Thai cave rescue — expert analysis from ‘Agent X’

Lee’s note: This is the first guest post by “Agent X.” He’s a decorated SOF veteran with beaucoup combat tours who, obviously, doesn’t want his real name used. He knows a bit about operating underwater too.

By Agent X 

A little over 18 days ago, 12 young boys from a soccer team known as the Wild Boars and their ex-Buddhist Monk coach in northern Thailand went deep went into the Tham Luang Non cave in Mae Sai, Chang Rai province, in northern Thailand.

After the soccer team and coach went missing, authorities were notified. The Thai Navy SEALs and over 40 Thai Navy Dive team members were notified. Thai Navy SEALs, over 40 Thai Navy Divers, and NATO supported the operations over 18 grueling days, but NATO was there more as a standby throughout the operations. Most of the boys, 11 to 16 were initially discovered huddled on a narrowed rock, deep within the flooded labyrinth of the cave system.

All of the boys and their coach have been recovered and saved from a monsoon which flooded their underwater cave diving event. The Thai Special Forces and Dive team executed an operation rescuing the 12 boys and their coach. The boys and their coach were taken out of the underwater cave system and then brought to the Chiang Rai hospital in northern Thailand for malnutrition, low oxygen levels, and lung infections. They all were wearing full face mask and proper protective gear when they went diving initially on the 23rd of June 2018.

For the Thai Navy SEALs to reach these boys and their coach, the divers navigated through these 2.5 mile long labyrinth flooded dark tunnels which could have took in some cases as long as six hours one way, where they were found. The entire trip took upwards around 11 hours to complete, without weather delay. The location where they were found through the cave system was approximately 800 to 1000 meters below the mountain top. This had made it almost impossible to retrieve them any other way, except through the entrance of the cave.

The monsoon throughout the rescue slowed as time went by and supported rescuers in conducting their tasks in retrieving the children and their coach; four at a time. Additionally, the boys were given an anti-anxiety medication to help with their removal of long journey they would encounter back through the flooded dark tunnel caves. But the clouds were hugging the mountains and sporadic rain caused the Special Forces and divers to stop. When the rains slowed enough or stopped, this would allow for operations to continue. Although the team had enormous evacuation pumps, it wasn’t enough to continue diving operations.

The weather and time in maneuvering through the tunnels played a significant role in the rescue as well. The longer the rescue went on, the more dangerous this rescue mission became for both sides. Furthermore, an experienced former Thai Navy SEAL volunteering on the operations gave his life during the rescue mission filling up oxygen bottles deep in the cave system.

Cave diving alone is one of the most dangerous diving there is to conduct as far as diving goes.  In the United Stated Naval Diving Manual, it is against protocol for Navy Divers to cave dive what-so-ever! Cave diving takes special certifications and mastery, no matter how many dives you have. Additionally, if you have a hundred or so dives with any diving rig, this means nothing compared to diving in waters with no visibility, with tight movements; and most of all, no light or ability to know which way is up or down. Furthermore, these caves in most cases can go in any direction for miles long.  If you take one wrong turn, it may mean the end of your air and this means the end of a diver’s life.  The United States has lost many trained and experienced certified cave divers to cave diving.

Many people don’t realize the dangers at every corner of cave diving.  Keeping your wits about you, a competent partner, and having a steady breath means you can extend your time. This may enable yourself and your buddy to think of more possibilities to get you out of dangerous problems which may give you and your buddy more possibilities.  Being able to be calm, concise, and collective is absolutely imperative in these dangerous situations.

In the middle of my dive training, we had to show exuberant confidence in something called “POOL WEEK.”  During the middle of our dive training, our class was underwater diving while finning slowly hugging the large 15-foot pool crawling along the bottom awaiting the heck which was about to hit us like a Mako Shark.  Soon we would be stripped of our mask, regulator, viscously thrown around aggressively by a well taught instructor with a gold shirt.

Furthermore, one of the rules the instructors had was they could only stay down underneath the water to conduct their training on a single breath hold. This sounds simple right?  Well these men and women could hold their breaths upwards around three minutes and this was their life. Their objective was to teach us about the true life of underwater problems, which absolutely does occur outside of the pool. We have to survive the struggle upwards around two to three minutes. When they were finished with us, we had to: orient ourselves which way is up or down, put our regulator back in our mouth, turn on our air tanks, untangle our air lines, while showing them a smile and then showing them a big okay we are good to go.

This might by thought to be extreme by some, but when you’re out in the ocean, there is may be no visibility; oceans can have extremely rough current, rocks and kelp can tangle you up, and much more. There is no nice instructor, rules, and these instructors must know you will have extreme confidence, in shape, and trained to get the job done in an emergency; to not only take care of yourself, but save others.  After they receive the okay signal, they will reciprocate it back to you. Then it’s back to going on our merry way and wait to get hammered again and again by another Mako shark until the instructors checklist was filled or they felt we were really confident underwater.  I think I had these “hits” upwards around 15 times.  This particular training is for situations like such as this above.  Problems will occur, but what you do afterwards will make all the difference in the world.

With regards to the Thai SEALS, the CIA was tasked with supporting the first class on March, 1953 on ZULU island. After 61 days, 15 of the students successfully passed the training. In 1956, the Royal Thai Navy formed a small Diver Combat Unit, based on the U.S. Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams or commonly known as today SEALs. Today the Thai SEAL’s have a myriad of operations they conduct successfully to include: assigned intelligence-gathering, special and unconventional warfare, assassination, special recognizances missions, underwater demolition and rescues.

The 25-year-old coach has been hailed a hero for keeping all the boys alive throughout the two weeks.  This ex-Buddhist monk and amazing coach showed exuberant calm, concise, and wits about himself for keeping these children alive, in good spirits, and together for two entire weeks with no food.  I am humbled at his heroism. While inside the cave, the coach wrote a letter to all the parents. The letter simply said he apologized to all the parents for his actions and promised he would get all the children out safely. When the first four children came out, they said they did not blame the coach. Additionally, they thanked him for what he had done while they were with him inside the cave.

Furthermore, the coach chose the order in which his players would be ordered out first. Over the two weeks, he had children drinking water dripping off of the cave ceiling. However, during those two weeks, the oxygen started to deplete out of the smaller chamber they were in. On an average the athletes and the coach lost an average of 4.4 pounds in the matter of two weeks. But he kept all the children’s spirits high while being in the cave. Emergencies may occur on every high risk evolution, but what you do afterwards is what will define every leader in this world.

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About Author

Lee Williams can’t remember a time in his life when he wasn’t shooting. Before becoming a journalist, Lee served in the Army and worked as a police officer. He’s earned more than a dozen journalism awards as a reporter, and three medals of valor as a cop. He is an NRA-certified law enforcement firearms instructor, an avid tactical shooter and a training junkie. When he’s not busy as a senior investigative reporter, he is usually shooting his AKs, XDs and CZs. If you don’t run into him at a local gun range, you can reach him at 941.284.8553, by email, or by regular mail to 1777 Main St., Sarasota, FL 34236. You can follow him on Twitter: @HT_GunWriter and on Facebook @The Gun Writer.

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