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Last Update: Monday, July 20, 2009
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His hands and feet shackled by rope, Senior Airman Todd Popovich, stood by the edge of the pool. His body hurt so much it finally went numb. “I must be crazy,” he muttered as he readied to jump into 12 feet of water. At that moment, he would have given a week’s pay to obtain the secret to Houdini’s underwater straightjacket escape act.
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and disappeared into the pool.
Popovich recently took part in one of the most physically demanding courses in the military – a 10-week Pararescue and Combat Control Indoctrination course at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. The task described above, called drown-proofing, is designed to increase confidence in water and teach students to react calmly and rationally in high-stress situations.
“This training questions your confidence every time you wake
up in the morning,” Popovich said. “It’s not if I can do it, but do I want to.
It’s a gut check.”
The course recruits, screens and trains pararescue and combat control candidates for Air Force Special Operations units. Pararescuemen are search and rescue specialists with emergency medical capabilities. Their mission is to recover combat aircrews in austere environments. Combat controllers are trained to provide air traffic control support. They deploy to forward locations and establish assault zones.
When he was a security policeman, Popovich idolized pararescuemen. “I needed a challenge,” he said.
He got it.
Popovich’s class started with 76 students. Only 11 survived the grueling schedule.
Before completing the course, trainees must meet final requirements, which include a 6-mile run in 42.3 minutes, a 4,000-meter swim with fins in 80 minutes, and 75 push-ups, 80 sit-ups, 13 pull-ups, 14 chin-ups and 85 flutter kicks in two minutes each. And all of that has to be done in one day.
|But the most challenging part of the course is “Motivation Week,” a three-day test of physical will. Popovich had nightmares about Motivation Week. In the middle of one night he saw an instructor standing by his bed. He thought it was a dream. It wasn’t. Next thing he remembered was crawling through ditches.|
“It seems like I was running forever,” he said.
Motivation Week cuts the class size quicker than a weedeater slices dandelions. “I cried like a baby afterwards,” Popovich admitted.
“This course is designed to prove that trainees can break from their comfort zone and push themselves to the limit,” said Master Sgt. Rod Alne, flight supervisor. Alne, a pararescueman for the past 20 years, has been to countless operations, including Just Cause in Panama and Desert Storm during the Persian Gulf war.
“I remember doing back-to-back missions in Panama,” Alne said. “Carrying an 80-pound ruck sack, I was fast roping from a helicopter from one building to another during recovery missions. We’d been up for 48 hours. I was mentally and physically drained. During that time, I experienced every emotion one could have. One minute I was excited, next nervous, then sometimes fear would set in. This training [at Lackland] prepares you for that.”
After 10 weeks and an estimated 25,000 sit-ups, 15,000 flutter kicks, 75 miles of swimming and 200 miles of running, indoctrination is over. Those who make it move through the pipeline to Key West, Fla., for scuba training.
Only 55 more weeks before graduation!
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