A recent discussion in the SOFLETE Team Room got me thinking about all the stupid things I’ve done that could have shortened my stay on this earth. Sometimes those things were necessary or at least unavoidable. The extremities of combat or the exigencies of professions like emergency services place practitioners in situations that demand an acceptance of risk. But a lot of times my narrow escapes were the results of being under-planned, under-trained, or under-aware.
Now I sit in a position from which to see reports on the many ways members of the military (and I expect anyone in the 18-to-35-year-old, primarily male, adventurous demographic) get hurt or killed outside of combat. I am convinced there are lessons to be learned and steps we have a duty to take to train, prepare for and execute the risky events we undertake.
When I was a twenty-two-year-old Second Lieutenant, I was pretty much a Naval Safety Center Bulletin on two legs, with two events jumping immediately to mind.
In one, I ignored the advice of my platoon sergeant and all existing procedures for using smoke grenades in a fire-prone training area. Three days, six-hundred-and-fifty-six acres, multiple helicopter bucket loads of water, an embarrassing call sign, and a paused Regimental exercise later, the fire was out.
Nothing really got hurt except my pride and reputation and twenty-three years later it is kind of a funny story in its entirety, especially considering that the environment came back better for the (un)controlled burn. So all’s well that ends well(ish).
But it was eminently avoidable and happened entirely because I was inexperienced and excited, mistaking my enthusiasm for capability. It happened because I didn’t do the very simple things required to make sure it didn’t.
Potentially more catastrophic was my habit of getting into dicey outdoor adventure situations with another Lieutenant who shall remain nameless. We were roommates and hiking, surfing, and SCUBA diving buddies who seemed to lack all ability to evaluate the inherent dangers of a situation.
We were once stuck about three-quarters of the way up an oceanside cliff in Australia when he said, “They ought to put up a warning about this.”
To which I responded, “Did you not notice the ‘do not pass this point’ sign we ignored back there?”
Our most egregious case came as a result of our mutual love of SCUBA. There is a spot at Kaneohe Bay on Oahu where a shallow cove is protected by a rock and coral wall surrounding it. A five-foot gap in the wall allows a diver to submerge inside the cove in about four feet of calm water, pass through the gap, and drop into about seventeen feet of depth in the open ocean. We regularly dove there, but especially at night as the lobster were plentiful in the rock and coral formations.
On the night in question, we arrived at the dive site at dusk, parked my friend’s standard issue Jeep CJ Lieutenantmobile, and took a look at the water. If we’d been there to surf it would have been a decent night if a little windblown and sloppy.
But for diving?
“Looks a little rough.”
“If you’re scared say you’re scared, little man.”
“I didn’t say I’m scared. I’m here to dive. You go on home if you want to.”
“I came to dive, (insert every Marine’s favorite twelve letter word here).”
“Well get your shit together then, ‘cause I’m diving!”
Into the cove we went, the surf beating an audible warning on the sharp rock and coral bounding the cove’s calm water. As reckless as we could be (remember, we’d recently got stuck on an Australian cliffside), we were religious about pre-dive procedures and inspections.
Air on. Back a quarter turn. Regulator and Second Stage both functioning. High-pressure inflator and oral inflation tube both feeding and venting our buoyancy control devices correctly. Knives strapped inside our calves to prevent them snagging.
We submerged for a breathing check and I tied chem-lights on 550 cord to knobs of rock in the coral gap so we could find it on return.
It was full night now, no moon. The only ambient light was from street lights up the cliff so we turned on our flashlights. We resurfaced, gave each other the “OK” signal, submerged again, and kicked out through the gap. The current was immediately stronger than we’d ever experienced but we just used it to drift to where the lobster hung out. We lit up a few lobsters with our lights but they defeated us (per usual) and eventually it was time to head back to the gap. We started kicking against the same current that brought us out to open water. We kicked and kicked but were going nowhere.
Marine answer: kick harder.
But kicking harder means more work. More work means breathing rate increases. Increased breathing rate means increased oxygen consumption at depth.
