Preparing for boots on the ground.
The days that followed would prove to be just as memorable for the Navy's newest individual augmentee (IA) Sailors. The following is an account of their transition from Sailors trained to dominate the oceans to boots-on-the-ground warriors assigned to fight the global war on terrorism in some of the most hostile regions in the world.
FORT JACKSON, S.C.
The Sailors reported to Navy Individual Augmentee Command Training (NIACT) at Fort Jackson, S.C. The two-week training was designed to orient 154 Sailors to the rigors of ground combat and prepare them for their IA deployments in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Iraq and Kuwait.
"Our mission at the NIACT is to provide Sailors who are going into theater with basic survival and combat skills," said Army Capt. Richard Jones, Task Force Marshall officer-in-charge. "That includes the primary shooting of weapons, convoy, improvised explosive devices (IED), land navigation, first-aid and communications training. It's an incredibly important mission, to provide Sailors with the skills necessary to accomplish what they've been called on to do."
As the Sailors reported to NIACT, they were divided into two companies, Alpha and Bravo. Each company was then divided into two platoons.
Alpha Company, 1st Platoon was made up of 37 Sailors--the most junior Sailor was a seaman and the senior, a commander. For the next two weeks rank would bring few privileges as the officers and enlisted shared the same mess facilities, wore the same PT gear (standard boot camp issue blue shorts and Navy T-shirt), slept under the same roof on bunks and trained as a platoon with little to no recognition of rank. Separate quarters are only for O-6 and E-9 IA trainees.
After a 0500 reveille on Monday, the Sailors experienced what was to become their new early morning ritual. They mustered on the drill pad for a PT session, devoured some breakfast at the mess facility and hit the showers.
By 0800, the platoon was off to weapons issue, where, depending on their orders, they were issued 9mm pistols, M-16 rifles or both. In the coming weeks (and extending through their IA deployments), the Sailors would become intimately familiar with their firearms as they trained to assemble, clean and fire them. The weapons were their constant companions unless entrusted to the care of a "battle buddy".
IA training is conducted at "Camp McCrady," which is located inside Fort Jackson. Despite the presence of hundreds of Sailors, the camp is decidedly Army in character and function. Army drill sergeants conduct the training and a certain level of military culture shock is to be expected.
"The Army drill instructors appreciate what the Navy is contributing to the mission and understand that many of the Sailors haven't served on the ground before," said Lt. Jason Ayeroff, an IA trainee. "They're taking the time to fully explain everything and mentor when necessary. It's a good balance between mentorship and discipline. In the event that I need to call upon the skills I learned in this training environment, what I learned from the drill instructors could be the difference in getting me through a tough situation."
Slight and overt differences in language between the Army and Navy are hashed out early in the training schedule.
For example, in Navy jargon, to "secure" means it's time to go home or "call it a day," while in Army lingo "secure" means to take an item (often a firearm) into your immediate possession.
"Being in a joint forces environment, we all do things a little different," said Ayeroff. "We speak a little different. So we all have to make that adjustment and make the extra effort to familiarize ourselves with the customs of the other services."
Next up for the wide-eyed trainees was a two-session gear issue that would see them shuffle from station to station, filling up four sea bags with every imaginable uniform or tool necessary for life in Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan or Djibouti. As the sea bags began to swell and backs began to ache, many of the Sailors were surprised by the extent of the gear distribution.
Items issued included: five desert camouflage uniforms, wet weather gear, entrenching tool (fold-up shovel), a three-piece sleep system, neck gaiter, canteens, water-carrying backpacks, undershirts, boots, sunglasses, Kevlar helmet, gas mask and the soon to be dreaded, yet undoubtedly appreciated, individual body armor (IBA).
While Sailors accounted for their gear and received instruction on how to properly wear the IBA and gas mask from the drill sergeants, MREs were distributed and rapidly consumed by Sailors who had just experienced their first seven hours of duty as IAs-in-training.
Over the course of the next few days, the Sailors would learn the ins-and-outs of their firearms and attend numerous training courses on topics specifically tailored to their needs as IAs. By mid-week they filed onto buses for the first of many trips to Fort Jackson's abundant firing ranges to begin the process of qualifying on a firearm, or firearms, they are required to carry while deployed as IAs.
The first range the Sailors visited was a simulator featuring a wide-screen video replication of an actual range. The trainees got down on their bellies in the prone position, supported their weapons on sandbags and fired at virtual targets on the screen, which recorded their proficiency.
