…when men like that come for you, there are only two options: surrender or death.
Mike Tarlavsky and his men were in hot pursuit of a number of Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) soldiers that ducked into a multi-story structure in downtown Najaf. In their haste they left the door open. It was the last mistake they would ever make. Not that it mattered. We’ve all heard of SEAL Team Six and Delta Force, but few people know that every US Army Special Forces Group maintains an in-extremis force specially trained in the same brutal arts of urban warfare. They are the regional versions of their more famous national-level counterparts and Mike and his men were part of the in-extremis company from 5th Special Forces Group. When men like that come for you, there are only two options: surrender or death, and these thugs from al-Sadr’s army had chosen wrong.
What happened next changed many lives. Mike and his men burst into the door that opened directly onto a stairwell to the second floor. One of the JAM men had taken a strong position at the top and rolled a fragmentation grenade down the stairs as they approached. It detonated at the feet of the “number one” man. The explosion caused him to fall and probably saved his life as Mike – the number two man – was killed instantly when he entered the door by an AK-47 round to the forehead. My friend, a husband, new father, and Combat Diver, died as he would have preferred; assaulting the enemy. That was 12 August 2004.
The next day, Friday the 13th, I knelt facing the wall breathing calmly with thoughts of Mike filling the blackness. The world was silent beyond my opaque scuba mask except for the sound of bubbles rising from my rig. This was the last day of pool week at the US Army Special Forces Underwater Operations School, ‘Scuba School’, and the only thing between me and graduation was four weeks of physical exertion, not screwing up, and this test we called the “One-Man Comp.” Designed to test a diver’s confidence in rough water circumstances, the One-Man Comp demands students keep their equipment in working order after suffering a malfunction or receiving a shock. In my case, two of the least mature and most muscular instructors on the staff would kindly provide the malfunctions and shocks. I knew they were lurking in the blackness somewhere, warming up for underwater combat on the pool deck nine feet above my head.
I waited in the dark for what seemed a long time and tried not to think of what was coming. My heart rate was already too high and I knew I would need the extra oxygen in the next 20 minutes. I reviewed the inspection sequence in my head; a useless effort since by now it was muscle memory but my nervousness demanded I do something. This event had broken far tougher men than me but in my case it hardly mattered. I knew I would pass and in my experience toughness only goes so far; confidence is what one really needs to get through these events. I knew because I had passed every test the Army had ever thrown at me: Ranger School, Special Forces selection and qualification, SERE, and now this. It didn’t mean I was comfortable. The water provokes the basest animal fears in men. I had already seen Green Berets, some of the world’s most coolly competent, fearless, boundless men, screaming wildly and thrashing to tear apart anyone or anything between them and a guaranteed breath of air. It was a terrible thing to see and I suppressed the thought as I waited to be manhandled by the two sharks in black.
A voice on the underwater loudspeaker focused my attention.“Divers, the test will begin in five, four, three, two, one…” A mechanical beep signaled the timers to start. For a moment nothing happened. My breathing quickened as I began to sense the turbulence of my fellow students meeting their instructors. Finally it came. Stars exploded across my vision as something terrifying hit me in the midsection. Every molecule of air in my lungs was instantly expelled and the second stage of my regulator disappeared into the oblivion beyond my blacked-out mask. As my feet searched in vain for the bottom of the pool I smiled with admiration for my assailant and thought: “This is going to be a long 20 minutes.” It was my last thought before the training took over.
My hands leapt to the manifold behind my head, checked the status of my air and reset the J-valve before I had even settled again on the bottom. At the same time my right hand traced my high pressure line to my regulator and placed it back in my mouth. With my gear back in order I managed to get half a breath before the stars returned and my regulator disappeared once again. Despite my need for oxygen, I avoided holding my breath and exhaled the remaining compressed air slowly to protect my lungs. I did all this without thinking.
The lesson of the One-Man Comp is the same one I’d learned the hard way as a surfer: that it was counterproductive, even deadly, to struggle against the surf. In the unfathomable chaos after a wave breaks, one can be suspended underwater for a minute or more. Bubbles in the water lower its density to the point that swimming becomes a futile waste of oxygen and sometimes it’s impossible to even know which way is up. Many a surfer has met his end striving for the surface only to find himself on the bottom. Like surfers, Combat Divers must learn from hard experience that the only way out is to wait for the wave to release you.
I did plenty of waiting during the One-Man Comp. For the next five minutes I barely got a lungful of air. For the ten minutes after that my equipment, particularly my regulator, was not just being taken away, it was being tied in increasingly complex knots that took longer to find and recover. I knew the end was coming only because I couldn’t take much more of this. My muscles were growing weak and I was no longer able to think, I could only act; and so it continued. Air, J-valve, high pressure hose…
There is one thing that can happen to a diver underwater that cannot be sorted out using the normal inspection sequence. The “unrecoverable knot”, as it’s called, is the rarest of emergencies. Its exact configuration is a tightly guarded secret among those that instruct SEALs and Combat Divers. When it occurs, the only way out is to ditch one’s gear completely, removing the tanks and untying the knot on the bottom of the sea. Needless to say, removing one’s scuba gear in a surf zone is extremely dangerous and should only be attempted when absolutely necessary. For this reason, students will fail the One-Man Comp if they mis-identify it and ditch too early. Calmness under pressure and a proper inspection sequence will prevent this.
Fifteen minutes had passed and the “sharking” by my instructors was reaching a crescendo. The knots were getting tighter and there was less respite between hits. My lungs were screaming and my hands were losing their agility. I was nearing the end of my endurance. But I remained calm and worked my sequence every time and it worked for me…every time. Air, J-valve, high pressure hose…Until it didn’t work. I ran it again and decided I was facing an unrecoverable knot. In a flash I loosened the belt holding my tanks to my back, reached behind my neck, grabbed the manifold with both hands and launched the rig over my head setting the tanks on the floor in front of me. I was burning with desperation for air and I felt completely drained. I found the knot in my high pressure hose and tried to work it out but the regulator was jammed between the manifold and the pool deck. I couldn’t untie it and I couldn’t get it in my mouth. Thinking quickly, I pressed the purge valve on the regulator and breathed the bubbles coming up around the manifold. The test was over and I had passed.
With the trials of pool week behind me I had a new mission in mind. Since the Scuba School started in the 1960s, every class made a class plaque. The vast majority feature photos of all the graduates and collectively the plaques represent an invaluable record of the history and culture of a very, very, elite community of warriors. The plaques are un-catalogued, unprotected, and are scattered throughout the entirety of the facility including the living quarters. Somewhere in the sprawling compound at the remote tip of Fleming Key on Naval Air Station Key West, there was a plaque featuring a picture of Mike Tarlavsky. He would never forgive me if I left Scuba School to attend his funeral in Arlington that week so instead I prepared a tiny tribute; a small decal with the letters “K-I-A” stenciled on it.
The tiny sticker was still affixed to Mike’s photo when I visited as a Company Commander in 2010 but my pilgrimage revealed the sorry state of the class plaques in general. Photos are peeling off or fading. Some plaques have split or otherwise fallen apart. A few have been vandalized. Those plaques are truly priceless artifacts of the Combat Diver community and should be preserved as such. This story, Mike’s story, is both a tribute and an announcement of my intention to lead the preservation effort.
Lino Miani is the author of this piece and a Combat Diver