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'Diving into the dirt': riverines rehearse for first mission in Iraq.

FORT PICKETT, Va. -- On a chilly winter's day, four boats round the bend of a winding reservoir and zip quietly through the water in single file. As they reach their destination--a suspected weapons cache ashore--the small riverine craft slow down. Aboard, sailors clad in camouflaged uniforms grip their weapons, watching the shoreline for signs of hostility. Quickly, two boats slide up to the shore to deposit a small team on its banks.

Just weeks before deploying to Iraq, the Navy's Riverine Squadron One is conducting an exercise at a National Guard installation tucked away in south-central Virginia. Fort Pickett, with its 42,000 acres of forests, water, urban operations training facilities and live-fire ranges, "gives us an opportunity to train in the expeditionary environment," says Cmdr. Craig Trent, a training officer with the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command, headquartered at Naval Amphibious Base in Little Creek, Va., where the riverine squadron is based.

Beginning this month, the squadron--the Navy's first official riverine unit since the Vietnam War--will take over what has been a Marine Corps mission in Western Iraq: security of Haditha Dam, which generates electricity for Iraq. The 224 members of the squadron will be responsible for protecting the dam. In addition, they will establish naval presence on the Euphrates River and other similar waterways in Al-Anbar province, the squadron's commanding officer, Cmdr. William J. Guarini, tells National Defense.

The Navy agreed to relieve the Marine Corps from riverine patrol duties because the Corps was overstretched on the ground in Iraq. The mission also marks the beginning of what could be a broader Navy role in riverine operations elsewhere in the world.

Commissioned last May, the riverine squadron preparing for duty in Iraq has been through months of intense training at the Marine and the Special Missions Training Center at Camp LeJeune, N.C.

The three-day exercise is testing the riverines' acquired skills through a number of scenarios brought to life through Arabic-speaking actors, pyrotechnics and other special effects provided by Strategic Operations Inc., which was founded by a former Hollywood television and movie director.

"We're not a training company. We enhance what the trainers do," says Stu Segall, founder and owner of the company, which has worked with the Marines, the Coast Guard and Navy SEALs in the past.

Back on the water, where the squadron's 2nd detachment stands watch in the four small unit riverine craft, it is eerily quiet as the maritime interdiction operations team advances toward a small shack along the bank. Iraqi role players walk out to meet the sailors. Every now and then, a helicopter whirls above the scene and disappears behind the trees. Suddenly, a riverine yells out "Ogaf!"--stop, in Arabic. Gunfire erupts in the woods and there is a scuffle behind a large boulder.

The riverines manning the boats don't make a sound, but are on alert as the team on the ground tends to the wounded and subsequently discovers an improvised explosive device and bomb-making equipment inside the shack. As detainees are taken, small arms fire erupts once more and a rocket-propelled grenade shoots out from the woods and lands near the water, exploding in a fireball of flame. Finally, the riverines in the boats open fire, churning up the water as green smoke rises from the banks--a signal to pick up their team. As the gunfire subsides, two boats slip up to shore and the riverines load up their colleagues and the detainees. There are casualties. They pull away from the banks and linger in the deeper waters. The role players seize the opportunity to unleash a surprise attack on the boats, lobbing more rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire toward the water as the riverines pull away.

Professional actors, explosions and realistic medical trauma effects are new elements for the Navy in training up its forces. Strategic Operations Inc. brought a 60-person team to help immerse the riverines in hyper-realistic scenarios.

"With loud booms and gunfire, there's always that element of adrenaline pumping to keep you going," says Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Michael Subee, who is part of the maritime interdiction operations team. "Having a production company come out and put on this kind of training is the closest thing to realism we're going to get on the stateside," he adds.

During the exercise, the actors--comprising mostly Iraqi-Americans who applied for the job--are dressed in their culture's attire and they speak Arabic to force the riverines to use their language and culture skills.

Ten sailors have received month-long training in Iraqi Arabic, and the rest of the squadron has had one week of instruction, which Guarini acknowledges is a short amount of time. Everyone is outfitted with language and culture cards to help them communicate once they're in the country.

Though the explosions and gunfire are all simulated in the exercise, casualties are inevitable in the real combat zone, and some of the actors are specially made up to reflect such carnage.

"It's interesting to see the look on your guy's face when a guy's laying there and he's missing his leg. It's great training," says Lt. Cmdr. Mike Egan, the squadron's executive officer.

Every sailor is combat lifesaver qualified, he says. A large piece of the exercise was designed to test those medical skills.

