The Asscociated Press September 15, 2006
Navy getting back into the riverboat patrol business in Iraq
By Estes Thompson
ELIZABETHTOWN, N.C. - Michael Huggins expected to start a career cruising the high seas when he enlisted in the Navy. Instead, he's spending his nights on North Carolina's Cape Fear River, getting ready to deploy to Iraq as a gunner on a river patrol boat.
"I figured I'd be on a boat swabbing a deck," said the 19-year-old boatswain's mate from Pensacola, Fla. "It's a big difference, but I like it. I'd rather be here than on a ship. It's something exciting."
For the first time since Vietnam, when the Navy patrolled the Mekong River delta with 500 swift boats, the service is about to float a so-called "brown-water" fleet. Taking over from the Marine Corps, which has patrolled Iraq's Euphrates River since the war began, the Navy's new riverboat squadron is training high-seas sailors like Huggins to move upriver and into up-close combat.
"We're trying to teach them to do their job well enough so if they do catch combat they don't wig out, freak out and they don't lose concentration on what their job is and make sure they don't end up getting killed out there," said Marine Cpl. Jeffrey Raider, who shares recollections of fire fights on the Euphrates as he teaches sailors to drive the boats.
Such river patrols "have really picked up in Iraq after being off the map for decades," said John Pike, a military analyst at Globalsecurity.org. "The Navy says its 'brown-water' mission is more important because the enemy is working closer to shore than in the old days."
To prepare for that fight, the 221 officers and enlisted sailors of the Navy's Riverine Squadron 1 started their training by getting away from the water, attending the Marines Corps' combat infantry school at Camp Lejeune. There, they learned combat techniques, land navigation and how to the handle the M-4 machine gun, some with grenade launchers, that each sailor will carry while patrolling the Euphrates.
In 13 years in the Navy, including work as a rescue swimmer and duty aboard a guided missile destroyer, Senior Chief Bruce Diette said never he's experienced "combat like this."
"The battle space is constantly changing," said Diette, 31, of Kiln, Miss. "There's an ever growing presence around the world of terrorist threats where they use the rivers and the roadways next to the rivers for transporting arms or themselves."
Once done at the Marine's infantry school, the sailors headed to nearby Cape Fear River, a winding stretch of water about the same width and depth as the Euphrates. The Cape Fear's three sets of locks even resemble the dams and pump houses on the Iraqi river, which is navigable only by shallow-draft boats.
The Navy had the 35-foot Riverine Assault Craft, built in the 1980s and similar to the military's Vietnam-era swift boats, in mothballs before they were needed in Iraq. Bristling with machine guns, including powerful .50-caliber guns at the front and rear, the aluminum-hull boats can run a river at 45 mph, powered by a pair of diesel engines and two waterjets.
"It's like a big Jet Ski," Raider said.
Much of the on-the-river training is at night, and includes simulated ambushes that force the boat teams to practice sudden stops that nearly put the bow under water, as well as sharp turns at high speed to avoid hostile fire. All the while, the gunners are learning how to engage the enemy from the deck.
"It's a thinking man's game," said Marine Staff Sgt. Simon Phillips, a trainer who served on the Corps' riverboats in Iraq. "The weapons system we have can reach out a long way and if you're not careful, you can hurt a lot of innocent people."
Riverine Squadron 1 is starting with 12 of the older patrol boats, but will eventually upgrade to 38-foot boats that are quieter, have an open bow that holds more cargo and troops, a front ramp for moving those troops ashore, and bigger diesel engines.
The unit, based at the Navy's Little Creek amphibious base in Norfolk, Va., is part of the Navy's Expeditionary Combat Command, created in January to handle a variety of tasks, including port and ship security. The riverboats will leave for Iraq around the first of the year, and there are already plans to create two additional squadrons.
"This is out in the forefront," said Lt. Cmdr. Mike Eagan, Riverine Squadron 1's executive officer and a former special operations explosives expert. "There's arms and ammunition going across the rivers. (The insurgents have) been finding out the water is a good avenue for them to move around on."
© Copyright 2006, The Associated Press