Army Special Forces Chief Warrant Officer Larry Wadsworth was all smiles as he splashed down via parachute Monday in backcountry waters just off Key West along with 37 other soldiers.
It was the Green Beret's first jump in nearly two years. Twenty years in the Army left him with back problems that have kept him from leaping out of perfectly good airplanes.
"It feels good to be back in the harness," he said, smiling and shaking hands with fellow instructors at the Special Forces Underwater Operations School on Fleming Key.
Army Special Forces combat divers, also known as Green Berets, are some of the most respected commandos in the Special Operations Forces community. 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.
About one in three students fail the course.
This week, 18 Green Berets, one Army Ranger, nine U.S. Military Academy (West Point) and nine Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) students are preparing for the final test of all they've learned in the six-week combat diver qualification course.
"We started with 69 students," the school's commander, Maj. Samuel Kline said of the current class while discussing the high attrition rate.
The Navy's strong presence in Key West and the often misused term "Special Forces" sometimes leads to confusion.
"Special Forces" is singular to the Army and refers only to that branch's Green Berets. It is often used 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 Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, the Air Force 24th Special Tactics Squadron, and the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment.
The static line parachute jump from 1,200 feet on Monday into the water, or a "drop zone" in military parlance, marks the students' achievements thus far, Kline said.
"They are in the advanced closed-circuit rebreather portion of the training," he said. "They've already established themselves as basic divers. This is the final third part of the training."
Kline and his fellow instructors are in the process of naming one of their drop zones in backcountry Keys waters after their fallen comrade -- Sgt. 1st Class Aaron A. Henderson -- a Green Beret and 2007 graduate of the dive school who was killed by a roadside bomb in the Helmand province of Afghanistan on Sept. 30, 2012.
Some of the drop zones used to have more general names, like "shark," but the instructors have been moving to name the areas to honor the fallen.
Boaters and personal watercraft guides are familiar with the drop zones and sometimes stop to watch the commandos parachute into the water.
The Army does not publicize their specific locations for soldier and public safety.
Another drop zone is already named after dive school graduate and instructor Sgt. Major Jerry Patton, who died Oct. 15, 2008, during parachute training while preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. He was a native of Columbus, Ohio.
"We wanted to assign real meaning to them, and this is a way to do that," Kline said.
On Monday, boat crews circled the students as they hit the water, to pull their parachutes out.
All of those who took part in the exercise were already "jump qualified," meaning they had already graduated from the Army's basic parachuting course.
Inside the main compound, Henderson's photo hangs on the "Wall of Heroes," a pictorial collection of all dive school graduates who were later killed in action.
"We want people to know who we are, and this is a part of that," Kline said.
Henderson was assigned to 5th Special Forces Group at Fort Campbell, Ky., and was a native of Houlton, Maine. He served on three deployments to Iraq and was on his first tour in Afghanistan when he was killed last year.