More than 200 troops in Iraq have drowned since 2003 as a result of their vehicles overturning into bodies of water, said Bill Miller, who came up with the Army’s Shallow Water Egress Trainers, or SWETs.
“You wouldn’t think there would be so much water in a desert environment, but our Soldiers have to deal with two rivers and a canal as they traverse the battle zone,” said Miller, aquatics manager at Fort Lewis, Wash.
Over the past four years, Miller has trained thousands of deploying Soldiers at Fort Lewis, Wash., on the SWET prototypes that he designed. With the program’s success, the U.S. Army Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command asked Miller to develop an Army-wide program for the SWET. Earlier this year, the Army SWET Standard Operating Procedures prepared by Miller were released, along with SWET instructor and maintenance publications.
“Each installation that is a power-projection platform has been selected to receive a SWET unit,” said Miller.
Fort Sam Houston, Texas, was the first installation other than Lewis to receive the unit. Fort Shafter in Hawaii received two SWETs during the first few weeks in December. Others were slated to be delivered this month to Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Bragg, N.C., Fort Riley, Kan.; and Baumholder, Germany.
FMWRC is planning to deliver eight more units in 2009 to Fort Campbell, Ky.; Fort Stewart, Ga., Fort Sill, Okla., Fort Carson, Colo., Fort Bliss and Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Polk, La., and Fort Richardson, Alaska.
The stainless steel SWET frame Miller designed has a seat that two instructors can turn over when the student is ready. The unit is placed at the shallow end of a pool in four feet of water, simulating the approximate depth of a river or canal.
“It’s not easy being blindfolded and strapped in by a three-point hitch and dunked in the water,” Miller said. “You have to learn to relax and get your bearings.”
When a Humvee overturns, the Soldier has a three-point seat belt keeping him in and Miller said a Soldier often becomes disoriented because of the resulting bubbles and river floor dust being thrown up around the cabin area.
“We teach them to orient themselves by feeling for the door handle, unhooking their seatbelt and then getting out. We do it the first time two times for each person. The first time you get to feel for the door handle and simply get out. The second time, you’re blindfolded and one door is locked,” said Miller.
According to Miller, this simulates real-life conditions. When the Humvee turns upside down in cold water, he says Soldiers have 0 to low visibility and they become tangled with cords.
“During the first three weeks in Iraq, we had eight drownings,” Miller told Army, Marine and civilian aquatics managers gathered earlier this month at the Army Aquatic Conference in San Antonio. Thirty of the aquatics managers trained on a SWET set up in a pool on Fort Sam Houston.
Because of those first drownings in Iraq, a brigade rear detachment commander contacted Miller around the end of January 2004 and asked him to “do something more.”
“A few days later I called Pensacola, Coronado and Whidbey Island looking for answers,” Miller said.
The Naval Air Station at Whidbey Island had two helicopter SWETs (Shallow Water Egress Trainers) they were going to cut up the next day.
“I called Ray Smith, command diving officer at the Naval Survival Training Institute in Pensacola to have the demolition halted and the SWETs transferred to Fort Lewis,” said Miller.
On March 3, Bruce Antonowicz Jr. and Miller were trained on the SWETs at Whidbey Island, and Ray Smith sent over the helicopter training SOPs.
After several tries, said Miller, he and officials finally agreed on a design which was tested with pool staff at Fort Lewis to ensure the unit was as safe as possible. Design changes were made by the welders, and the new SWETS were delivered to the pools at Fort Lewis in August 2004.
“By November, over 1,200 Soldiers were put through the dunker training before leaving for Iraq,” said Miller.
“I look at this as combat water survival,” said Ernie Kanaki, FMWRC Aquatics Manager.
Miller said all aquatics managers at power-projection installation will be trained so that they can train deploying Soldiers.
About 10 to 12 Soldiers can be trained in an hour so usually a squad, rather than a platoon, will be asked to go through the training.
Over 7,000 Soldiers have been trained using the SWET unit in the past four years. At a cost of about $4,500 per unit, plus shipping, the price is well worth the lives saved, according to Miller.
“After the training, they usually say, ‘we’ll never drive near water again,’ but this just isn’t possible. Hopefully, the training will help prevent further tragedies from an overturned vehicle in water,” said Miller.