Panama City - Recreational divers know the Gulf waters near Panama City as a hot dive spot, but few know that all U.S. Navy divers get their start at Panama City’s Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center (NDSTC), on Naval Support Activity.
Over 89 days, young men and women - some fresh out of Navy boot camp, others with years of service under their belts - must pass grueling physical tests, designed to push them beyond their limits. They must excel in the academic arena as well, before they can earn their Class “A” Diver certification.
By the time they arrive at dive school, students’ ranks have already been culled. It takes more just to get to NDSTC these days, and once here, the rigorous training will diminish their numbers even further. The first weeks, especially, are physically and mentally exhausting. Physical training starts at daybreak, and can last three to four hours, as Navy Chiefs try to find out what the students are made of, and expand the student’s threshold for pain.
As Chief Michael Duff, USN, explains, no matter what their prior experience is, no one gets an easy ride through the program.
“Intestinal fortitude is a challenge here for just about everybody. When I was a student here they told me, 'Everyone here is going to have THAT day. Your day may be today, it may be tomorrow, it may be next week, but you're going to have THAT day while you're here. It's the day when you've got nothing left to give, and you're going to have to reach inside and find it when you think you can't go any further. As a student here, I remember being in the leaning-rest -- the push-up position -- and saying, 'Okay, if I'm still here in 2-minutes, I'm quitting. I can't possibly stay here.' And five minutes later, you're still there, and you're going to have to tough it out, to find that within yourself.'"
While the physical training is tough, inside the classroom, students are hitting the books just as hard. Even in recent years, the classroom curriculum has expanded, and as the dive manual has grown from a couple hundred pages to nearly a thousand, instructors have been forced to find new and better ways to make the information stick. Technology aids the learning process, and students are schooled on technical skills in a “see, do, teach” method. Even instructors are monitored and graded, to make sure they’re on their game. According to Chief Timothy Alexander, the result is worth the effort.
"The quality of student we have now, and what we're expecting of him in the academic arena, is a lot tougher than when I came in. It makes them better divers. We have a lot better thinkers than we used to have."
But in the water, it’s not enough to just be good thinkers. Good decisions must become instinct, and panic is not an option. To take someone who may never have dived before, and turn them into rock-solid Navy divers in the space of three months, instructors guide their students through the basics of scuba and underwater welding, then take them well out of their comfort zones, testing the students in what may seem to be underwater attacks, as instructors yank regulators and masks from the students, turn their air off, and confront them in what are called underwater “hits.” The students must learn to work together, and recover without losing composure. For Navy divers, breathing and working underwater becomes a complete comfort zone.
By the time students near the end of their time in dive school, they posses a new confidence, and teamwork has become second nature. They have been trained, tested, and emerge trustworthy. In part, it’s knowing that they all share the same harrowing introduction to diving at NDSTC that forms the brotherhood shared by Navy divers.
With typical understatement, Chief Alexander explains the brotherhood like this, "We're not the sexiest or the fastest or the tri-athletes of the Navy. We're just guys that can grind it out."