Emerging from the water

Student Ryu uses military experience in chasing dream of becoming a chaplain

On February 16, 2014

  • Jiwoo Ryu went through the rigorous ROTC program at UB because he wants to be a military chaplain. The senior psychology major wanted to use the experience to help him better understand what soldiers go through so, in turn, he can better serve their needs when he’s a chaplain. Kelsang Rmetchuk, The Spectrum

The first thing Jiwoo Ryu, a senior psychology major, noticed upon entering the U.S. Army dive school's base in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was a golden bell. Just the thought of ringing that bell was one of the "most embarrassing things" Ryu could imagine.

Ringing that bell meant quitting the program. 

A few days after he arrived at the base, his fear of the bell had vanished. Ryu was ready to get up, walk out of the pool, ring the bell and go home.

The only thing stopping him was physical exhaustion.

Ryu is a member of UB's Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC).He was one of only 70 cadets in the country to be selected for the Combat Diver Qualification Course (CDQC) in Florida. Ryu was one of only 26 ROTC members selected for a preliminary CDQC test. Fifteen of the 26, including Ryu, advanced. In the end, he was one of the 37 out of the 70 who passed the hardest test the Army has to offer.

But Ryu doesn't want to be in the U.S. Special Forces like most of the others who participated in the rigorous CDQC program. He wants to be a military chaplain.

Becoming a part of the ROTC family

Ryu was at a crossroad in his life during his sophomore year. He began to lose the one thing closest to him - his faith. His father was a minister, but in Buffalo, Ryu felt lost.

That's when he found UB's ROTC.

The opportunity of earning a scholarship enticed him, but he also believed it offered the structure he needed in college. He had played sports his entire life and enjoyed physical challenges. Through ROTC, he was also able to restore his religious faith.

He first heard about the diving course in his junior year through his sergeant, William Hights. Ryu was never a member of the swim team in high school. His only previous experiences in water were childhood swimming lessons.

But when Hights told him it was the toughest school the Army offered, the challenge intriguied Ryu.

"I've served in the active-duty Army for 19 years now, and I'm continuously surprised and impressed by Cadet Ryu's leadership attributes," Hights said. "I've served with seasoned lieutenants that do not meet his level of excellence."

Ryu wanted to use the experience as something to help him better understand what the soldiers are actually going through so he can better serve their needs when he's a chaplain.

"A lot of problems the chaplains are facing in terms of dealing with the soldiers is that they don't have that kind of experience that soldiers go through," Ryu said. "Obviously if you don't have that, you can't relate to the soldiers as well because your life was different."

Ryu also said chaplains who come from a local church don't have "much of a connection" with those serving.

This test was his opportunity to make that connection.

No one from Ryu's second brigade had ever been accepted into CDQC. That didn't faze him. He began training for the test even before his acceptance.

The training in preparation for CDQC was hard on Ryu, especially because he didn't know exactly what the test would consist of.

So, Ryu jumped in the pool at UB and swam.

Ryu was swimming up to 3,000 meters (1.86 miles) per day at UB, along with underwater sprints and treading exercises. Outside of the pool, he was doing his normal ROTC workouts with the rest of UB's ROTC members, as well as extra running and weight exercises on his own. He wanted to be in the best shape possible for the test.

The training begins

When Ryu arrived in Key West, Fla., he took pictures of nearly everything he saw. He wanted to document his trip to remember it for the rest of his life.

The day started with a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call and morning physical training from 5 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. The cadets had breakfast from 6:30 a.m. to 7 a.m., followed by an hour of instruction detailing what the test entailed. They were in the pool from 8 a.m. to noon. The last hour was the "stress event," which Ryu said "stressed the f*** out of us."

The stress tests included underwater sprints, in which each diver had to go to the bottom of the 10-foot-deep pool, kick across the 25-meter-long bottom while wearing plastic "fins" on their feet and come back to the surface at a steady pace. Sometimes, the instructors would flood their oxygen tank masks with water, forcing the cadets to clear their masks of water before surfacing. Other times, they would only get one fin and the others were thrown into the middle. All the cadets would have to dive in at once to retrieve their fins and complete the task.

