A few years ago Army Sgt. Maj. Roberto Oquendo got a call in his office during some down time at the Special Forces Underwater Operations School on the northern edge of Fleming Key.
The next scheduled seven-week Combat Diver Qualification Course had not yet begun and no students had arrived.
"It was the jail and they said they got one of our guys," Oquendo said with his arms raised and flashing a toothy grin. "I said, 'What? Nobody is here. There's no students here yet."
The Monroe County Sheriff's Office detention deputy on the other end told Oquendo the inmate identified himself an Army Special Forces soldier who was in Key West to undergo the combat diver course.
Apparently, one of Oquendo's students had just arrived, and made quite an entrance.
"I called the jail back and told them to keep him overnight," Oquendo said. "Let him sit in there overnight."
Oquendo's smile grew as he leaned his 43-year-old frame over to tell the secret.
"This guy forgets his cell phone on the plane -- he's on a civilian plane and he tells the airport people he has to get his phone, but they tell him it's too late, so he takes it upon himself to go outside and jump the barbed wire fence."
The young commando then ran to the plane and was able to get inside, where he found his prized cell phone, but nearly scared the life out of a flight attendant, Oquendo explained.
"Then a bunch of deputies tackled him and took him to jail," Oquendo went on. "If he had been in California or Miami, they probably would have just shot him right there."
As company sergeant major and the senior enlisted advisor to the commander, Oquendo is the go-to man between the students as well as the instructors and senior leadership. In military parlance, he leads from the front. And the airport-commando arrest was a problem.
A few phone calls were made and the soldier was allowed to leave jail if he attended court on time, then he had to stand at attention before Oquendo in the sergeant major's office when he was released from jail.
"He stayed in the course, but I told him he had to complete the training and do everything the courts told him to do, no excuses," Oquendo said. "Later we were in the day room with all the plaques on the walls that the graduating classes leave behind and he was in there late studying because he was behind and he said, 'You see that class from 1978, sergeant major? That's my dad. I can't fail this course. I'm not going to fail this course.' And he didn't."
'My job is to take care of everybody'
That's just one of the memories Oquendo will keep as he leaves Key West after seven years of making the Special Forces Underwater Operations School one of toughest gut checks in the military that now draws students from the Reconnaissance Marines, Navy SEALs, Air Force and even other allied nations.
Oquendo or "Q" as he is known to his fellow instructors and commanders will be leaving May 21 for Fort Bragg, the home of the Special Forces, where he will be Special Forces Assessment and Selection course instructor.
In other words, he's leaving to build the next generation of Special Forces soldiers.
Oquendo has spent a combined seven years in Key West -- between combat missions overseas -- making sure the instructors' wives are happy, their children have no issues easing into local schools, they have housing and even coordinating social events for the families.
He is tasked with that on top of preparing instructors to teach deadly and stealthy marine warfare techniques. Often times the latter is easier than the former, Oquendo said without a hint of sarcasm.
"It's easy to put on a hat, sunglasses and the black T-shirt and walk around pretending to the be the man, but it's a whole other thing to walk the walk and pull a guy aside who may be having trouble at home and is bringing it to work out here and helping him," Oquendo said. "It is life and death out here. And you have to be willing to help that instructor or that student. Whomever. It can be a stressful job. No doubt about it."
He was laughing again. The Puerto Rico native grew up in Homestead, one of eight children, who now lives with and cares for his 81-year-old mother.
"My job is to take care of everybody and that means 23 instructors and 13 support staff," he said. "My main concern is always families."
If not for Oquendo's Special Forces frame and Army bravado, an outsider might mistake him for a humanitarian worker or maybe even a high school teacher.
"Q is invaluable, and I think I speak for many others from command staff on down," said school commander Maj. Samuel Kline. "When it comes to students, he doesn't yell. He's very calm. He makes things happen. That's a great asset for me as an officer."
'Rough and tough Green Berets'
Combat divers are some of the most respected commandos in Special Forces and the unassuming property where Fleming Key jettisons into the shallow Gulf of Mexico houses their school, considered the toughest mental and physical challenge in the Army. About one in three students fail the course.
The first Special Forces soldiers sent into Afghanistan after 9/11 were all graduates of the Key West school, Special Forces Col. Alan Shumate said during his visit to the school in December. Oquendo has been in the Special Forces for 20 years and he's been in the Army 24 years. He's a veteran of the first Gulf War and of the war in Afghanistan.
He was an instructor from 1998 to 2002. He went to war in Afghanistan and then returned to Key West to serve at the dive school from 2010 to the present.
Oquendo is one of the rare Special Forces soldiers known in their small fraternity as a "Whisky 9," meaning he is combat diver certified and high-altitude low opening (HALO) parachute certified.
He patrolled the perimeter of the dive school from the water on Sept. 11, 2001 as news of the attacks flashed across the base radio.
"We didn't have cable TV then,' Oquendo recalled. "We didn't have a security gate either. I remember we were out there on boats patrolling and we didn't even have weapons."
He stopped to laugh again.
"We were like, 'This is great, a bunch of rough and tough Green Berets patrolling with no weapons!' I have so many memories here. I'm really going to miss it."
Thursday night Oquendo was preparing a class of 10 students who are undergoing their final exercise as combat diver students. They used all the knowledge over the last seven weeks to infiltrate a fictional nation on Geiger Key known as -- of course -- the "Conch Republic."
The students will have to use scuba skills to get to a secret location while evading instructors who make up the "People's Army of the Conch Republic" and locate their target, a person of interest to the United States who spoke only Spanish and needed to be taken back to their base on Fleming Key.
On Thursday night that Spanish-speaking person known only as "Artero" was played by Oquendo.
It will the last such exercise he will undergo as a dive instructor in Key West. The students were preparing their Zodiac inflatable boats while elsewhere on base the sergeant major donned a foreign looking flight suit.
The students don't know their sergeant major will be playing the role of "Artero."
"They're always surprised," he said, grinning. "It adds a little stress to the exercise."
As for Oquendo, he figures in another two years he will have put in enough time serving his country and retire. And after that?
"I'm going to be the best Wal-Mart greeter in the world," he said laughing. "No, I was thinking about being an ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) at a college. I think I'd really enjoy that."
As Oquendo finished the sentence a gang of camouflaged commandos zipped from the docks in Zodiacs and he jumped in a van headed for the "Conch Republic" as the sun set.
"We like to work in the dark," the sergeant major said.