Soldiers from the Army’s 74th Dive Detachment and Coast Guardsmen from the U.S. Coast Guard’s Dive Locker West are collaborating for a month of exercises centered in Juneau. On Friday, soldiers worked with Coast Guardsmen to replace unsafe bolts in the breakwater pier of the Don D. Statter Harbor in Auke Bay. Working out of Coast Guard Station Juneau, both are taking advantage of the partnership to get in valuable training and help out the community.
“It’s real world training and a real world mission that has a real impact on the community,” said Capt. Max McDonnell, the commander of the 74th Dive Detachment.
Army and Coast Guard divers worked together to find opportunities to both practice their skills and to help the community where they could.
“They reached out to us for a training opportunity,” said City and Borough of Juneau deputy harbormaster Matt Creswell. “It’s perfect. It’s amazing.”
In the case of Statter Harbor, divers from both detachments are supporting an operation to replace connecting rods between sections of the breakwater that have failed structurally or are in danger of doing so. The job isn’t very complicated but it does require divers to carry out, and the dive teams took the opportunity to do some good work and get in some good training, said McDonnell.
Stationed in Ft. Eustis, near Norfolk, Virginia, diving conditions are often much different than Juneau, McDonnell said. Operating in the warm and often murky waters of the East Coast can be very different than the cold, clear waters of Southeast Alaska.
“The Coast Guard are the cold water diving experts and it’s an opportunity for the Army to learn from them,” McDonnell said.
Joint exercises aren’t uncommon in the military, but it is a first for the dive teams from the two different services to work with each other in the field.
“This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to work with the Army in an operational capacity,” said Chief Petty Officer Chris Hall, master diver with Dive Locker West.
Cooperation in the far North
The Army and Coast Guard divers will work together over roughly the next month, practicing their unique trade as diving engineers across Alaska by inspecting piers and other harbor structures across the region and performing repairs or maintenance where necessary to help out the community and keep their skills honed.
Elements from both detachments will catch rides on Coast Guard aircraft to places as far afield as Ketchikan, Kodiak and Seward while team members perform dives under harbors, piers and ships. They’ll also both take part in the Coast Guard’s annual buoy tender games, inspecting the Coast Guard vessels for barnacles and other fouling on the hull, and for basic condition, performing spot repairs as they can.
“I think this is a great way for the Army and Coast Guard to help out the community,” Hall said.
The Coast Guard have a wealth of institutional experience with cold water diving, said Hall, but the lack of a decompression chamber in Alaska has limited their operations here.
“This is the first time (diving here) for the Coast Guard in two years,” Hall said.
74th Dive Detachment brought their own decompression chamber up with them, a mobile unit that they can bring with them on options. A decompression chamber is absolutely required for diving at almost any depth, for any length of time. Without it, divers risk decompression sickness from buildup of gas bubbles in their blood, which can lead to a number of severe physical ailments, including excruciating death if not properly treated.
Both services send their engineer divers to the same place: Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for initial physical training, said 74th Dive Detachment noncommissioned-officer-in-charge Staff Sgt. Richard Lee. All prospective divers must pass the Diving Physical Fitness Test, said Lee. This includes a 500 yard swim, 50 push-ups, 50 curls and six pull-ups, all before running a mile and a half. Each part is timed, and a failure to complete any part on time results in being dropped from the program.
Prospective divers than go to Panama City, Florida for a six-month finishing course in being an engineer diver. There, servicemembers going through the training pipeline will learn the basics of dive medicine. They’ll learn about diving with both SCUBA and surface-supply diving rigs. They’ll also learn how to use different tools underwater, including cutting and welding, salvage and underwater demolitions, said Lee. All of this comes with constant physical conditioning, both in and out of the water.
Training goes at what Lee calls a crawl-walk-run approach. First, servicemembers will practice on dry land; the crawl stage. During the walk stage, they’ll practice in a swimming pool. And finally, in the run stage, they’ll do it all in open water.
“You learn how to feel for everything with your hands,” said Sgt. Sam Ladd, a diver with 74th Dive Detachment. “You tie knots behind your back with your eyes closed so you can do it right, every time.”
Upon graduation, soldiers receive assignment to one of the Army’s 5 dive detachments. The Coast Guard has three regional dive lockers that broadly serve the same purpose.
A bright future
The two diving detachments will be working together over the next month as they demonstrate their talents, working to help out harbors in communities across coastal Alaska while practicing their operational skills in a unique environment.
“They’re the best cold water experts in probably the whole world so it’s great to be able to work with them,” McDonnell said.
The collaborative effort won’t end here, however. The Army will be sending a decompression chamber and the personnel to run it along aboard the USCGS Polar Star, the Coast Guard’s largest icebreaker. They’ll be supporting Operation Deep Freeze, an ongoing exploration and scientific effort.
Divers are especially essential to the operation of the icebreaker; a mechanical malfunction in the shaft seal of the older vessel earlier this year imperiled the mission, and without divers aboard to effect emergency repairs and stop up the breach, the situation may have turned dire.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” McDonnell said.
Until then, the divers will keep doing their jobs for both services with efficiency and safety, above and below the water.
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.