Outside the water, the cadets did squats and push-ups with 100 pounds of gear on their backs.

Some couldn't handle the extremes of the training exercises. In the first two weeks, the total number of cadets dropped from 70 to 45. Many people blacked out during the exercises and were forced to quit.

Ryu blacked out at times, too.

He dreaded the "clump circle," an exercise in which every swimmer wore a 16-pound weight belt and passed around a 20-pound brick while treading water. Every time someone allowed the brick to touch the water, another was added.

Ryu knew treading water wasn't his strongest asset. The 60 people in the pool kept kicking each other and even grabbing onto one another to stay afloat.

"I had the clump in my hand and my legs were so smoked I couldn't move them," Ryu said. "I was just slowly sinking to the bottom and I lost the strength in my arms and dropped it. My vision just got narrower and narrower."

This experience was Ryu's first blackout, which he described as one of the scariest moments in his life.

The body rescue test was another of the toughest exercises, according to Ryu. Instructors were at the bottom of the pool and the cadets had to bring them to safety. Meanwhile, the instructors simulated people in a panic, making it tougher on the trainees.

The number of group members dropped to 40 as they took to the ocean. They began in the pool because "the ocean is not forgiving, it can break anyone," Ryu said. It was imperative only the strongest were in the ocean.

Ryu had little experience in the ocean compared to the rest of the cadets. The ocean currents were a huge increase in difficulty from swimming and treading in pools. He almost failed.

In the navigation dive, the cadets had to swim into the ocean following a specific path to a particular dock. To pass, your time had to be in the top 70 percentile. After finishing his swim, Ryu was not sure he would make the cut.

Ryu barely passed, finishing in the 70.6 percentile. He would have been sent home if he missed the cutoff.

After completing their final mission - a mock field training exercise - it was graduation day. Of the 70 initial candidates, 37 graduated, including Ryu.

Ryu received a Master Scuba Diver License, CPR certificate, AED license and a certificate that proved he completed the course upon graduation.

Although the instructors told all ROTC cadets who passed the test that they should join the Special Forces, Ryu declined. His life dream of being a chaplain for the armed forces remained.

"I can better relate to the soldiers, especially the infantrymen, after this experience," Ryu said. "My goal is to be the best relating chaplain to the soldiers out there."

Defining his faith

Ryu said the best way to describe his faith is through two verses. Corinthians 1:25 reads: "Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men." And Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is assurance of things he hoped for, proof of things not seen."

He said faith gives him the strength to "confess that God is wiser and stronger than myself, and that God is working through me."

Hights said he knows Ryu has the strength to do anything he wishes in the Army, but he supports Ryu's decision to become a chaplain.

"He is physically and mentally tough, yet is compassionate and wise beyond his years," Hights said. "I would love for [Ryu] to serve in the combat arms branches of the Army, but the better I've gotten to know him, the more I realize that he is going to be a chaplain of distinction."

This goal, along with support from his friends and fellow ROTC members at home, kept him going throughout the stressful process.

"What I thought in the back of my head was that the soldiers are putting their lives on the line out there; the worst I can get here is to maybe blackout," Ryu said. "My dream was going to be shattered if I quit."

Ryu experienced more stress through this process than he had in his entire life, he said. It made him realize the struggles he faced in his daily life were minimal compared to what members of the military around the world experience daily.

He believes that what he has learned through these stressful times will help him as a chaplain. As a senior at UB, younger members of ROTC often come to him with their problems and he does his best to help.

"Some people do come to me and talk about their problems and, just by listening, they feel better," Ryu said. "Although I don't have the power to change all their problems, all I can do is say good things about it, encourage them, but just by doing that they feel much better and they get to move on."

This is Ryu's final year at UB, and he will continue working toward his goal of becoming a chaplain.

"[Ryu] is the perfect example of leadership," Hights said. "His peers, his subordinates and even [officers] look to him for answers. He leads by example - is firm, but fair - and makes sound, timely decisions."

Ryu accomplished something very few in the country could. He trained with the "best of the best" and completed his mission.

He never quit. He never rang that bell.


email: features@ubspectrum.com

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