UCTs get a lesson in survival
We waded on the surface, raised our hands out of the water and made a hand gesture in the form of a peace-sign, signaling to the dive supervisor that we were ready to descend.
Utilitiesman 2nd Class Erick Martin, Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Virgil Newton, whom everyone referred to as "Doc Newton," and I were scuba diving on a wreck 100 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. The wreck was home to about half a dozen barracuda, a few sharks and schools of other marine life.
As a mass communication specialist and crew's photojournalist, it was my job to take as many underwater photos as possible. It was the ideal job, on an ideal day. I was not prepared for the less than ideal situation that was about to take place.
After we surfaced, we muscled ourselves and our scuba rigs out of the water onto the deck of the rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB). It was crowded with a handful of divers from Underwater Construction Team One (UCT) 1, and Underwater Construction Team Two (UCT) 2, along with scuba bottles and other miscellaneous dive gear.
"Ha ha, I swear if my boots don't get wet everyday of this trip, I'm going to freak out. Having wet boots is the best," chuckled Engineering Aide 2nd Class Garrett Snyder, with a genuine ear-to-ear smile that turned his eyes to slits.
Snyder was known for taking a lighthearted approach to nearly every situation and possessing a laugh that could be heard clearly over the roar of air-compressors and heavy machinery.
I only saw that smile disappear for about an hour during that eight-day trip in the Florida Keys. It happened shortly after we surfaced from the wreck, when Doc Newton said, "Agh, Sup, (the team's nickname for Snyder, typically used when referring to the supervisor on diving operations like this one.) Can I jump back in the water? I think I got hit by a jelly," he said, tugging and pulling at the collar of his wetsuit.
"Negative," replied Snyder, his positive demeanor switching to stern and concerned. "Get out of that wetsuit, and let me take a look."
Doc winced as he pulled off his wetsuit. His throat was red and irritated from where he had been scratching at it. Doc Newton, who stood about 6 feet 4 inches and weighed a muscle-bound 240 pounds, was the only corpsman on our RHIB.
"Ok, camera-guy, get me some water," Snyder said, in a way that made me want to comply with his request as quickly as possible and left me scrambling to produce the first bottle of water I could find.
"Agh - that didn't help, that just moved it!" Doc shouted after the water touched his skin, recoiling and scratching at his ribs, which were now also red and irritated.
"Ok, boat-driver - get us back to the LCU (Landing Craft Utility Boat). Radio-man - let them know we have a possible diving casualty," ordered Snyder, the words spewing from his mouth like a belt-fed machine gun.
The main platform we were operating from, the USAV Matamoros (LCU-2026), was outfitted with recompression chambers, and a host of equipment geared toward performing surface supplied and scuba diving operations. It also had other corpsman, a diving medical officer, and the medical equipment required to aid our now incapacitated Doc Newton.
The boat-driver shouted, "Comin' up!" and threw the RHIB into full speed, which bounced like a skipping-stone off of the choppy seas.
"Doc, lay down - and someone get me the O2 and the med-kit," said Snyder.
Builder 2nd Class Nate Emmett grabbed the kit, handed me a brown bag and opened up the black case.
"Toss that bag to Sup," he said as he started passing me items from the black case. He handed me a plastic, hospital-grade oxygen mask, a rubber hand pump (like one would see in a hospital drama show just as the patient were being rolled in to the emergency room) and a green oxygen bottle.
"Where is the Epi-Pen?" shouted Snyder, over the sound of the twin engines, wind, and seas.
"No, Epi-pen Sup!" replied Emmett.
"Jeez, it burns!" Doc said, gritting his teeth as he balled his hands into two white-knuckled fists.
It was roughly 20 minutes before we reached the LCU. It took two Seabee divers to get Doc Newton out of the RHIB and onto the deck of the ship.
They were a few feet from the recompression chamber when the large Doc Newton slumped to his knees and crumpled onto the sun-baked deck like a house of cards.
"Camera-guy, bring me the stretcher now!" Snyder yelled.
I hustled over to the RHIB, snatched the orange stretcher, and scurried back to Doc Newton, who was now gasping for every breath with his eyes closed.
"Uh oh," I thought to myself, clutching the stretcher. "How, am I going to get this guy who outweighs me by about 90 pounds, and towers over me by nearly half a foot, onto this stretcher. This guy's going to die."
"No! Don't hand it to me! Put it down and get him on it now!" Snyder screamed at me like a drill sergeant addressing a new recruit, immediately snapping me out of the daze.
Four men, myself included, kneeled down beside Doc Newton. I'm not sure if it was the adrenaline, but the big Corpsman suddenly became easy to roll onto that stretcher.
"His airway is obstructed, and his breathing is labored," shouted one of the Seabees, Doc now gargling with every inhalation.
"He's going into anaphylactic shock. Martin, grab the trach-kit and the j-tube, we may have to cut him," said Snyder, referring to a procedure called a tracheotomy, which involves creating an incision and opening a hole on the throat above the vocal chords. The resulting hole, or stoma, allows for the insertion of a sterile tube that acts as an alternative airway.
"The [ambulance] is here!" someone shouted.
"Ok, get him off the ship and into the ambulance!" screamed Snyder.
"On three," someone said. "One... Two... Three... Lift!"
"And, end of drill!" shouted the Master Diver, overseeing the scenario.
Snyder let out a huge exhale of relief and chuckled as his signature grin returned to his face, "Jeez, that was a nightmare!"
Doc Newton calmly unbuckled himself, stood up. "Okay guys, not a bad run," he said. "Now here's what we could have done better."
He then articulated finer points of the medical procedures that could have been employed, and spoke about the positive and negative aspects of the scenario.
Throughout the week, more divers would surface with arterial gas embolism, tension pneumothorax, alternobaric vertigo, and a host of other simulated, diving related injuries all aimed at putting the Seabee divers through stressful scenarios in which they would be expected to perform with a high level of proficiency.
"We're here to break a few eggs, and make a few omelets, said Master Chief Constructionman Michael "Shane" Jenkins, command master chief of UCT 1. "We're here to make mistakes so we don't make them when it counts."
The two-week training evolution between UCT 1 and UCT 2 was designed to reinforce standard operating procedures, qualify personnel, maintain proficiency, and evaluate dive protocol during scuba, surface supplied and recompression chamber operations. Nearly every diver present was put into the dive supervisor role, many of whom had never worked with or met one another.
"We do this training in a joint setting, to ensure that all of our divers are working together and that the policies of UCT 1 and UCT 2 align with one another," said Lt. Thomas Hallam, executive officer, UCT 1. "These divers are really putting their lives in the hands of the dive supervisor. They are responsible for the divers going down, accomplishing the mission, coming back up and being able to go home at the end of the day. We put them under pressure to ensure that can be accomplished no matter the scenario."
"What I've noticed from this team is cohesion," said Capt. John Adametz, Commander of Naval Construction Group Two. "When you think about what makes a successful team, it comes down to guys looking out for one another and wanting each other to succeed. They're not about individuals - they're about the team and the mission."
This sentiment was echoed later when Snyder approached me, smiling his signature smile, to apologize for yelling during the scenario. He told me he felt bad about it; that the training puts a lot of pressure on the supervisor and that it is easy to forget it isn't real.
But his apology wasn't necessary. It's comforting to know that if I was suffocating from anaphylactic shock - whether real, or just a scenario - A trained Seabee Diver, like Snyder, would be ready to drop that smile, jump into action and yell like crazy at a camera man to save my life.