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Teaching Excellence

When U.S. Naval Special Warfare forces train host-nation personnel in riverine and jungle warfare and other defense missions, they support U.S. foreign policy goals, increase their own combat readiness, and help build forces in friendly nations that are valuable contributors to their respective governments.

Latin America is a particularly challenging theater for U.S. policy makers. Strong nationalist sentiments and instability collide to create a difficult political landscape. Threats to regional security are many and include narcotics production and trafficking, insurgency, corruption, civil war, human rights abuses, rapidly changing economies, growing populations, and inadequate medical resources. Within this harsh environment, Naval Special Warfare (NSW) forces have learned to excel—not only as warriors but also as teachers, mentors and healers.

The Mission

Foreign internal defense (FID) is defined as "participation by civilian and military agencies of a government in any action, programs taken by another government to free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness, and insurgency." As practiced by special warfare forces in the Southern Command (SouthCom), FID essentially is the instruction of host-nation military and police forces in the conduct of operations against insurgents, narcotic traffickers, and terrorists. This training is carried out through combined exchange training, combined exercises, counterdrug deployments, and the annual UNITAS exercise in South America.

During the past two years, special warfare forces in SouthCom have conducted successful foreign internal defense missions in Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador. They also have been a major player in Exercises Kings Guard and Cabanas since their inception. This translates into thousands of foreign military and police personnel who now are trained and better able to defend against threats to their countries' stability.

SEAL Team Four, located at Naval Amphibious Base, Little Creek, Virginia, is the primary supplier of Naval Special Warfare operators to SouthCom. In the course of five deployments annually, SEAL Team Four maintains two 16-man SEAL platoons "down south" 365 days a year. These platoons deploy to Naval Special Warfare Unit eight (NSWU-8) at Rodman Naval Station, Panama. NSWU-8 also is the parent command of Special Boat Unit 26 (SBU-26), whose personnel often deploy with the SEAL Team Four platoons to assist in teaching riverine warfare. A SEAL Team Four platoon also deploys each year in support of UNITAS, which provides opportunities for U.S. naval forces to train with our southern allies.

SEALs have a reputation as warriors, but the primary directive in SouthCom is to prepare for and conduct foreign internal defense. Extending far beyond military goals, FID has become an important part of U.S. regional diplomacy, and SouthCom special warfare forces have achieved exceptional results in this area. Through comprehensive training, NSW forces have developed host-nation military units that now are valuable resources for their respective governments.

Foreign internal defense missions present many challenges that are entirely different from those encountered in conventional military operations. Body counts and battle damage are not the measures of success. The target becomes a target audience; diplomacy replaces rules of engagement. Naval Special Warfare forces have met these challenges through a comprehensive program that prepares SEALs to carry out the FID mission.

The program begins with the SEALs themselves—who have been bred for the fight. Although combat readiness remains the training focus, the primary day-to-day mission is foreign internal defense—which often is not well received by the trainees. Nevertheless, intense training for regional orientation is the norm. Personnel are sent to immersion training in Guatemala or Ecuador for language and culture. Other schools include Counterdrug Intelligence School, South America Orientation, Special Forces Spanish, Instructor Training, and Outboard Motor Repair. Officers deploy to SouthCom on exchange training, mine countermeasures efforts, joint exercises, or any other mission that will give them down-range experience before they join a deploying platoon. The intent is to create SEALs who are comfortable being a part of South America.

As the platoons begin their workups, combat skills are emphasized. First, deploying platoons are combat ready. Because they must be able to do before they can teach, these forces are conditioned to be exceptionally capable special operators. As the platoon closes in on its C-1 top readiness rating, emphasis shifts toward conducting the FID mission. North Star and Joint Task Force Six counterdrug missions are conducted to educate U.S. law enforcement agencies and to build platoon members' proficiency in instructing. Spanish-language instructor guides are given to platoon members, and language refresher training is conducted if funding is available. Extra time is spent learning to troubleshoot motors and radios, patch boats, fix weapons, and repair scuba rigs. All this training is preparation for helping fellow warriors who have limited funds to get back on their feet. By the time the platoon deploys, it is fully combat ready and anxious to work with host-nation personnel.

The teaching part of the program comes together by itself. Officers and senior enlisted men become diplomats of the highest order: prompting, commiserating, pushing, and keeping the mission rolling. Junior enlisted SEALs rig fenders and come alongside the host-nation conscripts and young noncommissioned officers. Showing them respect, the SEALs make their counterparts want to learn to be as good. The corpsmen treat medical problems (see sidebar), both within the host-nation military and in the local villages. Children are won over with small toys and ready-to-eat meals. When the mission is complete and the plane departs, the host nation is sorry to see its new-found SEAL amigos go.

Mission Execution

A major concern for both the United States and the host nation is appearing to be colonial. Great efforts are made to ensure that missions unfold as benignly as possible. (In 1994, a major civic-action mission was halted when the host-nation press reported that U.S. forces were building a forward operating base.) All requests for training originate with the host nation. Once a mission is agreed upon, battlefield preparation is begun. A small site-survey team, usually an officer and a senior enlisted, flies to the country to make the needed contacts and determine logistical and operational requirements.