"We're imposing those casualties on the sailors and seeing how they react. It's the highest level of simulation that they've seen so far," says Guarini.

Though the riverines are focused on the maritime security mission, they also have to flex their ground combat skills. A week prior to the scenario-based exercise, the squadron arrived on post and conducted live-fire training on a convoy range and on the water to gain proficiency using their firearms.

But getting the boats to the water in an operational setting is something the riverine squadron has had scant opportunity to practice.

How the riverines will fare in such a convoy is one of the things the squadron's leadership is eager to see during the exercise.

Standing just beyond a small bridge and out of visual range, Guarini watches as his squadron's 2nd detachment passes over in a convoy of trucks towing boats. A roadside bomb detonates in a fiery explosion, prompting role playing insurgents hiding in the woods to attack with small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. The sailors gun their trucks and the convoy speeds out of sight.

"That was specifically stuff we wanted to see, because we know we're going to be convoying places. And that's what happens to convoys. We want to be prepared for that," says Egan.

The exercise planners purposely mapped scenarios to expose them to the ground convoy experience.

Shortly after beginning its 24-hour exercise rotation the previous night, the 2nd detachment riverines stopped at a checkpoint near a small "shantytown" made of two-story plywood homes. Role playing insurgents launched three rocket-propelled grenades at the sailors.

"They were literally diving into the dirt, diving next to their vehicles, battening up, closing the [truck] doors to get that protection," says Lt. Chris Cowart, training officer for Riverine Group One.

Several sailors and actors portraying the host nation's military at the checkpoint were injured and role playing villagers rushed out to help.

"There's a lot of realism that's generated and that's where you get that muscle memory, that instinct. And that's really what we're trying to stress at this stage of the game," says Cowart.

Operating small boats is not a new task for the Navy. The sea service currently has units, such as Naval Coastal Warfare and Naval Special Warfare, whose sailors regularly work with riverine-size craft in the shallow waters of ports and harbors. But until the riverine squadron was established last year, the Navy lacked a maritime security operations force focused exclusively on rivers and the inland waterways.

"It's really important for riverines to take it beyond where Naval Coastal Warfare and some of the other forces work," says Capt. Michael L. Jordan, commander of Riverine Group One, to which Riverine Squadron One belongs.

"Marines carry a ground combat element as part of their organization. When they encounter insurgents, they can put a ground force ashore to go and do patrols," says Jordan. "That is not what maritime security operations is about."

While the squadron's primary mission is operating on the water, its Small Unit Riverine Craft boats also can transport Marines.

Once they arrive at Haditha Dam, the riverines will be subordinate to the Marine Corps Regimental Combat Team Two, out of Camp LeJeune, says Egan. During its seven-month stay, the unit will start laying the groundwork for ultimately turning the mission over to the Iraqi police forces.

Though there are not any plans to train Iraqi forces as part of the squadron's mission, Guarini says it's not out of the question. "It's important to the United States that we train up the local defense force, and it's very important to the success of Iraq. And I would not be the least bit surprised if that became one of my primary missions," he says.

The squadron will be relieved by Riverine Squadron Two, which has begun training for the mission.

Sailors who served in the riverine forces in Vietnam have advised the new unit of the importance of having air support for its operations. The riverines will have air cover, with Marine liaison officers to help coordinate. Along with forming relationships with fixed-wing aircraft crews, the squadron also has trained some of its sailors to call in dose-air support.

The squadron discovered early on that it needed an unmanned aerial vehicle to provide surveillance.

Three operators are trained to fly the Silver Fox, a small drone that can be launched from the boats, or from shore, to provide eyes in the sky.

"While we expect to have air support in our mission, having an organic UAV capability really is a force multiplier for us, for surveilling uncertain areas. And that's the biggest technology we've benefited from," says Guarini.

In a clearing surrounded by trees, the squadron has set up its tactical operations center, much as the ground forces do. It's like a ship's combat information center in a tent, says Guarini, who was a surface warfare fleet officer prior to taking command of the riverine squadron. Inside the tent are large-semen displays of real-time data, video feeds and satellite communications systems.

"I'd never done that before, on this level. It was the most robust connectivity that I've had to date, and most closely replicates what I expect to have when I deploy," Guarini reflects after the exercise.

The TOC at one point even had a video feed from California, where the Silver Fox UAV team was training.

"We have quite a year in store for us," says Egan. "I can't wait to go. We're so ready ... I think we're part of the solution, to get over there and help dean up the rivers."

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Comment:'Diving into the dirt': riverines rehearse for first mission in Iraq.(NAVY)
Author:Jean, Grace
Publication:National Defense
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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