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It's been more than 70 years since Coast Guard divers first took to the water in support of national security during World War II, but until January, the service didn't have rated divers of its own — just qualified members of other rates on collateral duty or serving at a regional dive locker.
That changed on Jan. 31, when the Coast Guard unveiled the DV enlisted rating and the DIV chief warrant officer specialty, opening up 64 enlisted and 7 warrant officer billets for full-time, professional Coast Guard divers, as outlined in ALCOAST 037/14.
For now, budget restrictions don't allow for officer billets, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Ken Andersen told Navy Times in a March 25 interview. Andersen is the Coast Guard Pacific Area assistant dive force manager, and one of people who helped stand up the DV rating.
"The motivation for this is immense," he said. "The number of people that are coming out of the woodwork here, that are trying to come into the program — we're getting emails from people who were divers many, many years ago and they want to come back in."
Born from tragedy
Historically, the Coast Guard's diving program has been a collateral duty, available to Coasties who completed initial diver training. Throughout much of the program's history, qualified divers were assigned to cutters and stations, where they dove in addition to their regular duties as boatswain's mates, marine science technicians and other ratings.
Then, in 2006, disaster struck. Two Coast Guardsmen aboard the polar icebreaker Healy died during a familiarization dive about 500 miles north of Alaska. Despite planning to dive only 20 feet, Lt. Jessica Hill and Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class Steven Duque each descended to about 200 feet.
When the diver tenders realized how far they had gone, they were pulled to the surface, with no signs of life. They died to due to lack of oxygen and severe air pressure damage to their lungs.
The Healy's investigation into the incident found that the dive should never have taken place. There were not enough qualified divers present, and the dive tenders were not qualified.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, the service examined how to improve its diving program. Experts pointed to lack of experience as a key factor in most diving accidents, and so in 2008, the service stood up two regional diving lockers to staff with full-timers, service diving program manager Lt. Trevor Hare told Navy Times.
"Part of our analysis over the last couple years, we asked the Naval Safety Center to pull mishap data from across military diving," Hare said. "If you trace out mishaps and compare mishaps to experience, you can see the least experienced divers are having mishaps at greater regularity, with greater severity, than more experienced divers."
It became apparent, Hare said, that diving as a collateral duty was probably not the way to go.
Duty stations opened in San Diego and Portsmouth, Va., where divers spend every day in training, maintaining their equipment or responding to missions. Teams of divers would also embark with cutters on patrol, assisting in law enforcement and search and rescue operations.
"I would say just about any day of the year someone at a locker is out on some type of mission," Hare said. "The op tempo is really heavy."
An official rating is part of the specialty's logical progression, he added. Rather than spend time and money training divers who go back to their units and use their skills only occasionally, now the service can capitalize on that initial investment.
"We weren't driving for a rating, that wasn't our initial intent when we started trying to figure out how to fix this problem of giving away our proficiency," he said. "It naturally came to us. What else can you do?"
Making the switch
Any interested Coastie is welcome to apply for cross-rating into diving, but the selection process is rigorous, Hare said. Those already assigned to dive lockers are not guaranteed a spot in the rating and must apply to keep their jobs.
At a minimum, diving hopefuls will need to have completed second class diver training at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center in Panama City, Fla. They'll also need to be in paygrade E-5 or above.
The dive program is looking for people who bring something to the table "that isn't necessarily associated with breathing underwater," Hare said. Rigging, maintenance and sensory electronics experience are all helpful to have in a rated diver, he added.
In consulting with Navy diving experts, the Coast Guard decided to bring in divers who had a certain amount of experience in other areas, gained from several years of training in a different rating. The complication there, for those looking to transfer, is that they must be released from their current rating. That could be tough for an aspiring diver in an undermanned field.
"If I was advising someone who is enlisting who wanted to be a diver, I would caution them to consider their 'A' school and how critical their ranks and rates are," Andersen said. "Once they're done with their 'A' school obligation, they put their package in to lateral, and their rate has to give them up."
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the first name of the officer who died in the 2006 diving accident. Her name was Lt. Jessica Hill.