FORT CHAFFEE, Ark. – Wading into the Arkansas River amidst rainy conditions and smoldering summer heat, a six-man team of U.S. Army divers prepared two Zodiac Inflatable boats to take flight on a reconnaissance mission.
Surrounded by safety buoys, breathing masks and apparatus, computer equipment and various other diving gear, they worked diligently on the shoreline to ensure everything was accounted for.
“Is that boat tied off? Are there any problems with the motors? Come on guys, time to get to work,” barked Staff Sgt. Brian Winter, diving supervisor for the 511th Engineer Dive Detachment.
Spc. Jacob Feyers, diver for the 511th (EDD), eagerly began to change, replacing his authorized uniform of khaki shorts and a black U.S. Army Deep Sea Diving Team shirt to a wet suit with flippers, throwing on a Scuba tank before meeting for a safety briefing.
He’s preparing to ditch the white sandy shoreline for a darker, underwater place where he will communicate by a series of sophisticated rope pull signals and rely on his senses to bring him back alive.
As Rabindranth Tagore, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, once said “You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.” “I love the water. Out there, that’s where we feel most at home,” said Feyers, a native of Detroit. “It can be a little scary, but I live for these moments.”
There is something to be said about a man who is willing to dive deep into the belly of a bed of water without the slightest bit of hesitation. Some may even go as far as to call them insane, an assessment to which Feyers doesn’t necessarily disagree.
“It takes a certain type of crazy to want to do what we do,” said Feyers. “That element of unknown brings an adrenaline rush like no other job can provide. We truly love what we do.” The U.S. Army divers are here in support of Operation River Assault, providing diving assistance throughout the exercise, culminating with a large-scale wet gap-crossing maneuver involving numerous U.S. Army Reserve and active duty components.
With less than 150 soldiers in their Corps, the divers often go unnoticed. This exercise provides them the ability to show others what they do on a large-scale scene while proving that their profession and skill is an invaluable service to the Army both stateside and overseas.
More specifically, the divers have been using sonar equipment to create hydrographic surveys of the waterways where the operations will take place. This information is then charted using a computer system that provides three-dimensional maps of the river floor.
“It’s really an outstanding program in the aspect that it makes the jobs of those working on the bridges a lot easier,” said Winter, a native of Winthrop, Mass. “We are essentially removing the water and giving them a face-to-face view of the bottom surface.”
While few know about their military occupational specialty, it is most likely due to the fact that only 20 percent of applicants complete the schooling and become qualified Army divers.
Their training begins with a 2 to 3 week selection course consisting of vigorous mental and physical testing. Those who make it through the initial course head out to Panama City, Fla., where they participate in a 6-month dive school.
“You have to really be committed to this,” said Sgt. Herman Goldstein, a salvage diver with the 511th (EDD). “It’s not an easy school at all. There are days where you want to give up, but you bear down and fight through it. To be able to do this job for a living, it’s all worth it.”
While their most prominent mission is diving, they provide many underwater services outside of that. Their duties are wide and far and consist of performing visual inspections, equipment recovery, debris removal, underwater cutting and welding, and salvage operations.
While getting re-acquainted with the sonar equipment at Engineer Lake July 18, 2013, they received an unexpected training opportunity. One of the Army engineer boats being used adjacent to them was damaged and began taking water, allowing the divers to freshen up on their ability to repair damaged vessels.
They rushed into action with the limited supply they had on hand and were able to patch the hole and keep the boat afloat, using foam from an expired life vest and a bottle jack.
“We just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” said Winter. “We came out here on a different mission and didn’t have the supplies for a proper repair.”
“Luckily we were able to ‘MacGyver’ something up and help out in a tough situation. Not only did it work, but it was a good training session for us to stay sharp,” added Winter.
Other duties include using hydraulic tools to repair damaged dams, pipelines, canals, levees, docks and seawalls as well as inspect and clean damaged vessels. Lastly they do underwater/surface demolition and are capable of using side scan sonar to locate sunken vessels, vehicles, underwater obstacles and bodies. Normally working on a base with active duty soldiers at Fort Eustis, Va., the divers are using all of their combined knowledge to ensure that the bridging exercise goes off without a hitch.
Whether they are creating maps, patching holes, acting as a security element in case of emergency or diving for lost equipment, the diving team looks forward to helping in any way.
“Don’t let the uniform fool you. At the end of the day we are soldiers first and divers second,” said Winter. “Whether we are in the water diving or just maintaining our equipment, we are always working to get better. We like to stay fresh and this exercise is a great way to make sure we are always mission ready.”