Navy SEALS train in Kodiak's cold terrain

Posted: Friday, November 28, 2008

KODIAK - Everyone in town knows about the Navy SEAL base on Spruce Cape. Walk along the beach on the cape's north side and soon you'll hit a fence. On the fence, you see a sign saying do not enter and an ominous cutout of a human figure.

Jan Huisman / Kodiak Daily Mirror
Jan Huisman / Kodiak Daily Mirror

Ensign Ron Rector, officer in charge at the base, sat down for an interview to clarify what does and does not go on behind those fences.

"Really, all we're doing here is teaching guys how to survive in the cold, wet weather," Rector said.

The cutout on the fence? On the first day of training, students are told to follow their compass through the forest and see if they can land on the target.

"The forest is so thick, you can walk right by those things."

SEALs - SEa, Air and Land forces - are the U.S. Navy's special operations forces, deployed for reconnaissance missions, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense and anti-terrorism missions, among other things.

The Naval Special Warfare Cold Weather Detachment Kodiak was built in 1987, Rector said, "with the thought of the Korea threat."

"The weather here, the terrain is pretty much identical to what you see in Korea."

Over the years, the base has served different functions, training different kinds of units in various stages of their SEAL careers.

Rector first came here in 1994 as part of a platoon doing cold-weather training.

"Back then, we just didn't have any gear. We would go into the field with a pair of long-john underwear and a rain slicker on. That's all you had, and it was horribly painful," Rector said.

Navy SEAL platoons used to come to Kodiak for advanced tactical training.

"We used to stake out different places in town. The power plant used to be a big target. We'd go up on the hills and watch it and act like it was an enemy compound," Rector said.

But for the past several years, the base has functioned as part of basic SEAL training, emphasizing survival and navigational skills in cold, forested, coastal environments.

Six classes averaging 40 students come to Kodiak each year for a 28-day course.

Navy SEAL training may evoke Hollywood images of hard-nosed drill sergeants and recruits dropping like flies, but Rector said that's not the idea behind cold-weather training.

"We're past the attrition phase here. We're not trying to get anybody to quit any longer," he said. "Even though the training's really tough and there's really tough stuff going on, compared to what these guys have gone through, this is nothing."

"From here on out, for the rest of training, it's getting these guys ready to go to their respective SEAL teams and march on from there."

Rector said almost no tactics are taught in Kodiak. Students learn how to use modern synthetic cold-weather gear and how to survive should they ever get stranded in cold places.

"We throw (the gear) in the water and put it on. Have 'em get out, start marching they'll get dry in about 30 minutes," Rector said. "Basically teaches 'em, hey, if you get wet and soaked out here, you're gonna be OK."

Most of the swimming is done during a three-day survival course on Long Island. The SEALs enjoy permission from various Native corporations to use land as they see fit.

"From there they'll do survival type of scenarios build some shelters as though they were actually cut off from the rest of their guys," Rector said.

Another common destination is White Sands Beach near Termination Point, where the students practice navigational skills.

"It's a beautiful forest, we can go deep into it and it gives guys a really big challenge," Rector said. "You get into these thick deep forests, kilometer after kilometer, navigation is just really tough."

Much of the training used to happen around the base on Spruce Cape, but post-9/11 safety regulations demanded the base be fenced in. In order to leave room for Kodiakans to use Spruce Cape, the plot was cut in half, to just 55 acres.

Sept. 11 also affected the war theater the SEALS might deploy to. The current class leaves Kodiak Tuesday for a three-month intermediate training block in San Diego, after which they'll join their respective SEAL teams.

Though Rector couldn't discuss classified deployments, he said the skills learned in Kodiak would help SEAL teams in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"There is snow in Iraq. There is snow in Afghanistan," he said.

"Guys come here with a lot of gear, clothing and equipment. We teach them how to use that equipment. So, theoretically, everything they're taught here, they could take those into those war theaters, minus the wetsuit drills."

One thing the SEAL trainees don't bring to Kodiak is a gun. The soldiers are constantly in and out of the ocean; the saltwater would quickly destroy real guns, Rector said.

The lack of guns may comfort Kodiakans walking their dogs on Spruce Cape, but it has a drawback.

Rector said the Coast Guard approached the Navy to ask if they could be part of an emergency preparedness plan for Kodiak in case of a terrorist attack. In response, he informed them of the rubber guns.

Ever since coming to Kodiak for training 14 years ago, Rector wanted to return. He is now one year into a three-year rotation as the main oversight on the base.

To the trainees, coming to Alaska for an outdoors training workshop almost feels like a vacation,

"They love it here," Rector said. "We're frogmen, we come from the water, so this is our forte right here."

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