Earning The Bubble

2nd Lt. Garret Usrey, ’19, was the only Citadel cadet and one of 11 ROTC students from across the country to pass pre-dive school at Eglin Air Force Base.

It was a relaxed summer for 2nd Lt. Garret Usrey, who graduated in May—a nice contrast to the summer of 2018, when he earned his combat diver certification. An exercise science major and an Army contract cadet, Usrey began aggressively training in the spring semester of his junior year to qualify for the Combat Diver Qualification Course (CDQC). After exams, he spent two weeks at pre-dive school and then a month at Advanced Camp, the summer training required of junior Army contract students from all over the country. And then he was off to CDQC, one of the most elite training courses the military offers.

Pre-dive school, which is held at Eglin Air Force Base, near Destin, Florida, is an intense qualification course designed to single out the best candidates for CDQC.

“In my experience, 50 to 60 percent didn’t make it through pre-dive school,” said former ROTC instructor and retired Army Capt. Shawn McNeil, who trained Usrey. McNeil is a medically retired Special Forces officer who recently started a leadership consulting firm in the Upstate. He earned his diver certification, or “bubble” as he calls it, in 2013.

Before going to pre-dive school, Usrey worked up to a static breath hold of three minutes and 45 seconds. In addition to breathing exercises, candidates performed arduous training exercises in the pool. A 50-meter swim on just one breath of air. Drown-proofing, a bobbing exercise in which the diver’s hands and feet are bound. And ditch and don, an underwater exercise that requires the diver to remove gear (a mask, a 16-pound weight belt and fins), assemble the gear in a specific order, surface for air and then go back down to don the gear again.

“When you’re standing on the surface watching someone ditch and don, it seems really easy,” said McNeil. “But it requires attention to detail while holding your breath, and once you start panicking, your movements become less deliberate and more frantic. The more you freak out, the more oxygen your body uses up and the more painful it becomes. It’s a mindset of just staying very calm.”

Usrey’s six weeks of training paid off. He was the only Citadel cadet and one of 11 ROTC students from across the country to pass pre-dive. Of those 11, five were rising senior Army contract students bound for Advanced Camp.

“The hardest part of my summer was staying in shape for dive school because at Advanced Camp, you don’t have access to the gym. You’re essentially out in the woods for 30 days. You get out of shape and you aren’t eating right, so to stay in shape, I walked around holding my breath, and at night I did 300 pushups and 300 four-count flutter kicks before going to bed.”

In Key West, Florida, at the Special Forces Underwater Operations School, Usrey was the only one of the five who had attended Advanced Camp to pass CDQC.

A six-week course, CDQC begins in an indoor pool where an ambulance crew sits alert for anyone in distress as more divers are weeded out during grueling challenges.

“In the first week, they’re testing to make sure you’re still comfortable and that you can pass the events to their standard,” said Usrey. “We probably lost four or five people that week.”

After the first week, Usrey and his classmates practiced open-circuit scuba diving, diving that uses a traditional air tank where the diver exhales into the water, producing air bubbles that rise to the surface. They also trained in closed-circuit diving, a system that recycles diver air so that bubbles don’t give away a diver’s location. Then they were off to open water.

“We got out of the pool, and that’s when it really started to get fun because you’re actually out in the ocean doing closed circuit with fish and boats, and you do navigation dives with a compass, you do buddy dives, and you jump out of helicopters into the water with Zodiac boats.”

The dive candidates learned to fix a Zodiac engine and to deflate the boats, sink them, and then inflate them again. They practiced pushing their boats out of helicopters and jumping in the water after them.

Usrey is one of two Citadel cadets to become combat-diver certified. As a junior, Forrest Kimbrell, ’17, earned his certification. Cadets Paul Vargas and Sam Eckert, now seniors, trained for pre-dive school last spring under Usrey and McNeil, both attaining static breath holds of more than four minutes. Unfortunately, they were not able to attend pre-dive school because of conflicts with their mandatory summer training.

“There are a lot of seasoned Green Berets and a lot of seasoned Army Rangers who don’t earn that bubble,” said McNeil, “so you know the ones who do are the ones who are never going to quit, no matter what the circumstances are.”

Usrey, now an Army second lieutenant, is currently in training again, this time at the Infantry Basic Officer Course at Fort Benning outside of Columbus, Georgia. With his grit and determination and the little bubble he earned one summer, his future is bright.