Stories from the front are often misreported: Not intentionally, but combat correspondents often apply the title “soldier” or even “Marine” loosely to those engaged in the fighting on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, many of the combatants on the ground are neither soldiers nor Marines, but sailors who have been directly involved in some of the most bitter ground combat in the ongoing war on terror.
For instance, when elements of the 4th Marine Regiment were ambushed in Ramadi on April 6, it was widely reported that twelve Marines were killed and scores wounded. In reality, eleven Marines and one Navy hospital corpsman (the equivalent of an Army medic) were killed in that fight.
Additionally, when super-secret Task Force 121–often reported to be a joint force of CIA operatives and Army Delta Force soldiers–deploys on an al Qaeda head-hunting mission, many of the commandos within its ranks are members of the Navy’s crack counterterrorism unit, SEAL Team Six.
“The blue and gold is very much involved in the ground war,” says retired Navy Commander Richard Marcinko, author of Rogue Warrior and numerous other bestsellers. “What is too often envisioned is that sailors are in their pristine, clean environments afloat where they take hot showers and get hot meals, and don’t know what war is about. That’s just not so.”
On Sunday, Marcinko–the founder and first commanding officer of SEAL Team Six–told National Review Online, “We have sailors who get down and dirty, stay dirty, and are good at it. They are working under deployed special operations and the joint task forces, and as part of the Navy-Marine Corps team.”
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Navy SEAL (an acronym for Sea, Air, Land) Teams were among the first units on the ground fighting Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. SEALs were also among the first Americans killed in combat: A tragic reality of their being given extremely dangerous missions. Consequently, SEAL training is rigorous, with some SEALs admitting that their training is more intense than the experience of a real operation.
It begins with BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) school–six months of the toughest training on earth, which all SEAL hopefuls must endure in order to join the elite force.
The program starts with a basic conditioning course. This includes swimming, running, obstacle courses, small-boat seamanship, and myriad other physically and mentally toughening exercises. During this phase, SEAL candidates must also endure a seemingly impossible five-and-a-half days known as “Hell Week.” To the outsider, this may sound like nothing more than a mildly intense fraternity initiation. It’s far more than that: During “Hell Week,” SEAL candidates are allowed only four hours of sleep. Not per day, but for the entire week.
After basic conditioning is the diving course, followed by the land-warfare course, in which SEAL hopefuls must master skills in land navigation, small-unit tactics, patrolling, rappelling, weapons marksmanship, and explosives. And completion of these phases does not yet a SEAL make: Like most other special-operations forces, SEALs must also undergo airborne training.
Asked if SEALs are the toughest American commandos in the business, Marcinko laughed: “You’re asking the wrong guy. I may be biased, but the answer to that question is, yes. Here’s how I explain that one off: I’ve worked many times in a joint arena. Shooters are shooters. Any spec-ops guy is good, but when [Army] Delta Force goes into a hostage situation, they jump-in, fly-in, or truck-up. The real kick-a** comes when they break through the doors. But a SEAL has to lock-out from a submarine and swim ex-distance, carry a lot of extra equipment because of the maritime configuration–coming out of a s***ty environment–so we’ve done a full day’s work by the time we get there.”
SEALs are not the only sailors performing vital missions on the ground. In the forward-most positions with Army and Marine forces, Naval gunnery liaison officers are responsible for calling in Naval gunfire and missiles from ships offshore, as well as close air support.
“Those guys are up-front in the thick of the fighting,” says retired Captain Louis Colbus, the former chief of staff for [Aircraft] Carrier Battle Group Eight. “To properly coordinate the gunfire on enemy positions, they have to be equally at home on the ground and aboard ship. They must have an understanding of both the needs of the ground force and the ship’s gunnery operations.”
Other Naval officers and enlisted sailors on the ground include Naval Intelligence specialists, explosive-ordinance disposal teams, SEABEES (or CBs–the Navy’s construction battalions), equipment-loading specialists (the vast majority of U.S. equipment is transported via the Military Sealift Command and is off-loaded in-port by American sailors), special boat crews who operate in dangerous inland waterways, Naval aviators and crews landing on remote airfields, security personnel, and the basic cooks and bottle-washers.
Navy chaplains, physicians, dentists, and hospital corpsmen are assigned to both Navy and Marine Corps units–the Corps in fact being a “Naval Service” under the Department of the Navy.
Known simply as “docs” to the Marines who depend on them in combat, hospital corpsmen have been described as “young, long-haired, bearded, Marine-hatin’ sailors with certain medical skills, who would go through the very gates of Hell to get to a wounded Marine.” Though they haven’t worn beards since the mid-1980s, corpsmen have certainly suffered and died with Marines in some of the worst ground combat of the post-Vietnam era.
Becoming a corpsman attached to the Fleet Marine Force is not easy. In addition to Navy basic medical training and field medical-service training on a Marine base, sailors attend advanced medical-training schools known in some military circles as “goat labs.” There, they operate on sick and injured animals, “actually learning how to put tissue together,” says Marcinko.
Corpsmen also learn to operate new and sophisticated technologies deemed vital to saving lives on the battlefield. Utilizing 21st-century satellite communications, a young corpsman working over a downed Marine with a sucking chest wound is now able to consult in real time with a physician thousands of miles away during the critical first 30 minutes.
“There’s a difference between the corpsmen or medics who work with the Marines on the ground and those who work in the hospitals,” says Marcinko. “The FMF sailors enjoy wearing the uniform. They like discipline. They have a sense of military bearing. And they are proactive in the no-nonsense treatment of emergencies.”
Currently, there are between 385,000 and 400,000 sailors serving in the Navy, many of whom are serving either on the ground or just offshore of some of the world’s most dangerous places. More than 24,000 sailors are serving as hospital corpsmen. An estimated 1,800 of them are with the Marines in Iraq. Another 250 are in Afghanistan. And though special-operations numbers are difficult to peg, current estimates indicate that over 2,200 SEALs are operating worldwide.
Sailors have been fighting on the ground, in a variety of roles, since the inception of the Navy in 1775. And like their efforts, their monuments are either unsung or simply unknown. Indeed there is no better example than the famous Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. Most visitors to the memorial believe they are looking up at six bronze Marines raising the American flag above a granite base (a depiction of the famous flag-raising on Iwo Jima). But to give credit where credit is due: The bronze figures are in fact five Marines–and one sailor.
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in a variety of national and international publications. His third book, Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces, has just been published.