MTT Blue Devil. A compelling example of the efficacy of Naval Special Warfare foreign internal defense missions is the turnaround of Bolivia's Navy.

The rivers of Bolivia are the country's main thoroughfares of commerce, both legal and illegal. With a multi-billion-dollar cocaine industry and a fluvial system of more than 35,000 miles, Bolivia needs a first-rate riverine patrol capability. Since 1988, U.S. Naval Special Warfare Forces and U.S. Navy Mobile Training Teams (MTTs) have been deploying to Bolivia to train host-nation naval forces and the Bolivian National Drug Police in specialized riverine warfare. Topics include small boat handling, board and search, small arms, reconnaissance and surveillance, insertion/extraction, and jungle warfare.

By June 1991, the Bolivians were ready to open a specialized riverine warfare school, the Escuela de Operaciones Fluviales, in Trinidad. The Blue Devil MTT was set up to help operate the school and to help Bolivian forces attain a self-sustaining operation. Subsequent MTTs have deployed with fewer members as the Bolivian instructor cadre has become increasingly autonomous. At present, there are only two to four U.S. Navy SEALs and support personnel at the facility, which has become the premier riverine warfare school in the SouthCom area of responsibility. It graduates about 50 personnel annually and is beginning to admit students from friendly nations in the region.

In the summer of 1994, a joint task force of Bolivian National Drug Police and Blue Devils effectively shut down all illegal riverine traffic on the Rio Mamore (the major conduit for coca leaving Bolivia), and despite attacks by the narco-backed press, maintained pressure for several months.

Cabanas II '94. Another example of a successful foreign internal defense mission is the annual Cabanas Exercise, which is both joint and combined. The Naval Special Warfare portion of Cabanas II '94 was divided into three phases. The first, the host-nation phase, lasted two weeks and included foreign internal defense missions conducted concurrently in Ecuador and Colombia. A four-man team—comprised of an officer-in-charge, a hospital corpsman, and a communicator from Delta Platoon, and a boat captain from SBU-26—deployed to each country.

Once in country, each team began teaching approximately 40 personnel basic riverine warfare, including navigation, board and search, marksmanship, small-unit and small-boat tactics, insert/extract, land navigation, pyrotechnic use, and human rights. During the latter portion of this phase, priority instruction was given on platoon standard operating procedures for immediate-action drills, rally points, and hand/nonverbal signals. The end of the phase was dedicated to preparing the 20 host-nation personnel who would participate in the rest of the exercise for movement to Panama.

The second phase was deployment/integration. The deployment portion was to move Colombian and Ecuadoran forces into Panama. During the week-long integration portion, the entire task unit—SEAL Team Four Delta Platoon, a boat detachment from SBU-22 and SBU-26, nine Colombian Infanteria Marines, and ten Ecuadoran Marines) was to rehearse operations. This phase would prove a concept of coalition warfare not previously tested: the ability of well-trained professionals to enter a coalition operation on short notice. The air transport for the operation collapsed. A week of integration training turned into a day of introduction, immediately followed by mission tasking.

Forces were briefed for the operational phase. The scenario: Narco-insurgents had infiltrated country X, and there was a distinct possibility of a narco-backed coup. The elected president of X had requested support from treaty nations. U.S. national interests were at stake. Coalition forces were to infiltrate the river system of X, confirm the existence of narco-insurgents, perform special reconnaissance, and stand by for additional tasking.

After a thorough map study and several hours of planning, coalition force Azul presented a concept of operations. As senior coalition officer, the officer-in-charge of Delta Platoon would be the task unit commander in the field. Under his command, five task elements—three six-man ground elements, two two-boat SBU detachments, and an eight-man command-and-control element—were coordinated. All of the task elements were completely integrated, an unconventional but appropriate way to use this small multinational force. Eight hours after insertion, one ground squad had located a major drug lab. Within 20 hours the boat detachments had clandestinely charted enough river movement to confirm probable locations of transshipment points and estimate enemy assets and tactics.

After six days of watching and reporting, Task Unit Azul received a frag order to conduct a direct action mission. Azul simultaneously ambushed two land base camps and four enemy boats on the river. The entire ambush was controlled from a two-man command-and-control element stationed in a zodiac boat in the main river, using satellite communications and ultra-high and high frequency to avoid any possibility of dropped communications.

It took seven minutes from the first shot until all elements had finished their missions and begun exfiltration.


As seen in Bolivia and during Cabanas, Naval Special Warfare has and will continue to have a strong and positive impact on the morale, fighting capability, and professionalism of host-nation military forces, equipping them to fight insurgents, narcotraffickers, and terrorist groups within their own borders and making them reliable contributors to regional coalitions, alliances, and U.N. operations. Across all mission areas, foreign internal defense is an effective, inexpensive way to support U.S. foreign policy goals, foster host-nation stability, and acclimate U.S. Naval Special Warfare forces to the terrain, environment, medical situation, population, and culture of their area of responsibility.