I signaled to him that we needed to surface and take a look at our situation. We were about two hundred yards away from where we needed to be to re-enter the cove. We decided to stay on the surface, flip onto our backs, link our arms around one another, and kick.
We started making progress but we were getting worked over by the waves. After about an hour of kicking in the dark, with no one in the world aware of our situation, we got to the cove and prepared to enter the gap. The surf was slamming against the rock and coral wall and we knew we had a better chance to vector on the chem lights subsurface. We masked up, submerged, and began to look for the beacons.
Maybe the surf took them. Maybe it’s the fact that I am the worst Eagle Scout/Recon Marine in the world when it comes to knots. Regardless, we had to find the gap without assistance. I swam, carried forward and backward by the wave action, kicking like hell just to hold my position. I saw the gap and kicked for it just as another wave rolled in. It slammed me into the wall, ripped the regulator out of my mouth, and pinned me under a rock shelf.
It’s times like these, when your plan goes all to hell, that you’re reminded why you train, rehearse, and branch plan.
I swept back with my right arm, pulled it forward, located my regulator, and replaced it. I waited for the next wave to pull me out from under the shelf where I was pinned, which it did. I saw my buddy’s light in the water, but he was probably fifty feet away. I made for the surface and popped up just as he did. We were too far to link up but close enough to hear one another if we yelled. I told him I was riding the next wave through what I hoped was the gap. He said that sounded good and would do the same. He kicked closer to me. I stayed on the surface but put my face in the water so I could look for the gap. The next wave took me, I started kicking and suddenly found myself in the calm of the cove. I stood up and broke surface. I turned to look for my friend. He was still outside of the cove and a big wave was coming.
He started kicking, basically body surfing the wave. He missed the gap but said “to hell with it” and let the wave slam him onto the rocks. He used the wave’s hydro-kinetic force to keep pushing and rolling across barnacles, shells, and sharp rocks, and into the protected waters of the cove. We surfaced, looked at one another, exhaled, and went home. We were beat-up and exhausted but a little wiser and a little less awash in testosterone.
I don’t know if it’s accurate to say we almost died that night. Our preparation definitely helped. But we were not remotely at the level required for the conditions in which we placed ourselves.
Had we been better prepared, we would have never entered the water. But we had decided to dive, dammit! We went into open water for which we were grossly unprepared without a serious thought to the contrary.
So what can a group of people who mean to #DieLiving take away from my idiocy?
If you are planning to #DieLiving but not #DieEarly, training, education, and experience, in that order, better be your personal pursuit. Even as an expert - perhaps particularly as an expert - you have to ask yourself every time whether you’ve properly analyzed your operating environment and are adequately prepared to enter it. But once you’re prepared to enter, don’t forget to breathe.
Which brings us to the final point.
“Take a Deep Breath.”
Whenever I talk to young leaders about combat, I tell them when they get in their first firefight, it is imperative to take a deep breath before keying a radio handset. Subordinates need to hear a guy in command, in control. Likewise, when you find yourself in a bad situation, take a deep breath and THINK.
This is true in the water too. Panic in the water will kill you faster than almost anything. The Acronym SAFE (slow, easy movement, apply natural buoyancy, full lung inflation and extreme relaxation) basically means chill and figure it out. No one ever made a good decision in panic mode, a mode we are all susceptible to, especially when we charge into avoidable situations for which we are not prepared.
To #DieLiving is an admirable goal. Regardless of how we got here, we are not meant to sit and decompose like compost. #DieLiving means a lot of things, but it doesn’t mean charging full speed ahead into every situation that inspires us. You can #DieLiving but don’t #DieStupid and don’t #DieEarly. There’s way too much awesomeness out there for us all. In fact, it’s an unlimited resource. So stick around long enough to enjoy it.
Russell Worth Parker is a career Marine Corps Special Operations Officer. He likes barely making the cut-offs in ultra-marathon events, sport eating, and complaining about losing the genetic lottery. He is an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and graduate of the University of Colorado, the Florida State University College of Law and the Masters in Conflict Management and Resolution Program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Special Operations Command, the United States Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.