A bell rang eight times as a small crowd of Army Green Berets and family members stood by silently. After each bell, a voice called out a Combat Diver’s name, each a soldier who died during the six decades that the Army’s most elite soldiers have trained for at Special Forces Underwater Operations school in Key West.

The simple ceremony earlier this month at the Florida compound dedicated a memorial to those students, the first of its kind in the Army’s small but tight knit Combat Diver community.

“To build the best skilled maritime operators for such dangerous missions, the training these Soldiers undergo is inherently dangerous,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jim Dougherty, SFUWO chief warrant officer, during the brief ceremony. “Until now, no memorial existed to honor the memory of the brave Soldiers who took their last breath.”

The memorial sits in front of the SFUWO schoolhouse, just off the pool deck, where every Combat Diver class endures a week of grueling punishments and familiarizations with their underwater equipment before open ocean diving. The monument is made of 7 stone pillars for the eight lost students, with one bearing the names of two Green Berets who died together in 1969 as a dive team. 

The school made the memorial’s dedication the keystone event of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command Best Combat Diver Competition, which the school began to host as an service wide annual event last year. 

A Soldier from the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, removes a cover to reveal a marker honoring a fallen service member during a memorial ceremony at the Special Forces Underwater Operations School at Naval Air Station Key West, Florida, June 11, 2024. The ceremony honored the eight fallen service members who gave their last breath while training at the school which has been operating for more than 60 years. Army photo by K. Kassens. K. Kassens

“We realized that there was no single point or single area that Gold Star families could go to and see all of their children or spouses recognized at the dive school. […],” Pombar said. “We thought it would be a great event to bring in Gold Star families and recognized their spouse or son’s sacrifice while [they were] trying to go through the dive school.”

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Soldiers memorialized:  

  • Swim teammates 2nd Lt. William Koscher of  7th SFG and Spc. 4th Class John James, 3rd SFG, Emerson Rig, Buoy 56, Boca Chica NAS, 15 August 1969.
  • Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Devorak, 1st SFG, SFUWO Pool, 18 October 1990
  • SSG Bruce Miller, 3rd SFG, Fleming Bay, 14 September 1991
  • SGT Charles Glenn, 5th SFG, SFUWO Pool, 15 May 2007
  • Staff Sgt. Mark Maierson, 7th SFG, SFUWO Pool, 13 March 2009
  • Staff Sgt. David Whitcher, 7th SFG, Patio Beach, 2 November 2016
  • Staff Sgt. Micah Walker, 10th SFG, SFUWO Pool, 27 July 2021

By the end of a week of competition, a team from 10th SFG was crowned the competition’s winner. Pombar said that, though Combat Diver training is reknowned as among the Army’s toughest, this competition takes things to a whole new level. 

“You go through this pretty long, arduous selection process, then you’re choosing to go to an additional school that is extremely demanding both mentally and physically and then these dive teams are coming back to put themselves through another pretty brutal set of training events,” Pombar said.

The 12 teams at the competition represented 6 special operations units and three training schools:

  • 1st Special Forces Group (SFG)
  • 3rd SFG
  • 7th SFG
  • 1st Special Warfare Training Group
  • US Army Special Operations Command
  • 1st Marine Raider Battalion (MARSOC)
  • Marine Combatant Diver Course (MARSOC)
  • 350th Special Warfare Training Squadron (AFSOC)
  • Two teams from 5th SFG
  • Two teams from 10th SFG

Pombar said the competition held plenty of interservice rivalry — though, notably, the Navy was not represented.

“It’s making us all better at the end of the day. So, you can make all the jokes you want, but when it’s time to show up and perform, that’s the true test,” Pombar said. “Some of these services, even though they came out to win it, they all walked away saying, ‘Okay, we got stuff to work on when we get back.’”

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