Sidebar Article:
SEALs Provide Emergency Care

Most of the SEAL Team Four's Hotel platoon arrived at the airfield in Trujillo, Honduras, at 1200 on 11 May 1995. By 1300, all platoon equipment had been offloaded and the C-27 had departed for its return flight to Panama. Everything was going as planned and the platoon was awaiting transportation to the Honduran naval base at Puerto Castillo.

At about 1330, a platoon member standing watch on the tarmac spotted a small, single-engine aircraft flying near the airport. As he watched, the plane stalled and dove several hundred feet into the sand of a nearby beach. Members of the platoon rushed to the crash site to render assistance.

When they arrived, one of the two survivors already had been pulled from the plane and was being driven away in a civilian pick-up truck. The SEALs helped free the second man from the wreckage and moved him to the bed of another pick-up truck where they were able to stabilize him and assess his condition.

The victim was a young Honduran man about 20 years old. His left foot was almost completely severed and his face was crushed over the left eye. His skull was open in various places, and his left eye was missing (it had been pushed into his forehead). The man's breathing was rapid, deep, and slightly labored, his pulse was shallow and rapid, and he definitely was in shock.

Once the platoon commander determined that the young man's breathing and pulse were satisfactory, that he had no major bleeding, and that his spine and neck were intact, he focused on the facial injury. Concerned about contamination because of the water and sand from the beach, he and another platoon member placed the victim on his side, to allow the wounds to drain and to prevent seepage of blood into the head or down the airway. The victim was alternately delirious and unconscious, though he did put his arm under his head when he was rolled onto his side, indicating some degree of brain function.

At the hospital, the lieutenant and platoon leading petty officer and several locals carried the man in. It quickly became apparent that the hospital workers were not prepared for such a trauma case. It took several nurses to muster together IV equipment. With the SEALs holding down the victim, who was beginning to writhe and resist treatment, two nurses administered IVs and started valium in one of them. A Honduran doctor arrived who was calm and steady but who didn't seem confident dealing with such trauma. The platoon commander told the doctor that he had a SEAL corpsman, trained in trauma medicine, arriving within a few hours who could assist him. The doctor agreed that would be a good idea. At about 1420 two SEALs left the hospital, knowing that they had done all they could until their corpsman arrived.

After rejoining the rest of the platoon at the airfield, the platoon leader and petty officer boarded a truck with the remainder of the platoon and some Honduran Navy Special Forces for the trip to the naval base. Just a mile down the road they were stopped by a nurse driving a small pickup. She was looking for type A+ blood donors to assist the crash victims. Two platoon members and several of the Honduran forces were type A+, so the truck diverted to the hospital.

Back at the hospital the platoon commander met with an English-speaking doctor and discussed the situation. The SEAL noted that he thought the victim would die if not medevaced quickly to Tegucigalpa, the nation's capitol, and better medical care. He told the doctor about his corpsman's trauma capabilities and offered his assistance on a medevac flight. The doctor accepted the offer.

The platoon commander returned to the hotel to meet the corpsman, and they and another SEAL drove to the hospital. As soon as they arrived they went straight to the victim, who had just come out of surgery. His condition had worsened: the corpsman went straight to work. Taking control of emergency room, the corpsman began issuing instructions. Because the hospital's equipment was substandard, he sent the lieutenant back to the naval base to retrieve additional medical gear.

Several locals, including the victim's aunt, were working to arrange a medevac flight to the capital. The patient's vital signs were weakening and his breathing had become very labored. Once the plane was standing by, the medical team was notified. The aircraft had to fly in daylight; at 1715 the platoon commander told the corpsman that it was "now or never" for the medevac. They quickly moved the victim to the airfield while the corpsman continued treatment on the run. The corpsman and one other platoon member loaded the victim on the plane and prepped him for the flight.

The corpsman continued to care for the young Honduran throughout the flight. Upon arrival at Tegucigalpa, the SEALs transferred the patient to a stretcher and turned him over to awaiting emergency room physicians.

The SEALs lost touch with their patient after returning to Puerto Castillo, but they later found out that he had gone into a coma for nine days. He was able to keep his left foot but can't yet walk on it. Doctors were able to save his damaged eye, and he is able to see light/dark and general shapes with it.

If it were not for the expert medical treatment and professionalism of the SEAL corpsman and assistance by the other platoon members, the young man probably would not have made it to Tegucigalpa alive. SEAL corpsman spend more than a year in intensive medical training, including a specialized trauma course. As this case proves, their training holds up in real life.

Caption under missing pictures:

Lisandro Queseda (center, on couch) poses with his family and members of SEAL Team Four after his recovery. Assistance and medical care provided by SEAL Team Four may have saved his life after his plane stalled and crashed on a Honduran beach.

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All contents copyright ©2005-2018 Lieutenant Commander Thomas Rancich, U.S. Navy (Ret.). All rights reserved.
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