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Sailors go to ground for combat training
[April 22, 2006]

Sailors go to ground for combat training


(Virginian-Pilot, The (Norfolk, VA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Apr. 22--FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- At 9 a.m. on a normal weekday, Lt. Jon French would be checking his e-mail, refilling his coffee cup and probably offering legal advice to a Norfolk sailor.



Instead, the Navy lawyer, 28, spent Thursday morning crowded into the back of a truck with a dozen other Kevlar-clad troops, cradling an M-16, his eyes scanning the woods of this Army training base for "insurgents."

French, who works at Norfolk Naval Station's trial services office, left normal behind in December, when he agreed to go to Iraq so his married colleagues didn't have to leave their families . For the next year, French will work with Task Force 134, helping Iraqi lawyers and judges prosecute insurgents rounded up by U.S. forces.


"It never occurred to me that I would ever be in combat boots with a rifle," said French, who joined the Navy while he was at Gonzaga University School of Law. "Anybody who's in uniform has to be ready to answer the call when it comes, and it did this time."

That call is coming for more and more sailors.

Adm. Mike Mullen , the chief of naval operations, has told his ranks that the Navy will step up its contribution to the war on terror by increasing the number of "individual augmentees" filling support roles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

IAs, as they're called, often deploy in small numbers to Army or multinational units overseas. The jobs they leave behind typically go unfilled. Their families, meanwhile, don't have the support structure that help them weather typical ship deployments.

In March, the Navy cut orders for more than 900 sailors to leave their posts for Middle Eastern combat zones. An additional 400 were tapped in April, said Rear Adm. Daniel Holloway , one of the Navy's top personnel officers. Overall, about 11,000 sailors are on the ground in the Middle East, said Navy spokesman Lt. Trey Brown . That includes mobilized reservists, augmentees and Navy units.

That number has steadily increased since the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, he said.

The increased commitment to sending individual augmentees into harm's way led the Navy to develop a two-week training program at Fort Jackson. The base in South Carolina's capital also puts Army recruits through basic training and gives refresher training to retired soldiers called back to active duty.

Before the classes began in January, Navy augmentees trained at Fort Bliss, Texas, or Fort Benning, Ga., where some deploying Navy units go to brush up on combat skills.

It's like fast-track basic training, without the marching and in-your-face discipline. The sailors here learn to shoot machine guns, clear a building, frisk enemy prisoners of war and toss grenades.

The experience has led to jokes about being in the "Narmy."

Most sailors hope the training goes unused, but the 175 sailors here this week took the instruction seriously.

After 25 years on ship and shore duty, Chief Warrant Officer Mark Rees is headed to Afghanistan, where he'll work with an Army unit training Afghan police.

It's a big change for someone who specializes in the Aegis weapons system and had been serving aboard the destroyer James E. Williams .

Rees, who lives in Suffolk, said the physical adjustment of operating with a helmet, body armor and rifle has been his biggest challenge.

"I don't normally carry an M-16. On a ship, I carry a pen and a notebook, and I write things down," Rees, 42 , said during a break from drills.

"Every kid, I think, plays Army," he said. "Doing it this late in life, with real people shooting at you, may not be the smartest thing."

His wife is not enthused about his next tour, but Rees is being a good sport.

"In my opinion, if we can help the Afghans, it's a good thing," he said, "if they want the help."

Rees and Chief Warrant Officer Chris Logan of Virginia Beach have had about a month to prepare for their new task.

Logan, a father of three, had been working at the Navy-Marine Corps Warfighting Intelligence Center at the Fleet Combat Training Center at Dam Neck when he got a phone call five weeks ago telling him he was on a short list to go to Afghanistan.

It wasn't a surprise. With his experience in intelligence, Logan figured he'd get tapped .

He's happy he'll be working alongside Army personnel and that it's a six-month tour instead of a year.

"I'd rather take directions from an Army guy on the ground than a Navy guy," Logan said. "Not that a Navy guy isn't competent, but they're more experienced," he said, referring to the soldiers.

The combat skills he's learning might come in handy if a convoy he's traveling in comes under attack.

"You don't want to be just a passenger," Logan said. "You want to be a contributing member."

Brig. General James H. Schwitters , the commanding general of Fort Jackson, said the most important thing for sailors to learn is "operational awareness" -- knowing what to look for and what not to do if a fight breaks out around them.

Schwitters, who last year finished a tour in Iraq helping to set up that country's army, said he worked with individual augmentees from other U.S. military branches and saw for himself they needed more training for emergencies.

He isn't worried about soldiers mistrusting the sailors who serve alongside them.

"I'm not naive enough to think there aren't individuals who would feel that way," Schwitters said while at the training site, "but that almost never becomes a problem."

The drill sergeants took a few good-natured jabs at their Navy charges but said they're impressed by the attitude of the sailors, who are about evenly split between active and reserves.

The classes also tend to be about half enlisted, half officers -- meaning instructors such as Sgt. 1st Class Warren Brown sometimes find themselves drilling Navy superiors.

On Wednesday, Brown took pleasure in making his students "low crawl" through the dirt in a cold rain. Belly to the ground, the sailors pulled themselves and their rifles through the mud.

"I know you all want to be in those khakis right now, " Brown boomed, referring to the pressed uniforms worn by Navy chiefs and officers, "but you've got to get dirty."

Brown spoke highly of the sailors when they were out of earshot.

"We're not trying to make Rangers or special forces out of them," he said. "These are survival techniques. It may not make you get a Bronze Star or a Medal of Honor, but it will keep you alive."

Watching them has inspired him, Brown said.

"It's been a pleasant change to see an electrician who's worn dungarees all his career to come out here and don and clear about 40 pounds of gear. That motivates me, even if he's only doing it for two weeks."

For Cmdr. Bill Kern , the training and his upcoming tour in Iraq are a chance to combine academics and life experience.

Kern teaches military strategic studies at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.

Thursday , Kern learned the hard way that teaching tactics and carrying them out are two different things. Acting as leader of a group of 15 sailors on a convoy exercise, Kern ran into all sorts of trouble when the "fog of war" descended in the form of a simulated attack.

His sailors were supposed to dismount and take cover in the woods, but instead of fanning out as they'd practiced, they clumped too close together. Half the group abandoned the right side of the truck and traipsed to the left, leaving the vehicle open to attack. Kern lost track of the radio operator who was supposed to stay by his side.

Through it all, the drill instructors quietly prodded Kern and his team: "Where's your radio?" "Leapfrog back and maintain security." "Get behind a tree. Not a skinny tree. Something that's going to stop a bullet."

When the exercise ended, Kern and at least seven of his team members had their helmets off -- a signal that the insurgents had "killed" them.

Kern was brutally honest when the drill instructors asked him during a debriefing what his team did well.

"It's a short list," he said, blaming himself for many of the lapses.

"All the things we were taught, we weren't employing," he said. "We just kind of ran around willy-nilly."

French, the lawyer, was one of the bareheaded sailors. He and four teammates were ambushed as they rushed around a building. It was just a drill, and he hopes he won't see anything close to combat when he's in Iraq. Still, the experience left him with a sinking feeling.

"When you come around the corner and see a guy standing there and you try to raise your weapon and you don't and your whole team dies, ..." French said, his voice drifting off. "There's so much to pay attention to."

-- Reach Kate Wiltrout at (757) 446-2629 or kate.wiltrout@pilotonline.com.

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