News: Florida soldiers hit the waves for Key West exercise
Story by Master Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa
KEY WEST, Fla. – In a state with thousands of miles of coastline, rivers and waterways, most Floridians are never far from the water. The same water that provides recreation and nourishes a tourism industry can also flood and threaten citizens when tropical storms or hurricanes strike.
In order to better protect those citizens during emergencies, some Florida National Guard units recently collaborated for maritime operations training in Florida’s southern-most islands.
Soldiers from the Florida Army National Guard’s Special Forces, along with a Black Hawk helicopter crew and members of the CBRNE Enhanced Response Force Package, met in Key West in late September to train in the warm Caribbean waters near Trumbo Point. The units collaborated for maritime operations training in Florida’s southern-most islands. As pleasure boats and cruise ships drifted by, the Guardsmen practiced techniques associated with maritime operations: parachuting into water, operating inflatable rafts, long-distance swimming, and navigating on the open water. “As a maritime-capable unit within the Special Forces, part of our job with the civilian authorities is to provide [search-and-rescue support during] state emergencies such as hurricanes,” explained Maj. Michael Roth, commander of Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group. Roth explained that during emergencies the first responders may have to move equipment and personnel into flooded areas that are only accessible by inflatable boats, and the National Guard can provide that capability.
“We have reconnaissance teams that are always activated for any state emergency,” Roth said of his Special Forces unit based in Wauchula, Fla. “We are one of the only units in the Florida National Guard that have that regular exposure to maritime operations.”
The highlight of the September training was a day-long airborne exercise over the waters directly north of downtown Key West. A UH-60 Black Hawk flown by aviators from the Brooksville-based 1-244th Aviation Regiment picked up the Special Forces teams at Trumbo Point, circled the area at 1,500 feet, and dropped the soldiers by parachute into the azure bay. Special Forces boat crews in inflatable boats circled the drop zone below and recovered the jumpers within minutes after they hit the water. Because water-logged parachutes and equipment can make recovery difficult, certified combat divers were present in case of an emergency or accident. In addition, specialized aluminum boats provided by the CERF-P supported the intense training.
Roth noted that Florida National Guard aviators and the CERF-P have supported Special Forces training in the past, and this most recent collaboration in Key West would pay off if they had to meet again during an actual disaster.
“We’ve always had a very good relationship with them,” he said. “…If we are activated for a state emergency these are the people we will be working with.”
The Charlie Company commander explained that the Key West training site was more than just a picturesque locale for this exercise: the nearby Special Forces Underwater Operations School on Trumbo Point provided support facilities including a training pool, medical personnel, and easy access to the water.
“Key West couldn’t be more perfect for our operations,” Roth said. “We have the tides. We have the currents. We have everything we would experience out in a normal situation in the state of Florida. Plus this is one of the heaviest hit areas for hurricanes, so being familiar with these islands down here in the Keys is also a real benefit to training.”