Sand Sailors

Sand Sailors
••• Official Navy Photo


The crisp staccato of an M-16 rings out, punctuated by the ominous cannonade of several more machine guns and explosions. An Army drill sergeant shouts instructions over the tumult of fighting as armed Sailors dressed in desert camouflage and body armor hit the dirt and prepare to engage the enemy as the serenity of a peaceful spring morning at Fort Jackson, S.C., is transformed into a realistic battlefield.

“A doorway is a fatal funnel! You never, never stop there! Hooah?” instructs Alpha Company Task Force Marshall (TFM) Army Staff Sgt. David Lyle, as the dust and smoke clear and silence descends. “Hooah!” Come the echoes of understanding from most Sailors, with a few “Aye, Ayes” thrown in. The drill sergeant surveys his platoon of trainees who are picking themselves up off the ground and notices someone grimace in mild discomfort.

Lyle has seen a lot in his Army career, but never did he think he would be training a platoon of U.S. Navy Sailors who would, in a matter of days, be transported over to Iraq and Afghanistan to provide his Soldier brothers with some much-needed assistance in the long war against terrorism.

Yet here he and his fellow drill sergeants are, leading Sailors onto the firing range, putting them through the paces of convoy operations, drawing in the sand with sticks to illustrate points and moving sequences inside a mock village created for practicing urban combat operations. The soldiers will also pose as hostiles and friendlies to make the training scenarios more realistic.

Army First Sgt. Kevin Bramlett, senior enlisted soldier in Alpha Company, is in charge of 18 Army drill instructors of TFM who have been tasked with training the Navy’s Individual Augmentees (IA). The Sailors will supplement Army troops worldwide as part of a joint-service operation called U.S. Navy Individual Augmentee Combat Training (USNIACT).

“I’ve benefited from getting to work with another service,” Bramlett said. “As I’ve learned how a different service processes information, I’ve had to adjust my training style to get them to understand.”

Active-duty Sailors and Reservists, ranging in rank from E-3 to O-6, undergo the two-week training at McCrady Training Center on Fort Jackson and then are sent directly to a theater in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, the Horn of Africa (Djibouti) and other dangerous regions in the world.

Sailors abandoning the relative safety of their ships to walk around with weapons among improvised explosive devices (IED), ride in convoys and clear buildings of enemy insurgents?

“When I joined the Navy as a Personnel Specialist, I never imagined I would be here preparing to fight on the ground, but I left my options open, knowing that I had to be ready to do whatever was asked of me,” said PS3 Mark Hutchinson, who was going through IA training at Fort Jackson in preparation for deployment to Kuwait.

Like many of the Sailors undergoing IA training, Hutchinson was selected by his command, but he has always viewed himself as a volunteer by virtue of taking the enlistment oath and wearing a Navy uniform. “When they said they needed me, I was prepared to go,” he said.

Hiking through woods thick with pine needles, crawling through deep sand, sweltering in heat under 66 pounds of clothing and equipment and riding in a convoy that culminates in entering a village made of battered, faded Connex boxes is a drastic change from Hutchinson’s previous job at Personnel Support Detachment in Pensacola, Fla., but his attitude personifies what the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) was looking for from Sailors when he said he wanted the Navy to get into the fight.

“The first four words in the National Security Strategy are ‘America is at War,’” said RADM Dave Gove, commander, Naval Personnel Development Command (NPDC) and Navy Personnel Command (NPC), who oversees this IA training program. “We have to be ready to support the combat service support missions that the CNO has pledged to make sure we help cover for the ground forces in country.”

There are approximately 10,000 Sailors serving in IA billets, split equally between active duty and Reserve components. The majority of IAs receive orders to Central Command in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We’re obligated to make sure our Sailors who are helping support the ground forces of the Marines and the Army have the correct understanding to be able to deal with their environment and be effective in accomplishing their mission,” Gove said.

Enter Fort Jackson and its cadre of Army drill instructors. Under the watchful eye of TFM Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Doug Snyder and the commanders of Alpha, Bravo and Charlie Companies, instructors and students alike must in many ways discard what they have been taught since their respective recruit training to effectively train and be trained.

