensure the new diver recruits maintain their composure underwater, Little prepares them with pool "hits," during which he grabs their masks and steals their swimming fins. There is no escape from this critical repetitive drill. During the "attack," they must remain calm while holding their breath long enough to put on their equipment and touch the deep end wall before coming to the surface.

Capt. James Proctor, commander of the 627th HDT, now in his fourth month of training at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center in Panama City Beach, Fla., said Phase I of dive school was more demanding than any of his prior military courses.

"It's a physical and mental challenge," Proctor said . "It's a gut check. If someone can make it through phase one, then there's a high percentage passing rate through phase two."

The Army Diver Phase I course, which ranges from two to three weeks, is taught at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. The course involves water survival skills and basic diving instruction, but first and foremost, Soldiers must pass the rigorous Diving Physical Fitness Test, which includes an endurance swim and chin bar pull-ups.

During Phase II Soldiers study human anatomy and physiology, underwater physics and dive medicine. They learn to operate underwater hydraulic tools such as chain saws, wrenches, grinders, and impact drills. They also train with underwater explosives.

Joining Proctor as a fourth-month student is fellow 627th HDT member Spc. Joseph Wieland. Both Soldiers anticipate graduating as Army divers in late July. Four other unit members recently arrived at the NDSTC for their six-month training rotation.

Sgt. Jon Dodge, who was in the Navy in the 1980s, tried out for its revered dive team while in his 20s, but didn't make the cut for the timed running event. A few months later at Fort Leonard Wood, he became one of the many Phase I statistics, but Dodge doesn't know the word "quit."

"I'm ready for my second chance," Dodge said.

Sgt. Roel Ramos drives 900 miles from Lubbock to push himself to the limit. Like Dodge, he attended Phase I of dive school for a second time. Ramos said he makes the daily sacrifice of working out because he wants to belong to a team of Soldiers who are more dedicated than most.

The fourth HDT member to recently begin Phase II training is Corpus Christi resident Spc. Shaun Wheaton. He said he's spent very little time in or around water until this past year.

Proctor, a commercial diver for the past two years, performs construction work on oil rigs. He understands first-hand the physical rigors of underwater engineer work.

"We encourage people to visit us, to try out with the DPFT and the 500-yard swim," Proctor said . "If they can pass the swim, we'll let them train with us and improve. Then, once they pass the entire DPFT, we'll put them on our books. Some of our guys had to work their way into the unit."

One such Soldier is Pvt. Daniel West, 19, a cross-country runner and 2007 graduate of Angleton High School who began drilling with the 627th HDT in February.

"I had to learn how to swim the sidestroke and the breaststroke from a local lifeguard in Angleton to train for my swim test," West admitted. "I had to be extra ready because I heard nearly 80 percent of the students don't make it past the phase one school at Fort Leonard Wood."

With a 500-meter swim event time of 9:49 and a 1 A,A1/2 mile run of 9:42, West is now one of the fastest swimmers and runners in the unit.

Chief Petty Officer Alexander Semmler, a diving instructor at Florida's NDSTC who has trained nearly 30 Navy and Army divers so far, said the Texas National Guard divers are constantly proving their professionalism.

"Honestly, if I lined them up against the active-duty students regarding pool performance and academics, I couldn't tell the difference," Semmler said.

When the 627th is fully functional, its members could be responsible for port clearance and security, damage assessments, quality assurance and ship hull inspections, Little said.

"Working in an underwater environment is not for everyone," Little said emphatically. "It's dangerous and requires a certain degree of high motivation that some people don't have. It's a totally different world underwater. You must have initiative...lots of heart and really want this job. Having what it takes to earn that diver's badge is something very, very special."

(Master Sgt. Brenda Benner works for Texas Military Forces Public Affairs.)