SDV: Warriors Under the Surface, Part 1

SDV: Warriors Under the Surface, Part 1

Twenty years, that’s how long it took for me to realize I’d done something unique, something different. I was young when I started my SEAL career at SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team Two (SDVT-2). I thought all the Team guys at real SEAL Teams must be right. They must have known something I didn’t.

They must have known there was no point to the SDVs.

The problem was I didn’t feel that way. I thought SDVs were cool. Thinking they were cool and knowing they were cool were two different things though. I never said it out loud. I kept my thoughts to myself. I figured I’d get hazed or something worse. Over the years I started to believe the real Team guys.

I checked into SDVT-2 during the summer of 1985. Before that I went through BUD/S training, graduating in early ’85. I went to SDV School in San Diego followed by jump school. Most Team guys went to Fort Benning in Georgia for jump school, I was spared the humiliation. Jump school at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, in New Jersey was tame, even lame. A week or so of falling out of airplanes and I was off to Virginia Beach, to Little Creek, home of the East Coast SEAL Teams.

The Team building was hard to find. I figured it would stand out a little. I thought it would be by the beach, like the West Coast Teams. It wasn’t. The sign out front of the building was wrong, I think. It said UDT-22 (Underwater Demolition Team – 22). Or maybe that was my first Team sweatshirt. Either way, it took me a while to find out where to check in. I wandered onto SEAL Team Four’s quarterdeck first. They showed me where to go, but not before giving me a hard time.

I wasn’t the only lost new guy. Several of my BUD/S classmates were assigned to SDVT-2 with me. We straggled in a few minutes apart with the same faraway look in our eyes. Fortunately, we were all early, real early. Unfortunately, we were in uniform and were forced to hang around the quarterdeck while the old guys came in. BUD/S thrashings paled in comparison to what we would be subjected to at the Team.

We noticed a plaque hanging on the wall near the quarterdeck. It was plain and nondescript, not like the other plaques. It was decorated with the SDVT-2 symbol, some names, and a motto saying, “Are you just a SEAL or are you an SDV SEAL?” Not many guys volunteered to go to SDVs, but I did. I read the saying with a sense of subdued pride. Other guys laughed out loud at the plaque; they weren’t volunteers.

We were relieved to leave the quarterdeck and start our check-in at the base Personnel Support Detachment (PSD). There would be time enough for getting to know the other SDVers, even if they were less than hospitable.

Like so many places in the military, SDVT-2 assumed that SDV School screwed us all up. We would all have to go through Advanced Operator Training (AOT) before we could be assigned to a platoon.

AOT was SDV School all over again, except it said advanced on our certificates. During SDV School, I (as well as everyone else) discovered that I was a terrible pilot, and AOT confirmed it. I was a good navigator. In traditional SDV roles, pilots were enlisted guys and navigators were officers. Good thing for me there was no shortage of officers that sucked at being navigators.

Shortly after AOT, most of the team packed up and headed south to Puerto Rico (PR), like it did most years. Warm, crystal clear water allowed us to continue our mind-numbing eight and ten hour dives. It was in PR, during my first live SDV dive, that I was told how fortunate I was to be an SDVer. The Dry Deck Shelter (DDS) was just coming online on the East Coast. The DDS made it possible for SDVs to be launched from submarines. We often joked the DDS was a way for ballistic subs and SDVs to survive in a post Cold War era.

As a navigator or a pilot I would have to be qualified to do SDV launch and recovery from a sub. The pilot I dove with was a seasoned vet, someone who could get us back to the sub if I messed up. The launch was usually easy. The DDS would with water, the DDS operators would move the SDV out onto the deck, and away we would go. The recovery, on the other hand, was more difficult. The navigator would have to find the sub and guide the pilot to within arm’s length of a tether line.

For practice, we did race tracks. A race track was a clockwise or counter clockwise lap around the sail of the sub as it moved along at slow speed. Newby navigators often lost the sub and played catch up for hours.

After getting out in front of the sub, my pilot told me to open my canopy, the sliding door on my side of the SDV. The inside of the SDV was dark. Opening the canopy rendered me temporarily blind as the clear Caribbean waters reflected the brilliant midday sun. My eyes adjusted. As they did, I spotted a massive black submarine coming towards us. “There are very few people who have the privilege of diving in open water with one of the United States most powerful vessels. Any way you put it, that is an awesome site,” my pilot said. I took a quick glance at the sub. Admittedly I was more focused on not screwing up and missing the sub for recovery.

I didn’t enjoy the moment as my pilot had hoped.

The image of that sub coming towards me is as vivid in my memory today as it was then. The giant ballistic sub passed in front of me silent as a mouse. I felt a slight shutter in the SDV as the sail passed, but that was it. I would dive on and off subs a hundred times over my time at SDVT-2. It became commonplace.

I didn’t forget what it was like to see a sub in the water. I did forget what my pilot said to me that first dive.

That’s what took me twenty years to remember.

It took me that long to realize how profound it was. I remembered what else he said: “Two thirds of the earth’s surface is covered in water. Millions of people live along hundreds of thousands miles of coastline. Some say there’s no point to SDVs; I say it’s just a matter of time. SDVers are carrying on the Frogman tradition, don’t forget that.”

There is a point to SDVs.

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