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Feature | April 13, 2016

Army Divers: Engineers of the deep

By Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

As a U.S. Army salvage diver peers around his work station, he sees nothing but occasional beams of light dancing through the darkness that engulfs him.

Temporarily blinded, everything he does is by feel, from shuffling his feet as he walks to find his job site to waving his hand across a structure to find a bolt to wrench.

He prefers it this way. It masks the reality that what bumped the diver's leg at 120 feet below sea level could have been a shark.
"I would much rather be in complete darkness ... I don't want to see what's down there," said Staff Sgt. Scott Wilson,  adding that he closes his eyes regardless of the visibility in the water because he has become accustomed to working without the distractions sight brings.

As a salvage diver with the 569th Engineer Dive Detachment out of Fort Eustis, Virginia, Wilson and his crew work as underwater engineers who survey, demolish, repair and restore underwater structures and systems including boats, bridges and dams.

When the divers use sight, it's not to view the colorful coral reef and tropical fish, but to conduct reconnaissance security swims during which they scan the ocean for improvised explosive devices before military ships sail through.

Detachments like this have not only kept the Army and U.S. Navy afloat and safe in operations dating back to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in WWII, but they aided humanitarian efforts such as the rehabilitation of the Port Au Prince Pier in Haiti, after it was hit by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010.

As the divers support U.S. and coalition partners by repairing equipment like piers, and turbines that supply power to communities, they also support state-side emergencies like Hurricane Sandy, during which the detachment pumped water out of New York City residents' basements and subway stations.

"If it's dirty, nasty and nobody else wants to do it, we'll go in and fix it," said Wilson of working in rivers filled with dead fish and water with temperatures so low that divers lose feeling in their hands.

"You power through the cold," said fellow 569th Engineer Dive Det salvage diver, Kiley Bannan. "We were in [an undisclosed location] and we were freezing one day.  I had to come up because I couldn't hold the tool I was using. I had no dexterity or muscular strength in my hand, so I gripped the tool and told my stand-by diver to tape the tool to my hand. You don't want to be the guy who got out of the water and didn't finish his job because it was too cold."

While battling dead fish and negative temperatures for hours on end could be more than enough to steer someone into another career, Bannan and Wilson couldn't picture themselves doing anything else.

After all, training to become a diver included exercises more grueling than dealing with dead fish.

"Training would involve everything you could imagine...  Carrying boats around post and then swimming with the boats a half mile. Then, getting back out of the water and carrying them another half mile, dropping them and going for a run was day in and day out the entire time," said Bannan. "It's a mental game of taking it one day at a time."

For Bannan, the now the 12-to-18-hour days of lugging no less than 90 pounds of equipment up and down hills to get to the detachment's dive locations still requires taking jobs one day at a time, and understanding the importance of their duties in a broad scope.

"A lot of units train while they're here in the states, but we actually get to practice our craft and do our job helping the U.S. here at home," said Bannan. "Being able to be part of something here helping people is totally worth it; we may be freezing the entire time but it's totally worth it."