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Passing of torch: Ex-commando inspires youth for special operations

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jared Trimarchi
  • 920th Rescue Wing

While most people spend their off time catching up on their favorite shows, playing video games, or catching up on social media, one Reserve Citizen Airman and clinical nurse with the 920th Aeromedical Staging Squadron, spends his evenings training the future men and women of special operations.


Lt. Col. (Dr.) Arnold T. Stocker, a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) in Broward County, Florida, has served in the military for more than 40 years and operates South Florida Tactical Athletes, a preparatory school for those wishing to join the most coveted jobs the U.S. military has to offer.


During his military career, Stocker has completed two special operation duties as a former Army Special Forces medical sergeant (with combat diver certification) and Air Force Pararescueman. Regardless of branch of service, special operation programs have a high standard of acceptance and a passing rate of lower than 10 percent. According to Stocker, thousands will try out, a hundred will get chosen for selection training and less than 10 will graduate.


“To come to our program takes a lot of guts, dedication and motivation,” Stocker said. “We get men and women who are a cut above the rest; many of them are former athletes who think they are in great shape, but it’s not about being the fastest or strongest. It’s about expanding your circle of comfort and your mind, developing as a young adult and learning to work as a team.”


Four days a week Stocker and four other instructors, a former pararescueman, a Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer, and two Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance members, coach more than 20 men and women in running, swimming, water confidence, and team building exercises for two to three hours.


Each week participants spend two days in the water and two days on land. They also participate in one extended training session a month on the weekend. The training includes warming up, calisthenics, underwater tasks, rucksack marching, sprinting, working together and listening to directions.


“Each day is different and when people come to our program, we brief them beforehand but they don’t really know what to expect,” Stocker said. “We provide them with a challenge and we focus on proper form and technique; with that comes the speed.”


Stocker envisioned SFTA to be the beginning step for future special operations men and women who will one day lead the nation’s defenses. So far, the program has trained more than 100 men and women since 2012, but Stocker’s journey training others to follow in his footsteps started 6 years prior. While visiting his home state of Pennsylvania, a friend told Stocker that his son would like to become a pararescueman.


“He’s the first guy I can say I prepared to become a PJ (pararescueman),” Stocker said.  “It’s an awesome feeling for me and every one of the instructors at SFTA, when one of ours makes it through selection. We aren’t just giving them a physical challenge, we are setting them up for the rest of their lives.”


Stocker is versed in special operations, but his military journey began in the Air Force as a jet engine mechanic and then he later joined an aeromedical evacuation team on C-141 Starlifter aircraft. He wanted to join the pararescue career field, the military’s combat-search-and-rescue tip of the spear, but didn’t know how to swim. He hired a swim coach to learn stroke techniques and was later sent to the pararescue indoctrination course.


“I failed the swim.” Stocker said. “I do (SFTA) because when I was training there was no program around. I told my swim instructor what I wanted to do and he had no idea about water confidence training. I also do it because I enjoy training and mentoring.”


Today as a traditional reservist, Stocker oversees patient triage from aircraft to hospital and acts as a patient’s advocate while confirming patients are kept in stable conditions before the next echelon of care.  He has two daughters and says the greatest challenge has been juggling his family, anesthesia profession, his reserve duty and SFTA. He couldn’t do it without the help of his instructors and his love for helping others.


One other SFTA instructor who works with Stocker, former pararescueman Mike Mahoney, said he also does this job for the enjoyment of developing young adults into great men and women.


“Just the other day I had one of those moments when I saw a guy swimming and I thought to myself, wow that's good form,” Mahoney said. “I wanted to know who that person was, and it turned out to be one of our students who came to us not knowing how to swim. Now he’s working as a lifeguard and wants to become a pararescueman.”


Leo Fernandez, one of the participants who joined SFTA not knowing how to swim said Stocker and the coaches have changed his life, both physically and mentally.


“I can honestly say I would not have stood a chance in selection without Colonel Stocker,” Fernandez said. “He has worked with me on my swims and has taught me how to get out of my shell. Now I can say I am comfortable being uncomfortable.”


According to Stocker, SFTA participants aren’t always looking to don a beret, many of them want to be police officers, firefighters, do other jobs in the military or even are just looking to lose weight.


“We are a joint service prep training, but your end goal doesn’t have to be in special operations,” Stocker said. “Whatever your goal is in life, do your homework, find your target, and stick to it.”