The next step was a live-fire range exercise where the trainees "zeroed" their weapons. Zeroing is customizing a weapon's sight to an individual's personal visual perspective, to assure accurate and consistent performance.
After the weapons were zeroed, the Sailors were off to the neighboring ranges to qualify on their M-16 rifles and 9mm pistols.
Under the vigilant supervision of the Army drill sergeants at the pistol range, the Sailors were required to fire from several positions during a timed qualification. They removed and replaced their ammunitions magazines and fired at targets down-range.
Nearby, at the M-16 rifle qualifier, trainees were confronted with numerous targets that randomly popped-up, at a wide range of distances up to 300 yards. The targets were only visible for a few seconds and often appeared hundreds of yards from the previous target. Sailors fired from various positions with their rifles set to semi-automatic. They changed clips several times--all while being under the pressure of a timed evolution.
As hot brass shells exited the chamber and beads of sweat dripped into their eyes, each and every Sailor proved worthy of qualification on their assigned weapons.
During the second week of training at Fort Jackson, while the annual blooming of the dogwood trees marked the beginning of spring in South Carolina, the IA trainees were confronted with several practical exercises designed to develop skills necessary to survive the rigors of land combat.
When the land navigation exercise began, Sailors used knowledge acquired in Camp McCrady classrooms to plot and locate carefully marked stakes hidden in a lush forest. With only rudimentary maps and a compass the Sailors walked miles into the dense woodland and found their way back using teamwork, skill and, above all, attention to detail.
The final exercises at Fort Jackson forced the platoons to demonstrate all of the new-found knowledge and ability instilled in them by the drill instructors.
During the Convoy/IED Exercise, mock IEDs exploded in the platoons path and enemy forces attacked them from multiple positions, forcing the Sailors to improvise their plans and overcome the mounting challenges.
Sailors quickly learned to navigate a hostile urban environment during an exercise that demonstrated the dangers of security patrols. Actors were employed to represent insurgents. One of the hostiles, a young boy, offered a Sailor a drink of his soda. When the boy was allowed to come within several feet of the Sailor, the soda was revealed to be an IED. Lesson learned.
As the Sailors packed their bags and prepared for deployment, the gravity of their experience at Fort Jackson set in.
"The training was awesome," said Electronics Technician 1st Class (SS) James Caddell, an IA trainee. "The drill instructors understood what we are, which is Sailors, and what we're not, which is Soldiers or Marines. They shared with us the knowledge we need to accomplish our mission and come home safe."
Caddell said the tone of the instruction given by the drill sergeants was appropriate and said he felt a mutual respect develop between the Sailors and the Soldiers assigned to train them.
"This could have been a boot camp environment, but that wasn't the case," said Caddell. "They took into consideration that we're not newbies, straight out of boot camp. They treated us with the respect and dignity that an eight-year Sailor like myself deserves, and, of course, we were professional with them as well. It was a two-way street. It's been incredible. They've done nothing but help, praise and teach."
Drill sergeants urged their students to call on the knowledge they acquired at NIACT when they got to their IA destination.
"Take the training we've given you and stay alert," said Army 1st Sgt. Mark Golliday, Alpha Company senior non-commissioned officer. "Always be watchful of the enemy and watch over your battle buddy or shipmate. Anything can happen, but if you keep your training in mind and stay alert you should be successful in your mission."
CAMP VIRGINIA, KUWAIT
Jet-lagged and travel-weary, the IA trainees, now reduced to 144 Sailors, arrived as a unit at Camp Virginia, Kuwait, just before midnight.
At a late-night briefing, the IAs slated to deploy to Djibouti were informed they would leave immediately for their assignments. As for the others, they were told to get some sleep and acclimate themselves to the time zone and weather in the Middle East. They gratefully obliged.
Just after the Sailors were assigned their tents and began to drift off to sleep, a savage storm appeared on the desert horizon. Kuwait's rainy-season was going out like a lion as Mother Nature peppered the camp with gale force winds, creating a rain and sandstorm, the likes of which few of the Sailors had ever experienced.
"I wrote my wife an e-mail and told her about the storm," said Caddell. "I've never experienced anything like that before. I was prepared for high temperatures in the desert, but I never expected to see such a ferocious storm. I told her I felt like I was getting cheated out of the real desert experience because the temperatures are actually pretty mild, but there'll be plenty of hot days to come, I'm sure."
The Sailors spent the next two-and-a-half days clearing up any pay or administrative tasks they needed to finalize. They also had time to contact family and friends, explore Camp Virginia and catch up on some much-needed sleep before the intense final stage of their training began.
