Of the few names that surface in the quiet world of Army Special Forces, Sgt. Maj. Walter Shumate's legend stands as a towering achievement to what one man can accomplish through sheer tyranny of will, his friends, family and fellow commandos said Friday. A cadre of dive instructors, veterans and fellow Special Operations Forces commandos gathered on the 71st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor to honor Shumate's memory by unveiling the newly painted "SGM Walter L. Shumate Free Ascent Diving Tower."
In the front row was Helen Shumate, widow of the man who founded not only the Special Forces Underwater Operations School on Fleming Key, but also played a major role in framing the secretive counterterrorism unit commonly referred to as Delta Force.
Shumate's declassified military achievements touch on every aspect of soldiering. Indeed, Shumate helped develop many of the tactics employed today by the highest trained and most deadly soldiers. Many of Shumate's other achievements are classified.
"Every Special Forces soldier knows who Walter Shumate is," dive school commander Maj. Samuel Kline said before the ceremony.
Shumate's son, Special Forces Col. Alan Shumate, stood up, turned and talked to the combat dive students, friends and family without a microphone, walking back and forth as he told his father's story, his voice cracking at times.
"They didn't have a budget for most of the things they did, but they made it happen, because that's what SF does, we make it happen," Shumate said.
Combat divers are some of the most respected commandos in Special Forces and the unassuming property where Fleming Key jettisons into the shallow Gulf houses their school, considered the toughest mental and physical challenge in the Army, Shumate said. About one in three students fail the course, instructors have said.
The first Special Forces soldiers sent into Afghanistan after 9/11 were all graduates of the Key West school. That was by design, Shumate said, looking at the students seated in the back row.
"Combat divers lead the way," he said.
Shumate said most of the founding cadre of Delta Force was combat divers. He pointed to the Special Forces patch on his shoulder -- a dagger cut by three lightning bolts. The bolts represent sea, air and land. The Fleming Key school graduates represent the first lightning bolt, he said.
The formerly drab, white 50-foot dive tower is now marked with the words "U.S. Army Special Forces" as well as with the Green Berets' symbol and the school's logo: A diver's mask flanked by two sharks set over two daggers.
For years residents have been confused about who works on the base, what they do and what branch oversees operations. The Navy's strong presence in Key West and the often misused term "Special Forces" are likely factors in the confusion.
"Special Forces" is singular to the Army and refers only to that branch's Green Berets. The media often uses it incorrectly to refer to any elite military unit, such as the Navy SEALs. "Special Operations Forces" is the correct term for all elite military units such as the SEALs, Green Berets, the Air Force 24th Special Tactics Squadron, or the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment among them.
Adding to the confusion is that Special Operations Forces members in the Navy, Marines and Air Force do go through the Key West course, which teaches emergency surfacing and how to leave and enter submarines as well as other stealthy techniques.
"De oppresso liber!" Shumate said after his speech to a standing ovation. The Latin motto of the Special Forces means "to free from oppression."
Sitting in the front row in a flower-pattern summer dress was Helen Shumate, wife to Walter and mother to Alan. The schoolteacher of 33 years laughed when asked what about her husband caught her eye.
"Oh, he was humorous and fun," she said of Walter, who died in 1993.
"You should have seen the press after Iran," she said, referring to Operation Eagle Claw, the mission to end the Iran hostage crisis by rescuing 52 Americans held captive at the embassy in Tehran on April 24, 1980. "Walter was well-known at the base (Fort Bragg) by then despite all the secrets. The reporters were just swarming." She stopped to chuckle at the memory.
"I never knew much of this, of course," she said. "He never talked to me about the new unit (Delta Force). It was all so classified. Walt, you know, he was the kind of man that just went there and did it."
Behind her a line of Special Forces soldiers waited to shake her hand.