Training time

Zachary Knowles (middle of the pool) attempts to stay afloat while Collin Gagnon, a junior justice studies major, sprays him with a hose. The men trained at Godwin Pool up to three times a day before Knowles left for the U.S. Army Special Warfare Combat Diver Qualification Course in June. 

JMU Cadet Zachary Knowles quickly adjusted to being submerged 14 feet under water, blindfolded and struggling for oxygen this summer. 

At a military course where blacking out is expected, two hours of sleep is normal and a training regimen burns 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day, Knowles accomplished what some of the U.S. Army’s elite soldiers fail to do. 

This June, Knowles, a junior justice studies major, completed the U.S. Army Combat Diver Qualification Course, a grueling seven-week, 12-task diving school typically reserved for Special Forces.

For Knowles, the most nerve-wracking task was the one-man confidence test, meant to stimulate rough ocean conditions and make students hypoxic, depriving the body of sufficient oxygen. Students are placed at the bottom of the pool and blindfolded for 20 minutes while instructors violently flip them around, ripping out their breathing valves.

“They torture you down there,” said Knowles. “They give you fewer and fewer breath holds, so you’re getting down to one breath — and then they rip it out again.”

During the test, if students place their feet at the bottom of the pool at any time, they fail.  

Because of the extreme medical risks, an ambulance was with the students at all times, even during runs. Students were also required to always have a “buddy” with them. 

“You could pass out at any time,” Knowles said. “If you ever weren’t in arm’s length of your buddy, they’d make you carry a rope with an anchor attached to it. It was miserable.”

Held at the Special Forces Underwater Operations School in Key West, Fla., CDQC allows for 24 cadets to participate each year. Knowles was invited based on national merit rankings. 

Knowles, one of three cadets in his brigade of 40 schools to attend, found out he’d been accepted at the end of April. In his class of 90 students, only 39 made it to graduation, either from dropping out or being kicked out. 

The course involves physically, mentally and academically exhausting work. Days — which begin at 4 a.m. and end around midnight — are packed with training session in the pool, night dives, underwater diving missions, intense pressure from diving instructors and hours in the classroom taking 20 to 30 written tests on everything from diving physiology to marine life. 

Two months before he left for the course Knowles trained at Godwin pool up to three times a day attempting to emulate the tests the school would require. To prepare, Knowles’ friends pushed him to the limit.

“It’s one of those things where you don’t really have to ask [for help],” Knowles said. “They knew they were going to help me out. They knew they’d be there.”

Knowles’ friends helped him design running and pool workouts to constantly test his physical limits. 

 “We’d come together and think about how we could make things harder and see how much further we could go to push ourselves,” said David Wilson, a junior kinesiology major. 

Knowles admits some of the sessions were tougher than the ones at the CDQC. One workout involved treading water for five to 10 minutes with a 16-pound weight. Knowles took one minute to recover from between each repetition, while the CDQC test allowed five. 

“Everything was bumped up another level from the actual test,” Knowles said. 

Lt. Col. Robert Pettit, head of the military science department, hopes Knowles will bring the leadership skills he learned from the school — which he describes as one of the Army’s most demanding courses — to the military science program, possibly in the form of JMU’s own combat diver qualification training program.

Knowles, though only a junior, is already planning his military career. He’s considering entering the infantry and eventually serving on a Special Forces dive team. 

 “The sky’s the limit for Zak,” Pettit said. “By succeeding in this course and being qualified as a combat diver, he’s well on track to become a Special Forces officer. That’s a huge deal, a huge accomplishment.”

 Contact Laura Weeks at