After recharging their batteries, the Sailors loaded up their gear, filed onto buses and began the trek to Kuwait's Udari Desert.
At an expansive desert range, a government contractor, Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI), staged a 48-hour training exercise designed to give the IAs a realistic desert training experience prior to heading into theater. Each of MPRI's instructors has a distinguished military background.
"The reason we're here is to give the troops that final push," said Steve Wells, an MPRI training instructor. "They get a chance to exercise their tactics here. We show them the current enemy trends and try to provide them the best possible base of knowledge and training before pushing into theater."
On the first day of training at Udari Range, the Sailors attended courses to identify the latest tactics of enemy forces and learned the best course of action to counteract the enemy's deadly intent through convoy protection techniques and counter-IED procedures.
After class, the Sailors tore into MREs and then filed into their tents for the night.
The 12-man tents of Camp Virginia had given way to 60-Sailor tents at the Udari Range. Showers and indoor plumbing were non-existent. Baby-wipes and a strong sense of camaraderie were the order of the day. The trainees laid down sleeping bags, shoulder-to-shoulder, as another storm began to wail in the Kuwaiti desert.
Reveille arrived uninvited at 0400, and the consensus among the Sailors was that very little sleep occurred in the Udari Desert.
After a bottled-water assisted morning hygiene session and another MRE for breakfast, the Sailors were told to "strap on their full battle-rattle." This is a dreaded phrase among the Sailors. It informs them it's time to wear their Kevlar helmet, ballistic goggles and full IBA.
"The IBA takes some getting used to," said ET2(SW/AW) Jonathan Pollard, an IA trainee. "By the time you get all that gear on and you're wearing your camelback (water-carrying backpack) you've probably increased your body weight by 20 to 30 pounds. You'll sweat off a few pounds wearing this stuff, but it's more than worth it if it helps to save your life."
At the desert weapons range, as herds of grazing camels roamed in the distance, the Sailors were motivated by the high-energy training of the MPRI instructors and got to fire off 60 more rounds of ammo while employing newly-learned advanced soldiering techniques.
Fatigued from a lack of sleep and their initiation into desert combat instruction, the Sailors had little problem catching some shut-eye on their second night in the desert.
The Sailors began day two by loading their gear into Humvees and setting off into the miles-long Convoy Lane Training Course.
The convoy exercise was the culmination of their three weeks of training at Fort Jackson and Kuwait. All of their training was about to be put to the test in a highly coordinated supply-training mission.
During the next five hours, the Sailors encountered simulated insurgent attacks, searched for deadly IEDs of all variety and communicated with local law enforcement officials. They also practiced convoy radio communications throughout the exercise and applied protective convoy stances to minimize the danger of attack by enemy forces.
Convoy drivers learned to navigate the harsh desert terrain while gunners mounted on the Humvee turrets surveyed the landscape for hostile activity.
The course quickly ratcheted up the stress level of the Sailors and built to a crescendo. Adrenaline and a sense of purpose drove the convoy teams as they each completed their mission.
"They prepared us for the worst," said Caddell. "If I get out there and I find myself in this kind of scenario, I'm going to be damn glad I had this training."
The Sailors returned to Camp Virginia and began to pack their sea bags in preparation for their flights to Iraq and Afghanistan, which would come in just a matter of hours. The transition the Sailors had made from masters of surface and undersea warfare to boots-on-the-ground troops was evident in their demeanor. It wasn't lost on the men and women assigned to manage their training either.
"I'm so impressed with the ability of Sailors to change their mindset," said MTCS(SS/SW) Joseph Pastorella, training leading chief petty officer, Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC), U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, Det. Kuwait.
"We're talking about a Navy that for more than 200 years is traditionally sea-centric," said Pastorella. "If you ask anybody about the Navy they'll say, 'the Navy is boats and ships--men and women at sea.' Now we're telling them, 'shift that, you're now ground-pounders,' and they're doing it. It's truly awe-inspiring."
It is estimated that between January 2006 and July 1, 2007, 6,869 Sailors are expected to have completed NIACT training. These men and women, many of whom volunteered for this extraordinary duty, have served or are serving as IAs in some of the most dangerous operational areas in the global war on terrorism. A new day has come to pass in the U.S. Navy, and these Sailors are leading the way.
McCammack is a photojournalist assigned to Naval Media Center, Washington, D.C.
Editor's Note: To view the multimedia presentation for this story, go to www.navy.mil.
Story and photos by MC2(AW/SW) Jason McCammack
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|Date:||Jul 1, 2007|
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