Gunsmoke on the water as Navy trains on Cape Fear
Bladen Journal (2007-07-17) Walter Taylor
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Walter Taylor, Staff Writer
ELIZABETHTOWN — A wild stretch of the Cape Fear River serves as a classroom. Instructor Paul Imhoff of Blackwater USA, a private security firm based in Moyock, prepares an ambush for a U.S. Navy riverine patrol returning down the river. Founded in 1997 by Erik Prince, a former Navy Seal, Blackwater USA provides training and protection services for law enforcement and military customers. Blackwater also fields from 1,000 to 2,000 contractors in high-risk areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan to protect American interests and support military operations. Blackwater employees are mostly retired military people with special operations backgrounds.
This is a typical operation for the final training exercise for Riverine Squadron Two as they complete seven weeks of instruction to prepare for deployment to Iraq. Along with U.S. Navy 2nd Class Petty Officer Jeremy Bartrom and another Blackwater operative, who only gives his name as Mack, they set up two M-240 machine guns with 800 rounds of blank ammunition.
After the guns are ready, the trio of trainers don traditional Arab robes that they jokingly call “man dresses” and wait on four boat-loads of armed sailors to arrive.
“We will try to induce them to leave the boats and assault our position,” Imhoff said.
Riverine patrols on the Euphrates River in Iraq learned the best way to deal with ambushes from the shore. When insurgents open fire, two gunboats open up on the bad guys while the other two boats insert ground troops. The gunboats keep firing on the insurgents until the shore party makes contact. In most cases, both the boat crews and shore party pack enough machine guns, rifles, and grenade launchers to take care of business, but they can always call for more firepower out of the sky from helicopter gunships or fighter-bombers. A big mistake is to just open up the throttles and run down the river to escape the fire. That encourages insurgents to try again with more men and firepower the next time patrol boats cruise that part of the river.
On this exercise, such a mistake will bring a bad grade back at the forward operating base beside Lock and Dam 2 near Elizabethtown. In Iraq such an error could fill body bags.
Surprisingly quiet, the gunboats round the river bend and almost catch the faux-terrorists by surprise. Several private boats filled with civilian spectators watch from a safe distance and get a good look at the action. The instructors open up on the Navy boats but the sailors quickly return fire.
In seconds, the sound of automatic weapons fire echoes down the river as clouds of gun smoke waft in the wind. In just a minute or two, eight armed sailors charge through the woods with weapons blazing and “lay down” the three insurgents. Part of the team established a perimeter around the kill zone while the gunners on the boats keep their eyes open, ready for more trouble.
Systematically, the sailors search the bodies for booby traps, maps or documents. They photograph the faces of the dead terrorists and search the entire scene for weapons or anything that might provide useful intelligence.
Chief Gunner’s Mate Augustine Razo led the shore party. According to him, the sailors performed as expected.
“Our training paid off and they reacted like they were supposed to,” he said. “It was a little confusing at first when the gunfire started. Other than that I think the training we are getting from Blackwater is outstanding.”
Once the mission is over, the instructors board the Small Boat Riverine Craft (SURCS) for the trip back to base in a light drizzle. Even now, the exercise continues as wary sailors watch the shoreline over their guns, ready for another attack. They slow down to no-wake speed when they encounter private boats on the river. At the Hwy. 701 bridge at Elizabethtown, the sailors look for trouble on the shore and from the bridge.
Safely back at base, the sailors gather beside the river for an evaluation from the team of instructors. Each boat carries an instructor during training missions.
As the sailors take notes, instructors pick apart the mission in minute detail. When his turn came, Imhoff gave a mostly positive review.
“I saw speed, violence and intensity of action,” he said. “It was a good hit, but boats three and four could have moved in position a little quicker.”
Riverine Squadron Two will finish their training on the Cape Fear River this week. Soon they will deploy to a forward operating base near the Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River in Iraq and relieve Riverine Squadron One. That dam provides about a third of all the electricity generated in that country. The U.S. Marines have been protecting the dam and patrolling the river. Now the Navy is taking over that job to free more Leathernecks to fight on the ground.
As the War on Terror grinds on, the Cape Fear River will continue to serve as a vital training area so the U.S. Navy can control the rivers of Iraq.