“The biggest obstacle for Sailors is the shock of being a land-combat Soldier,” said Alpha Company Commander Army Capt. Jim Hulgan, who will help deliver roughly 3,700 trained IA trained Sailors to battalion commanders this fiscal year. “In some cases they pick it up easily, in others they don’t. We use some of the Sailors’ own jargon and try to relate the training to something they are more familiar with. In the Army we turn civilians into Soldiers, but that’s not what we’re doing here.

“First, we introduce them to Army tactics and doctrine so they become familiar with how the Army does business on the ground and understand what the Soldiers are doing so that they can provide effective help,” said Hulgan. “Second, they get a sense of confidence that they can actually do the missions they are being sent to do.”

But the road Sailors have to travel to get there is not easy. From the moment they hit Fort Jackson, the pace is fast and intense. Sailors arrive with nothing but the shirts on their backs and are immediately indoctrinated into the Army atmosphere. It begins with the uniform issue, either desert camouflage or the Army’s new combat uniforms, and Interceptor Body Armor (IBA). The ensemble is then completed by the Rapid Fielding Initiative, which includes the new Advanced Combat Helmet, infantry combat boots and Wiley X Goggles.

From that point on, the drill sergeants have the primary goal of putting the IAs into the mindset of a Soldier. The combat training scenarios are designed to teach Sailors critical thinking skills so they are more adept decision makers, especially in high-stress and crisis situations. That means, among other things, getting Sailors familiar, comfortable and as proficient as possible with the various weapons they will use in theater.

In addition to providing weapons training, the drill instructors push the Sailors to organize and operate as teams. Basic instruction is given in a variety of combat areas, including patrol techniques, communications, land navigation, first aid, MEDEVAC, cultural awareness and urban assault scenarios. The idea is to ensure that if they are in a combat situation, they’ll at least have some of the training to help them react and hopefully keep them alive.

Senior Chief Yeoman Larkin Whetstone, leading chief petty officer of the Navy Liaison Office for the course, said Sailors must never forget that they are only receiving a foundation in combat skills training that will be built upon by further training when they reach theater.

“We are teaching initial combat and survival skills,” he said. “We are not trying to turn Sailors into infantrymen.”

Maybe not, but an IA’s typical training day is nothing to scoff at, either.

“You’re tired, but it’s an incredible training experience,” said CAPT Marcus Fisk, a Reservist and leader of Class 506. “We’re up at 5 a.m. and put in 18-hour days sometimes, but the instructors are outstanding and I’m having a lot of fun.”

Whetstone is quick to praise the Army instructors for the life-saving training they are providing, but he also wants his shipmates to understand how appreciative the Soldiers are for the Navy’s service.

“We asked the Army to perform this service so we expected to be treated like a customer, but they have treated the Navy like a partner,” Whetstone said. “The drill instructors are very motivated because they realize what they are here to do, which is to save lives. They know that every time they send a Sailor into theater it means another Soldier gets to take a break.”

Fisk sees this training as a direct reflection of the increase in joint service operations to meet changing military requirements. “I think this training brings with it an awareness and understanding that what we used to do in the Navy is changing,” said the surface warfare officer who spent 10 years in Navy Special Operations. “When you consider that 85 percent of the world’s population lives within 200 nautical miles of the sea and there are over 900,000 miles of navigable rivers in the world, you see it’s crucial for the Navy to be involved on the ground as well. I think in the future this type of training is going to become the rule rather than the exception.”

“The Sailors had no idea how difficult some of these tasks are, such as being an effective stacking team in urban operations,” Snyder said. “I cannot stress enough how critical Sailor readiness is in this training. Is need to arrive here ready to train. That means they have all of their medical and dental requirements completed, their paperwork is in order and they are prepared physically, mentally and personally.

“Taking five or six Sailors with no combat experience and molding them into a functional and coherent team so they can meet their mission objective is a lot to ask in such a short time,” Snyder continued. “We are teaching them how to crawl, walk and maybe start to jog. Once in theater, they take it to the next level, but they must have something to work from and they will get that here.”